Eleanor Murphy

Kith And Kin 20-10 (Summus Proelium)

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I was in for a bit of a surprise when I made it to the alley (really it was more of the space between one half-finished office building and an old self-service car wash that barely got any use) where I was supposed to be meeting Amber, Izzy, and the others. Two surprises, actually, named Murphy and Roald. They were both standing next to a dumpster with the others, and were the only two besides Fred not wearing any sort of mask. As I dropped down from the roof to land casually on my feet (thanks to orange soles), both looked up from the ground they had been intently staring at. No one had been talking, aside from Amber and Pack, who were in a whispered conversation until I arrived. 

Focusing on Murphy and Roald first, I stepped that way after catching myself. “Wha–you guys–” 

“Don’t say it,” Murphy interrupted. Her eyes were bloodshot and had dark circles under them, voice sounding hoarse and strained. “Don’t say we don’t need to be here.” She opened her mouth, then stopped as the only thing that escaped her was an almost keening sound for a moment before she caught herself. Visibly swallowing, she tried again. “I need to be here.” 

How was I supposed to argue with that? Instead, I simply asked, “No masks?” 

They both shrugged, Murphy asking, “What difference does it make? Not like they couldn’t figure out who we were if they actually put the slightest effort into it. If we’re gonna work at the pawn shop, they could all just… you know, walk in and shop there.” Belatedly, she added, a bit darkly, “Besides, what’s Pack over there gonna do, tell all her supervillain friends how to track us down and steal our three-dollar lamp and fifty-dollar television?” 

For her part, Pack offered a casual, “I asked Blackjack and he said the market for fifth-hand goods held together with duct tape and prayers dried up last week. So I guess their stuff is safe.” With a glance toward those two, she added a belated, “I mean, fuck. Sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like–I mean–” 

“Don’t worry about it.” That was Murphy, her voice flat. “I don’t care if you think our shit is shit. I care if you’re gonna help drag the secrets out of these motherfuckers so we can find the guy.” 

“That I can definitely do,” Pack agreed. “Luciano’s a worthless fuckbag. And he definitely doesn’t deserve to ride off into the sunset after that shit he pulled. I’m in for bringing him down.” Looking at me, she added, “And not for betraying people.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “I didn’t think you were. Just… wanted to make sure they were comfortable with this. It’s not just about you. It’s about showing their faces to everyone here.”  

Clearing his throat, Roald spoke up finally. “We couldn’t sit around the apartment anymore. My sister’s taking care of all the big picture stuff, so we just…” He trailed off, though it was obvious that he was going to say something about feeling useless. Instead, he finished with, “… decided it’d be a good thing for you guys to have people who can stand around and play lookout, or go over to the mall itself. And trying to do all that while constantly putting ski masks on whenever you guys come out or we go in was, you know, more trouble than it’s worth.” He offered a weak shrug. “We’re not important enough to disguise.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. But I wasn’t sure where to start, or what good it would do. Still, I felt like I needed to say something. It was just that everything that came to mind felt wrong, trite, or worse. In the end, all I managed to say was, “Any time you guys need to leave to… to focus on other things, do it. And if you need anything–” 

“I’ll tell you what we need,” Murphy put in. “We need to do something about those fuckers who let–who helped Luciano escape. And we need to find out where they sent him. Both of which we do by getting inside that fucking base. Which isn’t gonna happen by standing around here.” 

Alloy, standing behind the two with her arms folded tightly as though trying to restrain herself from doing… something (probably punching the nearest wall), spoke up. “Yeah, we all wanna contribute. See?” Her head nodded over to several of her marbles as they transformed into a shovel, a drill, and a pick-axe. “Even these guys. We’re raring to go.” 

Fred, who had instinctively put his hands over Wren’s… helmet where her ears would have been every time Murphy cursed, spoke up. “We’ll be heading back to the shop to get to work on the tech stuff. Okay, she’ll get to work on the tech stuff and I’ll hold stuff. But the kid wanted to be a part of this whole… thing.” He waved a hand around as though encompassing all of us. 

Bobbing her head quickly, Wren added, “It’s important! But don’t worry, I already have ideas about how to make some stuff to protect you guys. But seeing you together, it helps me, uhh, visualize, and visualizing is important.” With a heavy sigh, she mumbled, “I wish I could ask Lion for advice.” Even as she said that, however, the girl was already holding up both hands. “I won’t, I won’t, I swear. I won’t talk about it at all. I won’t say a word.” She mimed zipping her lips, running fingers across the front of the helmet. “I know how to keep secrets.” 

“We’re all gonna have to be the biggest secret-keepers in the world,” I pointed out, glancing around at everyone. “If we don’t want the Ministry to figure out what’s going on.” 

“He’s right,” That-A-Way agreed, before gesturing in the direction of the mall. “This isn’t a simple, quick thing. Even with help, it’s gonna take days, even weeks of digging to make this tunnel, considering we have to be so careful about doing it while also doing all the other stuff we have to do. We don’t rush. We don’t screw it up. Cuz we won’t get a second chance if they even get a hint about what we’re doing. As soon as they do, as soon as they even have a reason to start checking around, we’re screwed. Our main advantage here is them being complacent. So, as much as we all want to get to the part where we break through to the base, let’s try not to get in a rush and end up captured and exposed.” 

Pack grunted. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time. But I still don’t want to spend months doing this thing, and the longer we take the more chance of something going wrong anyway. So let’s get busy, huh?”  

“Well that’d be a completely new situation for me,” I muttered without thinking. As the others all looked at me, I found myself flushing under the helmet and mask. “You know, the ‘get busy’ thing. I mean. Because I’m always busy, and I have a to-do list the size of a–never mind.” Waving them off, I quickly changed the motion into urging them to move. “Let’s get insi–wait, Pack?” Before we all went running out into the open, I looked to her. Sure, the alley was only a short distance across what amounted to a dirt road (used for construction crews)  leading to the unfinished motel across from the mall, but still. There was always the slim chance that someone could be nearby, and given how close we were to that Ministry base, we were going to have to be really careful.

She, in turn, took a moment to lean out and look up at the sky before turning back to me. “Coast is clear. Riddles doesn’t see anything.” 

Taking the opportunity, we all ran across the dirt road, trying to be quick and low. It was only about a twenty yard dash to get from the alley to the cover of the construction site, which itself was down in what amounted to a pit lower than the level of the road. Once at the edge, there was a dirt slope we kind of half-slid down (aside from Alloy, who rode one of her marbles in board-form) about fifteen feet to the ground level. We could’ve followed the road around and into the lot, but that would have taken us into plain view of the nearby busy street, which would’ve defeated the purpose of being stealthy right then. 

Once we were all down and hidden from the back by the raised dirt, and from the front by the half-finished building itself, I spoke up. “Okay so most of the time when we come out here, we’ll make sure it’s after dark.” 

Way gave a quick nod, before focusing on me as she put in, “And never come out here alone, anybody. Sure, we all wanna get this done as soon as we can, but digging by yourself isn’t a good idea. You need at least one lookout.” 

Alloy raised a hand. “Hey, uhh, sorta speaking of lookout, how exactly are we gonna make sure no one finds this tunnel in the days or weeks it’s gonna take to dig far enough? I mean, sure, the construction isn’t active right now, but can we count on that lasting? And besides, there could be inspections, or just people who come up and screw around. If any of them find a big long tunnel leading toward the mall, they might, you know, say something.” 

“We’ll hide it,” I immediately answered. “We’re not gonna, like, start the tunnel right in the middle of the main office or whatever. We’ll find an out-of-the-way room, dig a hole down, and then cover it up whenever we’re done. We need to dig down first anyway to make sure we’re close to the level of the secret base itself. So we go down, widen it out a bit so we have some space to work with, then start tunneling over. And whenever we’re not digging, we’ll make sure it’s hidden.” 

By that point, we found our way to the building itself. The place was in varying stages of completion, with the main office and the nearest rooms to it being basically done except for paint and moving furniture in, while some of the rooms further away were little more than framework. We chose one of the near-completed rooms so we would be as hidden as possible. There was a wooden pallet just outside, and we looked around before finding a handful of heavy bags of cement mix. And Roald found a ratty old rug. That seemed like as good as anything for hiding the hole. Whenever we weren’t digging, we would put the rug over it, pull the pallet over top of that, then put the cement bags on top of the pallet. As long as we just did all that in a corner, it would hopefully stop anyone from finding our hole. At least accidentally. Assuming we could get this done before construction started again. If we didn’t, that was a whole new bag of worms. 

But we’d deal with that when and if the time came. For now, we had a plan. After finding the spot we wanted to start in, and gathering the stuff to cover the hole when it was made, we all met up once more in that room. 

Wren, hovering up off the floor on her dragonfly wings, was already cheerfully insisting, “This place is great! It’s perfect, you can dig down and over, you can see if anyone’s coming, but you’re out of the way.” 

“She’s right, you can see the main road from here,” Way was saying, as she stood over by a window (there was no glass in it) and pointed. “Right down that way is where the dirt road leading up here starts, so you should be able to see if any cars start heading this way.” 

“And over there,” Pack put in from the doorway, “You can see clear over the whole site. That way goes to the slope we came down, and that way is… pretty wide open.” She glanced to Murphy and Roald. “If one of you, or whoever’s standing guard, sits here by the door and the other sits over there by the charming and lovely That-A-Way’s window, you should be able to give us a heads-up if anyone heads this direction.” 

“Sure, whatever,” Murphy replied simply, glancing away from everyone as she muttered, “As long as we contribute. Standing guard, digging holes, kicking mother–” She caught herself, eyes shifting toward Wren before amending, “Kicking people who deserve it in the junk. Whatever.” 

“You’ll help,” I agreed. “You all will. You…” Hesitating, I swallowed, completely overwhelmed as I glanced around for a moment to take all this in. “Thanks, guys. I didn’t expect to have all this help when I came up with the plan before. It’s–you’re…thanks.” Yeah, it felt awkward. I had no idea how to say what I was feeling right then. Hell, I didn’t even know how to describe what I was feeling. Seeing these guys, realizing they were actually… helping, that they all wanted to do something about the Ministry (even if it was for varying reasons), it was big. It meant more than I could say. 

Thankfully, Izzy seemed to realize that I was floundering, and spoke up. “We should see how well the digging thing works. And the dirt plan.” 

“Dirt plan?” Roald echoed before giving a quick double-take. “Wait, what are you gonna do with all the dirt? I mean, you’re digging a tunnel all the way to the mall, that’s… a lot of dirt.” 

“Thankfully,” Amber replied, “we actually do have a plan for that part, like Raindrop said. We’ll put the dirt in buckets, then she’ll use water to make them weightless and float them up out of the hole to dump in one of the dirt piles that’s already out there from the construction work. Which means she’ll be focused on that, while Paintball has to be down there to do the whole pink thing.” 

