Eits

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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Patreon Snippets 18B (Summus Proelium)

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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)

Previous Chapter                                             Next Chapter

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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Friends and Enemies 8-09 (Summus Proelium)

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“You want me to break her legs?”

Jolting a bit at the question, I looked across the lunch room table at the girl who had asked it. Amber. It was the next day after my whole… complicated evening at Tomas’s, and she and I were eating lunch as we waited for Jae, who was finishing up some kind of extra credit work in the science lab. I still wasn’t exactly sure what for, but whatever, she did a lot of extra credit stuff. Either she just liked doing it, or she was pushing to get into a really good university and wanted to pad out her application. Which was fair.

Seeing my surprised expression, Amber nodded across the room. “Paige. You keep staring at her. And you’re holding that fork so tight, I’m afraid you might snap it in half.”

Yeah, Paige was here. She must have been really confident in whatever leverage she had, because she had just shown up to school as if nothing had happened. Looking at her today, you never would have guessed that she’d had a gun pointed to her head the night before. You would never know she came so close to being killed. She was effortlessly smooth and interacted with people as if she didn’t have a care in the world. 

And she definitely wasn’t any nicer to me. If anything, she was even more caustic than usual. Which, I supposed made a certain sort of sense if she knew it was my family who had nearly had her killed. That had to be why she hated me so much, didn’t it? She knew something about my family, something that made them want her dead. That had to be connected to why she’d been so intent on attacking me every chance she got. Because Tomas had been right, last night when she didn’t know who I was, she was a lot more tolerable. So that had to be related. 

Except she’d very clearly hated me for years. And I was pretty sure my family hadn’t wanted her dead for that long. So what happened? Did she just get the proof she needed? How? What was it? And how did she know about my family in the first place? Hell, was her hating me even directly connected to that? It seemed like it had to be, but what could she have found out all the way back in middle school? Also, how was she immune to Mr. Jackson’s power? 

And while we were on that subject, had he ever used it on me? The fact that my parents had someone who could erase people’s memories made it somewhat easier to understand how they got away with as much as they did. But how many of my memories had been erased or changed? Had I found out the truth about them before and they just erased it? The thought had led me to throwing up in the bathroom the night before. 

Clearly, making sure they didn’t find out that I knew the truth was even more important than I’d thought before. I couldn’t give them any reason to think they needed to fix my memory. Not until I had a better handle on this whole thing. Not until I was ready to make a much bigger move. 

The point was, I had a hell of a lot of questions, many of them revolving around Paige Freaking Banners. So yeah, I had probably been staring at her more than I should. 

Flushing a little under Amber’s stare, I shook my head. “No leg breaking.”

Raising an eyebrow at me, the dark-haired girl asked, “You sure? I’d do it pro bono. I mean, I do still owe you for that awesome movie night. And for being a pretty good project partner, I suppose.” Adding that part thoughtfully, Amber tossed a tater tot in the air, tilted her head back, and caught it in her mouth. 

“Something tells me that breaking Paige’s legs would probably complicate more things than it solves,” I replied dryly. “And I told you before, you don’t owe me anything. It was just a fun night.”

From the grin that abruptly blossomed on the other girl’s face, I realized that I had just walked into some form of trap. “Well, then I suppose the best way for me to pay you back is to give you a fun night, isn’t it?”

As I stared at her, wondering what I had just opened myself up to, she pointed at me. “It’s my seventeenth birthday party this weekend. And you’re going.”

Oh, right. Amber‘s birthday. She, like most other people in our grade, was almost a year older than me, since I’d skipped first grade. It was another thing that contributed to me always being smaller than everyone else. Not the main thing. I was small regardless. I could probably come to this school in my twenties and still look like a freshman at best. But still. 

Amber was explaining. “My mom and uncle are renting out that place on Lynnwood with the arcade and the batting cages and all that. Saturday night from six until whenever we’re done, we’ve got the whole place to ourselves. There’s gonna be dinner and games and lots of other shit. And plenty of people, including you.”

Declining at this point felt like a bad idea. Besides, I liked Amber. I liked Jae too. With everything that was going on, would it really kill me to take a night off just to help celebrate the girl’s seventeenth birthday? 

While I was working my way through that, Amber continued. “You should bring that girl that’s staying with you, too. Izzy? Arcade games, batting cages, miniature golf, there’s gotta be something she’ll like. Although now that I say it, you probably have all of those things in your house, but still. Maybe she’ll like the fresh air?”

Izzy. Getting her out of the house and letting her have fun did seem like a good idea. And I could tell from the look on Amber’s face that she knew she’d hit the mark. So, I heaved a long, put upon sigh before waving a hand vaguely. “Okay, okay, I get it. I suppose I will just suffer through an entire evening of fun and games if that’ll make you feel better, birthday girl. And I’ll see if Izzy can come.”

Grinning at me, Amber held up another tater tot between two fingers and flicked it my way. After I caught it in my mouth, she glanced past me. “Everything good?”

She was talking to Jae, who took the open seat beside me while nodding once. “Done,” she replied quietly, setting her tray of food down. Sticking a fork in her salad, the pale girl added, “Did you ask?”

Amber shrugged. “I just got through the inviting her part. Haven’t gotten to the posters part just yet. I wanted to make sure she wanted to come first.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Posters part?”

