Eits

Showdown 7-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Coming down on the roof of the next building, I stumbled and almost fell. It was actually Eits, recovering a bit from his surprise, who caught me. “Paintball, why’d you bring me wi–” 

“Sedans!” I blurted. “Red sedans! Take over every red sedan you can find that doesn’t have anyone in it and bring them with us!” Even as I said it, my hand caught his and I started running, painting my legs green while using my other hand to shoot more green at the boy himself to speed both of us up. We ran together, racing to the other side of the roof. “Cuélebre and his people are after a red sedan, send in more to confuse them! Catch up with the right one and mix them up. Shell game, make them lose track of which is the right one! And keep running!”

We hit the edge of that roof, and I used blue paint to launch both of us upward. I could see Cuélebre in the distance. He wasn’t that far away yet. Faster. I had to be faster. We had to be faster. Because if we didn’t stop this, not only would Cuélebre get the vial in that car in addition to the one he already had, he’d also find out where Wren was hiding. 

I had to get his attention. I had to get him focused on me. And I knew just how to do that. But we had to get close enough. As Eits and I landed on the next roof over and kept running, I held my free arm out and shot a line of red paint ahead of us. A second later, I took my other hand from the boy’s, wrapped my arm around his waist, and let the paint yank us forward. 

We repeated that several times, the motions coming so rapidly I could barely think about them. Activating green paint that was already on my costume to keep moving as fast as possible, blue paint for jumps, red paint to yank us forward, repeat. Repeat, repeat. Everything was a blur, as I raced toward Cuélebre. He may have been literally flying, but we might as well have been. For that short time, I don’t think we spent more than a handful of seconds actually on the ground. Errr, roofs. And to his credit, Eits didn’t barf. I was pretty sure that was mostly because the majority of his attention was on sending his mites out to grab various nearby cars as we passed them, but still. 

There, there! Cuélebre was just ahead of us and slightly above. His attention was focused ahead and down, scanning the street as he hovered there for the moment, clearly intent on spotting the car. Any second now, he was going to dive, grab the sedan, and be out of there. No, no, no, I had to do something! 

Too late, his form started to invert as prepared himself to dive. The car was in sight. He was going for it. He was going to have it. We couldn’t stop him. We couldn’t–

Then I saw it. A sudden freezing in his body language. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew there would be a look of confusion. And in the distance, I saw cars. Sedans. Red sedans. They were coming in from every other street. Eits had captured them, was bringing them along and sending the cars in to distract and disorient Cuélebre. Soon, the real car was surrounded by other, similar-looking cars. The whole street was flooded with over a dozen red sedans. 

It was enough to make Cuélebre freeze in confusion for a second. And that was all I needed. “Keep going!” I blurted to Eits, painting him orange for protection before running forward with him. I leapt, dropping Eits down to land sprawled out on the roof of one of his cars. He’d be fine.

As for me, I hurled myself upward, shooting a line of red paint right at the small vial still clutched in Cuélebre’s massive hand. The paint struck the vial, yanking it out of his grip as he made a sound of surprise. It flew into my waiting grasp, while I flew by just underneath the giant demon-man. 

“Yoink!” I shouted at him, my terror mixing with my glee. Clutching the vial, I hit the next roof over, rolling and spinning to come up on one knee and one foot, facing back the way I had come. 

Cuélebre was there, staring at me in flat disbelief mixed with clearly mounting rage. 

“Hey, buddy,” I blurted, “don’t you know it’s rude to take things that don’t belong to you? I think you need a time-out!” With that, I sent a wave of white paint that hit his face before he could react, activating it for a blinding flash of light that left him reeling with a deafening roar of fury that shook the air and left me wishing I could call a timeout to piss my pants. 

Instead, I used the brief moment that gave me to spin away and run. Escape. I had to lead Cuélebre away and escape. Pissed as he was right now, he’d be right on my tail. And I was pretty sure he wouldn’t stop at exchanging a few ugly words. 

I ran, fleeing as fast as I could while activating paint on myself to keep going. All I could think about was the next step, the next jump, the next second of flying wildly through the air. Part of me expected to feel a lightning bolt go through me any instant. But no, he wanted the vial. He needed the vial, and wouldn’t risk destroying it, no matter how angry he was about me taking it from him. 

At least, that’s what I hoped. 

Sure enough, there was another roar, and chancing a quick glance back showed Cuélebre already hurling himself my way. He was closing the distance terrifyingly quickly, and I launched myself off the edge of the roof with a reflexive yelp of fear. 

That time, instead of aiming for the next roof, I saw an open window partway up on an apartment building. There was a man standing there smoking and leaning out. He looked up at the last second, saw me flying toward him, and jerked backward, dropping the cigarette. 

I went right through the open window hands first in a diving position, rolling as I hit the floor. “Stay down, stay down!” I blurted, already back up on my feet and running. Through the kitchen, the living room, a short hallway, I hit the front door, practically crashed through it while taking barely enough time to twist the knob, and found myself in the main hall of the building, apartment doors lining the walls along both sides. Without thinking about it, I spun to the right, toward the tall window at the end of the corridor. My hand snapped down, grabbing hold of a fire extinguisher, and I activated a spot of purple on what remained of my formerly intricate painted image. With a grunt, I hurled the extinguisher at the window, sending it through with a crash. 

Cuélebre would hear it. He would know where I was. But I wanted him to. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for was him tearing his way through these people’s apartments trying to get me. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t in the building anymore. 

Sure enough, even as I threw myself out the broken window and used a shot of red paint to yank myself toward a billboard in the distance, I could hear a rush of motion overhead. Cuélebre. He was diving toward me, so at the last second I cancelled the paint, spinning over on my back in mid-dive. Falling through the open air toward the hard street below, I forced myself to ignore just how very dead I would be if I hit it. Instead, I focused on the giant demon man coming after me. A shot of green, yes green, paint hit him while I activated yellow paint on myself. 

My fall slowed, even as Cuélebre’s descent dramatically sped up. He shot past just barely ahead of me, his grasping hand missing while he blurted a violent curse. An instant later, he crashed into the street, sending up a huge spray of dirt, rocks, and concrete and knocking over a couple lamp posts. 

Meanwhile, I used a new shot of red paint to yank my (now much slower-falling) body over to that billboard from before. Landing on it, I had time to glance down, seeing Cuélebre dragging himself out of the rather substantial crater he’d made in the middle of the street. Water was spraying from a broken hydrant, and I could see people fleeing down the sidewalks. But he wasn’t paying them any mind. Not that he was calm or collected. If anything, he was even more pissed off than before. But he didn’t care about the people running away from him. No, he was looking right up at me, eyes smoldering with hatred and promised retribution. 

Right, time to leave. Really, really time to leave. 

Spinning to throw myself off the billboard, I hit the next roof over already running. A new shot of green paint at my feet pushed my speed back up, as I sprinted flat-out for the edge of the building with Cuélebre’s angry bellow filling the air behind me. One step after another, vial clutched tightly in one hand while my ears listened intently to the rushing wind sound of the giant monster flapping his wings and launching himself upward after me with another shouted threat. 

And here we went again. Me being chased through the city by a monster who could easily rip me apart if he managed to get hold of me. Was this getting repetitive yet? Because my heart didn’t think so, considering the way it was beating so hard it felt like it might jump out of my chest and take off without me. 

Cuélebre dove. I leapt off the edge of the building, spiraling into a dive just as he landed right where I had just been. His massive hand lashed out, narrowly missing me as I plummeted toward the ground. Activating a bit of orange paint on my back, I forced myself to keep falling. Cuélebre had hurled himself down after me, but I was pretty sure he wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice. That was okay, I had a different trick in mind. 

The ground rushed up at me. Every instinct I had said to bail out. But I let myself keep falling, arms extended as if I was diving into water. Above and behind me was Cuélebre, just waiting for me to try to yank myself in any direction. He knew I’d have to, or I’d hit the ground. I had about five seconds from the time I leapt off the roof until… well, until it would be too late. With three seconds left, I pointed with my hand and fired off a spray of red paint. Just as Cuélebre expected. Only I wasn’t pulling myself anywhere. Instead, I shot the paint at a parked car. A thought brought the car off the ground, making the literal car come flying up toward me. Toward my red glove.

Two seconds left. I cut the connection with the car, but it kept coming, its momentum bringing it upward. The car was spinning end over end as it came, and I timed a shot of blue paint to hit the roof. It made one more full revolution just before impact. My outstretched hands hit the blue spot I’d made (the orange paint I’d activated earlier protecting me from breaking every bone in them as well as my arms), and I was instantly rocketed backwards and up. 

Flying backwards, I shot right between Cuélebre’s arms as the man made a noise of surprise. An instant later, the car completed its next revolution and slammed into him. The sound of crunching metal and exploding glass filled the air, as well as an actual yelp of pain from the man. Apparently flying what amounted to face-first into a car didn’t do him any favors. Particularly after having flown face-first into the ground just before that. 

But he wasn’t anywhere near down. A fact he made abundantly clear by lashing his tail up and back at me just as I was passing. I managed to snap my free hand out, catching hold of the tail while activating a spot of purple on my arm. My momentum made me spin around the tail like it was a pole in gymnastics, and I very nearly lost my grip. But I managed to hang on, spinning myself all the way around before releasing the tail to drop onto the flailing man’s back. Bending my knees like I was a surfer riding a very large, very unstable board, I found words blurting their way out of my mouth. “We keep meeting like this. Maybe we should schedule a nice dinner instead. It sounds less painful for you.” 

Recovering from the brief second of being stunned by taking a car to the face, Cuélebre snarled a dark, “I’ll bring you dinner in the hospital, boy.” He said the last word like it was an insult, his tail already lashing in from the side in a clear attempt to knock me off his back (and likely into his waiting hand). But before it could hit, I flipped up and over, shooting a bit of yellow paint down to slow him while speeding myself up once more with green. That way, he didn’t completely leave me behind. His tail had barely cleared the spot just under me as I came down, landing on his back once more. A shot of red paint at the blade of the tail and another toward the man’s own back just as I cancelled the yellow jerked the tail that way and made the man literally stab himself. 

“Chess game in the park, maybe?!” I blurted over the sound of his enraged bellow. While he was still recovering, yanking the blade of his tail free, I shot three more lines of red paint at the ground, and one at the man’s back. Then I hurled myself off him while shouting over my shoulder, “Call me, we’ll set something up!” 

With that, I activated the paint. The man was yanked downward partway before stopping. Landing on the edge of a window balcony, I could see his enormous muscles straining, the man spitting curses and threats. He was managing to keep himself in the air against the pull of the paint, but only just. 

Ten seconds, I had ten seconds where he’d be held or at least slowed down. I had to use them. One more shot of red paint took me to the next roof, and I activated my skates, landing easily on the wheels before pushing off. Green paint, green paint, green paint! I used it, launching myself across that roof as fast as I could go. Cuélebre’s pants-browning scream did a lot to make me forget about how tired I was, as I clutched the vial in my hand and pushed myself to keep moving.

Hitting the edge of the roof, I heard another bellow from Cuélebre. And then the first lightning bolt struck. It came from the sky, slamming into the roof about a dozen feet away from me. The power of it was enough to almost throw me forward, even as the resulting boom deafened me. 

But Cuélebre wasn’t done. A second strike came an instant later, followed by a third. Each one progressively closer. The man couldn’t even see me yet, he was just hurling lightning in the direction he’d seen me go. He had completely lost his goddamn mind

With a yelp, I threw myself off the roof. There wasn’t even time to make any blue paint or anything. I just had to leap, an instant before the next lightning strike hit the spot right where I had just been. It was an almost perfect shot from a guy who couldn’t even see me! 

I was falling through the air, windmilling and screaming. A quick thought, almost entirely reflex, brought my hand up to point across the street. From the corner of my eye, I could see the fire escape in an alley between the two buildings. Red paint, please, please…

It went off, and I was yanked that way. Yanked that way… just as yet another bolt of lightning struck. This one came so close all I saw was a blinding light. Pain engulfed my body, as a scream tore its way out of my throat. At some point, I had instinctively activated every bit of orange left on my costume. But it still hurt. Oh God, did it ever hurt. 

Everything came in a bit of a blurry, dazed rush then. I felt the air rushing past me. I felt myself hit the fire escape, slip off it, fall to land on top of the dumpster below, then roll off it to land on the ground. Barely conscious, I rolled over. It took absolutely everything I had, but the sound of Cuélebre approaching spurred me to move through the pain, through the desperate need to fall unconscious. I pushed myself and rolled under that dumpster. My helmet fell off in the process.

The demon man landed a moment later, hitting the street beyond before a chuckle escaped him. “No more wisecracks, little boy?” he demanded. “Why don’t you come out and invite me to dinner again?” 

He didn’t know where I was. But he did know that I was somewhere in the area, and hurt. It wouldn’t take him long to narrow down the possibilities. I had to do something. I had to… to move… to… think. But my vision kept fading in and out, and the thought of moving made me whimper mostly silently. Everything hurt. 

Then I heard it. Not Cuélebre. Another voice. 

“I think you’ve done enough damage for one night.” 

Silversmith. It was Silversmith. My dad. His voice was different from how I knew him, of course. But it was him. Turning my head a little, I could see the silver-armored man appear right in front of the giant demon, facing him down. 