“I can do both,” Alloy put in. “Whatever’s helpful. My little friends can be shovels, axes, buckets to carry dirt, and probably more things I can’t think of right now. And they can dig without anyone holding them.” 

My head was bobbing a bit. “I think the best thing for your friends to do, besides giving us a break on the digging sometimes, is to turn into scoops that can pull the dirt out of the way and carry it over to the buckets. And possibly even be buckets themselves. I mean, you and Raindrop can work out the specifics with each other. I’m pretty sure you can both carry out dirt and rocks faster than we can dig. We’ll figure out a system as we go.” 

“Yeah, and speaking of breaks and a system,” Pack noted, “we can trade off and on.” She glanced over to Murphy and Roald. “Me and Rose, we’ll switch back and forth with you minions between standing watch and doing the digging part. It’ll go faster that way. One pair gets tired of digging, the other pair switches in. If you think you’re good for that.” 

“I’m good for whatever helps find Luciano,” Murphy informed her. “I’ll dig twenty tunnels if that’s what it takes. Whatever. Let’s just get this show on the road.” 

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up. “Yeah, I think that’s our cue. We’ll head back to the shop so the kid can get to work with her designs or whatever.”

Those two headed off, quickly followed by Pack, who went to get the van with the supplies she had picked up, and Amber, who went to get the supplies that she and Izzy had bought. Which left me standing in the half-finished motel room with Alloy, Raindrop, Murphy, and Roald. The four of us just looked at each other in silence for a moment, before I cleared my throat and moved over to the spot we had picked out for the hole. “Okay, so let’s see how this works. Here.” Extending my hand, I painted a pink circle onto the floor, about three feet wide. Then I stepped back and gestured for Alloy to go ahead. 

She, in turn, waved a couple of her marbles that way. They transformed into a pair of shovels, then shoved their way down into the pink floor. The effect of my paint extended down about ten inches, so they were able to easily pull up big pieces of the floor and some of the dirt beneath, all of it like… thick foam or playdough. Very easy to rip away in solid chunks. Well, solid chunks for about five more seconds, before it turned back into a mix of dirt and broken pieces of cement. 

“How often do you think you can do that before you have to take a break to recharge?” Raindrop asked, stepping over to look at the hole. “For the actual tunnel, I mean.” 

Without thinking about it, I crouched down to run my hand over the dirt. “If I’m only doing that, and say the tunnel is… let’s say six feet high and four feet wide… I’ll probably need to take about sixty seconds to refill around every… maybe fourth time? Depends on how quick we are about digging into it and pulling the dirt out of the way. Probably get more efficient as we go. You know, work out a rhythm. Maybe we can get to the point of timing our speed so I don’t have to actually stop completely.”

Roald spoke up, his voice curious. “How do you know how much paint you have?” 

“I–” My mouth opened, before I stopped, head tilting. “I didn’t used to. It was more of a whole, ‘shit I’ve used a lot of paint recently, I’m about to run out.’ But now I can just… sort of sense it a bit? I know when I’m low.  I guess I’ve just gotten better at estimating after using it for awhile?” 

“Powers get better as you use them,” Raindrop informed us. “Sometimes that comes as ‘make them stronger’ and sometimes it’s things like knowing how much paint you have. When I started, I couldn’t umm, I couldn’t summon water. I mean, I could pull it and move it and stuff, but I couldn’t summon it from somewhere else.”

“Is that what you do?” That was Alloy. “I always wondered why you weren’t like, solving people’s water problems all over the place. You don’t make it out of nothing?” 

Raindrop shook her head. “Nuh uh. It’s pulled from other water sources. We did a test awhile back. The water I… ‘make’ gets pulled from places like one of the lakes or rivers around here. Whichever one is closest. It’s like… it’s like I can sense water in the air, you know? Humidity, I guess. And I can umm… feel all the way through that humidity to big sources of water, and then I just… think about it and put the big sources of water where the humidity right in front of me is.” Frowning, she sighed. “I guess that doesn’t make sense. But I can’t think of a better way to explain it.”

“You did just fine,” I assured her. “I mean, it makes about as much sense as a lot of powers do. They get pretty weird. Teleporting water to yourself through the connection of humidity in the air is about as good of an explanation as any.” 

By that point, Roald spoke up from the window where he had been idly watching. “They’re coming.” 

He was right. A couple minutes later, both Pack’s van and a truck that Way had apparently borrowed from someone were parked close to the room, the backs opened up so we could all carry the tools, lights, chains, and other supplies inside. 

“Okay, I think we should focus on digging down and widening it out at the bottom enough to stick all this stuff down there,” I murmured. “You know, so we don’t just have all this sitting here in plain sight. I don’t think anyone will come through the area tonight, but just in case.” 

So, we got started on that. And as we did, I took another look out through the window. The mall was visible in the distance. From here, it looked like way too much distance. It was definitely too far for me to do this by myself. I never would’ve gotten anywhere near the place. 

But I wasn’t by myself. Not anymore. I had people I could talk to, people who knew varying amounts of the truth. I had Amber and Izzy, who knew all of it. And I had Pack, Murphy, Roald, Alloy, even Wren and Fred. I had all of them here to help. 

I had… friends. 

I had a team.

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Kith And Kin 20-04 (Summus Proelium)

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I didn’t start immediately. Mostly because I figured this whole story would be told to Roald anyway, so it was probably for the best that I just tell him at the same time. Besides, Murphy was obviously still broken up, barely keeping herself in any shape to listen. She needed her best friend. So, I gave the boy a call and asked him to meet us right here. Yeah, it was maybe a little risky to not move away from the spot where we’d fought Simon and Luciano, but I was pretty sure neither of them had any intention of coming back here anytime soon. 

We did hear sirens approaching, and I checked to see that they were headed into the lot over by the laundromat. I  probably needed to go over there and explain what happened, or at least some of it. But I wasn’t going to leave Murphy alone right now. Not in the state that she was in. While waiting for Roald to show up, I took a seat next to her once more and put an arm around the girl again. She was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest, head lowered as her shoulders shook. Her eyes were closed, and she didn’t say anything during the time we were sitting there. She just cried mostly silently to herself. She didn’t return the half-embrace, but nor did she pull away from me. It was clear that she was too lost in her grief to want to talk, and I had no idea what to say anyway. So, the two of us sat in silence. Which really told me all I needed to know about how broken Murphy was right then, given she hadn’t really pushed hard for me to immediately explain what the hell I had just been talking about. 

Simon. God damn it, Simon. Why did you have to help that guy escape? He was a murdering piece of shit, and you knew that. Even as the angry thoughts flashed through my mind, I knew the answer. He helped the guy escape because Luciano paid for protection. This was the Ministry. They helped bad guys get away with crimes if they paid their taxes. And the people left behind with no justice were like Murphy. My family helped those pieces of shit get away, and people like this girl in tears next to me were just expected to suck it up. The thought was making me angrier by the second, and I had to close my eyes to let out a long breath so I could keep it under control. I had to keep it under control if I was actually going to explain the situation to these two. And I had to tell them now. After what had just happened, I couldn’t keep it away from them anymore. There was no way. Murphy deserved to know the truth. And if this situation was going to continue at all, they both deserved to know what the Ministry really was. 

It didn’t take long for Roald to show up. And he wasn’t alone. Apparently at some point in the intervening time, he had managed to get hold of Alloy, and she snuck out of her own home. The two of them came flying in on one of the marble hoverboards, landing nearby. Immediately, Roald went to sit on the other side of Murphy, and I let her go so she could lean on him. 

“What… what happened?” Alloy asked tensely while I stood up. “Did you…” 

“He got away,” I murmured under my breath. Nope, the anger I felt about that whole situation hadn’t dissipated at all in the time we’d been waiting. Saying those words still made me want to turn around and punch a hole in the nearby wall, without help from the pink paint. And scream. I really felt like screaming. But I kept it together. I had to. 

Alloy reeled back a bit from the news, even though she had to be expecting it. I supposed she’d been hoping for the best. Her head shook. “Is there any way we could still find him? I mean if we start right now, we could–” 

“He knows something.” That was Murphy. She had pushed herself to her feet as well, pointing at me. “He knows something about what happened. He said he’d explain. There was some guy here, and Luciano said he’d paid for help. He was a Sell-Touched or… or something. But he wasn’t–he helped that fucker–” Her voice broke at that point, even as Roald caught her arm to steady her. “That guy helped that fucker get away. Paintball said he knew what was going on. He said he’d explain what is really going on in this city. Whatever that means.” 

“You’re ready to tell them the truth?” Peyton asked quietly, rocking back a bit on her heels. She sounded surprised. 

“What–you know something about it?” Roald looked to the girl, then back to me. “What’s going on?” 

Now all three of them were looking at me expectantly. Peyton because she knew what was coming, and the other two because they didn’t. Oh boy, I really had to get into this again. I had to tell Murphy and Roald the truth. Or at least, part of it. I knew what was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. But that didn’t make it any easier to start talking. A part of me was screaming that I was opening up too much already. Izzy and Amber knew the whole truth, all of it. To say nothing of Paige and Raige. And Peyton knew about the Ministry. The secret was spreading too much. And now I was going to talk about the Ministry part with these two? A whole parade of ‘what ifs’ went through my mind in those long few seconds.

Finally, I forced all of it down and focused on Murphy. I thought about how I would feel if I was in her situation and had no idea what had just happened. That was all it took. With those thoughts in mind, I exhaled and then started to talk. 

Over the next few minutes, I explained what the Ministry was, and how they operated. I talked about how they had infiltrated every single Touched group in the city to one extent or another, as well as all law enforcement, the courts, everyone in power. 

“It’s not everyone, it’s not even necessarily people like the mayor or anything like that,” I explained. “It could just be, say, the mayor’s secretary or something. Someone who can get information in and out, that sort of thing. They have ins everywhere, on both sides. And like I said, the bad guys pay them for permission to operate in the city. Like this whole gang war that’s going on right now, they paid for permission to do that. Both sides, I think. I mean, I’m not sure on how that works exactly, but I’m pretty sure the Ministry is refereeing the whole thing. Or whatever. The point is, they’re the ones in charge of the city.” I looked to Murphy. “That’s what Luciano meant before. He made his payments, so they stepped in and helped him escape when he got in trouble.” 

“Believe me,” Peyton put in, “I was pretty freaked out too. It might be a little hard to believe at f–” 

“They helped that piece of shit get away?” That was Murphy, interrupting as she stared at me. Her voice cracked just a little. “You’re saying he paid them some cash and now they’re gonna help him get away with it? What part of that is supposed to be hard to believe? He has money and he spends it to get away with everything, even murder. That’s not hard to believe, it’s just every other fucking day.” Her voice practically oozed bitterness. 