She nodded. “See, my mom wants to do this charity thing. She had the idea to have an artist at the party taking pictures. Then everyone who donates to that children’s hospital that got attacked could get a drawing of themselves with a certain theme. You know, like pirate or ninja or anything like that. The size or the detail of the picture and all that would depend on how much they donate. They can fill out a form saying what they like to see along with a receipt of their donation. She had a guy lined up to do it, but he had to back out at the last minute. I said I knew someone who was a really good artist at school. She can find someone else if you want, but I just thought I’d ask if you’re interested. We can pay you for it, then mail the pictures ourselves once they’re done. “

Staring at her, I blinked a few times. “Drawing… oh. Oh, umm… I… yeah. Yeah, I can do that. I mean, I hope I can do that. Sure.”

Grinning widely at my agreement, Amber looked to Jae. “See, told you this was gonna be the best party ever.”

Jae, for her part, simply looked over at me, her voice soft. “Is your friend coming?”

“Friend? Oh, you mean Izzy,” I realized. “I’ll ask if she wants to. Thanks for inviting her, you guys. I know you barely know her.”

Amber shrugged. “She seemed pretty cool. 

“And this party needs all the cool people.”

******

By the time school let out, I still had no idea what I was going to do about the whole Paige situation. And I had other things to worry about for the evening. Two things in particular, each on opposite sides of the legal line. First, I needed to take those papers down to the courthouse and turn them in before the judge got too antsy. I’d been told that I would generally have a week or two, as the law didn’t exactly move fast anyway, and they knew that a lot of us were busy. But still. 

The other thing I had to do was get that device we’d… borrowed back to the maintenance place so it could be returned to the Seraph hospital before they noticed anything wrong. Wren had apparently finished extracting it and making sure the thing was okay, so I would get it where it needed to be tonight. 

That was for later, of course. Once things all closed down, I would worry about that. For the moment, the courthouse was the number one priority. 

Well, the number one priority after I visited Wren, at least. But that was related to the court house anyway. I had to take some of those papers over to her, as the person who was responsible for Ashton being confined inside her base. There were parts she had to sign and fill in under her chosen moniker of Trevithick. 

That didn’t take too long, and I promised to come back and see her again shortly before heading out again. Eventually, I was waiting in costume in front of the back door of an unlabeled, unremarkable building a block or so away from the courthouse. I’d texted That-A-Way for advice and she let me know that this was the way most Star-Touched got into the courthouse without being mobbed or anything by going in the front door. Apparently, there was a tunnel leading to the court from this building that helped keep all that stuff out of public sight. 

A second after I knocked, there was a soft whirring sound  and I saw a small camera in the upper left corner turn a little to focus on me. There was a brief pause, then the sound of a couple electric locks disengaging before the door opened to reveal a man in a police uniform. “Paintball, I assume?” 

“In the flesh,” I confirmed. Waving the papers in my hand, I added, “I was just hoping to drop off these detention things.”

The cop nodded. “Yeah, they said you’d probably be coming by. Just in case though, could you show me your power so I know I’m not letting in a stranger with your costume?”

Obligingly, I turned and held my hand out, shooting a bit of red paint to a stick on the ground before yanking it back to myself. “Good enough?”

“Yup,” the man confirmed before stepping back and gesturing for me to enter. “I’m Officer Metts. Good to meet you, kid. Pretty sure this won’t be the only time. I get stationed out here a lot.”

Stepping in, I took another look at the man. He was black, and looked to be in his thirties, very well built, with dark hair cut short and hazel eyes. His nose was maybe just a little too big for his face and had been broken at least once, but he was still pretty handsome. 

“Well,” I replied, “I’m glad the guy at the door isn’t someone who hates Touched.”

Chuckling, the man nodded. “Don’t worry, they figured out a long time ago that having someone who can’t get along with the masked types is a bad idea. Just makes things worse for everybody. Come on, I’ll take you down to the tunnel and let ‘em know you’re coming.”

We were in what looked like a simple apartment lobby area with stairs leading up, a couple apartment doors to the left, and an unlabeled door to the right. He went to the right and opened the unlabeled door, revealing another room with another set of stairs, these ones leading down, and a couple elevators. We took the stairs, heading, as promised, into the tunnel. It clearly went on a long distance, but the man simply pointed. “There’ll be a guy meeting you at the entrance to the courthouse. Just head that way and you can’t miss him. Unfortunately, I’m not gonna be here when you get off. You’ll have to be let out by one of my coworkers. But don’t worry, none of us bite.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “Maybe I’ll see you next time when I have to come in for those deposition things.”

“Maybe you will,” Officer Metts agreed. “Good luck for now, though. And hey, watch your back out there. 

“I hear Cuélebre’s really pissed off at you.”

*******

So, I turned in those papers before waiting to have a short chat with the judge. I had to sit around for about half an hour, but that wasn’t a big deal. And it was definitely understandable, considering I didn’t have any kind of appointment. Eventually, the judge had called me up out of the basement room where I had been waiting, and I had a talk with him about what happened with Ashton. He was thorough, but not too prying. He got the information he needed and said he’d make an official ruling after consulting some books, but that I shouldn’t worry. 

Eventually, that was over and I had gone home to have dinner and be visible for a little while. Not to mention hang out with Izzy. I brought up the party thing and both she and my parents were pretty accepting. I had no doubt we’d have escorts we didn’t even know about, but Mom still seemed pretty happy with the idea regardless. 

Izzy, meanwhile, seemed okay with it too. She clearly wanted to get out of the house, big as it was. And I couldn’t blame her for that. So we would definitely be going to the party. 

Of course, for that to happen, it would probably help if I wasn’t a fugitive from the Seraphs. To that end, it was time to return their device. So, I’d let Eits know to add it back into the schedule using the back door he’d built into their system, and he told me what packing label to put on it once I was in there.