A month earlier, I would have been elated. That was Silversmith, my favorite hero in the whole world. And he was, knowingly or not, saving my life. Saving me. It would have been one of the most amazing moments in my life. 

Now… now I knew the truth. I knew Silversmith was my father, and that he killed people. So mostly… mostly I was just confused about how I was supposed to feel right now. Confused, tired, sore, and trying very hard to stay conscious. 

“I am not in the mood, Hero-Man,” Cuélebre growled in a dismissive voice. Even as he said it, I saw the slight spark on his tail appear. Then a bolt of lightning, aimed straight at my father, tore down from the sky. 

It was intercepted by a large silver shield that appeared in the air. A similar (though smaller) shield appeared on my dad’s arm, along with a sword in his other hand as he calmly informed the Oscuro leader, “You’re about to be in a worse one.”

Cuélebre struck, lunging forward to swipe at my father. But just as he moved (thus negating his own invulnerability power that kicked in when he stood still), something slammed into him from behind. It was a truck. No, it was one of Silversmith’s constructs made to look like a truck. Either way, the shiny metal thing crashed into Cuélebre, just as Dad ducked and turned in one smooth motion. The giant demon man bellowed as he was hurled over Silversmith’s head and sent flying down the street and out of my line of sight. 

The form of the truck broke apart an instant after impact, turning back into its default liquid metal form. Like a big ball of floating mercury, or the T1000 Terminator.  

Silversmith, my dad, was already throwing himself up and backward. He crashed into his own liquid metal ball before stopping there as the stuff hardened and shaped itself around him. Soon, it didn’t look like a floating ball of liquid or a truck anymore. It had turned into what amounted to a battlesuit, armor as large as Cuélebre was. Silversmith was inside it. 

Another bolt of lightning came, but the large shield that had blocked it the first time had already spun through the air to catch against Dad’s new armor’s arm, and he caught the bolt easily. Then he pushed off, disappearing from sight as he chased after his giant opponent. 

They were gone. They were both gone. I was… I was safe? Safe, right. Sure. Safe here in my hiding place.  

I was hiding again. Just as I had on that first night, back when I had found out about my brother, about my family. After everything that had happened, there I was, lying under a dumpster and hiding again. 

It was too much. With the immediate danger gone, all I could do was lay there listening to the fighting between Cuélebre and my father as it faded into the distance. My eyes blinked a few times, straining to keep myself awake. I had to keep going, I had to… to use this chance to get out of here before something happened. Stay awake… Stay awake, damn it, stay…

I passed out.

****** 

“Paintball!” 

The voice dragged me back to consciousness. As my eyes blinked blearily open, I felt every muscle in my body protest even that movement. Groaning, I turned my head, reaching down to pull the helmet up with one hand before shoving it onto my head. Unfortunately, the view was… distorted, cracked. 

The visor of the helmet. It was shattered in a couple places. As I pushed myself out from under the dumpster with another groan, my hand moved to push the helmet off once more. Something was in my other hand. I looked down. The vial. It was still there, still intact by some miracle. I’d held onto it through all of that. 

“Paintball!” It was Eits, frantically calling my name as he came around the corner. When he saw me, he made a noise of relief. “Oh God, there you are! Are you okay? I was following in one of the cars. I saw you go down somewhere over here but I couldn’t get close until Silversmith chased the big guy off. He–he’s gone now. They’re gone. But you… are you…” 

“I’m okay,” I muttered, shaking off the lingering daze as much as I could. It hurt, everything hurt. And my ears were still ringing. But I was alive. “I’m okay, and I’ve got the vial. It’s–” Blinking up at the boy to find him staring at me in what looked like total shock, I hesitated. “What… what’s wrong? I–” 

Wait. Wait. What was wrong with my voice? It was– wait. My free hand found my phone. It was heavily damaged, the screen partially crushed, with random lines and colors across the cracked screen. Which meant my voice changer was gone. Which meant–

“Oh my God,” Eits stammered. 

“You’re a girl!”

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Showdown 7-06 (Summus Proelium)

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That saying ‘all hell broke loose’ didn’t apply here. Not because violence didn’t erupt, but because those words in that order utterly failed to really portray just how much violence erupted and just how quickly. Hell didn’t break loose, it was a meteor that suddenly and apocalyptically slammed into the Earth. Followed by several more meteors that came slamming in behind the first because they just couldn’t stand to miss all the fun.  

Honestly, the best analogy I had for it was one time when I had needed to ask Simon something a few years back. I’d gone into his room to find him lying on his bed with his headphones on. Next to the door was his wall-to-wall sound system, so I’d just reached out and hit a button with the headphone symbol on it. Pretty dumb, I know. It turned off the headphones, and suddenly the entire room had been flooded with screaming, earsplitting metal music. It had, with the touch of a button, shifted all that music from being pumped through his headphones to being pumped through the dozen different high-end speakers he had scattered throughout all of his rooms. My ears had practically been ringing for days after that little mistake. 

That’s what this was like. Not that it had been exactly peaceful before, but when the Ninety-Niner and Oscuro troops had surrounded Pack (and her pack), Eits, That-A-Way, Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, Carousel, and me, the violence had at least paused. Mostly because we really hadn’t stood the slightest ghost of a chance in that position, against those kind of numbers. But now that Blackjack and more of La Casa had, in turn, surrounded the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, everything just sort of exploded. Violently. 

For me, ‘violence exploded’ was pretty apt, considering basically the same instant everyone started fighting, just as I dropped my phone back in the pocket that hadn’t been cut open, something hit me. It was Cuélebre’s tail. I saw it coming from the corner of my eye, just in time to activate a bit of the orange within the image I’d painted across my costume. Even then, the tail still struck me with enough force that I was lifted clear off the ground and sent hurtling through the air with a belated scream. Flailing, I failed to actually right myself properly before colliding with a dumpster near the corner of the loading dock behind the store. The orange paint meant I didn’t end up with any broken bones (or worse), but I was still dazed, slumping to the asphalt with a low groan as my vision went a little blurry for a moment. 

The fighting, of course, didn’t stop for me. Gunshots and more filled the air, even as I groggily lifted my head to stare in that direction, trying to blink the daze away. Two Ninety-Niner thugs with shotguns were hoisted off their feet, slammed into one another, and hurled away in opposite directions by a couple of Whamline’s coils. Those same coils exploded in front of Coverfire, the concussive force knocking him away from That-A-Way while he was still trying to grab her. An instant later, there was a sharp whistling sound and a narrow distortion in the air slammed into Whamline. It was Silbón, a guy from Oscuro with a dark wide-brimmed hat over a dark gray face mask that left his mouth exposed and ragged clothes. 

Silbón was joined by a couple Oscuro thugs firing guns. They were set upon by Twinkletoes and Holiday. One of the Syndicates was on the ground. Another was shot at several times, but the bullets went through his semi-translucent body. The guy who shot at him was hit by one of those electric shopping carts directed by one of Eits’ mites (going faster than I thought those carts were capable of), just before one of the La Casa troops dove into him, both thugs rolling across the ground as they each fought for leverage against the other. 

Violence. Fighting. More than I could possibly hope to follow. Double Down, Blackjack, Cardsharp, and another member of La Casa named Hardway (a guy who manipulated inertia and motion of himself or things around him) were fighting Cuélebre and Sandon. The latter wore a modernized suit of armor with a lion’s pelt over the back, its fake ‘head’ functioning as her helmet and mask. They were all fighting in a jumble of motion and violence. Everyone was. It was all blurred movements, gunshots, powers flying off, the roar of animals and screams of both anger and pain. By the time I dragged myself off the ground, half the people there were down for one reason or another. Some would be down for much longer than others, but either way, the violence was taking its toll. This was too many people with too many powers and weapons in too close of quarters. Even as I took a step that way, my eyes caught sight of Pack and That-A-Way, bumping up against each other just as a figure loomed up behind them. It was another teenager, though definitely not part of the Minority. He wore the completely cliche ‘inmate’ outfit of a black and white striped prison suit with a black burglar mask and one of those prisoner numbers written across the front of the striped shirt. I had… no idea what his powers were. But before either That-A-Way or Pack could react, his hands grabbed each of them by the shoulders and all three disappeared. The ‘prisoner’ guy as well as both girls vanished. 

No! No, no, no! Where were they?! What– then I realized that Pack’s creatures must have been linked to her or something, because all of them disappeared a second later too. Hopefully, whatever prisoner boy had been doing, he hadn’t planned on that. 

But I didn’t have time to think about it. I didn’t have time to think about anything. Suddenly, just as I saw the group vanish in front of my eyes, a guy grabbed me from behind. It was just some random Ninety-Niner thug. I smelled awful alcohol breath as he yanked me off my feet with an arm around my waist, his other hand groping down my side toward the unruined pocket as he snarled, “Okay, kid, where’s the other vials, huh?! Where are they?!” 

That was what it took. Up to that point, since the moment Cuélebre’s tail had knocked me thirty feet into the dumpster, everything had taken on a bit of a dreamlike quality. My ears had been ringing, and I’d just sort of been staring at all this fighting in a daze for the past few seconds, as if I wasn’t really there. It was like I was watching all of this on television rather than interacting with it. But this guy grabbing me, that was enough to snap me out of all that and make me remember that I was actually involved.

As the guy groped over my leg looking for my pocket, I quickly turned that part of my pants blue and activated it, sending his hand snapping up and back. At the same time, I drove my helmeted head backward into his face. The combination of both made him drop me with a yelp, and I turned while landing, sending a shot of red paint into his chest while my left glove turned red as well. Activating both yanked him toward me, just as my other hand turned purple and decked the guy. He hit the ground and didn’t move. 

Another guy was coming for me, but I painted my legs green and my feet purple, using that to leap up and over him, twisting in the air before coming down right on top of his shoulders. He collapsed under my weight, and as we both fell to the ground, I snapped my hand to the side, shooting a spray of yellow paint at a group of bad guys who were going after Wobble and Carousel. They suddenly slowed dramatically, giving those two a chance to deal with them while I rolled forward off the guy I had just dropped onto. 

Unfortunately, that put me right at the feet of the Oscuro Touched with the wide-brimmed hat. Silbón. His power involved whistling, of course. Basically, any time he was whistling, he was almost entirely immune to damage. He would absorb that damage, and could then expel it through a whistle. When he did, his whistle would take on the same traits as the damage he had absorbed. He could whistle to absorb bullets, whistle again to absorb lightning, and whistle a third time to absorb fire. After that, he could, at any point, use the kinetic force of the bullets, the electricity from the lightning, or the heat from the fire in his whistles. Using a damage type spent the charge of absorbing it, but he tended to have absorbed a lot. 

Just as I ended up basically half-sprawled in front of the man, staring up at his black mask under that wide hat, he pursed his lips. Eyes widening, I slapped my hand against his foot and put black paint there. 

No sound came. I’d muted him. He had a moment to somehow look surprised despite me only being able to see his lips before I twisted around and drove my foot up between his legs with a bit of purple-paint boost. Then he wasn’t interested in trying to whistle anymore. But I still kicked him a couple more times just to be sure. 

Scrambling back to my feet, I snapped my gaze over to the fighting. It was… uhh… wow. Chaotic. Still. A couple random thugs were coming for me, but I blue-launched myself up and back, flipping in the air to land on the edge of the metal awning over the loading bay. Activating a bit more orange meant that the bullets they shot up at me just made me stagger a bit before I managed to yank their guns away with a shot of red. Before they could react to that, I took a few steps back out of their line of sight, tossing the pistols away to either side. And then I sort of… doubled over and tried not to hyperventilate while hugging myself. The shouting and screaming coming from everywhere, being shot at, nearly being hit by Silbón, all of it just… just… it was too much. It was too fucking much. And what about Pack and That-A-Way?! Were they okay? What was going on? Where were they? What could I do? What–

Nothing. I couldn’t do anything for them, not at the moment. I just had to hope they were okay, and focus on what was going on right here, right now. I could do this. I had to do this. I couldn’t abandon them down there. I had to help get that vial back. 

That settled, I took a deep breath before running forward, using a mixture of purple and blue paint to launch myself into the air. Between the two, I was sent really high and really far. Sailing over the battlefield, I helped out the best way I could. Namely, I first used yellow paint to slow my own descent, then used all the time I had while passing over the fighting to hit bad guys with more yellow paint and good guys with a mixture of green, purple, and orange. Mostly green and orange, as I couldn’t expect them to suddenly know that they were strong. But being faster and tougher would help regardless. As would their opponents suddenly being much slower. 

It helped so much that, by the time I landed on the far side of the lot, dropping into a roll, most of the random Ninety-Niner and Oscuro Prevs were down. Between the four Syndicates, Wobble, Whamline, and the La Casa people, they dealt with their unpowered opponents neatly. Unfortunately, that didn’t solve the issue of the guys who did have powers. Especially Sandon and Cuélebre. And that situation had gotten worse, as I saw Hardway off on the far side of the field trapped inside Ringside’s bubble. The two of them were fighting sans any powers as Ringside had apparently elected to remove Hardway’s at the expense of her own, and both were really good at that. They would be busy for awhile. 

