Eleanor Murphy

Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone now right here!

For the next hour or so, we worked our way through searching the stuff we had taken from the Ministry base. Amber (as That-A-Way of course) showed up to help out while on a break from patrol duties, and was immediately recruited to scan through a pile of papers. The more the merrier. Or at least, the more the less this mind-numbing job of reading what often looked like gibberish would drag on. 

There was something that appeared to be a key for the code that was written on those papers and the vials, but I wasn’t able to decipher it with a brief once-over. So, I passed it over to Paige, who said she would figure it out and decode what was written on them, but it would take awhile. 

Beyond that, we found some interesting things. First and possibly foremost, there was a ledger that showed how up to date on their payments various gangs were. Not just the Detroit ones, but practically all of the organizations throughout the entire state. Nearly every Fell-Touched group (aside from a couple like the Scions) and even most of the non-Touched gangs were represented in the ledger. If you were a criminal group of more than one person (and even some who were solo), you paid taxes to the Ministry. 

But it went further than that. Because obviously having that many people know about the Ministry would make it impossible to keep even a little bit secret. So the vast majority of criminals who paid their fees had no idea that it was part of a larger organization. The Ministry had lieutenants who acted as though they were the boss of an area, unconnected to anyone else. They made people who acted in their territory pay tribute, then secretly passed everything but their own salary to the higher-ups. And for the most part, even the lieutenants didn’t know how wide-reaching the whole thing was. They were all divided into smaller cells who didn’t know anything about the other groups, and didn’t know that a number of their rivals in an area were actually also working for the Ministry. Some of the lieutenants were gang bosses, while others were actually their right-hand people who were secretly keeping the Ministry up-to-date on what was going on. The operation encompassed the entire state of Michigan, and we had all these names and the explanations of what they were doing. 

It wasn’t all in one spot, of course. It wasn’t like all of this information was conveniently written out for us. We had to piece it together between the ledger and several other pieces, including on a few of the hard drives, which were heavily encrypted and password protected. We would have been shit out of luck if we hadn’t had Paige and Sierra. They were able to use the…wires that extended from their fingers to plug into the hard drives and access them directly. 

As expected, there were none of my family’s real names written down anywhere. Not even in the secret encoded parts of the computers. Which made me slightly relieved, a reaction which instantly made me feel guilty. This was wrong, it was all wrong. It was going to blow up in my face somehow, I just knew it. But right now, I just had to focus on this stuff.  

Murphy was shaking her head, muttering about how none of this would help find Luciano, when she abruptly paused. From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl quickly shuffle back through a few other pages she had been looking at before elbowing Roald beside her. She asked him where something else they had been looking at a moment earlier was, and he dug through a discarded pile before handing it to her. She had two papers, one in each hand, and was looking back and forth between them. “Hey… hey I think I got something about that piece of shit.” 

We all turned our attention that way, as she explained. “Okay so on this page they’re talking about something called Plan Z. I think it’s a group or a person or something. It says Plan Z couldn’t be called on for this other thing they needed, so they should send Squire. Then this other page with the same date mentions that this safe house is ‘now available’ because ‘L’ has been taken by Z and won’t be needing it anymore. That’s right after Luciano got away. Whoever or whatever Plan Z is, they probably escorted this L, Luciano, away from that safehouse and out of Ministry territory.”  

Taking that in, I frowned thoughtfully. “There’s a few other bits in here about a Plan Z. I thought it was like… an actual plan, but you’re right, it sounds more like a person or a group. Maybe a set of Touched they use? I dunno. Sending a group to escort Luciano seems like overkill, but then again, maybe they were nervous about us finding him again.” My shoulders raised in a slight shrug. “Does it say anything about where that Plan Z might’ve taken him?  I doubt he stayed there, but it might give us a place to start from.” 

“Maybe not there, but it does here.” That was Peyton, waving a hand with a small notebook clutched in it. “It’s like a memo or a reminder note or something in the margin. I didn’t think it was important at first, but the page right before it has the same date as those ones, and the memo says, ‘Z pick-up’ and then an address in Pontiac.” 

Right, Pontiac was a city about twenty miles north of Detroit. I absorbed that information. It made sense as a place to take Luciano. Far enough away to be clear of the city without taking up too much of their time.

Pack, who had been sitting at the far end of the table we were all gathered around, made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. “So, whoever these Plan Z people are, it sounds like they needed to be picked up after taking Luciano somewhere. Maybe they gave him the vehicle?” She ran two fingers along the top of Tuesday’s head as the gecko sat perched beside the papers she had been looking through, before turning her attention elsewhere. “What do you think, Sierra? Pretty interesting stuff, but then, you must be tired of just sitting around. Being trapped for all that time in a body with someone else, and now you’re completely free. But here you are just playing with paperwork. Don’t you want to get out there and have some fun?” 

“Please don’t try to recruit her into your villain gang until she at least has time to stretch her legs a bit,” Amber idly requested from where she was sitting basically right next to the La Casa Touched. She didn’t bother to look up from the files she had been scanning. “As far as having a body goes, she’s not even one day old.” 

As for Sierra herself, she offered a shrug. “Yeah, I wanna get out there. But there’s gonna be this nagging voice in the back of my head if I don’t help find Irelyn and those two Touched girls and get them off that island. And believe me, after everything we went through to get me this body, the last thing I want is another nagging voice in my head. I just got the old one to be external.” She gave a quick glance over toward Paige before adding, “So, the sooner we save those three, the sooner I can move on and figure out what my real life is going to be.” 

Clearing my throat a bit, I looked toward the stairs. Wren was up in her main lab, working on that tracer device that was supposed to tell us where exactly Breakwater was. I still wasn’t absolutely sure we would go with the plan to blackmail the people in charge into helping Flea and Trivial, but knowing where the island was would at least be a good place to start from. 

“Well, until we have something else to work with,” I announced, “I think we should check out that address that you guys found. Maybe Luciano isn’t there. I mean, he probably isn’t. But there could be something to tell us where else to look. He might’ve left a clue or something.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly, shoving herself up from the table so firmly she nearly knocked over the stool she had been sitting on. “Fuck yeah, let’s get out there. I can’t take looking at another piece of paper right now or I’ll scream.”

Standing up, I hesitated. “We need to be quiet and stealthy about it. Whatever that address is, I don’t know if it’s a Ministry place or just somewhere they took Luciano and dropped him off. But whatever it is, if we show up and make a spectacle of ourselves, it’s going to get back to the Ministry. And I’m pretty sure they could put two and two together, considering those files were just stolen from their base yesterday. If the place looks like it’s guarded or whatever, we have to wait. And we don’t let them see us.” 

Paige started to rise, and I focused that way, shaking my head. “You should stay here. Keep working on those harddrives and see if there’s anything else we can use. This isn’t gonna be a fight, we’re just checking the place out and looking around if it seems clear. We need to be subtle right now.” 

“Paintball, subtle?” Pack snorted and gave me a look. “If I asked you to define that word, would you be able to?”  

Flushing a bit under the helmet and mask, I huffed at the girl. “I can be subtle when I want to be, I promise. I was subtle in that base last night.” Before she could say anything, I hurriedly amended, “I mean I was subtle about who I was and my power and—you know what I mean.” Now I was really blushing. “Look, the point is, we’ll just head over there and check the place out.” 

“Uh huh,” Pack gave me a long look. “And how are you going to get there, exactly? You know, to the city twenty miles north of Detroit. Without attracting attention.”

My mouth opened, then I paused before tilting my head. A muttered curse escaped me while Pack snickered. 

“I can’t drive,” Way hesitantly pointed out. “I’ve gotta get back to patrol pretty soon, or they’ll start to wonder where I am. Which we really don’t want.” 

Pack nodded. “And I’ve got–uhh, let’s just call them plans and leave it at that. Gotta do my real job, or the boss might wonder what else I’ve been doing with my time. Which, as Rose over there said, we don’t want.” 

“Yeah,” Way muttered, “wouldn’t want you to get kicked out of your job as a thief.” 

“I could drive,” Sierra idly noted. “I mean, I’d need a car for it, but I could drive.” She offered a somewhat feral smile then, which was weird to see on a face that was so like my own. It made a funny feeling form in my stomach before I pushed it down as she continued. “And hey, if I need to acquire a car for it–” 

“We’re not stealing a car,” I interrupted. This whole situation was already precarious enough without adding something like that in. It wasn’t likely that she would get caught, of course. And even less likely that she would stay caught, but still. The image of Sierra, in a body that looked like a blonde me, getting taken to the police station was just… no. No, we couldn’t risk anything like that. 

“Besides,” Murphy pointed out, “That body looks like you’re younger than we are. That body’s, what, fourteen?” 

“Oh, I dunno,” Pack put in casually, “appearances can be deceiving. Some people look older than they are, other people look younger. You can’t really go off first impression these days.” 

Murphy shrugged at that. “Whatever, the point is any cop who saw her driving would definitely pull you over to check, stolen car or not. She’d stand out. And I thought the whole point of this trip was to blend in and not attract attention.” 

I nodded quickly. “She’s right, we need to be subtle. That means not stealing any cars and not having someone drive who would make the cops do a double-take. So all of us who are wearing masks are out.” 

While we were all looking at each other and trying to figure out where to go from there, Fred grunted. “I’ll drive. Whatever, it’s just a quick recon thing, right? The kid’s gonna be busy upstairs for awhile, and if she needs something, you can take care of it.” He nodded toward Paige before turning his attention to me. “You want subtle, can’t get much more subtle than an old sedan. Long as that’s not a big fancy neighborhood, it’ll fit in just fine. Plus, I’ve got that bakery ID, so I can be out after curfew. Trouble is, I can only take a few of you. We can say you’re helping with loading stuff into the bakery trucks for some extra cash since the place is shorthanded.” 

“Well, Pack and Way are out,” I noted. “Raindrop isn’t here. So I’ll go with Alloy, Hobbes, and Calvin.” I nodded toward Murphy and Roald. “We’ll check it out, see what we can find.” 

“I’ll go with you.” That was Sierra. “Like I said, I really need to get out of here and stretch my legs. Besides, this way if something goes wrong, you’ll have some back-up.” She gave Paige a look. “It’s my turn to be out there. You can keep scanning the hard drives.” 

For a moment, I thought Paige was going to object. But she paused before exhaling. “Be careful.” Her gaze moved over the rest of us as she added, “All of you. Just don’t get involved in some big thing. If there’s trouble, get the hell out of there and come back. Like you said, we don’t want the Ministry to know that you’re involved. This whole house of cards will come down pretty damn quick if they get too many pieces of the puzzle.” 

Amber looked a bit guilty about the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to go with us. Focusing on me, she urged, “She’s right about being careful out there, okay? We caused a big scene last night. The Ministry is going to be on guard and itching for some payback after the bloody nose we gave them. They can’t cover everything, and they won’t know what we were looking for since we grabbed everything we could. But still, just… watch yourselves and don’t attract a bunch of attention. And if something goes wrong, call. I’d rather make an excuse for–I’d rather ditch and figure out how to explain it later so I can come help than have you guys end up in even worse trouble.” 

“We’ll be careful,” I promised. “We’re just going to check the place out and see if there’s anything to find that might tell us where that guy went. From those papers, it sounds like the Ministry took him from their safehouse to that spot. I’m pretty sure that means they just dropped him off, probably in a place he chose. Which would mean they don’t really have any ties to it. But either way, we’ll watch our backs.” Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder. “But you watch yourself too, okay? Don’t get so distracted worrying about what we’re doing that you get yourself in trouble. There’s still a gang war going on out there.”

Pack made a noise in the back of her throat, before quietly excusing herself. She said something about coming back to check in on what we found later, before heading out to do her… whatever it was La Casa was doing. That whole situation was becoming more complicated by the day, especially given how much I could tell she and Amber liked each other. But it wasn’t my place to say anything. 

Instead, I focused on getting ready to go. With some reluctance, I changed into the other suit, complete with the raised shoes and fake chest. I didn’t want to, but if it came to it, better to be spotted by the Ministry looking like this than as Paintball. There was no sense in taking the risk, even if we weren’t planning on making a big scene. Or so I told myself repeatedly while putting the other suit on in the bathroom before going out to join the others. 

Peyton, Murphy, and Roald wore the same suits as last night as well, while Sierra simply had a ski mask. I had conflicting thoughts about her going out like that. But then again, I had conflicting thoughts about everything involving her. Including the fact that she was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and somehow pulling it off better than I could have even though the body she was using was literally identical to mine. 

So yeah, conflicting thoughts all around. Still, if we got caught and her mask was removed, we… it would be a whole thing anyway. If we got caught to the point that she lost the mask, I would lose mine too. And then we’d really have a situation. 

For the moment, however, I put all of that aside and tried not to focus on the terrible what-ifs. Instead, I headed out to the back lot where Fred’s car was. Unfortunately, just as we were about to head out, Peyton got a call from her mother. Apparently they had a sick friend, and her mother needed her to watch that friend’s kids while she took the woman to the hospital. She obviously felt bad about ducking out, but I assured her it was understandable and that we would be fine. After all, we were just going to poke around, it wouldn’t be that bad. 

She still looked doubtful, but stepped back while I got in the back of the sedan with Murphy and Roald. Sierra got in the front passenger side, not bothering with the mask just yet. 

Starting the car, Fred glanced in the back at us. “Don’t worry, those back windows might look clear, but…” He reached out, hitting something on the dash. “Now they’re tinted from the outside. Nobody can see you back there.” With a proud smile, he tapped the steering wheel. “She might look like an old jalopy, but Wren’s done a lot of tinkering. We get in a chase, whoever’s after us will be in for a big surprise.” 

“Let’s hope there’s no opportunity for you to prove that,” I put in. “At least, not today. But good to know.” 

“Just don’t let Paintball drive if you get into a chase,” Peyton pleaded while standing just outside the car, staring at us as though she was about to change her mind about going to help her mother.

Making a scoffing sound in the back of my throat, I primly pointed out, “I got us out of the last chase pretty well.” 

“You also got my stomach out of my lower torso pretty well,” Peyton shot back. “I’m pretty sure it still hasn’t settled properly.” 

Another huff escaped me. “Wimp. I could totally have driven crazier than that. I took it easy on you.” 

From the front seat, Fred gruffly informed us that he would be the one driving today. And with that, we all waved to Peyton and the others before pulling out onto the street. 

“Now,” our driver announced, “you all might want to sit back and relax for a few minutes, cuz if we’re trying to avoid attention, that means following the speed limit. And I guarantee, there’s gonna be traffic.”

He was right, of course. There was plenty of traffic from people heading home to get back before curfew hit. And just getting out of work in general. Pontiac had grown as well, alongside Detroit as it acted as a suburb for people to live in while working here in the city. At last count, the place had a population of about a hundred and fifty thousand or so. And part of me thought that the entirety of that was on the freeway with us. It made me want to jump out and find my own way to the city. Which would have been a terrible mistake, but still. 

It took over an hour and a half for us to drive the twenty miles from Detroit to Pontiac, which would have been worse if I hadn’t fallen asleep leaning against the window. When the car abruptly stopped, I jolted awake, suddenly feeling panicked about where I was and what was going on. 

“It’s cool,” Murphy assured me. From the sound of the yawn that came with her words, she had actually fallen asleep too. “We’re here.” 

“That’s right,” Fred confirmed, raising his hand to point across the street from where he had parked. “That’s the address. It’s number 3C.”  

I looked that way with the others and we immediately spotted an apartment building with what looked like some sort of memorial out front. There were flowers, wreaths, candles, and similar stuff all stacked up next to the stairs. 

“What…” I frowned. “What is that?” 

“I’ll check it out,” Sierra announced. And before I could say anything, she had the door open and was walking across the street to look at the memorial. There were a couple people standing nearby, and she said something to them before listening to their response. The whole time, I sat with my hands clenched tightly, praying nothing went wrong. 

A minute later, Sierra came back and got in. “It’s a memorial alright,” she announced. “Apparently a couple teenagers were killed by someone the day after that Luciano creep was supposed to have been dropped off. From what the one witness who survived said, they were poking around the dumpster back behind the building and someone attacked them. They ahh, they said it was a monster. Actually they said zombie. He came out of the garbage and screamed at them. The girl got away but her friends were… they weren’t as lucky. Apparently the monster bit them. Ripped their throats out with–” She stopped, grimacing. “It was bad, that’s the point. Real bad. And from the description the girl gave…” 

“Luciano?” I asked, before grimacing when she gave a silent nod. “Fuck. Okay wait, so…. the Ministry brought Luciano here… and the next day a few teenagers found him in the garbage, and when they disturbed him, he attacked and murdered a couple of them? By ripping their throats out with his teeth? And they said he was like a zombie? What–what does…

“What the fuck does that mean?”  

Previous Chapter

Enkindle 23-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

To my relief, the others did not immediately recognize the newly-dubbed Sierra as looking like me. The real me, that was. In the back of my mind, I sent a silent thanks that I had never really been a focus of paparazzi or whatever. I didn’t know how much of that was the fact that I didn’t fit what they would want to show as a daughter of Elena Evans, and how much was my parents keeping me sheltered from it. But either way, it helped me out right now. I could only imagine what sort of explanations we would have had to give otherwise. 

Maybe the truth. I was going to tell them the truth anyway, so why not now? It was a question I couldn’t quite answer, even to myself. th

Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were all circling Sierra, looking her up and down. Peyton gave a low whistle. “Damn, you really do look completely–I mean…” She looked back and forth between her and Paige. “I guess saying you look real is pretty bad, isn’t it? Cuz, like, you are real.”

Paige snorted at that. “Yeah, we’re real. Flesh and blood body, just like you. Well, not just like.” 

“More like a new and improved us,” Murphy murmured, before flushing a bit. “I mean, I didn’t–” She seemed to squirm a little bit as though embarrassed. “You both look great, but what I meant was the whole strength and speed stuff. Wait, do you have that same–you know.” She gestured a bit vaguely toward Sierra. “Improvements, I mean. Are you like a super-soldier like Paige?” 

A very slight smirk crossed the other girl’s face. And yes, seeing a look like that on my own face was still weird. The whole thing was weird. Every time I looked at her, I had another startling moment of realizing I was staring at my own face. It threw me off, to say the least. That smirk stayed as she inclined her chin a bit. “Like her? I’m pretty sure I could kick her ass.” 

Paige started to respond to that, and I quickly spoke up. “Why don’t we save finding that out for later? I’m just glad Rai–I mean Sierra has a body now, so we can move on to the next problem.” 

Roald made a noise deep in his throat, folding his arms across his chest before hesitantly asking, “You mean we don’t get to just be glad we got out of that whole thing alive and relax for awhile? She um, she has a body now, and it’s gonna take awhile to look through all that stuff, right? You don’t… you don’t want to go out and do something like that again already…”

Murphy’s hand slapped his back. “I think what he means is, we just did a lot of pissing some really powerful people off. And while all of that was fun, and they have that and a hell of a lot more coming–” Her face twisted a bit as thoughts of her brother clearly filled her mind briefly before she pushed them away. “–we probably don’t wanna push too hard, too fast. They’re gonna be on guard now. Even more on guard than usual. They’re gonna be watching for us. So maybe we should chill out.”

“He didn’t mean anything to do with the Ministry,” Paige informed them with a glance my way. “This is about my–our father.” The correction came as she met Sierra’s gaze briefly. “And the fact that he’s got…” She hesitated slightly, clearly deciding how much to actually say before starting over. “The fact that he’s got two Star-Touched trapped on that prison island with him. With them. With all those prisoners.” 

That made everyone else besides Sierra and me do a double-take. It was almost funny. Wren flew right up in the air, wings lifting her into a hovering motion so she was several feet off the ground. “Wait, wait, what?! He’s got Star-Touched on Breakwater?” 

“How did that happen?” Peyton demanded. “And how do you know about it?” 