And there I was, crouched on the roof of the building across the street from the Taurus repair facility. It was late enough by now that there was almost no one there. All I had to do was sneak in and drop this off. Eits was standing by to loop their cameras as soon as I gave him the signal, and he’d unloop them once I was out.

So, here went nothing. Holding the box under one hand, I sent the text his way, waiting for the acknowledgment before shoving the phone in my pocket and taking a running start. Like the last time, I used the nearby billboard and dropped in on top of the smaller building in the middle of the compound. From there, I waited for the guard to pass, then hopped down and made my way to the place we picked this thing up from to begin with. 

Unfortunately, I had to duck back and wait there, because there were a couple guys in work overalls having a discussion about the Pistons (as in the basketball team) right in the doorway. There was some good-natured arguing back-and-forth, as one of the man apparently was more into some other team. Or maybe it was a completely different sport. Honestly, I had no idea. 

Either way, I anxiously waited, knowing the cameras couldn’t be looped for too long. But, finally, the two men left the building, walking together towards the much larger one. Watching them go from my hiding spot, I slipped around the building and in through the door. 

Once inside, I called Eits and had him talk me through printing out the right label with the number on it. It took a couple tries to get right, but finally, I stuck the label on and thanked the boy for his help. “Seriously, no way could I have pulled this off without you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” came the response. “The boss’s kid needed it. And now she’s safe, thanks to you. So we’re good. Maybe we can find another reason to hang out at some point before you have to try to arrest me.”

Snorting, I replied, “Arresting is sort of like hanging out. But we’ll figure it out later. Thanks again, I’ll put this back and then get out of here.”

Disconnecting from the call, I found the spot on the shelves where the box would wait for pick-up in the morning. Satisfied that they would find it, I quickly checked the yard to make sure it was clear before making my way out. 

Great, that was one more thing off my mind. The hospital would get its device back and no one had to be hurt or anything. Now I could focus on the important things, like finding out just what the hell was going on with Paige, how to deal with the fact that my ex-boyfriend’s father worked for my supervillain parents, what Izzy’s whole deal was… yeah, I had plenty to occupy my mind, that was for sure. 

Which, of course, was why I had barely taken two steps after landing in the alley outside of the repair facility when a voice spoke up. 

“I guess a thanks is in order.”

Spinning that way, my gaze found a man in gleaming golden armor, with metal wings and an enormous sword bigger than he was resting against the ground with his hand set casually on the pommel. 

It was Hallowed, one of the local Seraph leadership and also one of the most powerful Touched in the city. 

“After all, you returned our item without us having to go track it down ourselves,” the tall man continued casually. 

“Though I do think it’s time that the two of us had a little chat about borrowing things that don’t belong to you.”

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Friends and Enemies 8-02 (Summus Proelium)

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We didn’t end up presenting our project that day after all. Not that we weren’t ready, but Mr. Dorn didn’t end up picking us. Privately, after class was over, he told me that all of us looked so tired he didn’t choose our group because he was afraid we’d pass out in front of the class. Which was fair, considering I kept half-dozing off while watching other people present theirs. 

On the other hand, I had no idea why Jae and Amber seemed so tired. Amber in particular kept jolting a bit every now and then, as if she’d actually drifted unconscious before catching herself. Maybe she’d gone to a party and taken Jae with her? That was probably it. People liked Amber. 

Oh well, it worked out well enough for me. I wasn’t planning on getting into anymore Touched business at least until my body stopped being quite so sore and my costume was fixed. I had to spend some time getting a new helmet and probably a new set of coveralls altogether. I didn’t have much of a chance to go over the old suit with a fine-toothed comb the night before, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to salvage much of it after that near-direct lightning strike.

Near-direct lightning strike. I’d been almost perfectly hit by one of Cuélebre’s lightning bolts and walked away a few minutes later. Sure, it hurt like hell. I still hurt, even with the orange paint that had saved my life. But regardless of how sore I happened to be, I was alive. I survived. And somehow that fact kept hitting me more today, at random points during school, than it had last night. I’d just be sitting in class or walking down the hall and it would suddenly hit me just how close I came to being killed. Once, that fact hit me hard enough in the middle of class that I had to run to the restroom and throw up, with the called back excuse of stomach problems. Which, of course, prompted a couple remarks about my finally reaching puberty. Ha fucking ha. 

Anyway, the day went on like that. I had lunch with Tomas and the two of us talked about music for awhile. It was kind of nice, actually. I didn’t think about Touched stuff for a few minutes, like about how close I’d come to dying, or the fact that Eits now knew I was a girl, or any of that. I just focused on talking about random British punk bands and how Tomas wanted to start something up here in Detroit. He wanted to know if I had any idea who he could try to recruit, which… pffft, like I had a clue. The best I could do was point him in a general direction. But even that was still fun. It was relaxing, simple, and… inconsequential. After everything that happened the night before with desperately fighting to get those vials, inconsequential was pretty nice. 

We were just dumping our trays and walking to the lockers as Tomas remarked, “So, remember that supper thing we talked about? My parents would like you to come over tomorrow night.” He glanced toward me, adding, “They know you’ve got your whole family meal thing tonight and all that. So, you know, tomorrow. If you’re not busy. And I really hope you’re not, cuz Mum’s planning something pretty special and if I tell her she has to push it back…” He whistled long and low, head shaking as if awe at the storm that would cause. “So please with the RSVP.” 