My mouth opened to tell her that I understood, but I stopped myself just in time. Because I really didn’t understand. That would have been one of the worst possible things I could ever say. I would never really understand what it was like to live like these guys did. And I sure as hell didn’t understand what it was like to have my brother killed right in front of me. So I didn’t say that. Instead, I took a deep breath before starting with, “He’s not getting away. Not forever. We’ll find him, I swear. Whatever it takes, we will find that fucker and bring him down.” 

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Roald was the one asking that time. “You said these Ministry guys basically control, or like, influence every group in the city, right? Including the cops. So how are we supposed to find out where he is? And even if we find him, how are we supposed to get anyone to arrest him? You know, without immediately ‘losing’ him and all the evidence or whatever.” 

“Maybe he shouldn’t get to go to prison,” Murphy retorted a bit sharply. “Maybe that’s a privilege he threw away when he killed a bunch of people. You know, people like my brother.” For the most part, there was pure rage in her voice. But at the last bit, when she said the word brother, it broke a little bit. The grief was tearing her up. 

It would have been pointless to start an argument right then with her about what we would do with the guy. So, instead, I simply answered both of them with, “We’ll figure out how to handle him when we get a bit closer to that. As for finding him, we need to figure out where the Ministry sent him. We need to get a look at their files. And as it happens, we’re actually working on a way to get into one of their bases already.” Quickly and succinctly, I explained the bit about the secret base under the mall.

By the time I was done, Murphy was nodding, her mouth very tight. Her hand had caught hold of Roald’s arm, squeezing firm enough that I saw him wince just a little. She could barely speak through the emotions she was holding back. “We’ll find him. We’ll find him? You won’t let him get away?” There was a clear desperation to her voice. She needed me to promise her that. 

“Yes,” I replied firmly, meeting her gaze. “I swear, Murphy. I promise on… on everything. We’ll find him. We’ll track him down. He is not going to get away. We won’t let him.” 

She held my gaze for a long few seconds after that, our eyes locking even though she was looking at me through the helmet visor. I saw her throat move as she swallowed a few times, struggling to speak. Finally, she managed a weak, barely audible, “Okay.” 

That was it. She didn’t say anything else after that. She didn’t need to. She had my promise, and I was going to keep it. Instead of speaking, the girl turned away and clutched her stomach, falling back to her knees there on the pavement. Her whole body shook heavily once, a full-on shudder before I heard the tears start again.

Roald was right there, crouching beside her as he said something too quiet for me to hear. Peyton, meanwhile, looked back and forth between us, clearly torn about what she should be doing.

“Stay here with them,” I told her. “Actually, when you can, you guys should probably leave, just in case someone comes back to check this place out. But just be with them. I need to go over there and tell the cops… you know, some of it.” I still wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to say, but I knew I needed to explain at least part of what had happened. Even if it did make me feel like I was abandoning Murphy. But the truth was, she had Roald. He could help her more than I could. And I was pretty sure she had even bonded with Peyton a good bit already. 

Either way, what she had needed from me was the promise that the man who killed her brother wouldn’t get away. I’d given her that, and planned on following through. 

But in the meantime, there was nothing I could do for the girl, as much as I wanted to. I needed to leave her alone for now. No, not alone. I needed to leave her with the people who could actually be there for her. 

Shaking off that thought, I told Peyton to text me with updates and let me know what was going on. And to tell me where they ended up going so I could meet them later. Then I pivoted and used red paint to yank myself up to the nearby roof. 

Time to go find out how much the cops knew. 

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was both a lot and a little. They knew who had been in that laundromat and what he had been up to the rest of the night. But they weren’t sure what had gone down at the building itself. Their best guess, one of the uniformed guys told me, was that one of the other small gangs had gotten pissed and came after Luciano and his people in retaliation for one of his hits that night. Which, I supposed, was fairly close to the truth. And better than the full thing, given I really didn’t want them to know anything about Murphy. 

The only actual witnesses they had were a couple members of the gang themselves who hadn’t managed to flee before the authorities showed up. Apparently they were telling a story about being ambushed by several armed and masked figures, saying nothing about her being a teenager. I wasn’t sure whether they genuinely believed that, given how quickly Murphy had been moving around, or if they were lying to save their pride. Either way, it was another thing that protected the girl. 

I’d had a little time while crossing the street and listening to what they said happened to figure out what to say. I didn’t want to outright lie, but then again, I had no idea how much of what I said would go straight to the Ministry. Or how much they would share with Luciano, given what good terms they were on with him, considering the man paid his bills and all.  And the absolute last thing I wanted to do was say anything that would lead back to Murphy. 

So, what I ended up telling them was that I had seen some sort of confrontation between Luciano’s group and another going down, and one of my associates, whose identity I had to keep secret, had gone to get a closer look. Unfortunately, ‘he’ (another layer of protection for Murphy) had been seen and all hell broke loose. From there, I mostly told the rest of the story, except I didn’t mention anything about Simon or the Ministry, of course. I told them that we followed Luciano through the tunnel, tussled with him ‘and one of his men’ at the far end of it, and then they got away. 

The police officer taking my statement didn’t really question any of it. I had the feeling this was all just commonplace for him. Especially right now with the whole gang war going on. Sure enough, he finally sighed and shook his head. “You see, this is what happens when we get these big gangs going to war with each other. They call in debts from the smaller gangs, make threats, and these guys get desperate enough to do shit like multiple hits in one night.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Wait, you mean this guy was getting money to pay somebody else.” 

The cop, a slender Latino guy with a thin mustache and narrow eyes, who had introduced himself as Officer Sandro, nodded. “Pretty much. In this case, seems like Luciano owed Oscuro a bunch of cash. Think of these guys as like a uhh… subsidiary of that bigger gang. He owed Cuélebre a bunch of cash, and since this war is pretty expensive, Cuélebre called in the debt. Seems he made quite an impression on Luciano,  because the guy went around calling in every tab he had. Made a big show of it too. Shot some people who didn’t owe him as much, just to make sure the ones who owed him a lot got the message.” 

That made me reel back on my heels, bile in my throat. Fuck, Luciano wasn’t even that interested in the money that Murphy’s brother had owed him. He was using the guy to send a message to the bigger fish. God… damn it. How was I supposed to tell the girl that? She deserved to know the whole truth, but this was going to destroy her even more. Her brother’s debt and death wasn’t even a big deal to Luciano, aside from a means of intimidating other people. 

One thing was for sure, I was even more determined than ever to bring that piece of shit down. I didn’t care how much protection he paid for from my family, he was going to get what was coming to him. 

In any case, I thanked Officer Sandro and promised to let the authorities know if I found out anything else about Luciano or his group. Sandro, in turn, told me that I should have my ‘associate’ submit a report. They could be covered by the Touched anonymity thing too, but they still needed to explain what had happened from their point of view. That was going to be more complicated, obviously. And include a lot more half-truths or outright lies in order to protect Murphy’s identity. Because no way was I going to expose who she was to my family, or their organization. That was just asking for a lot more trouble. 

Still, I promised to see what I could do and then took my leave. I walked away from the cop cars and was about to text Peyton, when a sharp whistle caught my attention. Looking that way, I saw a familiar figure standing in a nearby alley, half-shrouded in shadows. Pack. She was waving one arm, beckoning me over. 

So, after glancing around to make sure no one was looking, I jogged that way. As soon as I approached, Pack stepped back further out of sight. But I could see Riddles perched on the top of the fire escape, keeping an eye on things. 

“Paintball,” Pack started once I entered the alley. “What the hell is going on?” 

“You wanna know what’s going on?” I caught myself, forcing the anger down. Lashing out wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, I took a deep breath and let it out before explaining from the top. I told her about what happened to Murphy and Roald earlier on the bus, then about Tyson being murdered, and finally everything that went down over at the laundromat. Finally, I pointed out, “So I guess what I’m saying is that this big war your boss is pushing made Cuélebre call in debts, which made Luciano call in debts, which got people killed. Including my friend’s brother.” 

Pack rocked backward a bit. Her hand moved to touch the side of Twinkletoes, the only other lizard she had out of their backpack cage and transformed other than Riddles. She processed that, exhaling before focusing on me. “It’s more complicated than that, and you know it. They tried to get Blackjack’s daughter killed. She’s a little kid, Paintball. She didn’t deserve to suffer, and those guys were all fine with letting her die if it would hurt her dad. It’s fucked up that your friend’s brother was killed. Seriously, I’m sorry. I–it’s… “ She sighed, head shaking. “I really am sorry. But Cuélebre kills people all the time. So do his lieutenants and other underlings. You can think we’re all the same, but Blackjack doesn’t target families like that. And he sure as hell doesn’t do drive-by shootings on civilians. We have standards.” 

“I know it’s not directly your fault, or his,” I replied slowly. “I just–this war is hurting people. And it seems like it’s just getting worse by the day. Not to mention, now the Ministry is helping that piece of shit get away with everything, just because he paid his taxes for them.” 

“So what are we going to do about it?” Pack asked. 

Catching that she had said ‘we,’ I gave her a brief look while she stared at me, before nodding once in appreciation. “Same plan as before. We need to find out where they took that fucker.  Which means getting into their files in the base under the mall. Now Calvin and Hobbes are in on it. So they’ll be helping with the tunnel.” 

“Sounds good to me,” she replied easily. “You ready to get started on that…” Checking her phone for the time to find that it was well-past midnight, she finished, “Later today?” 

The question made me realize I really couldn’t, so my head shook. “I can’t today. I have… commitments.” Namely, my parents were going to be home and they would want me around. “Besides, Hobbes is going to need some time. I don’t–tomorrow. We’ll start on the tunnel tomorrow.” 

“I’ll be there,” Pack replied. “Just give me a ring when we’re meeting up. And Paintball, whatever happens, I’m all-in for taking this Luciano fucker down when it comes to it.” 

“Good,” I murmured. 

“Between all of us, we’ll make sure this son of a bitch gets what’s coming to him.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – If you don’t read Heretical Edge and thus missed this note, the first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Damn it, why did my brother have to show up now? I already had enough to deal with. Why did it have to turn out that my family was protecting the guy who had killed Murphy’s brother? Seriously, this guy? They had to protect this guy? Fuck. Now this whole situation had suddenly become a lot more complicated. And it came just when we had the guy dead to rights. Because of course it had. We couldn’t just finish this thing just by chasing Luciano down and sending him to prison that easily. Something like this had to happen. 

That rush of annoyed and worried thoughts flooded through my head even as I pivoted that way. I saw my brother, of course. He was standing there in a pair of designer jeans, with a gleaming silver shirt, red leather jacket, and thin red leather gloves. Though I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be what the other two saw. He was almost certainly using one of those illusion devices, or whatever they were. The point was, I highly doubted he was actually standing here in the open looking just like himself. 