Paige took a breath before explaining, “The Banners–the people who adopted… who bought me, they have an older daughter, a real daughter, who was estranged from them. When they went missing–err, when we went missing, she started looking for them. I guess Trivial was a friend of hers, because she convinced her to help look. Trivial got Flea, from the Conservators, to help too. When we found out that there were Star-Touched looking for me, we were afraid they’d tip off the Ministry. Or even that they were Ministry. So we made them think I was in Florida. You know, using a phone that made it look like that was where I was calling from.” 

Wren abruptly spoke up. “You were calling the umm, Trivial with that?” 

“Not at first,” Paige replied. “But when I wouldn’t tell Irelyn where I was, she uhh, thought making me talk to a Star-Touched would help. Obviously it didn’t change anything, but they kept trying.” 

This was all uncomfortable, obviously. I didn’t like the idea of lying to these guys. But then again, it was about protecting Irelyn’s secret identity. Awkward as the whole situation was, it would have been even worse to go blabbing that when it wasn’t our secret to tell. There was no simple answer here. We could either betray their trust by lying about the whole Irelyn/Flea situation, or betray Irelyn by exposing her identity to a lot of people she didn’t know anything about. I just had to hope that if this came out in the future, they would understand why we hadn’t told them the truth. Actually, I had to hope that they were cool with an awful lot of ‘not the whole truth.’  

I shook those thoughts off while Paige finished with a simple, “We thought it’d be safe enough down there, that they couldn’t get in trouble that far away from what was actually going on.” 

“You also sent them away from the city when this whole gang war is going on,” Roald pointed out. He didn’t exactly sound completely recriminating, but he didn’t not sound that way either. It was somewhere in the middle. “They could have done a lot of good here for people.” 

Wincing visibly, Paige nodded. “You’re right. We didn’t think they’d be gone for this long, honest. We assumed they’d go down for a few days and then come back. We didn’t expect anything like this.”  

“Stupid us, apparently,” Sierra put in. “Cuz they managed to get Pittman’s attention somehow and he had them… uh, we dunno what or how exactly, but they ended up on Breakwater. He has the phone they were using to communicate with Paige. Irelyn gave them the number. I guess she thought they might have more luck convincing her to tell them where she was.”

Peyton was looking back and forth between all of us, marbles orbiting agitatedly around her head while she was clearly thinking intently. “Okay, so this Banners woman was looking for you and her missing parents and she got a couple of Star-Touched involved. Does she know they ended up on Breakwater?” 

“We’re pretty sure she’s there too,” I found myself saying, picturing the hole I was digging getting deeper with each word. Though technically that was the absolute literal truth. We were pretty sure Irelyn was there. “Flea and Trivial went with her as back-up and now…” I grimaced. Fuck, it was so easy for this to go wrong and fall apart. The moment they didn’t see Irelyn with Flea and Trivial, it was–fuck. That was a problem to figure out later. We were doing the best we could not to give away her secret identity, but that could only go so far. 

“So there’s a Prev trapped on that island too?” Murphy blurted. “How’re they keeping her safe?” 

Paige shifted her weight a little, her tone flat. “She’s fully capable. Her father was training her to take over his security division before they had a falling out. She’s had more– she can take care of herself in a fight. With those two backing her up–or her backing them up–whatever, she can help.” 

I really almost had to admire Paige’s ability to lie in that moment. She really sounded like she was sticking up for Irelyn being able to keep up with a couple Star-Touched, as if offended by the insinuation that she would drag them down. 

Peyton started to say something else before stopping as a noise of confusion escaped her. “Wait, hold the phone, why isn’t this all over the news? If there were a couple heroes and some ordinary person trapped on that place, wouldn’t it be front-page material? We’d be seeing it on television, there’d be top pinned posts about it on Sphere, on Reddit, everywhere. And trust me, it’s not there. No one’s talking about anything like this. Not even rumors.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shifted my weight uncomfortably before nodding. “That’s why we think they’re keeping it secret. The people on Breakwater, I mean. I don’t think they want anyone to know that there’s even a chance of good people ending up there. Because if people knew it was possible for someone to be transported onto Breakwater–” 

“They’d realize there must be a way to transport off of it,” Murphy finished, sounding disgusted. “And we can’t have that. Gotta keep up the fucking illusion of perfect security so there’s not mass panic in the streets or whatever the fuck they’re scared of. Even if it means abandoning those three–wait, do you think they’ve told the people here? Do you think their teammates know what happened to them? I guess they wouldn’t tell anyone that Irelyn chick knows, but the other two?” 

My head shook. “I don’t think the people in charge of that place would be able to keep it a secret if the Star-Touched here knew about it.” Pausing to consider, I added, “I mean, maybe one or two know, like the leaders? But I don’t… I don’t think even them. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that if even the Ministry knew about it, they’d be doing something to get the word out. Remember, their whole thing depends on balance. It’s not just about giving the villains a free ride. They need to have the power on the good side to shut down anyone who steps out of line. Losing two really good Star-Touched at any point, but especially right now, isn’t exactly conducive to that.”

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “Pittman’s their enemy. They’d want to get the word out and put a stop to it just to make sure that there was no chance of him getting off that place.” 

Peyton was nodding slowly, her voice thoughtful. “I mean, that’s a good point, right? Like, there’s no reason they’d be helping to keep this secret. Safe to say they don’t know anything about it.” 

Roald snorted. “Yeah, well, maybe we should tell them so they can do our work for us.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and grimaced behind the helmet. “I know you meant that sarcastically, but part of me wants to know if that’s something we could do. I mean, think about it. They’ve got a hell of a lot more resources than we do. And like we said, they’ve got every reason to want to shut him down and save Flea and Trivial.” 

“Has Irelyn been reported missing?” Peyton asked, her golden helmet tilting my way. “I mean, I doubt she took this much time off work. Her–wait, what does she do for work?” 

Paige was the one who answered. “She’s a security consultant for a few different tech companies. Trains their staff, works with a couple mercenary groups, that sort of thing. Freelance, so she doesn’t have anyone to report to. They might’ve noticed she hasn’t been answering calls, but what are they gonna say? Hell, they’d probably think she’s on some assignment for a different company.” 

Clearing my throat, I quickly spoke up. “The point is, it’s pretty doubtful that either the people she works with, or Flea and Trivial’s teammates, know how bad their situation is. Maybe they’ve noticed them missing, but even then it’s not like they’d jump straight to ‘they’re trapped on Breakwater,’ you know? No matter what they think happened, they’re probably keeping it quiet to avoid a panic.” 

“They might be blaming the Scions,” Roald pointed out with an audible grimace. “Maybe they think those guys grabbed them and are planning some big event.” 

“Please don’t even give me any reason to picture that,” Alloy groaned. “Cuz now I’m just wondering what those guys are actually planning for their big revenge come-back.” 

My head shook quickly. “Let’s not think about that right now. We’ve got enough problems to deal with. We just need to focus on how we get those people off of Breakwater.”

“Maybe you should let the Ministry know,” Fred put in. He was sitting over in the corner with a copy of the newspaper and a cup of coffee, shrugging when we looked at him. “Like you said, they’ve got the resources you–we don’t, right? And they’d want to convince the authorities to get those three out of there. You get them to put pressure in the right places, maybe the people in charge of the island just step in and pull them out. Could be that easy.” He paused, frowning at his cup. “Yeah, I know, it sounded wrong as soon as I heard it.” 

“I’m not sure how we can let them know what’s going on without becoming even more of a target ourselves,” I carefully murmured, thinking about it for a moment. “Or how we could get them to believe it. I mean, maybe we could get them to think that the people who hit them last night worked for him and lead them to it that way? But I don’t know how we could do that, exactly. It seems pretty… easy to screw up.” 

Wren was practically vibrating as fast as her wings while hovering in the air. “I think I can find out where the island is.” When everyone looked at her, she quickly added, “When you use the phone to talk to that mean guy. I think I can build something to track the signal to the source. Would that help? I mean, um, if you know exactly where the island is, maybe you could trade that to the people in charge and say something like, ‘you wanna keep that whole location a secret, so maybe you should get our friends out and it’ll stay that way.’”

That made me stare even more, my mouth opening and shutting a couple times. Of all the people who might have suggested literally blackmailing the authorities into getting Flea and Trivial off that island, I never would have expected it to be Wren. 

Apparently everyone else was just as surprised, because the girl found the whole group staring at her. Slowly, she lowered herself back to the floor, wings continuing to beat for a few more seconds before slowly fluttering to a stop. “What?” she asked weakly, looking back and forth between all of us. “Was it a bad idea?” 

I was the first to answer, my head shaking quickly. “No, not a bad idea. A surprising one for sure, and definitely a dangerous one too. Blackmailing the government into doing what we want them to do, even if it’s the right thing, could get a target put on our backs. Especially with something as big as the location of their super-inescapable prison.”

Paige spoke slowly. “He’s right about that. Believe me, just trying to force them to do what we want in the first place would be enough to make them look at us in a, let’s say not favorable light. Add in the part where it involves the secret location of the supervillain prison that every government in the Armistice alliance uses and…” She grimaced a bit. 

“But it’s still a good idea,” Sierra put in flatly. Her tone has made it clear that she was practically daring us to disagree, which would obviously mean coming up with a better plan of our own. “Think about it, it’s not like we can get over there ourselves. Even once we know where the island is, that place is so well defended that we’d get blown to smithereens before we got anywhere near it. Unless the kid’s ready to upgrade the odds of her teleportation system from a fifty percent chance of successfully moving a few blocks to a one hundred percent chance of moving all the way across the continent and over the ocean.” 

Wren visibly blanched at that, head shaking slowly. “Um, I’d rather risk blackmailing the government. Wait, does that make us bad guys?” 

“We’re saving a couple Star-Touched, and another good woman, from real bad guys,” Peyton reminded her. “That gives us a little wiggle room on the good or evil chart, doesn’t it?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. “A little wiggle room. But let’s be careful with that, because I’m pretty sure we’ve been wiggling a fair bit already. Um. Wren, maybe you could work on creating that tracking system so we can call Pittman and get his location? Then we can decide what to do from there. I mean, it’s not like having the location automatically means we have to blackmail the government people, right? If anyone else can come up with a better plan, feel free.” 

“One that helps Trivial, Flea, and Irelyn as soon as possible,” Paige put in. “They might be good at what they do, but they’re stuck out there on an island full of the worst of the worst. Nobody’s good enough to survive in that place forever. And it’s our fault that they’re stuck out there to begin with.” 

A nagging voice in the back of my head was saying that everyone trying to think of a better solution might have more luck if they knew the full, correct situation. They were operating under the assumption that Flea and Irelyn were two separate people. That could very easily come back to bite us in the ass. But again, until we had permission from the woman herself, we couldn’t just go around blabbing her identity to everyone here. We were doing the best we could with a shitty situation. 

Wren was nodding almost frantically. “I’ll work on it. I’ll build it. I mean, I’ve got the design in my head already, but we might need to get a few things. They’ve probably got blockers–I mean they’ve definitely got blockers. Things to stop stuff like exactly what we’re gonna do. But I think I know how to get past them. I–uhh, gotta draw!” Even as she finished saying that, Fred was handing over a tablet with a stylus, and she quickly moved to a corner of the room to start sketching designs. 

After watching her for a second, I turned back to the others. “Well, that’ll keep her busy for a while. I guess there’s nothing else we can do for those three right now, so maybe we should start going over the stuff we found? Sorry, I mean the stuff we stole. Wren says the tracking stuff is all gone, right, Fred?” 

“Yeah, it’s all taken care of,” he confirmed. “The kid promises that everything over there is safe.” He gestured to a table on the other side of the room, where our bags were spread out. “There were a lot of trackers on it, but we got rid of them. Nobody’s gonna find that stuff here.” 

So, we all went over to find our own bags and started to sort through what we had stolen. First, I took those vials from the front pocket and unwrapped them from the towel before frowning thoughtfully. There were five vials in total, one blue, two purple, one brownish-black, and one a bright amber. There were labels on the vials, but it wasn’t like they had easy-to-understand names and explanations. Each label had four numbers and three letters on it. Such as, on the blue one, 9F2X7P0. The two purple ones looked identical, and the codes on them were close but not the same. One was 8D1J4N1 and the other was 8D1J4N8. Did that mean they came from the same batch? I had no idea. And I certainly wasn’t going to do anything stupid like uncork them and smell or touch the stuff without having a better idea of what it was. 

Hopefully there would be information in the files we’d taken, something we could use to decode the labels. For the moment, I carefully set them aside on the folded towel and turned my attention to the assortment of papers I had yanked off the wall back in that place. They had been taped up near the vials, so maybe they had something I could use? 

Unfortunately, the papers were no help. At least, not yet. They had the same sort of code written on them. Until we found the key for it, we still couldn’t decipher what any of it meant.

While I was focused on that, Pack arrived at the back door. Fred let her in, and she came with her lizards all over her shoulders, arms, and head. “I tell you, these guys must’ve been pretty upset about being left behind, because–what?” She had stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Sierra, who had just looked up. “What the hell are– err… oh.” Seeming to catch herself abruptly, the masked girl pointed. “That’s the body you found for Raige?” 

“Sierra now,” the girl in question corrected. “Sierra Nevada.” 

“Sierra Nevada,” Pack echoed thoughtfully, still staring at her. I couldn’t read her expression through that completely blank mask, but she sounded… odd. “Well, it’s good to meet you, Sierra. 

“Very good to meet you indeed.” 

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Dig In 22-13 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we made our way back to the shop. We were careful, of course. First, Peyton and I took the time to each find a private area to change into our actual costumes. Amber had grabbed the bag with the costumes in it just before teleporting us out of the van. Naturally, the most important part of that point was that I was able to take the damn bra thing off. I resisted the urge to hurl it as far as I could, but only barely. I really hoped that nothing would come up in the future forcing me to wear it.  

Now I was back in my costume and far more comfortable. I was the right height, the right… shape, and everything felt a hell of a lot better, even if we weren’t out of the woods yet. I was just plain happier like this. 

Alloy and I basically just had to do the exact same thing we had done to get to the motel in the first place, only in reverse. Now we were heading back to the shop, and it was even more crucial that the others not be seen. It would have been bad enough to deal with cops or other Touched seeing them dressed up like that before. Now… now it would be a lot worse. 

Thankfully, the Ministry was still busy scouring the lake and area along the shore for us. I had no doubt that the search would widen soon enough, but we would be safe in the shop by then, and everyone would be out of the incriminating suits. Or so I kept telling myself throughout the entire very tense affair of oh-so-slowly working our way through the city. We couldn’t afford a single screw-up now. We had to get back there and get rid of all the evidence before anyone, particularly anyone who might work for or talk to the Ministry, saw us. 

Yeah, it was a bit nerve-wracking. But, despite having several near heart attacks on the way there and time and space doing their level best to stretch the whole thing out into an eternity, we finally made it. We were back in the alley behind the shop, and as far as we could tell, no one had seen us. It probably would have been impossible, or at least a lot harder, to do it that way before the curfew was put in place, so I did have to thank the authorities for that. Maybe I would send them a nice card or something. 

Fred opened the back door, giving us a nod. “We had cameras set up the last couple blocks, watching you. There’s no one on your tail. Come on.” He stepped aside then, holding the door for us to go in while his eyes carefully and suspiciously scanned the alley despite his own words. Apparently after the mistake he had made with that whole Ashton situation, he was being a lot more careful in general. Or maybe my paranoia was rubbing off on the people around me. Either way, I wasn’t going to object. He was Wren’s guardian, and there would be people who wanted to use her skills for their own ends. 

Speaking of which, I was going to have to give Glitch an answer about that whole situation soon. She had said she would send someone in two weeks, but it had been longer than that without a word. I assumed that had something to do with the whole war escalating thing. Maybe they were busy helping my parents work out nasty new toys to play with or something. Whatever the case, I knew that it was only a temporary delay. Soon enough, she would send someone to get our answer about what Wren was going to do. We’d talked about it of course, and… well, I just hoped we knew what we were doing. 

But right now, I had to focus on this particular situation. We all slipped through the doorway, before Fred closed it after us. I felt a sudden rush of relief wash over me in that moment. Tension that I hadn’t even realized I was holding in myself rushed out in a heavy sigh. We were safe. Well, maybe not completely safe from everything. The Ministry would be looking for whoever had stolen from them. They would be turning over every stone they could, and would go over that van with a fine-toothed comb. Thankfully, there was nothing for them to find. The van wasn’t registered to any of us, or connected to us in any way. Pack had stolen it from a place that rented them out for people to move furniture, and none of us had touched anything in it with our bare hands. We didn’t touch anything and we didn’t leave anything. They wouldn’t find any leads there. 

So, they would look, but they wouldn’t find us. Not right now, anyway. We had time. We had space to breathe and think. And to find out what we’d actually taken from them. 

Of course, first we all had to survive an attack of a completely different kind. The moment we came into the main shop area, I was suddenly hit straight on by a (literal) flying tackle-hug as Wren zoomed across the open space on her wings to crash into me. “You made it!” 

Staggering backward, I laughed. It was a laugh of relief, which felt really good right then. So did the hug itself, actually. I closed my arms around the girl and nodded. “Yup, we sure did. In and out just like that.” Even as I said those words, my voice cracked a little. I still couldn’t believe it had worked. And despite the fact that most of me was celebrating, there was a small but not insignificant part of me that was convinced that Ministry bad guys were about to crash through the windows while my brother and dad blew the door down and came storming in. It was… not a fun thing to imagine. 

Wren didn’t hug me for long, quickly moving on to the others. As she did, I stepped back and glanced toward Fred. “Good driving back there,” I informed him quietly. “Looked like a real wipeout. I’m sure they’ll have their suspicions, maybe even enough to be sure once they investigate and don’t find us anywhere. But still, you sold it in that moment.” 

Folding his arms, the man gave a short, thoughtful nod. “That’s the important part, isn’t it?” he mused. “If they don’t know exactly what happened, it’ll slow down their search. Even if they know you intentionally went into the water, they’ll look for diving equipment and extend the search area to find places further along where you could’ve come up. It’ll confuse them, muddy the waters, so to speak.” He gave a soft grunt of amusement at his own joke. 

“Every little bit helps,” I confirmed before letting out a breath. “Thanks for being around to help with all this. We definitely couldn’t do it without you. I mean, certainly not without Wren, but you too. I…” Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I hesitated briefly, wondering if I was overstepping. “I know you… you’ve felt shitty about what happened before.” 

“It was a stupid mistake,” he replied flatly, not looking at me. “I should’ve paid more attention to what that idiot wanted to do with that stuff, to exactly what he was going to steal. He just said he was going to rob a bank and–shit.” Shaking his head, he muttered something I didn’t catch under his breath. Then he sighed heavily. “Sorry I treated you the way I did when you showed up. You know, with the whole pointing a gun at you thing. That was out of line. It was–I’m glad you found us. Glad you… did all that.” 

I knew what he was saying. He was horrified at the very thought that he might have been even indirectly responsible for the death of a child. If we hadn’t found those vials and gotten them back to Blackjack in time… yeah, I didn’t really want to think about it either. I’d never met his daughter, but no kid deserved to die. Especially like that. 

I was spared from having to find some way of responding to that when Pack abruptly spoke up. “Okay, well, it’s been real fun basking in the glory of pulling something like that off, but can we get the next part of this show on the road?” She had all of her lizards out on the counter and was brushing her fingers over them tenderly, clearly apologizing for leaving them behind. 

Paige cleared her throat, straightening up with a slight grimace that told me she and Raige were having their own discussion inside her head. “Yeah, we, for two, would like to see what we pulled out of that place and if it was anything useful.” 

Her face shifted just a bit before Raige added, “And it had damn well better be after all that.” 

Of course, we couldn’t just open up the bags and dig through them just yet. There was way too big of a chance that the Ministry had put tracking devices on their hard drives. Right now, the special bags that Wren had provided were bouncing any potential signal all over the country.  But we weren’t going to take the risk of pulling anything out until there was no chance of us being tracked back here. Which meant that Wren had to take the bags into a specially prepared large metal crate she already had set up in a corner of the room. It was just large enough for her to sit inside with her tools and the stuff we’d grabbed, and did basically the same thing as the bags themselves while giving her room to work. Which meant the rest of us stood around and talked about what we had just done while she got busy. Anxious as we were to see what we had managed to grab, none of us wanted to take any risks. We had gotten through this so far without giving away who we were, and this was no time to start getting reckless. Slow and steady, one bit at a time. We’d done our part, now it was time for Wren to do hers. 