I was about to respond, when another voice spoke up. “Oh, hey, guys.” It was Paige Banners, a tall, blonde girl with perfect hair, a perfect smile (when she chose to use it), and according to every guy in our grade, perfect everything else. Her family was the second richest one in the city, and I don’t think she ever forgave me for that. She was also the one who started joking about male cheerleaders when I’d been on the team back in junior high and had been the first to make that puberty comment earlier when I ran to the restroom. Her smile now was like a viper, as she gave a tiny, insincere wave. “So what’s going on? Are you two starting up a boy band?” She gave a casual nod toward the guitar case held loosely in Tomas’s hand before adopted a faux understanding tone. “Or were you waiting for Evans to hit puberty first? If so, have I got great news for you.” 

“Well, you know,” I replied shortly, “for some of us, puberty is a long-awaited, beautiful and patient biological process that makes us all the individuals we’re supposed to be. And for others, it’s a plastic surgeon in the islands who never quite got over losing his job as a Barbie designer.” 

Oh boy, Paige didn’t like that one little bit. That was for sure. A snarl twisted that perfect face, as she snapped back, “You think your family’s so perfect? Well guess what, you–” 

Tomas stepped in, moving between us with a pointedly cleared throat. “Okay, I think that’s about enough. Let’s keep the claws in and go about our days. Nice seeing you, Paige, as always. We’ll have to catch up later. Just make sure your broomstick and cauldron are nice and put away so nobody trips over them, yeah?” With that, he pulled me by the arm past the glaring girl. 

“Well, that was fun,” I muttered as we reached his locker. “Aren’t you glad you came back now?” 

Snorting, he shook his head at me while opening the locker. “You know the worst thing? She’s not that bad to everyone else.” When my mouth opened, he held up a hand quickly. “I know, I know, she’s the wicked witch of the west and all. I get it. I’m with you. I’m just saying, call her an evil Barbie all you want, she’s not an awful person with other people. I’ve seen her around when you’re not there. She’s even stood up for some guys that were being pushed around, believe it or not. It’s just…” He offered a helpless shrug. “I dunno, something about you sets her off. And that’s totally her problem, not yours. I just wish I knew why she’s always hated you so much.” 

“So do I,” I muttered under my breath, frowning as unwanted thoughts about my own family bounced through my head for a moment before I shoved them aside to look at him. “Anyway, I was about to say, sure. I can come over tomorrow for dinner. Wouldn’t want you to have to tell your mom she’s doing all that work for nothing. Especially if she’s near any sharp objects.”

Laughing, Tomas shook his head. “Okay, she’s not that bad about it. Still, good. They’ll be glad to see you, Cassidy.” He offered me that winning smile once more, the one that made my knees weak and drove my heart up into my throat. “I think they’ve missed you even more than I did.” 

“Gee, thanks,” I muttered, blushing a little while kicking his foot lightly. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be there for dinner. I better get to class now though. You know, before that nice, sweet, oh-so-helpful Paige tells the teacher that I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Eswatini or something.”  

“Oh, right, you’ve got another class with her.” Wincing, Tomas offered a weak, “Good luck with that?”

Murmuring a thanks, I headed off to class, stopping by my own locker just long enough to grab the right book. On the way, my phone buzzed. My actual phone, as I hadn’t retrieved the one that Eits gave me. If I didn’t trust the boy enough to have it in my home, I certainly wasn’t going to bring it to class with me. No, it was still safe in its hiding spot for the time being. Eventually I would get my own new burner and return that one to him with a word of thanks. He had saved me from exposing my little secret to his boss, after all. That was… worth something. Worth a lot.

In any case, the text on my actual phone was from Dad. He was letting me know that our own family dinner would be one hour later than usual because there was some big important meeting that he absolutely couldn’t get out of, but that we should definitely be ready for it.

A big meeting that Dad couldn’t get out of on family dinner night? Wow. It wasn’t exactly unheard of to have a late dinner as long as we actually had it any time they weren’t out of town (or ‘out of town’ as I’d recently figured out), but still. It wasn’t common. Something big must’ve come up to keep Dad busy. I wondered if it was an actual business thing, something to do with his Silversmith hero work, or something to do with his evil psychotic monstrous villain work. Christ, my family was complicated, weren’t they? And I really had to find out just how this whole ‘running the city’s villainy’ thing of theirs worked. But how? I knew they had a place under the mall, and there was probably something in one of Dad’s offices (both the ones at home and the ones I knew he kept in the city itself) that might point me in the right direction. And… and I didn’t know. The problem was that I was terrified of my parents finding out or even suspecting that I knew what kind of things they were up to. The only advantage I had right now was that they didn’t know I knew anything. If they did…

“Hey!” Paige voice cut through my musings as she stood impatiently nearby, gesturing until I realized I was standing in the doorway. “I know you think your family owns this entire school. But could you maybe let other people use it still? If it’s not too much to ask.”

Sighing, I headed into class with a dismissive wave. “Sure thing, Princess. Knock yourself out.

“With a bat, preferably.” 

******

After taking a little nap once school was out to recharge my batteries, I took an Uber ride to the mall and picked up a new burner phone. Yeah, I was probably being overly paranoid about what Eits could’ve done to the other phone. Okay, I was definitely being paranoid. But still, I got a new phone and transferred the numbers into it.

