Eits

Exhibition 25-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, this was bad. But on the plus side, one benefit of these guys being so good at drawing attention was that no one happened to be looking my way. They were very focused on the two Fell-Touched (three? two and a half?) who had just made themselves known alongside all their Prev gang buddies. I took advantage of that by dropping the tray of nachos and water bottles onto a nearby table before throwing myself sideways toward one of the nearby tents. I dropped down and rolled under it to get inside and out of sight.  

This was one of the refreshment tents. There were stacks of coolers full of ice and soda in the corner, and I managed to drop behind that spot while taking my phone out. Immediately, I sent an SOS text to Wren, Paige, and the others, before also sending an emergency alert via the Doephone with the new recognition code that Silversmith had given us, along with sending a text to the phone number he’d given me too. I figured others were already doing that, but it couldn’t hurt, especially with that code. I also called Amber, while sticking my earbud in. While the call was connecting, I was already tugging the bag that Wren had given me out of my pocket. In the background, there was a lot of shouting. It sounded like the gang assholes were spreading out to start forcing people together into a group. Juice was bellowing demands, and there were a couple shots. But it sounded like they were just shooting into the air. 

Abruptly, the call connected. “–gonna get away with any of this, you know?” Amber’s voice was saying. 

“Uh huh, sure,” another voice replied. “Now shut up and sit there before you get hurt, babe.” 

Okay, great. Amber, and presumably Izzy and the others in the VIP tent, were already being held. Which meant they couldn’t reveal their powers without exposing their identities. For now, at least, they couldn’t help. Not until someone helped get them away from those prying eyes.

I also couldn’t talk to Amber, since I was pretty sure she had just hit the accept call button on her phone and left it in her pocket. At the very least, I would’ve been very surprised if these guys had willingly allowed her to answer it the normal way. They didn’t strike me as that polite. 

Leaving the call connected so I could keep listening, I shook out the bag and made it restore the contents of the other one. Specifically, my costume. While everyone outside the tents were shouting and running past, I hurriedly changed into that. It was almost the fastest change I’d pulled off in my life, topped probably only by that time I’d had to get out of my costume and into my dress back at that hotel while my dad was about to come through the door. 

From what I could hear through the phone connection, these guys weren’t robbing Amber and the others. They didn’t seem interested in anything other than keeping them under control, which seemed strange. If they weren’t here to rob the people in the VIP tent at the very least, why had they come in the first place? Between that and the fact that they were openly attacking a skating demonstration, none of this made any sense. There had to be something else going on. 

At least one of my questions about what they were doing was answered as a voice spoke up from just outside the tent I was in. A voice that made me freeze up in the midst of pulling my helmet on. It was Mister Harmful, snarling an order to one of his subordinates about ‘finding that Ukrainian cunt before the Stars arrive and this whole thing goes tits up.’ 

Wait, Inessa? They were here for Inessa? Why? Just because she was famous? Did they think they could hold her hostage for some sort of payout or something? What the fuck? She was pretty important, and several companies had a lot of money invested in her, so maybe it was that simple? 

One thing was for sure, like hell was I just going to sit around and let them take her. Yeah, I’d been ready to stop these guys before when I thought they were just here to rob people or whatever. But now? Now it was personal. They wanted to hurt the girl I’d idolized since I was in second grade? Fuck every single part of that. Now I was really gonna make these guys regret ever showing up here. 

I uhh… just wasn’t exactly sure how to do that. Especially considering I was all by myself out here, for the moment. But I definitely couldn’t just wait until help arrived. Wherever Inessa was, these guys would’ve found her by that point. I had to make sure that didn’t happen. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t know where she was either. But I did know where these guys were, which meant my best way of dealing with this was to distract them long enough for reinforcements to show up. 

To that end, I took a few seconds to put as much paint over myself as I could manage. If I was going to do this without getting myself or anyone else killed, I had to be ready. Before long, my entire suit and helmet were covered inside and out. I also reached down and found a few small rocks on the ground. I was going to paint them white and maybe use them as a distraction. But at the last second I realized it would probably be a good idea if they flew faster too. Green and white together. Fast rocks that would glow. That had to be useful, right? At least to catch someone’s attention. So, just as I was focusing on making white paint appear, I also thought about adding some green lines. 

It worked. Most of the rocks were white, but they had some green swirls mixed in. Weirdly, however, when I looked closely it seemed like the green was sort of bleeding into the white. They weren’t smooth lines, it was more like they were blending together. 

Weird, but whatever. I didn’t have time to focus on that. Not when I could already hear more and more complaints and demands. It sounded like they were rounding up all the civilians and making them stand together in the middle of the skate park’s bowl. Which was a pretty good choice, all things considered. The ‘bowl’ was actually four impressions in the cement, each about ten feet deep and shaped like a four-leafed clover all together. With everyone down there, squeezed into that space, they would be easy for just a few people to watch over. While, presumably, everyone else looked for Inessa. 

Seriously, how had she managed to stay hidden for so long? Was she actually part of that crowd, blending in somehow? She was famous, but it was possible. It wasn’t like she was a movie star or whatever. If she had a hat on to hide her distinctive blue hair, maybe she could stay incognito for awhile. Or maybe she was hiding somewhere like I was. 

Before I could focus too much on that, I heard another voice. It was Juice, snapping something to one of his subordinates about securing the perimeter, and that ‘the others’ wouldn’t be able to delay the Stars for that long, so they better hurry the hell up. Their voices faded as they kept moving. 

Locking my fully-painted helmet into place, I pushed myself up just as my phone buzzed a few times. The first was an answering text from Peyton, letting me know she was grabbing the others. The second and third were responses from the authorities and my dad (as Silversmith), confirming that they were sending reinforcements. Unfortunately, that didn’t include an ETA, and at least according to what I had just overheard, they were going to be delayed. 

The fourth thing wasn’t a text. It was an incoming call from… from Ryder? Seeing that, I blinked before disconnecting from Amber’s phone. It wasn’t like she could talk to me anyway, not without people noticing. Ryder on the other hand, if he could do something with his mites…

Sure enough, as soon as I connected, an electronically-generated voice spoke. “Paintball. Can help direct you through cameras, tell you when someone is behind you or where to move. Can hear you through connection with Mite if you speak.”

Eits. Eits could help me. He was here, he knew who I was. Even standing in a group, he could still use his mites to control the electronics that he’d already infected, and apparently he’d done so with the cameras surrounding the park. Honestly, I couldn’t blame him that much. Especially not now.  

“Got it,” I whispered mostly under my breath, hoping the phone would pick it up. Janus had moved on from being right outside, but I knew there had to be other guys relatively close at any given point as they ran around searching the place for stragglers. 

So, I had Eits in my corner, playing… well, the Eye in the Sky. He was gonna be doing the same role he did as a member of La Casa, only he’d be doing it for me this time. I was just going to have to hope that between the two of us, we could pull this off. If I screwed it up…

Pushing aside that thought, I focused. If I needed their attention on me for a while in order to protect Inessa from whatever bullshit they had planned, then by God, I was going to get their attention. Which meant I was going to have to piss them off. Thankfully, I was pretty good at pissing people off. Especially when it came to my old pals Janus. Would they remember me? I was pretty sure they remembered me. 

And hey, if they didn’t, I’d be glad to remind them. 

******

“Wait, two guys talking to your right.” The electronic voice was talking in my ear as I crouched by the exit to the refreshments tent. Eits was apparently able to track my phone well enough to know exactly where I was, and coordinate that with the view he could see through the mix of various security cameras and the ones that had been set up to broadcast the event. 

Closing my eyes, I focused on what I could feel. There were three tents in this area, including the one I was in. The one straight across from this one was fifteen feet away, with an opening flap that was about four feet further to the right than this one. The other, smaller tent was next door. I could feel tables and chairs in that one, and figured it was some sort of autograph tent or something. Or maybe a command tent for the organizers. The opening flap of that one was perpendicular to these tents, facing the skating area itself, where most of the people were. Which made sense. These were the supply tents, they didn’t need everyone to see them. Whether the smaller one was a command tent or a place for Inessa to sit and sign autographs, facing the public area was just logical. 

All that passed through my mind, before the voice spoke up again. “One guy left, twenty feet to your right. Still looking your way, so wait. Wait… Go.” 

Immediately, I rolled out of the tent, staying low to avoid any other attention. Sure enough, one of the Prev thugs was there. He was faced away from me, as promised, with a shotgun held to one side. He was holding the thing loosely by the barrel, with his hand nowhere near the trigger. 

Bringing both hands up, I hit the guy with a shot of black paint from one and red paint from the other. While he started to turn upon feeling the impact of the paint, I hit the ground in front of me with a spot of red, yanking the guy off his feet. The black paint kept him silent, and I hit the gun with another shot of red as he dropped it, yanking it to my red glove. 

The man hit the ground in front of me, still flailing and trying in vain to shout. I quickly tapped the guy’s shoulder to plant a red star there, then held the tent flap aside while activating that bit of red, plus the one I’d left on the ground in there. Immediately, the guy was sent flying that way, landing between a couple of the stacked coolers. Looking both ways to make sure nobody had noticed, I took the gun with me and quickly moved to the guy, hitting him with another small shot of black to keep him quiet a bit longer. Then I went for the longer way of keeping him quiet. Namely, by grabbing one of the many Inessa-themed merch bandanas from a nearby box. Activating a line of purple stars down my arms, I drew back my foot before kicking the guy as he tried to scramble to his feet. As he went down, I dropped on top of him and stuffed the bandana in his mouth, then wrapped another around the back of his head to keep it in place. He was struggling, but I had leverage and strength over him. Enough, in this case, to flip the guy over and use several more tied-together bandanas I had prepared to secure his wrists and then his ankles. I left him there, shoved back behind the same boxes I had been hiding behind earlier. He was still making a little bit of noise, but it was doubtful that anyone would hear him. At least, not until it was too late anyway. And Eits would be able to tell me if anyone came this way.

Speaking of whom, according to him, Juice and Janus were mostly playing overseers. They were simply standing out of the way, ordering their thugs this way and that to search for Inessa. They were too important (or lazy) to do the searching for themselves. And I could use that right now. Instead of following my first instinct and just throwing myself into plain view to draw their attention, I was going to even the odds a little bit by dealing with as many of the separated Prev thugs as I could. Then we’d see just how much I could piss off my old pals. 

As I reached the entrance to the tent once more, I spoke quietly. “Positions?” 

There was about a five second pause, before the electronic voice returned. “J and J still by the pit. Three armed guys around that. One guy by soda and hot dog truck three hundred feet behind tent, past more trucks. Watching road for anyone coming. Two guys together one hundred and seventy feet ahead of tent, searching in and under staff vehicles. One guy one hundred feet to the left side of tent, looking through port-a-potties.” 

He kept going like that, giving me detailed locations for every person here. The guy by the bathrooms was the nearest, so I focused on him. Telling Eits to warn me if anyone else came close, I grabbed some more bandanas, shoved them in my pocket, and activated a bit of black on my shoes before running that way. 

Twice, Eits warned me about passing guards who could have looked over and seen me. Each time, I managed to duck down out of sight before they could. Then he warned me not to go one way because two guys were standing in plain view together. So I slipped around behind a parked trailer, heading the long way around toward the back of the port-a-potties, where my target was still carefully opening each door in succession. I was close enough by that point to hear him muttering to himself as he closed another door none-too-gently. 

Pressing my back up against the side of the one he was moving to next, I waited until I could hear the door open. Then I stepped around, putting myself directly behind the man as he scanned the empty space within. A shot of black paint into his back assured that no one would hear him, as I activated a series of purple X shapes across my stomach and gave the guy a hard shove from behind. He fell forward, while I snatched the gun out of his grip. Before he could recover, I hit each of his shoulders with a shot of red paint, then added two quick shots to either side of the toilet hole. Activating those meant he was yanked down hard onto his knees with his face basically over the hole. Probably not the nicest position to be in, but on the other hand, these guys were assaulting innocent civilians at an Inessa skating event, so fuck them. 

The guy was still flailing, but the paint was holding him down. Before any of it could wear off, I grabbed one of my strings of bandanas and wrapped it around his neck, before pushing one end through one small air hole in the back of the port-a-potty and back through another one, tying both ends off like that to hold him in place. 

By that point, the black paint was about to wear off, but before his shouts could attract anyone, I shoved another makeshift gag into his mouth and tied that off as well. Then I whispered, “How popular do you think you’ll be with your buddies if they find you facedown in a port-a-potty like this, dude? Think you’d ever live that down? Or would your nickname be Port-A-John from now on?” 

He froze briefly, clearly considering that as I went on. “And just so you know, if I start hearing you make a bunch of noise, I’ll just have to tip this whole thing over. You wanna think about how that’ll go for you in this position?” 

Again, the man didn’t seem eager to find out. So I patted his shoulder a couple times. “Hang out here for a bit.” Then I stepped out, closing the door behind me. From the outside, everything looked fine. I took the man’s pistol and hid it under the john for the moment. 

From there, using Eits’ directions, I made my way to the parking lot where a couple more guys were searching vehicles. Rolling underneath a truck, I watched until they separated to go around either side of one aisle. While their backs were to each other, I hit one in one foot with black paint, and the other foot with red. A second later, he was yanked down and hauled all the way over to the truck where I was waiting with active purple paint to pull him out of sight. Soon, he was tied and gagged as well, with his wrists secured to the exhaust pipe of the truck as he lay on his face. 

The next guy eventually came around the side, looking for his buddy. Before he could find anything, I hit him as well and had him in the same position under the opposite truck. The two men could see each other, grunting with annoyance through the gags. 

And so it continued. One by one, I made my way through the outskirts of the skating park, securing as many of these random goons as I could. It would’ve been impossible without Ryder’s help, telling me exactly where and when to go to avoid being seen. All the while, I could hear the Fell-Touched guys growing more and more annoyed by the lack of progress. They had not, however, noticed that their men were disappearing. Not yet, anyway. 

Finally, there were no more I could easily get to without being seen by others. Which meant it was time to move on to phase two. Or rather, phase three. Phase two had been getting Inessa out of sight, but she seemed to have handled that on her own, because I still couldn’t find her and Ryder had no idea where she was even with his camera view. 

Just as I had that thought, Mister Harmful bellowed in the distance, “Okay, enough of this! Hey cunt! You either come out now, or lose some fans. Let’s say six to start, huh? That sounds fair! You got five seconds to show yourself! One… two…” 

Without missing a beat, I went sprinting that way, using green paint to speed myself up. Just as I came around the corner, I used a blue square on the ground to launch myself high into the air, activating a pair of orange criss-crossed sword shapes on my back for protection. At the same time, I aimed down, sending a spray of orange protective paint over the assembled hostages just as I went sailing past them. 

“Dude, you can count to five?!” The blurted words escaped me as I landed in a crouch on top of a lamp post that was meant to illuminate the skating area. “Well, that’s one bet I lost. If you can multiply, I might have to get a part-time job to pay off those losses.”

Quivering with rage as he glared up at me. Mister Harmful snarled, “Ohhh you little fuck.” But it was both him and Uncle Friendly who shouted together, 

“Kill that piece of shit!”  

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Schooling 24-14 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted and is available for everyone right here

For a few long seconds after that, I stared at the boy. My mouth hung open. I had no idea how I was supposed to respond to that. Hell, I’d just started to get over the shock of having found out who he really was, and having exposed my identity to him. What was I supposed to say to him somehow figuring out the rest of it? Finally, I managed a squeak, which sounded a bit like an old screen door slowly opening. That sound snapped me out of my reaction enough to find words. “H-how did you–what–huh?” Yeah, I said I found words, I didn’t say they were eloquent ones. 

Ryder quickly held up his hands. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t spying. I mean, I was spying, but not on you. I mean my spying on them didn’t have anything to do with figuring out your thing. I mean–” He stopped, taking a breath. “I should probably start over.” 

Taking a breath, I gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, uh huh, probably a good idea.” I had no idea what he meant by spying–wait, no, yes I did. Arleigh’s family, duh. He had been sneaking around their place and breaking into their fathers office. Why he was doing that, I had no idea. He’d said it wasn’t for Blackjack or La Casa, that he was working on his own. Which… yeah, I still had no idea what that was about. But my main focus was on how he knew about my family. 

Still keeping his hands up, as though he was either trying to calm me down or surrender, Ryder started again. “Okay, so I didn’t know the whole truth until we were in the closet–actually it was after that. I mean–right. After we got out of the closet downstairs in the kitchen, I was thinking a lot. I mean, about everything. If you were Paintball, that meant… I didn’t know what it meant, not at first. But I was thinking about it that whole time we were finishing dinner, and right up until you showed up here on the roof. And I realized that your parents running the Ministry makes everything else make sense. Everything about how you reacted to everything, I mean.

“You’re so desperate to keep your identity secret. I know you don’t really like it when people think you’re a boy at your school. That’s what the others were saying, anyway. When we were at the skatepark, I mean. Even Arleigh said you don’t like that, and if she notices something, it’s either wrong or really obvious. And I was pretty sure she wasn’t wrong. So you definitely don’t like it when people at your school call you a boy, but you pretend to be a boy in costume? That didn’t make any sense to me, unless… unless hiding your identity was more important than that. And the people you’d be most likely to want to hide your identity from are your parents. They’d probably be the first to figure out who you were without the boy thing. And why would you want to hide from your parents that much? Because they’re the Ministry, the people you’ve been trying to investigate. Which I uhh, picked up from some of the things Pack said or asked about before.” He finished up with a slightly awkward smile and shrug. “See, not spying. Just… thinking all that through.” 

Oh boy, how was I supposed to react to that? Wait, I knew. “How did you know about the Ministry?” I asked that flatly, watching his expression for any sign of lying or making up a response. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the sort of information Blackjack gives out to every member of his gang.” 

Snorting audibly, Ryder shook his head “No, trust me, he doesn’t.” He took a moment to glance away, a myriad of emotions playing out across his face, before he slumped against the wall. Then he told me the full story about the mysterious group who had helped him get through his transition. It wasn’t just Blackjack or La Casa responsible for that. Some guy from this mysterious group, who went by Squire (Simon, of course, though I kept my mouth shut), had actually saved him from a few assholes and made sure he was safe. Later they asked for help with something else. Something that had made Ryder pay attention to them. Apparently the Ministry (not that he’d known what they were called at that point), were trying to stop Pencil and Cup from finding a specific name within some sealed adoption records. What name? Errol Fosters, as in Arleigh’s adopted little brother. Ryder didn’t know exactly why the Scions were so obsessed with finding this kid, or why the group who had helped him out and clearly had all that power were trying to stop them. But he did want to find out, so he investigated by getting himself hired as Arleigh’s tutor so he could snoop around. 

With an audible sigh, the boy waved a hand. “I knew it was going to be dangerous trying to look around that place in the middle of Sherwood territory, but I didn’t know I’d be going right into the middle of the lion’s den.” 

“Middle of the lion’s den?” I echoed blankly, before my brain caught up with my mouth. Everything he had said so far, everything he’d implied. Wait a minute–my eyes widened. “Hold on, wait, wait. What–are you trying to say that–do you mean those guys–” I shut my mouth, inhaling sharply through my nose while staring at him. Instinctively, I lowered my voice. “Are you trying to say that Arleigh’s family are part of Sherwood?! But they–her father runs one of the biggest technological–they–Sherwood attacks Taurus trucks! Taurus delivers technology all over the–” Then I stopped, still reeling. “Aaaand that would probably be one of the best possible covers they could have. Who would ever think that the people behind a Touched-Tech delivery company were also the violently anti-technology Fell-gang?! You just told me they were, basically, and I still didn’t believe it.” 

“Yeah, pretty much,” he agreed. “It was a lot for me to take in too, I promise. Arleigh being Clime–” 

Okay, that made me do another double-take. “She’s who?! But–but Clime is this total nature-loving girl who–she’s–and–ohhh she’s good. Wow, she’s better at pretending to be someone else than I ever thought she’d be. What the hell?” My poor brain was taking a battering from all these shocking revelations. I felt like they were going to give me a concussion or something. 