Okay, that wasn’t even in the least bit accurate. Wren had done more than her part so far. As I’d said to Fred, we would have been pretty screwed without her the entire way through this. The very thought of having to try to get into that place by myself, or even just without her, was basically inconceivable. I… maybe could have done it. At least, I could have dug the tunnel, but damn would it have taken a lot more time. Making everything pink and digging it out like that myself, I probably would have taken another month just to get there. Let alone having to go in alone. I either would’ve gotten caught, or I would’ve had to use my powers openly. Which would’ve let my parents know that Paintball was onto them, and that would have been a whole other–yeah. If I didn’t have these guys here to help, all of them, I would have been screwed. 

Those thoughts and more were running through my head as the others were loudly discussing just how crazy everything in that base had been. Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were going on about the guy they’d had to fight inside one of the other rooms, while the latter girl’s marbles spun wildly around her head. They were clearly as worked up and excited as she was, and possibly feeling a little agitated about the fact that they hadn’t been able to help in that place. If they could feel agitated, I still wasn’t sure how that whole thing worked. But in either case, whether it was the marbles or Peyton’s own subconscious, they were definitely energetic now, spinning around her head like a colorful halo or something. 

Glancing at her phone, Pack gave a soft grunt of annoyance. “Fuck. I gotta go. Getting a bit late and I’ve got a meeting with the boss before school in the morning.” 

“A meeting?” Amber’s gaze moved that way, clearly worried. And possibly curious. 

With an audible snort, Pack gestured casually. “Don’t worry, babe, the meeting was scheduled yesterday. Just a thing with me and a couple others about a job we need to do this week. A crime job.” She was clearly teasing the other girl. “But I promise, it’s the fun sort of crime.” 

Sighing, Amber waved a hand around the room. “You realize you’re talking about doing crime in a room full of Star-Touched, right? You’re literally admitting that you’re planning to do something illegal and expect us not to do anything about it.” 

“Oh, you can do something about it,” the other girl slyly replied. “Feel free to show up whenever you get the call and try to stop us. It’d be fun to play cops and robbers. Maybe one of us can tie the oth–” 

With an almost violent cough and vigorous clearing of her throat, Amber interrupted. “Didn’t you say you had to go? Meeting, school, all that?” 

Pack was clearly grinning behind that full face-covering mask as she gave a thumbs up. “Yup. But remember, I get to see the information you guys pull out of that stuff too. Don’t cheat me on this. I earned it.” 

We all promised to keep her informed about what we found, before the girl headed out with her lizards. Once she was gone, Murphy and Roald noted that they really should get home too. Obviously they couldn’t go by themselves, not with the curfew up. So Fred took them in his sedan, where they would hide under some blankets. He had an ID that identified him as a delivery driver for a local bakery, and if anyone stopped him he would just say that he was on his way to work a bit early to fill in. Assuming they called the place, the supervisor there was a friend of Fred’s and would cover for him. We’d thought about using that cover to get everyone to the motel earlier, but dismissed it both because we didn’t want anyone to take note of Fred being anywhere near the motel right before that whole thing went down, and because hiding all of us was a lot harder than just hiding Murphy and Roald. 

Finally, Peyton reluctantly admitted that she should probably start heading back home too, given her mother would freak out if she didn’t wake up in time to go to school. And besides, she had a test in the morning. So, after also making us promise to let her know what we found, she took off. 

Which left me there with Izzy, Amber, and Paige/Raige while we all waited for Wren to get done identifying and disabling the tracking devices. We talked a bit more, and had a snack of chips and cookies while watching the news for any word about what had happened. The only mention was something about a gang-related car chase that had ended with one of the cars involved driving into the lake. Of course, they identified the chopper as being part of the police force. And hell, for all we knew it really was. I would not have been at the least bit surprised to hear that it was an actual police helicopter that had been chasing us with that light. It gave them the perfect cover, anyway. And it wasn’t like my family having those sort of contacts and resources would be surprising. 

Eventually, Fred returned and whistled long and low while shaking his head as he saw what we were watching. “These people really have their fingers dug into fucking everything in this city, don’t they? They didn’t have any warning that you were going to be in there, and they still just snapped their fingers and summoned up a helicopter to chase after you. And just like that, it was a police chopper. Now they get to control the whole damn narrative. It’s just that quick, that easy. They say the word and the media reports what they’re told to.” 

“Helps when they have people in the police and the media,” I pointed out quietly. “Plus, we didn’t exactly give the news much of a reason to doubt that story. It makes sense that what happened right there would be a gang fight. And that it would disappear pretty quick. I mean, look at what’s happening in the rest of the city. As far as everyone else is concerned, it was just one more little event. Barely even worth reporting on, in the grand scheme of things.” 

Fred has started to say something, but before he could, the crate slid open and Wren emerged.  Her always-wild blond hair was sticking out in even more directions than normal, and she gave herself a shake, almost like a dog. Then she flashed us a broad smile and held up a plastic bag full of what looked like the remains of several small computer chips. They had been smashed into lots of tiny pieces. “All good now,” she informed brightly. “They can’t track these things anymore, and the last signal they got made it look like they were in Oklahoma. And there weren’t any tracking devices on the filters or papers, just the hard drives. It’s safe to look at the stuff now. Oooh, cookies!” With that, her wings extended and she literally flew over to the counter to grab a chocolate chip treat in each hand before smooshing them together into her mouth. “Mmmphh. Ur ruv oorrkiesh.” 

“Wren, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Fred advised. “And try to stick to one cookie at a time, kid.” Even as he said that, the man was shaking his head as he poured a glass of milk for her and handed it over, smiling as she drank greedily. “Good job though.” 

Reaching down to pick up the bag of broken tracking devices she had dropped in her rush, I examined it and smiled. “Definitely a good job. I’m pretty sure the Ministry is pissed off right now.” I had to pause then, imagining my parents being angry. It made me feel weird in my stomach, but I shook that off. Now really wasn’t the time to focus on that. We had to look through that stuff. It was getting pretty late, but still. I couldn’t leave yet. Not when we knew that Irelyn and Trivial were in some sort of horrible danger. There wasn’t time to waste. 

So, Amber, Izzy, and I took the papers and split them up to look through while Paige plugged herself into one hard drive after another. There was a lot of information here, too much to really take in with the time we had. Mostly we were just looking for the addresses of Pittman’s labs at the moment. There would be time later to take a full inventory of all the information once we had dealt with the most pressing matter. 

So, I was simply scanning through pages, looking for certain words like Pittman himself, or laboratory, or robots, biolems, anything about biological experimentation, and so on. I saw several things that made me want to go back and read more, but not right at the moment. Pittman. I had to focus on Pittman. 

Finally, after a few minutes of that, Amber abruptly spoke up. “Hang on, wait, I think I’ve got something.” As we all turned it to look that way, she held up a stapled-together stack of papers, flipped to somewhere in the middle. “Right here, it looks like an inventory of places where they could set up a lab to work on something called Project Carpenter, whatever that is.” 

“At least it’s not Project Owl,” I murmured before adding, “I take it the list has some interesting places?” 

“You could say that,” she replied before pointing to one part of the page. “This part here, there’s four addresses and  it says, ‘Acquired from B.P. Equipment on-site, inventory needed.’ B.P. That could be–” 

“Benjamin Pittman,” Paige interrupted. “That would make sense. We’ve got something here too. It’s not the addresses, but I think it’s codes to get through the doors. They changed the locks, obviously.” 

“You guys aren’t going out there now, are you?” That was Fred, frowning. “It’s already late.” 

“And as soon as they find out what we stole,” I pointed out, “they’ll start locking things down. They might not know exactly what we were after, but I don’t want to take that chance.” Belatedly, I grimaced to myself. “I mean, I don’t want to speak for any of you–” 

“No,” Amber interrupted, “you’re right, we need to get over there while we can. They’ll be busy scouring that base and van for any clues, or trying to track us by the lake.” 

The others nodded in agreement, Raige taking the time to point out that Irelyn needed help right now. So, I exhaled. “Right, okay then. Hope you guys don’t mind putting those suits back on just in case there are cameras in those places. 

“Looks like we’ve got one more job to do tonight.”  

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Dig In 22-12 (Summus Proelium)

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The tunnel was louder now than it had ever been in its entire existence. Heavy panting filled it, along with the sound of running footsteps as we raced, single-file, away from the sound of angry guards who had found their pursuit blocked. 

“Go, run, just keep running!” Amber blurted after giving a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure we were coming. “They’ll be right behind us.” 

She was right. I would have loved to say that we were through the hard part now, but I wasn’t that naive. We may have gotten out of the base itself with our hides (and identities) intact, but we were far from home free. Until we were out of this tunnel, miles away from this place, and positive that we weren’t being actively chased, everything could still go completely wrong. It wasn’t like my family’s people would just collectively shrug at the pile of dirt in their way and give up. This wasn’t a video game where the enemy would stop tracking you and go back to normal behavior after the mildest of obstacles. They knew we had been inside the secret base. They knew there was a tunnel here. They knew we were still running through it. And soon they would know where the other end was. There was no doubt of that. They would already be scouting it out. The only real question was whether we would escape before they closed the net. And there was nothing I could do about how quickly they managed that.

On the other hand, I could do something about our own speed. Now that we were out of sight from any cameras or onlookers, there was nothing stopping me from using my paint. So that was exactly what I did. Aiming quickly as we ran, I shot a stream of green paint until it had hit everyone, including Paige behind me. Then I activated it, boosting our speed as much as I could. 

God, it felt so claustrophobic down here all of a sudden. More than it ever had while we were digging it. Was that just the adrenaline and panic from the situation? I felt trapped in this tunnel, knowing that the Ministry people were no doubt already spreading out to find it from above, or to find the other end. They would be working out where it was, and the motel site wouldn’t exactly be hard to guess. We just had to beat them there. Which was not a given, considering the resources they had. Hell, I wouldn’t have been the least-bit surprised to find out that they had a helicopter up there scouring the area already. That might’ve seemed ridiculous in some cases, but this was my parents and the Ministry. They definitely had the resources to get something in the air that fast if they really wanted to. And the intruder alarm in one of their secret bases going off would definitely make them want to. 

The tunnel didn’t just seem tighter, more suffocating, it felt longer too. I could have sworn I had walked out of it faster than we were running. Was there some spatial distortion effect going on? Did my parents have that much power? Were they capable of pointing something at the tunnel to bend space so we could never get out of it? No. No, they didn’t. That was ridiculous. I knew that already. We’d barely started running. It wasn’t any longer. And yet, even knowing that, I couldn’t shut the panicked thought out of my head. Nor could I stop imagining us getting to the end of the tunnel and climbing up, only to find both of my parents and a horde of their people sitting there waiting for us. Every step we took, part of me screamed that this was taking too long. We were too slow. We were too fucking slow!

Wren and Fred were on standby, of course. If we had to, we could use Wren’s emergency teleporter, or even just have Amber teleport with us. But we really didn’t want to do either of those if we could help it. Wren’s especially, given how nervous the girl was about putting it into action. That was only for if we were completely fucked and about to be captured, or worse. Amber’s was slightly more useful right now, but we wanted to avoid using that too. Mostly because we wanted the Ministry to see how we had escaped and not start wondering if teleportation had been involved. Sure, it was unlikely that that would necessarily lead them directly to Wren or Amber, but still. Every little bit of misdirection was important. If they could follow our trail all the way through the tunnel and see how we had driven away, they would be even less likely to glance in directions we didn’t want them to glance in.  

The real trick was to give them enough of a trail to follow without getting caught. Because quite frankly, I really didn’t want to end up getting memory-wiped by my parents today. Or any day, really. Once was enough. Not that I even knew for sure that it had only been–

Oh thank God, we were there. The others had already reached the open area at the head of the tunnel, with Paige and me right behind them. Even as the two of us emerged, Pack was already climbing the ladder with her borrowed stun gun raised, just in case. Her head and upper-body disappeared through the opening, and I found myself holding my breath for what felt like an eternity before she called, “We’re clear!” 

With that, she hauled herself up and out. Meanwhile, I pointed, painting a bit of blue right at the base of the ladder before activating it. Alloy stepped there first, tucking her arms to her sides as she was sent flying up just enough to reach the top rung and pull herself out the rest of the way. One by one, the others followed suit, stepping to the paint and bouncing up. We weren’t taking the time to climb the ten feet to the room above. A quick bounce on blue paint did the trick. 

Technically we could have used Amber’s teleportation from this spot since we knew they weren’t here yet and could track us this far, but again, we wanted them to see exactly how we had escaped and that it had nothing to do with teleportation. 

It was just possible we were being too paranoid about that, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that letting my family have the slightest hint that we had used teleportation to escape was a bad idea. Especially considering how obsessively they would be scouring this place. For all we knew, they had some way of detecting that. How I had no idea, and yet… yeah, this was just safer in the long run. Assuming our luck (and planning) held out a bit longer. 

While the others made their way up, I glanced back the way we had come, just in case our not-so-friendly pursuers had managed to get through the dirt we blocked them with. Nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing from down there. Either they weren’t trying to dig through, or–whatever, everyone else was gone. Which meant it was my turn to go. And that, of course, was when I heard it. Two its, really. First, the sound of men in the tunnel. They were coming. Worse, there was the distinctive heavy thwump thwump thwump of helicopter blades. Not only were our pursuers coming up the tunnel, they were above us in the air. Which meant I had to get the hell out of here. 

The blue paint was gone, and I didn’t want to take the chance that the guys coming up the tunnel would see it before I could make the spot disappear. So I simply coated the inside of my suit with green paint to speed myself up and climbed as fast as possible. I took the ladder two rungs at a time, practically flying up it while blurting, “They’re coming through!” 

As soon as I was out, the others shoved the pallet with the cement bags on it back into place. Again, anything to slow these guys down. We just wanted them to know how we had escaped, not handcuff ourselves to their guns. 

Knowing that wouldn’t stop them forever, or even for that long most likely, none of us exchanged another word. We just ran straight out of the room and into the construction lot. The helicopter was high above, its spotlight at the far end of the construction site. They didn’t know exactly which room we would be coming out of (or even that this was the right place for sure), and were apparently right in the midst of flipping around for another pass. Even as we all glanced that way, the chopper’s spotlight was swinging back along the grounds, looking for us. 

It hadn’t been that long. Despite my panic, I was certain that it had only been a few minutes or so since we set off that alarm by going into the base. Everything, everything that happened in there had been incredibly quick. And yet, just as expected, my family’s people already had a helicopter in the air right above the construction site. They had narrowed it down that quickly, had gotten the chopper in the air and searching already. It was crazy. An expected and unsurprising crazy, yes, but still crazy. 

Naturally, our escape plan didn’t end at the motel. We had known that the Ministry would be right behind us, and were pretty confident they would have helicopter support. It wasn’t fantastic, but we’d planned for it. 

To that end, we all ran across the construction site, racing all-out toward a pitch-black corner near a big mound of dirt. Next to that mound, a dark brown tarp covered the next stage of our escape. It wouldn’t have hidden the thing from anyone standing down here with light, but from above a helicopter doing a quick sweep looking for running people would’ve missed it. At least, that had been the idea, and it seemed to have worked, given the chopper wasn’t focusing its light that way.

Oh, but it was focusing on us. Yeah, it hadn’t taken long for someone up there to notice us. Before we were halfway to the tarp, the spotlight swung our way, and suddenly it was like I was back on stage during the seventh-grade play. Only I was pretty sure the consequences to freezing up right now would be worse than a little embarrassment and polite chuckles from parents who didn’t want to be there to begin with.  

Thankfully, the spotlight had barely made it over to us before we darted out of its sight, with the dirt pile blocking most of the chopper’s view. It was still in the midst of swinging around though, so that advantage would only last for a couple seconds. Worse, I could see headlights approaching from the mall parking lot, cutting straight across the street in the process. The engines were loud and angry, like violent hornets whose nest had been disturbed. 

Without missing a beat, we all crouched, grabbed a piece of the tarp, and yanked it off the van that was waiting there. Pack went to get in, but Paige–no, it was Raige– beat her there while taking the key from her hand with a quick promise that she could drive faster. Pack hesitated only a split-second before realizing that arguing about it was a bad idea. Instead, she dove in the back right after Murphy and Roald got in, Alloy right behind them with me bringing up the rear. Amber was in front with Raige. Izzy was already in the back too, so I grabbed the door and yanked it shut while shouting, “Let’s go, let’s go!” 

“We’re going!” Raige shot back. She had already started the van and was flooring the gas while twisting the wheel to pull sharply away from the mound of dirt that had helped hide the vehicle. But she didn’t head for the road, where we could already see three different cars hauling ass to get up here while the helicopter’s spotlight resettled on us. Instead, Raige floored the gas to send the van heading straight for a small dirt ramp we had built at the edge of the lot. It wasn’t the ‘get air’ sort of ramp, awesome as that would’ve been. No, I had shown a truly remarkable amount of restraint if I did say so myself, and only put together a high enough ramp to let the van drive up and over the curb to the dirt and weeds beyond. Just like that, we were plummeting down the hill toward the road, while the helicopter kept pace, the light making sure we couldn’t disappear on them. 

At least, not yet. 

Raige wasn’t content in just driving straight down the hill. Instead, she started snapping the wheel from one side to the other, making the van jerk violently in the process. Right after she started doing that, the rear window shattered as a bullet hit it. A bullet that narrowly missed all of us and embedded itself in one of the seats while we reflexively screamed and dropped lower. 

“Stay down!” Raige snapped, spinning the wheel hard to the right and then back again. She was giving the sniper up in the chopper as hard a time as possible, but we had to get off this hill. Between the chopper with the gunman above us, and the guys in the cars right behind (they were just crossing our ramp), this whole situation could spiral out of control in seconds. 

“You people better be holding on back there!” Raige informed us through gritted teeth. “Cuz here we… go!” On that ‘go,’ the van hit an inclined bit of ground and launched itself. Seriously, that time we really did catch air, flying for what sure felt like several glorious seconds before coming down hard on the actual road. Really, the only bad part about it (besides the fact that we were in a chase for our lives) was that the stupid stuffed bra thing on my chest bounced up to smack me in the face as I looked down. Because everything I was dealing with right then wasn’t enough, I also had to be literally physically assaulted by the reminder that I wasn’t especially well-endowed. 

As soon as we were on the street, Raige floored the gas and we took off, speeding around a couple oncoming cars in the process. As the van angled toward a side street, we picked up several tails coming up fast, and that helicopter was still right above us. The gunman up there  had tried a couple more shots, apparently aiming for the wheels. But Raige wasn’t giving him the benefit of keeping the van steady, jerking the wheel wildly so he couldn’t get a clear shot. 

“Think we’ve got their attention?!” Amber called back while gripping the bar above the front passenger seat window. 

Murphy, ducked down low with Roald, shouted, “I don’t think we’re gonna get a better audience than this, boss! At least not without its own problems!” 

She was right. We had several cars on our tail and the helicopter above us taking shots. This wasn’t going to get any better than it was, and it had the potential to get a hell of a lot worse. We wanted Ministry people to see what happened, not actually catch or stop us. So, I grabbed my phone and hit the speed dial button. 

“Doctor?” It was Wren, using the code we’d established to make sure it wasn’t someone else using my phone after we had all been captured. 

“All I have is patience,” I replied with the counter code. 

Wren sounded somewhat relieved, but not all the way. There was still a bit of apprehension in her voice as she asked, “Option A… o-or Option F?” 

F for fail, as in we had to use the emergency teleporter. Grimacing a bit, I shook my head. “Option A.” 

Sounding considerably happier, Wren quickly replied, “Oh! Okay, got it. Good, good. Aaaand, there.” 