I also walked past that door that lead into my family’s… what? What was down there? I had no idea, aside from the fact that it was a place where they apparently did business. I had to get a look inside, but how the hell was I going to pull that off? Unless the pink paint offered me some kind of shapeshifting or shape copying powers…

Wait a second…

Ten minutes later, it was official. The pink paint did not offer me shapeshifting or copying powers. I had tried spraying it on myself in the bathroom and thinking really hard about looking like someone else, and nothing happened. I’d also sadly sprayed someone else who came into the bathroom on their back, only for nothing to happen then either. Which, come to think, it was probably a good thing the paint wasn’t some kind of dissolve your enemies stuff. 

In any case, minor wishful thinking brainstorm proven wrong, I still had no idea what the pink paint did. And I still had no way of getting into the mall basement. So I was basically just striking out all over the place. 

Thankfully, I didn’t have problems with my next two errands, which amounted to buying a new helmet that was almost identical to my old one from a sporting goods store and a couple more coveralls. As before, I covered the purchases by also picking up other things like a whole bunch of painting supplies with the coveralls and some motorcycle maintenance stuff with the helmet. Along with other things to keep it looking as mundane as possible. Of course, in both places I was able to pay at the self checkout, so it didn’t even really matter that much. But still, paranoia was the name of the game. 

That done, I had something approaching a normal costume again. So, after finding a private place to pull the new costume and helmet on, I threw myself into the air, used red paint to hit the top of the building, and lost myself in a quick run across the city. I doubled around a few times and kept an eye out for anyone watching before slipping my way through a couple alleys to reach the store. And only part of that was because of how much I enjoyed using my paint to get around. 

Nearing Wren’s place, I went into that little hiding spot in the alley to retrieve the phone that Eits had given me. There were a few missed messages on it, which I read through. There were a couple from Wren, mostly checking to make sure I was okay after last night, and something about needing to talk to me but that it wasn’t an emergency. There were also a couple from Eits of about the same variety, along with reassurance that he wasn’t going to tell anyone about my grandmother’s recipe. Which was a pretty good way of hiding what he really meant, as far as that kind of thing went. 

First, I sent a message back to him, letting the boy know that I would tell my grandmother she didn’t have to worry. My thumbs hovered over the keypad indecisively for a second before I added, ‘is the kid ok?’

I was just about to let Wren know I was on my way in, when the message from Eits came back. ‘All meds good. Boss says owes u.’

Shaking my head, I sent back a quick message that he’d already paid, then sent a message to Wren saying I was basically right at her doorstep.

As soon as I walked in and down the stairs, Wren jumped up from the couch where she had been watching cartoons. “Paintball! Hi, I… oh, hey, you got a new costume.”

Giving her a thumbs up, I replied, “Sure, can’t go around looking all ripped to pieces, can I? What would people think about the Paintball brand?”

Snickering a little, the girl agreed, “Yeah, I guess you did look kind of scruffy last night. But a good scruffy. A triumphant scruffy.”

“Triumphant scruffy, huh?” I echoed with a smile she couldn’t see. “I’ll take it. But hey, you said you wanted me to come over? And where’s Fred?”

“He had some things to do,” she replied easily before adding, “He wants me to do school stuff again, so he’s picking up some books. He said he was a bad student and he’d be a worse teacher, but that he can at least follow the instructions in the book. Except he said it with more curse words and stuff.”

Shaking that off, she pressed on more excitedly, “But yeah, I wanted you to come over because I need your shoe size. And all your other sizes too, while we’re at it. You know, because I’m gonna be making things for you.” Her grin was wide and contagious. “Right now I had ideas about your skates, so that’s what I’m gonna focus on. If that’s okay?” At the last bit, her smile faltered, as if afraid that I would object. 

“Dude,” I replied, “you do what sounds best to you. I’m sure it’ll be great.”

Her smile returned in full force, and she grabbed my arm to pull me. “C’mon, I sorta need to take plaster casts of your feet. Having the sizes is all well and good, but I need casts if they’re going to fit perfectly.”

So, with a silent thanks that I wasn’t wearing any toenail polish to muddy the waters, I let the kid take casts of my feet with my socks on and socks off. It felt weird, but hey, if I was going to get new Tech-Touched skating toys out of it, I wasn’t going to object. 

Eventually, that was all done and I excused myself. Now that I had a functioning costume again, it was time to pay a visit to Ten Towers to see about picking up that detainment application thing before the judge in Ashton’s case got too annoyed with me. I just hoped Caishen had meant it when she said someone would help me figure out how to fill it out, because the last thing I wanted to do was screw something like that up. 

Anyway, I made it to Towers Plaza. Originally, it was called Three Towers Plaza, back when the founding group was known as Three Towers. Three major international companies who had decided back when Detroit first began to get a name for itself as a major Touched manufacturing city that they would work together and invest into a group to protect their assets from Fell-Touched. Tocher Pharmaceuticals, Saito Automotive, and Autry Media Technologies. They were the founding trio, the companies who constructed the original plaza, consisting of three massive office buildings surrounding a large central… well, plaza. One building housing each company.

But more companies had signed into their deal over the years. Patterson Insurance, the Konners And Bell law firm, Rheese Technologies, Gallop Fuel, Fetchings Grocery, En Route Delivery Services, and Aether Airlines. 

Ten companies. They didn’t build more office buildings for each additional company, of course. The other companies just took up residence in various parts of the established buildings as their local headquarters, buying out entire floors from the original founders. And the name went from being called Three Towers Plaza, to Four Towers Plaza, then Six Towers, and finally they gave up and just went with Towers Plaza. 

That’s where I was, standing on the street staring up the three giant office towers set up at the three sides of this place. The plaza itself was enormous all on its own, with a dozen different well-maintained walkways leading in various directions, a tall black memorial in the center with the names of all fallen Star-Touched from the past twenty years, a restaurant for employees and guests, a small square where street performances were put on, and more. 