Ryder was shaking his head, putting a palm against his face. “I probably shouldn’t have said that. Damn it, there’s a whole thing about not–look, you can’t act on that, okay? I mean you can’t tell the cops or anything. If you do they’ll–” 

“They’ll backtrack everything to figure out where the leak is, which means they’ll double-check everyone they’ve had contact with,” I finished for him. “And you’ll be one of the first people they hone in on, especially if they check with the Ministry and find out who you really are. Or the Ministry just does the work for them. And if the Ministry checks in and finds out you started investigating the Fosters right after that–oh my dad knows.” 

“What?” Ryder blinked at me, then realized. “Oh. Oh he was there with you when you guys were in the driveway. He saw me there with–oh.” It was his turn to rock backward in obvious shock before adjusting. “I mean–I mean I’m not dead yet. No one’s said anything to me. He had to figure out why I was there, right? I mean, there’s no way that could be a coincidence. As soon as he saw me there, he had to have figured out that I knew the name and was investigating, so why haven’t the Ministry or Blackjack said anything to me about backing off?” 

“Maybe they’re thinking about hiring you?” I offered. When he gave me a look, I pushed on. “No, I’m serious. You did all this on your own, so maybe they’re waiting to see if they can trust you with more stuff. You know, seeing what you do with this information, how effective you are at dealing with it, that sort of thing. They’re probably ready to jump in if you do something they don’t like, but for now they’re sort of giving you slack on the leash or whatever so they can see what happens. See how effective you are at the whole thing and how much you can find out.”

He was still absorbing that while I pushed on. “And don’t worry, I’m not about to call the cops on Arleigh. As fun as that would be in some ways, especially now that I know she’s literally a villain and not just annoying and rude, it’d be just as bad for me. Because if they start looking into people who have interacted with her lately, I’ll get attention too. Remember, you’ve been at their house multiple times, and you have no reason to expose her. Not considering what you’re actually there for, I mean.  If I was over to their house and the very next day Paintball suddenly knew who she really was, I think they might be able to add two and two. I kind of try to avoid letting anyone connect Paintball and Cassidy. So yeah, I’m not gonna tell anyone.” 

Visibly relaxing a little bit, Ryder met my gaze. “Thanks. I mean seriously, thank you. I can’t–” He stopped, giving an audible chuckle of disbelief. “This whole situation is a lot to take in, isn’t it?“

Snorting, I retorted, “You think? I’m pretty sure if I get one more shocking reveal tonight, I’ll fill up my punch card and get another shocking reveal for free.” 

The remark made him snicker before he looked me up and down for a moment. “You really have been through a lot the last couple months, haven’t you? I’ve been dealing with this Errol thing, and it’s been hard enough to keep secrets from the rest of La Casa. But you… you’ve been keeping secrets from your family. I mean, that wouldn’t be hard for me, but you seem like you have a pretty good relationship with them.” Right after saying that, he blanched. “Shit, sorry. That’s both none of my business, and not necessarily true. Outward appearances don’t–I mean that–” He stopped short and gave a sigh. “Sorry, I’m just gonna shut up about it.” 

I glanced away, pulling my arms across my stomach. “Yeah, I kind of freaked out when I found out who they really are, and the stuff they do. The first hint I had that my family weren’t exactly on the up and up was finding out my brother was responsible for executing two people.” As Ryder reacted to that, I went on to give him a quick summary of how that first night had gone. 

“But ever since then, I’ve found out they’re responsible for some good things too,” I added while giving a helpless shrug. “You know, like what happened with you. Or how they stop some crime. But that doesn’t–my family still profits from all of it. Sure they do good stuff with it, but they do bad stuff too. They let bad things happen and then excuse it if the people pay the right fine or tax or whatever. It’s not–” I sighed heavily. “It’s complicated. The whole thing is so complicated.” 

There was a moment of silence before I felt Ryder reach out and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m really sorry,” he murmured. “ I mean, like I said before, your family’s group really helped me out. If it wasn’t for them, and Blackjack, I… I don’t know where I’d be right now. I don’t know who I’d be. But I get what you mean about it being complicated. If you really found out about them by seeing a couple people get murdered, and then found out your brother was responsible, I don’t…” He swallowed audibly. “Yeah, I kind of get why you feel that way. I wouldn’t know how to react to all that either. I’m basically on the outside of it and even I don’t know how to react.” 

A strained and slightly high-pitched giggle escaped me for some reason. “I guess it’s kind of a lot, isn’t it? I still don’t know what I’m going to do about all of it. I keep telling myself I just need to find out more, but I don’t know how much I need to know before I do something, or what I should even do. I’ve got other things to deal with, like helping… helping a couple of my teammates with their own problems. And there’s the gangwar, and the whole Scions recruiting people thing, and–” I stopped, realizing there was already another distraction. “Wait, what are you gonna do about the Scions thing? Errol, I mean. Did you ever find out why they’re looking for him? Or why the leader of Sherwood adopted him? Wait, is that a coincidence? I’m pretty sure it’s not a coincidence.”

Ryder dropped his hand from my shoulder and slumped back a bit. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s not either. They adopted him to like… keep an eye on him or something, I guess? I dunno. But it seems pretty obvious, you know?” He glanced away then while adding, “And… yeah, I do know what the Scions want him for. I stole some files from the house before, and I heard… I heard Mr. Fosters talking to someone he called Minister Gold. Actually that whole thing is what led to me figuring out they were called the Ministry. That and some other things.” 

He shook that off before pushing on. “Like I said, I know why they’re so desperate to find him. So desperate, actually, that that Cup chick had a really intense program running to sort through all the adoption files. It was running on a laptop that was pretty damn hard to get into. Seriously, this thing needed a numerical passcode, a fingerprint, and a voice print to get into. She did not want anyone opening the damn thing.” 

“Okay,” I announced, “after all of the experiences I’ve had with Cup, and that’s way more than I ever wanted, there’s a lot of things I would call her. But ‘careful’ isn’t one of them. If she went through all that trouble to lock that laptop up that securely and keep that program running, it has to be something huge. And it can’t just be something like the kid knew their real identities or whatever, because the Ministry wouldn’t be having you go through all that trouble to get into the laptop just to hide the information. Not after Pencil and Cup were already exposed. At first I thought maybe it had something to do with my own family’s identities, but that can’t be it either. They have nothing to do with this Errol kid, either before or after he was adopted. I mean, I don’t think they did…” 

“They didn’t, not as far as I can tell,” Ryder assured me. 

That made me look at him once more, realizing, “Wait, you said you did know why Pencil and Cup want to find Errol so badly, and why the Ministry is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. What–what’s so important about him?” 

So, he told me. Over the next couple minutes, Ryder explained that Errol’s birth parents were apparently college roommates and friends of the man named Rodney Barlow. Or, as he was known throughout the rest of the world, Overseer. Which was a name I recognized immediately. Actually I knew the name Rodney Barlow too, but Overseer even more so. Seven years back, he had been a big problem in Wisconsin. Basically, any time he touched a piece of someone’s body, like their hair, blood, or even their sweat, he could ‘charge,’ it. When he did that, he could see through that person’s eyes, hear everything they heard, and even control them like puppets. 

But it didn’t end there. It got worse. When he had enough pieces of someone, he could fashion those pieces into these little dolls. And anyone could use those dolls, not just him. Yeah, any random person, you didn’t even have to be Touched. If you picked up someone’s doll and held it, you could control them. 

“Oh… oh I don’t like that,” I managed, my eyes widening as I stared at the boy. “I don’t like that at all. This sounds really bad already.” 

“It doesn’t exactly get better,” he warned me before continuing. “Anyway, from what I’ve been able to find out, Cup and Pencil have this DNA-locked safe that used to belong to Errol’s parents. They killed them, but they didn’t realize the safe was DNA-locked. And everyone’s pretty sure Overseer left dolls in that safe. Dolls of Touched here in Detroit, because he was planning on coming here and taking over before he was arrested.” 

I absorbed that. “So, there could be dolls inside that safe of anyone who was Touched seven years ago. Maybe even everyone, knowing how Overseer worked. And Cup and Pencil have that safe. But they can’t get into it because they need Errol, except they don’t know who he is… yet. Hold on, I don’t wanna sound morbid–I mean I’m not pushing for this–I mean–” 

“You wanna know why the Ministry hasn’t just killed Errol, don’t you?” Ryder finished for me, his expression grim. “Yeah, I sorta had the same thought, believe me. I don’t want them to kill him either, it just seems like the obvious solution for a group that’s already willing to kill.” 

I nodded slowly at that. “So… why haven’t they? Do they really not want to kill a kid? Is that–” It sounded too naive to my own ears to think it could be that simple. “I don’t get it.” 

“I don’t either,” he replied. “That’s why I’ve been trying to sneak around there a bit more, to try to figure out if they’ve got plans for Errol or something. You know, plans they need him for. I was working on getting into some of Hemlock’s more secure files tonight, but then… you know.”

My head bobbed. “I interrupted. But if I hadn’t, Micah would’ve found you.” 

“Yeah, I let myself get too distracted,” he agreed, blanching visibly at the thought before focusing on me. “Thanks again. And thanks for, you know… trusting me not to tell anyone.” 

“Yeah, right back at you,” I replied as casually as I could manage. My voice still cracked a bit anyway, making me flush visibly. “Look, I’ll see if I can find out anything about this situation too. My team and I just stole a bunch of files from the Ministry. I’ll look for anything involving Errol, or Overseer, or his parents. You know, anything like that. Maybe we accidentally grabbed something relevant and didn’t even notice.” 

“That was–” Ryder stared at me before giving a low whistle. “Right, you guys are pretty impressive.” He smiled before sobering. “Right, I guess we just… keep each other’s secrets and keep looking into this, huh?”

My head bobbed once more. “I guess so. But Eits–I mean Ryder… seriously, be careful. I know the Ministry helped you out, but they can be very dangerous too. Especially if they start to think you might be a threat. And if Pencil thinks you might know something…” I blanched, thinking briefly about how badly Ryder had been hurt the last time he had information the Scions wanted. 

He promised he would, and we made a plan to meet up sometime soon, after I had a chance to go through that stuff. As if I didn’t already have enough to deal with. Finally, I put my mask and helmet back on and left the boy there so I could start heading home. There was a lot I had to think about.

As I started to leave, my phone buzzed. It was Amber. Answering, I leapt off the roof and let my red paint carry me to the next building. “Hey, what’s up?” 

“Just uhh… checking in. Sorry, I got kinda busy at the party and… Never mind, everything okay?” Her voice sounded a little odd, strained maybe. Or I could’ve been imagining it. “Your text wasn’t exactly clear, but if you still need–” 

“Nah, I’m good,” I replied. “It’s just been one of those nights, you know?” 

There was a brief pause before she replied, “Dude, trust me. 

“I know exactly what you mean.”  

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Interlude 22C – Double-Oh Eits (Summus Proelium)

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This whole thing had always been stupid. It was so stupid, and dangerous. Ryder Towling knew that. He had known from the start just how bad it would be for him if he was caught doing something like this. Going into Sherwood territory undercover as a tutor so he could find out why Cup and Pencil wanted to find this Errol Fosters kid so badly? It was ludicrous. He’d come in here repeatedly with no backup, no one who even had the slightest clue where he was, doing his best to snoop around without getting caught. If the Sherwood people realized that there was a member of La Casa in their territory… Yet what choice did he have? If he was going to get the answers he’d been looking for, he had to take a few risks. 

But he had never expected those risks to come to this.

“Last chance. Either tell the truth right now, or… well, you should just tell the truth. Trust me, you don’t want to face the consequences. I can get pretty creative.” 

Facing his interrogator, Ryder closed and opened his hands a couple times. He could feel sweat on his palms, and had to restrain himself from shaking them out or wiping them against his legs. To show fear would give them what they wanted, and he couldn’t do that. Not if he wanted to get through this. 

“Okay, fine,” he finally managed, speaking through a throat that had threatened to close up on him. “I’ll tell you… I’ll tell you the truth.” He took a deep breath, bracing himself before forcing himself to speak the words that his tormentor was waiting for so expectantly. 

“The first time I ever kissed someone was when I was fourteen. She was a girl in my bio class who wanted to see if I umm… if I kissed like a boy. It was while I was still, um, pre-op.” 

Hearing that, Arleigh Fosters whooped and thrust both arms in the air while leaning back in her seat at the kitchen table right next to him. “Hah, told you losers, earlier than both of you! That’s two points for answering the question, and two more points for beating you guys. Dude’s first kiss truth was worth four points. Suck it.”

Across the table, Micah Fosters, Arleigh’s twenty-year-old brother who had actually asked the question before ‘teasing’ Ryder about facing the consequences, smirked a little. “I don’t think that fourth point counts.” He gestured to the thirteen-year-old boy beside him. “Errol’s not even fourteen yet. If he gets a kiss before his next birthday, that’ll be an illegal point.”  

Glancing to the scrawny, stringy-haired blond boy with glasses, then back to Micah, Arleigh snorted in clear disbelief while waving a hand. “Yeah, sure, dude. I’m shaking in my boots at the possibility. Errol, when was the last time you physically, in-person spoke to a girl your own age outside of school?” Belatedly, she added, “And off the school grounds. Truth or Dare, E. I’ll spot you six points, minus one for every day it’s been. Or you can go for a six point dare, your choice.” 

From the dangerous smile she gave then, the dare would probably have been a bad idea. 

Shrinking back in his seat slightly, Errol hesitated before slowly answering, “Away from school and off school grounds? An hour ago.” 

While Micah guffawed, Arleigh let the front of the chair she had been tipping back on come back down with an audible thump. “What? When did you talk to a girl?” 

“Izzy,” Errol replied promptly. “We had to talk about our project so we met at the library. You said away from school, you didn’t say it couldn’t be about school.” 

“Oh come on!” Arleigh protested. “It was implied! The whole point was, when was the last time you had a real conversation with a girl that she didn’t have to have because of school.” 

With some effort, Ryder managed to resist the urge to elbow the girl beside him. Honestly, he didn’t even think she was thinking about how she was treating her little brother. She wasn’t intentionally trying to make fun of or embarrass him, it was just… how she was. Not that that made it any better, really. And it made him wonder just how nasty she could be when she was trying. 

Micah, by that point, was shaking his head. “Nuh uh, no take-backs. You said what you said. That’s six points for Errol here. Not his fault you suck at phrasing things. It was an easy six points for your side. All you had to say was, ‘when was the last time a girl chose to speak to you outside of school and for no school-related reason.’”

Yeah, okay, maybe they both just sucked, Ryder decided. Not that this was a new revelation. It hadn’t taken him very long to decide that both of the older siblings were the sort of people whom he would quite gladly never have anything to do with if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. 

And yet, was it absolutely necessary? The thought drifted through his mind briefly before he dismissed it. Yes. If he wanted real answers about the whole Errol situation, and he did, then it was necessary. He had to keep sitting here, playing their stupid points-based Truth or Dare game for as long as it took to get his other work done. Work that would have been finished already in most houses, but for this one he had to be extra careful. He has spent several visits over these past few weeks mapping out the house as best as he could. Specifically mapping out not only the cameras he’d been able to spot, but every plant as well. Here in Sherwood territory, all flowers, cacti, vines, potted plants of every variety could be a spy. He’d had to come here multiple times, using secret cameras in his backpack he could study the video in an attempt to find a route through the house that didn’t involve passing any plants that could’ve spotted an intruder.

Luckily, the intruders he had in mind were only about five inches tall. 

Even with all his planning, walkthroughs, and the videos of his time in the house, this whole thing would’ve been impossible if it wasn’t for one thing. The Roomba. Every time he’d visited, stood in the kitchen to talk to one of the others, gone upstairs to tutor Arleigh, every time he was around, Ryder had noticed a Roomba busily doing its work somewhere in the house. It was one of the newer models with the ability to hover so it could more easily get around obstacles or go upstairs. Which was pretty important when it came to his plan.

Unfortunately, the only time the Roomba went upstairs, as far as he had seen, was right when he was normally leaving. Which really didn’t work for him, and was what led to this whole situation. Managing to maneuver himself an invitation to stay for dinner without being obvious about it had taken some time and a bit of luck, but now he was here. Even better, their father wasn’t here. He’d told them to order a couple pizzas and not to stay up too late or turn the music up so loud that it would bother ‘them.’ The Sherwood people, obviously. How the Fosters managed to maintain even relatively calm relations with the infamously technology-hating gang when their dad was so deeply tied to the tech-delivering company Taurus was still a mystery. 

Well, actually, money. The answer was probably money. No matter how much Sherwood hated technology, Ryder was willing to bet they put it aside for a certain amount of cash. And lord knew the Fosters had cash. Not Evans-level cash, but then again, who else was that loaded? 

Either way, the Roomba was the key. While he and the Fosters had been sitting around the table playing the stupid game as they waited for the pizza to be delivered, Ryder listened and watched for the little robot vacuum to buzz by on its way under the table. That was the only totally clear spot here in the dining room. There were two cameras that could each keep the entire area they were sitting at in view, and no less than five potential spy plants. He didn’t know that they were being watched by the plants, but it was a possibility. And that was too dangerous. Even if the Sherwood people weren’t on good enough terms with the Fosters to say anything about seeing the innocent, nobody tutor snooping around using tiny energy gremlins, they sure as hell would have a few words to say to Ryder about it. He’d be throwing his secret identity away, letting Sherwood know who he was, and exposing himself to all sorts of trouble. 

Thus, waiting until the Roomba went under the table. As it did, he shifted his position just a little as though turning to look at Arleigh. In the process, the boy summoned four of his so-called mites (miniature invaluable technology elves). The quartet of tiny figures were crowded on his hand, but they knew to stay silent rather than make their normal cackling shrieks. This was a stealth mission. As soon as the Roomba passed by beneath his outstretched hand, they leapt off and fell onto the thing, disappearing inside it right before the robot exited out the far side of the table and back in view of everyone. 

So far so good. Managing not to let his relieved exhale be too obvious, Ryder spoke up. “Are you sure the pizza guy’s gonna be okay coming through this area? I mean… you know.” Even as he was saying that, he was also viewing things through the eyes of his mites. Or rather, through the Roomba they were possessing. 

He may have been just this side of useless in a direct physical confrontation, but if there was one thing Ryder actually was good at, it was multitasking. It was literally a superpower, allowing him to carry on his own actions and engage in full conversations with the people around him while also seeing and directing his mites off on their own things. He couldn’t really describe what it was like to see things through multiple sets of eyes at once, let alone how it felt to direct multiple different actions at the same time. It felt like acting as himself but multiple times and all at once. 

Yes, it was weird. But it was also quite useful. During official missions with the rest of La Casa, he could monitor multiple possessed cameras, doors, vehicles, and more all at once with no problems of having to divide his attention. Every mite he had active was another completely separate focus that he could keep track of all at once. 

While the Roomba slowly made its way out of the kitchen (he couldn’t exactly just take control and direct it straight where he wanted the thing to go without being too obvious), Arleigh snickered. “You mean those nature-loving pussies? Don’t worry, they know better than to mess with our food.” Turning a bit as though looking at one of the nearby flowers, she added, “They’re not as tough as they think they are.” 

With a sigh, Micah muttered, “Don’t antagonize the gang, Arleigh.” 

“Oh please, they’re not always watching.” Arleigh rolled her eyes before glancing to the boy beside her. “They just want people to think they are. They love to make everyone paranoid.” 

While all that was going on, the Roomba with its stowaways trundled along out of the kitchen and did several passes through the small area in front of the stairs. Much as he wanted to send the thing straight to where he needed it now, what Ryder absolutely did not want was for Mr. Fosters or anyone else who happened to review the camera footage from today for any reason to notice something amiss. Everything had to look as normal and mundane as possible. Still, he couldn’t help but hurry it along a bit. The thing still followed its normal route, but did so faster than usual. He really doubted anyone paid quite that much attention. 

So, before long, the Roomba made its way up the stairs, hovering onto each one to vacuum it in turn. Speeding the thing up slightly without running out the motor or attracting attention, Ryder continued to focus his own physical body’s attention on the others, offering a shrug. “I guess if you think it’s okay. Pizza guy wouldn’t agree to make the delivery if it was that dangerous, right?” 

Errol spoke up a bit hesitantly, “Yeah, they know what sort of rules to follow. They come in, deliver things, then leave. There’s um, a list of license plates and people who aren’t allowed to deliver in this area anymore because they broke the rules.” 