Meanwhile, the remaining three La Casa people were fighting the leadership of the two rival gangs. Blackjack’s power wasn’t exactly suited to straight up and prolonged confrontation, but he had Double Down and Cardsharp for that. And they were definitely earning their keep. 

As far as Sandon went, the Ninety-Niners’ leader had been around long enough that her powers were pretty well known. They revolved around bones. Yeah. Basically, touching a bone gave her access to all of that person’s strength and general toughness. If they were a Touched with enhanced strength, it gave her a portion of that as well. Of course, touching bones from multiple different people gave her each of their strength together. And the inside of her suit was apparently completely lined with little pieces of bone. She was one of the straight-up strongest people in the city just because whenever someone with super strength showed up, she made a point of hunting them down and taking a piece of bone from them if possible. Which was eeeuuuggh.  

So yeah, between Sandon and Cuélebre, there was a lot of strength on the bad guy’s side. Double Down’s ability to absorb any kinetic force that hit him and Cardsharp’s power to alter her own physical properties to make herself tougher helped deal with that somewhat, but they couldn’t actually hurt the bastards enough to put them down. The best they could do was let Double Down absorb enough kinetic force to send right back at the Oscuro and Ninety-Niner leaders, while Blackjack used his own power to watch for the right moment and target. I kept seeing him randomly using a pistol to shoot at Cuélebre’s tail for some reason. Then I noticed that every time the tail was struck, a bit of electricity shot off of it. Like it was fizzling. 

Was Cuélebre’s tail how he summoned lightning? And was Blackjack shooting it to disrupt his attempts to do so every time? Was that why he hadn’t just fried everyone already? 

Well, that and the fact that he didn’t know where the other vials were, beyond the one in his hand. That was probably why he wasn’t just throwing lightning around everywhere, beyond Blackjack stopping him from using calculated strikes. Hell, maybe that was why Blackjack was able to stop him, because it took more time for him to carefully aim or something. Enough time for Blackjack to hit that spot of his tail. 

Whatever the answer, I was just glad we weren’t fried. Because we already had enough problems. As I crouched there, trying to present as small a target as possible while watching for an opening in the midst of their busy fight, I saw it. The vial was still in Cuélebre’s hand while he was fighting. It was right there. 

Unfortunately, just as I prepared myself to try and take it from him with a careful application of red paint, there was another interruption. This one came in the form of a figure who appeared in the middle of their fight. He was a tall guy in a dark red hood and cloak over a white bodysuit with a collar that extended up over the lower half of his face. Longhaul. That was Longhaul. 

The second he appeared, the man used his power to send Blackjack, Double Down, and Cardsharp to the far side of the parking lot, while looking at his leader. “They found the car that took off, it’s on the far side of Campus Martius Park. Still no driver.” 

Wren. She was remote driving the thing to get it out of here. 

Sandon was already looking to Cuélebre, who smiled. He was looking right at me. He read my body language. “The vials. That’s where they are.” 

Blackjack was coming. So were the others. But Cuélebre bellowed a deafening, “Do it!” At the same time, his wings came slamming down, as he launched himself upward. 

And then a woman’s voice called, “Ladies and gentlemen!” At that, my eyes, as well as basically all of those attached to anyone on our side in the immediate area, snapped over to see a woman in a sexified version of a ringmaster’s outfit sitting there on a motorcycle. Where had she come from? It was Grandstand, Cuélebre’s second-in-command. Even as everyone looked that way, she smiled. “Follow the leader.” Then the motorcycle kicked into motion, peeling out and swerving around before tearing out of the lot. 

After her. We had to go after her. Everyone else was already rushing that way, leaping into action to catch up with the woman. But just as I went to follow, intent on using green and red paint to catch up and maybe stop her, a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back. It was Eits. He shook me violently, yelling something about Cuélebre at me. But who cared about Cuélebre when–wait. 

Grandstand’s power faded a second later as Eits shook me violently once more. I snapped out of it in time to see everyone else disappearing as they took off after her. After the distraction. 

“Cuélebre!” Eits shouted at me. “He’s getting away, what do we do?!” 

“How did you–” Then I realized it was probably the fact that his focus had been split between his own mind and all of his mites. That had saved him from Grandstand’s power. And there wasn’t time to worry about it anyway. 

“Close your eyes,” I blurted, grabbing onto Eits. He had time to yelp before I launched both of us into the air through a combination of blue paint at our feet and a red paint yank at the nearby building. We went up and over the roof, while I informed the boy currently holding on for dear life, “There’s a demon trying to catch a car, and we’ve gotta catch him first.”

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Showdown 7-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently the Minority communications worked despite the jammer. Probably because they were all within the same area the jammer was affecting or something. Either way, the Syndicate with us was able to talk with the rest of his team outside, including his other selves. They coordinated what was about to happen, doing so with what amounted to a thirty second explanation. And given that we were about to have Cuélebre and Sandon dropped on our heads, even that felt like too long. We needed to get the hell out of here right freaking now.

First, I had to go grab Ashton. Vaguely tempting as it might’ve been to leave him here, I wasn’t going to do that. Instead, I moved up to where I’d left him in the ice cream aisle. He was… uhh, yeah, definitely losing his mind. When he saw me, his wild eyes focused and he shouted something that was muffled by the currently transparent visor. 

“Let me guess,” I dryly replied, “you need to scratch your nose like a son of a bitch.” Even as I said it, my hand was pulling the remote out and I quickly hit a couple buttons on it that Wren had told me about. “There, you can move now. But before you try running away, there’s a couple things you should know. First, there’s a whole bunch of guys out there from two different gangs who would love to torture you if you can’t convince them that you don’t have what they want. Or just for fun, because you wasted their time. Not to mention the fact that one of those gangs is the one whose people you used to piss off La Casa in the first place. And second, you definitely can’t get that suit off without Wren’s help, which means that anytime I hit the recall button, you’ll come marching right back to me anyway. I’m not going to unmute you, because we really don’t have time for any more bullshit. But I’m not leaving you here either, so come on.”

There was the briefest of hesitations, before he seemed to deflate a little bit and moved to follow me. I led him to the back of the store quickly, while giving him a brief explanation of what we were going to do. If he had any input on the plan, his facial expression and body language didn’t really depict it. Not to mention the fact that after all the times that he had said he was fine with a little girl dying for his revenge, I wasn’t really interested in his strategy ideas anyway. 

The two of us reached the back storeroom, passing a bunch of heavily-laden shelves before finding the others. As soon as we came into view, Pack put a hand on Mars Bar and pointed to Ashton. “See him? He stays with you. If he tries to go anywhere else besides with you until I say otherwise, rip one of his arms off and try beating him with it.”

While the bearguana growled, Syndicate cleared his throat. “Can we avoid openly discussing criminal acts like torture for a little while? I know I said we’d catch you guys another time, but you really shouldn’t go out of your way to make me regret that. And who are you anyway?”

“He’s on vocal timeout,” I replied. “But this is Ashton Austin, the guy behind that bank robbery that you guys have all been looking for. When this is over, you can have him. So, you see? You’re not getting out of this totally empty-handed after all.”

He looked back-and-forth between us briefly before simply noting, “If we get out of it. And if we do, we’re gonna have a lot more questions for you.”

“If we do, I’ll see about answering them.” With that, I looked over to the nearby closed loading dock doors. “So, are we doing this, or what?”

Syndicate nodded. “Remember the plan. All we need to do is get everyone to That-A-Way and she’ll teleport us out of here. We don’t need to stay and fight. We don’t need to win anything. We just need to get out. And we need them to know we’re gone so they leave everyone in the store alone. We make a break for it, go through any forces we need to, and teleport away. That’s it.”

Eits gave him a thumbs up. “Yeah, trust me chief, some of us aren’t interested in fighting at all. Running away sounds pretty good.”

For a second, it looked as though Syndicate was going to say something about that, before he just shook his head and asked, “Anything else?”

I quickly spoke up. “Yeah, this.” Raising my hands, I shot some orange paint at everyone in turn, including the lizard creatures. Two at a time (one with each hand), I hit everyone with a circle of the paint. “There, as soon as I activate this, which I will once we get out there, you’ll be tougher for about ten seconds. Bulletproof tough. And here.” For good measure, I added a spot of green paint to everyone as well. “Now you’ll all be faster too. Again, just for ten seconds. You’ll be faster and tougher than they expect. Just use it to get to That-A-Way.”

“Dude,” Eits intoned in what sounded embarrassingly like awe. “Support classes kick ass.”

Flushing under the helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal, really. If we had more time, I’d do more, but we’re sort of pressed right now.”

Syndicate looked like he might say something to that, but in the end he just snorted and used his com. “We good out there? Okay. Other me going on three, the rest of us hold until he’s got their attention at the front. One, two, three.”

Even knowing it was coming, I didn’t hear anything at first. I was listening for the reaction and there was nothing. Which made sense, we wouldn’t get anything overt until he made them think he was—

Aaaand the gunfire started. Suddenly we could hear all those guns coming from outfront. It was like someone had unleashed a swarm of monsters from hell. And those monsters were really pissed off. 

“Wait,” Syndicate cautioned, holding up a hand. “Wait for it. Wait for them to really commit to it. He’s in the store. Now they’re trying to break through that security shield. They’re breaking it, and… and they’re in! They’re moving through the front! Go, go!” 

We went. Eits had control of the security system, and he instantly opened the sealed doors. As planned, he opened all of them, the big rolling doors on all of the loading docks, and the regular-sized doors as well. They all opened as one, and we booked it through the loading door furthest to the left. We weren’t going to take the time to go through one of the regular doors. This way, we could all flood out and run for it. Hopefully, that way this would be less of a shooting gallery for the guys facing us. 

The second the doors were up and we were moving, I hung back just enough to let the others get ahead of me, and activated the orange and green paint I had to put over everyone. Suddenly, we were all moving even faster than our fear and adrenaline had been managing to make us move already. Which, honestly, was saying something. 

It was safe to say that the guys out back were pretty surprised by our appearance. They had been looking around toward the sides at the sound of gunfire from the front, when we suddenly came pouring out of the now open door right in front of them. Only a few of the many who were there managed to start firing immediately. And for that, the orange paint did its job. I saw several of the others take a couple hits that did little more than sting them thanks to the paint. Mars Bar by himself, probably thanks to his size and sheer intimidation factor, was hit a good six or seven times in those first couple seconds. He barely reacted, aside from opening his mouth to give a loud, pants-wetting roar while slamming into three guys at once. They went flying like bowling pins, while a fourth guy tried to open up on the bear with a shotgun. But Mars simply snatched it out of his hand, crumbling the gun like it was made of tissue paper with one paw, before grabbing him in the other and sending the man flying a good twenty or thirty feet with a dispassionate shove that way. 

Holiday grabbed a guy’s leg and ran off with him, dragging the poor bastard along with her as he screamed. Two other guys tried to shoot at her, but Tuesday and Twinkletoes wrecked them pretty thoroughly on their way past. One was walloped in the back of the head by a nearly invisible gorilla-lizard, while the other took a small, yet really dangerous monkey-lizard fist to the privates. The former was left completely unconscious, while the latter just really wished that he was. 

The first thing I did upon emerging and taking all this in was shoot a spray of blue paint as wide as I could make it around the feet of the group in front of us. Activating it sent them flying in every direction with a collection of screams. Which worked nicely to clear the path of the guys that Mars hadn’t already trampled through. 

Ashton was just behind the bear, apparently having taken Pack’s warning to heart. Or maybe he really didn’t want to be left to deal with all the angry Ninety-Niners after he’d used them in his revenge scheme and figured being behind the giant beast was his best shot. Either way, he was sticking really close to Mars Bar. 

Two guys with guns popped up toward the right. Both were taken down by Syndicate with a quick flurry of motion that I couldn’t even follow that left them on the ground, disarmed. On the opposite side, a guy who popped up with a rifle raised was literally run over by a car that came screaming through the lot, accompanied by the familiar sound of one of Eits’ mites cackling. The car proceeded to spin around, hitting another guy with its tail end during the skid. 

Just ahead, on the far side of the small rear lot where they had been able to crouch out of sight, That-A-Way appeared with another Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, and Carousel. Not Raindrop though. Maybe she had the night off. Those five, however, were right there, and the path to them was clear for the moment, thanks in large part to the blue paint flinging the vast majority of people out of the way. Unfortunately, just as they came into view and I had a second to think this might be easy after all, there was a blinding flash of light. It faded quickly, but what didn’t fade was the new group of combined Oscuro and Ninety-Niner troops that had suddenly appeared. Long Haul. That had to be Long Haul, the Ninety-Niner Touched teleporter. He’d just dumped a bunch more problems right in front of us. 

Get to That-A-Way. Get everyone to That-A-Way. That’s all we had to do. Two guys who had recovered from their paint-assisted trip were picking themselves and their guns up and turning our way. I sprayed blue again, this time at my own feet, to launch myself up and forward. Twisting in the air just as the pair finished rising and turning, I passed by over their heads. One arm pointed down and one pointed up and back, I sprayed red paint from both. The first hit both men, while the other hit the back of the store we’d just left. Activating it sent them flying up and toward it with a couple screams, just as I landed in a crouch behind where they had been. 