Taking a breath, I shoved aside my nervousness and stepped off the sidewalk, officially entering Ten Towers territory. 

I just hoped this wouldn’t take too long, because it was family dinner night. And while I may have been okay with driving Cuélebre into a frothing mad rage, I did not want to face my mother if I was late to that. 

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Interlude 7B – Molly and Ryder (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: Molly was Eits’ civilian name before he transitioned, as mentioned in 6-03.

Just Over One Year Ago

“A one month shifting process, Miss Travers.” The heavyset man with the white bushy beard who looked like Santa Claus in a doctor’s outfit spoke definitively as he sat behind his large oak desk in the wood paneled office. There were no windows in the room. Behind him was an array of certificates and diplomas. To his right were a few animal trophy heads, and a gently crackling fireplace was to his left. The room itself was fairly small, intended to feel like a nice cozy place. 

Except for the animals, Molly Travers supposed. Those heads on the wall probably didn’t find it all that cozy or nice. It also honestly kind of seemed a little weird to have animal head trophies on the wall in a doctor’s office. Let alone an active fireplace. But then again, this wasn’t exactly a normal doctor’s office. 

“One month?” she echoed belatedly, suddenly realizing that she’d been staring at the deer head in silence for a few long seconds. Quickly returning her gaze to the man in question, she added, “Are you sure that’s the best timeframe, Doctor Dyers?” Yeah, her doctor’s name was Dyers. It could’ve been worse though. He could’ve been Doctor Losesallhispatients. 

Dr. Dyers was nodding. “Yes, one month. As I told you when we started, permanent transition like this is different for each individual. The process is easier than it has been in the past with the technology we have access to thanks to Tech-Touched individuals, but that same technology requires a very specialized selection of treatments. We have to account for a lot of things. The process typically varies between two weeks and two and a half months. For you, one month is on the low end. But you know what I mean when I say one month, what that entails?” 

“Taking a bunch of pills every twelve hours and visiting this place every other day without missing once,” Molly confirmed with a firm nod as she met the man’s gaze. “Don’t worry, I know. I’ve wanted this since I was a kid. Since before I knew what this was. I won’t blow it off.” 

“Our new techniques are far less invasive and easier,” Dyers carefully reminded her. “Instead of full surgeries, you’ll simply spend hours every other day inside the tank I showed you. You can sleep through most of it, or listen to an audio book or podcast if you’d like. We have a selection, or you can bring your own and one of my assistants will be glad to set it up for you. Throughout the treatment, assuming you come every day, your body will gradually shift into its… new and permanent form.” He offered a smile before sighing. “All of that knowledge and agreement on your part does bring us to the unfortunately more… mercenary part of the discussion.” 

“Money,” she finished for him. “You can’t start the treatment until you get paid in full.” 

“It’s for your benefit as well,” he assured her. “There can be very bad reactions to starting this process and not finishing it. It’s best that we have all those details in hand before day one.” 

“I’ve got the money,” Molly quickly informed him. She reached down to the duffle bag beside her chair, lifting it up with both hands to set on her lap. It was filled with cash. Cash she’d managed to get over the course of the past couple of months thanks to her new little friends. 

She didn’t know what to call them yet. Ever since she’d touched that orb and gained her powers in the wake of her parents… deciding they didn’t want her to live with them anymore, she’d worked her way through various ideas of what to call the tiny poltergeist-like creatures which allowed her to take over machinery and electronics. Gremlins, ghosts, geists, imps, none of that seemed right. 

All Molly knew for certain was that she made them with her power, and they were basically the only friends she had right now. With Grandpa Warner gone, the rest of her family had… well, they’d always made it clear how they felt about her declarations that she wasn’t… she. 

“Not here,” Dyers informed her. “We don’t keep that kind of cash on hand, Miss Travers. Here.” He took a card from his desk and slid it over to her. “Go to the address here and ask to meet with Ryder. Give him the cash, he’ll make sure it’s right and give you a receipt. Bring that here tomorrow and we’ll get started, okay?” 

Molly agreed, standing up before shaking the man’s hand with her own shaky, clammy one. Then she made her way out of the office and into the small hospital-like area beyond. She’d been here often enough that she knew the route to the exit without help, moving through a short maze of corridors, then heading down a narrow set of stairs and out an unlabeled metal door. 

Rather than a real hospital parking lot or anything, that put her in a narrow alley. Because this wasn’t a regular hospital. It was far less official, a place that didn’t mind taking her stolen money. Money she had stolen from ATM’s and things like that over the past few weeks in order to pay for this procedure. A procedure that would finally let her… him… her be him. 

And wasn’t that confusing enough? Even standing here, right on the cusp of paying for a process that would finally… finally allow her to look like the person she had always felt like, the years of her parents’ violent, vitriolic reactions to her attempts to change her own pronoun had done its damage. The idea of thinking of herself–himself as himself was… scary. It was what she wanted more than anything else in the world, but it was so scary. Even thinking ‘him’ in her own head was enough to make her flinch, expecting her father’s bellowing voice or raised hand. 

So, she’d made a deal with herself. She would stick with ‘her’ until her outside matched her inside. She would answer to her, she would… try to think of herself as her, even if… even if that was wrong. But as soon as her change was far enough along to be noticeable, she would… she would be he from then on. He would be the way he was supposed to be. Maybe she’d have a party for herself then. Heh. Maybe she’d have a party for himself was probably the better way to put that. 