“And the place we order from has a good rep,” Micah put in. “So don’t worry your little head off, my man. It’s all gonna be fine.” 

At that point, it was Errol’s turn to offer a truth or dare to one of the two sitting across from him. After giving his sister a brief look while she stared him down, the boy instead focused on Ryder. “Truth, what do you want to be when you grow up? I mean, when you graduate and all.” 

While Arleigh made a noise that was halfway between a groan and a laugh, Micah spoke up. “Oh come on, dude. You can do better than that. That’s the wussiest question ever. We’re not five years old. Here.” He leaned over and whispered something in the younger boy’s ear. 

Errol hesitated after hearing it before sighing. Focusing on Ryder once more, he tried again. “Okay, okay. What do you want to be when you grow up for one point, and for one point each, name three jobs you’d rather die than take.”

With a visible smirk, Micah shrugged while drawling, “Kid still really doesn’t seem to get the point of Truth or Dare, but we try to keep things light for him. Consider this a freebie. But be warned, next time it comes back to us it’ll be my turn again and I will make up for my brother taking it easy on you.” 

Right, this wasn’t that hard. And even if it had been, there was no way that Ryder was going to request a dare. Not when everyone in the room was allowed to make suggestions. He already knew that the older two Foster siblings had plenty of what they would consider interesting ideas on that front. So, he hesitated only slightly before replying, “Well, as far as what I want to be when I grow up…” Several thoughts ran through his mind, most of which he couldn’t say without exposing too much about his true extracurricular activities. “I kinda want to be a chef. Like, a pastry chef. I want to make super-delicious treats that people pay a lot of money for. You know, the kind they serve in five-star restaurants and charge ridiculous rates for. Not really for the money or fame or anything. I don’t think pastry chefs get famous no matter how good they are. But because I want to make those obscenely rich people pay absurd amounts of money for my cakes and things, then turn around and sell stuff that’s just as good to completely normal public high schools for like… pennies. Just because I can.” 

While saying that, he was also focusing on the Roomba. It had made it up the stairs and was heading into Micah’s room. The door opened for the little robot automatically, allowing the thing to get in there and do its work. Ryder had only been in that room once, so he had to be careful. Watching through the Roomba’s camera, he waited until it went under the bed, then made one of his mites hop out. The thing would only have a few seconds of life before vanishing, so he had to be quick. On the way through, he’d taken note of the two plants in the room. One was a small flower up on a shelf by the door, while the other was a cactus sitting in one corner. As long as he had the mite stay under the bed until it reached the end, then use the desk for cover, he could get it around to the back of that desk and up into the computer without being spotted. 

At the same time, the Roomba had finished its work and went out into the hallway. From there, it went through Arleigh and Errol’s rooms, and he did pretty much the same thing. Getting his mites into the computers of all three Foster siblings, all while continuing on to detail the three jobs he’d rather die than take (veterinarian, police officer, pest control). 

Then it was his turn to ask a question. Honestly, he’d rather just pass and focus more on what he was doing, but he had to keep up the ruse. So, after thinking about it for a moment, Ryder looked at Micah. “Truth, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?” 

Rather than respond immediately, the older boy seemed to consider for a few seconds. Then he offered a slow smile before replying, “Dare.” 

Well that was a little surprising. Why would the boy rather do a dare, one he had to know his sister would jump on, then answer the question of where he’d like to live? 

Sure enough, Arleigh was already bouncing up and down, delighted about getting a chance to do a dare against her older brother. As soon as the boy confirmed he would be going with that, she bolted off the seat and began to prepare some sort of concoction in the kitchen that she was going to make him drink. 

Yeah, that sounded gross, but whatever. It gave Ryder a moment of peace, and he took full advantage of that. The Roomba had made it to its main target, the office that he had never been allowed to go into. It was Trey Fosters’ office. Arleigh, Errol, and Micah’s father. And here, he had to be even more careful, using the Roomba’s camera to watch for anything that could spot his last mite. From what he could tell, there was only one spot under the desk that would be out of sight of the large floor to ceiling plant in the corner by the window (which itself had a large tree visible through the glass). He waited for it to be there, then had the mite hop out, shimmy along the corner of that desk, then slip through a hole for a cord and into the actual computer. 

He had done it. All four of the computers had his mites in them,  and he was pretty sure no one knew about it. Now all he had to do was have them download all the files from those computers to the beefy ten terabyte USB drive in his pocket. He doubted he’d need that much, but he’d wanted to come prepared. 

While his mites did their work, Ryder focused on making as queasy a face as he could. It wasn’t that hard, considering he could see some of the things Arleigh was putting in that drink. “Are you sure you want to taste that?” 

“I think you underestimate me, tutor-guy,” Micah retorted. “Believe me, if there’s one thing you should know, it’s this. 

“I play for keeps.” 

*******

He should have brought a bigger USB drive. As it was, Ryder ended up having to focus mostly on the files from Trey Fosters’ computer. That by itself had ended up being a full six and a half terabytes. The rest of the space he’d split up among the other three as evenly as possible, getting all the files he could with a focus on anything that mentioned Touched, the Scions, Errol’s name, and so on. 

He didn’t really look at what he’d gotten in the process. Even his multitasking ability only went so far, and he didn’t trust himself to keep a poker face if he found something important. So, he waited until he was safely done eating, out of that house, in his car, and far from the Sherwood neighborhood before pulling over in a parking lot next to a bookstore. Then he used a cord to plug the USB drive into his phone and started to look at what he’d found. It would take a long time to sort through it all, of course, but he wanted to get at least a first glance. 

Using one of his mites for help, Ryder searched through the video files from all the security footage that had been on Trey’s computer. He had his little buddy search specifically for any moments in the audio that mentioned Errol and the Scions within thirty seconds of each other. 

There, a conversation had been recorded inside the office about a week earlier. Quickly, after glancing around reflexively to ensure that he was still alone in the dark parking lot, Ryder told it to play on his phone screen from a point a few seconds before those keywords were mentioned.

Two people were standing in the office when the video started. One was Trey Fosters himself, a dark-haired man in his early forties who clearly spent a lot of time working out. The other, meanwhile, was a nondescript red-haired man with a neatly trimmed goatee and dark eyes. 

“You know why Cup and Pencil are after my son?” Trey was asking, standing behind his desk with his attention laser-focused that way. “Then don’t keep me in suspense. Or do I have to say pretty please, Minister Gold, tell me why the Scion psychopaths have been trying to find my son all this time?” 

Minister Gold? That was a weird–shaking that off, Ryder focused on listening. 

“Yes, Hemlock, we do,” came the response.  

Despite his resolve to focus, Ryder quickly paused the video. Hemlock?! Arleigh’s father was Hemlock, second-in-command of Sherwood? Did she–did they–of course they knew. That was… that was why they–oh. The man who was so big in the technology delivery game was second-in-command of the gang that hated technology? What the fuck was that about? Why–how would–oh.

Oh. Big oh. He hadn’t just stolen information and files from some random family inside rival gang territory. He’d accidentally stolen identity-revealing information from the gang itself. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He didn’t mean to. Could he–no. No, he couldn’t apologize. They didn’t know what he’d done, and if they found out, they weren’t going to listen to him try to claim he hadn’t done it on purpose. Oh God. Wait, did that mean Arleigh was–she couldn’t–wait.

Shaking those thoughts off for the moment, he hit play once more. However reluctant he was to do so, after he’d done all this already he might as well get the answers he’d been looking for. 

“It took some digging,” that Minister Gold was saying, “but it turns out Errol’s birthparents, Colette and Shane Elbrecht, were old college roommates and friends of Rodney Barlow. AKA Overseer.” 

Overseer. Ryder had heard that name before. He’d been a huge threat in Wisconsin about seven years earlier. Wisconsin to start anyway, but with enormous potential to become a national problem, with his power to touch anything that came off a person’s body, like their hair, blood, sweat, and so on, and ‘charge’ it. When a body part was charged, Overseer could see through that person’s eyes, hear what they heard, and even control them like they were an extension of himself. But even worse than that was the fact that if he got enough body parts, he was able to fashion them into small dolls. And those dolls could be used by anyone, even someone without powers, to control the person in question. 

Needless to say, Overseer had been a real target. He’d risen up the Fell-Touched ranks, been a problem for awhile, and then disappeared. There were a lot of rumors about Touched on both sides of the fence banding together to get rid of him before he became too much of a threat, given he could control all of them if he’d gotten his hands on enough of their hair and other bits. 

“From what we’ve been able to put together,” Minister Gold was saying, “Cup and Pencil have gotten their hands on a DNA-locked safe from the Elbrechts. We believe that inside that safe are various… dolls their old friend left in their care.” 

“Dolls,” Hemlock echoed. “You mean Overseer’s dolls, the ones he was making on his way to come play in this town before you sent your dogs after him.” 

“Yes,” Gold replied. “Which means if Pencil and Cup manage to open that safe, they’ll have access to every doll he stored in there. 

“And they’ll be able to control potentially every Detroit Touched who existed back then.” 

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Interlude 18B – Eits and Simon (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Thanks to all members of the Patreon who voted for this interlude. And don’t forget, in addition to all the interlude voting, snippets, and non-canon choices you can get as members, you also get every chapter a day early and if we hit various milestones, the minimum length of chapters goes up, so you get more to read! If you have questions or comments, or just want to hang out, we also have a Discord server right here

Also also, if you missed it, the non-canon chapters were posted over the weekend. You can find the Summus Proelium non-canon right here and the Heretical Edge non-canon right here

At one time, the place had been an old clock shop, catering to those with far more money than they knew what to do with. It had not been in business for a couple years by that point. But a few of the old clocks were still sitting around, waiting for customers who would probably never come. And yet, there was no dust anywhere. The place had been meticulously and regularly cleaned. Between that and the heavy duty security system on the door and windows, Ryder Towling (or Eits, considering he was there in-costume) was starting to think that this place might be a bit more than it appeared to be. 

Well, that and the fact that he had been asked to come here and wait for a certain old friend. An old friend he had only really met once, but still. Given who that friend was, and the way he had met him before, Eits was pretty confident that whatever was going on wasn’t just a casual social call. This was something big enough for them to go through Blackjack for help. 

Whatever they needed, Ryder was ready to give them. It was only because of them that he was capable of being comfortable in his own skin. They, whoever they were, had helped him become the person he was always supposed to be. He owed them a lot for that, and he was ready to pay them back if they asked for it. Sure, there were lines he wouldn’t cross, even for the people who had helped him so much. But up to a certain point, yeah. He was ready to help. 

He had been told that he wouldn’t have to wait long, and they weren’t lying. The boy had only been sitting in the old rocking chair near the back of the shop for about ten minutes when he heard several beeps from the keypad at the front door, followed by the sound of the bell as it was opened to let someone walk inside. That someone stopped just within, letting the door shut behind him before calling out, “It’s okay, it’s just me. I’m alone, you can come out.” 

Despite that, Ryder glanced at his tablet. He had already used his mites to break through the security in this place, and took over the cameras (whose presence was another thing making it clear that this place was more than it appeared to be). Sure enough, the guy he was waiting for was standing at the front of the store, patiently waiting all by himself with a briefcase in one hand. And a quick check of the two cameras positioned on the outside of the building showed no one suspicious. 

It was good enough for him. So, Eits took a few steps out, putting himself in view. At the same time, he directed the mite he had put in control of the computers to stop messing with their security feed and allow the system to show him. He’d shut them down before coming into the building, allowing the feed to work properly only for his own personal tablet. Everyone else had been seeing nothing but old looped footage up to that point, since he’d come within view of the place. Probably unnecessary, but ever since that whole thing where Paintball had let him know that the Seraphs had detected his intrusion, he was being a lot more careful.  

“Hey, Squire. Still using the same hologram, huh?” he asked. Yeah, he remembered that the tall, actor-level handsome black guy wasn’t the person’s real appearance. He’d already told Ryder that he was using an illusion of some form, right after he’d saved the boy from a bunch of transphobic pricks. But hey, at least he was using the same hologram. It might’ve been hard to figure out if it was really him otherwise. 

Come to think of it, what if it wasn’t really him? What if this was just some other member of that group who knew what happened back then and was using the same cover identity to–

“Just Simon’s fine,” the guy replied, interrupting his thoughts. “We’re both… sort of friends here and all. Might as well use the name I already gave you. And speaking of names, still using my old one, huh?” Squire–or Simon replied in turn. “They said you went with Ryder. Or do you prefer Eits?” 

“Whatever works. And yeah, Ryder was… I needed a name that I admired,” Ryder admitted with a little shrug. “And uhh, you sort of saved me. You really saved me. If you hadn’t been there, those guys would’ve–” He stopped himself, unwilling to follow that train of thought. “I like the name Ryder. I umm, I hope you don’t mind.” It had seemed like a good idea at the time, and he’d immediately come to enjoy people referring to him by it. But being here, suddenly face to face with the guy he had ‘borrowed’ the name from, made him feel weirdly awkward about the whole thing. 

“Whatever, it’s fine,” came the casual response as the holographically-disguised man waved that off. “I’ve got plenty of names. Squire, Simon, Benny, Calvin, Ricky. Maybe one of them’s even real.” That last bit was added with a wink before he squinted at Eits, his tone turning somewhat interested. “I also hear you’ve been making new friends. Of the independent sort.” 

“You’re independent too,” Ryder pointed out. “I mean–okay not independent cuz you’re obviously with a group. But you guys aren’t connected to any of the main groups in town. At least, I’m pretty sure you’re not. Seems like… you work with everybody now and then.” He eyed the older boy, taking a moment to consider his words (though he’d done a lot of that considering over the time since he’d last seen Squire) before finally adding, “Both good and bad guys.” 

“We’re pretty mercenary,” Simon allowed. “But we also get things done. Not being officially connected to anyone helps with that.” 

“You’re a Sell-Touched group then?” Ryder guessed. “A secret one that works with Stars and Fells. One with enough influence for Blackjack to feel safe taking advice from you.” There was more to it than that, he was sure. But that much he was pretty confident about. 

Simon, in turn, gave a short nod. “Something like that. And right now, we need your help with this little thing.” He held up the briefcase, gesturing for the other boy to join him at the counter next to the register while he set the thing up there and began to unlock it. 

Moving that way, Ryder asked, “So what is it? All Blackjack said was that it has to do with that uhh, Scions thing.” That had been fun to find out after-the-fact. Dani had gone off with a couple Minority girls and Paintball to get info about the Scions and ended up right in front of Cup herself. All to pay back Deicide for that whole vials favor thing. Yeah, part of Ryder really wanted to give the Easy Eight computers a virus to make them play annoying music or something for that one. Sure, Deicide hadn’t actually known what she was sending them into, but still. Dani was his friend, and he also felt a little responsible for Paintball, knowing what he did about his…or rather, her (he had trained himself not to think of Paintball as a girl) secret. 

“This…” Simon explained while starting to open the case, “was found in a safe inside that apartment, hidden under the floorboards. Let me tell you, it was a real pain in the ass getting it out of there without setting off any of her traps. She had a lot of them. Bitch really likes traps.” 

By that point, Eits was able to see into the case itself, revealing a small, closed-down laptop. There was a fingerprint scanner at the clasp, as well as some sort of small keypad, and what was clearly a small microphone. You didn’t just need a passcode to get into the thing. You needed the fingerprint, a numerical code, and a voice password. Between all three of those things and the fact that it had been found hidden in a safe behind a bunch of protective traps? No wonder Simon and whoever he worked with figured it was pretty important. 

After giving the thing a once-over, he glanced to the boy next to him. “Should I ask how you people managed to get something this important out of there past all the Conservators, other Stars, and cops that swarmed the place?” He paused briefly before deciding to go for it. “Or did you just pay one of them to hand it to you?” Sure, it might be a bit dangerous being that bold with the question, but Ryder figured if he was going to be helping them get the laptop open, he might as well go for broke and find out how much Simon would share about the whole thing. 

Simon, for his part, didn’t answer at first. He simply squinted at Ryder and seemed to be considering the response for a few seconds before simply replying, “We have ways of getting what we need. People who owe us favors.” 

“Sort of like the way I owe you?” Ryder asked, raising both eyebrows behind the diagonal black and gold bands that criss-crossed his face and eyes. 

“Little bit different from that, in most cases,” Simon replied. “But word of advice, don’t try to figure it out. Don’t look too deep into that. Just live your life and don’t worry about it. You don’t, ahh, you know how you don’t want to stare too close to the sun? Think of it like that.” He exhaled then, turning to look at the other boy seriously. “Right now, all you need to focus on is that we’re trying to find out everything we can about the Scions, so we can stop them. Just like everyone else. We just need to be more quiet about it. And if we’re gonna get anywhere with stopping them, we need to get into this laptop without losing everything that’s on it. Do you think that’s something you can manage? Be honest, this is important.” 

Eits opened his mouth to say it was, before hesitating. “I uhh, I’ll give it the best shot I’ve got. But if you want it to come without the whole setting off booby traps thing, I’m gonna need some time. And also some coffee and pastry-type things? There’s a shop across the street.” 

Turning to glance over his shoulder to the door, Simon gave a short nod. “Yeah, I can do that. You ahh… wait here. And take your time. We’ve only got one of those things. No do-overs.” With that, he rapped the counter with his knuckles twice. “How do you take yours?” 

Once Ryder told him what he liked, the boy promised to be right back, then walked to the door, used the code to open it, and stepped out to head to the shop. Which left Ryder standing in front of the open briefcase. He very carefully took it out, setting the thing on the counter without touching any of the locks, keypad, or the fingerprint scanner. “Okay, guys,” he murmured, squinting at the thing while leaning one way, then the other to get a good look, “what do we have here?” 

Over the next few minutes, he examined the laptop from every possible angle, carefully picking it up and turning it over to check the bottom. He brought a few of his mites to very gently probe the surface of the thing without trying to break through any of the security. He wasn’t ready to go that far. Not yet, anyway. Because Simon was right. They only had one shot at this. If he screwed up and made the laptop wipe itself, there would be no second chances. Which was making him sweat a little bit, to be honest. Especially given how much he really wanted to contribute to bringing down those sociopaths. Preferably before they did anything to Dani or Paintball in retaliation for being exposed. There would be no rushing this. He would take it slow and steady, no matter how much he desperately wanted to get it done.

Eventually, Simon returned with the coffees and a bag of pastries. By that time, Eits had moved several old clocks off a nearby table, set the laptop in the middle of it, and was sitting on a padded chair, leaning forward enough to bring the back legs off the floor as he ran his hand close to the side of the computer without actually touching it. One of his tiny, five-inch-tall glowing blue-green ghost-gremlin buddies was perched there, hissing threateningly at the laptop while its long, rabbit-like ears twitched and all four arms waved through the air. The hands got close to the thing, but just like Eits himself, never actually touched it. 

“So ahh, what’s going on here?” Simon asked, raising an eyebrow as he looked between Ryder and his mite. “You figure anything out yet?” While speaking, he handed over one of the cups.

Taking the coffee, Ryder sipped it. Not for the first time, he was glad that his particular mask didn’t cover his mouth. Other Touched had to figure out how to deal with eating food, even if it was as simple as pulling a mask up. And if it came to something like gas or smoke, well, he had something for that. 

“Not much,” he finally replied after another sip. “I mean, nothing as far as the contents go. Haven’t gotten that far. I think I can safely get it open and get us to the desktop in another fifteen minutes or so. I uhh, don’t wanna screw it up.” 

“Yeah, let’s stick with the slow method,” Simon agreed, pulling up a chair on the other side of the table. “Just let me know if you need something. I’ve got nothing but time.” As if suiting action to words, the boy took the phone from his pocket and began to play a game on it while biting into one of the pastries. He made it clear that he was in no rush and was ready to settle in for hours.

Hoping that the whole thing wouldn’t take quite that long, Eits settled in and got to work once more. He felt a bit more comfortable with the older boy there to keep an eye on things just in case he ended up accidentally triggering some sort of ‘come find me’ signal on the computer. As much as he wanted to help take down the Scions, he really didn’t want to do that while face-to-face with them. He was more of a long distance fighter. Long distance as in somewhere in another county, preferably. Direct confrontation was not something he handled very well.