Murphy was already snapping her shotgun back and forth between the man who had killed her brother, and the new arrival. She was clearly right on the edge of losing it entirely. “Who the hell are you? Back off! Just get the fuck away, this doesn’t have anything to do with you.” 

With his hands raised, Simon gave a slow shake of his head. “Two things. One, I’m afraid this does concern me. See that guy there has paid an awful lot of money to make it concern me. Not saying I’m his biggest fan, but money is money, and we have a reputation to keep. And two, I really don’t like people pointing guns at me. Especially jumpy people with their finger way too close to the trigger.” 

Even as he said that, Simon made a grasping motion with his right hand. A sudden silvery glowing rope or cable (actually not too dissimilar from Silversmith’s power) extended from that leather glove, catching hold of the shotgun barrel. With a sudden yank, he tore the weapon from her hands as Murphy yelped, tossing it over to the side about twenty feet away, where it clattered to the ground.

She made a motion as though to go after it, but abruptly Simon’s other hand snapped out and a pistol suddenly appeared in it, jumping out of the sleeve of his jacket. “Uh uh,” he called out. “Just stay there. Trust me, I know why you’re so pissed, and I don’t blame you. I really don’t. He’s a piece of shit. But just stay there.” His eyes moved to me then, squinting as though trying to figure out why I had remained rooted to the ground. “If you’re planning something, kid, it’s a bad idea.” 

Planning something? No, not really. At that very moment I was still mostly reeling from having my brother this close. It cut through a lot of the confidence I’d built up over these past weeks. All I could think about at that moment was how nervous I was about keeping my identity from him. I’d managed it back when I was first starting out, of course. But I wasn’t sure how much of that was luck. And I hadn’t really stayed and talked to him. Actually standing here and interacting with him? Even with my changed voice, I was terrified that he would immediately figure out who I really was. This whole situation had become a lot more dangerous. 

And yet, what was I supposed to do? I could not and would not let the guy who had killed Murphy’s brother just walk away, no matter how worried I was about my brother and my secret identity. That wouldn’t happen. It was wrong, and she’d never forgive me, no matter how much I explained. I had to do something about it, but I still had no idea what. Could I actually fight my brother? I’d seen how easily he dismantled that guy back at the mall. Yes, I had powers, but could I actually deal with him when he had his skill, the pistol, and those clearly Touched-Tech gloves? A small voice in the back of my head was insisting that I had faced much worse threats. And yet, I couldn’t stop telling myself that he was my big brother and I didn’t stand a chance. 

“Paintball?” Murphy spoke up in a confused, worried, helpless tone. And it was hearing that, the obvious pain and loss in the voice of a girl I cared about, which snapped me out of my moment of being completely paralyzed by indecision and panic. 

“Sorry,” I found myself blurting without thinking about it, “I was just trying to figure out what makes you think you’re going to walk in here and stop this worthless fuck from going to prison where he belongs. He’s a murderer. You really wanna walk in here and defend a murderer?” I tried to keep my voice more casual than it wanted to be. I did not want Simon wondering why Paintball would be emotionally upset about that. I didn’t want him wondering anything about me at all, if I could help it. God, this whole thing was so dangerous. In more ways than one. 

“Fuck you, cocksucker!” Luciano snapped. “You think you can judge me just cuz I capped a few assholes? You’re just a–” 

He was interrupted by Murphy making a noise of outrage in the back of her throat, starting to throw herself at him. Which made Simon snap his gun that way to warn her. But I moved first, before he could speak. Besides being frozen by indecision, I had spent the past few moments painting designs across the back of my costume. I activated green, orange, and purple spots while lunging that way. Speed, toughness, and strength boosts, all at once. 

It wasn’t enough. Even moving a little under twice as fast as I would have normally, Simon still had quicker reflexes. He pivoted aside smoothly, snatching the outstretched pistol away from my grasping fingers as his other hand snapped out to catch hold of my wrist. In an instant, his foot collided with my ankle while he gave my arm a yank. The next thing I knew, I was tumbling head over heels and landing on my back on the cement. It didn’t hurt, but the sudden rush of being knocked around like that was enough to leave me briefly disoriented. 

Simon was standing over me, starting it to point his gun down to tell me not to move. But before he could get more than a single word of it out, I managed to lash out and up with one foot. A foot that had a blue spot on the bottom of my shoe. Just as my foot made contact with his pistol, I activated the paint. Between the purple strength that was still running through me, and the added boost from the blue push, the gun was sent flying away from him. 

Instantly, I lashed out again in a kick toward his stomach. But Simon caught my ankle under his arm and twisted so that the force I was trying to use to kick him was instead spent in spinning myself sideways along the ground. 

In the process of that, I caught a glimpse of Murphy. She wasn’t having much more luck. She had jumped on Luciano’s back, but he yanked her off and was about to throw her bodily to the ground. My hand snapped out in the midst of being yanked around by my ankle, shooting orange paint, then a quick burst of purple that way. Both hit, a pair of orange and purple splotches across the side of her shirt, activating just before she was slammed to the cement. 

Hoping that that would be enough to help her get out of that, I slapped my own hand against the cement and painted the palm blue. The sudden force from that, as my hand rebounded away from the sidewalk, shoved my foot out of Simon’s grasp and up, kicking his stomach. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I was trying for, given the way he twisted aside at the last second, but it was still enough to make him stumble backward while reflexively releasing my leg. 

I was able to spring back to my feet by that point, before he could recover. A quick glance to the side showed that Murphy had taken advantage of the paint I gave her. She grabbed Luciano’s foot with both hands and yanked it out from under him, sending the man to the ground with a blurted curse. 

Meanwhile Simon was already lunging at me, giving a muttered curse of his own about me being a stupid asshole or something to that effect. Quickly, I activated another picture across my costume, this one of an orange demon face with a wide grinning face of purple teeth and green eyes. 

Again, purple strength, green speed, and orange toughness. Sure, it wasn’t a huge picture, I was still trying to conserve paint as much as I could. But still, it made me about as strong as an adult man, about half again as fast as I should have been, and tough enough to tank a bullet. 

And it still wasn’t enough. Not really. My brother was too fast, too skilled. He had been doing this for a long time, that much was patently obvious. Despite having no powers, and not even using those gloves of his, he evaded every single punch I threw at him over those few seconds. He wasn’t even actually trying to hit me back or anything, aside from a few light taps as though he was testing me. Or maybe taunting me. Whichever the case, what mattered was that I couldn’t actually hit him. I needed more speed. But that would mean using more paint. 

I had to. I could either conserve paint and keep being too slow to actually hit him until I ran out of everything anyway, or I could expend it and maybe manage something useful in the process. It was the only real shot I had with this. Especially with Murphy struggling against Luciano right behind me. I needed to change things up and take a risk. I needed to end this fight right now. But I also had to make it count. I needed to create an opening that I could take advantage of. 

With that in mind, I lunged backward away from Simon to create a little distance between us. Thankfully, the fact that Simon was busy showing off meant that he didn’t press me too much. He clearly thought that there was nothing I could do. And now I was (hopefully) going to make him choke on that assumption. That’s what I told myself, anyway. This whole thing reminded me of all the times I had wrestled with my brother. I hadn’t won any of those either. At least, not without cheating. 

So, cheating it was. With a blurted curse, I threw myself that way, letting loose with a completely wild punch that Simon easily evaded before pivoting back around to grab my arm so he could casually throw me to the ground. 

At least… that was what he attempted to do. But just as his hands closed on my arm, I painted it pink. The force of his grip made my arm completely collapse under his hands, squeezing out both sides of his tightened fists. It didn’t hurt, of course. But boy was it weird. Luckily, I had been ready for it. Simon, on the other hand, wasn’t. As my arm, bone and all, collapsed as though he had squeezed a large tube of toothpaste or frosting too hard, Simon made a noise of confusion. 

He had just enough time for his gaze to snap down to see what happened to my arm before I dismissed the paint early. Instantly, my arm snapped back to the way it should be, with enough force that Simon’s hands were snapped back away from me. And in that very instant, I painted almost my entire body green, save for purple on my fists. I thought about going with a bit of orange protection, but no, I needed every bit of speed I could get. I spent all the paint I had left in that moment to make myself as fast as possible. Then I lashed out with a punch. Even with that speed, Simon nearly avoided it. Not because he was anywhere near as fast as I was, not really. But because he was such a good fighter that he actually anticipated what was about to happen and was already moving almost before I did. His head twisted, but my fist was just a hair faster. Fast enough, in this case, to nail him right in the chin. It made his head snap back. My fist hurt after that, but I couldn’t think about it. I had to follow up. I only had seconds of speed. Eight now. Then I would be completely out, at least for a few seconds.

Simon still hadn’t recovered entirely from the force of his hands being thrust away from my arm. He was reeling backward thanks to a combination of that, and being punched in the chin. And I was already moving to follow up. With a grunt and lunge, I buried both fists into his stomach. The force staggered him, even as he dropped his hands to grab onto my shoulders. But again, I was still faster. Before he could finish grabbing me, I ducked and pivoted to get out from under his left arm. At the same time, I caught his extended wrist with my own left hand, and held it out to full extension while simultaneously lashing out with one foot to kick the back of his knee. As that buckled under the force of the blow thanks to my still slightly enhanced strength, I brought my right hand up to collide hard with the middle of his back. With his hand captured in my grip and his knee kicked out from under him, Simon couldn’t stop himself from falling face-first to the ground. 

The instant he was on the ground, before he could recover, I grabbed a set of handcuffs from my jumpsuit pocket, latching one side around the wrist I was still holding and the other around a nearby pipe that extended out from the building. They weren’t the special stay-down type, but at least they would hold him for a minute. 

A quick glance up showed that Murphy had managed to get Simon’s gun, the one I had kicked out of his hand, and was pointing it at Luciano while he lay on the ground. She was shaking a bit, staring intently down at him while keeping the pistol pointed that way. Immediately, I stumbled that way, the paint already wearing off. “Get him up, let’s go, let’s go!” I blurted. We had to hurry. I did not want to think about what would happen when Simon got out of that–

Something hit me in the back, colliding with enough force that I was sent sprawling to the ground. Nearby, I saw Murphy hit the pavement as well. And I also saw what had hit her. It was one of those silver cable things that Simon’s gloves could make. They were sort of like a mix between one of Silversmith’s constructs, and Whamline’s… lines. Either way, we had each been hit by one of them hard enough to knock us down. A second later, both lines grabbed onto the prone Luciano’s arms, yanking him up and away from us. 