Abruptly, the van jerked a bit for a reason entirely unrelated to Raige’s driving. Really unrelated, given her hands were off the wheel. It continued to weave back and forth across the road, but now it was Fred in control, from all the way back at the shop. He was remote-controlling it using a small camera on the dash and one of Wren’s toys plugged into the electrical system. 

With Fred in control of the van and all our pursuers coming up fast, Raige abandoned the driver’s seat and clambered into the back with the rest of us. She was joined quickly by Amber, and we all huddled in close together. 

“How close are we?” I asked into the phone. 

“Wait for it,” came Wren’s terse answer as she was clearly watching the map and comparing it to Fred’s driving. “Just a little more…” Even as she was saying that, I felt the van lurch a bit as one of the pursuing cars slammed into us from behind. And in that moment, the right rear tire was blown out, making the van start to violently lurch before the rims screamed in protest. We were bouncing along. 

“Now, tell her now!” Wren blurted. Even as she said that, the van started to spin-out, the tires (or what remained of them) screaming in protest.

“We’re there, do it!” I snapped immediately, while the world outside the deeply-tinted windows whirled wildly. 

Amber wasted no time. We all grabbed onto her as she crouched in the middle of the group, and then we were elsewhere. We all appeared on top of the roof of a building that we had scouted out earlier. Amber knew where it was, and how to teleport to it from the spot on the ground where the van had just been when Wren gave the word. She didn’t have to look, she just trusted that it was the right distance and angle, and poof, there we were. 

The instant we arrived, we all heard the scream of breaking metal. While we were still in there, the van had been hurtling straight toward a sharp corner, only to ‘miss’ and spin out. And the instant we teleported to safety, Fred sent the ‘out of control’ vehicle right through the guardrail that was supposed to stop vehicles from plummeting off the road to end up in the middle of Lake St. Clair. 

And that, of course, was exactly what we wanted. 

My head snapped up to look for the helicopter first. There it was, off in the distance several buildings away. They were fully focused on the remote-controlled van just as it went hurtling off the embankment at top-speed, literally catching air off the slight incline at the bottom before flying out to crash into the water. It sank out of sight immediately. 

The helicopter stayed in place over at the spot where the van had disappeared, while the cars took the longer way down there. I could almost hear my parents on the phone already, ordering divers to get into the water. Even now, a second spotlight had appeared from the chopper, scanning the water to look for anyone surfacing while the first stayed on that spot. They were watching for us. No doubt they would have even more people scouring every place where we could climb ashore, while the divers picked through the wreckage. 

It was okay, they wouldn’t find much. Wren would already have self-destructed the remote control and camera, and she had assured me that there would be nothing to find. In her words, it would turn into goo and wash away. 

So, they would find nothing in the van. Of course, they would realize we had escaped, but they wouldn’t know how exactly. And while they were wasting time searching down there, we were all the way over here. We were done. We were out. We… we…

“We made it.” That was Roald, sounding completely shocked by his own words. “We didn’t get caught.” 

“We did?” Alloy was patting herself down, just as surprised by the declaration. “We… we did.” 

“Let’s not celebrate too much until we get back to the shop in one piece,” Amber pointed out, her eyes on the chopper in the distance. “But yeah, looks like we actually pulled it off.” She glanced toward me, then over at Pack before adding, “They’re gonna be really pissed off now.” 

“We knew they would be,” I replied, resisting the urge to reach up under my suit to rip off the fake bra. I wanted the damn thing off, but now wasn’t the time. Instead, I glanced toward Raige, who was staring at the assorted backpacks full of the stuff we’d stolen. “Remember–” 

“I know, I know, don’t open the bags or the tracking device blockers the genius built into them won’t work,” she interrupted. “Don’t worry, I’m not a fucking idiot. We don’t get to look through the loot until we get them back to the shop and she okays everything as not being tracked. So come on then, let’s get back there and get on with this already. And I sure as fuck hope there’s something we can use somewhere in there, because I am done sharing a body.” 

“Trust me, Raige, I hope there is too,” I quietly replied, glancing out toward the hovering helicopter in the distance. “Because whatever happens next, I’m pretty sure we’re gonna want both of you up and moving.”

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Dig In 22-11 (Summus Proelium)

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Even as the guns started, Paige was already yanking me to the floor with a snapped, “Table.” A second later, I heard a heavy thud as the table itself that she had dragged me behind was knocked over to create a shield. Which, honestly, I had no faith whatsoever that a table was going to block incoming bullets, but it seemed to do the job. At least if the sound of them rapidly ricocheting off the metal just a few inches from my head was any indication. 

Well, so much for doing this quickly and quietly! Now Paige and I were in a pitch-black room, crouched behind a metal table that was, thankfully, shielding us from the hail of gunfire from who the hell knew how many guards. A not-insubstantial part of me was terrified, as I put both hands over the back of my head and struggled not to scream or cry under the assault. These weren’t stun guns, and these guys clearly weren’t playing around. They were intent on killing at least one of us. As the man had said, they only needed one of us to answer questions. And I was pretty sure the idea was that whoever survived would be more willing to talk if they were faced with the dead body of their companion. 

For just a second, I thought about what would happen if I was the one who died. What if I was dead and my parents found my body? What would they do? How would they react? The morbid hypothetical filled my mind, making it hard to focus on anything else for a moment until I shoved it aside. Now really wasn’t the time to think about dying. 

Paige’s hand found my arm, as she hissed in my ear, “They’re circling, we need to move.” Thanks to the voice changer, it would be impossible to identify her if their recording equipment managed to pick up her words. But hearing her talk still made me flinch reflexively. 

Still, she was right, I knew immediately. If we just laid here and I surrendered to the terror that had overwhelmed me in that moment, it was all going to be over. Even if we didn’t die, we would be captured and my parents would find out the whole truth. Then they would either… wipe my memory or… something. I had no idea, and I really wasn’t in any hurry to find out. Nor did I want to find out what they would do to the others. I didn’t want to think about everyone’s memories being wiped, about them going back to having no idea what was really going on in this city. And that was the best possible scenario of what would happen if we were caught. 

“Can you see?” I found myself hissing under my breath. It was a good thing that the guns shooting at us were using some form of silencer. Or at least a quieter. The shots were loud, but not nearly as deafening as they would have been otherwise in this space. 

Wait, in this space. Now that I thought about it, I knew the exact dimensions of the room. It was forty-five feet wide at our end, shaped mostly like a half-circle with the curved side opposite us. The ceiling was basically twelve feet up, but also slightly concave. Wait, or convex. Which one meant curved upward slightly? Whatever, it was slightly curved to the point that the very middle of the ceiling was actually more like fourteen feet high. There were six long metal tables in the room just like this one, each arranged seemingly randomly, and adorned with tools, microscopes, computers, silver trays, stuff like that. Not to mention the eighteen swivel chairs and four wooden ones. There were objects all over the room, and I knew where they were. I knew the dimensions of the place and what was in it. Not the people, but at least the objects. Some of them, anyway. I knew stuff about the room, even though it had been pitch-black since we walked in and I had absolutely never seen it or been in here before. 

How did I know that stuff?! I had no idea. But I was absolutely certain it was right. The knowledge just jumped into my head in that instant, even as Paige hissed that she could, in fact, see. 

Okay, so Paige could see, and I could sense everything in the room for some reason. I’d have to figure out how later. Right now, all that mattered was getting out of this alive and uncaptured. I had no doubt that the others were on the other side of that door, waiting for an opening. They had to know that we were still alive in here, given that the gunfire hadn’t stopped. But they couldn’t come in to help, or they’d be in the middle of a shooting gallery. And even if these suits protected against the worst damage of being shot a couple times, I really didn’t think they could stand up against this level of incoming fire. 

We needed to give them an opening. And I knew just how to do that. At least, I hoped I did. 

To that end, I grabbed Paige’s arm and whispered, “Table run.” To demonstrate, I took her hand and pushed it against the underside of the table, then took the other and pushed it against one of the legs. 

She understood, immediately grabbing both spots as she started to lift the table from that side. Quickly, I activated a couple more green and purple paint spots on both of us, before grabbing the table myself. Together, the two of us rose, lifting the table with us as the gunfire continued to ricochet off it. Whatever this thing was made out of, it was strong enough to take a hell of a lot of abuse. I just hoped it stayed together long enough for us to do this. 

Together, clutching the table as a shield, Paige and I ran straight toward the men, who seemed to be firing even more frantically. They were also starting to split apart, if my judgment of where the shots were coming from was any indication. Given an extra second or two, they would have spread out far enough to shoot us from the side, where the table would be no protection. 

Thankfully, the table was quite long, and we weren’t going to give them that extra second. Just before the men would have been far enough apart to pose a real threat, Paige and I heaved the table at them, using the boosted strength to send it flying quite hard that way. The thing collided with the men. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear as they were struck by the thing and went down like an assortment of bowling pins. From the sound of things, a couple managed to dive out of the way. Including one who ended up going under the table in a roll that brought him right near the two of us. I could hear him right by my feet, as he started to push himself up. 

Before he could, and before I managed to react myself, Paige’s hand grabbed the man by the back of his neck and his arm. I heard his yelp, and her grunt, as she hauled him from the floor and literally threw the man to the other side of the room. 

She must have taken his gun too, because the next thing I knew, Paige was yanking me behind her while extending her other arm as the sound of gunfire exploded right there. She was shooting at the other men, even as her voice snapped, “New table six feet to your left and back two!” 

I knew that, of course. But she didn’t know that I knew it. Still, I was already moving, jumping at just the right time despite the pitch-blackness to throw myself that way and slide across the top of the table in question. I was pretty sure I could have cleared it normally, with my boosted strength, but between the unexpected weight on the front of my chest and these shoes, I didn’t trust myself to land properly. So I took it a bit easy. A handful of random tools, trays, and so on were knocked out of my way as I slid to the far side and off before shoving the table over with a grunt of effort. These things were heavy, even with my boosted strength. No wonder they were able to stand up to so much punishment. 

A second later, Paige was right beside me as she vaulted over the overturned table to land in a crouch on my left. “We’re on the opposite side of the room,” she hissed. “I hit three guys in the knees and two in the side. Enough to put them down for now. There’s ten left, including their leader. They’re spread out and regrouping.”

We couldn’t give them time to do that, of course. Hitting them now, while they were temporarily split up and disorganized, was our best shot to get out of this. Not to mention, there had to be reinforcements on their way right now. The longer this took, the more screwed we were going to be. 

Fortunately, we weren’t in here alone, and now we were on this side of the room, it would give Amber and the others an opening. We just had to let them know the opening existed before it was too late. This, right now, was our very best shot at dealing with these guys before things got a hell of a lot worse. 

With that in mind, I hissed, “Can you see the light switch?” 

Rather than answer immediately, Paige leaned up over the table and used her acquired gun to fire several shots. I could hear the men scrambling out of the way. Then she looked around briefly before ducking back with a grunted, “Found it. Twelve feet right. I can get there but need a distraction.” 

“You’ll have it,” I assured her. “On three. One, two, three.” 

On that third number, I activated the large orange and purple dragon I had been painting on the inside of my suit for the past couple seconds. At the same time, I activated a couple more orange and green spots on Paige, to give her a bit of a boost. Then I rose, grabbing the table we were using as cover. With the amount of paint I had given myself, I was able to lift it fairly easily. The guards clearly saw it, because they opened fire immediately. They had also gotten smart enough to aim for my feet and ankles as I lifted the table. But my hidden orange paint made those bullets bounce off the boots, before I went running toward the middle of the room and hurled the table to one side, in the direction I could hear the most gunfire coming from. There was another table immediately to the opposite side, and I, once again, threw myself in a slide across it. I misjudged the length of my own foot thanks to those shoes, hitting a computer monitor and knocking it off the table with a loud crash. 

Roughly, a hand grabbed my shoulder and I felt a fist slam into my face. Fortunately, it hurt that guy a lot more than it did me, thanks to my still-active paint. The man yelped in pain as I heard several of his fingers crack under the impact. In his case, it was like punching a brick wall. He instantly regretted it. And he also regretted being close to me, as I yanked my arm out of his grip before grabbing the front of his shirt. I could feel that he was wearing some sort of uniform and body armor. Which didn’t stop me from hoisting the man off his feet before I threw him as far as I could. As it turned out, the guard’s name was not Wilhelm, but he did give a pretty good scream anyway.

And in the next instant, the lights suddenly turned on. It was briefly blinding, but I was prepared for it while the others weren’t. I could immediately take in the room around us, which–well, looked identical to how my power had said it did. But now I could see the guards in their white and gray body armor all around. They had helmets with clear night-vision goggles attached. Unfortunately, they were clearly using the more advanced night-vision that instantly turned off when the lights came on, because none of them were screaming or tearing at the goggles. They recoiled slightly, but no worse than I had. Taken by surprise, yet not blinded. 

But we had a little more help. In the next second, even as everyone in here was still reacting to the lights coming on, the double doors at the other side swung open. Amber and Pack were right there, both with their borrowed stun guns raised. They each shot at two of the men in sight, sending them to the floor in a fit of spasms. 

A third guy was turning that way with his gun raised, but Murphy and Roald were right behind those two and managed to dive at the man together. They collided with him, taking the guy off his feet from the impact of being hit by both teenagers. The pair hit him with their batons, and he was out of the fight. And the fourth guy, who had been behind the door there, was taken down by Peyton as she drove her own baton hard into his stomach just as he took aim at the others. 

My paint was about to run out, but it wasn’t gone yet. So, I reached down to grab the fallen computer monitor that I had knocked over during my slide across the table. With a grunt, I turned and pitched it toward the nearest guy, while he was aiming toward the new arrivals. It took him in the side of the helmet, knocking him to the floor with a cry. 

At the same time, Izzy had appeared in the doorway with her own stun gun raised to take down yet another man on that side of the room. Three seconds into this since the lights had come on, and of the ten guys that Paige had said were still up and moving, I had thrown one into the wall and clocked another with the computer monitor, Amber, Pack, Peyton, and Izzy had each taken down one, and Murphy and Roald together took another. Seven down, which left three. 

No, not three, I realized. Two of the remaining guys were already down at Paige’s feet. How she had dealt with them, I have no idea. But they were definitely done. 

So there was one more left. And my eyes found him just as the man in question rose with his arms raised above his head. He looked basically like the others, aside from the fact that his body armor looked a little fancier and he had a radio held high in one of those raised hands. “I don’t know who you are or who you’re working for!” he called while scanning all of us. “But I promise that every single one of you is going to regret this pretty damn quick.” 

Reinforcements. They had reinforcements coming. We had already known that would happen, of course. But considering this guy was clearly the leader of their security down here, and he had the radio, I was going to assume he had already called for help. Which meant we were about to officially be out of time. If those reinforcements got here while we were still standing around, it was going to be a hell of a lot worse than this had been. 

Amber obviously knew that too, because she didn’t hesitate before lifting her own stun gun to fire a shot straight into the man’s chest. He recoiled and hit the floor, the radio falling away. Then she spoke sharply. “Turn your boosters to max, don’t worry about burning them out. Grab everything you can, then we’re gone.” 

Boosters to max. I knew what she was talking about. The paint. She was telling me to activate their speed paint so everyone could move faster, but doing it in a way that if anyone was watching the video of this later (like my parents), they would think that the speed came from enhancements on the suits or something. Either way, it would disguise the truth. 

I gave a quick glance around the room, focusing on each of them in turn to activate the paint. Not just their speed, but strength too. Then I ran to the nearest computer tower. The second I started moving, the others knew their own paint had been activated, so they ran too. There were computers all over the room, and we were already yanking them open to tear out the harddrives.  All around the room, computers were being ripped apart so we could get at what was inside. I was shoving the first drive in my bag even as I ran to the far wall, where there were a bunch of papers taped up. I couldn’t take the time to read what they said, not now. I just yanked them off the wall and shoved them in the bag, then grabbed a handful of vials of various liquids that were sitting on the nearby table, before doing the same for another handful in a fridge. It just looked like a bunch of colorful liquids inside glass vials. I had no idea what they were for or how we would figure it out, but they looked like they might be important, so I grabbed them. Unsure of how fragile they were, I grabbed a nearby towel to wrap them up in before stuffing them in the front pocket of the bag, apart from the rest of the stuff.

Next, I noticed a small room next to the fridge. There was a desk in there with another computer and a heavy filing cabinet. I managed to yank that harddrive just before my paint ran out, and I had to renew it once more so I could break the lock on the filing cabinet. 

Paige was right there, the two of us working together to grab everything from the drawers. We didn’t bother looking at what we were taking, we just yanked the folders and shoved them into our bags. Then we retreated from the room. Paige was shouting, “Move! Go, now! No time!” 

We went. Sprinting back the way we had come, we all raced for the entrance we had made. Whether we had anything useful or not, I had no idea. But we couldn’t push things any further than we already had. We would sort through it all later, once we were safe. 

Unfortunately, we weren’t homefree yet. As we raced down the hall back the way we’d come (past several other unconscious figures that the others had apparently dealt with), I could hear the door starting to open at the top of the stairs nearby. The real entrance. They were here and coming in. 

Paige heard it too. She still had the gun she’d taken from one of the guards back there slung over one shoulder. In one smooth motion, she pulled it free, aimed the weapon with one hand, and let loose that way. The hail of bullets all hit the door just as it was starting to open, making the person on the other side reflexively yank it shut once more. 

“Go!” she shouted at the rest of us while sending another couple shots that way to keep the people outside from coming through. Not that I expected it to hold them for long. 

We went. One by one, we all lunged through the opening and back into the tunnel. I was second-to-last, right behind Paige. “Come on!” I shouted back that way, standing just inside the tunnel entrance. 

Her gun clicked dry, just as the door at the top of the stairs opened. The gunfire from their side started up, and Paige threw herself through the hole with bullets hitting the ground right where she had been an instant earlier. Already, the men coming in were descending the stairs, their shots starting to come closer to us. Together, Paige and I exchanged a quick look, before racing to join the others. We ran through the open area, and I chanced a glance up. The canvas tarp was straining under the weight of the dirt and rocks piled up on it. 

We reached the far end of the open space, and Paige’s hand was already lashing out to grab the anchor rope. She yanked it hard while shoving me forward, diving after me. In the next instant, I heard a terrifying crash as all that stuff came crashing down. The ceiling in that area had been carved up high enough to allow so much dirt and rocks into the space that when it dropped, nearly that whole area in front of the entrance was blocked. I had no doubt they would force their way through, but it would take them a little time. Time that was incredibly important right now. 

Standing bunched up together in the tunnel, we all looked at one another. We could hear shouts from the other side of the dirt pile. They would be coming soon. They would also be spreading out and going up to find out where the tunnel was from above, or where the other end was. We didn’t have time to regroup, not just yet. 

So, with an assortment of nods, we turned back to the tunnel. And we started to run once more. 

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Dig In 22-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so dressing up like this felt as weird as I thought it would. With the raised boots, I was standing several inches taller than I was accustomed to. That was enough to throw me off all on its own, even though I had been practicing with them for awhile in preparation for this. Despite the hours spent walking and running in these, it still felt weird to see things from this high up. 

And, quite frankly, the fact that I could refer to five feet, four inches as ‘this high up’ was more than a little depressing. To say nothing about how much of a difference that padded bra made against my chest. I actually looked like a girl my real age now, if not older. Which was just… Yeah, I was going to try not to think about it too much. Which, I suppose, made the fact that I had plenty of other things to focus on right then a good thing. There would be time later to dwell on the fact that I had never filled out a set of clothes as well as I was right then, and almost certainly never would. Or I could just shove it onto my brain shelf and pretend I didn’t notice it. 

Pack whistled as we all met up inside the main room above the tunnel. Her eyes (hidden as they were behind the lenses in her own mask) were on me as she clapped a couple times. “I hate to tell you this, babe, but you might’ve missed your calling with that Y chromosome. You’re looking great that way.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? How was I supposed to react? She didn’t know what she was really saying. I knew that. Deep down, I knew that Pack had absolutely no idea how hard this was, or what her words really meant. She had no idea how long I had spent wishing that I really did look like this, and especially didn’t know how much the things she was saying stung. She was just joking around. She thought she was teasing an actual boy about how well he could pull off looking like a girl. I just–I had to shove all that out of my mind and try to react from that point of view. 