But this? This was something he could do. Getting into a locked-down computer, past all the security and traps some crazy bitch had left on it? That was totally his speed. Especially with Simon here to watch his back, given he’d already seen how well the other boy dealt with direct confrontation. 

As promised, within fifteen minutes, they had the computer open and were at the desktop without setting off any problems. At least, as far as he could see. He had three different mites monitoring the various security programs they’d found, essentially making sure each one stayed nice and quiet. The way Eits explained it to Simon when the question came up was that the mites were basically singing very soft lullabies to the security programs. An incredibly simplified way of putting it, but close enough. 

Tempting as it was to be excited about actually being in the system after all that, now really wasn’t the time to get cocky and screw up. So, to calm himself, Eits leaned away from the computer and took a bite out of another pastry before letting out a breath. “You think this thing will actually have something useful on it?” He glanced toward the other boy. “I mean, sure it’s gotta have something good with all this security, but you think it’ll be useful? Or just like… a list of all the people she wants to skin alive or something.”

“Even that could be somewhat useful,” Simon pointed out, “if the list had people we didn’t know about on it.” He took a slow sip of his coffee before adding, “we’re pretty sure it’s more than that, though. We would have had our own people go over it, but, you know, time is probably of the essence. Every minute we take trying to break into this thing the old fashioned way is another minute that the information on it becomes less useful. Plus, Blackjack’s been talking up how useful you are to have around.” 

A blush found its way to Ryder’s face, only partially hidden by the mask (not covering his mouth area did have another downside after all). “I–ahh, he did?” The boy tried not to trip over his words, shoving another bite into his mouth and swallowing before managing a weak, “I didn’t know he talked about me to you–or to anyone from your… uhh… mercenary guild?” 

“Let’s call it that,” Simon amicably replied, still not taking the bait to talk any more about his group. “Anyway, yeah, your boss really likes the job you’re doing. Congratulations. Now let’s impress him and my people even more by getting into the good stuff from this computer, huh?” 

With a short nod, Eits went back to work. He brought out a couple more mites, sending them into the computer through the safe passages the others were keeping open away from the security programs. Letting his eyes close, he focused on what they could ‘see,’ though that wasn’t exactly the right term for it. They didn’t really see things within the computer. It wasn’t like Tron or anything like that. It was more that they read through data and his brain could understand what they were processing, converting it to something approximating vision. Or something like that. It was hard for him to put the process into words. The point was, he could sense what they found on the computer itself. In this case, that meant identifying each and every trap that had been left on the computer to stop anyone from reading what was on it. 

“It’s like… untangling a thick knot,” he murmured aloud for Simon’s benefit. “All these little security measures she left behind are tangled together. If I tug too hard at one, it can set the others off. I need to follow each of them back to the source and hold or snip them without making the whole system crash. If I miss just one of them, it uhh, could be catastrophic.” 

“Then don’t miss any,” Simon advised. “Like I said, take your time. You break it, you buy it. And I don’t think you can afford to replace ‘priceless laptop with secrets about the Scions.’”

When Eits blinked over to look at him, the other boy winked. “That’s a joke. But seriously, be careful.” 

Ryder followed the advice. For the next forty-five minutes, he very carefully worked his way through disconnecting and disabling every single security program. For someone with his power that was an eternity. He could get through most systems near-instantly. Cup, for whatever other issues she had, was clearly very paranoid about keeping unauthorized people off this computer. 

Finally, he leaned back and cracked his knuckles. “That’s it,” he murmured with a glance to the guy beside him. “If I did my job right, you should be able to log on with no problems and look through the whole thing. Her security measures should be disabled. And uhh, if I didn’t do my job right, you’ll find out real quick when the whole thing wipes itself. So, you know, here’s hoping.” He made a point of holding up both hands with crossed fingers. 

“Wonderfully inspiring,” Simon muttered before shaking his head. “Sure, buddy. And thanks.”  

“So uhh, you wanna check it out together?” Eits asked, tilting his head toward the screen. 

Simon, however, shook his head. “Nice try. We’ll take it from here. Go on and head out. Oh and uhh, can you get your little friends out of the computer?”

Summoning his mites back, Ryder gestured. “You ever need anything else…” 

“We know where to find you,” came the response. “Your payment is with the guy out back, in the alley. Thanks.” 

Eits had not exactly been expecting any payment. But he silently turned and headed out the door. Sure enough, there was a nondescript-looking man in a long green coat standing there with an envelope, which he passed over. In the envelope was a thick wad of cash. Ryder tucked it away, murmured his thanks to the man, and walked to the sedan that he had arrived in. 

Only once he had pulled out of the lot and was on the street did the boy let two of his little friends take over the car. While they drove, he leaned over to open his glovebox. Reaching inside, he took out an extra phone he had stashed there. A phone that was connected to the one in his pocket. Both of which already had mites in them that were communicating with each other and with the ones he had sent into the computer. 

There they were. Not all the files that had been on it, but a lot of them. Of course Eits wasn’t sure exactly who Simon worked for, or if they could be trusted. He knew he owed them a lot, and he was grateful. More grateful than he could say. But he was also careful. Not to mention curious. He was going to look through the files himself, and see if anything stood out. Particularly one section of the hard drive, which had been blocked by three times as much security as any other parts. 

Bringing up that section, Ryder leaned back and squinted. A list of adoption records, it looked like. Sealed adoption records. From what he could tell, Cup had had some sort of program running to sort through every adoption within the entire state of Michigan, and several of the bordering states covering the previous fifteen years. He wasn’t sure exactly how the program had been sorting through the records, but it seemed like it was set up to identify a single person with very specific criteria. And, from the look of things, it had found a match only very recently. It was within the past day, so he had no idea if the Scions had seen the results yet or not. 

Either way, Ryder frowned as he brought up the file itself, reading the name of the adopted person the Scions had clearly been obsessively trying to locate.

“Who the hell is Errol Fosters?” 

A/N – You can find the part where it was established that Pencil and Cup were obsessively looking through adoption records (and a bit of why) right here, just search for the term ‘adoption’ on that page to find the exact spot. And for those who need the reminder, Errol Fosters is Arleigh’s little brother, the youngest member of the Sherwood gang leadership family.

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Eits

With a polite ding, the elevator doors opened, and Ryder Towling (the name the boy publicly known as Eits had taken for himself after his transition) stepped out onto the third floor of the apartment building. Or rather, staggered out, considering how full his arms were. The brown-haired boy had several grocery bags hooked over each of his somewhat gangly limbs, and was clutching a few of what looked like long cardboard tubes with caps on either end to his chest. The keys to the building that he’d used to get in were clutched between his teeth.

Unlike when he appeared in his La Casa costume, the civilian Ryder didn’t dress to wow people. Or to attract attention at all. At the moment, he wore simple faded gray jeans, tennis shoes, a burgundy tee shirt, and a brown leather jacket. Between that and his habit of watching the ground or his phone while walking, and his unremarkable drab brown hair that was a couple weeks late for a trim to tame it back to some working order, he blended right into most crowds.

Shuffling awkwardly down the hall while doing his level best not to drop anything, Ryder nodded politely to old Mrs. Jansen when she came trundling out of her own apartment. He shook his head when she asked if he needed help. Not that it wouldn’t have been nice given how overloaded he was (but who wanted to make more than one trip all the way back to the car?), but there really wasn’t much the nice elderly lady could do. She used a walker to get around as it was.

Waiting until Mrs. Jansen had made it to the elevator and stepped on, the boy turned back to the door of his own apartment. A thought summoned one of his mites, which jumped into the security keypad there and a moment later there was a confirming beep as the door clicked open just far enough for Ryder to push it the rest of the way with his foot and step through.

Finally, he was inside, and nudged the door shut with his heel. Once it clicked and he heard the affirming beep of the lock, the boy dismissed the mite in the control panel before heading through the narrow entranceway. To the left was his bathroom, his bedroom was straight ahead, and the living room and kitchen were to the right. That last was the way he went, yet just before he would have made it to the dining table in the living room and been safe, his feet seemed to tangle up in themselves. With a startled yelp, the boy pitched forward, falling to the floor while sending his groceries and the long tubes he was carrying scattering everywhere. 

“Well,” Ryder mumbled while squinting at the mess from where he lay, “that’s just typical.” 

Groaning, he picked himself up and began picking up the keys that had fallen from his mouth before moving on to the food items. Over the next few minutes, the boy restocked his fridge and put things away. As he did so, moving from spot to spot to pick up everything, he thought about how much easier Paintball would’ve had it. He could just stand in front of the fridge and shoot red paint at anything he needed to pull to himself. 

No, not himself. Herself. She. Yeah. Ryder had trained himself not to think or say anything about Paintball actually being a girl in front of anyone else. He’d promised, after all. He’d sworn to Paintball that he’d keep her secret, and that was a promise he wouldn’t break. Especially not by being a complete idiot and blurting out the wrong pronoun at the wrong time. It was safer for the whole situation if he just made himself think of Paintball as a boy as much as possible. 

But she wasn’t. She was a girl. And more than that, she was actually older than everyone thought. All those people who thought Paintball was like a thirteen-year-old boy, when she was actually, as the girl herself had put it ‘closer to college than middle school.’ She’d had a sixteenth birthday, at least. She’d mentioned that much, about how her family had celebrated that she’d finally made it to five feet in height that day.

Paintball was a girl around Ryder’s age. Maybe a bit younger. Either way, that was a hell of a lot different than anyone else thought. Which had to help keep her secret identity. Yet it was more than that. The desperation he’d heard and seen in the girl when she thought he might blow her secret, it was… there was… something big. A lot bigger than just keeping her superheroing secret from her parents or whatever. She had been scared, terrified. 

But why? What had her so upset? Was she afraid of a specific person? Was she hiding from something bad she’d done in the past? What if people in some other city knew the kind of powers she used but didn’t realize it was her because she was pretending to be a boy now? 

Yeah, that was a rabbit hole of paranoia that Ryder had gone down a few times. He’d had to talk himself out of actively looking up people who might have similar powers to what Paintball had, telling himself that it would be violating her trust. Digging into what could be her past, trying to figure out what her big secret was… it was tempting. The whole situation was so confusing. But it was a bad idea. It would be a betrayal of someone who deserved better. 

And yet, he couldn’t help but think what she might need was help. And would she ever ask for it? Whatever was wrong, whatever or whoever had her so terrified about even her sex being discovered, was clearly bad enough that she needed more help than she was getting. 

That was the situation he was stuck in. He knew Paintball was in some kind of trouble or had some secret traumatic backstory, but he couldn’t actually help her. Because digging into her past or trying to uncover her identity would be betraying her, and just a real shit thing to do in general. Yet just leaving it alone and hoping she got the help she needed when the time came? Was that the right thing to do? What was the right thing to do, damn it? 

He had no idea. Hell, he’d even briefly considered checking with that Squire guy. Simon. He’d gone by Ryder first, which was where the new Ryder had taken his name from. Oh, and Squire. He was known by that moniker too. But his real name was Simon, and Simon had given Ryder a card he could use to potentially call if he got in trouble. After saving him from trouble the first time.

If anyone could help Paintball with whatever problem she had, it was Simon and the people he worked for. Ryder didn’t know a lot about that whole situation, only that they were really important. And powerful, given Simon had apparently hidden his real appearance behind an illusion. They were connected, and Simon himself had already saved Ryder once. 

But no. That would definitely be violating Paintball’s trust. Maybe he could bring it up to her, mention a guy called Squire who might be able to help with any… problems she had? Would that be the best approach? 

Ryder’s thoughts were interrupted by a ringing phone, and he quickly grabbed it from his pocket, answering with a, “It’s Ryder.” 

“Hey, kid.” It was Grace. Or rather, Cardsharp. Her voice was all business. “You get those hotel blueprints yet? We’ve gotta get a move on if we’re gonna pull this off.”

“Oh, oh!” Shifting his thoughts away from Paintball for the time being (not like he could do anything about that whole situation now anyway), Ryder quickly moved to grab the long tubes from the floor. Uncapping one, he spread the large rolled up blueprint out over his table, weighing down the corners with a couple books. “Yeah, I’ve got them right here.” 

“Good,” came the response. “I’m on my way to your place. You want me to pick up some Chinese or something? This is probably gonna be a long night. We need to make sure this whole operation goes off without a hitch.” 

“Sure, sure, yeah, that sounds good. You know what I like. See you soon. We’ll figure it out.” After exchanging last pleasantries, Ryder disconnected, staring at the blueprints in front of him. Yet his mind wasn’t quite focused the way it was supposed to be. Despite his attempt to push Paintball out of his mind, the girl and her situation was still stubbornly there, right at the corner of his thoughts. 

What the hell was going on with her? Who was she, really? And why was it so hard for him to push the girl out of his thoughts? 

*******

Pack and That-A-Way While Paintball Was In The Warehouse With Paige

The sound of gunfire filled the air as That-A-Way ran along the six-foot-high concrete wall that surrounded the car lot where members of La Casa and the Ninety-Niners had started brawling. Moving to the east as she was, the very few bullets that hit her (these Ninety-Niner chumps weren’t the greatest shots to begin with, let alone in the dark) simply bounced off. All three men kept shooting, none getting the point that it wasn’t working. Which was good, considering the entire reason Way had shown herself like that was to present a tempting, distracting target. 

Finally, at the very end of the wall before one of the lot entrances, That-A-Way pivoted to her right, facing the men. Which meant she was now facing south. Her intangibility kicked in, making the bullets simply pass through her while she blew the men a kiss, right before Whamline, who had taken that time to get into position, grabbed the trio with his energy cords and hurled them away to crash into the side of an SUV with ‘shockingly low price’ stickers all over it. 

Distraction successfully accomplished, the (currently blonde thanks to her Touched-Tech mask) girl threw herself backward off the wall, dropping to the other side just as a crossbow bolt struck the part where she had been standing. The moment the bolt hit where her feet had been, a six-foot-wide section of the wall simply burst apart. It didn’t explode in the typical sense. Rather, the wall broke apart into hundreds if not thousands of tiny inch or two inch wide chunks, expanding into a large debris cloud that was perfectly orb-shaped. The pieces of wall held there for a few seconds, then all fell to the ground.

Scatterking. That was the work of Scatterking, one of the Ninety-Niners. Way could see him even as the six-foot-wide section of wall was destroyed. He was a younger Touched from the look of him, her own age or even younger. He wore a black bodysuit with a green trenchcoat over it and a silver metal helmet-mask thing with a crown shape on top to go with the ‘king’ motif. The lower half of his face was exposed while the top half was hidden under a white visor attached to the helmet crown. He carried a pistol-crossbow and a rapier, either of which he could channel his power into. It was a power that allowed him to charge inanimate objects so that, if they struck something, the other thing would blow apart into little chunks and hover there in an orb-cloud the way she’d just seen. 

If the thing he affected that way was a non-living object, he could choose to either put it back together as if nothing had happened, or let the whole thing fall apart and remain destroyed, as he had with the wall. If the thing he affected was a living object, he couldn’t leave it broken. The person or animal would return to their normal, uninjured shape after a few seconds. But, from what That-A-Way had read and heard, the experience was horrifically painful and traumatic. Not fun at all. Definitely not anything she wanted to experience. Especially considering his power apparently even worked on intangible and invulnerable things. 

She could see the smile curving his lips as the boy paused before sprinting toward her. He loosed another shot from his crossbow before drawing the rapier. That time, however, the bolt didn’t get anywhere near her. It wasn’t intended to. Halfway to the girl, it suddenly exploded in a burst of bright light that made Way reel with a yelp. The bolt was a flash-bomb, a distraction, so the boy himself could close the distance with his rapier.

Not being able to see didn’t mean she couldn’t use her powers, of course. Yet even before Way could focus on that, she heard a roar, followed by a squeal and a thud. She had already thrown herself to the side by the time her vision cleared, allowing her to see Scatterking lying on his side with a certain reptilian cat-like figure perched on his back, still growling at the boy. 

“Holiday!” she blurted unthinkingly. It was her, the panther-lizard pinning the Ninety-Niner Touched to the ground. But if she was there, that had to mean–

“Hey there, babe!” Pack was there, but off to the side. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of one of the pick-up trucks that were part of the sale lot, dangling keys from her fingers. The rest of her lizards were all in the back. “If you don’t quit playing with the mean boy, I might think you don’t want to arrest me anymore.” With that, she started the truck and, with a roar of the engine, pulled away. Holiday abandoned Scatterking with one last swat to the back of his head, then ran to catch up, jumping into the back with her companions. 

Immediately, Way popped back to her feet. She took one last look toward Scatterking, but two of the Syndicates were already there, one waving for her to go after the truck. 

So, she did. Pivoting back, the girl saw the truck off in the distance. It was still traveling north and within sight, despite having every opportunity to turn down a different street. Which meant she could teleport straight to it, and she did so without a moment’s hesitation, landing just inside the front cab in the passenger seat. 

“Took you long enough,” Pack remarked casually. “I was starting to think I’d have to circle the block and come back.” 

“What–what are you doing?!” Amber blurted, turning in the seat to stare that way. Not that it helped, considering the other girl’s face was completely covered by a full, featureless black mask with no holes. “I thought we were gonna lay low while we look into this–” She hissed the word, “–Ministry thing. And now you’re part of a fucking gang war in the middle of the streets?” 

Pack didn’t answer at first. Instead, she pulled the truck off the road and into a parking garage, taking the little receipt that popped out marking what time she’d arrived before driving to an empty spot in the back. Only then did she turn to face the Minority girl. 

Even when she’d snapped the demand a moment earlier, Amber had expected Pack to make some sort of dismissive, casual retort. She still expected it. But those words didn’t come. Instead, the other girl spoke quietly. “My boss is at war with the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro. I can’t exactly refuse to participate. He found out they were making a move against one of the car lots he owns through shell companies, we had to retaliate.” 

“Wha–you mean…” Amber turned, looking in the back of the truck where Holiday and the other transformed lizards were eagerly watching her. “He owns it. Blackjack owns that car lot.” 

“Distantly, sure,” Pack confirmed, gesturing. “Don’t worry, I’m not taking the truck anywhere else. You can tell them you chased me off away from here, so they can recover it, take the truck back to the lot, sell it, and Blackjack can earn even more totally legitimate money.” 

“Oh, my God.” With a groan, Amber put her face in her hands. “I can’t believe this shit. And I can’t even tell anyone, because how would I know? Plus, even if I could explain how I knew, it wouldn’t matter, because your boss and the Ministry are peas in a pod anyway, so it wouldn’t go anywhere. Silversmith would just erase any evidence, dismiss anything I said, or worse.” 

Pack started to say something, then glanced into the back and made a sound that was half-curse and half-growl. “Down!” She was talking to both Amber and her lizards, as a handful of Ninety-Niner thugs had apparently followed them to the garage and were rapidly approaching, firing shots at the truck. 

As both girls ducked, Pack looked over to That-A-Way. “Wanna help me deal with these guys, Rose?” 

There was a brief pause before Amber reached out to grab the other girl’s arm. “Yeah,” she muttered darkly. 

“I’d love to hit someone right now.” 

*******

A short time later, the two of them were finally alone again. Well, alone aside from Pack’s collection of friends. This time on the roof of the parking garage, with the lizards spread out behind them. 

“Well!” Pack declared as she shook her hand out. There was blood on her glove from where she had punched one of the men in there who dared threaten Tuesday. “That was exhilarating. Guess we’re done now. Unless…” Her tone turned a bit mischievous and pointed. “You think you and me should wrestle.” 

“You and I,” Amber immediately corrected without thinking.

“Well, if you insist,” Pack teased, stepping that way before catching both of Amber’s hands as the other girl raised them, palms out as though to stop her. Interlacing their fingers, the black-masked girl seemed to stare intently at Amber from only a foot away, their hands locked. “Don’t worry,” she murmured in a low voice, “we’ll only wrestle when you ask for it.” 

“I… I…” Feeling her face turn red and knowing that most of hers was visible (though altered a bit) beneath the domino mask, Amber finally extracted her hands and turned away to take her phone out to look at it. “I have to check with my team and–fuck!” 

Head cocking to the side, Pack remarked, “Either I was really wrong about how boring being part of the Minority would be, or–” 

“Paintball,” Amber blurted, pivoting back. “He sent a bunch of messages about needing help while we were busy.” 