Only then did the green paint run out. And we were almost there. Eits was just reaching the spot where I was, while his mite-controlled car ran down yet another guy that was coming around the corner of the building. I hit him with another bit of green to help him keep moving. “Go, go!” I blurted, hitting as many of our side as I could with orange paint to keep them safe while scanning the lot. Ashton was right there with Mars Bar. The Syndicates who were out here were fine, working together to disable a couple more guys who didn’t even know what hit them. More people were shooting, but the orange paint was doing its job. It meant we could focus on moving instead of fighting. Move instead of fight, that was the entire point.

Most of the people Long Haul had sent in after us were dealing with the Minority. There was a rush of motion and fighting I couldn’t even follow. One of the new arrivals took deliberate aim at me, but I dropped to the ground just before he fired, throwing my hand out to send a shot of white paint onto his arm. Activating it to blind the guy, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, shifting purple onto my arms as I slammed into him to take the guy to the ground. A quick smack to the face knocked him out of the fight. 

But that was just one guy. What had started as a quick run to That-A-Way was quickly devolving into total chaos. I could see the girl herself, trying to help Wobble, Whamline, and Carousel.

Another flash of white announced the arrival of more bad guys. One was directly behind me, and I spun that way just in time to duck the bat he was swinging at my head. A quick shot of yellow at his chest, accompanied by activating part of the green I’d already prepared on the portrait across my uniform meant that he was suddenly a lot slower, while I was a lot faster. And, thanks to a bit of purple that I also activated, stronger. My hand snatched the bat from his grip in mid-swing, tearing it away from him while my foot lashed out to kick his leg. It was enough to make him start to stumble, before I drove the bat into his stomach and put him fully on the ground. 

Damn it, damn it, just get to That-A-Way! This shouldn’t be that hard, right? We’d cleared the way, we had the advantage of surprise and a distraction up front. All we had to do was get everyone across the parking lot to meet up with her and she could teleport us the hell away. And it was close. Pack and her animals were all-but there, crashing right into the back of the group of newcomers with Ashton on their heels. Eits was using his borrowed car as his own bodyguard to clear a path. We were almost there. Almost there! 

Which, of course, was the moment that something dropped from above. A lithe figure with great eagle-like wings slammed down behind That-A-Way. Yahui, the Oscuro woman who mixed and matched various animal parts. Apparently she’d decided to throw herself into the fight instead of just watching. 

In addition to the eagle wings, she also had a scorpion tail, which lashed out toward That-A-Way. But it went straight through the Minority girl, who was moving south and was therefore intangible. Unfortunately, that didn’t help Wobble, who was smacked by the tail moving sideways and thrown to the ground. And given he stood six and a half feet tall, that tail had to be pretty damn strong to knock him down that easily. Yahui tried to follow up by driving the blade of the tail down into him, but Wobble snapped his hand up and I saw a distortion in the air as he sent a wave of vibrations into the tail that knocked it out of the way. That was followed by two of Whamline’s energy ropes, which wrapped around her arms, flinging her into the air before exploding with a burst of kinetic energy that flung her senseless to the ground somewhere off on the other side of the lot. She was down. 

Carousel, meanwhile, had managed to disarm basically all the guys in our path, yanking the guns from their hands as she passed close to them. She also had two cars (miniaturized by her power) floating in orbit around her, which she sent flying at them. The cars regained their full size just in time to crash into the group, scattering everyone that remained. 

Clear, we were clear! 

“Go!” I blurted, sending a wide spray of red paint at all the bad guys I could see, before activating it so they were all slammed into one another, crashing into one big heap. Long Haul? Where was Long Haul? I hadn’t seen him at all, aside from the troops he kept sending in. But whatever, he didn’t matter, we just had to get the hell out of here. That’s all, we just had to go!

“Grab on!” That-A-Way was blurting. There, we were there. Everyone was there. We’d made it. The bad guys behind us were still picking themselves up, and we… everyone… yes, everyone was here, even Pack’s creatures. We all grabbed any part of each other we could, my left hand finding Eits’, while my right was grabbed by Ashton. The latter looked at me sharply, fear and relief in his eyes. I knew the feeling. But at least we were…

Nothing happened. That-A-Way was there, we were all holding onto each other and her, but… nothing happened. She frowned. “Wait, hold on. I–” 

“Did you truly think it would be that easy?” The voice. It was familiar. It was terrifyingly familiar. Cuélebre. He came floating down out of the air on his wings, gliding in to land with disconcerting grace considering his enormous fifteen-foot size. “Did you think I wouldn’t have prepared for a teleportation escape after the way you insulted and embarrassed me last time?” He made a tutting sound, while more of the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro troops, both of the Prev and Touched varieties, appeared on all sides of our suddenly surrounded group. 

Before I could move, before any of us could move, that bladed tail lashed out. I had time to yelp, just before it cut straight through my pocket. The vial and my phone fell out. I grabbed the latter, but the vial was caught on Cuélebre’s tail and smacked right into his waiting hand.

“No, no, no,” the giant demon taunted with the vial held gingerly between two massive fingers.  “You’re not leaving this time. We have too much to talk about.” 

“Talk about?” another voice echoed, and everyone spun in place to find Blackjack, surrounded by an assortment of his own people (Touched and Prevs alike). 

“I think we’re pretty much done talking.” 

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Showdown 7-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay. Okay. So, what was my current situation? Well, I was inside a grocery store with a few random customers and employees. Pack and her lizards were outside, working on shifting into a more combat-capable force. Also outside were a combined force of Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, who had apparently banded together in an attempt to hurt Blackjack and the rest of La Casa. Meanwhile, the bulk of the La Casa people were under attack by more of those combined forces to keep them busy. Which would also undoubtedly draw the attention of any authorities and Star-Touched who were out to keep them busy as well, so the guys here would have… privacy. 

I’d just finished my terse explanation to That-A-Way and was waiting for her to say something when the line suddenly went dead. Blinking at it, I saw there was no signal. Someone out there was using a jammer, just like the Scion people had back during the party. What the hell, did they start handing out those things as prizes in cereal boxes or something? 

Abruptly, the phone buzzed in my hand with a call coming through, despite having no signal. It surprised me so much that I almost dropped the damn thing, and actually gasped. The ID on the screen said it was Wren, so I answered it. “Wren? How are you calling me, there’s–” 

“No signal, I know,” she interrupted. “I had to use the signal booster I built into the suit Ashton’s wearing. It’ll only work within a few feet, so don’t get too far away yet, okay? Plus I’m not sure how long it’ll last before that jammer overloads it. Are you…” 

“I’m fine, so far,” I replied, looking to Ashton himself. He was standing there, looking torn between fear and delight. Fear at what might happen to him, of course (particularly given the fact he was frozen), along with delight because he thought we wouldn’t get away with the last vial now. “But those guys are gonna start coming inside any minute, as soon as they’ve got this place surrounded. And call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure they’re not here to pick up milk and bread.” 

“Crap, crap, crap!” Wren blurted. “I should’ve put that teleport marker on the suit so I could pull you guys out! I meant to, I did, but I was so excited that it was done, and we wanted to get–” 

“It’s okay, Wren,” I interrupted while dragging Ashton with me toward the end of the aisle. I peeked out. The front of the store looked clear. None of the bad guys had come in yet. But I kept watching. I needed to get out there, but first things first. “What about the car? Can you, I dunno, use any kind of security feature to keep those guys out of it, just in case? One of the vials is still in there.” 

“I can drive the car out with remote control,” she quickly informed me. “But I’m not–” 

“Do it. Take the car and the vial out of here, Wren. Keep it safe. Pack and I can handle this and keep these guys busy until That-A-Way brings reinforcements. We’ve got it, I promise. But I have to go now. There’s other people in this store, and those guys are gonna break in any second. We’ll deal with this. You focus on getting that car out of here with the vial, okay?”

Reluctantly, she agreed, making me promise to be careful. I did so before disconnecting,  hoping that everything I’d just said wouldn’t end up being wrong. Because despite all my assurances to try to keep the other girl calm, I had no idea what was going to happen here. Pack and her friends were still outside, and there was no way of knowing how long it would take That-A-Way to get anyone here. For the moment, Ashton and I were basically alone in this building, aside from all the innocent people those guys would plow through in order to get to us.

Just as I tucked the phone and vial deep in my pocket, zipping it shut, one of the store employees came into view. “Uh, hey, something’s going on outside.” 

And here it went. Glancing to Ashton, I hesitated before dragging him back a few feet down the aisle out of sight. Then I simply told him, “Hang out here.” As if he had a choice, given the suit wouldn’t let him move. But at least I didn’t have to worry about him running off. The suit worked as well for that as stay-down cuffs would have.

Quickly turning to the store guy, I walked that way while asking, “Those guys outside, the gangs, what’re they doing now?” Reaching the end of the aisle, I peeked toward the front doors once more. Nothing. Aside from several customers and employees standing there staring out at something. 

His head shook quickly. “Nothing, not yet. They’re just standing out there, but they’ve got guns and… and there’s Touched with them. But there’s two different gangs, and they’re not fighting.” 

“Yeah, cuz we’re a more popular target right now,” I muttered, before looking back to him. “Look, grab those people there, and anyone else you can find, somewhere safe to hide for awhile, like the manager’s office or something. Lock the doors and stay there until the cops come. Go!” 

It must’ve been the costume or something, but the guy actually listened. He ran off toward the front, saying something to those people, who quickly followed him. Meanwhile, I looked down at myself, summoning more drawings in various colors to the suit. Over the next brief handful of seconds, the images appeared. Images of two guys fighting with swords across my torso, with mountains in the background and a bird flying through the sky overhead. A coiled snake wrapped around a spear decorated my left leg, while a man with a javelin riding a motorcycle took up the right one. My arms were covered in multicolored flames and lightning bolts. Every image had multiple colors involved, multiple paints I could activate when the time came. An entire involved mural of images stretching across my suit. 

By that point, I had walked all the way to the front of the store, where the civilians had been watching from. Sure enough, through the doors I could see a bunch of vehicles out in the lot, blocking the way through. Dozens of gang members stood out there, mostly normal guys armed with guns, but with several Touched mixed in. When the group saw me, they stiffened a bit and a few said something to one another. A couple brought their guns up. Other than that, none of them moved or tried to come after me. They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone.

Pack was probably lying low for the moment, waiting for a good chance to show herself. Letting out a breath, I took a few slow steps that way, watching the guys outside as they stared at me. The door whooshed open when I was close enough, and I stopped there, lifting my chin while watching for anyone who looked like they were about to shoot. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I had to focus for a moment to stop my voice from shaking too much.

“Hey guys, you think you could have your tailgate party somewhere else? I don’t think this store really appreciates you blocking their entrance that much. Kinda scares off the customers.” 

Two figures stepped forward, one guy and one girl. The man was instantly recognizable with his red trench coat and welding mask. Coverfire, the guy who had come to Wren’s place before. The woman was another obvious Touched that I recognized from news reports. She wore a costume that consisted of a gray bodysuit with black armor panels and a black metal mask covering the bottom half of her face. She was part of the Ninety-Niners, named Ringside. As I understood it, she was a super-strong and tough Touched (A Brawn-Touched, as Flea had taught me) with a twist. Basically, her power allowed her to summon these glowing red rings and throw them. If they hit a person, they would be teleported close to Ringside herself, and both she and the target would be surrounded by a domed forcefield cage of sorts. Within the forcefield cage, Ringside’s own strength depended on how much of their own powers she allowed her opponent to have. She could weaken their powers, remove them, or leave them the same. The weaker or more non-existent they were, the less strength she had. If she left them with all their powers, she would stay at full-strength too, and for her, that was enough to bench press a small car. But even with people who were much stronger than she was, locking them in the ‘ring’ with her and cancelling all their powers meant they couldn’t rely on any of it. 

Ringside was part of the Ninety-Niners. So I supposed these two were representing each of their groups. Two groups that, as far as I knew, didn’t exactly get along all that well. Unfortunately, I probably wasn’t lucky enough for them to start fighting each other right now. 

“Seems to me you keep ending up in this kind of situation,” Coverfire informed me flatly, his voice somewhat muffled by the welder’s mask. “Should we bother telling you to surrender?” 

“I’d do it if I was you, kid,” Ringside put in. “Otherwise, soon as the bosses show up, you’ll wish you had. Cuz I don’t think their leader’s gonna be in the mood to play around.” 

Their bosses. That’s why these guys hadn’t charged in yet. They were waiting for their respective leaders to arrive. Hell, the gangs probably didn’t trust each other enough to start something without Cuélebre and Sandon (the Ninety-Niner leader) around. Though I had no doubt that if I tried to leave, they’d get over that really quick. For the moment, they were content to stand out there and just make sure I didn’t go anywhere. But when their leaders showed up…

Swallowing at the thought of just how pissed off Cuélebre was at me, I forced myself to reply, “You know, if it’s milk you guys are after, I’m pretty sure they’re having a great sale at the place just three blocks down. But you better hurry before it’s all gone. You know how crazy everyone in this town gets over milk sales.” The fuck was I even talking about?

“The fuck are you even talking about?” Coverfire demanded. 