“I guess I should just be glad you’re not the jealous type,” I found myself retorting, with no idea of how I pulled the words out or made them sound so casual.  

Pack, in turn, snorted. “Please, in the alternate universe where you’re actually a girl, I’m sure I’ve already taken you under my wing to teach you everything I know.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat from the corner of the room where she had been talking quietly to Izzy, both in their own suits. “Everything you know about lizards or about being a thief? Because I’m not sure how either of those would help Paintball, no matter what sex he is.” 

“Oh, you’d be surprised how many relevant things I could teach,” Pack shot back. “Maybe I’ll show you someday, babe.” 

From the opposite corner where he and Murphy had been, Roald spoke up a bit hesitantly. “Um, personally I’m just glad I’m not the only guy in the group.” The poor, clueless boy gave me a nod and a somewhat weak thumbs up. “Right?” 

Yet again, I somehow dug deep and found a casual response, returning the thumbs up. “Uh, sure, yeah. How’re those suits fitting?” 

Shifting a bit, Murphy rubbed at her leg, then at one of the lenses across her eyes. “Not as cool as ours, and I miss the teleport thing. But I guess they’re good enough for this.” 

Murphy and Roald weren’t wearing the prototype suits that Wren had put together for them. There had been some discussion both ways for that, but in the end, they had decided they wanted to eventually be able to use them for more than just this. And we knew that if they used the suits through this little mission and then appeared publicly as part of Avant-Guard, the Ministry would almost certainly be able to put two and two together. So, they were wearing a couple more of the other suits that Wren had traded for. 

Alloy offered them a shrug. “Hey, I feel weird not wearing a suit made from my own marbles. And I’m pretty sure they’re jealous.” She glanced down to the pocket where she was keeping them out of sight. 

When I glanced to the doorway where she was standing, Paige spoke up. “Does anyone have any questions about what we’re about to do?” 

Pack, in turn, replied, “I mean, to tell you the truth, I’ve got a ton of questions when it comes to you and how your whole… everything works. Especially with two of you in that head. But for this? Nah, I think we’ve all got the gist. We tunnel through the last bit of dirt we’ve got left, break into the base, grab everything that isn’t nailed down, and get out of there before we end up in the middle of a battle we can’t get out of. In and out, quick as we can. You can’t get a lot simpler than that. I mean, obviously it would be better if we had the actual blueprints for this place so we could plan out who runs where, or even build a full scale mock-up and practice. But I guess we’ve gotta be satisfied with what we’ve got.” 

“You know an awful lot about how to get away with robbing a place,” Alloy noted. “How would y-ohh yeah.” 

Coughing, I nodded. “She’s not wrong. It would be cool if we had the blueprints. But yeah, we don’t have time for that. Unless someone here spontaneously manifested the power to make that a thing?” I injected my words with a note of optimism and hopefulness while looking around. “No? Damn.” 

“Okay, I’ve just gotta say,” Murphy put in, “It is kinda weird to see you look like that, while sounding like… well, you.” Her hands gestured to encompass my whole form. “You sound like Paintball, but you look, uhh… yeah.” Coughing a bit self-consciously, the girl shrugged. “It’s weird.” 

“You think it’s weird from your end?” I retorted. “Try being on this end of it.” Boy did she not even know the half of what that meant.  In the background, I could see Izzy and Amber stifling their reactions. 

“She’s right though,” Paige put in while stepping up beside me. “At least about one thing. Your voice does seem odd coming out of this look. So maybe we should turn on the things.” 

Right, the things. I had ‘come up with’ the idea of all of us using voice changers, just to make sure that our voices wouldn’t be recorded in there. We all had essentially the same set-up that I always had under the masks. Now, we turned them on, and I waited a moment before speaking in a voice that was robotic and vaguely feminine. “We good?” 

“We’re good,” That-A-Way agreed in a quite similar voice before looking at me. “But even with these, maybe you shouldn’t do much talking in there. You know, just to be on the safe side. You know, because Paintball talks a lot and if you don’t, it’ll make them even less likely to connect you to Paintball.”  

Shifting a little, I gave a slow nod. “Right, yeah, I guess I do have a tendency to talk a little bit.” As everyone else exchanged pointed looks, I felt a blush cross my face under the mask. “Okay, okay, a lot. I talk a lot. I get it. I’ll be so quiet in there they’ll never know it’s me. Hell, maybe I’ll be so quiet you forget I’m supposed to be with you and leave me in there. And then they’ll find me and this whole thing will blow up in our faces. See what being quiet leads to?” 

None of them seemed convinced by my hypothetical for some reason, and we exchanged just a few more words. We were all nervous about what we were about to do, that much was clear. But eventually, we can’t put it off any longer. One by one, we grabbed the buckets that were waiting for us, then descended the ladder and began to enter the tunnel. Pack made a comment about how she had promised to bring her lizards back a souvenir of some kind to make up for not bringing them in with her. Which, I was pretty sure, was her way of playing off how nervous and out of her element she felt about that fact. 

Although, to be entirely fair, I was pretty sure she had at least one of her lizards in the pocket of the jacket she had put on over the suit. At least, if I was her, I would have. 

Eventually, we all crowded into the slightly widened spot where the tunnel ended. It looked mostly the same as it had the other night when I was here, save for a single addition that Fred and Pack had put in while the rest of us were busy. Namely, a thick canvas tarp across the ceiling. It was secured by metal spikes in the four corners of the ‘room.’ Between the strength of the tarp and the spikes, Wren had assured us it would hold at least most of the dirt we would be pulling out of the rest of this tunnel. There was an anchor rope next to the thing keeping it all in a place. Once it was full of dirt, if we cut that rope, the whole thing would almost instantly collapse and fill this open space. It wasn’t quite like collapsing the entire tunnel behind us, but it was something. Once we got out of there, we would drop the tarp and they would have to dig through at least this much room to find the rest of the tunnel. It gave us a little bit more of an edge. And we needed all of the edges we could get.  

Twenty feet ahead and fifteen feet down, the metal wall marking the edge of the Ministry base waited. We hadn’t wanted to get any closer until we were ready to go in, just in case. But now was the time. No more waiting. We were going to dig through the last few yards, angling downward, and get inside. Which was a thought that made my heart pound so hard I thought it might jump out of my chest. But hey, at least I had some extra padding there now to keep it in place. 

Yeah, okay, it was vaguely possible that I was feeling weird about this whole situation. Still, I pushed that away and began to use pink paint on the dirt and rocks ahead of us. The others immediately used their hand shovels to pry away the painted bits, dumping them in buckets that we had brought before Raindrop floated the buckets up onto that tarp, being careful to spread the dirt and rocks out to avoid putting too much weight on one spot at a time. This was the most important part of the entire thing. After all the time and effort we had put into this, the last thing we wanted was to screw up now. We were all working as quietly as possible, each of us in our own little world. It was incredibly unlikely that our voices would have carried anywhere near the base, but still. It felt wrong to be chatting, so we didn’t. We just worked as silently and efficiently as possible. After all the pink-paint digging we’d done over the past weeks, we didn’t have to talk, or even think very much. We were basically experts at the whole thing.  

In what honestly felt like no time at all, given how nervous I was about the next stage, the tunnel was finished. Finished for good this time. We were there. We had dug downward enough that the metal wall was right in front of us, now fully revealed. On the other side of it was the Ministry base. And, with any luck, a whole lot of answers about my family’s business. 

I’d had a momentary thought of how bad it would be if there were any pictures or anything inside the base that would give away my parents’ identities. But I dismissed the thought just as quickly. There was absolutely no way that my family would be that sloppy. They hadn’t kept this whole thing a secret for this long by being stupid enough to have pictures of themselves lying around their hidden base. Mom had smacked Simon with a shoe for bringing it home when it was connected to their unknown witness (me). If Dad suggested leaving pictures of themselves around their criminal empire base, she’d probably hit him with a shoe store

Besides, would it be that bad if I was forced into explaining the whole situation to the others? Amber and Izzy already knew. Not to mention Paige and Raige. By leaving the others out, I was creating a divide. Someday soon, I was going to have to do something about that. If I didn’t, it was almost certain that the whole thing would bite me in the ass. I knew that, I acknowledged it. But it just… it wasn’t the right time. I’d only just told them about the Ministry itself. Getting into my own family’s involvement was… yeah. I would get into it. I would tell them. Just not yet. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I turned to the others while putting my hand against the metal wall. Still remaining silent, I simply looked at each of them. They were spread out a bit through the open chamber, and when I met their gazes, they all gave me a thumbs up, a nod, or some other sign. Paige, in particular, gave me a dual thumbs up. One for herself and one for Raige. They were ready. We all were. It was time to do this.

To that end, I painted the wall in front of us pink. Then I stepped out of the way as Pack and Way moved forward with another toy from Wren. This looked like a handful of batteries strapped to some silly putty. Like a bomb. It looked like a bomb. But according to the girl who had created it, the device would send a strong concussive blast forward, like a shaped charge or whatever. The battery-powered putty thing was attached to the middle of the pink-covered wall, and I activated the paint just before Amber hit the button to trigger Wren’s ‘explosive.’ 

Instantly, the chunk of wall was blown inward, creating an opening. Before the changes tonight, Amber was supposed to be the first one through. But Paige had insisted that she should go first, given the skills she had. And after what I had seen her do in her father’s factory, I couldn’t exactly argue with that. Now that she was participating, there was no question that she was the best one to be in the lead. If there was anyone on the other side of that opening, Paige could deal with them. And if she couldn’t, well, the rest of us were probably screwed in this situation.

So, she went through the hole, followed closely by Amber, then Pack. I went fourth, with the others right behind me. I hadn’t heard any gunfire or struggling yet, so I supposed there hadn’t been–

There was an unconscious figure on the ground at Paige’s feet. She had clearly just dragged the person, who wore a white lab coat over casual clothes, away from the hole as I stepped through into what turned out to be a pristine white corridor at the bottom of a long set of stairs that almost certainly led up to the entrance I had seen before. The corridor itself went on for about another ten feet to the right before curving left, and there was a door almost straight across from the hole we had made. Meanwhile, a camera poking out of the ceiling right where the hall curved basically proved we had already been seen. Yeah, this was going to have to be quick. Not that that was exactly news. 

And speaking of being quick, there was that unconscious person. I seriously had not heard a single thing. Paige knocked them out–wait, were they… yes, I could see the person’s chest moving up and down. They were alive. She knocked them out without me hearing it, even though I was only a few feet behind her. That was just–wow. 

No time to be amazed, though. With that camera up there and proof that there were at least some people still in this base, we had to move. Immediately, Amber, Izzy, and Pack ran to the door that was right there. The two older girls went through first, already unslinging their backpacks so they could start shoving things inside.

Meanwhile, I ran alongside Paige, with Alloy, Murphy and Roald bringing up the rear. The five of us passed just under the camera, which had shifted to follow us. But I grabbed the electrified baton that Amber had provided, snapping it out to its full extension as we ran under the camera before jumping to lash out with it. The blow took the camera full on the lens, shattering it. They still knew we were here, but at least they couldn’t actively track us with that camera. 

We turned the corner, seeing a whole long corridor ahead of us with doors on both sides, leading to a set of swinging double-doors at the end, like in a hospital. Or a laboratory, I supposed. Either way, there was clearly a lot to search down here. And we didn’t have much time. 

“Split up,” Paige announced in her own altered voice. She pointed to the nearby door, then to Alloy, Murphy, and Roald. “You three grab everything in there. All of it. Scream if you see anyone. Come on.” That last bit was to me, as she grabbed my arm before heading down the hall toward those double doors. 

To the left, one of the doors opened as we neared it. Paige lunged ahead of me, but it was just Pack coming through. Apparently the room they had gone into over in the first corridor connected through to this one. Her bag was clearly about half-full of stuff, and we barely exchanged looks before she went straight across to the room across the hall. Izzy and Amber were behind her, both of them splitting up to take a different room. 

Thus far we hadn’t seen any people other than the one that Paige had knocked out. Maybe that guy was the only one here. Wouldn’t that be–nope, I wasn’t even going to consider it. 

Instead, I focused on running alongside Paige as the two of us full-on sprinted to those double-doors. And boy did it feel weird to run with all this… weight on the front of my chest. Yeah, yeah, it wasn’t really that much. But it still threw me off. It still felt awkward and–blah. It was different. I felt off-balance, probably not helped by the thought of exactly what I was wearing. There was a not-insubstantial part of me that wanted to rip it off. 

Just as we reached the doors, my hope that there was no one else here ended up being dashed, as two figures stepped into view. These were no scientists, however. They were clearly security guards, wearing dark blue uniforms with a couple submachine guns in their hands. Yes, these were literal submachine guns, not pistols or whatever. These guys weren’t playing around. 

Fortunately, we wouldn’t have to find out if they were planning to shoot us with them. The instant those doors started opening, I activated a bit of the hidden green and purple paint on myself and Paige. The two of us hit the two guards much sooner than they expected, ripping the guns out of their hands before tossing them aside. I caught hold of my own guard, yanking him around bodily by the wrist with my enhanced strength while he yelped in surprise. In the next second, I had him shoved hard up against the wall while shoving the taser baton into his back. 

I’d heard plenty of times that tasers didn’t generally work like they did in the movies. It wasn’t like you got hit once and fell unconscious. But the ones that Amber had provided came from the police and were Touched-Tech. They did knock you out, assuming you weren’t protected in some way. Taking a direct hit from a baton like that could put you down for a few minutes. And a few minutes was all we needed. 

As my guy dropped, I snapped my gaze to the side. Paige had already dealt with hers and was moving through the swinging doors. So I went right behind her, hearing the others behind us tearing apart their own rooms. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see what the room on the other side of those double doors looked like. It was pitch black as we went through. I couldn’t see six inches in front of my face. But I did hear a voice abruptly speak loudly, the sound echoing through what sounded like a large space. 

“Interesting. Leave one alive to answer questions.” 

And then the gunfire started. 

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Dig In 22-09 (Summus Proelium)

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So there we were, all gathered in the main area of Wren’s pawn shop. There was Alloy, Pack, That-A-Way, Raindrop, Roald, Murphy, Paige/Raige as a last-minute addition, and me. Wren and Fred were here too, of course. But they would be staying at the shop, ready to go with our ‘everything’s fucked’ emergency escape plan if it came down to it. Unfortunately, that basically amounted to Wren using a half-finished cobbled-together teleporter that she wasn’t confident in. We would all be carrying the markers that were supposed to allow it to grab and move us to a safe location. But again, it was unfinished. Wren had given me a few details about what could have gone wrong the one time she teleported me, back when I had been chased by Cuélebre, and I was seriously still debating on whether it would have been safer to stick with fighting him. Suffice to say, we really didn’t want to have to try this one until she decided it was one hundred percent safe. But we didn’t have time to wait for that, especially not now. 

“So ahh, maybe I should have brought this up when you came up with your genius plan,” Raige (obviously) announced after introductions had officially been made back and forth to everyone, “but how exactly are you planning on making it so they don’t realize a bunch of kids and teens just screwed them over?” Her hand gestured toward Raindrop and then to me, before she nodded to Murphy and Roald. “Like those two over there, or those two there. I mean, none of us actually look like full-grown adults, but seriously. Having a few people who look that young feels like a bit more information than you want them to have. Especially when their computers can compare the heights of probably all their top suspects, and something tells me Paintball might fall somewhere on that list given the history you have with them. Just saying.” 

Before the rest of us could respond to that, Murphy asked, “Okay, sorry, I just need to ask. Is the person talking now the super-scary but ultra-hot cyborg girl, or the ultra-scary and ultra-hot cyborg girl?” 

There was a brief pause as their head tilted before Raige spoke again. “Paige would like you to know she’s offended that you don’t find her ultra-scary too, and that if you knew her better, you’d understand that’s a terrible way of differentiating us. You could say nice one or mean one, but that’s not exactly accurate either. Let’s stick with names, hmm? That seems easy enough.” 

“Sure,” I confirmed. “Totally simple to just stick with names. So, to answer your question, Raige… ahh, Wren, you got the things?” 

With a broad grin, Wren held up a pair of boots. “Yup! Err, I’ve got these ones.” She tossed them to me before gesturing. “Uncle Fred?”

He, in turn, reached down to pick up a cardboard box and carried it over to the middle of the room. “They’ve got lifts in ‘em,” the man explained to Raige (and Paige). “Just enough to add about four inches of height for all these guys. They’ve been practicing with them for awhile.” 

“We had the same thought you did,” I murmured while holding the boots against my chest. “It’s not the perfect solution, but it should at least confuse things a bit. If they don’t see anyone my–err, you know, Paintball’s height in this group, and I don’t use my powers in a way they can see, it’ll really muddy the waters about who attacked their base. Which means we really need to get in and out without too many problems so I don’t have to use my powers in an obvious way.”

That said, I hesitated before adding, “And speaking of not using my powers in an obvious way…” Reaching into the backpack on the table in front of me, I started pulling out tee-shirts and tossing them to the others. “You all need to wear these under the rest of your clothes when we go in there.” Every shirt had an assortment of colored shapes across them. Several of each type. There were orange suns, green leaves, and purple mushrooms. Three different colors, three different shapes, all arranged in three rows across the front and three across the back. I had taken the time to prep the shirts ahead of time while sitting at home.
“I’ve been practicing,” I noted, mostly for Paige and Raige’s benefit. “As long as I know one of my bits of paint is there, and exactly what it looks like, I can activate it through other clothes when I’m looking at it. Not through a wall or anything, but still. It’s something. These are all completely the same. So I can look and remember exactly what the orange sun looks like to make all of you temporarily really tough, or strong, or fast. Or all three at once. Probably that last one. I can do it six times for each of you, and they last about ten seconds each time. That’s sixty full seconds for all of us to have full boosts without me obviously using my powers.” 

“And you won’t have to use them constantly!” Wren quickly put in. “There’s the suits too. Err, I mean, okay, I couldn’t give all of you suits as cool as the prototypes Hobbes and Calvin have. But we do have the normal ones.” 

“Normal, she says.” Fred huffed a bit. “They ain’t just boring old mundane suits. Kid traded the design for those wings of hers to some Tech-Touched in Texas for a shipment of these. Just got ‘em in yesterday. They’re supposed to adjust to your body size and all that. They’ll cushion any impact you take. Won’t make a bullet feel like a love tap, but it’ll make it survivable. Probably. From what the guy said, it’ll still feel like getting kicked pretty hard, so you don’t want to stand there and dare them to shoot you.” 

“Cushion impact, but no teleporting,” Wren put in. “And the cushion bit isn’t as protective as the total momentum-stop on the suits Calvin and Hobbes have. But, uhh, it actually works constantly instead of draining a bunch of power every time, so…” Her face twisted a little bit guiltily and self-consciously 

“Sounds amazing, kid,” Pack put in. “Can’t believe you gave your wing designs to some other tech, but I guess you got your money’s worth. Err, you know what I mean. Your blueprint’s worth? Whatever.” 

Way spoke up then. “So we have the lift shoes to throw off our height, the colored shirts from Paintball so he can give us temporary boosts, and these suits you were talking about for some extra protection. Plus these.” From her own bag, she produced several batons with tasers on the end, along with a couple gun versions. “Police-issue. I… borrowed them from one of the deployment trucks when they sent it in for repairs after Suckshot yanked it off the road.” Before Pack could say whatever she had obviously been about to, the girl pointedly added, “And I want them all back when we’re done. So try not to drop them or anything. Just… just be careful, okay? Everyone be careful in general.”  

“Good advice,” Raige noted casually. “And I guess it’s not bad as far as hiding your identities goes. Not perfect, but eh. You don’t exactly have the time, resources, or ruthlessness you need to make it perfect. And I don’t want to sit around waiting for my new body until you get every single duck in a row. So we’ll go with the ducks you’ve got. But hey, at least you’ll have one of us with you. And believe me when I say that’s quite the upgrade.” 