“What?” Pack produced her own phone to look at. “… Fuck.” 

“I’ve gotta go, I can’t–if the team wonders where–” 

“Go,” Pack gave her a push. “If they ask, just tell them you chased me that far. Get there. I’ll make sure things are cool and come after. Hurry.” 

Amber hesitated only for another second, then cursed again and pivoted, sprinting away before immediately teleporting. The actual destination was more to the west than north, so she’d have to use superspeed to get most of the way there. 

Watching the other girl disappear, Pack glanced to her lizards, who sat there expectantly, then started to run. “Well guys, we better get over there. 

“And see what kind of trouble Paintball’s managed to get himself into this time.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Pink 12-09 (Summus Proelium)

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The three of us talked a bit more, getting a fairly rough plan of what we might do to get into that secret base. We had ideas, though there were a few blank spots we’d have to fill in later. It was something, at least. And thankfully, having these two onboard meant that I had people to bounce thoughts off of other than myself, people who could point out flaws in any idea I had, and who could come up with their own. Not coming up with the entire plan entirely by myself was a real treat. Almost as much of one as not carrying out the entire plan alone would be. 

And yet, I was still alone, wasn’t I? On the big stuff. There were still things I wasn’t telling them about, things I couldn’t tell them about. They had no idea who I was, that my own parents ran the secret criminal conspiracy I’d clued them in on, that… that… a lot. There was a lot they didn’t know, and that I couldn’t share. Not yet. Maybe someday? Maybe–fuck. Or maybe I was just keeping it to myself out of habit or paranoia or something. Should I tell them who I really was? Should I tell them everything? They knew enough to really get in trouble now, so what exactly was the point of holding back on those few very key details? Was there a real reason? 

Yes. Because once I told them all of my secrets, there was no going back. There wasn’t really any going back now, of course. But telling them about the Ministry was a different kind of vulnerable than telling them about me. Showing them who I was, who my family was… that would be something I could never actually walk back, a box I could never close. It would leave me personally vulnerable in a way I wasn’t just by telling them about the Ministry existing. 

Did that mean I was a coward, because I didn’t want to expose myself like that? Was I just a scared little girl, was I protecting my family, was I… was I… what? What was I? Was my refusal to tell them the truth about everything good or bad? What was the right decision? When was the right time to tell them about who I was? How far did this have to go before I told the full truth? How much did they have to do to prove they were on my side? What did I want from them, exactly? How many times was I going to run these questions through my head. 

Fuck! I didn’t know. I just didn’t know, and I was terrified of making the wrong choice. Which was actually a big reason why I didn’t tell them about me. Because that would be making the choice to do so. A choice I could never change. So I just… didn’t. Somehow, in my head, not telling them spared me from making that choice. At least for the moment. But it was coming. I knew that much. At some point, I was going to have to reveal who I really was and how much I was really connected to this Ministry. 

How would they react to that? I… I didn’t know. I was afraid to think about it. 

Either way, I wouldn’t have to deal with it right now. At the moment, Pack and I were standing alone just outside the storage place, in a dark alley untouched by any of the distant streetlights. That-A-Way had just excused herself, saying she had to get back to her patrol before any of the people on her side noticed anything wrong. She’d paused before leaving, looking at Pack and me for a few long seconds. It seemed like she had been about to say something. But, in the end, she just muttered something about meeting us later to ‘deal with all this’ before teleporting away. 

For a moment, Pack was quiet. The only sound in the alley came from the lizards in the cage crawling around. Finally, she spoke up. “If you don’t have any damsels in distress to save, Eits wants to talk to you too.” 

“What?” I blinked, turning that way. “How’s umm… how is he–” 

“He’s doing better,” she informed me. “Not perfect. We’ve got our own access to special healers, but it’s not an immediate thing. He should be back to normal in another day or two. But he’s up and around. And, like I said, he wants to talk to you. In private. If you’re up to it.”

My head bobbed hurriedly, as I blurted, “Sure, yeah! I mean, of course. If he’s up to it. I just–I didn’t want to push him, or you, or… or the whole situation. I just–I wanna tell him how–” 

Pack interrupted with a raised hand. “Not me,” she said simply. “Whatever you wanna say to him, you can say to him. Just uhh, let’s keep this Ministry stuff to ourselves for now, huh? He’s already gotten pretty hurt once recently. Plus, he umm… he owes Blackjack a lot for helping him transition and all that. I’d rather not make him choose between loyalties right this second. Maybe later, but right now it’s just a bad idea. Let him recover, at the very least.” 

I swallowed hard, thinking about how much trouble Eits might’ve gotten into if my parents thought he was onto them. “Yeah.” My voice was quiet. “I don’t want him to get hurt again either.” She was right, the last thing Eits needed at this moment was to get in trouble again. Even if using his help to break through the security in the mall base would–no. No. The Scions already hurt him really bad once. If something happened to him and it was because of my parents, I’d… I’d… I didn’t know what I’d do. But I wasn’t taking that chance. Not right now. 

With that much agreed between us, Pack and I left the alley. She had a car parked nearby that the two of us slipped into. From there, it was a short drive to some old, beat-up parking lot behind a self-serve car wash. She’d texted while we were on the way, but Eits hadn’t arrived yet. 

Instead, the two of us sat in the car, watching the mostly-empty road as we listened to the lizards in their cage once more. That time, I was the one who found my voice first. “This whole situation is pretty screwed up, huh?” 

Gazing sidelong at me, Pack was quiet before slowly replying, “Something tells me I don’t know the half of how screwed up it is from your point of view.” She shrugged elaborately. “You’re holding stuff back. I get that. There’s parts of this you’re not ready to share. And from what you have shared, there’s probably a good reason for that. Just…” Hesitating, Pack obviously took the time to consider her words. “Just try not to let it bite all of us in the ass, huh?” 

“I’ll do my best,” I promised. What else could I say? I wasn’t going to deny that I still had secrets, or that they could be dangerous, or anything like that. She and I both knew how stupid that would be. But I meant what I said. I would do my best not to let things get even worse. 

Before the other girl could respond, headlights drew our attention to the entrance of the lot, where a gray sedan pulled in. The lights flickered twice, then once before the car pulled up alongside us. I saw Eits sitting in the driver’s seat, though he didn’t seem to be actively holding the wheel or anything. Must’ve been using one of his mites. 

“Go ahead,” Pack urged with a gesture. “He said he wanted to talk in private. And Paintball…” She paused briefly, looking toward me in silence as though she couldn’t decide exactly what to say. Finally, she settled on, “Thanks for trusting me with this. I know I gave you shit about what happened to him, but… but I know you were doing the best you could. It wasn’t your fault.” 

Awkwardly thanking her, and promising that we would get to the bottom of the whole thing, I stepped out of her car and moved to get in the passenger side of the other. Closing the door after myself, I hesitated before looking over to the boy in the driver’s seat. My voice was quiet, and obviously a little strained. “Hey.” 

Eits shifted in his seat to look my way. There was the slightest grunt of discomfort. Soft as it was, I still cringed at the thought that even moving that much hurt at all. “Hey yourself,” he replied. Belatedly, the boy added, “Pack wasn’t giving you too much shit, was she?” 

“I’d deserve it if she did,” I insisted. “I never should’ve asked you to get involved in something that–” 

His hand rose to stop me. “Paintball, stop. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t have asked. Hell, if it wasn’t important, those assholes wouldn’t have jumped me. And they wouldn’t have abducted you. I just–fuck, Paints, they’re the Scions. Of course they’re into some really bad shit. But you…” He raised his gaze to mine, staring at me. The diagonal black and gold bands that ran across his face to serve as his mask did nothing to hide the intensity in his eyes. “You didn’t know the Scions were involved before.” 

Quickly, I shook my head. “No. No, of course not. I swear, I didn’t know they were involved. I didn’t know it’d be that dangerous. I mean, I knew it was important or I wouldn’t’ve asked. But if I knew the Scions had anything to do with it, I swear I would’ve warned you. If I asked you at all. I would’ve made sure you had backup, and… and, you know. I would’ve done more.” 

“I know you would’ve,” Eits assured me. He hesitated before adding, “Did you find what you needed at the cabin? Pack said you went back in for a minute after all that.”

Oh God. How much should I say? For a moment, I sat there, frozen by indecision. But… look at what he’d already gone through. I’d already promised Pack we wouldn’t involve him in the rest of this just yet. But I could at least talk about what I’d found a little bit, right? He deserved that, after what he’d been through to get me as far as I was. 

“I found a few toys,” I carefully answered. “They had a code on them that glowed in the dark. The code was to a folder in Seraph HQ, and when I looked at that, I found a bit… more about what I’ve been looking for.” 

That made Eits give a quick doubletake. “Err, how exactly did you look at a folder in Seraph headquarters? You been making friends in high places over there too?” 

Oh, wait, shit. Fuck. He didn’t know about that whole thing. Freezing, I stared at him guiltily from behind my mask and helmet. “Um.” Wow, good thing he couldn’t see my expression. “It umm, I guess it sort of…” Squirming there in the seat, I managed a weak, slow, “They sort of… found out about the program you put on the computer in that shipping company and Hallowed was waiting after I returned the item, so we made a deal for me to do a little work for them in exchange for ‘borrowing’ their equipment?” 

For a moment, Eits just stared at me. His uncovered mouth fell open, a slow, quiet sound of disbelief escaping him. Finally, he managed, “And you didn’t tell me?! I–Paintball, that was my fault! I should’ve–that–I didn’t put everything I could’ve to–I figured a trucking company wouldn’t have–that–you should’ve told me! I was involved in that too.” 

“I know! They know, I mean–” Flushing deeply, I insisted, “It’s okay. I mean–yes, yes I should’ve told you. But it’s over. I’m working it off and they were pretty understanding about the whole thing.” 

Still, Eits shook his head. “Damn it, Paints, if I’d known they were onto that, I would’ve helped you another…” Exhaling, he pointed to me. “You’ve gotta stop trying to do all of this by yourself. I don’t know the half of what you’re up to, but I know it’s big. I know it’s important, and that you’re keeping a hell of a lot to yourself. I’m also pretty sure you’ve told Pack part of it too, a different part than you’ve told me. And I know you’re doing all of it like that because you’re afraid of something even worse happening than me getting a little beat up. But for fuck’s sake, if it’s that big of a deal, you can’t do it alone.” 

I froze, not saying anything. What could I say? I didn’t want to lie to him, but I couldn’t tell him anything more than I already had. Not right then. It was a bad idea even if I hadn’t promised Pack that I wouldn’t get him deeper involved until he fully recovered. 

For a long few seconds, the two of us just stared at each other like that. Eventually, Eits sighed, slumping back a little. “Paintball, we both know you’ve got secrets. Big ones. And you’re obviously keeping them for a reason. Just… just don’t try to do everything all by yourself. Find someone you can trust, even if it’s just to talk to. Even if it’s not me or Pack or anyone, find someone you can unload with. Does anyone beyond me even know that you’re… you know.” 

“A girl?” My head shook, voice quiet as I glanced out the window. “No. You’re literally the only person besides me who even knows that much.” Quickly, I snapped my gaze to him once more, blurting, “And you can’t–” 

“I’m not telling anyone,” Eits insisted firmly. “I already promised I wouldn’t. Your secret is safe with me, I swear, Paintball. That wasn’t my point. Just… you just need someone to talk to. Someone you can trust to just… just vent about all this to. Believe me, as someone who had a hell of a lot of my own venting to do about my situation, it really helps. And bottling it up, trying to handle all of it just by yourself? That’s gonna make things worse. Please. Find someone you can unload this stuff on before it boils up too much, okay? Just try.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? I couldn’t tell him why I didn’t trust anyone with the stuff I knew, or why I didn’t want to burden the people I did at least mostly trust with the whole story. I couldn’t tell him that I still wasn’t sure whether I was protecting other people or my family by keeping it to myself, or what any of that meant to me. It was just too much for me to ‘unload’ like he was saying. 

But I couldn’t refuse either. So, throat dry, I nodded. “I’ll work on it.” That was all I could manage. 

Belatedly, I changed the subject. “Hey, we figured out what my pink paint does!” Yeah, it was an obvious attempt to talk about something less uncomfortable, but still. I really did want to share it. 

From the sound of his voice, Eits was just as aware of what I was doing, but he was curious too. “You did?” 

“Yeah, with a bit of help,” I confirmed. “Uhh, watch.” Carefully, I pointed to the steering wheel and covered about four inches of the top right side with pink. As Eits watched, I reached out, activating the paint before grabbing hold and stretching it up and back to myself. That part of the steering wheel stretched like chewing gum, while the boy beside me made a noise of surprise. 

Letting it go, I watched as it stayed perfectly in place, stretched out like that. It was easily stretched and molded, yet when I released it, the painted thing remained solidly where it was. 

I showed Eits a few more things with it while he watched, obviously enthralled. And while doing so, I realized something else. When I had a nonliving object painted and let the paint run out on its own, it would simply stay where it was, like that bit with the steering wheel. 

But, if I disabled the paint ahead of time, if I focused on turning it off, the object didn’t immediately go back to its normal state. Instead, for just a few extra seconds, it turned sort of… loose-rubbery, for lack of a better word. Like a rubber band. I could pull it out, let go, and it would snap back to where it was when I first turned the paint off. It was only for like three seconds or so. But the point was, I could paint something, disable the paint, yank it out, then it would snap back to the position it was in when I disabled the paint once I stopped holding it back. Again, like a rubberband. 

“Wait, wait, wait.” Quickly, I scrambled out of the car. Pack was still sitting over in hers, apparently involved with her lizards. She looked up and over as I climbed up on Eits’ sedan, even as the boy himself asked what I was doing. 

“Check this out!” I blurted, before spraying the pavement with pink. Instantly, I dismissed the paint and then jumped. As my feet hit the ground, it literally bent under the force of my impact, then snapped back to where it was, launching me several feet into the air. Trampoline. It was like a trampoline. It wasn’t quite the same kind of launch I got from blue paint, but still. It was cool. It was really fucking cool. 

Pack came over to see what the hell I was doing. When I explained, she brought the lizards. Then we let them play, bouncing off the ground and into the air. They seemed to enjoy it, especially when Eits stepped out of the car and stood in a third spot as we all bounced them back and forth. I kept reapplying and dismissing the paint whenever needed, and the three of us played bounce the lizards off the trampoline ground. Pack, of course, made sure her little friends weren’t scared or anything. They seemed to understand what was going on. Which made me feel even more confused about how exactly her power worked and what it did to them. 

Either way, the three of us were laughing throughout all of that. For a few minutes, I forgot everything else. I stopped worrying about that whole stupid situation and just had goofy fun with the two Fell-Touched. I even forgot they were technically villains. We just goofed off with Pack’s lizards, finding things to bounce them off of. I used orange paint to keep them safe from being hurt, and we just… forgot everything else. 

Eventually, the other two had to leave. I thanked them both again, promising Eits that I would think about what he’d said. As I was walking away, however, he called out before coming over to join me. He was moving slower than normal, and wincing a little, but at least he was moving. 

Once the two of us were a bit away from Pack, who studiously paid attention to getting her lizards back in the car, Eits lowered his voice. “I meant to say something before, about that Paige Banners girl.” 

“You said you couldn’t get any more info about her without physical access to the adoption records,” I replied, shaking my head. “I don’t want you doing anything like that. I’ll deal with it myself.” I hadn’t even told him about finding out that Paige was found by those Ten Tower people, or the dead bodies that had been around her. 

“Well, too late,” he retorted. “I already got something for you. It’s not much, but… here.” With that, Eits produced a piece of paper with a name written on it. “Turns out that Paige girl has some kind of history with Ten Towers. Not sure what it was, but one of the Ten Towers Prev troops who was involved in all that sort of went rogue a couple years ago. He’s working as grunt muscle for the Ninety-Niners now. Maybe you can get something out of him about what he saw back then?” He shrugged helplessly. “Sorry, it’s the best I could do.” 

“That’s–” Swallowing, I took the note. “Thanks. But just… just get better, okay?” 

As soon as he promised he would take it easy, I took a running start, spraying blue at the ground in front of me. As my feet hit it, I was launched up and forward. In mid-flight, I sprayed a pink circle into the middle of the billboard I had launched myself toward. Twisting in the air, I activated and immediately disabled the pink, just before my feet hit it. That spot of the billboard bent inward dramatically, bowing in like a trampoline being pushed to its limit. Then it snapped back to normal, hurling me even higher into the air and over the roof of a building. 

Yeah, I had a lot to deal with. But Pack and That-A-Way were going to help. They knew some of it. I had… something approaching friends, even if none of them knew the whole story. And, just as importantly, I knew how to use the pink paint now. I knew how to use all of my powers, I had allies who were ready to help with the whole Ministry thing, and I had a new lead for figuring out Paige’s whole deal.  

Maybe, just maybe, I was finally going to get somewhere with all this. 

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Commissioned Interlude 2 – Sphere Online Forum (Summus Proelium)

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The following is a commissioned interlude focusing on a look at the most popular online web forum for discussions about Touched, known as Sphere. It is written in the format as though one were reading the forum itself from the point of view of one character in particular. 

Welcome, Gepetto’s Lad (click here to log-out) to the Summus Proelium HERE forums, or SPHERE. It has been (three hours sixteen minutes) since your previous log-in, and there have been (0/Zero) rule clarifications or updates and (1/One) administrator announcement. Click here to read them, and be aware that the system will not allow you to post any replies or make any new topics until you click the button at the bottom of any announcement(s) and rule update(s) acknowledging you have read and understand them. 

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<> Topic — Update On Relief Efforts For The Collision Point In Salt Lake City (Boards – Announcements – Current Announcements)

Razoev (Administrator – Original Poster)

Posted on April 4, 2020:

On behalf of all of the Sphere administrative and moderating team, I’d like to thank every last one of you who has already donated to support the efforts to repair the damages and provide food, water, and medical treatment to the several hundred people who were injured during the recent Collision Point in Salt Lake City last week, as well as sadly, support for the families of the forty-nine who were killed. At this point, we’ve raised a little over eighty-seven thousand dollars in the span of only seven days since the event itself. That’s incredible! Thank you all so much. Your efforts put us ahead of schedule for our goal of providing one hundred thousand dollars in the first two weeks. But remember, every little bit helps and while the Collision in Salt Lake wasn’t as bad as some, there’s still a lot that needs to be done to take care of all the people and families who were affected. 

So let’s pitch in a bit more and try to get to two hundred thousand in two weeks! That’s a bit of a stretch, but we can make it happen. Sphere has more than that many active members, so if every one of you donates only one dollar, we’ll blow past that goal. Donate two dollars and we’ll obliterate it. Also, Sickstalker promised to do another round of show tunes in a livestream this time if we pass the new goal, and who wants to miss that? 

Remember, all proceeds beyond what are needed for this situation will be added to a general Collision Point relief fund, so your donations will never be unwanted. You can click here to reach the direct donation page (remember to put Sphere in the referral space) or here to see a list of other related charities you can donate to if you’d like to choose your own. 

As an announcement, this thread will be closed. But you can discuss everything revolving around the Salt Lake CP in the appropriate thread here

Thank you all so much, and just be good to one another. Because the Abyssals sure won’t. 

——–

Click here to acknowledge that you have read and understand this announcement. This thread has been closed to further replies. You will be unable to post new replies or topics until this announcement has been acknowledged.

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<> Topic — La Casa Thread Twenty-Seven (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Touched-Teams – Villains)

4D-Daniel (Moderator – Original Poster)

Posted on July 10th, 2019: 

Time for another fresh thread, now that the other one was locked down thanks to a few people who didn’t know how to follow the rules against trying to guess Touched public identities. Remember, those discussions are not allowed anywhere on Sphere. You could put Star-Touched or their families in danger, and Fell-Touched could react badly to even an attempt to out them. Not to mention, a lot of information that people use for those efforts comes from when Fell-Touched cooperate with authorities to assist in Collision Points, and they might just stop doing that if it leads to people attempting to reveal their identities. Sphere does not allow that kind of discussion. 