“Language,” Ringside snapped primly. “There’s no need to be crude.” To me, she added, “Tell you what, you surrender to me and I’ll make sure that these goons and their psychotic master don’t tear you apart. I’ll even go one step further and promise that when we get what we want, you can go completely free. Scout’s honor.”

Growling angrily at that, Coverfire glared at her. “We have a deal, remember?”

She gave a short nod, dark eyes flicking to him as she calmly replied, “Our deal is to work together to hurt Blackjack and La Casa. Personally, I don’t have anything against this kid. Not yet, anyway. Besides, watching him make your boss chase him all over town for nothing was pretty funny.”

Coverfire flared up his force field briefly at that, but didn’t make a move toward her. I had an idea to maybe try saying something that could make them argue some more or even fight, but before I could, the automatic door suddenly closed between us. A second later, the metal security shield came down. 

For a second, I just stared at it, wondering what the hell was going on. I could hear the guys shouting on the other side that some dinky little metal door wouldn’t stop them, just before a voice came over the intercom system. 

“Paintball, get to the security office. Hurry, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time.”

It was Eits. Oh God, it was Eits! Spinning on my heel, I ran back through the store, looking around until I saw a sign pointing to the employees area. Booking it that way, I saw Holiday pop her head out of a doorway and look at me, so I headed there. 

Sure enough, Eits was there along with Pack and her animals. They were all in the rather large  security office, and as soon as I entered, Eits turned from the computer screen to stare at me. “Whoa, you fancied up your costume. That’s a pretty cool— wait, that’s all your paint stuff, isn’t it?”

I stared at the boy. “How did you get here so fast? Hell, how did all of you get in the store?”

Pack answered. “I texted him as soon as we saw the bitch in the sky. We’re, uh, let’s just say we’re not too far away from his place.”

Eits gave a short nod. “I made it over here and messed with the lights on a couple cars in the back to distract the guys back there long enough for the lizard gang to deal with them so we could get in through the loading dock.”

Brightening at that, I asked, “Great, so we can get everyone out that way?”

He winced, gesturing to the nearby security screen where I could see a view of the back lot. It was full of bad guys. “Turns out they had reinforcements. A lot of them. We just managed to get inside. And now we’re stuck here with you.” As soon as he said it, the boy instantly began fumbling over his words, “I mean, not that being anywhere with you feels like being stuck, or like it sucks, or… I mean, that wasn’t—”

Raising a hand to stop him, I interrupted. “Believe me, dude, being offended is basically the last thing on my mind right now. What about all the customers and employees?”

“Manager’s office,” Pack replied. “They all locked themselves in there. It’s kind of cramped, but I don’t think they’ll go anywhere anytime soon.” She looked to me then. “What about That-A-Way? You were trying to call her, right? Tell me she’s got cavalry on the way.”

“I dunno,” I admitted. “We got cut off before she could say anything after I told her what was going on. Hopefully. But either way, it could take them some time to get here, especially if all those guys are really causing so much trouble in the city. And our friends right outside are just waiting for Cuélebre and Sandon to show up.”

Pack cursed. “Right, so the only reason they haven’t come in yet is because they’ve got two of the biggest of the big guns heading here to finish the job themselves. And we can’t go anywhere because they’re all standing guard. At least the car took off with the other vial. That had to be the kid, right?”

Confirming that, I exhaled. “So, we’re stuck in here, waiting to see who shows up first, our help or theirs. And call me crazy, but that’s not exactly a bet that I’m super eager to make. Not when losing means facing down a giant demon dragon thing with lightning powers.”

Pack shook her head. “Unless you’ve got a teleporter in your pocket no one bothered to tell me about, what else can we do? Make a run at them wherever there’s the least amount of Touched, break through the line, and run for it?” 

Eits grimaced. “I uhh, don’t think that’ll work. I’ve been watching these guys on the cameras and they are amped and ready to go. No way we break through one line before the rest dogpile on top. Not without some kind of distraction.” 

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Then we distract them, by getting them to come in here after us.” They both stared at me like I’d lost my mind, while I pushed on. “We get them to come in before their leaders get here. We get them to break the line and try to catch us in the store. Then we get out, and we make sure they know we got out so they chase us and leave the people here alone.”

“Fantastic, as long as the random civilians will be safe while we’ve got half the members of two different gangs chasing us,” Pack muttered darkly. “If you don’t stop making me do heroic shit, I’m gonna get hives.”

Eits looked back and forth between us briefly before asking, “How do we get them to come in here and break their little line before their leaders show up? Cuz I don’t think we’ve got much time.”

I was about to confess that I wasn’t really sure, when a figure abruptly stepped through the nearby wall. Everyone spun that way, Pack snapping a new shotgun up while Eits also produced a pistol. The lizard creatures were up and moving too. 

“Wait, wait!” I blurted, belatedly recognizing the figure. It was Syndicate, leader of the Minority. Or one of his four bodies, anyway. 

He turned solid once it was clear no one was going to shoot him. Or maul him, in the case of the animals. His voice was tense. “Way said you needed help.” He glanced to Pack. “And that you helped at the hospital. She didn’t say anything about him though.”

“He’s helping and we need him,” I said flatly. “Are you guys really…”

He nodded. “We’re set up outside, just beyond the lot. Most of us, anyway.”

Pack asked, “Why isn’t That-A-Way popping in here? No offense, she’s just a lot nicer to look at than you. And, you know, she could just teleport us all right on out of here, problem solved.”

Syndicate shook his head. “She and the others came in from the wrong direction. This place is south of them, she can’t teleport, or use speed. She was going to try to work her way far enough around and down, but I told her to wait, because I wanted to see what was going on in here myself. And on the way in, I heard a couple of the guys out there saying that Cuélebre and Sandon should both be here in ten minutes. So, more explanations can come later. I also heard you talking just now about luring them in and then booking it. You think they’d break ranks if they thought the thing they were after was about to disappear? It’s those supersoldier vials, right? You’re trying to stop the war on the streets from getting worse by getting them back for Blackjack. I get it, whatever. The point is, we make them think they’re about to lose their chance. They didn’t see me when I came in, but if they saw another of me come running, especially if I pretended to say something in my comm about getting the vials…”

“They’d chase you in,” I realized. 

He nodded. “I can have the other me come in through the front entrance. The others are around the back. Soon as the guys out front break ranks and chase the other me in, my team outside and everyone in here all hit the ones in the back from both sides and book it. With the guys out front already coming into the building, there’ll be confusion all over the place about what’s happening. At least for a few seconds. Should be enough chaos to get everyone to Way so she can teleport. Then we’ll be gone, and they won’t have any reason to stick around here, so the civvies’ll be safe.”

“I’m surprised you’re not insisting that we stand here and fight the bad guys,” Pack observed.

“Two gangs including their leaders are about to descend on this spot,” Syndicate reminded her. “Having a fight here would be stupid both for us, because they’re a lot stronger than the group we can put together, and for the civilians in this store who would be caught in the crossfire. The smartest thing to do is get the thing they want out of the store, make sure they know it’s not here anymore, and get away.” 

Eits, who had been silent up to that point, raised a hand. “Uh, just one thing. Once we get out of here, we get to leave.” He gestured to himself, Pack, and the lizards. 

“Yeah, don’t worry,” Syndicate assured him with a note of sarcasm, “I’m sure we’ll catch you another time. But right now, we don’t have much left before the situation gets a hell of a lot worse. So, are we doing it or what?”

Glancing to the others until they nodded, I turned back to the boy. “Okay then. 

“Let’s do it.”

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Alliances 6-03 (Summus Proelium)

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I was still coming to terms with how I felt about that conversation with my father a couple minutes later when the phone I used for Touched stuff buzzed in my pocket. Blinking down, I plucked it out and gazed over the city from the roof of the building I was on while answering. “Hello?”

“Paintball?” A vaguely familiar voice spoke, and I belatedly realized who it was just as he introduced himself. “It’s Eits. You know, we… uhhh… yeah. We did that thing.”

Immediately put on guard, I asked, “What’s wrong? Did something happen to the computers at—”

He interrupted quickly. “No, no. That’s all fine. The computers are good. We’re great, with that, anyway. Sorry, I just… I didn’t know who to… um.” There was a brief, distinctly awkward pause before he managed a weak, “I know it’s weird, but I kinda need some help.”

Taking my phone away from my ear, I stared at it for a moment before moving it back. “Help? What could I possibly help you with? And don’t you have basically a whole army of people already behind you? I might not be an expert at this whole team thing, but I am pretty sure that’s the entire point of having one. You know, to get help from.”

I could hear the wince in his voice. He hesitated before slowly replying, “This really isn’t something I want to involve them in or even have them know about at all. I swear, I’m not asking you to do anything illegal or whatever. Not… really, anyway. I just… need a little help. I’m stuck.”

That made me blink. “You’re stuck? Not like Winnie the Pooh in Piglet’s backdoor, right?”

“It was Rabbit’s,” he corrected me. “And no, more like stuck on top of the roof of a building. I’m up here and the door is really heavy and deadbolted. I think there might be some kind of bar on the other side too. Anyway, I don’t have any way to get down.”

Tilting my head, I asked, “You and your friends didn’t happen to get really drunk for a bachelor party, did you? Do you see a tiger anywhere?”

There was a snort from the other end of the line. “They were drugged with Rohypnol in the movie, not just drunk. And no, definitely no tiger and no drugs. Just me sitting up here alone on the roof waiting for someone to call the cops. Or for a wonderful, friendly, oh-so-helpful and incredibly understanding—”

“Okay, okay, stop.” Taking in a breath and letting it out, I asked, “You’re sure that I’m not helping you get away with something really bad? Because I am going to be really ticked off if it turns out you just stole like a million dollar computer chip or something and I’m helping you escape. I don’t think we could be phone buddies after that.” 

“I swear,” came the reply. “I didn’t break in here to steal things. I mean, technically, I did. But it’s personal, not like… I mean…” he trailed off, very clearly trying to decide how much to tell me. “Like I said, it’s personal. I did break in here. I was trespassing. Am trespassing, technically. I did break in here to steal something. But it’s personal family heirloom type thing. It belongs to me. And it’s not some huge expensive computer stuff. It’s just… mine. It was left for me and taken away from me. I had to get it back. If you don’t want to help with that, I… I get it. I’ll just call one of the others and try to—”

Sighing inwardly, I shook my head. “Give me the address. I’ll get you off the roof. But like I said, if it turns out that you’re playing me right now…”

“I’m not,” he assured me. “Cross my heart and fall in rye.”

“Err, fall in rye?”

Now he really sounded embarrassed. “Sorry, it’s an inside family thing. I… anyway, here’s the address.

“And Paintball… thanks.”

******

The building that Eits was stuck on top of was a twelve story high office place. So I really couldn’t blame the poor guy for not being able to get down. Whether I ended up being able to blame him for getting stuck in the first place was not yet decided. 

I saw him sitting on one of those metal boxes on top of the roof as I yanked myself over from the place next-door. His feet were kicking idly back-and-forth while he looked at his phone. When I landed, he jerked in surprise, nearly falling off the box. Quickly, I shot a thing of red paint that way and yanked him toward me before he could fall, letting the paint fade before catching him by the arms. 

“Whoa,” I teased, “I know you’re glad to see me, but I’m pretty sure a simple thank you suffices between dudes.”

He looked embarrassed, the exposed parts of his face flushing a little while the boy waved a hand. “Uh, thanks. Seriously, I didn’t know what I was going to do until I realized I could try calling you. I was this close to having to suffer the embarrassment of asking one of La Casa for help.”

“Yeah.” I replied dryly, “imagine having to ask for help from your own teammates. That would be horrific.”

He coughed. “Like I said, this isn’t any of their business. And it’s not really their kind of thing anyway. I just had to get something.”

“And you promised this thing isn’t a million dollar computer chip,” I reminded him pointedly. 

In response, the boy reached into his pocket to produce what turned out to be a baseball. There was a signature scrawled across it, which he held up for me to see. 

“Warner Towling?” I read aloud. “Sorry, I’m not much of a baseball guy. Doesn’t sound familiar.”

Eits shook his head. “It probably wouldn’t anyway. He never got out of the minors. He was uhh…” There was a brief pause then as he realized how much he would have to say if he wanted to explain. “Fuck it. He was my grandpa. And yeah, you could probably find out a lot from that, but please don’t. That’s all I can really say. He was my grandfather and he was basically the only guy in my entire family who accepted my situation.”

The words made me tilt my head. “That you’re a super villain?”

He coughed. “No, that I… uhhh, shit.” Again, the boy paused, somehow looking even more nervous and uncomfortable than before. Even though I couldn’t see all of his face, he definitely seemed… afraid? “Grandpa Warner was the only guy in my family who accepted that I wasn’t… comfortable the way I was born. He’s the guy who said it would be okay if I… if I transitioned, and that he’d still be there for me.” His voice cracked a little with the words, speaking the last few quickly while looking away from me. 

“If you transi—” I stopped suddenly as it occurred to me. “Oh. Oh. So you’re… I mean…”

He nodded once. “Let’s just say I was born Molly. But that’s not who I am. That’s not who I ever was, not inside. But my parents could never accept that. This ball was mine. It was the last ball Grandpa Warner ever used in the minors. He signed it and he gave it to me. He… he s-said that he wanted me to have it so I’d know that no matter what happened, he was on my side. And that when I transitioned, maybe I could play on his… his old team someday.” His voice was cracking a little as the boy fought against strong emotions while rolling the ball between his hands. He could barely say the words. 