I quickly spoke up. “She’s not wrong. And we can use all the help we can get. Which–are we forgetting anything?” 

“Not exactly forgetting,” Pack put in, “But circling back to that whole hiding who we are thing, I did have another thought. Especially when it comes to you.” She focused my way. 

“Me?” Blinking a couple times at that, I glanced to the others, who all shrugged, before looking back to her. “What about me?” 

“I was thinking about it, and I came up with the perfect plan,” Pack informed me with no small amount of pride. She paused briefly to let the anticipation grow, before dramatically announcing, “You should pretend to be a girl.” 

Okay, well, apparently it was not quite yet possible for me to literally die of shock. Although I did audibly choke and stumble a little, my eyes widening dramatically behind the helmet as I stared that way in total bewilderment. “I–wha–not–what–tha–yo-I-wha–” 

Quickly, That-A-Way moved over to slap my back a couple times, laughing pretty convincingly. “Whoa, hey there. No one’s questioning your manliness, buddy. I know how you guys are sensitive about that sort of thing.” She hit my back again, harder that time, while clearing her throat a bit pointedly. “You okay?” 

Thank God I had Amber in my corner to help cover. It gave me a second to collect myself. And with her help, my reaction made it look like a teen boy who didn’t like the idea of pretending to be a girl, instead of the truth, which… was a hell of a lot more complicated.

The point was, I absorbed the nuclear bomb that Pack had set off in the room and came out  relatively unscathed. Coughing once, I managed to look that way and found my voice. “Sorry, did you say I should pretend to be a girl? I don’t even–what would that–huh?” Right, totally smooth recovery. But again, at least she had suggested something that my fake teen boy-self reacting that way to made complete sense.  

With a snort of amusement that seemed to prove she really did buy that reasoning, Pack replied, “Look, I know it’s not going to be your most favorite thing ever, but being a girl isn’t the worst thing in the world, dude. I’m just saying, if everyone who sees you in there, or on video, thinks you’re a girl, there’s no way they’ll connect that you to Paintball, you know? Which means they’ll be even less likely to connect it to the rest of us.” 

Oh boy was there a lot that came to mind when she said that. Even when I filtered out all the curse words and stammering in my head, there was still a fair amount. A glance toward Raindrop revealed the girl standing completely still, not giving anything away. Nor were Raige or Amber, thankfully. All of them kept my secret perfectly. Probably better than I was. So, I pushed down my initial thoughts and simply asked, “Um, how exactly do you think we should do that? Err, if we did. I don’t think we can just put a skirt on the outside of one of these suits, so unless you’ve got a better–”  

“I have a better thing than that,” Pack interrupted. With that, she reached into her own bag and pulled something out before tossing it to me. 

It was a bra. I realized that even as I caught the thing in both hands. But more than that, the cups of the bra were stuffed, or padded, or whatever. It was clearly made so a guy could wear the bra and look like he had breasts. 

“This… this is…” I stared down at the thing in my hand, trying to find words. My stomach was rolling. There was absolutely no way that Pack could have known what a sensitive issue, in more than one way, this whole thing was. She didn’t know that I really was a girl pretending to be a boy, and she definitely didn’t know how sensitive I was about the fact that I didn’t exactly fill out a dress the way most guys wanted. Again, I wasn’t flat or anything. But well, this stuffed bra definitely had me beat rather handily. Which was a bit depressing all on its own. Again though, Pack didn’t know anything about that. She was just trying to help by offering what was, to her, a pretty good idea about concealing my identity. She wasn’t mocking me, she wasn’t messing with me, she wasn’t intentionally pushing my buttons. She was helping. 

Knowing all that helped me shove my reactions down. This was about hiding who I was, and whether I was really a girl or a boy wasn’t the point. There was absolutely no one way that my parents or anyone who worked for them would look at someone wearing this fucking thing and think it was either Paintball or their daughter. Pack was right, this was the best way to go.

Not that knowing that made it that much easier to resist throwing the thing into the nearest trash can as fast as I could, but it still helped. So I bit my lip and looked up again. Everyone was watching me. I could tell they were all curious about what I was going to say. Izzy, Raige, and Amber for one reason, and Murphy, Roald, Pack, Wren, and Fred for basically the complete opposite reason. They were all waiting to see what I would do. 

I wanted to say no. I wanted to dismiss the idea and say that it wasn’t necessary. After all, I would already be wearing completely different clothes, covering my face, not using my powers in any way that the Ministry would see, and even changing my height. I wanted to tell Pack that wearing this, that ‘pretending’ to be a girl was overkill. But the fact was, there was no such thing as overkill when it came to hiding our identities. My parents and the people who worked for them could not have any clues about who we really were. We had to throw them off as much as we could, because if they started coming after us directly, we would have no chance of winning. Not right now, at least. We needed more information, more details about their capabilities, their weaknesses, their–everything, all of it. Which was the whole reason we were breaking into the base so we could take enough stuff to hopefully know more. But to do that, to get away with it, I needed to be willing to do something that made my entire insides want to shrivel up and blow away in the wind. I couldn’t be selfish right now. I had to go with the hard choice. 

So, with a heavy sigh, I found myself nodding reluctantly. My voice sounded just a little hollow with the first word before I cleared my throat. “Okay–I guess you’ve got a point. As long as it means they don’t have any reason to suspect me, this has gotta be worth it.” 

While Amber gave me an understanding look, Pack pulled another stuffed bra from her bag. “I ahh, got one for the other pipsqueak over there too.” Her head nodded toward Raindrop. “Figured it’s not quite as big of a deal as it is for Paintball since you, you know, actually are a girl. But still, you’re not exactly–making you look different is better.” 

Izzy was clearly reluctant (even if not nearly as reluctant as me), but she finally agreed to the plan too. The bra that Pack gave her was just enough to make the fact that she was female more obvious even on-camera through the suits that we would be wearing. 

Actually, this whole thing was almost a good thing for another reason. I had been planning on wearing a jacket or a vest over my infiltration suit to hide the fact that–well, again, I wasn’t completely flat. Usually the coveralls I wore as the base of my costume were loose enough in that particular area to hide that. But I was going to have to cover it with a jacket when wearing these suits. Except now I didn’t have to. So… yay? 

In any case, the actual new suits turned out to basically look like a cross between a thief and a ninja. There was a basic layer of a black bodysuit that looked like a top and bottom set of pajamas, along with a vest that cinched across the chest for added protection (which probably would have covered my not-a-boyness well enough already), and what looked like a ski mask with black goggle-like lenses over the eyes. There was extra hidden padding in there to protect our heads. Finally, there were deceptively thin-looking gloves that were still quite protective and would hide our fingerprints. Between all that and the raised boots, we would look decidedly different than we usually did. Which, of course, was the point.  

The others changed in the shop, giving me a chance to see what the suits looked like, but Alloy and I stayed in our usual costumes. Given how sensitive this whole thing was, everyone getting caught by the authorities out in the streets dressed up like thieves or ninjas or whatever would kind of screw our entire night (and probably a lot more than that). Fortunately, we had a plan for that, even with the curfew in place. The plan was named Amber. Or That-A-Way. Wren’s shop was just south enough from the mall that she could teleport the group a bit at a time, from one roof to the next. The group, that was, aside from Wren and Fred, who would be staying at the shop, and Alloy and me, who had our own part to play. That was why the two of us were in full-costume instead of the suits, scouting ahead to make sure the way was clear. We texted back and forth to That-A-Way to let her know when it was safe to bring everyone over to the next spot, rather than shouting or using any lights or anything. Any cops or Star-Touched who saw us didn’t say or do anything about it, other than to wave and thank us for the help now and then. We would make sure each spot was safe, and then Amber teleported herself and the rest of the group there, disguised in those dark suits. 

There was a quick, relatively minor situation when Alloy and I actually saw a crime we had to intervene in. Some guy in a simple stocking mask was trying to loot an old pet grooming place. Yeah, I had no idea what he was hoping to find, but the dude was rearing back to throw a cinder block through the window and had an empty backpack with him. I managed to red-paint the block just as he went to hurl it that way, yanking it to a red spot on the street behind him. Then Alloy trapped him in a marble cylinder, until I got down there. He took a swing at me as soon as Alloy released the circular cage, but I used a bit of purple paint across my back to yank him by the arm over to a light post and used a ziptie to secure him to it while he shouted and threatened me. Then I used the Doephone app to contact the authorities to let them know where to pick him up and what his crime was. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and I returned to our planned spot and I let Amber know it was safe. Almost immediately, she appeared nearby with Pack, Izzy, Murphy, Roald, and Paige (she was the one in control right now) all touching her arms or hands. 

As soon as they appeared, everyone looked to me for an explanation about the delay. So I gave a quick rundown, before adding that we needed to get out of there before cops showed up to grab that guy. Not that they could see us from down there, but still. There were helicopters here and there in the sky with their spotlights passing over buildings. We needed to move on. 

So, we did. Bit by bit we made our way to the motel site, and took a minute to make sure it looked safe. No one was around, Wren’s sensors hadn’t picked up anything out of the ordinary around our tunnel, and the nearest patrols didn’t seem to be anywhere near this spot. The coast was clear.

The others headed for the main room while Alloy and I split up so we could go change. But first, I looked to Paige and hesitated. “Your… it feels different to see you standing up and moving around.” 

Paige (or Raige) was the only person here who didn’t have one of the special suits to wear. Wren, of course, hadn’t expected them to be part of this, so she didn’t get a suit for them. Instead, they were wearing a simple pair of jeans, a dark long-sleeved shirt, and a normal ski-mask. The mask itself was pulled up so it was barely covering their hair, acting more like a normal hat at the moment. Both of them had insisted that it was fine that they didn’t have a protective suit. After all, they already had their own advantages. Plus I had at least been able to paint another tee-shirt for her, like the ones the others had. 

“Feels different from this side too,” Paige informed me quietly before pausing. “Raige wants me to say that what she’d like to feel is how different it is to move around in her own damn body, so would we pick up the pace, please. I added the please.” 

Smirking just a little despite myself, I shook my head. “Don’t worry, Raige. We’re on it.” Still, I paused once more before adding, “Do you really think Flea and Trivial are trapped on that island?” 

“It’s the only answer that makes sense,” she pointed out. “Like you said, if Benjamin or his people had them, he’d know more about who Trivial is. But if they were free, they would’ve come back by now. Somehow… somehow they must’ve ended up there. Probably another one of his escape plans. I just–even if he doesn’t have them, that doesn’t mean they’re safe. They’re running around on an island full of the worst supervillains in the world. And that’s the optimistic scenario.” 

Grimacing, I took a second to find my voice. She was right, that was… it was bad. We had to get Raige a body so they could both act independently and then figure out what to do about it. Even if that meant sending messages to somebody about two Star-Touched being trapped on that island. Which raised the question of why people didn’t know about that already, or what–it raised a lot of questions. And I didn’t like any of the hypothetical answers. 

Forcing those thoughts down, I managed a weak, “We’ll figure out what’s going on. We’ll… we’ll find them. Right after we do this part.” 

Paige held up her fist, and I only hesitated for a second before bumping mine against it. I wanted to say something else, but nothing came out. Instead, I heaved a sigh, looked down at the stuffed bra in my hand, and headed for the room where I was going to change. 

If we didn’t get something useful out of this when all was said and done, no amount of being disguised would matter. Because I was probably going to scream so loud my parents would be able to identify my voice from the other side of town. 

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Dig In 22-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, Angel Dust wasn’t exactly happy about being tricked into bringing me (and Alloy by extension) straight to the truck that had worked so hard to escape us in the first place. I saw her absorbing that realization for a moment before her shoulders straightened. There was a wave of annoyance coming off the woman, head tilting to glance over her shoulder toward Alloy, then back to me. Her voice was tight. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you, boy?” 

In reply, I shrugged. “It’s not about which of us is smarter. It’s about which one managed to trick the other this time. Look at the facts. That trailer is broken. You can’t get it back on the truck. You guys don’t have a chance to get out of here with all that stuff. You should cut your losses and walk away before more authorities show up.” Even after I said that, I was keeping an eye on the Prev thugs from the truck itself as they popped down and gave uncertain looks our way. They were clearly waiting to see what their Touched lieutenant chose to do about this whole thing, not willing to make the first move themselves. 

It was very clear that the woman didn’t want to walk away. What she wanted to do, no doubt, was teach me a lesson. I could see the rainbow-colored dust swirling around her as she took a moment to collect herself, clearly running through the pros and cons of keeping this fight going. But, in the end, her common sense won out over her annoyance. The dust that had been swirling around her like a swarm of angry hornets seemed to vanish into thin air before she spoke in a cool voice. “I suppose we’ll have to give this one to you, kid. But don’t think this is over. We need those supplies, and we’ll get them one way or another. And you…” I could feel her gaze staring at me hard from behind that bronze mask. “Get in the way again and next time I might have to smack you a little harder.” 

“Fair enough,” I managed, trying to sound casual about the whole thing. “Though I don’t suppose it would help to point out that you guys wouldn’t need these supplies so bad if you would just back off this entire gang war thing?” Pausing, I gave her a look before shrugging. “Worth a shot.” 

Surprisingly, Angel Dust gave an audible chuckle before bowing her head in acknowledgment. “Yeah, maybe so. But this is the world we live in. Gotta take it as it comes, not as you wish it would go. Which is the exact attitude that’s stopping me from grabbing you and keeping this whole fight going. You won this round. Next time, maybe it’ll be different. Hell, maybe next time you’ll be the one wishing you never met me.” 

With that, she gave a loud whistle while raising her hand to spin her finger around in the air. “Wrap it up!” Her words were clearly directed toward the uncertain goons waiting nearby for orders. “Let’s roll on out of here before we end up with even more interruptions.” Through all that, she hadn’t taken her gaze off me. And once her men began to retreat, she addressed me one more time. “It was a good trick, kid. You really had me going there. Even kept throwing paint at me so I couldn’t take the time to call ahead to check in. Too bad you didn’t come over to our side. We could’ve had a lot of fun together. But then, from what I’ve heard, you’re more likely to join La Casa if anything.” She considered that briefly before gesturing. “At least we would’ve been allies in this whole thing. That… that might’ve been fun. Now ahh, you and your sidekick might wanna dive out of the way.”

That was all the warning she gave us before a pair of nausea dust clouds went flying out in both directions. The clouds were thick, and came at me so fast I barely had time to throw myself backwards and to the ground in an awkward roll to get out of range. On the far side of the woman, I could hear Alloy curse and yelp as she barely escaped her own cloud. 

Once I finally picked myself up from the ground and managed to orient myself, I saw Alloy hovering up on her board a good fifteen feet in the air and further back than she had been. It looked like she had barely picked herself up too. The colored clouds were gone, and so was Angel Dust herself, and her men. They had all seemingly disappeared, leaving the two of us with the truck and trailer. 

“Well,” I muttered while walking that way and brushing the dirt off my costume, “that was fun.” 

“Sure, fun,” Alloy retorted as she landed, marbles spinning around her. “Tell you what, next time, you can take the puke dust to the face and I’ll chase her down. Deal?” 

Coughing, I offered a shrug. “Personally, I’d prefer it if neither of us had to throw up. That’s, you know, my ideal scenario.” Then I grimaced, adding, “Are you okay? It sounded pretty bad.” 

I could see the way she shuddered at the memory, head shaking. “Well, it wasn’t fun, I’ll tell you that much. But I’ll live. Besides, we won.” With that, she offered her fist to me. 

Bumping my own fist against hers, I nodded. “Yeah, we won. Though I’m pretty sure we also managed to make even more enemies in the process. Well, one more in particular. Angel Dust isn’t going to forget that. She might’ve been smart enough to walk away for now, and… you know, fairly gracious in losing. But she won’t forget it. Next time, she’s going to be a lot more careful. And a lot more intent on winning. So umm, let’s be careful and keep our eyes open, huh? I really don’t feel like being ambushed by her when she decides it’s a good time to prove a point.” 

Alloy agreed, just before both of us turned in time to see a small squad of police cars arriving. They were accompanied by a car with Ten Towers labeling on it, which stopped to allow two of their Touched to step out. The first was Stick, a short man (just five inches taller than me) wearing loose gray pants, a sleeveless black shirt with the faded gray Ten Towers logo, spiked wristbands, combat boots, and a dark bandana mask that covered the lower half of his face. His black hair was worn long, clear to his shoulders. Meanwhile, the other Touched who had just arrived was Bunglebotch. Her own costume looked a lot more professional (and expensive) than his, amounting to a form-fitting black bodysuit with purple highlights over the arms and legs, and a matching purple Ten Towers logo over the front. Her gloves and boots were purple too, and she had a cape with an attached hood that were each black on the outside and purple on the inside. She also wore a black helmet with a large purple visor that went all the way from her chin to just above her eyes. 

Yeah, that was the thing about Bunglebotch. Her costume made her look amazing, one of the coolest costumes in the city as far as I was concerned. But her power was… well, essentially she could do basically any physical action that a human being was capable of, but it would always look goofy, uncoordinated, and accidental. Like an old slapstick movie. Oh, and she could focus on anyone to make them screw up a physical action they were trying to do. It was a whole thing. She was one of the most physically gifted and coordinated Touched in the city, but no matter what she did, she would end up looking goofy and incompetent. Or, well, accidentally competent. I supposed that having one of the coolest-looking costumes in the city was her tradeoff for looking like such a clown whenever she did anything. 

Come to think of it, clown was probably the exact right term. Clowns were really good at being incredibly physically coordinated while making you think they were the exact opposite. Maybe that should’ve been her codename. But then she would’ve had to go with a very different physical look, because no way could someone use the name Clown and dress up the way she did.

In any case, the two Star-Touched approached us, standing there by the trailer, and started to ask what had happened. So, Alloy and I jumped into an explanation about how we had been patrolling together when we saw the Easy Eights goons holding the driver of the truck at gunpoint. We intervened, then Angel Dust had shown up. From there, I went on to talk about the chase that came after Alloy had been… briefly indisposed. She, in turn, talked about getting my message about where to go to find us. Then we summed up with how the whole thing had ended. 

Stick exchanged a brief look with Bumblebotch, before gesturing for her to go ahead and check the trailer. Then he turned back to us. “Sounds like you did good today. But I wouldn’t take what Dust said lightly. She’s not really one of the hardcore dangerous Fells out there, but she’s not a pushover either. She won’t come find your families and stab you in bed. But she very well might work out a plan to get one over on you in the field.”

I nodded once. “So what you’re saying is that she’s not a psychotic murderer, but she’s still going to want to hurt us within reason. And probably embarrass us. You know, pull out a win that makes herself look good. Restores her rep.” 

Bunglebotch called over while opening the back of the truck. “Yeah, that’s about right! She’s not a wannabe-Scion, but she’s still got an image to uphold. And you embarrassed her today.” Hauling herself up into the truck, she added, “But then, you guys seem pretty good at racking up enemies.” 

Grimacing, I offered a helpless shrug. “So I’ve been told. I guess she’ll have to get in line with everyone else.”

Stick spoke solemnly. “Just hope that that line doesn’t turn into a mob. And know that if you need it, you’ve got as much help as you want.” His hand reached out to settle on my shoulder, squeezing firmly while he glanced between Alloy and me. “You two may not be in any of our teams, But you’re still part of the community. If you need anything, just speak up, any time. You got that?”  

The two of us agreed and then stepped away while the Ten Towers Touched began to take inventory of the truck, and the cops secured the scene. There were some onlookers gathered by that point, though they were staying well enough back. I nudged the girl beside me and we went over there to interact with the crowd. Part of me thought that was weird and maybe self-indulgent. But on the other hand, a bigger part pointed out that I wanted the civilians to be more likely to believe me if things ever came to a head with this whole Ministry thing. If I avoided and ignored the crowds, the moment my family decided to start trying to shift the narrative against Paintball, it would be a lot more likely to work in their favor. But if I could make sure that the public liked our little group, it would be harder for my parents to make us look bad. 