Anyway, use this thread to discuss the Detroit-Based villain team known as La Casa, founded and currently led by the Fell-Touched known as Blackjack. Everything about their membership, powers, altercations, crimes, etc should be relegated to this thread.  

The archive of previous discussion threads can be found here, and the Sphere-Wiki entry for the gang is here

(Showing page 196 of 197, displaying ten posts per page)

—> StarOfImps

Replied on April 3, 2020

@Tzon Yeah, it’s definitely safe to say she turns lizards into other animals considering no zoo has reported a bear, gorilla, or a panther missing. Monkey or eagle might be more easily missed, but I’m pretty sure those first three tend to be noticed. Besides, it makes more sense from a hiding and deployment perspective if she shrinks them back down into normal lizards. I haven’t seen anything about a huge moving van (or whatever else it might take to move those kind of animals around regularly) near all these appearances. 

Does anyone remember what she’s called them? I think the bear is Snickers and the gorilla is Twinkletoes. Others ???? How long do you guys think it’ll be before she adds in another one? And what’ll it be, lizard and combined animal? 

—> Tzon

Replied on April 3, 2020

Sorry, I think we were talking past each other. You’re right, Pack definitely turns regular lizards into other animals. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Except maybe manifesting them out of nothing, but the fact that they’re ‘lizard-like versions of other animals’ makes me pretty sure it’s the former. 

Anyway, I wasn’t questioning that. I was asking if anyone thinks she has to touch or look at the animals she wants to turn her lizards into. That’s something she might be able to do at the zoo. Especially with someone like Blackjack behind her. You know he’s got the pull to get a zookeeper or whatever to look the other way while someone visits the animals. And needing to touch the animal she wants to turn a lizard into would be a pretty normal limitation. I wonder if the Stars and Shields are looking into that. Not to stray into ‘theorizing on people’s identities’ territory (sorry mods), just wondering if maybe they’ve upped security or something to stop her from expanding her arsenal, as it were. 

As far as Pack adding to her menagerie, I wonder what kind of limit she has. I mean, I doubt she could just make unlimited numbers. 

(Edit) Oh and I don’t think the bear is Snickers. That doesn’t sound right. I think the panther is Christmas. 

—> Flaboran

Replied on April 3, 2020

I’d like to know more about Broadway. Her armour costume’s pretty awesome. Does anyone else think Blackjack might’ve outsourced to Braintrust for it and that there’s a few surprises still hidden in there for anyone who thinks they’re safe from her sound power? Or Eights maybe. He’s got a techy power, right? 

—> VotMoon

Replied on April 4, 2020

@StarOfImps and @Tzon Pack’s bear is called Mars Bar, you just had the wrong candy. And the panther is Holiday, not Christmas. 

Personally, I’m pretty sure she does have to touch the right animals. That power is just way too OP otherwise. What’s to stop her from combining a lizard with a dinosaur or something? Or even more terrifying, a moose! 

I hope the next lizard-animal she adds is another flier. The eagle needs a wingman. Or maybe something like a wolf. 

—> OnceWereWarriors

Replied on April 4, 2020

@Flaboran No way is Blackjack contracting costume work out to Braintrust. They don’t get along. Something about him yoinking one of their people a couple years ago. Some guy from my old Alma Mater used to minion for them. Couldn’t believe it when I saw him on the news, but yeah. There’s an interview with him about the Braintrust thing right here. Besides, Blackjack can afford to have his own Tech-Touched employees, even if they’re not the kind who run around in costumes being obvious about it. Not all of them do, you know. Lots of Touched just stay as private as they can and use their powers more secretly than that. 

But anyway, what kind of supersoldier do people think he’s trying to make with those vials now that he’s got them back? 

—> Dehny

Replied on April 4, 2020

He’s not trying to make a supersoldier. The vials were medicine for someone suffering from Rot Bone. Probably his wife or child. Or some other family member. Someone he cared enough to go to war with a bunch of other gangs for. You should check the thread for that. Try page thirty-seven through thirty-nine for the best info from a few Shields who were around. 

As for Pack, maybe she can only have so many of her lizards active at a time? I know we’ve seen a lot of different ones, but have we seen all of them up together in the same situation? I can’t remember. 

—> FullBass

Replied on April 4, 2020

Wait someone remind me what a Shield is. I thought it was another word for Star-Touched??? But Tzon said ‘Stars and Shields’. :/ 

Oh and all glory to the orbs! Our orb leaders will guide us through these troubled times! Hail! 

—> SpeakerOfFables

Replied on April 4, 2020

@FullBass Shield means cop or anyone like them. FBI, ATF, any non-Touched law enforcement. Stars and Shields means ‘Star-Touched and police’ 

@Flaboran I think Eights has some kind of ‘control computers’ power, nothing about building them. Though I suppose he could just be keeping that in reserve or being subtle. But I’m fairly certain he’s a technopath, not a Tech-Touched. He controls technology, he doesn’t build it. 

—> BrightGold

Replied on April 4, 2020

So is Eight’s full name Crazy Eights? That’s the gambling thing he went with? What does that have to do with his power? 

Oh, and if he’s really a technopath, I imagine Braintrust doesn’t want any of their equipment anywhere near him. Wait, who do you think would win, Eights or Braintrust leader? Doesn’t Glitch have some kind of manipulating technology power? Or is the whole ‘glitch’ thing just about breaking them. 

—> MarsSpider

Replied on April 4, 2020

@BrightGold It’s just about breaking them, I think. I mean, her whole Tech-Touched shtick is improving other people’s tech, yeah. But she also has some kind of Field-Touched power to make tech screw up or just not work at all while she’s around if she doesn’t want it to. She fixes and she breaks, she fixes and she breaks. 😀

Point is, she doesn’t really manipulate it like that, she just makes it not work right. Or knows how to improve it. I think she might copy Tech-Touched designs or something too, not sure. 

End of Page. 1, 2, u 195, 196, 197

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<> Topic —  Gangwar! (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Events)

Constructicon (Original Poster)

Posted on March 25, 2020: 

Okay, to consolidate everything we know from the fifteen other threads that popped up about this in various places, let’s go over the basics. 

1: For several hours last night there were a series of incursions throughout the area of the city the Fell-Gang known as La Casa claims as theirs. These incursions/attacks were performed by members of the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro gangs, who appeared to be allied. 

2: No territory seems to have changed hands (though an unknown amount of resources/supplies were destroyed and/or looted), as the incursions themselves appear to have primarily been distractions. 

3: The primary situation these incursions were intended to distract from appears to have been an altercation at the Huey’s Grocery on Park West. 

4: The Huey’s altercation centered around the retrieval of certain medical vials stolen from La Casa at some point (Edit: they were probably stolen during the bank robbery a few weeks ago, but the bank denies it). The Star-Touched known as Paintball possessed the vials as well as the original thief and was located inside the Huey’s. 

5: Members of both Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners attempted to forcibly retrieve the vials from Paintball. He resisted and was assisted by the Minority and members of La Casa (including Blackjack), whom the Star-Touched appeared to have formed a temporary truce with to allow the medical vials to be returned to their owner. Reports of the reasoning vary and stray too much into rumor to get into here. 

6: The altercation at the grocery store eventually spread to surrounding neighborhoods, as Oscuro-leader Cuélebre left the scene with at least one vial. He was chased by Paintball (yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds) and appeared to be chasing someone else in turn (possibly more vials). 

7: Paintball managed to take back the vial that Cuélebre had and was in turn chased through the city. See that footage from several different cell and security cameras put together here (the second time that’s happened, see the original video of the first time here and the Yakety Sax remix here). At some point, Paintball evaded Cuélebre, who then engaged with Silversmith. See footage of their fight here). 

8: At the end of the night, La Casa were allowed to leave with their stolen property. Many arrests were made, but none were Touched, as all Fell-Touched were extracted by the Ninety-Niner known as Longhaul. 

Those are the main points of what we know right now. I tried to verify things as much as possible and avoid reaching too far into conjecture. 

(Showing page 32 of 32, displaying ten posts per page)

—> One22Eighteen

Replied on April 2, 2020

Do you guys really think Blackjack’s got some sick mom or whatever he’s trying to save with those vials? Cuz I’m pretty sure he’s using them to beef a few of his soldiers up. Come on, what kind of medicine out there is gonna make people go through a whole gang war over it? I bet those vials turn whoever drinks them into Steve Rogers-like supersoldiers. Five of ‘em? Or however many there were? That’d be a huge boost for whatever group used those. 

—> Obscurist

Replied on April 2, 2020

@One22Eighteen Not that any gang would object to having a bunch of supersoldiers, but I’ve seen way too many people saying the vials were medicine either for Blackjacks’ child or wife to discount all of them just like that. I think the potential benefit of holding that kind of medicine over Blackjack’s head, particularly for a terminal case as people have said, is enough incentive to drive Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners to those lengths. No reason to reach further for a motive. 

—>  Mach3 

Replied on April 3, 2020

What I still wanna know is how Blackjack convinced Paintball and the Minority to work with him through all that. Hell, even the older Star-Touched just let La Casa leave in the end. Isn’t that kinda weird? I mean Paintball maybe. We don’t know much about him or his whole deal (I’m still on Team He’s A Sapient Comic Book until something better comes along), so being talked into helping one of the bad guys with a sob story makes sense. But what about the rest of them? 

—>  Ravenjoy 

Replied on April 3, 2020

The Minority are still teens too, they could’ve been talked into siding with Blackjack. And frankly, bad guy or not, if he really was using that medicine to save his kid or whoever then all the more power to them. There’s other days for focusing on bringing him and his people in, not one where someone’s life is at stake. Especially if it was his kid. 

And the fact that the adults honored the truce later would seem to imply that it was for a good reason, wouldn’t it? Sure, they’re all tight-lipped now, but read between the lines. They accepted the truce and let Blackjack and his people leave. No way they do that without solid reasoning. 

I think the better question here is why isn’t Paintball joining the Minority yet if he’s okay with working alongside them? And why aren’t they pushing the issue more? This kid’s like twelve and he’s already pissed off Cuélebre twice. At this point, the Conservators or Spartans might need to take him into protective custody. 

—>  RobertR

Replied on April 4, 2020

Paintball should totally join the Minority, they’re the best place for him. I mean not every teen Touched (is it me or is that a weird phrase I mean it’s the right one but IDK) is on the Minority but it feels like Paintball should be on there cuz he’s worked with them already before so why wouldn’t he want to join them I don’t understand. I’m confused, has the Minority stopped taking new people? 

—> HiddenAxiom 

Replied on April 4, 2020

Probably a good idea to keep the strictly Paintball talk to his thread, @RobertR. But for the Minority, I don’t think they ever stop taking new people. I mean, it’s not like they’re that large now, right? 

But to be on-topic, does anyone else think the whole temporary truce thing might be a way of trying to lure Touched like Pack and Eights away? Sure, they’re Fell, but not like that kind of Fell. They’re still young, you could totally put them on some kind of probation. Eights and Pack and even Broadway, they’re all new. They’d make really good additions to the Minority. 

Okay, that and I think Broadway and Wobble would make awesome armor buddies. And powers! She makes soundwaves and he makes like… vibrations or whatever. They could totally do some kind of power combo!

—> Darth01110

Replied on April 4, 2020

Does anyone think Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners might keep working together? Sure they’ve got totally different membership reqs (Latino vs having family living here before 2000) but still. Especially given how much they obvs pissed off Blackjack. They might need to team up for survival once he turns to start attacking them. 

—> GuruOfZeal 

Replied on April 4, 2020

I don’t know, La Casa’s good but if Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners teamed up would Blackjack really have a chance? I feel like they’d need to team up with someone too. But who? Not Braintrust. As @OnceWereWarriors pointed out in the La Casa thread here, they don’t get along. But one of the others maybe? How’s Blackjack with plants? Okay, maybe Easy Eights? Oh damn, does anyone think this is escalating into a big war between the main four Fell-Gangs (Oscuro and Ninety-Niners vs La Casa and Easy Eights)? 

—> 98Pontiac

Replied on April 4, 2020

Maybe. Easy Eights hate Oscuro, remember? They were eight little gangs that had to join up and work together because Cuélebre almost smashed them into pieces. I can see them taking the chance to get back at him and his gang by working with Blackjack.

End of Page. 1, 2, 3 30, 31, 32

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<> Topic — Paintball  (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Individual Touched Discussion)

Berryonalake (Moderator – Original Poster)

Posted on March 9, 2020:

There’s been a few different sightings of him now, so here’s an official thread for the newest Touched in Detroit. As soon as there’s a known name for him, the title will be fixed (edit: there we go, apparently it’s Paintball). But for now, feel free to discuss him, his powers, what he gets up to, whether he’s going to join a team, whatever. Just keep things civilized and remember this is an obviously underaged Touched we’re talking about. I already had to banhammer three different people in the That-A-Way thread between last night and this morning. 

(Showing page 56 of 59, displaying ten posts per page)

—> MostAmazingFinalGuiderOfCults

Replied on April 2, 2020

Look, I’m telling you guys, Paintball came out just as Starfade disappeared from the Steelwards in Indiana. What’s the difference between their powers? Starfade made light that made people stronger, faster, whatever. Paintball makes paint that does stuff. Obviously, some kind of Tech-Touched device deaged Starfade and changed his power a little bit. Now he’s posing as Paintball to get close to Braintrust and find a way to restore his real age and size. No way does some brand new Touched just stumble into all this stuff. He’s obviously experienced. 

I’m saying it right here and now, Paintball = Starfade. 

—> SirAnthonyWatcher

Replied on April 2, 2020

Dudes he’s right. I met Paintball earlier and he said he needs our help getting a meeting with Braintrust does anyone have their phone number lol? 

No but for real, Paintball’s totally Caishen’s lost son she had when she was still a teenager. It makes perfect sense though, like his paint makes stuff faster and slower and stronger and stuff and her power changes the value of things to make them faster and slower and stronger and stuff. I bet his dad is Silversmith. That makes sense, right? Smith sprays his silver stuff everywhere and shapes it and stuff and Paintball sprays paint. 

Edit: No wait I’m totally wrong! Lucent’s his father! 

—> Cthuwood 

Replied on April 2, 2020

O_o Lucent’s a bird, man. Sure he’s Touched so just as smart as a human, but how’s a raven gonna have a human kid? 

—> SirAnthonyWatcher

Replied on April 2, 2020

That’s why Paintball always wears a helmet! To hide his birdlike face with the beak! 

Show us the beak, Paintball, show us the beak! 


—> Gepetto’s Lad (You) 

Replied on April 3, 2020

Paintball isn’t Fumikage Tokoyami, come on. Granted, that would be cool. But he’s not. 

—> IcebirdLives

Replied on April 3, 2020

Well that’s mean, Gepetto. Why do you think Paintball isn’t cool? 

—> Gepetto’s Lad (You) 

Replied on April 3, 2020

What? No, crap. I just meant he’s not Tokoyami, not–he’s cool. I mean I assume he is. He’s never done anything to make me think he’s not. 

—> Dungeon-N-Doing

Replied on April 4, 2020

@Gepetto’s Lad You never showed up at the RP server last night, dude. Everything okay? 

On Paintball, does anyone know exactly how many different paints we’ve seen and what they all do? Red is the pulling one and blue is the one he uses to jump real high, right? 

—> Gepetto’s Lad (You) 

Replied on April 4, 2020

@Dungeon-N-Doing Sorry, had an emergency and couldn’t get out of it. Hope you guys managed without me and that I don’t have to roll up a new character again! *heavy sigh* 

Anyway, for the paint thing, purple is strength, orange is toughness, black makes things quiet, white makes a bright flash, green makes things fast, yellow makes them slow. With red and blue, that’s it, right? 

Edit: Wait, no, I think he’s used pink before. What the hell does the pink paint do? 

—> March

Replied on April 4, 2020

Watcher’s right, the pink paint hides the beak! Show us the beak, Paintball! 

End of Page. 1, 2, 3 55, 56, 57, 58, 59

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<> Private Messages From RingAroundARosie:

RingAroundARosie: You got the ball back though? 

Gepetto’s Lad: I had a little help, but yeah. Sort of… took it from his office. :/ 

RingAroundARosie: I think I’m supposed to tell you that stealing is bad, but it was yours. Sorry your rents are so wrong. You think they’ll ever come around? 

Gepetto’s Lad: I’m not holding my breath. But that’s okay. I’ve got my own family now. 

RingAroundARosie: Just don’t miss game night again without dropping some kind of warning in the chat. I’m the one who does that. 😉 

Gepetto’s Lad: True, flaking at the last second is kind of your thing, haha. But you guys were ok last night? 

RingAroundARosie: It’s cool, Dynn kind of controlled Lloword for you. Hope that was okay. He kept you alive, anyway. 

Gepetto’s Lad: Good! I’d hate to be dead. 

RingAroundARosie: But you’re seriously ok? It’s not like you to just disappear without any warning at all. One second you were in the chat, then nothing. 

Gepetto’s Lad: Sorry. I had issues. But what about that history project you were working on? You guys went with Laura Cereta, right? 

RingAroundARosie: Yup, presented it and everything. Thanks for pointing me to her before. But don’t think I didn’t notice you change the subject about whether you were ok or not.

Gepetto’s Lad: No worries, I got your back, in and out of game. ^_^ And believe me, I just need a little rest. I’ll be good for game next week. 

RingAroundARosie: Better be, we’re hitting the third tower and god knows that’s gonna be a nightmare. We need Lloword in top shape. 

Gepetto’s Lad: Thanks, Rosie

RingAroundARosie: (New Message) Hey, we’re friends. 

Previous Chapter                             Next Chapter

Fault 10-05 (Summus Proelium)

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No, no, no, please no. Oh God, please, no, no. 

That single word of denial, repeated and mixed with other words of emphasis, played through my head in a nonstop loop the entire time I was retrieving my costume and setting out to get to the address that Pack had sent me. As I raced through the city in what amounted to a blind panic, barely paying attention to where I was going, the word ‘no’ echoed in my mind over and over again. 

He was hurt. Eits was hurt really bad. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know who hurt him or what exactly they’d done. But I did know one horrible thing for sure. It was my fault. He was working for me. He was trying to help me, and someone found out. Eits was hurt because of me. According to Pack, it was really bad. Because of me. It was my fault. 

Unfortunately, paint-running through the city like that without paying attention was a bad idea. Which I could’ve already guessed, but was driven even more firmly into me about halfway into my run. Landing on a rooftop the wrong way, I stumbled, slipped, and rolled hard. I nearly went off the edge before two hands suddenly caught my wrist and halted my momentum. 

A sharp gasp came as the person who had caught me was nearly yanked off the roof herself. But she managed to stop us both, and I was left with just one leg and a foot dangling over the edge as I lay mostly on my back staring up at the sky and panting as the panicked rush of the last couple of seconds since I’d landed washed over me. Oh God, I needed to throw up. Not that I hadn’t kind of needed to since the moment Pack let me know what was going on, but still. 

In that position, my arm was fully extended as it was held in the grasp of the person who had caught me. First, I saw her hands. They were covered by dark blue, almost black gloves with intricate, almost runic lines that ran up through both sides of the arms and across the palms and back of the gloves themselves. My eyes moved further up, seeing a figure who was probably around my age. The blue-black bodysuit she wore was partially covered by a white short-sleeved robe with an attached hood that mostly hid her dark hair. The bottom half of her face was concealed by a black cloth mask, but I could see enough of the top half to know she was Asian. Her eyes were dark, and in that moment, had widened dramatically. 

I also knew exactly who she was at that first glance, reflexively blurting, “Skip?!” 

Yeah, it was definitely her. I hadn’t had any direct run-ins with the girl until now, but I did know two members of her family. Caishen was her older sister, which made Lightning Bug her niece. Despite being a teenager, she wasn’t part of the Minority, instead sticking with her sister’s Ten Towers team. Which was somewhat rare, but not unheard of. And given what I knew about how much control Silversmith, aka my father, had over the Minority, it was definitely a good thing. 

As soon as I said her name, she released my arm and stepped back. Her voice, when she spoke, was an eerily calm murmur. “You should be careful.” The words were almost, but not quite, emotionless. It was more like she was noting that the weather would be rainy the next day than an actual reprimand. She was stating a simple fact. “You could have been hurt.” 