That was stupid. She was stupid. Why was she stupid? Why didn’t she feel the way she was supposed to feel? Her parents were convinced that she was doing this for attention, like dyeing her hair or getting a piercing or a tattoo. They thought she was just acting out to act out, or to betray them, or something like that. 

But the thing her parents had never understood was that she wasn’t trying to be different. She was trying to be normal. That was it, that was the entire thing. They wanted her to be normal and she was trying to be. She was trying to look the way she felt. For her entire life, her body had felt wrong. Looking in the mirror had felt wrong. It had felt like she was puppeting her own body, like she was some foreign entity inside her own head. Her fingers didn’t feel right. Her hair didn’t feel right. Nothing fit the way it was supposed to. She was all just… not right. Wrong. 

Her father was wrong. She didn’t want to turn herself into a freak. She wanted to take the freak and make it normal. She wanted to be the person she was. That was it. She wanted to take the person she was on the inside and make that the person she was on the outside. She wanted… she wanted to feel as though she belonged in her own body. 

Why couldn’t she say that in a way her parents could understand? Why was she too stupid to find the right words? For years she had tried. For years she had failed. They had to exist. There had to be one perfect set of words in one perfect order said in just the right way that would make her parents finally understand. One set of words that would penetrate their fog of stubbornness and hatred. 

Then they’d understand.

Then they’d take her back. 

Then they’d love her. 

With a sigh, she started toward the end of the alley, throwing one of her helpers ahead to start the car that was already waiting there. Technically, she was only sixteen and had not passed her driver’s exam. But that was far from the first of the crimes she’d committed over the past few weeks. Particularly considering the car wasn’t actually hers. She’d return it later. She already knew that the owner never used it during the time he was at his office. By the time he came out, the car would be back in the same parking garage she’d taken it from an hour earlier. Her little friends had already disabled all the trackers on the car and any other security system it had. 

Checking the address on the card Dyers had provided, she used her power to direct the car that way while closing her eyes and leaning back a bit in the seat. It took about ten minutes to drive there. There, in this case, turned out to be an old apartment building. The front was boarded over, but there was a note on the card that said to go around back. So, she drove the car around that way, stopping in a spot close to the rear door and out of sight of the street. 

Unfortunately, she barely stepped out of the car before a truck came pulling up right in the same lot. Belatedly, she realized the truck had been back near the doctor’s office too. Was this some kind of escort that hadn’t been mentioned?

No. No, it was not. She realized that immediately, as soon as the three men in the truck hopped out. One held a shotgun pointed at her, while the other two had metal baseball bats. 

“Hey, bitch,” one of the guys with the bat snapped while taking a couple steps her way with the end of his weapon pointed at her. “We keep seeing you going in and talking to that fucking piece of shit doctor. That fucking butcher. You going to him to get your tits cut off, you fucking freak? Because I’ll tell you one thing. You want a cock where your cunt is? I can help you with that. For a few minutes anyway.”

The door into the apartment building was close. But not close enough to escape that shotgun. And she had no idea what was on the other side. Maybe nothing for all she knew. That Ryder guy might not even be there. The door could be locked. 

“Well?” The spokesman for the trio demanded while stepping even closer. He put the bat up under her chin. “You’re pretty cute. What do you say we show you what you’re supposed to do with,” he used the bat to gesture all over her, “all of this before you go getting all hasty and shit? Who knows, you might change your mind. What do you think, boys? You up for a little education? Maybe we won’t break this one.”

Powers. She had powers. But she’d never used them offensively before. Not like this. And what good could they be right now? The guy was pointing a gun at her and would shoot her before she sent any of her friends out. And the one that was still in the car behind her wasn’t going to be any help. It wouldn’t be able to get anywhere before she was shot or beaten down. She wasn’t a fighter. But she had to do something. She could scream. There could be people around. Screaming could help. Except for that gun. He’d shoot her. She could already see it in his eyes. He was disgusted by her. He wanted to shoot her. He was just waiting for the word. 

If only they’d waited one more month, her obituary could have listed her as the correct gender. 

Somehow, she found her voice. The words came as she looked into the eyes of the man with the bat close to her chin. “I should warn you. You’re right, I’ve been looking for a good penis. But they’re pretty hard to get. So if you put that thing anywhere near me, don’t expect to get it back.”

Rage and hate twisted the man’s face as he reared back with the bat. She jerked backward but tripped, falling on her backside with a yelp. Her wide eyes jerked upward in time to see the bat descending toward her. 

A hand caught the end of the descending bat. Eyes snapping that way, Molly saw a new guy standing there. He was a few years older than her, a fairly tall black guy that stood a bit over six feet, with movie star good looks. 

“Yo, asshole,” the guy with the gun snapped while pointing it toward the new arrival. “This ain’t got nothing to do with you. Fuck off.”

“Yeah, fuckknob,” the man whose bat had been caught snapped while trying to jerk the weapon away, “take a fucking hike, we’re busy.”

If the guy who had caught the bat was bothered by the other man desperately trying to yank his weapon back, he didn’t show it. The muscles in his arm tensed a little bit, but he held firm. “No, see, that’s where you’re wrong. This has got a lot to do with me. Cuz you know all those people who just stand there and bite their tongue while you spout off all that stupid bullshit you were just saying to this person right here? You know all those people who pretend they didn’t hear anything, all the people who embolden you worthless fucking cocksuckers by going conveniently blind and deaf while you get away with all the shit you’ve gotten away with your entire life?

“I’m not one of those people.”