With a blurted curse, I managed to jerk myself over onto my side and look that way. Sure enough, in those brief couple of seconds, Simon had already managed to free himself from the handcuffs. He was back on his feet and had used those cable things to knock both of us down and then yank Luciano over to him. He wrapped one cable tightly around the man and then extended his hand. Even as I shouted out for him to stop, my own voice lost in the furious scream from Murphy, Simon sent the other cable out toward the roof of a nearby building and let it yank him that way. Luciano was pulled after him. 

“Paintball, stop them! Stop him!” Murphy screamed at me, already scrambling to her feet. 

I tried, lunging up and extending my hand. Red paint. Just a little bit of red paint. Just enough to yank that guy away from my brother. It wouldn’t take much, right? I just needed a bit. But nothing came. It hadn’t been long enough yet, and I was still out of paint. 

Cursing, I shook my head. “Fuck, fuck, I can’t, I don’t have paint! I’m out!” 

An inarticulate bellow of rage escaped the other girl as she grabbed the pistol she had dropped and pointed it that way. She was about to start blindly firing after them when I grabbed her arm. “Stop!” 

“Get off me!” Murphy shoved me away, making me almost stumble and fall. “He’s not getting away!” She turned back, gun raised. But they were gone. Simon and Luciano had disappeared off the opposite side of the roof. Murphy, in turn, screamed out and pivoted to drop the gun. Her fist punched the wall, then she hit it again, and again. She was cursing and crying all at once, punching the wall repeatedly as she ranted about hating everyone and everything. With a choked sob, she collapsed to her knees and clutched her stomach. One hand yanked the mask off and dropped it before she doubled over and threw up. 

I stood there, staring, as Murphy fell onto her side, curling up in the fetal position while her entire body shook. She was crying so hard she couldn’t breathe, while a jumble of words that didn’t make a lot of sense escaped her. I can only catch some of it. She was saying something about McDonald’s, a bus, and a rehab center. She kept saying rehab over and over again, and clothes. No, close. She kept repeating ‘close, so close,’ and that she just wanted him to eat. She brought him food, she wanted him to eat. She wanted him to sit down. Something about laying on the couch. If he’d been laying on the couch, he wouldn’t have been hit. And that she was sorry. She was so sorry. All of that mixed into cursing about everyone she hated. At that moment, I was pretty sure I was on that list. Not that I blamed her. 

Looking around briefly, I took a seat next to her and was silent for the moment. I had no idea what to do, but I wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone right then, even if I wasn’t the person she wanted to be with her. Swallowing hard, I reached out to touch her shoulder very gently. Immediately, she jerked away with a blurted curse. But I kept my hand there, shifting a bit closer. She stopped, slumping a bit more against the ground. All the energy seemed to have left her body. She was exhausted, having been running on fumes for a long time. Her rage was a fire that lit the fuel of her grief. And now the rage had run out. There was no more target for her to attack, so the anger had fallen away for the moment. The fire of rage was gone, leaving only the fuel of the grief. And the fumes of that were choking her. 

Scooting closer, I put my back to the wall and slipped an arm around the other girl, pulling her into an embrace. She didn’t fight it. Instead, the girl just leaned against me, shaking uncontrollably. 

“Gone,” Murphy finally murmured in a broken voice, once we had sat there like that for a couple minutes. “He’s gone. He’s gone.” 

I knew she wasn’t talking about Luciano. It was Tyson. Her brother was gone. He had been murdered in cold blood, and the man responsible had just gotten away. 

For now. 

“We’ll find the piece of shit,” I quietly assured her. “I promise. I swear, Murphy. We’ll find him. He won’t get away. We’ll find him.” 

Her head shook a little, as she made a noise deep in her throat that sounded like a cross between confusion and anger. Finally, she pulled back, staring at me. Without the mask, I could see the tears that ran freely down her face. “Who the fuck was that?! Who–what the fuck did that–what did he mean about paying a lot of money to make it his concern? W-was that a Sell-Touched? What was he–I never–who–” Her words were all jumbled together into a nearly incoherent ramble. But I understood. I knew what she was asking. She wanted to know who Simon was, where he had come from, and what that whole situation with Luciano ‘paying for protection’ was about. 

“Murphy,” I spoke quietly, my voice just the right tone to make her look at me, staring through the tears that had half-blinded her as I continued. “I think… I think we need to talk. 

“I need to tell you the truth about what happens in this city.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-02 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – If you missed it, the Heretical Edge noncanon chapter was posted over the weekend right here. There will be two Summus Proelium noncanon chapters posted over the next week.

This obviously wasn’t the best position to be in, crouched behind a car with my very Prev min–employee, while a bunch of guys with guns on the other side of the car rapidly approached to surround it. And yet, on the other hand, at least none of these guys were Touched. As far as I was aware, anyway. Not that that completely eliminated the potential danger the guns themselves presented if we weren’t careful, but at least I knew what we were dealing with. 

After taking a few precious seconds for preparation and explanation, I peeked through the window of the vehicle. Five guys were approaching, three moving toward the front of the car and two moving toward the back. There were more standing up by the laundromat, and what looked like a couple lingering in the doorway of the bar with their own weapons ready. This whole shopping center was obviously their hangout. 

“Count of three,” I whispered to the girl next to me. “Remember what I told you about the gun.” Once she gave a short, reluctant nod, I counted off. “One… two… three.” On that last number, I abruptly activated the blue paint I had sprayed beneath both of the tires on this side of the car, front and back. Instantly, the vehicle flipped up on its side before tipping over to its roof. As it fell that way, I heard a few yelps and curses from the guys there who had just been reaching the front and back. They dove out of the way, landing hard on their stomachs to avoid the vehicle as it fell all the way over onto its roof.  

At the same time, Murphy aimed high with the shotgun, firing a blast that took out the neon sign above the laundromat. The terrifying crash of the car falling onto its roof, accompanied by the even more terrifying boom of the shotgun and shattering glass from the neon sign being blown apart made the guys right in front of the place recoil, a couple of them literally falling on their backsides or crashing into each other in their reflexive urge to escape. 

Before any of them could recover, I activated the green and purple paint I had put on myself and Murphy. Then I was right there in front of the three guys who had been near the front of the car. My foot lashed out to kick one in the face hard enough that he collapsed fully, while I reached down to grab the weapons from their hands and threw them as far as I could off into the distance. As I leapt over their sprawled forms, my fist hit another guy in the side of the head so he wouldn’t get any bright ideas, foot snapping backward to hit the last guy just in case he felt left out. All three were left disarmed and groaning in pain. And all of it happened too quickly for them to react. 

Meanwhile, a quick glance to one side showed that Murphy had done her part. Both guys that had been at the back of the car were curled up on their stomachs, clutching themselves in pain while she hurled their guns far off to the opposite side of the lot. 

Just like that, these five were dealt with. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to sit back and congratulate myself, considering how many other guys were waiting for us. To that end, I focused on the group up by the shop, as well as the ones by the bar. Thanks to the green paint, all of that had happened so quickly, they were still recoiling from the shotgun blast. But they were recovering quickly, so I threw myself that way in a sprint. They saw me coming and tried to snap their weapons up in time. But I activated blue paint just under my shoes, launching myself upward to hit the wall just above the doorway, where the neon sign had been. My gravity-shoes kept me there, looking down at the men below me. 

They, of course, started to look up and adjust their aim. But I gave a sharp whistle and pointed back the way I had come with one hand, and toward their feet with the other. The guys looked that way reflexively, immediately noticing two things. First, the blob of red paint that I had put against the side of the overturned car while dashing toward them. And second, the identical bit of red on the cement right in front of them. 

Yeah, they processed what was about to happen very quickly, all of them screaming as they dove back through with the broken windows and doorway of the laundromat. At the same time, I activated the paint to yank the car over. It slammed into the spot where they had just been, crashing partway into the laundromat with a loud, thunderous bang. 

Okay, I did feel bad about the person this car actually belonged to before Murphy had stolen it. I was going to have to make sure they had good insurance, and maybe send an anonymous donation to help. 

But for the moment, I had to focus. A glance toward the bar showed that the two guys there had started to lean their way out and take aim. But I sent a quick shot of blue paint at their feet, launching them into the top of the doorway hard enough that they immediately collapsed once they hit the ground once more. 

In the meantime, Murphy was already sprinting toward the far end of the hair salon on the opposite side of the laundromat than the bar. There was a narrow alley-like area there to reach the back of the buildings. As she neared it, I quickly activated another blotch of green paint I had given her, speeding the girl up once more. Then I did the same for myself, and used red paint to reach the roof, sprinting my way straight across the top of the laundromat to reach the back as well.

Murphy beat me there by about two seconds, and the gang guys themselves by one. Just as I skidded to a halt on the edge of the roof, I heard her voice snap, “Drop it!” Looking down, I saw one guy who had started to push his way out the rear exit of the laundromat. He had a pistol in one hand. But Murphy was there on one side of the door, shotgun pointed at his head. 

The guy clearly considered his options for a moment, before Murphy snapped, “I reloaded before I got back here. Which means I’ve got five shells in this thing. It’ll only take one to put you down, then I’ve got four more for your friends back there behind you. And you’re all lined up like a nice turkey shoot. So I’ll tell you one more time. Drop. It.” 

While she was saying that, I had already taken a few steps back and sprayed pink along the roof. I made a large enough circle for myself to fit through. Then I listened until the clatter of the pistol hitting the ground announced the man’s choice. 

That prompted a wave of curses and shouts from the people behind him who thought he was being a chickenshit. Which was my cue. Activating a line of purple stars along both of my legs, as well as an orange moon on my back, I jumped up and then stomped down as hard as I could on the pink circle. Instantly, I broke through, crashing down through the ceiling to land right in the middle of the gathered group. Before they could react, I snapped my hand toward the floor behind me, where several guys were, and shot blue paint to launch them into the ceiling. At the same time, I grabbed the guy in front of me by the arm, hurling him into the wall with my purple-strength with enough force that he rebounded off it and collapsed, in no mood to do anything else.  

The guy at the door had started to turn to see what the hell was going on with the rest of his buddies, just as Murphy slammed the butt of the shotgun into the back of his head, knocking him stumbling into the next guy. Which was the one I had just reached, grabbing him by his shoulders as he stumbled from the other guy crashing into him so I could yank him down closer to my level, headbutting him hard with my helmet. 

That last guy, the one who had tossed his pistol at Murphy’s order, immediately dropped to his knees as soon as he saw the situation behind him. And just like that, they were all down. It worked. The plan that Murphy and I had come up with in just those few seconds had been very simple. We stop the guys right by the car, then use the car to block the front of the laundromat so they would have no choice but to flee toward the back. Then Murphy would catch them at the door there, where they could only come out one at a time, and while she had them distracted, I would break in through the ceiling to take them by surprise as they were all bunched up like that. Again, a very simple plan. But it had worked. Thank God, it actually worked. 