“I…” The terrible rush of fear about what was happening with Eits came back full force in that moment, along with brand new guilt to layer on top of what was already there. “Right, sorry. I was distracted. I… I’ll be careful. But I ahh, I’ve really gotta go.” Weakly, I gestured. “I’ve got a… umm, a friend, sort of. He’s hurt, and I need to get there just in ca–I need to be there to help.” 

Again, Skip spoke in a simple, emotionless and matter-of-fact voice. “Why are you telling me then? If it’s important, you should go.” Just like before, despite the actual words, I had the sense that she didn’t intend any kind of admonishment. She was simply stating the blatant fact that if I had an important place to be like that, I should already be going there instead of talking to her. 

“Right, uhh, yeah.” Quickly pushing myself up, I swallowed back the tidal rush of feelings that came with the thought of Eits being hurt. “Thanks for your help, I… I’ve gotta go.” 

It felt awkward, but I turned, using red paint to yank myself away from that roof while resolving to be more careful. Upset as I was, it wouldn’t exactly do any good if I managed to put myself into a coma by falling off a building because I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. 

Continuing on my way, I let myself think briefly about the girl I’d just met. Skip. From what I’d read about her and seen online, her whole deal was… well, skipping things. This came out in two main ways. First, she could ‘skip’ any effect on herself she wanted to. That included everything from skipping the effects of a poison she drank, to skipping the effect of being shot in the head, or even skipping the need to sleep and being instantly rejuvenated. The only thing that was required was that she be aware of the effect and actively use her power on it. Other than that, anything that directly affected her in some way, she could skip. 

The other way her power (and source of her name) manifested was in movement. Whenever the girl wanted, she could instantly appear anywhere she’d been at any point in the previous twenty-four hours. Basically, she could rewind herself, ‘skipping’ backwards and forwards along the history of her own movement. She used it long-range in order to effectively teleport anywhere in the city (and, as I understood it, into other cities across the state), and short-range by constantly changing her exact location in the middle of a fight. Bad guys facing her didn’t just have to deal with a crazy-good fighter (which she was), but also one who could literally instantly disappear and reappear in any location she’d been in at any point throughout that fight.  Between that and being able to make herself immune to any effect she was aware of… yeah, I could see how Fell-Touched would see fighting her as a pain in the ass. And why her sister wanted her right where she was, as part of Ten Towers. 

The plus side of being distracted thinking about Skip instead of obsessing over Eits for the next few minutes was that I was able to reach the address I’d been given without any more issues. I stopped on top of a bakery roof, half-hiding behind the chimney there as I looked down at the place I was supposed to go. It looked like an ordinary house, with nothing special to make it stand out. The driveway had a couple cars in it, with a van parked along the curb. There was a man smoking out front, watching the street with an air like he’d been there for awhile. 

According to Pack’s message, they were expecting me. So, I hesitated just for a moment before taking a running start, and blue painting myself into the air so I could land in front of the man. I made sure to give him some space so that he wouldn’t freak out too much. Even then, he reached for something in his jacket. Probably a gun. But he stopped partway, squinting at me for a moment before stepping aside from the door. His voice was flat, and carried an air of resignation. “You can go inside. Third door on the left. But just so you know, we move all the time. So there’s no point to bringing your hero friends here to start shit later. Cuz we’ll be gone.” 

Yeah, call me crazy, but I had the feeling this guy didn’t much like having a Star-Touched hanging around what was apparently a secret underground field hospital thing for Fell-Touched. I also didn’t want to argue with him or try to reassure the guy. All I wanted was to see what was going on with Eits. So, I nodded and walked past him. Moving through the front door and into what turned out to be the living room of the house, I was greeted by a new man sitting on the nearby couch, who pointed through the room to the same door that the man outside had mentioned. Following both instructions, I walked across the room, heading for that door. 

The door opened as I approached, and Pack appeared. She stared at me through her featureless mask for a moment before beckoning as she stepped inside. I followed, and found myself in what was obviously a converted bedroom. Now it looked like a hospital room. 

Eits was… there. He was there on the bed, and just as promised, he… he looked bad. He wasn’t wearing his mask, But I wouldn’t have recognized him anyway through all the bruising. Pack had not been exaggerating. Whoever attacked Eits had… they hurt him really bad. His nose was broken, his lips were all puffy and bloodied, there was a large bruise along one full side of his face. His eyes were closed, showing signs of being bruised as well, and the rest of his body hadn’t fared much better. It was all… bad. No matter where I looked, some part of him was hurt. It was so bad. My stomach seized up in worse knots just looking at him. 

Pack was speaking quietly behind me. “The doctor’ll be back in a few minutes. He’s stabilized for now and they’ve got him drugged up to sleep. Soon as the doc says he’s good enough to move, they’ll take him to one of Blackjack’s own places. But I thought you’d like to know. I thought you’d like to–” She stopped herself from saying whatever it was she’d been about to say, voice cracking a bit before looking over to me. “He called for help. Broadway and me, we got there and the guys attacking him took off. We didn’t… get a good look, cuz we couldn’t leave him. He was pretty delirious, pretty…” Again, she choked a little, arms folding tightly over her stomach before forcing out, “He was pretty out of it.” 

Hearing her words, I barely processed them. All I could do was stare at Eits in that condition and think about the fact that him being there was my fault. I’d involved him, and now he was hurt because of me. There was a dull roaring in the back of my mind.  

Pack was continuing. “He wanted me to give you this.” In one hand, she held up a folded piece of paper. “It’s an address. He said… he said it’s something you needed, but that those guys who attacked him wanted it. The guys who attacked him, the guys who did that, were trying to get the same address out of him that you wanted. Paintball, what the fuck was Eits doing for you that made a bunch of guys beat him up this badly? They almost killed him! Doc Tanns is pretty sure he’ll be okay now that he’s through the worst of it, but–but… what the fuck is going on?!” Her voice was a fierce stage-whisper, as she clearly stared intently at me. “Don’t you dare fucking blow me off. Do you see him right there? Do you care?” 

Eyes widening, I blurted, “Of course I care!” Quickly lowering my voice, I hissed, “I didn’t know it would–I thought he’d–” My mouth shut and I shook my head. “Pack, I didn’t know he’d be in that much danger. He was just looking up some information for me, I didn’t know it’d–” Cutting myself off once more, I swallowed hard and tried to steady myself. My fault. The whole way over here, I’d repeated it to myself and now that voice was even louder. This was all my fault. All of it. Eits being hurt, lying there in that hospital bed like that was my fault. If he… if he died, that would be my fault too. All of it was my fault. Because I tried to let someone else help me. Because I passed the responsibility of this to someone else. Now he was hurt. Because of me. My fault. 

It took me a few moments to find my voice. Finally, I looked up to the other girl. “I’m sorry. I should have handled this myself. I never should’ve–I was wrong. I shouldn’t have asked Eits to help me. I won’t… I won’t do that again, I swear. Tell him I’m sorry. Please. Just tell him I’m sorry. I’ll take the address. Please. He wanted me to have it. I’ll deal with it. I’ll handle it.” 

She didn’t answer at first. Instead, she looked at the paper in her hand, then turned back to me. Her voice was pained. “That’s not what I meant, Paintball. I didn’t want to make you go–I was just… Look what they did to him. You can’t handle this all on your own!” 

“I don’t have to,” I pointed out. “You know I have an in with the Minority. And if they’re involved, you can’t be. They won’t work with you, Pack. You can stay here with Eits. Someone should be here with him if he wakes up. I’ll take care of the address, and I’ll tell you what happens. I swear, I’ll make them pay for what they did.” 

Pack was staring at me, her fist tight. “You really think you and the Minority people can handle this?” Her voice shook a little. “Paintball, what the hell did you get involved with?” 

“I’ll handle it,” I promised her, swallowing hard. “Stay here with Eits. Please. Just tell him I’m sorry, and that I never should have gotten him involved.” 

“Do you have any idea how pissed Eits would be if I just let you go without help?” Pack demanded. “After what happened…” 

“After what happened, you need to be here with him,” I reiterated. “And like I said, I know That-A-Way. I have her number. I can contact the Minority for help. Stay here. I’ll take care of it.” 

For a few seconds, it looked like Pack wouldn’t agree. She sighed, looking over to a nearby cage where her lizards were all watching us. Finally, she opened her hand and held out the paper. “If you’re going with the Minority, fine. But only because I know it’s not where those cocksuckers who attacked him are. They were looking for the same address, so they’re obviously not there now. But still, they’re involved. They’re connected to whatever this is. So Paintball, whatever happens, if you get to the point of actually fighting those guys… Look right there. Look what they did to Eits. I want to help. Call me, Paintball. You call me and tell me when you find the guys that did this. I don’t know if you’ll find out who they are at that address, or what’s going on. But when you find them, you let me know, got it?” 

“I got it,” I replied quietly, taking the paper. “Be here for Eits. He needs you more than I do right now. I’ll handle this.” 

“You and the Minority,” she reminded me. 

I nodded once. “Like I said, I’ve got the number. And yours. I’ll find out what the address leads to, then let you know if I find the guys responsible for… for that.” I didn’t–couldn’t look at the room where Eits was. “You’ll get your turn with them.” 

With that, I gave one last look toward the injured Eits before pivoting on my heel to leave the house. Clutching the paper in my hand, I moved quickly past the guy in front. He repeated his earlier remark that they’d be gone before I could bring heroes over, and I just muttered something about having more important things to worry about than helping a Star-Touched shut down a private hospital. I wasn’t even sure what I said exactly. The words just came before I thought about them. My focus was elsewhere. Without thinking about it, I used red paint to yank myself up to another building, already running as I landed. My eyes finally glanced down at the address, taking it in.

I knew where this was. Not the exact building, but the neighborhood. It was a place on the north side of town, near the zoo. A pretty nice neighborhood, if I remembered right. Either way, I knew where I was going now. 

For a moment, I slowed near the edge of the roof. My hand felt my phone in my pocket. The Minority. I’d told Pack that I’d be okay because I could contact them for help. 

And I could. But I wouldn’t. I’d never actually promised that I would contact them, only that I could do it. But after what I saw with Eits, and everything I already knew about my family… no. I couldn’t involve them. I couldn’t–wouldn’t let anyone else get hurt because of me. This was my responsibility. Eits getting hurt was my fault, because I tried to let him help. That was a mistake, and I refuse to repeat it. Whatever happened next, I wouldn’t let anyone else suffer because of me. Every time I thought about doing so, I pictured Eits on that hospital bed. Then I pictured it being Pack, or That-A-Way, or one of the other Minority. Or Wren. No. No, I couldn’t… I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let that happen again. I could never let that happen again. 

So, I wasn’t calling the Minority. I wasn’t calling Wren. I wasn’t calling anyone. Leaving the phone in my pocket, I took a running start and jumped, heading for the address. I would handle this the way I should have in the first place. 

By myself. 

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Fault 10-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Back when the fact that Seraph Hills had the piece of equipment Wren needed to complete that suit had come up, I’d completely dismissed the idea of actually breaking into the place. Because while it was a ‘university’ in the strictest sense (with attached teaching hospital), it was also the Detroit headquarters of the Seraphs themselves. Hence the name. And the Seraphs were… dangerous. Private security team or army, whichever someone wanted to call them. The point was, they were not ones to be fucked with. There was a reason they were able to keep their appointed locations safe and enforce neutral zones around medical places. 

Except for that children’s hospital that Pencil and his people attacked, but that was one of the biggest reasons the Scions had been sure to block all communication out of the area. It kept the Seraphs from noticing what was happening and responding. And apparently the ones who were stationed at the hospital itself were drawn away somehow. I still wasn’t sure on the specifics, but it was clearly a big deal behind the scenes that the public was only seeing a tiny hint about. I’d heard my dad on the phone defending the Seraphs to the mayor and pointing out that it was her decision to have minimal Seraph forces in the hospital at the time. Something about having protection for the route the VIP’s would be taking on their way in and out of the area. 

So yeah, the point was, I chose not to even attempt to break into that place at the time. Now here I was, about to go in there willingly… and I still wasn’t going to try to sneak in. Nope. Sure, Hallowed had made a comment about me maybe giving it a shot, but without having recorded evidence of him saying that? I wasn’t going to play that kind of game. No, thank you. Especially not right after I’d just gone through all that shit with those idiot kidnappers and Braintrust. 

Instead, I just strolled right up to the front gate (the medical school was surrounded by a well-guarded wall that looked like stone but was obviously something stronger) and looked at the guard in the little hut there while he watched me over the top of his ipad. “Hiya,” I started when it was clear the man wasn’t going to speak first, “appointment for Paintball with Hallowed? I know I’m late, but you would not believe the traffic.” 

The man didn’t smile. He just stared at me for another few seconds, like he was sizing me up. Then he set down the ipad and announced in a flat, emotionless voice, “Prove you’re him.” 

That was the same thing the cop on my way into the courthouse had said. Did bad guys or nut jobs dress up as established Touched a lot and try to fake their way into places? That sounded dangerous for everyone involved. In any case, I did so, touching my hand against the nearby wall and insta-painting a cartoonish rendition of the guard himself. “Good enough?” I asked. “Or would you prefer a whole comic page? I could make you fight Dracula or something.” 

“My kids would like that,” the man replied, apparently taking it entirely seriously. “Not on the wall, but a book. Think it over and let me know what you charge. I can give you a fair price for it.” 

Taken aback that my joke had been treated like an actual offer, I stumbled a bit over my words. “Oh, umm, I–yeah, I can–I mean I’ll think about… right, yeah. Wait, are you being serious?” 

“My son likes that sort of thing,” the man informed me. “In fact, if I bring you a picture of him, could you involve him in the story? His birthday’s coming up and I didn’t know what to get him.” 

Quickly, I nodded. “Um, uh, sure, yeah, I mean… let me–yeah. I can totally whip something up for you.” 

“Don’t whip it up,” the man retorted, taking my words literally once more. “If I’m paying you for it, I want you to spend some time to make it right. Come visit after your appointment, we can hash out the details. I’ll talk to my ex and find out what kind of things Josh might like in a story.” 

After I hurriedly agreed and promised to come back to talk to him about the details of the picture book for his son’s birthday, the man buzzed me through the gate, with instructions to follow the sidewalk beyond to a labeled waiting area, where I would be met and taken to my meeting. 

Stepping through the open gate, I looked around. It looked like… well, a university campus. There were several clearly school-related buildings arranged in a vague U shape straight ahead of me, with a grassy area in the middle where students were walking around, sitting under trees, or on benches that lined the twin brick paths. To the right were a line of what looked mostly like administrative and faculty buildings. 

Off in the distance to the left I could see the actual teaching hospital. They took real patients and everything there, it was just that a lot of the medical personnel were still learning. Or something like that. The hospital was set away from the rest of the campus, with a whole small park area separating them. I was still near the school part, and the guard’s directions sent me even further away from the hospital, to the right along the sidewalk where those administrative buildings were. Ahead, I saw the promised sign pointing me into a small, two-story structure with a lot of windows. 

On the way to that building, I passed a few groups of students. A few looked up, but no one said anything. They were all either too absorbed in hurrying to their next class, or they were just so accustomed to seeing Touched around there, given it was the Seraph base, that it just didn’t phase them at all. Probably a bit of both. 

Either way, no one bothered me. Though I did get a couple distracted waves before making it to the labeled welcoming center. Stepping through the doors, I saw a lot of posters and informational fliers about new student acclimation, applying for scholarships, registration, that kind of thing. Crazy stuff for a Welcome Center to have, for sure. 

The elderly woman behind the nearby counter looked up as I came in and offered me a smile. I’d never actually met my grandparents, but it still made me think of a grandmotherly expression. “Oh, hello, dear. I hope that poor girl you were trying to help is safe now?” 

“Yup,” I replied easily, “she’s fine. Ticked off at the guy who thought ‘no you’re a gross old pervert’ meant ‘throw me in the back of your car to woo me’, but other than that… yeah.” I was trying to play it off a bit, but seriously, that whole situation just gave me the heebie jeebies. To say the least. Outside of the Touched-Tech gun, that had all just been a normal creep kidnapping the teenage girl who told him to buzz off after he catfished her online. In some ways, that was worse than the totally outlandish stuff I’d already seen. Because it was just… normal. In a totally skeevy, horrible way. 

Making a tutting sound at that news, the old lady primly announced, “Young men like that need a stern talking-to. And a good visit from a wooden spoon on their knuckles. You remember that, yes? Doesn’t matter how famous and popular you get in the course of all this superheroing and such, you treat your young ladies with respect. Or young men, if that’s your fancy. Don’t make no never-mind to old Tricia.” 

My small smile was hidden behind the mask and helmet, as I nodded. “Don’t worry, ma’am, if I ever acted like that guy, I might just break my own jaw. I’d sure deserve it. And trust me, he’s gonna have a good long time to think about what he did. Well,” I amended thoughtfully, “a long time anyway. I don’t know about good.” 

Picking up a nearby glass bowl full of hard candy, the woman insisted, “That’s good to hear. Now, you take a handful of these and have them later, you hear me? Miss Patchwork will be here to see you soon. Until she makes it, feel free to have a seat right over there.” With the bowl, she pointed toward some leather chairs arranged in the corner near a television that was playing some news station. That was probably how the lady here had seen what I’d been up to earlier.

“Patchwork?” I echoed while obediently taking a few pieces of candy. I knew who that was, but… “I guess that means I’m not seeing Hallowed today?” 

“I’m afraid he’s a bit busy at the moment,” Tricia informed me. “Don’t you worry, Miss Patchwork will take very good care of you. She’s a sweet girl.” 

That, apparently, was the cue for one of the nearby interior doors to basically slam open. The costumed girl who emerged seemed to be in her late teens or early twenties. She wore black leather pants, motorcycle boots, a black mesh shirt over dark green body armor that covered her upper half, black motorcycle gloves, and a green visor that matched the armor across the top of her face, between her nose and forehead. Her hair was dyed green and cut short and spiky. 

“Hey you!” the new arrival demanded, pointing my way. “You’re that fucking… guest newbie guy I’m supposed to put to work or whatever, right? Come on, I’ve got shit to do, let’s go.” She whistled while making a ‘round up’ gesture with her finger, pivoted on her heel, and headed back the way she’d come. “Move your ass, we don’t have all day!” 

“Don’t worry, dear,” Tricia assured me in a low voice, “she’s really quite pleasant when you get to know her.” 

So, I followed, of course. We passed out of the waiting area and into a narrow corridor. As the two of us approached some kind of laser grid security system, the older girl glanced at me. “So, I know you’re Paintball. You know who I am?” 

“Patchwork,” I replied simply. “You heal people. Um, sort of.” 

She snorted at that while stopping by the laser grid and looking at me once more. “Heal people, sort of. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I touch anything that’s alive, focus on one specific part of them like their leg, their lungs, their eyes, and then I can copy the state of that part onto anyone else I touch within five minutes. Say Billy Bob has a busted leg, I can touch Susie-Q’s perfectly intact leg, copy that perfect intactness, and then touch Billy Bob and heal the leg. You know what my two limitations for that are?” 

I hesitated before answering slowly. “Um, you can’t copy your own physical state, you need someone else to touch for the healing to work. Plus it’s really specific, like, you can’t copy someone’s left leg to heal someone’s right leg. And um, it’s really temporary if the person doesn’t have powers.” 

“Two hours,” Patchwork confirmed. “If the person I’m healing isn’t Touched, everything I do disappears in two hours and they go back to the way they were. Works pretty well for stabilizing them to get to a hospital, but it’s no miracle cure.” 

“It’s still really cool,” I assured her. “Plus, maybe you can’t copy your own physical state, but you still do that cool transformation thing.” 

That earned me a toothy smile. Very toothy. She literally showed wolf fangs before winking. “It is pretty cool, huh?” 

It was. She wasn’t limited to just copying the physical state of things when she touched people (or animals). She could also copy the parts themselves and then make them appear on herself any time she wanted after that. Like the wolf fangs she was showing me. Or a giant turtle shell I’d seen her manifest in a video once. Apparently, if she used her power on something enough times and manifested all the different parts at once, she could do full shape-shifting. Animal or human. Between that and the healing aspect of her power, yes, it was very cool. 