Was that manipulative? Okay, maybe. But it felt like the sort of game that I had to play. It left something of a bad taste in my mouth when I thought about it that way, yet if I ignored it, things would end up being a lot worse. And besides, I really did enjoy talking to people as Paintball, showing off and goofing around–okay, I enjoyed showing off and goofing around as Cassidy too. So I wasn’t exactly suffering when it came to that. Still, I couldn’t shake that slightly awkward feeling at the back of my mind, even if I was getting pretty good at ignoring it. 

I also made a point of telling the people that we were part of a new team called Avant-Guard, even spraying the logo onto the nearby wall, as well as giving a few people who asked for it a version of the logo on their clothes. That proved to be pretty popular and even more people showed up asking for me to paint their shirts or jackets. Not all of them with our team name either. Some just wanted my name, or Alloy’s with an image of her marbles. One person asked if I could do a picture across the back of his jacket that amounted to myself on one side, the roof of a building below, and Cuélebre chasing me on the opposite side. Once I did and they saw how detailed it was, everyone wanted something like that. They all had different images in mind, and it took about twenty minutes for me to get through all of it in between talking to them and letting my paint recharge now and then. I let them know that it could be scrubbed off if they wanted to, but most of them said they would stop by the store to buy this spray stuff that was supposed to seal paint to fabric or something. I wasn’t sure about the details. All I knew was that they wanted to keep my images on their clothes, which was… wow. 

Finally, Alloy and I managed to extract ourselves. She had been entertaining other people by turning her marbles into various things, even allowing some of them to step up on the different shapes for brief rides up and down the street. She managed to hide it pretty well, but I could tell that she was even more overwhelmed than I was. 

So, once we got out of there and landed on a roof a couple streets over, I looked toward the girl and raised an eyebrow. Then I realized she wouldn’t see that, so I painted a face on the front of my helmet with a raised eyebrow there. “You doing okay?” 

Coughing, she gave me a look, retracting most of her helmet so I could see her face. “Am I doing okay? What about you? You uhh, you seemed right at home back there. You sure you’re not a celebrity or something in your real life? Oh my God, are you a child actor? Jason Highward?” 

The guess made me choke, shaking my head quickly. “I promise, I’m not the star of Bending Backwards. Or any other TV star,” I added quickly before she could say anything else. “I’m not a celebrity. I mean, my other self isn’t a celebrity. Not–” I was about to say ‘not really,’ but that felt like the wrong thing to say. So I just settled on, “Not as a civilian. I uhh, I guess I just like attention at school and it translates?” That was basically the truth, so I didn’t feel guilty about saying it. But then I felt guilty all over again for being relieved that I could manipulate the truth like that. It was… complicated, to say the least. 

From the look the other girl was giving me, I had a feeling she thought there was something else to what I was saying, and what I wasn’t saying. But she let it go and simply replied, “At least we managed to save that truck, huh? Even if we did end up making another enemy.” A slight frown crossed her face before she shook it off. “But then, I guess you don’t do this sort of stuff for long without banging heads with the bad guys.” 

“Yeah, that’s pretty easy in my experience,” I admitted. Then I changed the face that I had painted on the front of my helmet to make it smile. “But hey, it’s nice to have someone else to share the bullseye with.”  

Giving me a look, Peyton dryly replied, “Gee, thanks, boss. Glad to be able to help, I guess. And speaking of help, we should probably get over to the Nest.” 

The Nest was Wren’s Nest, of course. The pawn shop. I gave a quick nod. “Right, they’ve been waiting for us. Come on, let’s head over there. Though… you think we should stop and grab some pizza on the way?” 

“You mean bribe them with food so they’re not annoyed about waiting so long for us?” Peyton offered me a very faint, knowing smirk. “But while we’re at it, we better grab some cheesy bread too.” 

“Isn’t that your favorite?” I teased, already turning to walk to the edge of the roof. 

“What can I say?” she shot back. “I’m very annoyed at us and it’s going to take some strong bribery to make me forgive us.” 

********

Eventually, after taking a long route to make sure we weren’t being followed or observed, we made it back to the shop. As we went in the back door, Wren and Fred were already waiting, along with Murphy and Roald. When they saw us, the latter two let out audible sighs of relief, Roald speaking up, “We saw the bit on the news about you chasing Angel Dust.” 

“Yeah, are you okay?” Murphy demanded. “First it looked like she was chasing you, but then you were chasing her. It was weird. What the hell happened?” Glancing toward Wren, she amended. “Heck. What the heck happened?” 

For their part, Wren and Fred simply watched this, clearly just as curious as the other two but content to let them talk. Wren did hover upwards on her wings, basically bouncing excitedly in the air. I could tell that she had her own news to share, but was trying to be good. 

So, the two of us explained what had happened and how it ended. Including the bit about telling everyone about the team name and signing autographs/painting shirts. “Which means,” I finished up, “we should be getting the name out there pretty well by now. So I hope nobody really hated it after all, because it looks like it’s gonna stick.” 

“It’s a cool name!” Wren insisted. Finally unable to hold herself back any longer, she flew forward to hover right in front of us. “But guess what, guess what, guess what! They’re ready to test.” 

“The suits you’ve been working on?” I straightened up a bit. “You’re sure?” 

Murphy immediately piped up, “Seriously, we really get to try them?” 

Wren nodded toward both of us, her head snapping back and forth between Murphy and me. “Uh huh, huh huh! They’re pretty basic right now, but… Uncle Fred?” 

On that cue, the man reached behind himself and brought out two jumpsuits. They looked pretty simple, like mechanics coveralls. Not too dissimilar from my own costume, though these were black. At the wrists and ankles of the jumpsuits there were silver bands, along with a bit of visible circuitry on the inside of the jumpsuits.

As Fred held them out to Murphy and Roald, Wren urged the two to pull them on and zip them up, adding, “I promise I’ll make them look better and stuff in the final version. But I wanted to, you know, let you try them and make sure it worked.” 

“Make sure what worked?” I asked, watching as the pair slipped the jumpsuits on over their clothes. 

“Well, uhh, first, the kinetic decelerator,” she explained. “Uh, guys, take these.” She reached out to a table, taking two pairs of gloves before tossing them that way. “Put them on, then umm, put your hands together like this.” She pushed her hands flat together, like she was praying. 

Shrugging uncertainly, the other two did that. After a second or two, a very faintly audible hum could be heard, and I saw an outline of barely visible energy, like an aura around each of them. 

“Yay!” Wren cheered, then picked up a baseball from the nearby table full of junk. “Watch.” With that, she threw the ball as hard as she could at Roald’s head. The ball got most of the way there before there was a blue-green flash. Then the ball just sort of… stopped and fell to the floor. 

“It’s not a constant thing yet,” Wren explained. “It’d draw way too much power for the little batteries in the pockets. You have to activate it by putting your hands together like that, or by saying ‘shield me,’ and then it’ll work for about thirty seconds. Right now it’s got enough power for about fifteen of those before it has to be recharged. Plus about thirty jumps.” 

“Jumps?” Peyton echoed, sounding just as curious as I felt. 

“Remember that uhh, teleporter?” Wren asked, looking to me. “The one you used before. It was super-dangerous, like, lucky you made it one piece. So I took it apart. But I split it into two things and linked the–here.” Turning back to the other two, she urged, “Uh, Roald, snap your fingers and point at Murphy.” 

The boy did just that, snapping with the gloves. As he did so and pointed, there was a sudden flash, and he was abruptly standing right next to the girl. Both of them yelped, half-falling in surprise. 

Wren, however, cheered. “It worked! When one of you snaps and points at the other, you’ll teleport over to them. Or if you both snap and point at each other, you’ll switch places. You just have to be within line of sight. I umm, haven’t figured out how to make you teleport somewhere else safely yet. I have this idea for these discs, but… but they’re not ready.” 

“Duuuude, that’s amazing!” Murphy gave Roald a shove, telling him to run over to the far side of the shop. Once he was there, she snapped and pointed. With a flash of light, she was suddenly standing next to him. Both of them cheered and leapt up and down a few times. 

“I think they like it,” I murmured with a smile, before looking over at Wren. “You’re pretty amazing yourself, you know that?” 

Visibly blushing, the blonde girl squirmed while still hovering in the air. “I just wanna help.” 

“Oh believe me,” I assured her, “you are definitely helping.” Glancing back to Murphy and Roald, who were testing the ‘switch places’ teleport by snapping and pointing at each other, I added, “Without you, we all would’ve been screwed a long time ago. I couldn’t have saved Blackjack’s daughter without you, and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to help Paige. As for getting into the Ministry base? Yeah, we’d probably be screwed there.

“But with you, we might just have a shot at this whole thing.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Putting in an appearance at home for a while, I found myself being invited to the dinner party that evening. Invited as myself, that was. For just a moment, the possibility of needing to play a sitcom-style game of going as both Cassidy and Paintball while rapidly switching back and forth between them in closets jumped into my head. Which, of course, would have ended with me sitting down in my dress at the table with my parents while still wearing the helmet on my head, no matter how little sense that made. Wacky, murderous hijinks would certainly have ensued.  

But no, I simply told my parents that I wasn’t really feeling it that night and felt like going to bed pretty soon. They, in turn, let it go pretty easily. I had the feeling they weren’t very surprised about me not wanting to attend some party, even if it was hosted and attended by a bunch of Star-Touched. Maybe they were just happy to think that I wouldn’t be around just in case something went wrong and Dad had to jump into Silversmith duty. Which was a thought that in and of itself gave me pause. Would they give the green light for any Fell-Touched gang shenanigans at an event they themselves were attending? It made sense that they would, given how easy it would be for someone to notice if nothing ever happened at places they went. They were probably even making sure that their own businesses and other assets were hit repeatedly during this whole war, just to avoid any suspicion at all. 

Yeah, I really needed to look that up. Maybe even get an actual list of everything my family had any ownership in and compare it to crimes over the past twenty years to see just how that lined up. I was sure they were careful, especially with my mother making plenty of the decisions. But if I looked closely enough, knowing what sort of things to search through all twenty years, maybe I could actually find some evidence for my family overall profiting from all those crimes in the long run. Say, if they lost a token amount because one business they owned was hit, but had purchased stock in their competitor shortly beforehand. Or something. I wasn’t sure exactly how well that would work, or if it would pan out at all. But it was something to think about. 

In any case, I didn’t need to go to the party tonight. At least, not as myself. But I wasn’t going to completely rule out the possibility of any other sitcom-adjacent antics showing up while I was secretly attending the same party as my parents. I just hoped it stayed firmly in the cheap comedy realm and didn’t mosey its way into the epic drama or tragedy genres. 

Also, it was slightly possible that I was overthinking this whole thing and applying far too many tropes to it. The point was, my parents thought I was staying home. Izzy, on the other hand… well, she was supposedly going over for some tutoring or extra homework or something. That’s the story I was told, in my role as a clueless, obedient daughter who didn’t know anything. In reality, she would be appearing as Raindrop alongside the rest of the Minority. 

Come to think of it, that was probably another reason my parents were fine with me deciding not to go. They might have thought that I would somehow recognize Izzy if we spent time together. Which made me wonder when they planned on telling me about her true identity. If they ever did. Hell, maybe they wanted me to be clueless forever and would send me off to college without opening up about any of it

Bitter, me? 

“You’re brooding, aren’t you?” The words came from next to my window, where Izzy had been standing and looking out at the grounds for the past few minutes. She was ready to head out for her ‘tutoring’ session as soon as my parents were ‘ready to drop her off.’ Yes, the truth was that she would be going with them the whole way. But again, I wasn’t supposed to know any of this yet, so they carried on with the charade. 

Sitting up on my bed, I focused on her and offered a faint smile. “Maybe a little bit, but they say a little brooding now and then is pretty healthy.” 

Izzy raised an eyebrow while moving to sit on one of my nearby heavily-padded footstools. “Who says that?” 

My hand waved dismissively. “Oh, you know. They would’ve introduced themselves, but they were too busy brooding.” With a wink, I pushed myself up. “I’m okay. Sorry, I was just thinking about how long they’re going to keep me in the dark. Or, uhh, think they’re keeping me in the dark. About you, I mean. Have they said anything to you about talking to me?” 

After a brief hesitation, Izzy offered, “Yeah, they did. I mean, they said we should tell you what–um, about my extracurriculars when the time is right. They just, you know, haven’t exactly said when that time is. But your mom brought it up this afternoon. She asked how I would feel if you knew the truth and if I would be comfortable with it. I told her I was okay with telling you and she said to wait a little bit longer. But I think they plan to bring it up pretty soon. Um, do you think they’ll tell you anything… else?” 

My head shook. “If they tell me about you, it’ll be with you right there too. And it’ll probably be a test run. Think about it, they can see exactly how I’ll react to just the short time of being lied to and having Touched-related secrets kept instead of my whole life. It’s like getting to watch me dip my toes in the water, or just splash around in the shallows before they pull me to the deep end to see if I can swim.”

Taking that in, Izzy blanched. “You’re right, telling you the truth about me is gonna be their test for telling you the truth about themselves. It makes sense.” With a visible grimace, she focused on me. “So, how are you going to react when they tell you? About me, I mean.” 

“Uhhh, really convincing surprise?” I offered, before pantomiming slapping my hands against my face like the kid from Home Alone. 

Snickering, Izzy leaned out to kick my shin. “Maybe you should practice. Or, umm, maybe not?” She frowned, clearly trying to decide which way would be better. But before she could, and before I could say anything else, the intercom chimed and announced that my mother was requesting our presence downstairs so Izzy could head out and I could say goodnight. 

Wow, here went nothing, again. The two of us exchanged looks before getting up. We went down, as soon as I made sure I looked sufficiently ready for bed. I had changed into sweatpants and a tee-shirt that hopefully sold the idea that I would be falling asleep shortly after they left. The very last thing I wanted my parents to be doing that night was wondering what I was up to. Which, of course, made me feel like a little kid who was pretending to be sick or something. Only with much higher stakes than being forced to take a math test or something, in this case.  

My parents, of course, looked amazing. They were all dressed up to attend the event, my father in a dashing suit and my mother wearing an elegant gown. Standing in front of them in my bed clothes made the difference between us even more apparent. I would clearly never look the way my mother did in a dress. She was all… perfect, filling the gown out in all the right places, with long dark hair that curled slightly in a way that I could never have gotten mine to do. She was just… she was Elena Evans, a beautiful woman who had appeared on many magazine covers. 

Me? I was Cassidy. No one would ever look at me the way they looked at my mother. Not even if I dressed up the way she was, let alone while I was wearing sweats and a tee-shirt. I almost felt as though my parents should be offended that I was in the same room as them. I certainly didn’t belong there. 

Mom, however, opened her arms and pulled me into a full embrace. I felt her squeeze tight, her voice a tender murmur, “I love you, my principessa. You are everything you need to be.” 

Dad took his turn then, embracing me even more tightly before lifting me off the floor. “We probably won’t be back until after midnight, so don’t wait up. Maybe we’ll go do something fun tomorrow.” 

“Can’t wait,” I made myself say as he set me down. Stepping back, I waved. “Have a good time.” To Izzy, I added, “While you’re at the library, if you see this old lady with white hair that’s pulled back in a bun, and these big glasses with gold rims, don’t tell her you know me. I’m pretty sure she’s still holding a grudge from that whole sledding incident. Which is totally unfair, because that was like five years ago. Ancient history.” 

“Sledding?” Izzy blinked at me. “How do you annoy a librarian by sledding?” 

“When you do it inside the library,” Dad put in. Despite his put-upon sigh, he failed to hide all of his amusement. 

I offered a shrug. “Hey, those stairs were perfect for it. Four stories of steps? Come on. Besides, Noel double-dog dared me. What was I supposed to do, say no?” 

From the look my mother was giving me, saying no was exactly what I was supposed to do. But she didn’t say anything, instead settling on reaching out to gently squeeze my shoulder. “We will be home later tonight. You look very tired. Get some sleep, my beautiful girl.” 

With that, she released me and they all turned to head out. I waved once more, then pivoted and headed back upstairs, moving casually past a couple maids on their way down. As they passed, I smiled and nodded, acting as though I had nothing more interesting to do with my night.  

The facade dropped as soon as I was back in my room with the door shut behind me. Immediately, the mask of casual, bored innocence vanished from my face as I ran to the nearby sliding door and opened it to carefully peek outside. In the distance, I could hear the car engine start up, before a dark SUV with heavily tinted windows pulled into view on its way down the long driveway. There they went. Even now, Izzy was probably in the rear-most row of seats with the divider up so she could change into the costume that had been sitting there waiting for her. Meanwhile, my parents would be sitting in the middle, having a glass of wine while chatting to each other. Would they talk about Ministry business? With the divider up, Izzy wouldn’t be able to hear them, so it was possible. At the very least, I was sure the gang war was giving them plenty to talk about. And plenty of fires for the Ministry to deal with. They had to be allowing the conflict to continue and even escalate the way it was, but I had no idea how far they were willing to let it go. Or how bad it would get before they shut it down. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I moved to lock my bedroom door. Setting the computer to let people know I was asleep, I used purple paint to move the mirror out of the way in my closet, pulled the bag with my costume out, and went back to the balcony. There, I slung the bag over my shoulder, made sure the coast was clear and the cameras weren’t watching, then used red paint to zip my way to the wall. After one more quick glance around, I dropped to the other side and began to sprint through the wilderness at a diagonal toward the road. Once I was clear, I would call for a ride and head over to meet up with Alloy. And then? Well, then we would head for the same party that my parents were going to. 

Suddenly, this was seeming more and more like a bad idea. But what was I supposed to do, tell Peyton we couldn’t go because I was afraid my parents would recognize me? Besides, I’d gotten through a much closer dinner back at Caishen’s place when the Chambers and my parents had been there, without giving anything away. I could totally get through a much larger gathering. With all the other Touched there, I doubted anyone would even pay attention to me. 

Right, good thing I had some time before meeting up with Peyton. Because I was going to need every second to convince myself I wasn’t full of shit. 

*******

Showing up just outside Wren’s, I found Murphy, Roald, and Peyton out in the alley behind the shop. The other two hadn’t bothered to change out of their funeral clothes, though they were pretty dirty by that point. It looked like Murphy in particular had gone mud-sliding in hers or something. She was standing with her back to the nearby dumpster, bouncing a ball off the ground, then the wall, then back into her hand. When I dropped into view, she looked up, her eyes a bit bloodshot, voice audibly strained. “How’s it going, Boss? Heard you dropped by.” 

“I–” My voice caught a bit, before I managed a weak, “Yeah, I wanted to–I mean I thought I should–fuck. I’m sorry. I wanted to watch and be there, even if it didn’t really matter.” 

“It mattered,” Murphy informed me, her own voice cracking slightly. “Believe me, it mattered.” It looked like she was about to say something else, but in the end, she just closed her mouth tightly, gripped the ball, and looked away. 

Roald spoke instead, standing nearer to the shop door with a phone in one hand. “We were just wishing Alloy good luck at that dinner thing tonight. Sounds like it’s gonna be a real… umm, something.” 

Grimacing despite myself, I nodded emphatically. “Oh, it’s bound to be a real something, that’s for sure. Probably a bunch of rich people standing around, patting each other on the back, throwing some money around like it’s water, and giving speeches that last way too long.” 

Alloy snorted, “Listen to him, talking like he’s been to sooo many of these things.” She gave me a look. “Admit it, you’re interested in seeing how this whole thing goes too.” 

Well, at least my cover was intact. Forcing myself to sound casual, I replied, “I have a feeling we’ll be pretty bored before the night is over.” 

“By which,” Murphy put in while turning back to face me once more, “he means he really hopes he’s bored. Because the alternative is that something went wrong again and everything is on fire.” She offered a weak smile by the end of that, before immediately ducking her gaze once more with a guilty look as thoughts of her brother clearly intruded. 

“Come on,” I spoke up, gesturing toward the door. “Let’s go inside for a few minutes. You can tell us about Tyson.” 

“What?” She blinked at that, confused and uncertain. “You don’t want to hear me talk about my brother again. You’ve got that party to go to.” 