Well, sort of. Unfortunately, Murphy looked around frantically, a curse escaping her. “Fuck! He’s not here! Fuck, fuck, where is he?!” Her foot lashed out to kick the nearest guy really hard, enough to make me wince a bit for him. “Where the fuck is Luciano?! Where’d he go, motherfucker?!” Only then did she remember that she had the shotgun in one hand, and quickly pointed it, tracking the barrel across all the guys while still demanding that they tell her where their boss had disappeared to. 

It didn’t take much threatening for several of the guys to point back through the main room toward the manager’s office, insisting that their boss went that way. The two of us glanced at one another, then I quickly sprayed red along the guys before activating it. They were all yanked together and would be stuck like that for ten seconds. It gave us a head start. Which we used, sprinting toward the manager’s office even as I activated a bit more orange on both of us, just in case the guy we were running for decided to start shooting. I was still trying to figure out why he would have gone for his office rather than trying to get out like the rest of his men. Even as I had that thought, however, a realization of the probable explanation struck me, and I muttered a curse, hoping I was wrong. 

But no, I was very right. Even as we got to the office and shoved our way in, we could both see a hole in the floor. A trapdoor. There was a trapdoor there, and no sign of the man in question. He had sent those other guys to the back door as a distraction, while he went out through his secret exit. Apparently he had been in too much of a rush to even bother closing the door, which was a boon for us not having to look for it, but still.  

“Fuck,” I muttered while skidding to a stop just above the hole and looking down. “Another tunnel. I’m really starting to hate these things.” 

“Paintball,” Murphy snapped at me, her voice high and stressed, “if he escapes again…” Her tone made it clear just how unacceptable that was, as did the way she was tightly gripping the gun. She gave me a sharp look, expression hidden behind the mask. But I didn’t need to see her face to know just how angry she was at the whole situation. Before I could respond, she started to lean down to jump into the escape tunnel herself, intent on not allowing the man who had just murdered her brother to get away. 

Quickly, I caught her arm. “Wait, let me go first.” Making sure I still had orange active on me, just in case the bastard was hiding right there, I activated the headlamps on my helmet before dropping down through the hole. Once I was sure there was no guy there with a gun waiting for us, I waved for the other girl to join me. She did, dropping down. But unlike Luciano, she took the time to yank the trap door shut. I, in turn, used a quick, small shot of pink paint to bend part of the trapdoor out and over the ceiling it was snug against. That way, if anyone tried to open it from above, they wouldn’t be able to. We had enough problems right now without ending up with bad guys coming up behind us in this narrow tunnel. So that was one potential problem out of the way. 

That done, I was able to look around a bit more. Unlike the one I had been in a couple days earlier, this tunnel had clearly been professionally made. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of cement rather than dirt, making it clear this had been set up a long time ago. Probably for a situation similar to this, or if the cops made an appearance. Whatever problem showed up on his doorstep, Luciano wanted a way to escape. And unless we moved quickly, he was going to do just that. Who knew where this tunnel came out, or how impossible it would be to find him again if we didn’t get there before he vanished. I didn’t even want to think about how Murphy would react then, or what she would be going through. We had to find this guy right now. 

To that end, I started sprinting down the tunnel, reaching back to grab Murphy’s hand so I could yank her after me. Then I actually flipped off the headlamps to avoid giving away our presence any further, simply trusting my mysterious navigation power. If the other girl objected to moving through the darkness, she didn’t say anything. She might’ve been too enraged to even think about it, honestly. Together, the two of us sprinted blindly down the tunnel as fast as we could. 

The tunnel was fairly straight, but there were a couple turns involved. Turns that I just… somehow knew were there. With no visible warning and no idea how I would know about them, I instinctively turned us to the right just before we would have crashed headlong into the wall. A fact that was confirmed as I reached out with my free hand to feel it there. Without missing a step, I kept running, turning left just as unexpectedly a few moments later. I didn’t know how this navigation power worked, but I sure as hell was not going to argue with the results. 

On the way, I used green paint to speed us up, hoping to counter the head start our quarry had. I also used a bit of black so he wouldn’t hear us charging down the tunnel like a herd of elephants. Please, please let us get there in time. This son of a bitch just killed Murphy’s brother. Whatever problems the guy had, he didn’t deserve to die. And Murphy didn’t deserve to lose him. This shitface was going to pay for what he did. We just had to catch up with him. 

There. After one more sharp right turn, we could see a bright shaft of light ahead. There was an exit, and we could both see the man in question starting to climb a ladder right there. At least, I assumed it was him. It was hard to make out details, and I didn’t really know what he looked like anyway. 

Murphy did, however. And she immediately confirmed my assumptions by shoving past me, sprinting full-tilt that way. As she passed, I sent two shots of paint into her back. One was green, the other orange. She was a quick little missile, still silenced for the next couple seconds by the black paint that was already on her hand. 

Still, silent or not, she was a shape rapidly approaching through the darkness. The climbing man noticed her, looking over. But it was too late, as she slammed into him with enough force, despite their size differences, to knock the man off the ladder, where he fell hard onto the tunnel floor with a yelp. 

He recovered quickly, firing a shot from that pistol of his. But the orange paint meant it only stunned Murphy a little bit, making her recoil. That, however, was enough for him to lash out with his foot. Again, it didn’t hurt her, but the force knocked the girl off him as he fired twice more. Luckily, the gun was silenced, or we all would have been completely deafened from the sound echoing through this tight space. Doubly-luckily, the paint was still holding strong, so Murphy wasn’t hurt. From personal experience, I knew it would sting, and she would have bruises. But that was a hell of a lot better than being shot several times and bleeding out. 

By that point, I was already there. Before he could fire again, I painted part of my arm purple, snapping a hand out to take the gun away from him while simultaneously kicking the man in the leg, making him stagger while yelping in pain. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. I saw the man’s hand grab something and hold it out. The next thing I knew, a blast of light and concussive force slammed into me. I was sent staggering to the floor next to Murphy, who had fallen as well. It was some sort of Touched-Tech flashbang or whatever, strong enough to put me on the ground. 

It didn’t keep me there for long, thankfully. Still, it cost us precious seconds. Even as I pushed myself up and looked around, I could see the man already disappearing up the ladder. My hand snapped out to shoot red paint at him, but it was too late. He pushed himself up and out of the hole just as my paint splattered against the ladder rung where his foot had been an instant earlier.

No, no. Fuck no. I wasn’t going to let this happen. Shoving myself up just as Murphy did the same, I grabbed her arm and yanked her close to me while putting blue paint underneath us right at the bottom of the ladder. Looking up, I activated the paint, sending both of us flying upward. We didn’t bother with the ladder at all, instead launching straight toward the hole above us. On the way, I made sure we both had a bit more orange paint, just in case this asshole was waiting to shoot us rather than running. 

But no, he wasn’t sticking around, apparently. We shot out of the hole and landed in a small parking lot across the street from the shopping center itself. At first, there was no sign of the man we were chasing. Then I saw him disappearing around the corner of the nearest building. He was running like his ass was on fire. Which, to be honest, sounded like a really good idea right then. 

Murphy started to sprint after him, but I caught her hand and pulled her with me. Instead of running after the guy, I used blue and red paint to get us to the roof of the building he was running around. Together, we sprinted across it to the far side, before I gave us both orange paint to soften the landing as we jumped off, falling straight to the ground below. 

The shortcut worked. We landed together right in front of the man, giving me my first decent look at him. He was a fairly big Latino guy, both in height and girth (fitting through the trapdoor must have been a tight squeeze), with long dreadlocks that had been dyed bright blond. He wore a long, oversized (even for him) Pistons jersey and loose sweatpants, and gripped a pistol in one hand. Yeah, that I used red paint to rip away from him.  

As that gun disappeared from his grip, Luciano staggered backward in shock. Well, that and the fact that Murphy and I had basically just dropped out of the sky right in front of him. That was probably pretty surprising too. He started to blurt something, then stopped. His eyes moved past us as he snapped, “Well, it’s about fucking time. What the hell am I paying you assholes for if you can’t get these shits off my back?”

Yeah, my instinct was to say it was a trick. But the specific thing he said put a sinking sensation into my stomach. Which only got worse as a voice spoke up behind us. A very familiar voice. 

“Oh, don’t you worry. You do pay pretty well. And we’re going to take care of this right now.”

Well, I may not have been sure whether my parents were actually in town at this point or not. 

But at least I knew exactly where my brother was. 

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Kith And Kin 20-01 (Summus Proelium)

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I was sound asleep in my bed when the buzzing and vibrating phone under my pillow dragged me into something resembling a conscious state. I was pretty sure it had been going off for a while by the time I managed to wake up enough to recognize that it wasn’t just a buzzing in my dreams. Which was confirmed when I blearily dragged the phone out and stared at the screen for the few seconds it took to notice about forty-three text messages and half as many calls. They were from a mix of both Roald and Murphy, all over the past hour and a half. A quick scan of the texts showed that they had some sort of emergency going on. There were a lot of pleas for me to answer and call them back, that they were at the hospital and ‘he’ was really hurt. But in my barely awake state, I couldn’t figure out who they were talking about. I just flipped through messages randomly while shoving myself up and off the bed. 

It was very late Mond–no, it was early Tuesday morning, a glance toward my wall of clocks told me. After Sunday’s whole thing at the bank, yesterday had been pretty quiet, all things considered. Since there seemed to be nothing going on aside from watching Wren and Lion work on things for the second day in a row, I had come home and gone to bed to catch up on the sleep I knew I would need with my parents getting back tomorrow/today. 

And now, here I was, stumbling my way through the room to the closet while telling the lights to turn on. Painting my arms purple, I pushed the big mirror out of the way before grabbing the bag with my costume out of the hidden spot below the floor. While doing that, I managed to shove the bluetooth thing in my ear before hitting the button on my phone to call Murphy. It rang through about ten times before going to voicemail, while I was stripping out of my pajamas and getting regular clothes on. By that point, I had finally woken up for the most part and hit the button to call Roald instead.  

Thankfully, he answered on about the second ring. “Paintball? Paintball, you have to get down here. You have to hurry, she’s–she’s really upset and you have to–” 

“What? Who? What’s going on?” I managed while heading for my balcony. I had to pause a moment, watching the lights from a couple guards walking by below. Muting the phone, I ordered the lights to dim while very carefully opening the sliding door. The patrol moved on, as I heard the two men on the ground casually talking to one another about some baseball game. 