“But my dad took it when they kicked me out. That’s why I had to get it back, when I found out he was keeping it in his office. It’s not really worth anything. But… it’s worth everything. Everything.”

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “I get it. Kind of. I’m glad you got your ball back. But… your parents really didn’t… they don’t accept you? Even with Baldur out there?” 

Baldur, the world’s most powerful superhero. They were part of the world-wide hero team known as Armistice. Basically, the US, Canada, Japan, Germany, the UK, Brazil, Australia, and France all contributed their most powerful Star-Touched to the team. The one from the US was a woman called Radiant. Baldur was Germany’s, and they were absolutely the strongest Star-Touched in the world. Mostly because they had the power to change their power. No one I knew of was sure how it worked, just that Baldur switched bodies with… other versions of themselves or something. Each version had different powers that they could use. Some of those bodies were male, some were female. Baldur considered themselves genderfluid. The fact that the biggest superhero in the world switched seemingly randomly between being male and female had really put a bright light on that whole thing, and changed some people’s minds about it. 

“No,” Eits replied. “I guess for some people, Baldur’s more of a target for hate than an inspiration. Funny how having one example doesn’t magically erase their disgust, huh?” 

Wincing, I nodded. “Yeah, sorry, I guess that…” My head shook. “How did you get stuck out here in the first place?”

He sighed. “I managed to get all the way up through the building, into Dad’s office, and got the ball. Then when I was leaving, this big security guy started on his patrols. I had to hide, so I came out here and left the door open a tiny crack. He noticed, aaaand closed and locked it. So here we are.”

Chuckling a bit despite myself, I looked to him. “So the big bad super villain gets his uhh… wait, is umm… he and his… is that what you…” He nodded quickly, and I pushed on. “So the big bad super villain gets his ass kicked by a locked door. What would the grand league of evil say?”

“If there was a grand league of evil,” Eits informed me, “they’d tell me, ‘That will be two sugars and one cream. And while you’re at it, fetch me the newspaper and my slippers.’” 

My head tilted. “That accent, while you were turning yourself into some kind of dog fetching slippers, did you also make your hypothetical master supervillain British?”

He coughed. “Maybe. I blame Star Wars, and basically every other movie that made the bad guys British.” 

“Hey,” I pointed out, “you didn’t have him ask for tea, so you didn’t go totally stereotypical.”

“Good point.” Eits chuckled under his breath. ”Hey, maybe to completely avoid stereotype, and confuse people, he should keep the accent but be named something like Billy Bob or Jimbo.”

I snickered a little. “Jim-Bob the maniacal and despotic leader of the Grand League of Evil, with a British accent and a fondness for slippers and coffee.”

“Evil Villains International League,” he corrected me solemnly. “That’s the name they’ve got to go with.”

Checking the acronym on that, I laughed. “EVIL, that’s great. Jim-Bob the grand inquisitor of EVIL. I like it.”

The two of us smiled for a moment before I thought about the thing I had just walked away from, and cringed a bit. What was wrong with me?

Frowning a bit, the boy asked, “Something wrong?”

“No, I… it’s just… Pencil.”

That got his attention, the boy quickly demanding, “What? Did you see him? Are you okay? What were—”

“I didn’t see him,” I interrupted. “Don’t worry, it’s just…” Hesitantly, I informed him of what I’d seen back at the convenience store. “And they were just carrying out all those body bags while people wanted to know why we let stuff like that happen.”

He winced. “And then we were just making jokes about… sorry. But seriously, stay away from that guy. He’s super bad news and I don’t want to think about you being anywhere near him or his freaks.”

“Neither do I,”  I assured him. “At least he’s not the one who caught me earlier. That would’ve ended up a hell of a lot worse.”

He gave me a sharp look at that. “Caught you?”

“It’s a long story, your boss knows the important bit.”  I paused then before hesitantly offering, “But I’ve still got a couple sandwiches from earlier If you want to go somewhere and be bribed with food so I can talk about it. You know, unless you’re busy with more roofs to get trapped on top of. I heard there’s some really good ones over on the northeast side, with a great view of that police station with all those pillars out in front. And when you get tired of being stuck, you could wave to the cops down there to see if they’ll let you down.”

“Nah, I think this was the last one on my schedule.” Eits smiled a little. “Sandwich sounds great. You get pretty hungry being stuck up on roofs like this. They don’t exactly have a McDonalds.”

“You mean Dominos doesn’t deliver here?” I gave a scandalized gasp before nodding. “Sure, we can eat. Just let me get you down from here first. We’ll find some other place to sit and I’ll tell you what happened earlier. 

“Then, when I’m done, maybe you can tell me more about Grandpa Warner the baseball player. Because he sounds like a pretty great guy.”

******

The next few days passed fairly uneventfully. Except, of course, for the fact that I didn’t sleep very well. I kept having nightmares about being trapped with Janus, so I ended up sleeping three or four hours in the afternoon and three or four hours in the middle of the night. Which was probably good for the whole superhero thing, but it really wasn’t the way I wanted to get onto that kind of schedule. 

I spent my days at school, helping with the history project, or seeing what I could do for Wren’s work. The answer to the latter one was not much. I fetched things, held things, basically did whatever grunt work she needed that Fred and Pack weren’t already doing. 

The point was, the days basically flew by, while nights (or anytime I was trying to sleep) dragged as I kept waking up in a cold sweat. I was glad there was a lot of space between my rooms and Simon’s, because I cried out a few times and that really wasn’t something I wanted to try to explain. Although the thought of the look on his face if I did tell him exactly what was wrong was almost amusing. Almost. 

But finally, it was Saturday, the day of the Reformation Ball. It was a huge deal. I’d always known that to some extent, but actually needing to be a part of it made me realize just how big it was. Mom had me go to a stylist basically the second she and Dad had returned the day before, and checked on me about thirty times that morning to make sure everything was fine. I was pretty sure she was afraid I would find a puddle of mud or something to splash around in while she wasn’t looking. 

At the moment, I was eating lunch in the smaller dining room, carefully cutting away a bite sized piece of roast duck when my father entered and put a hand on my shoulder. It took everything I had not to tense up. 

“There’s my girl. I thought you would’ve found a hole to hide in by now to get away from your mother’s last minute adjustments and checks.”

It was so tempting to respond to that by asking what hole he and Mom had been hiding in when they were pretending to have left the city. I could even follow that up by asking if he’d had any luck tracking down Pencil after that horrific scene at the shop. But I was pretty sure that wouldn’t really go over very well. Just like with Simon though, it might’ve been nice for a few seconds just to see his reaction.

Instead, I shook my head. Swallowing the bit of duck, I replied, “It’s not so bad. We’re only on visit thirty-two.”

Smiling, Dad took a seat at the table across from me and turned to press an intercom nearby, informing the cook in the kitchen what he would like for lunch. Then he looked to me. “Wait until this afternoon, it’ll probably get up into the hundreds. But don’t take it personally, she still has to check on me all the time too. Can’t go around embarrassing the family.”

He really was setting me up for all those things I really shouldn’t say or ask. I had to shove a bite of caramelized parsnips into my mouth to buy time to collect myself. Finally, I managed a smile, looking over at him. “I’m pretty sure that’s why she checks on you so much. She just loves me.”

Making an affronted face and noise at the teasing, Dad retaliated by reaching across to steal a bit of my duck. “Mmmm, now that is good stuff. I hope you said thank you.”

My head bobbed obediently. “Of course, who would get food this good delivered straight to their table and not say thank you?”

Dad gave me a look before reaching over to ruffle the left (short) side of my hair before moving over to the right (long) side. “You might be surprised. But I really shouldn’t be by now. You’re a good kid.”

Setting my fork down, I squinted at him. “Ahem, a good teenager. That is, a good teenager who is very close to passing driver’s ed. And you know what that means.”

He gave me a blank look while replying in a monotone voice, “That it’s time to raise the driving age to twenty-three?”

I gave him a light kick under the table. “Simon isn’t even twenty-three yet.”

He made a show of brightening. “You’re right, it’s an even better idea than I thought. I’ll have the lawyers get right on that.”

That earned him a raspberry. “Fine, no more duck for you,” I retorted while using my arm to shield the plate. “You’re cut off.”

He gave a low laugh at that, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, I’m cut off, is that right?”

His words made me shrink a little bit in my seat, playing it up a bit as I kept one hand over my plate. “That’s gonna backfire on me, isn’t it?” I asked in a small voice. 

His response was simply a slow, patient smile while he remained otherwise silent and motionless and kept staring at me pointedly. 

Yeah, I couldn’t take much of that. After a couple seconds of it, I shivered and moved my hand so he could take another bit of meat. “Fine fine, go wild. Have all the duck you want, just stop looking at me like that. Turn that look onto someone else, geez.”

He grinned, promptly taking another bite before informing me, “You know, in a normal family, it would be the daughter who gets the Dad to give her anything she wants with a look.”

His words made me nod slowly, staring at my plate for a moment before managing a smile that I really wish it was genuine as I looked up to him once more. “Sure, Dad, but we’re not exactly a normal family. 

“We’re not normal at all.”

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Collectors 5-04 (Summus Proelium)

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“So, not that I wouldn’t have brought him anyway,” Pack informed me in a slow, deliberate voice, “but why exactly do we need Twinkletoes?” As she spoke, the girl stared at me. Well, I assumed she was staring. That full face-covering black mask made it hard to tell sometimes. 

We were standing in an alley, a couple streets away from the main Taurus repair facility. Pack had her lizards in their cage at her feet, aside from the chameleon (Twinkletoes, apparently), who lay draped over her left shoulder, watching me with a kind of lazy curiosity. 

“That’s for tomorrow,” I replied. “I figured–well, one step at a time. You said you’d bring a hacker?” Pausing, I added a bit plaintively, “Please tell me it isn’t one of the lizards.” Immediately after I said it, my head shook. “Wait, what the hell am I saying? Is it? Because that would be awesome.” 

“It would be, wouldn’t it?” the other girl agreed with what sounded like a grin. Then she sighed. “But no, sorry. He’s on his way. I told him where to meet us, and he should be here any…” There was a brief hesitation as she looked around. “He should be here any… aaaany miiiii…” Sighing, Pack waved her hand. “Never mind, that would’ve been really cool timing. I guess he’ll be–” 

“I’m here!” The voice came abruptly from the opposite end of the alley, as a figure came rushing around the corner. With a splash, their right foot hit a puddle, sending water spraying everywhere as the person cursed, stumbling a bit and almost falling before catching themselves against a nearby dumpster with a very undignified yelp. 

Dark as it was, the nearby streetlight at least gave me a good enough look at the person to make out details once they straightened from the dumpster. It was a guy, who stood about five foot eight or so. Thin, with an obvious costume consisting of dark gold pants (now with wet spots on them from the puddle), black boots, and a black silk shirt with what looked like ruffles on it that had gold piping along the sides. His mask was a pair of criss-crossed diagonal bands across his face, one stretching from the top left of his forehead and going down across his left eye and over his nose and right cheek, while the other did the opposite. One band was gold, the other black. His mouth was left uncovered, and he wore a black derby hat.

Snorting at his arrival, Pack gestured. “We were so close to timing that right, dude. Anyway, here we go. Eits, this is Paintball. Our, you know… friend, for now. Paintball, this is Eits.”  

Blinking at that, I asked curiously, “Eights? Like… six, seven… eight? Crazy eights?” 

The guy cleared his throat, pushing away from the dumpster to extend a hand to me while stepping over. He sounded embarrassed, and I could see the hint of a blush on what little of his face wasn’t covered. “Uh, kind of, but not exactly. It’s E-I-T-S, just pronounced eights.”  

“Eits,” I repeated, hesitantly shaking his hand. He was a villain, right? These guys were both villains. So why was I shaking hands and being all friendly with–never mind, that was a situation to work out later. Too confusing to worry about right now. “I guess that stands for something?” 

Releasing my hand, the masked guy nodded. “Yeah, it stands for Eye-In-The-Sky. You know, what they call security cameras in places like casinos.” He shrugged then. “Most people guess Crazy Eights like you did though, so I guess it kind of works as a twofer.” 

“Eye-In-The-Sky? So, I guess your power is like… security system based?” I wondered if this was the right thing to be saying. Was it rude to ask people directly what their power was? Was the level of that rudeness magnified or lessened by them also being villains? 

Either way, Eits apparently wasn’t offended, because he easily replied, “Sort of. I make these guys.” With that, he held his hand out, palm up. A moment later, a glowing ghost-like figure appeared on it. The thing was a humanoid figure, maybe five inches tall, blueish-green and faintly glowing. Like, again, a ghost. Leaning closer, I saw that it had four arms, two legs, long ears like a rabbit, and a bright glowing purple eyes. It looked up at me, made a hissing sound, and showed its (rather pronounced and scary-looking) teeth. 

“He’s not an enemy, stop that,” Eits insisted. “Sorry, he can’t actually hurt you or anything. See, no solid body.” His finger brushed through the figure, which I then realized wasn’t standing on his hand, but floating just a bit above it. “They’re just a bit… protective. I call them my Mites. Miniature Invaluable Technology Elves. I know, it needs work. But Mites works for them.”