“And we will, later,” I confirmed. “But we’ve got some time right now. I’m not in a rush, believe me. That dinner will still be there later. And yes, I do want to hear you talk about your brother again.” But far more importantly, she needed to talk about him. That much was obvious. 

Giving me a long, appraising look, Murphy finally shook her head and muttered, “You’re a really weird kid, you know that?”  

With a quick, easy nod, I agreed, “People have said that now and then. Now come on. Roald, you still got those cards you’ve been playing with at the tunnel?” 

“Uhh, yeah?” He dug in his pocket to come out with the worn deck. 

“Great.” Giving him a thumbs up, I waved with the other hand for everyone to go inside. “Then let’s get in there and see if Wren wants to play. 

“If we’re going to be a dangerous influence, we might as well teach her poker while we’re at it.” 

*******

We did not have to teach Wren poker. Not only did the kid already know how to play, she cleaned our clocks. 

Honestly, I should have realized something was up as soon as Fred had a coughing fit when I brought up the idea of teaching her how to play. At the time, I’d thought that he was just stopping himself from objecting. But no, now I realized he had definitely been laughing. 

It was still worth it though. For about forty minutes, we’d sat around the table in the shop and played cards while letting Murphy tell stories about Tyson. There were good stories, bad stories, sad ones, and ones that made even Murphy laugh. At least, until she cried again. 

Wren had clearly won the games. But I was pretty sure Murphy had won a good bit too, just from being there. She had needed that far more than Peyton and I needed to get to the party. 

Still, we did need to make an appearance. So the two of us eventually said our goodbyes, left the others to play without us, and headed out together. 

Once outside, we made our way to the nearby roof and I used the handy dandy GPS mapping function that Wren had included in my helmet to tell me which way to go to the place the Seraphs were using for this whole party thing. They weren’t having it on Seraph grounds, but rather at a large convention center a mile or so away from there. I wasn’t sure exactly why, unless it had to do with the size of the crowd or something. Which itself was pretty odd. This was just a thing for rich people, right? How many rich people could there be? 

Either way, it was bound to be incredibly well-protected. But then again, the mayor’s fundraiser event across from the children’s hospital had been well-protected too, and look how that went. 

“You think something bad is gonna happen tonight?” Peyton asked, as we stood on the edge of that roof. 

“Okay, one, you are entirely too good at reading my emotions considering you can’t see my face,” I informed her with a look. 

“Body language, Boss,” she replied easily, shrugging. “I can’t help it if you’re basically an open book.” 

Snorting despite myself, I waved a hand. “That’s me, open book. Uh, anyway, two, I want us to be prepared in case it does. I don’t think anyone in any of the main gangs will try anything at an event that’s gonna have that many Star-Touched and other armed people around, but I wouldn’t put it past the Scions to try something just to lash out at people for…” 

“For what we did,” the other girl finished for me, her voice flat. 

Wincing a little, I put a hand out to touch her arm. “We did the right thing.” Yet even as I said that, I felt a pang of guilt. Jolene Iverson had been murdered specifically because she reported on the information we exposed. Right thing or not, if we hadn’t exposed Pencil and Cup’s true identities, she would still be alive. 

Yes, they would have killed people anyway, and exposing their identities was a real step toward catching them… maybe. It was the right thing to do. And yet…

And yet the pain in my stomach whenever I thought about Jolene Iverson and the people who had cared about her still remained.

Staring at me through that moment of silent introspection, Peyton quietly murmured, “Yup, definitely an open book.” It was her turn to reach out to squeeze my arm then. “I… for some reason I always forget I’m sort of the older one here. It doesn’t seem like it. You’re just so–” Cutting herself off, she sighed. “I’m sorry you have to be the mature one.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. Instead, I forced all of it down and simply turned to look at her once more. “I’m just glad I have people to talk to now. And someone to go with me to this party.” 

“Changing the subject?” she asked, as the extra marbles turned into question marks around her head. 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Did it work?” 

With a quiet chuckle, Peyton gestured. “Sure. We uhh, we can talk about that later.” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I turned back to the edge of the roof. “Great, for now let’s go party. I don’t know about you, but I am starving. And if something does happen, I’d like to deal with it after eating.” 

“Didn’t you say the food thing is supposed to come after all the boring speeches?” she pointed out. “You know, as the last possible thing.” 

“Oh my God, you’re right,” I agreed. “We’re doomed.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-02 (Summus Proelium)

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The next morning was Saturday. It was also the day of Tyson’s funeral. Some part of me had had the wild thought that even if I couldn’t appear as Paintball because of the connection it would draw to Murphy, maybe I could at least go as myself. Except that was a bad idea too. Even if people didn’t recognize me (and to be honest, most wouldn’t because I didn’t fit what they assumed the daughter of Elena and Sterling Evans would look like), they would still wonder why I was there. After all, this clearly wasn’t going to be some big crowded event. If I attended, I would be noticed. Especially by Murphy and Roald, who would wonder why some girl they had never seen before was sitting in on the funeral. 

Not for the first time, I wondered if I should just come straight out and tell all of them exactly who I was, and the full truth about this entire situation. But there were things still holding me back. I trusted them, of course. But if I let them know who I was, I didn’t know how it would change… everything. How they thought about me, how they–but no. No, that wasn’t the important thing. The most important thing was that I was afraid of what would happen if my identity happened to somehow get further than that. Or if my parents found out they knew something and… talked to them. If they didn’t know who I was, they would have no way of telling– but that put them in danger too. If they couldn’t tell my parents what they wanted to know, if they–so I should tell them. But if I told them, I didn’t have control over who found out. Or even less control than I already had, given Izzy and Amber knew. But they didn’t–but if my parents–

God damn it. I had no idea what to do, or what the best move was. Every time I thought that I was bound and determined to just tell them all the truth, my stomach twisted in on itself and I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t even sure exactly why not. I just couldn’t make myself take that step. Something in my head kept telling me that it was something I couldn’t take back. If I told Murphy, Roald, Wren, Peyton, and Fred all who I really was, I just… Something about that felt like too big of a step. It was so dangerous. Even telling them as much as I had was dangerous, of course. But totally revealing all of my secrets was just… I felt queasy at the thought. Was that stupid? Was I being dumb about this whole thing? Should I just bite the bullet and go for it? Maybe… maybe later. Yeah, I just had to let them process what I had already told them. It was too much to dump on all of them all at once. Later, maybe I would see what–how they dealt with it. 

Telling myself that made sense helped somewhat. But then, it didn’t actually solve my original problem. I wanted to do something for Tyson’s funeral. I couldn’t just sit around and ignore it. Of course I didn’t know the guy, and what little I did know about him didn’t paint a very flattering picture. But he didn’t deserve to die, and Murphy had said that he was trying to turn his life around. Except now he would never have that chance. Just ignoring his funeral, when my family was the reason that his murderer was still free, was wrong. I couldn’t do that. 

In the end, I had to do something for it. Even if I couldn’t actually attend the funeral itself, I could at least be nearby. So, I found myself taking a seat on the roof of a building across the street from the cemetery where the funeral was being performed. Well, we kept calling it a funeral. It was more of a simple graveside service. They couldn’t afford some big event at a church. And it seemed like they didn’t have the family or friends to fill such a thing anyway. That part didn’t surprise me, given everything I had heard and already knew about the Murphys. 

The building was really too far away to make out much of the funeral. Which was kind of the point, given I didn’t want to be seen attending it. But that was what high-powered binoculars were for. Nestled in a sitting position with my back to an air conditioning unit, I lifted the front of the helmet so I could put the binoculars against my eyes and scan that way. Now I could see what was going on more clearly. They were all standing around the open grave with the casket ready to be lowered into it. Murphy was there, in an ill-fitting suit that looked as though it had been patched several times. Roald was standing next to her in a suit of his own, which didn’t look much better. There was a smaller girl right beside him whom I assumed was his younger sister. The older sister, if I guessed right, was standing a little further away talking to what looked like the man who would be giving the service once they got started in a few minutes.

My eyes scanned over the rest of the people, not that there were many beyond that. I did, however, catch sight of a van approaching through the winding cemetery road that had the Detroit Department of Corrections logo on it. Which gave me pause for a moment before I realized. It was Murphy’s parents. That had to be it, right? If they were going to be given leave from prison for anything, it would be the funeral of their son. Somehow, I hadn’t even considered the fact that they would be there. How would they react to the whole thing? How would Murphy react to them being there? Suddenly, I felt more like a creepy voyeur than I had ever intended. This was wrong. I had felt so strongly that I needed to be here, but now I was questioning that whole thing. Maybe the truth was that while being here might make me feel better, I was actually just spying on things I didn’t deserve to see. This service wasn’t for me. It was– 

A sound nearby interrupted my inner turmoil, and I quickly lowered the binoculars and turned to see a familiar figure landing on the roof nearby. Peyton, in her newest purple and black armor configuration. As the hoverboard transitioned back into her bronze and gold marbles, she spoke up. “You couldn’t stay away either, huh?” 

Grateful, for more than one reason, that I still had my ski mask to hide my face even with the front of the helmet lifted up, I hesitated before giving a short nod. “But now I’m starting to rethink that. It feels weird to spy on them, you know? LIke I’m being a shady creep.”

“We’ll tell them we were there,” Peyton offered with a hesitant shrug. “I mean, we’ll tell them you were there. I already said I would try to find a way to watch. I was looking around for a decent place when I saw you down here. It umm…” She trailed off before sighing while taking a seat next to me, both of our backs to the metal box. “This whole thing sucks, doesn’t it?” 

“It’s definitely not fun,” I replied simply before raising the binoculars again. The van had stopped by that point, a couple hundred feet from where the burial was happening. I could see a couple of prison guards opening it up to help the occupants out. I didn’t recognize them, of course. But I could tell that they were Murphy’s parents. One was an average-height slender black man with long, incredibly luxurious-looking hair. The other was a somewhat tall caucasian woman with brownish-blonde hair and a nervous look about her. She kept glancing around constantly, as though convinced they were being watched. Which… well, yeah. Both of them were wearing prison jumpsuits and were still handcuffed as the guards helped them down from the van and then started to escort them over to where the service was happening. All of which seemed stupid to me. They were in prison for simple drug offenses. Couldn’t they be given normal clothes to wear so they could attend their own son’s funeral without looking like Hannibal Lector? I mean, yeah sure it wasn’t that bad, but still. This was ridiculous. Just unchain them and let them say goodbye to their son, for fuck’s sake. 

I was so focused on my annoyance about that whole situation while following the moving parents with the binoculars, that I almost jumped when Peyton nudged me while saying something. I’d half-forgotten she was there in my distraction. “Huh–what?” 

“I said,” she repeated, “Doesn’t it seem fucked up that they think they need four armed guards just to watch over a couple grieving parents, who are still chained up? They just sold some drugs to willing people, it’s not like they murdered the pope or something.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed in a flat voice, “it’s a bit of overkill.” Even as I said that, I realized what she had said. Four guards? I had counted three, the driver and two helping the Murphys down. Looking back that way once more without the binoculars zooming me in so much, I finally caught sight of the fourth guy. He was a bit further back, having apparently gotten out the far side of the van before trailing behind. From this distance, I could barely make out anything about him. And yet, there was something immediately familiar about–

Raising the binoculars quickly once more, I focused that way. And then almost cursed vehemently out loud. Of course the fourth guard looked familiar. It was Simon. My brother. The person who was the entire reason Murphy’s brother’s murderer had escaped unscathed. He was dressed up like a prison guard, escorting their parents to the funeral. What–why? What the fuck? Why the hell was he here? What did he think he was doing? Was this some sort of sick joke or something? Why would he ever come to a funeral like this? I knew he wasn’t a real prison guard. He had to be using one of those hologram things or something. But either way, why? What the hell did he get out of being here? What was–why–what? 

“Uh,” Peyton spoke up curiously. “You okay? You’re holding those binoculars so tight it looks like you might snap them in half. And they look pretty fancy, so you probably don’t want to do that.” 

Forcing myself to lower them and look back to her, I kept my voice as even as I could. “Yeah, I’m good. I mean, no I’m not. I’m really pissed off about this whole situation. But I’m about as good as you could expect.” After a brief pause, I added quietly, “I’m doing better than Murphy.” 

With a sigh, the other girl slumped back a bit next to me and reached into a compartment she had added to her armor, pulling out some binoculars of her own. Lifting them up, she looked that way and murmured, “This whole situation is pretty fucked up, isn’t it?” 

Wincing inwardly, I nodded. “Pretty fucked up indeed.” She had no idea just how much. Even as that thought came to mind, I was adjusting the binoculars to check on Simon again. He was standing at the edge of the funeral, playing the role of a guard watching over their prisoners even as Murphy’s parents embraced her. There was… there was a lot of emotion going on there. I quickly moved the view back over to Simon, not wanting to intrude on a family thing like that. He was staring intently, not at the Murphys, but at the casket. He looked… not happy. 

I had no idea what to make of that. I have no idea why he was here, what was going through his mind, why he looked angry while staring at the casket containing the body of the guy whose murderer he had helped esca–okay, when I put it like that, It sort of sounded like he felt guilty. But did he? I didn’t trust my own judgment about that whole thing. I couldn’t think of any other reason why he would be here. Was he going to all the funerals? Or was there something special about this one? Was I being incredibly naive? Maybe there was a valid reason beyond guilt for a member of the Ministry to come here. Maybe he was making sure there were no more loose ends. And the anger was because he had something else he wanted to do more, and blamed Murphy’s brother for making him miss it. 

Okay that felt a little too far to the other end of the naive/cynical line. Both of those felt wrong, but I had no idea what the actual answer could be. Why was Simon here, and why did he look so upset when he looked at that casket? 

Unfortunately, I was pretty sure that, short of marching down there and demanding answers from him in person, I wasn’t going to get any right now. And, come to think of it, that probably wouldn’t help either. Even if it was really tempting just to see the look on his face if I had actually confronted him. Maybe being taken by surprise like that would make him give something away that he wouldn’t have otherwise. But no, this wasn’t the right time for that sort of desperate move. Especially not now. I wasn’t going to ruin the funeral just because I wanted to violently shake my brother until he spat out real answers. 

Instead, I made myself put that thought away and focus on the funeral as a whole. For around an hour while people spoke and said their goodbyes, Peyton and I both sat there watching. Every once in a while we spoke quietly to each other, but for the most part we just sat silently and observed. It still felt a bit like we were intruding, yet this was the best we could do. Now that I saw Simon there, I knew not physically attending the funeral properly was the right way to go. A terrifying thought of what he would have done if I had been down there as myself raced through my mind, and I shuddered inwardly. That could have been really bad. 

Eventually, the service was over, and Tyson’s casket was in the ground. Several of the people, including Murphy and Roald, had each shoveled some dirt over it, then watched as a backhoe did the rest of the work. Once he was completely buried, goodbyes were said. That lasted for about five minutes or so, while Murphy and her parents had a whole… thing. It felt awful just sitting here, my emotions twisting inside my stomach. Again, they were only in prison on drug offenses. Couldn’t they be released for a couple days to help their daughter get through this whole thing? 

If they were rich, they would have been. It was no question. Hell, their prison would have been a country club, and they would have been given at least two weeks leave from it to handle funeral arrangements and everything else. But they weren’t rich. So they were fucked over by the system that was supposed to protect them. 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, and made it even harder to avoid snapping the binoculars, I watched Simon and the real guards lead their charges back to the van. Meanwhile, the rest of the (rather small) crowd was dispersing as Roald’s older sister led the others across to another lot where a beat-up sedan was waiting. From what Murphy herself had said, they would now go to get some lunch at a buffet somewhere. Obviously, I wasn’t going to follow them. I was tempted to follow the prison van just to see what Simon did, but that was probably a pretty bad idea too. 

Which left me sitting next to Peyton as the two of us looked at each other. With a heavy sigh, I muttered, “Well, that pretty much sucked, huh?” 

“Hoover-level sucking,” she agreed. “Can we go find some bad guys to beat up? I need to get it out of my system, and the people I really wanna punch, I… can’t. Not yet, anyway.”

“Good idea,” I agreed, pushing myself up. “Let’s take a bite out of crime.” 

*****

Unfortunately, McGruff the Crime Dog would have starved that day. No matter where Peyton and I went, we couldn’t find any criminals to deal with. It even looked like the always-rampaging gang war had decided to take a timeout for the day. Which was just typical, really. The one time we wanted to find bad guys, they had all decided to go on vacation. Or maybe we just sucked at finding them. It was, after all, a pretty big city. 

Whatever the reason, we finally gave up after a couple hours. We both had other things we wanted to take care of before that big dinner thing tonight. So, after warning the other girl again that she had better show up to the event hungry given how much food there would be, I headed off. My brain was full of thoughts that I didn’t want to have, yet wouldn’t go away. Mostly revolving around what the hell was going on with Simon going to the funeral. Yeah, that was clearly a whole thing. There was no way I was going to be able to figure it out just based on what little information I had, but that wouldn’t stop my brain from obsessing about it. Because brains were stupid like that and often refused to listen to common sense. 

I was hungry, but after all of that, there was no way I was going home just yet. So, I changed clothes to avoid attracting attention, and found a small, out-of-the-way Indian place to eat at. It was pretty incredible, even distracted as I was. So, I made a mental note to come back another time, and to bring the others.  

As I was getting up to leave, my phone buzzed with a text. The one for Cassidy Evans, rather than Paintball. So, I took a look. It was from that Dani girl, inviting me out to that skatepark on Grand River. Right, that whole thing about people from school talking me into doing dangerous shit for fun. For a moment, I squinted and considered asking for a raincheck. But no, I needed some way of distracting myself from everything. Later tonight, I was going to have to play nice in public while my father and others gave their big speeches and all that. Going while I was still tense about the whole situation with Tyson probably wasn’t a good idea. If I couldn’t let off steam by finding crime to fight, maybe I could do it this way. 

So, in the end, I sent back a text saying I would be there as soon as possible. I just needed to grab my stuff from home. I would head in, grab it, and head out again. No reason to stick around. With any luck, I would avoid Simon and my parents altogether. Sure, it was Saturday, but they had plenty of their own stuff to do before that party.

*****

For once, I wasn’t completely proven wrong about my assumptions. My family was occupied with their own things, and I was able to get in, grab my stuff, order a ride, and get out without any interruptions. A short while later, I arrived at the skatepark, paid the driver, and headed over to where I could see a bunch of people from my school already hanging out. 

Dani was there, talking to someone with their back to me. As I approached, she gestured and called out, “There she is. Told you the richest teenager in Detroit wouldn’t blow us off.” 

Rolling my eyes, I retorted, “Maybe I bought the place and came to kick everyone off it.” 

“What–” Turning quickly to face me, the person Dani had been talking to came up short. “Oh, uh, hey.”

“Hey yourself, I know you,” I put in, realizing belatedly where from. “You’re–” 

“Ryder Towling,” Dani interrupted, gesturing back and forth between us. “this is Cassidy Evans. Ryder–wait, did you say you know him?” 

“He’s tutoring… uh, someone from school, Arleigh,” I replied. “Right?” 

Ryder, for his part, squinted briefly before belatedly extending a hand. “Oh, yeah. We met at her house the other day.  She uhh, talks about you a lot. Are you guys–” 

“We’re nothing,” I immediately cut in. “Nothing at all.” With a gesture, I added, “So, you skate?” 

“Me?” The boy blanched. It was pretty cute, and I couldn’t help the quick smile even as he continued. “Nope, no sir. I’m just here as emotional support. Dani’s an… old friend. I get to watch. Believe me, if I step on one of those things, I’ll find a way to break my leg and at least three limbs from an assortment of other people.” 

“He’s not exaggerating much,” Dani remarked with a small smirk. “You definitely don’t want him on a board anywhere near you. But he’s pretty good at watching. So, let’s get to it. I wanna see what you can really do. Surprise me.” 

Yeah, I was pretty sure if I showed them what I could really do, she’d be plenty surprised. It was a bad idea, of course. And one that I would never actually indulge. 

But boy, was it ever tempting. 

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