When I nodded, she continued. “Great, so here’s the deal. You, unlike all those ninnies running around out there, are Touched. So, if you’re doing your superhero thing and you get hurt, you gimme a call and next time I’ve got space and energy to squeeze you in, I’ll see what I can do. Fair?” 

“Uhh… yeah, fair.” I quickly nodded, a bit overwhelmed by all that. “Call you if I need healing.” 

“Not all the fucking time,” she was quick to snap. “I mean if you really need it. I ain’t your own personal fucking medic. Got lots of people who need it, and I don’t fucking relish being anyone’s living band-aid. And if it’s not life or death, you sure as shit better be ready to pay for it, either with cash or some kind of trade, favor, whatever. But yeah, if you need it and you’re ready to pay, give a shout and I’ll see what I can do. Especially if it helps keep your identity secret. We all know what a bitch that can be.”

That much said, Patchwork tapped some kind of code into the nearby console, and the laser grid deactivated. Then she waved me through and we walked on. “Anyway, you’re here to do something useful to make up for taking our shit without permission. And that starts right in here.” 

With that, she stopped at a door, pushing it open to reveal a place that looked… well, it looked like a tornado had hit it. The room was maybe a hundred feet by forty feet, rectangular, and a total and complete disaster area. Seriously, the walls were peeling and looked ugly, there were some holes in them, the whole floor was covered in various bits of debris, overturned chairs, broken desks, a half dozen filing cabinets were overturned and had papers strewn everywhere, and more. It looked like a tornado hit the place. 

“Yeah, looks like shit, huh?” the girl beside me bluntly remarked. “We had some… issues in here. It’s been like this for awhile. Long story and I ain’t getting into it. Point is, you’re gonna clean it up. See all those papers and folders and shit? Get all that off the floor. Move the filing cabinets into the room across the hall, fill them with the folders in alphabetical order. Take the broken furniture, rubble, and everything else that can’t be fixed down the hall to the freight elevator and then down to the bottom floor and stack it on the loading dock you’ll see there. Then use the phone in the hall, dial zero and ask for Bernard. Tell him you need help fixing up the holes. When that’s done, you can paint the floor and walls something nice and pleasant for kids to be around. This place is gonna be some kinda playroom or something. You can go elaborate with images they’ll like, or just keep it basic. Whatever, I don’t care.” 

That all said, the woman watched me for a moment before dryly adding, “And don’t worry, we don’t expect you to do all that in one day. Come in whenever you get some time, do a bit of work, then leave again.” 

“And the umm, the lasers?” I asked, glancing into the hall. 

“I’ll give you a guest code to get past them,” she replied. “It’ll let you on this floor, into the freight elevator to go straight down, and give you phone access. Do I really have to–” 

“Don’t wander, got it,” I confirmed, giving her a thumbs up. “Just clean this place up, make it pretty for the kids, and I can come whenever I get some free time.” 

“Just don’t make us wait months without seeing progress,” Patchwork retorted, before pivoting on her heel. “There’s one more thing when you’re done with all this, but his royal highness told me to wait until then. You need anything else?” Even as she asked it, the woman was almost out the door. 

“Um, no, I think I get the–” I started. 

“Two, one, zero, nine,” she called back. “Two, ten, nine. That’s your guest pass to get in, got it? Shouldn’t be an issue because Tricia won’t let anyone past her who isn’t supposed to be here. But still, redundancies. Check in with her anytime you come in, put in the guest pass at the security system there whenever you pass through it, then check out with Tricia or whoever happens to be sitting there whenever you fuck off, got it? Oh, and our regular working hours start at six and end at midnight, so don’t show up outside of those hours.” 

With that, she was gone, off to do… whatever her next job was. Watching the empty doorway for a moment, I finally shrugged and turned to the room in front of me. 

Right… well, time to get to work. A little manual labor wouldn’t be too bad, right? 

*****

Fuck manual labor. 

Okay, okay, it wasn’t that bad. And God knew I could use the actual work. It definitely wouldn’t kill me. I just… definitely wasn’t accustomed to this sort of thing. At least having my purple paint for strength and red paint to move things around (with orange to protect it from damage) helped with the heavier stuff. But still, a lot of it was just… boring. It took most of the first couple hours just to start getting some kind of organization and to get most of the folders and bits of paper that I could see (moving some of the furniture pieces to get at buried piles), and to move the filing cabinets themselves into the other room. Never mind sorting through all those files to put them in alphabetical order in the cabinets. 

Yeah, this was going to take awhile. I would have to go back soon. But for the moment, I was done. As I was on my way out the door, however, my work phone buzzed. I checked, and the message was from Eits. It read, ‘Got bit 4 thing we talked about. U good 2 read? What did u help me get from roof?’ 

Right, he wanted me to tell him that it was safe to send sensitive information, and proof I was the right person. Glancing around, I sent back, ‘Yes. Baseball.’ 

A moment later, the next message came in. ‘Got records from middle school on Banners, link to file at bottom. Adopted age twelve, earlier records heavy sealed. Need physical access 2 get further. No link 4 Banners/Anthony Tate. No link 4 Banners/supervillain. No Tate school records. Homeschooled. Need info on crash that killed Tate family, check survivor.’ 

Frowning, I sent back a quick, ‘Survivor?’ 

The response came, ‘Security consultant. Went with Tate family to Texas. Was in car at crash. Survived. Gave witness testimony. Retired. Picture coming.’ 

A moment later, the promised image came in, and I did a double-take. I knew the guy I was looking at! I knew him! It was Robert Parson, this guy who used to drive me around when I was younger. He was basically a bodyguard, then he just sort of… disappeared. I remembered really liking Rob–Bobby. I called him Bobby. 

But what did my old bodyguard have to do with Anthony Tate? Why was he with the family when they crashed down in Texas? I.. did he kill them? The thought made my blood go cold. Did my old bodyguard, the guy I remember thinking was so cool and brave… kill that little boy and his family? 

One thing was for sure… I was going to find out.

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Private Affairs 9-06 (Summus Proelium)

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The latest Patreon Snippets for Heretical Edge were posted as an extra chapter on Saturday. If you missed it, you might want to click right here to read them.

Paige didn’t end up saying much else of interest. Mostly it was just things about how she was ‘working on it’ and that the man she was talking to should give her time and stop being impatient. It didn’t really… sound like she was talking to her father, at least not one she respected or even liked that much. But on the other hand, if he was a supervillain on Breakwater, maybe I could understand that much. In any case, there was definitely something about that whole relationship I was missing. For one thing, what the hell was that about him selling her to her ‘parents?’ Because just that all by itself raised a hell of a lot of questions.

Pretty soon she left, heading back to the street and leaving me sitting there lost in thought. My brain was working a million miles an hour in every direction, but I forced it to focus on one thing. The name. The name she’d said, what was it? Tate. Anthony Tate. I knew that name… I knew…

Oh, right. I did know Anthony Tate. All I had to do was think about it for a bit, then I remembered. He was a boy I’d known while I was back in elementary school. I hadn’t really known him very well, because he was homeschooled, but that at least explained why the name was familiar. Though it didn’t really explain why he was important. From what I could remember, I only saw him once in awhile. But he’d moved away when I was in sixth grade, in my first year of middle school. A couple months later, he died in a car accident. I remembered my dad telling me that one of the kids I used to play with had passed away down in… where was it? Texas or something. I was pretty sure it was Texas. 

Anyway, I didn’t remember that much about the kid back then. I remembered being sad about someone I kind of knew dying, but it didn’t feel that real at the time because I barely remembered him. We weren’t close or anything, he was just a boy I saw sometimes.

But none of that actually answered the question of what was so important about the kid. 

So, perched on the roof of the library, I used my phone to do an internet search. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything about him having a sister who could have been Paige. Both his parents were killed in the accident as well. The three family members were buried together in a cemetery in… yup, I was right, Dallas. Mother, father, and their only son were buried in Dallas, Texas after a drunk driving accident. 

So how did that connect to Paige and this guy she called her father, who happened to be a supervillain imprisoned on Breakwater? How did they know this kid and what did his death in a car accident in Texas have to do with my family here? I was missing something really important, just like the whole thing about the relationship between Paige and her imprisoned father. I had some pieces of this ridiculous puzzle, but not enough to put it together. Not just yet, anyway.  

I was going to have to really look into this Anthony Tate and the rest of his family. Maybe that car accident wasn’t such an accident? At first I’d thought that it might have something to do with the memory that Mr. Jackson had apparently erased, but with the accident happening all the way down in Texas, I wasn’t sure how that could be true. I definitely couldn’t have seen the accident, if it actually was one. And as far as I could tell, it really had happened down there. There were several news reports about it, accident scene photos, everything. So… what then?

Mom had said that Mr. Jackson removed a traumatic memory. A car accident was bad, but for someone I barely knew? I was probably just trying to tie two independent things (my removed memory and this whole thing about Paige’s secrets) together when they weren’t actually related. Which seemed like a good way to end up getting utterly lost and not figure out anything at all. 

Regardless, the point remained that I had to find out more about this accident. That might help me figure out what Paige’s involvement was–wait. What if her dad was the drunk driver that hit Anthony’s family? Or the guy who was blamed for it, if my family was actually involved. But what did that have to do with Paige? Was she related to him in some way? Wait–shit, duh. Friends. What if they were friends? I hadn’t known Anthony very well, but maybe Paige had. Which… didn’t explain why her father was in prison, unless he’d known the family too. Okay, maybe that was it? Maybe Paige and her father knew Anthony’s family, and when they died in that accident, those two found out my family was involved… somehow? Hell, if they had reach all the way over in Britain, I should probably believe they had reach in Texas too. That made some kind of sense. 

Okay, wait. What if this Anthony kid and his parents found out about my family and took off to protect themselves, but my family got to them anyway even down in Texas. Then Paige and her father found out the truth, and my dad, as Silversmith, had her dad locked up on Breakwater? He probably would’ve had to actually have powers to make that work, but maybe he did. Maybe that’s why he’d been so dangerous, because he knew about my family and had powers, so they sent him to Breakwater. But why not just kill him? Maybe he’d been arrested before they could? 

Yeah, I had an awful lot of ‘maybes’ in all this. I was speculating too much. And none of that actually explained how my family wouldn’t know what Paige was doing or who she really was. They were the ones with the memory-altering guy. If she was the daughter of some guy who knew about the family business and who had been sent to the supermax Touched prison, I kind of figured they’d keep track of her. So that didn’t actually make much sense either, unfortunately.

And on top of everything else, I still didn’t know how she was immune to the memory alteration power herself. I had a ten gallon bucket worth of questions and a teaspoon full of possible answers. It wasn’t enough. I had to get more information than I could find out in a simple search.

But to do that, I had a feeling I might need a little help. Even if it was a risk. And there was one person I could think of who had already proven that I could trust him to keep my secrets. 

*******

“If this is a trick to arrest a Fell-Touched and prop up your numbers, I’m going to be simultaneously disappointed in you as a person, and impressed at your long-term strategy.”

The words were from Eits, who spoke up about an hour later as I walked up to the bench in a small, out of the way park where he’d said I could meet him to talk. He’d been sitting there in costume, doing something on one of his phones before jumping up as he saw me approach. 

“Don’t worry,” I replied dryly, “I don’t usually think that far ahead. Also, I’m pretty sure tricking you into coming out here just to arrest you would end up being bad for me in the long run anyway.” Pausing, I tilted my head. “Which, now that I say that out-loud, those first two points kind of counteract each other, don’t they? But uhh, no, seriously, I really do need your help with something. You…” Hesitantly, I asked, “You did come alone? I know I didn’t say much, but–” 

“I’m alone, yeah,” he assured me. “I mean, for the most part. I kind of told Pack I had something to do, so she’s hanging out with Broadway a couple blocks that way.” He gestured to the left. “We were… um, practicing for something when you texted, but we needed a break anyway.” 

Blinking twice, I slowly asked, “Eits, did I interrupt you and your criminal friends doing crime?” 

“Absolutely not,” he insisted firmly, holding that for a moment longer before relenting with, “Practicing for doing crime, maybe. But not actually doing it. So see, you’re totally in the clear.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I’m not sure that’s how that works. But I guess it doesn’t matter. This is… bigger. Maybe. I don’t know. I just–” Stopping as I stared at him, I started to think this might be a bad idea. Involving him in this, even if it was only tangentially related to my family… what if they actually were involved in the Tates’ deaths? What if he found out through his digging, and tried to do something with it? Or what if my parents found out he was digging and went after him? What if I was putting him right in their crosshairs by having him look at this? What if…

“Hey, Paintball, you okay?” Apparently I’d zoned out for a second, as Eits looked worried. Well, as worried as one could look with diagonal bands covering a good part of his face. “You seem pretty freaked out right now. Did umm…” He paused, glancing around for a second before carefully asking in a quieter voice, “Did someone else find out about you being… you know.” 

“No,” I replied. “It’s not that. I just… I’m looking into something and I could use some help. But it could be dangerous, so I want you to be really careful, okay? Don’t let anyone know what you’re doing. I mean it, Eits. Don’t talk to anyone directly, just use computers, and make sure no one knows what you’re looking for. Erase your tracks when you’re done. Don’t write things down. I–” 

Holding up both hands, Eits quickly put in, “Hey, hey, I get it. I’ll be careful. But I could probably do a better job of telling you how careful I can be if you tell me what you actually need to know.” 

Okay, okay, I could do this. I had to do this. I was going in circles by myself. The only way I was going to get anywhere anytime soon was with his help. I had to take this leap. Exhaling slowly to steady myself, I nodded. “The point is, keep it quiet. But I need you to look into this kid. His name was Anthony Tate. He used to live here in Detroit, but he moved to Dallas about… five years ago or so, then died in a car accident a couple months later. He and both his parents.” 

Eits was clearly squinting at me. “Um. Okay, so… far be it from me to ask too many questions about all this, but why do you want to know about some poor kid who died five years ago in an accident a thousand miles away? Did you… did you know him or something? And why now?” 

“I can’t say why now,” I informed him. “And no, I didn’t know him. I just heard someone important say the name and what I just told you is all I could find out by myself. There’s something going on that I’m looking into and the next step is to find out more about that kid. But like I said, it’s really dangerous. I mean super dangerous, Eits. I’m not kidding. I know you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I shouldn’t have even involved you, I just didn’t know what else to…” I sighed, long and heavy. “Please be careful, that’s all I’m saying. Look into it quietly.” 

To his credit, Eits didn’t dismiss my caution. He watched me for a moment, clearly taking the time to think about his response before giving a short nod. “I get it. I’ll keep it quiet. My little friends can run internet searches a lot faster than I can anyway, without actually letting anyone see what they’re doing. And I’ll delete everything about it, even on my own computers. If this is as big of a deal as you seem to be implying it is, I’ll probably have to look into a few restricted databases, but I’ll make sure to grab a huge chunk of info to pore through so if anyone does happen to notice that the files were accessed, they won’t know exactly what I was looking at.” 

I wasn’t sure that would be good enough, but at this point, I was up against a brick wall. I had to find out more, and if my parents were involved in the deaths of the Tates, I wouldn’t be able to find it myself. Hard as it was, I had to let him help. So, I exhaled once more, trying to let out my own hesitation along with the breath while slowly nodding. “Okay. Oh, and while you’re at it, I need you to look into a couple more things. A couple more people. Only–okay, this is hard to explain. First, I need you to look into this girl. Her name is Paige Banners. She’s seventeen and she goes to… hold on, I wrote it down.” Digging into my pocket, I came out with a scrap of paper that I’d prepared ahead of time for this. “Cadillac Preparatory School. I need you to find out if there’s any link between her and this Anthony Tate. And if there’s any link between either of them and any supervillain from either Detroit or Dallas who was sentenced to Breakwater in the past five years and is still alive out there. I know they track that from one of those documentaries, but how?” 

He shrugged at the last part. “I’m pretty sure they use some bracelet or something that’s supposed to keep track of where you are and all your vitals, so they know if you try to escape, and can retrieve your body if you die so it doesn’t just lay there. Which is nice, I guess.”

“There’s a villain on the island called Potluck,” I informed him. “He gets random powers or boosts to powers that he has through eating people who have powers. They don’t want him to get even stronger than he already is. That’s why they retrieve the bodies. Also because eeugh.”   

Blanching as he took that in, Eits muttered something clearly disgusted under his breath before looking back to me. “Right, well, got it. I’ll definitely cross Breakwater off my list of potential vacation spots in that case. But let me see if I have this straight. You need to know about the Tate family and how they died, this Paige Banner girl, and any supervillain from Detroit or Dallas who was sent to Breakwater in the past five years? And any connection between all of them.” 

“Banners,” I corrected. “But yeah, that about sums it up. I know it’s a lot to look into, especially when I’m telling you to keep it quiet and not telling you why I need to know. But I swear, it’s important. And I wouldn’t come to you with it if there was anyone else I could, but, I mean…” 

“It’s okay, Paintball,” he put in. “You don’t have to explain. We’re good. I’ll look into it and let you know what I find out, and I’ll be careful doing it. But…” He trailed off, biting his lip as he stared at the ground before looking back up to me. “But if it’s really this dangerous, then you should be careful too, okay? I don’t know what you’ve gotten into, but it sounds like it could be pretty bad. Especially if you’re investigating some Breakwater villain. Don’t go getting yourself in trouble.” 

Managing a slight smile that he couldn’t see anyway, I tried to put him at ease by casually replying, “You’re probably just afraid that if I go away, you might have to deal with a hero who’s more competent and doesn’t make these kind of deals with big, bad supervillains like you.” 

“Yeah, that’s totally it,” he agreed with a snort before sobering. “Watch yourself out there, okay? I’ll contact you when I find out anything. Or even if I can’t. But it’ll probably take a few days.” 

“That’s okay, take your time,” I assured him. “Be careful and thorough. I’d rather get the info in a week instead of two days if it means you cover your tracks better. Or however long it takes.” 

I thought about telling him about what happened with Hallowed and the Seraphs. But in the end, I decided to keep it to myself. It wasn’t Eits’ fault, after all. Not really. At least until I found out what they wanted me to do at that meeting on Wednesday. Then I’d just… go from there, I supposed. 

So, after making him promise one more time to be careful, I left Eits to go back to his business (while hoping that said business wouldn’t end up being too bad) and made my way home. I changed out of my costume well away from the house, of course, keeping it in my backpack as I snuck past the cameras and up to my window. 

Climbing inside carefully, I switched on the light and immediately saw something wrong. There was someone in my bed. Thinking it might be Izzy, I leaned closer. But the figure wasn’t quite right. Actually, there was… Frowning, I reached out, tugging the blanket down. Pillows. There were two pillows set up under my blanket to look like a figure, and one of my larger dolls that had hair sort of like mine. 

As I was staring at that, there was a quiet knock on the door. My gaze snapped that way in time to see Izzy peek inside. Her voice was very soft. “I wanted to make sure your mom and dad would think you were there if they looked.” 

My mouth opened and shut. I dropped the bag and gestured. “Come in, Izzy. What… what do you mean?” My throat felt dry. 

She entered hesitantly, closing the door after her. She almost looked ashamed. “I didn’t want you to get in trouble for sneaking out. So I made up your bed like that. Then I thought you might really get in trouble out there, so I stayed up to make sure you got home. I was… I’m sorry.” 

“Izzy, you don’t have to be sorry,” I quickly assured her. “I just… you… you had a nightmare and I wasn’t here.” Staring as the girl gave a hesitant nod, I closed my eyes and felt a rush of shame. “C’mere.” 

She came, and I reached out to embrace the younger (yet not really that much smaller) girl tightly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here, Izzy. You–you couldn’t find me and you still covered for me.” 

“I think that’s what friends are supposed to do, right?” she asked, blinking up at me with those wide, emotional eyes. 

“They’re also supposed to be there when you need them, and I wasn’t here for you,” I admitted. “I just…” I couldn’t tell her the truth. “I have to stretch my legs sometimes. I have to get out and just… I mean–never mind. I’m gonna give you my number so you can call or text me any time, even if I’m not here.” 

“I don’t have a phone,” she pointed out quietly, still not letting go of me. 

“Well, then we’ll have to take care of that tomorrow, won’t we?” I replied. “And hey, you can even afford it.

“After all, you do have a pretty good allowance right now.” 

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