“Uh, hi.” I waved, feeling a bit awkward before looking up to the guy again. “They’re not solid?” 

His head shook. “Nope. So, you know, they’re about as much help in a fight as I am. Which is to say, not at all. It’s why I got the name Eye-In-The-Sky, because I don’t fight. Too… uncoordinated. But I am good at keeping track of a lot of things at once. Multitasking. It’s kind of a sub-power. And what my Mites lack in firepower, they make up for with… well… here.” 

With that, he turned, rearing back his hand before hurling the Mite like a baseball. The ghostly creature let out a shriek of delight as it flew straight down and out of the alley before hitting a car parked out on the street. A second later, the car turned on, headlights flashing twice before the car pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires. I swore I heard a loud gremlin-like cackle.

“He’ll be right back and put that thing where he found it,” Eits informed me as I stared at the empty spot where the car had been. “You get the point. They take over computers, machines, anything technological and control it for me. High enough security gives them trouble, but I just send more in to help. Anything from one of the good Tech-Touched out there basically takes my whole crew, so no taking over an entire army of super tech equipment. Plus if they’re good, they tend to install defenses against my kind of intrusion. Still pretty useful though.” 

“You said you keep track of a lot of things at once,” I murmured, fascinated about this whole thing despite myself. “Does that mean you can see through them or… or something?” 

“Basically, yeah,” he confirmed. “I sort of… see through my eyes and theirs at the same time, any time I want to. Then once they take over the computer or camera or whatever, I give it orders through them. They control it, but they’re doing what I ask. It’s a little confusing, but–” 

“But he’ll get the point,” Pack interrupted. “Look, we could go on comparing powers forever. How about we focus on the actual reason we’re here, huh? I mean, we do have a time crunch.” 

By that point, the car had returned, and Eits held his hand out that way. His little Mite thing came flying back, landing against his palm before fading from sight as it was… absorbed back into him or something. Then he nodded. “Right, yeah, sure. Sorry. Pack said you needed someone to help you take over a computer and change the maintenance schedule or something?” 

Quickly, I explained the situation and what I wanted, ending with, “So I figure we can just put the thing we want onto the schedule to be picked up and worked on tomorrow morning, then quietly grab it on the way here. Then we just take it off the schedule so they don’t know it’s missing, do what we need to do, put it back on the schedule, and secretly give it back on the next trip.” 

“Uh, yeah,” the boy agreed, “If we can get close to the computer that does the scheduling, my little guys can fix that much. They could even make it automatically add the thing back onto the schedule at a given time so we don’t have to come back. But how exactly are you going to get it off the truck ‘secretly’ without letting them know they’ve been robbed?” 

“That’s what I keep asking,” Pack pointed out while idly scratching Twinkletoes behind his head.. “He’s being pretty secretive about it, but apparently it involves my little friend here.” 

Flushing a little behind my mask and helmet, I protested, “I’m not being secretive, I’m just focusing on one thing at a time. We have to fix the schedule first. Then we can work on the plan for getting the thing off the truck without hurting anyone.” I stressed that last bit pointedly. 

“He says that like we’re villains or something,” Eits intoned dryly before shrugging. “But sure, I get it. Anything to help Mel–” He grunted as Pack elbowed him. “I mean, Blackjack’s kid.”

“Which means getting into that place,” Pack reminded us with a gesture in the vague direction of the Taurus facility. “And I suppose you want that to be done without hurting anyone too?” 

I nodded. “That would be nice, yes. Quietly and cleanly. I mean, beyond my own preferences, I’m pretty sure our whole plan would be in trouble if they had any reason to run a full scan of their systems or whatever, right?” Eits nodded, and I continued. “Okay, so we sneak in, get to one of their scheduling databases and let your little Mites do their work, then get out.” 

“And how are you planning to do that all secretly?” Pack asked, head tilted as she looked at me.

“Uh, very carefully,” I replied. “But actually, probably easier now if the Mites can take over any of the security systems they can reach. They can deal with security cameras and alarms?” 

Eits nodded. “Sure can, just have to get me close enough and they’ll deal with it. Only problem is that they can’t really get too far unless they’re possessing something like that car over there. They only last a couple seconds away from me without taking control of something. So whatever you want to get them into, I’ve gotta be pretty close to it.” 

“I’ll get you inside,” I promised, stepping over to peek out of the alley at the building in the distance before turning back. “But ahh, it’d probably be easier with just the two of us.” 

Pack shrugged, gesturing to herself, the chameleon on her shoulder, and the four other lizards in the cage at her feet. “Don’t worry, we know when not to be third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth wheels. I’ll just stay out here with my buddies and play overwatch.”

“And here I didn’t think you even had a computer with you,” I teased despite myself. 

Despite the mask, I could tell her eyes were rolling. “I’ll watch to see what happens and step in if you get in trouble.” Her hand moved to scratch Twinkletoes. “See, the boy thinks he’s a comedian and a superhero. Which one do you think he’s best at?” After a brief pause as though listening, she gave a fake little scandalous gasp. “A plumber? Well, that’s just rude.” 

Snorting at her, I turned on my heel to face Eits. “Come on, the best spot to uhh, jump in from is this building.” My hand patted the wall beside us. “I was scouting it out earlier.” 

Unlocking the cage, Pack withdrew the bearded dragon. “You kids go on. I’ll send Riddles up to fly lookout. Anything happens, he’ll start screeching and we’ll play cavalry.” 

With that, I took Eits by the arms, glancing up to the roof above. “Ready?” 

“Uhhh…” He trailed off uncertainly. “Ready for whaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” The last bit, of course, came because I had shot blue paint at the ground, caught hold of him once more, and used the paint to shoot the two of us upward. Painting my arm purple to get a good grip on him, I used my other hand to shoot red at the edge of the roof, yanking us that way before letting the paint fade so that the momentum shot us up and over to land in a couple rolls. 

Scrambling over onto my knees, I looked at Eits laying there panting heavily on his back. “Sorry, sorry.” I winced at his reaction. “That sounded less assholey in my head. Are you okay?” 

“Gimme a second,” he murmured, putting a black-gloved hand over his mouth before making a brief dry heaving noise. Then he nodded and slowly sat up. “Yeah. I uhh, sorry, I get a little… motion sick sometimes. But it’s okay, it only happens when I’m in motion.” 

His words made me grimace. “Seriously, I am so sorry about that. I thought it’d be cool.” 

He waved me off, sounding just as embarrassed as I felt. “Like I said, it’s cool. I suppose you don’t meet a lot of supervillains who get motion sick after a single jump.” 

“Can’t say as I meet a lot of supervillains at–” Pausing, I sighed. “You know, now that I think about it, I have met more villains than heroes.” And at least one of the heroes I have met is actually a villain, which probably counts double, I thought to myself silently. 

Shaking that off, I helped Eits to his feet before stepping over to the edge of the roof. “I umm, if you get motion sick, I’m really sorry about this next part.” My hand gestured over to the large billboard in the distance. “We have to jump over there, then go from there…” Slowly, I moved my hand, pointing to the roof of one of three buildings within the Taurus compound. “To there. Then we wait for the security guard to go past before making a run for the garage at the far end of the lot. That’s where they keep the delivery schedules, in the manager’s office. We get in there, you do your thing, and we get out again. Does my saying it all matter-of-factly like this make me sound confident enough to pull it off?” As I spoke, my suit turned solid black. Easier to blend in to the shadows. 

“Uh.” Eits looked at me before giving a thumbs up. “Sure. Does my saying that make it sound like I’m going to avoid throwing up from all that jumping and falling?”

I duplicated his thumbs up. “Sure. Just try to aim away from me, huh? Ready for this?”

He nodded, giving me the okay sign. “Nope. I wanna go home.” 

“Cool,” I replied, “go for it, as soon as we get that schedule set up.” I looked both ways then, making sure the coast was clear before wrapping my arm around his waist. Holding tight with a bit of purple along my sleeve and my pants, I activated it all, lunging out over the street with the boy clinging to me as he yelped. The ground rushed up, but I used red paint to get us the rest of the way to land on top of the billboard. Eits stumbled, but I quickly steadied him. “It’s okay, catch your breath. Halfway there. One more big jump. But uhh, you see that?” 

He looked, as I pointed all the way down at the building near the one we were about to jump to. “The security camera going back and forth? Yeah, I see it. You want something done about it?” 

“I figured we were gonna have to get real creative with hanging off one side,” I replied, “but if you could fix it, that’d be great.” 

He nodded. “Yeah, one of my little friends can deal with it. If you time our…” There was a pause before the boy gulped. “…our landing for when the camera is at the far end of its turn, I can take it over and make it just send back the same view it did for the past few turns. They’ll notice if we take too long though.” 

“Then we won’t take too long,” I assured him. After a brief check to make sure no guards were in sight, I checked the timing of the camera before taking hold of the boy. “Let’s go. Remember, barf away from me.” 

That said, I held him firmly, used my paint, and leapt out. Eits made a noise suggesting that he was restraining a scream, as we flew out and across the rest of the street, passing high over the stone wall and electrified fence before I pulled us straight to the roof of the smaller building far below. 

We landed, scrambling a bit. My eyes snapped up to see the camera starting its way back, but Eits was already on it. Even as he was still gagging a bit, his hand flung that Mite of his across the pathway between buildings, hitting the camera with it. The Mite disappeared, and the camera simply continued moving. 

“It’s cool,” the boy assured me. “They’re not seeing any of this.” 

I started to respond, then quickly yanked him down to lay flat with me on our backs. “Guard,” I whispered. “Stay down.” 

We lay there, being as silent as possible as the security guard made his way past, keys jangling almost in tune with his whistling. As we were waiting, I had a moment to wonder about myself. Exactly what kind of hero was I? What kind of hero broke into a place to set up a high tech robbery? 

The kind of hero that was trying to save a little girl, and who didn’t know who could be trusted, considering her father is both a supervillain and the lead hero in the city. And besides, we were just borrowing the thing. We’d give it back after we were done. There wasn’t time to go through all of this the right way. 

But that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty. 

Realizing the guard was gone, I snapped myself out of my inner debate, rolling over to peer over the edge. The building was only a couple stories tall, so it was easy to help Eits down with a bit of orange and black paint (the latter to keep it silent). From there, we made the run to the garage. He had to deal with two more cameras on the way, and once we were there, used a fourth Mite to mess with the electronic lock and attached alarm so we could get in.  

The garage was pretty dark, and we really didn’t want to turn on a light. So it took some time to find our way past a few trucks, over to the stairs, then up to the manager’s office. There, I waited and played lookout while Eits and his Mite did their work. Every second felt like an eternity, but it actually went fairly quickly and easily. Within about two minutes or so, he had it set up. The bit we needed was on the list to be retrieved in the morning for scheduled maintenance. It would subsequently disappear from the list later, before the truck was scheduled to return for drop-off. 

He’d actually even improved on the plan. There was a box of random supplies and parts sitting around the place. We taped that up and printed out a new shipping label for it with a delivery code. When we took the box out of the truck tomorrow, we would replace it with this one and, thanks to his little hacking job, the computer would switch the model number on the box we were taking with this one. That way, even if the driver knew exactly how many boxes he had, he’d still have the same number. And when he scanned the codes, they’d all come up as the right ones. 

“Take this too.” Eits instructed, handing me a piece of paper with an e-mail and phone number scrawled on it. “I managed to give myself a backdoor into their scheduling system here. Shoot me a text, e-mail, call, whatever, when you need to return the toy. I’ll set it up to be delivered.” 

“Thanks,” I murmured, looking at the paper before stuffing it away. “I guess we should get out of here, huh?” 

He nodded slowly. “I don’t suppose we could use the front gate.” 

“Probably a bad idea if we don’t want to get caught and interrogated,” I reminded him while patting the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, one more trip. And hey, you’ve managed to avoid throwing up so far. If you keep up the record before we’re done, maybe I’ll buy you a pizza.” 

“And if I don’t,” he replied, “I’ll buy you one.” 

In the end… he owed me pizza.

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Interlude 4B – Sterling, Elena, and Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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“I find it quite rich,” the man known as Blackjack slowly announced, “if you pardon the phrasing, that you ask me to be patient with my child’s life on the line.” He wore no costume at the moment, his handsome, if worn by worry, face revealed in this private space as he pointedly turned to look toward Elena and Sterling Evans. He met their gazes for a long moment before continuing in a low voice that fairly shook with barely restrained emotion. “Because, as I believe we all know, if it were either of your children’s lives on the line, the streets of this city would already run red with blood as its buildings burned. You would not show the restraint you ask for.” 

The three of them stood in a room that might have passed as a personal library, given the shelves of books, plush leather chairs, and an old grandfather clock in the corner. A single, large window took up almost an entire wall, and it was in front of that window that the group stood. The window overlooked a large hospital room far below, giving high overlooking view of the place where the man’s daughter lay being tended to and cared for by several physicians. 

Exchanging brief glances, Sterling and Elena each conveyed an entire conversation’s worth of thoughts in only a moment before the latter spoke up gently. “You’re quite right, Eric. Were it Simon or Cassidy in such condition, we wouldn’t have this kind of restraint. And,” she continued even as his mouth opened, “your daughter is just as important as our children. But we would hope that our allies would be there to tell us that acting impulsively would not get what we want.” 