“It’s Murphy,” Roald was frantically saying. “We’re at the hospital and she’s–her brother—” 

My eyes narrowed, voice going cold as a wave of terrible thoughts rushed through me. “What did her brother do to her?” I was already thinking about how I should have insisted on doing something about that guy when I had found out that he cut her face because she wouldn’t carry drugs around. Why had I just let her say that she would deal with it? I should have insisted. I–

Roald interrupted my snowballing thoughts. “No, no! Not him, not–it’s him. He’s been shot. Please, you have to get down here. We’ll explain it then. But please, come quick. Her brother’s been shot, and it’s really bad. He–they don’t think he…” The boy trailed off, audibly swallowing. “Please, you have to hurry. I don’t know what she’s going to do if anything… if he… please, hurry.” His voice cracked through that, showing just how afraid and upset he really was.  

By that point, the patrol had moved on, so I asked what hospital they were at. Upon getting an answer, I promised to be right there and told him to stay with Murphy. Then I disconnected, shoved the phone away, and started to step out before pausing. I thought about waking Izzy up to let her know what was going on, but that didn’t seem fair. She deserved to sleep. I was pretty sure she hadn’t gotten back from her own patrol with Wobble until after ten, and we did have school in the morning. Yeah, let her sleep. Shaking that thought off, I instead scribbled a quick note for the girl that said I had gone out for a walk because I’d had ‘the dream about those cartoon Minions ending up in the hospital.’ I figured she could work things out from there. I left the note under my pillow, where we had promised we would leave such things if need be, then grabbed the bag with my costume and headed for the sliding door once more. After a quick glance around to assure myself that  the coast was clear, I quickly made my way out and off of the grounds. The whole while, a mess of conflicting thoughts were running through my head. Murphy’s brother had been shot? How? Why? What happened? Was she okay? Had she been there when– when whatever had happened was–yeah, I had to get to the hospital and find out what was going on. My brain was just spinning out wildly. 

Once I was far enough away from home, I used my phone to order a ride. When it showed up, I told the driver to head for the hospital, then got in and sat back. The place was too far away for me to get there easily under my own power, but I still felt anxious and helpless, just sitting there. It was all I could do not to rock back and forth in a silent attempt to force the car to move faster. 

Thankfully, the fact that I had asked him to go to the hospital in the middle of the night seemed to make the driver realize something was wrong. He set out immediately, pushing the speed limit right from the start. Only once did he ask if I wanted to talk about what was going on, and when I said no, he dropped it. Still, I did belatedly tell him that I had a friend who was there, and that my parents were both working overnight. He seemed to accept that, and promised we’d be there as soon as possible. Then he suited action to words by accelerating around the corner. 

He really did get us there pretty damn quickly and smoothly, so I wrote in a thirty dollar tip for the guy in the app before also tossing him three twenties from my pocket without thinking about it. Then I was out and heading across the lot. I was almost to the doors into the emergency room before realizing the problem. Looking down at my distinctly uncostumed self, I grimaced before cutting to the left. Heading around the far side of the hospital, I found my way to a grassy area that led up to some apartments. After looking around to make sure no one was looking, I red-painted my way to the roof of one of those buildings, where I quickly changed clothes and stowed my bag in a hidden spot under one of the bits of machinery up there. Then I sat down and sent a text to Roald, telling him to meet me near the dumpsters behind the east-most exit. 

It took about five minutes before I saw that side-door open as the boy came jogging out. He looked around before heading for the dumpsters in question. I made sure he wasn’t being followed before zipping my way down there to land on the edge of the short brick wall that surrounded the trash area. “Hey,” I spoke up, dropping down off that to land beside him. “What’s going on? What happened?” 

Jumping a bit at my arrival, the boy focused on me. “Paintball! I–she–” He took a breath and then told me what was going on. Apparently he and Murphy had run into some guy on the bus who wanted money from her brother. They got away from him and made it home. But shortly after Murphy had been in the apartment with her brother, there was some sort of drive-by and the guy from before had fired several times through the window, hitting Murphy’s brother repeatedly while shouting that he should have paid up. Roald had heard the shots and came running, before being the one to call 911. Now the guy–Tyson– was in emergency surgery while Murphy herself sat outside waiting with Roald’s older and younger sisters. The former was the one who had driven them down here. All in all, it wasn’t looking good. 

“She wants to go after him,” Roald informed me, his voice cracking a bit. “Paintball, she wants to go and find the guy who shot Ty. I’m pretty sure the only reason she’s still here is because she wants to hear about–I mean because she wants to be here if–I mean…” He trailed off, swallowing hard. “I think she might do something really bad if she goes off by herself.” 

My head shook. “Could she even find this guy? How would she know where to look?” 

Roald hesitated before explaining that the man, whose name was Luciano, had apparently been pretty busy that night. Murphy’s brother wasn’t the only guy he hit up for money. He had, according to what other people in the hospital and the cops themselves were saying, been calling in debts all over the city and shot up a couple other places while he was at it. They were putting three different drive-bys just tonight on the guy. Something had lit a fire under his ass and made him desperate to call in every bit of cash that anyone owed to him, or just kill a few of them to make others pay up. 

Apparently Murphy and Roald had been just around the corner from a few prostitutes who had been in the hospital recovering from one of those shootouts. The women were talking about what they’d told the cops who interrogated them, and made it clear none had squealed about the fact that Luciano spent a lot of time hanging out at some all-night laundromat owned by his cousin or something. That was where he did his deals. But they weren’t telling the cops that because they were more afraid of him and his gang than they were of lying to the police. 

Speaking of the cops, obviously they were involved here. But apparently Murphy didn’t exactly have a lot of confidence in them either. Which, given that the way she had grown up, I guess I couldn’t really blame her for that. I had been super privileged in basically every possible way. I was a rich white girl whose parents basically owned law enforcement. To say nothing of our own private security. And that was before I found out about the Ministry thing. Murphy, on the other hand, had seen a much worse side of things. She was mixed-race, which was close enough to black for the people who would give her shit about it, and had grown up poor. Her parents were already in prison, apparently for something that had to do with selling antidepressants and such on the street. So really, it was no wonder she wouldn’t have the best opinion of letting the police take care of the situation.  

Yeah, it sure sounded like she was planning on running out to try to deal with this guy herself. I had to do something about him first, before Murphy ran out and got herself… before she got hurt. Or worse. This guy had already almost killed her at least once tonight, if not twice depending on what he would have done if he had caught them when they ran off the bus. He wasn’t going to be nice. 

Taking a deep breath, I focused on the boy in front of me. “Tell Murphy to come out here. She’s not answering her phone. I’ll tell her that I’m going to go get the guy so she can focus on being here for Tyson. Just–tell her to come talk to me and I’ll make sure she knows this guy’s going down. I promise, he won’t get away with this. He’s going to prison tonight. But I need to talk to her first. I need her to know I’m taking care of it.” 

Roald gave a short nod before pivoting to run back inside. I kept an eye out, but there wasn’t much going on here by the side exit. All the action was around the emergency room. So, I was just left standing there tapping my foot while asking myself what I was actually going to do about this guy. Get to him, catch him, turn him in to the cops and let Murphy and Roald testify against him? If they would. Tyson too, assuming he–

The side door slammed open once more, and my gaze snapped up to see Roald running out full-tilt. “She’s gone!” he blurted, eyes wide as he got up to me. “She–he–he’s not… he’s gone. He’s gone. He didn’t make it. Ty didn’t make it through the surgery, and they said she–she ran out. Murphy took off, I think she went after him. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t with her and she took off! Some nurse was talking about someone stealing her car in there, I think she took it.” 

“Stay here,” I snapped. “What was the address of that laundromat again?” 

He gave it to me, and I spun around, using red paint to yank myself up toward the roof of the hospital. Before landing there, I popped my wheels out and skated that way. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I had to get there. I had to get to that laundromat before Murphy got herself killed by rushing inside. She just lost her brother, and with her parents being in prison, there wasn’t… she wasn’t… yeah. This was bad. It was really bad. I had to get there before it got even worse. 

The laundromat was a fair distance from the hospital, but too close for me to take the time to call for another ride. I had to hope that going across rooftops and such would make up Murphy’s headstart and the fact that she was in a car. I just–I had to hurry. That was all there was to it. I had to get there in time. I pushed myself to go even faster, painting green across my legs while using my pace-skates to pick up even more speed. The next couple of minutes were a total blur of racing from roof to roof, leaping, yanking, landing, running, gliding, rolling, and skidding my way as fast as possible, all in a desperate attempt to get to that laundromat in time. 

Finally, I reached the building across the street from the strip mall where the laundromat was supposed to be. Dropping to my stomach so I wouldn’t stand out, I lay on the edge of the roof and stared that way, eyes hunting for the place in question. There. It was in the exact middle of the shopping center, sandwiched between a bar and some sort of hair salon. There were people gathered out in front of the bar and the laundromat, and a few people inside the latter. It didn’t look like the ones in the store were doing any laundry. More like they were standing around and drinking just like the ones outside. It was definitely a gang hangout of some sort, but I couldn’t see anyone who fit the description of this Luciano guy. Not yet, anyway. Maybe he was in the back. 

Nor could I see any sign of Murphy. Which, considering the guys out front looked perfectly casual, I hoped meant she hadn’t made it here yet. But now that I was here and she apparently wasn’t, what was I supposed to do? Should I go down there and tell them to send Luciano out, or wait for Murphy? If I already had him detained, would she calm down? I wasn’t–I didn’t think–

And then that the decision was taken out of my hands, as a car came squealing around the corner. My gaze snapped that way just in time to see Murphy behind the wheel. Oh, she was wearing a ski mask, but I knew it was her. I’d certainly seen her wearing that mask often enough by now. She was right there, car squealing its way across the road before hopping the curb straight into the lot. Right, so she wasn’t in the mood for subtlety, then. She was grieving and lost. Her brother had just been killed, and she was going to do something about it. 

The question of what exactly she was going to do was answered a moment later when she brought the car to a squealing halt right in front of the laundromat. The group there between the store and the bar looked that way, just as Murphy hopped out of the car with–with a shotgun. She had a shotgun in her hands. I had no idea where she got that, but she was pointing it at those people. I could hear her high, strained voice scream for them to get Luciano, along with something about how if he thought he was going to get away with ‘putting her people back at the Twenty-Seven Club in the hospital, he had another thing coming.’ 

The Twenty-Seven Club. That was one of the places Luciano had shot up. So even now, even in this condition, Murphy was covering her identity by pretending she was here as a member of one of those groups to get payback for that shooting. 

When the guys hesitated, she pointed the shotgun at one of the nearby cars and pulled the trigger to blow out the tire, then pointed it at them again and repeated the order. Yeah, this was bad. Especially since I could see several of the men start to semi-subtly shift to spread out around her. But Murphy was in too much grief to notice what they were doing. If I didn’t get down there and do something, they would surround her. And then… and then nothing, because I wasn’t going to let that happen. 