With that simple declaration, the new guy snatched the bat fully away from its owner before instantly snapping it forward so that the handle hit the man in the throat. As he doubled over with a panicked wheeze, the guy pivoted, hurling the bat into the face of the man with the gun just as it went off. But the new guy had already kicked the doubled-over man backward into the path of the shot, and he took the brunt of it. 

Molly realized belatedly that she was screaming. Everything else happened in a blur that was too fast to follow. The guy who had been threatening her was down, bleeding out all over the pavement. The one with the gun had only gotten off that one shot before this stranger was right there, disarming him and putting him down just as quickly and efficiently. 

The man was… was dead. Or dying. The man who had been threatening to… to… Yeah, somehow, she couldn’t muster a whole lot of sympathy. These guys wanted to rape and kill her. And from the way they’d talked, it wouldn’t have been their first time. Yeah, not much sympathy. Yet, despite that, she also couldn’t bear to look at him. 

But there had been three guys, right? Realizing that, Molly heard running footsteps. Her eyes snapped that way in time to see the third guy leaping into the truck. And he had something in his hands. Her bag. The bag with all her money that she’d dropped when the men first arrived. 

“No!” Molly shouted, scrambling to her feet. She held her hand out, reflexively summoning one of her little ghost friends to fly after the truck as it peeled out. But it wasn’t fast enough. The truck roared out into the street and pulled away with a squeal of tires. 

With another almost animal scream, she started to throw herself after the departing truck. But the stranger caught her arm. “Hey, hey. Bad idea. You’ll never catch up.”

Turning to stare at the black guy who had saved her, Molly opened and shut her mouth a few times. Her voice was a tiny whimper. “He took my money. He took everything. I needed that. They won’t help me. They won’t help me without that.”

The guy studied her for a moment. “You’re Molly, right? Yeah, I’m Ryder. And that guy just took all the money you were supposed to give me. I’d say we’re both kind of screwed, but I’m pretty sure you’re in worse shape than me.” 

Obviously seeing the look in her eyes as she all-but collapsed inward on herself, the guy exhaled long and low. “Fuck. I’m sorry. I was trying to lighten the mood, and… sorry. Look, maybe we can still work this out.”

She stared at him, shaking her head. “I can try to get more money, but it’s gonna take a lot longer. They’ve already started extra security procedures from me getting what I had before. I can try other things, but I… I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t… I’m not…”

Holding up a hand to stop her, Ryder interrupted. “You’re Touched. You did that thing with your little ghost gremlin thing. That’s how you got all that money before, right? Yeah. Yeah, we can help each other. See, I happen to know about a certain group that’s hiring people like you, with a finders fee. I think you’ll do pretty well there, and they’ll… they’ll take care of you.”

“Who?” Molly asked hesitantly. 

Turning, Ryder beckoned for her to go around to the passenger side of the car she had arrived in while he stepped down into the driver seat. “Let’s go. There’s gonna be cops on the way with that shotgun going off. I’ll take you over to meet Blackjack and give you an introduction.”

Molly had just gotten in when he said that name, her eyes snapping wide open. “B-Blackjack? La Casa?”

Ryder nodded. “Don’t worry. Like I said, they’ll take care of you. He’s a good guy to have in your corner. Let me do the talking when we get there. I’ll make sure your signing bonus includes that procedure you want.”

For a couple minutes as the guy drove, Molly just stared at him. Her voice, when she found it, quivered a little. “Thank you. Thank you for saving me, and for all of this. Thank you. I just… I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. I just wanted to be myself. I just wanted to feel… right. So… so… thank you, Ryder. And that’s… that’s a pretty good name, by the way,” she added a bit awkwardly. “I like it, Ryder. I mean, don’t worry, I’m not gonna take your name or anything just because–I mean. Um.” 

Another sigh came from the man. “Look, don’t thank me, okay? I just know how to get both of us a bit of what we want, and those guys back there…” He paused before muttering something under his breath that she didn’t catch. “And do whatever you want with the name. It’s not my real one. Just like this…” His hand waved in front of himself. “This isn’t my real face. It’s an illusion. So don’t get any ideas about tracking me down later or whatever. That’s not how this works. Just–” He stopped, eyes rolling up toward the ceiling of the car while they pulled into a lot. “We’re here, I–” There was a buzzing sound, and he took a phone from his pocket. “Fuck. Yeah, I’ve gotta handle this. You’ll be good here, I promise. Get out, go inside, tell the guy at the front in there that the Squire sent you to talk to Jack B. Got it? Jack B. When you get to Blackjack, tell him your story, what you can do, all that. And tell him I get credit for picking you up.” 

Molly was silent for a moment. “I… um. Thanks. I know, I know, you just did it for the finders fee and all that and… just… thanks, Squire. Or whatever your name is.” She started to get out. 

“Simon,” the guy quietly informed her. “It’s Simon. Here.” His hand flicked a card toward her. It was blank except for a phone number hand written on it. “You get in trouble again, or this doesn’t work out… call me. But only if you really have to, you got it? I don’t want you whining at me because you don’t like your hair cut or whatever.” 

“I got it,” she agreed while holding the card tightly. She stepped back after telling him where the car belonged, then shut the door and watched as it sped off with a squeal of tires. 

Looking up at the building in front of her, she swallowed hard. Blackjack? La Casa? Was this… could she really…? 

Slowly, she walked to the door, starting inside. Honestly, she had no idea if Molly could actually do this, be a part of La Casa and actually use her powers for more than very petty crime. 

But maybe Ryder could.

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