“Are we allies, then?” Eric asked the two with a raised eyebrow. “Or are you simply here to ensure that you aren’t in danger of losing a major source of funds? Without the taxes paid by La Casa in exchange for operating in your city, just how much would your income fall?” 

“Not enough to be worth more than Melissa’s life,” Sterling answered, his head nodding toward the young girl visible through the window in the room below. “Eric, we wouldn’t be where we are today without your help. If you didn’t provide that gun, if you hadn’t–” He stopped, swallowing as memories from so long ago came swirling back through his head before he pushed them aside. Those were memories for another day. Right now, there were more important matters to handle. 

To that end, Sterling breathed out before continuing. “I know that we have grown… apart to an extent over the years. We don’t spend all that much time socializing anymore. But at one time we were close friends. I remember that, and I wouldn’t put our profits over Melissa’s life any more than I would put them over my own children’s. La Casa’s debts are not an issue right now.”

Eric’s mouth opened to retort, but he stopped himself. His own frustrations and feelings of helplessness at seeing the condition of his daughter was coloring his reaction to the Evans’, he knew that. Knowing it didn’t exactly help that much, but it let him stop and breathe for a moment. Finally, he started again. “You know that Cuélebre and the other gangs are doing everything they can to find Worthy’s vials as we speak. And they aren’t going to give them back.” 

“We have expressed to them how much better it would be for everyone involved if they return any of the medicine they happen to come across,” Sterling assured him before immediately adding, “And yes, we know they aren’t likely to listen. But we also made certain that some of their underlings heard as well. It’s possible that one of them might come seeking a reward.” 

Elena spoke then, in a gentle voice. “Eric, we put everything else on pause to come here and focus on helping Melissa. She’s what matters now, nothing else. We aren’t working on anything else this week aside from getting your daughter the help she needs. Sterling has an entire wing of Seraph Hills working on potential delaying actions to stretch this out. They’ll find something.” 

“I promised her mother I would keep her safe,” Eric murmured, putting a hand up against the glass window as he stared down at his daughter. “I promised her that Melissa would be okay.” He sighed, lowering his head before asking, “You truly think that the Seraphs can figure something out that soon?” His voice cracked just a little as he looked over to the pair. “She’s running out of time. And I swear, if we don’t find something in the next day or so, I am going–” 

In mid-sentence, there was a knock at the door. Eric paused, looking to his companions. Elena immediately made a simple gesture with one hand. In response, both she and her husband were sheathed in a holographic illusion disguising them as two completely different people, unremarkable in every way. No one would be able to pick them out of any random crowd. 

“Come,” Eric called, once his two guests were sufficiently disguised. 

At his words, the door opened and a costumed figure stepped in. The newcomer wore a black, ruffled silk shirt with dark gold piping, pants that were also dark gold to match that piping, and a mask that consisted of two diagonal bands, one black and one gold, that each covered one side of his face and the opposite eye while leaving his mouth uncovered. The boy, who looked like he was still in high school, held a phone in one hand and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the unknown people in the corner. 

“Eits,” Eric, in full Blackjack mode, spoke. “Never mind my guests. What is it?” 

“Oh, uhh,” the boy cleared his throat before focusing. “It’s the new girl, Da–I mean Pack, sir. She says that they–that she’s with that Paintball guy and they have one of the vials. And–” 

Before he could get any further, Blackjack was already there, taking the phone from his hand. “Pack,” he said sharply, “what do you have?” He wanted to hear it straight from her. 

As the man spoke quietly and quickly with his subordinate, his voice rising and falling a bit through the short, but intense conversation, Elena and Sterling looked to one another. The latter leaned closer to his wife’s ear, whispering a soft, “That boy is either extraordinarily lucky, or has some manner of access or aspect to his power that we don’t understand yet.” 

“Perhaps all three,” Elena pondered, patting her husband’s arm. “We will, eventually. No one operates in our city for long without our understanding everything we need to know about them.” 

“Not exactly true,” Sterling pointed out. “There are those we have no control over. Deicide has never opened up to us. Not to any real extent beyond paying her dues. And Pencil–” 

“Pencil,” Elena snapped, “is a complete psychopath. His entire group is bad enough. Honestly, worshipping one of the Abyssal? But Pencil… he takes it to an extreme. He needs to be put down like the rabid dog he is. The world would be better without him. Certainly more stable.” 

Sterling agreed easily. “You’re not wrong, love. The man is a monster. But that just adds to my point. We don’t control everyone in this city. Despite our best efforts.” He said the latter bit with a small smile, gently squeezing her hand against his own arm. “Some slip through the cracks.” 

“Paintball is a lone figure, some little boy playing hero,” Elena assured him. “He’s doing some good work, which is fine in the short term. Particularly now, if he’s truly found any of those vials. But we need to know more about him. We need to be ready in case any… pressure needs to be applied in the future. I don’t like having wildcards out there that we know nothing about. Particularly wildcards that have become this effective this quickly. It’s… potentially concerning.” 

Their conversation was interrupted then, as Blackjack dismissed Eits before looking to the pair, raising an eyebrow as he announced, “You’re talking about the Paintball kid? Well, he just found the guy who stole my daughter’s medicine.” 

Husband and wife gave each other brief, sharp looks, Elena dismissing the holographic illusion before Sterling spoke. “Truly? That’s quite remarkable. How did the boy pull something like that off when no one else has managed it?” 

“Apparently,” Eric replied, “he tracked down the person responsible for… unknowingly… providing some of the material that allowed this Ashton boy to rob the bank to begin with. When informed of the situation, this person assisted in tracking Ashton down. They have him now, along with one of Worthy’s vials.” 

“One?” Elena echoed in a pointedly curious voice. “They don’t have all of them?” 

“Not yet,” the man answered softly, his tone making it clear just how hard of a time he was having remaining as calm as he portrayed himself as being. “Apparently they are… working on getting the location of the rest out of Mr. Austin.”

“You’re not having him brought in to get those vials yourself?” Sterling asked. “One way or another?” His words made it quite obvious just how he would go about such a thing. 

“Oh, believe me,” Eric assured his old friend, “when the time comes, Ashton and I will be having a very long and very final conversation. But… for the time being, I see no need to ignore Paintball’s request that I show restraint. We have one vial, which will be returned shortly. That buys another month of time. Paintball has requested two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of Ashton without my… involvement.” He gave the two a sharp look. “I gave him ten days.” 

Before he could say anything else, the phone (which he had kept after dismissing Eits) buzzed. The man checked it before answering with a simple, “Blackjack.” He paused, listening briefly before replying, “Understood.” Disconnecting the call with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a couple more buttons before holding it back to his ear. After a moment, his call was apparently answered, because he spoke rapidly. “Public library on Woodward. Meet the Paintball boy there in the back alley. Take what he gives you and bring it straight here. Be subtle. Be invisible. Do not lose it, or allow anything to damage it. Your life for that vial. Do you understand? Then go.” 

Once he disconnected that call, Sterling spoke up. “Someone you trust implicitly?” 

“As much as I trust anyone in this life,” Blackjack replied simply. “They’ll bring the vial. Melissa will have another month of safety, and be one step closer to being freed from this disease.” He stepped closer to the window once more, putting his hand against the glass as he stared down at his child, voice cracking just a little. “I’ll give Paintball the ten days he asked for. He’s earned that much, being the one who found Mr. Austin and the first vial to begin with. I trust that he will find the rest.” 

******

Some time later, the vial had been delivered. Eric stood holding it carefully between two fingers, marveling at just how unimportant and simple the contents looked when his daughter’s life depended so thoroughly on it. Behind him, Sterling and Elena watched silently.

“One month,” he murmured under his breath. “This vial, this… simple vial will keep her alive for another month. A few more like it, and the disease will be gone forever.” Slowly, his hand closed fully around the vial, and he exhaled a bit shakily before speaking again. “Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Melissa would like to see you.” 

A brief smile touched Elena’s face, as her head bowed a bit. “Of course. We’d like to see her too.” Her hand gave a brief gesture, summoning a different pair of holographic disguises. These were less unremarkable than the previous ones, portraying her as an attractive blonde woman in her late thirties with piercing blue eyes, and her husband as a silver-haired slightly older man of quite distinguished looks not far from Eric’s own, actually. The two could have been brothers. Which, in this case, was the entire point. 

Together, the three descended the stairs just outside the observation area, entering the other room through a pair of sealed doors. As they did so, a small, yet excited voice called out from the bed in the middle of the room, “Daddy!” 

Dismissing the doctors for a couple minutes, Eric stepped over to smile at his daughter. The tiny, pale brunette, leaned up for a hug, which her father provided. Gently, of course. Though the Rot Bone disease had been held at bay, preventing her bones from disintegrating into a lethal poison, they were still fragile. He didn’t dare squeeze as firmly as he so desperately wanted to. 

“Here, Lissa,” the man gently urged while straightening. “You have visitors.” 

Seeing the two behind him, the young girl’s face brightened. ‘Uncle Stan! Aunt Ellen!” Soon, she was exchanging gentle embraces with the two she knew as her father’s often-distant brother and his wife. “Did you see what Dad brought?” Reaching under her blanket, she pulled out a stuffed bear. It was dark red with a white snout and white bits on the end of its paws, wearing a brown trenchcoat and Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker hat. In one of its hands was a magnifying glass. 

“His name is Inspector Guillotine,” Melissa explained. “Inspector Garrote Guillotine. He’s the best detective in the world, but he has a tortured soul over all the bad guys that he had to kill. Except for Paws Lynch. That’s his archenemy and brother-in-law. Lynch killed his own sister, Inspector Guillotine’s wife, and the inspector’s spent the past three years trying to find him.”

With a smile, Sterling (or Uncle Stan) gently took the trenchcoat-clad bear to examine him. “Wow, that’s an interesting story you’ve got for this little guy.” 

“He’s dangerous,” Melissa informed him. “He drinks too much since his wife died, and he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. But that’s okay, cuz he’s gonna meet her.” From under the blanket, the girl tugged a different stuffed animal. This one was much smaller, about half the size of the bear. It was a little pink crocodile with a cloth skateboard attached to its feet. 

“She’s gonna teach Inspector Guillotine how to love someone again,” Melissa explained. “Cuz she’s a witness to a murder, and he has to protect her. But she gets into trouble a lot.” She frowned a little. “I dunno what to name her though.” Looking up to them, the girl asked, “Do you know any good names?” 

“Well,” ‘Aunt Ellen’ replied while gently taking the stuffed, skateboard-riding crocodile. “Let’s see. A little daredevil, gets into trouble, teaches the gruff old guy how to love again…” Turning it over in her hands, she looked back to the girl. “How about Cassidy?” 

“Cassidy?” Melissa echoed, taking the toy back as she considered for a moment. “Hmm… okay. Okay, she can be Cassidy. Cassidy and Inspector Garrote Guillotine.” 

“She writes stories,” Eric quietly explained, gesturing to the stack of notebooks on a nearby table. “So many stories. She’s going to publish them, as soon as she gets better. Isn’t that right, Smelly?” Smelly, of course, was short for ‘Small Melly’, a joke between the two. Her father was the only person in the world Melissa tolerated the teasing nickname from. 

After a little more conversation, Eric produced the vial, holding it gingerly between his fingers. “Okay, Smelly Melly Bug. We’ve got some of your medicine here.” 

The girl squirmed in her bed, staring at it. “Another shot?” Her voice was a weak protest, despite knowing how much she needed it. Shots weren’t fun. Particularly these ones. 

Taking a knee in front of the bed after setting the vial down on the table, Eric took his daughter’s hands. “I know, sweet thing. I know, it sucks. But it’ll make you better.” 

“That’s what you said before,” Melissa protested. “And I felt good. But then there was no more medicine and I got sick again.” 

“Don’t you worry, baby,” Eric assured her. “You’ll get all the medicine you need, I promise. You just have to be my brave, strong girl and take it, okay? You take your medicine here, just one little shot, then we’ll watch a movie and have ice cream tonight.” 

There was a little more good-natured grumbling, but the little girl agreed. Eric called in a doctor to administer the injection. It clearly hurt, given the way the girl hissed and whimpered through it, but she stayed as still as possible. Once it was over, Eric and her ‘aunt and uncle’ all gave her hugs, promising to come back for ice cream and a movie as soon as they finished a little work. 

As the trio stepped out of the room and returned to the observation area, Elena dropped the illusion over herself and Sterling. The pair looked toward their old friend, while he announced, “This Paintball has given my daughter another month. So as I said, I’ll give him those ten days to find the rest of them.” 

“I take it,” Elena began carefully, “you will not be letting this Ashton boy go, regardless of what happens with those vials.” 

“He put my daughter’s life in danger,” Eric stated in a flat, dangerous tone. “He doesn’t get to walk away from that. No. I’ll give him a chance to do the right thing, for this Paintball. When that’s over, once Melissa is safe again, this… Ashton and I will have that conversation. 

“And perhaps his screams will reach back through time, to bring a shudder to the boy at the very moment that he first thinks of bringing harm to my child.” 

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