Getting up, I backed away a few steps for a running start. Then I gave myself some more paint before sprinting that way. A shot of blue at the edge of the roof launched me into the air, and I flipped over before using red against a distant traffic light for momentum. Flying that way, I pointed with both hands, sending a wide spray of red at the group before activating that, along with a bit of orange on my boots. 

Landing beside Murphy just as the assortment of guys were all yanked together to crash into a heap, I caught the shotgun before she could reflexively point it at me. “Now, guys!” I called out. “I’m pretty sure the lady here wanted you to all stay in one spot, not spread out. Don’t screw up your choreography, you know how much the director hates that.” 

For a moment, the guys on the ground froze when they saw me there. Then, blurting out something about getting ‘the shit’ out of the back, they all scrambled up and took off. They split up, spreading out to run in all different directions. Some of them ran into the laundromat, a few back into the bar, and the rest scattered across the parking lot. None of them stuck around to fight. Which I definitely wasn’t going to argue with, but Luciano would definitely know we were here now. If the shotgun blast hadn’t already given it away. 

Speaking of which, I spun on my heel to find Murphy staring at me. I could see the tears in her eyes through the holes in the mask. “P-Paintball,” she managed quietly, voice breaking, “Ty–Ty didn’t–he–” 

“I know,” I quickly assured her. “Stay here. I’m going to go get that guy. He’s not getting away, I promise.”

Her head shook frantically. “No, no, I have to get him. I have to get him for Ty.” She was already moving to go around me, shotgun in one hand as she stumbled toward the door of the laundromat. Just as quickly, she spun back to me, lunging to tackle me to the ground. An instant later, after the other girl landed on top of me, I heard an explosive series of gunshots as someone inside the building opened up. Quickly, Murphy and I crawled around behind the car before they could adjust their aim. 

“Dunno how you walked out of that club without a bullet, bitch!” came a voice through the shattered window once the gunfire had stopped. “But I’ll be glad to make up for it. You and that fucking wannabe hero kid!” 

“Luciano,” Murphy snarled. Her hand grabbed the shotgun from the ground, and she started to push herself up before I caught hold of her arm to stop her. “Paintball!” she blurted, looking toward me. “It’s him, he can’t–” 

“He won’t get away with it,” I promised, grip tightening. “He is not going to get away. I won’t let that happen. But I’m not gonna let you get yourself killed either. Your brother wouldn’t want that.” 

For a moment, it looked like she was going to scream at me for that. And honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed her. But the girl caught herself, eyes closing tightly before focusing on me once more. “He’s mine,” she insisted in a voice that shook. “I have to help take him down, Paintball. I have to.” 

Pausing briefly, I glanced over my shoulder, listening to the sound of the man in question ordering his buddies to come flush us out. “Okay,” I murmured. “You can help take him down. But you listen to me, okay? We do this the smart way, not just by charging in. And we take him down for the cops. We arrest him and turn him in.” 

From the look in her eyes, I knew the girl wanted to argue with that. But she stopped herself, giving a short nod. It was clear that she was listening to the sound of the bad guys arguing about who had to come closer. They were clearly spooked, and none wanted to be the ones who came within shotgun or paint distance. But we were still running out of time. “Okay,” she murmured. “As long as he doesn’t get away.” 

“He won’t,” I assured her. 

“So here’s what we’re going to do.”

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Interlude 19A – Murphy and Roald (Summus Proelium)

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“Ready, set, go!” Standing near the dumpster in the alley behind Wren’s shop on Monday night (the day after Paintball had had that run-in with the Ninety-Niners), Alloy dropped her hand with that last word. At the call, Murphy, standing beside her, took off running. She raced straight toward the nearby wall. Ahead of her, four of Alloy’s marbles went flying in, transforming into flat circles about nine inches across. The bronze marble swooped down first, positioning itself about six inches off the ground, slightly ahead of the sprinting girl. The silver hovered a bit behind that, higher and to the left, while the purple and black were yet higher and further back. White and gold were being used as Alloy’s armor. 

Murphy’s foot hit the first transformed marble, then the second, and the third. By that point, the first had swooped up and around to rise up behind the fourth, and the second soon joined it. The marbles were forming a sort of rapidly-moving series of steps leading up toward the fire-escape balcony halfway up the building, allowing Murphy to climb them at a sprint without ever breaking stride. It showed just how much trust the girl had both in the marbles themselves, and in Alloy’s ability to control them. She only stumbled slightly once or twice, and the marbles were always there to quickly push her foot back into position. Soon, she was able to grab hold of the railing and haul herself up and over. Landing with a heavy metal clang, she raised both arms up and pivoted to face the ground below. “Whooo! And she sets a new record for the… floating marble stair climb event? We need a name for this. Hey, what was my time on that?” 

From where he stood on the opposite side of Alloy, Roald dryly replied, “You called it a new record before even knowing what your time was?” 

“Hey, I know I was going fast,” Murphy retorted, squinting down at her best friend. “I don’t need a stopwatch to tell me that much. But hey, you happen to have one. So spill the bananas.” 

Tilting her head toward the boy, Alloy asked, “Isn’t it usually spill the beans?” 

He, in turn, coughed. “Inside joke. Uh, it was a whole thing back in third grade with bananas in the lunchroom at school and… yeah.” Turning his attention to his phone, where he had the stopwatch app running, the boy called up, “Eleven point four two seconds!” 

“Told ya, new record!” Murphy crowed, before calling out. “Hey, help me down, would ya?” With that, she hauled herself back over the railing and dropped, just as two of the marbles obediently created a surfboard for the girl to land on and ride all the way back to the ground. “Whoo! Hey, you gonna beat my record or at least try to give me a challenge?” 

Blanching visibly, Roald shook his head. “No thanks, I think I’ll just let that one stand.” 

Before Murphy could tease him, Alloy spoke up. “Thanks, guys. Seriously, I just wanted some help working out the coordination between me and the marbles. You didn’t have to do something, you know, actually dangerous.”

“Meh,” Murphy shrugged, straightening up after stooping to rub her thumb over the silver marble as though it was a puppy that needed scritches. “I’ve done more dangerous stuff than that before we ever even met any of you guys.”  

“She’s not kidding,” Roald noted. “And definitely more illegal stuff. Like that time she stole a car when we were ten.” 

“I didn’t steal a car!” Murphy blurted, her reaction making it clear that this was a long-running debate. “The asshole mechanic promised it would only cost two hundred dollars to fix what was wrong with my brother’s car. Tyson did him a favor. Like, three favors actually. But when Ty went back to get it, suddenly it was supposed to be five hundred. And he wouldn’t give it back. So I… I took the keys off the board while they were arguing and drove it away.” 

“She couldn’t even see over the steering wheel and hit the gas at the same time,” Roald murmured with a small smile. “So she kept leaning down to hit the gas for a few seconds, then leaning up to see where she was going while the car coasted, then leaning down to hit the gas, just like that.” 

Murphy’s face had turned pink by then. “Yeah, well, I’m a better driver now.” 

“Uh, are you even old enough for a license yet?” Alloy questioned, glancing between the two. 

With a huff, the other girl pointed out, “I said I was a better driver. Not a more legal one.” 

“Right.” Shaking her head, Alloy snickered despite herself. “If my mom knew I was hanging out with terrible influences like you… well, she’d probably insist on dragging you both inside and shoving a Thanksgiving feast down your throats, honestly. That’s how she deals with that sort of thing. With lots of food. Pretty sure she’d insist on bringing your brother along too.”

“Oh, that’d go over well,” Murphy retorted with a snort. “Best holiday photo ever, my brother and your mom, fighting over the table full of food.”

“She’d probably try to make him wear a tie,” Alloy murmured, her amusement clear before she shook that off. “Anyway, thanks again. I’m going to come up with some new exercises for the whole coordination thing. Maybe even some that Roald won’t mind helping with.”  

“Hey, any time,” Murphy informed her. “Beats sweeping and mopping, anyway.” Quickly, she amended, “Not that we don’t, like, appreciate the opportunity or whatever. You know.” 

“Relax, I’m not gonna narc on you for not liking manual labor. I’m pretty sure everyone knows,” Alloy pointed out. “Besides, I’m sort of right alongside you, remember? I’m supposed to be working here too. Gotta keep my cover story intact.” 

“Great,” Murphy replied with a broad smile. “Next time, you get to mop out the restroom. You know, once the store officially reopens and all that.”

With a groan, Alloy lamented, “On second thought, maybe I’ll just go ahead and tell my mom I’m fighting supervillains.”  

While the three laughed at that, the back door of the shop opened, and Fred came out. “Oh hey, you’re all still here, good. Your new boss wanted me to hand these out.” He had a stack of envelopes in one hand. 

“The nine-year-old girl new boss, or the twelve-year-old boy new boss?” Roald questioned, with a glance to the other two as the absurdity of their situation really washed over him. 

Fred chuckled. “The latter. But really it’s from both of them. You’ve done good work around here. Paintball said to consider this an advance, or a signing bonus, whatever.” He extended the envelopes to all three of them. 

Taking hers, Murphy ripped it open before her eyes bulged. “What the–what–how–what?” She reached in, taking out a stack of twenty and fifty dollar bills. 

“Five hundred dollars for each of you,” Fred informed them. “Would’ve been more, but that one hasn’t done much work yet.” He nodded toward Alloy. “And you two are still working off your little escapade from before. Still, they wanted you to have something for the work you’ve been doing. It’s good work. Keep it up.” Belatedly, he added, “Seriously, keep it up. I’m kind of enjoying not being the one who has to sweep up around here. It’s nice.”

That said, the man walked back inside with a nod to them. As the door closed behind him, the three teenagers exchanged looks. Murphy found her voice first. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. I’m not eating off the dollar menu tonight. No, sir. It’s full-on combo time. Large sized, with a milkshake.” 

“Just don’t let Tyson see any of it,” Roald warned. “I get how you feel about him, but it’ll be gone in ten minutes. You know it too.” 

“Yeah, yeah.” Making a face, Murphy put the cash away in a pocket. “But I’m still getting food. Hey, maybe I’ll bring some for him too.” 

Glancing down at her phone, Alloy murmured, “I’ve gotta get home before Mom freaks out about curfew. Uh, you guys gonna be okay?” 

“Sure, we’ll take the bus. It’s cool.” Roald replied, glancing toward Murphy before adding, “Should we check to see if Wren and L-Lion need us?” He tripped a bit over the latter name, still finding it staggering that they were actually interacting with Touched to begin with, let alone someone like the mouse TONI. Having money in their pockets was strange enough on its own, but the actual facts of what their lives had become in such a short time was still unbelievable. The boy was generally half-convinced that he would wake up from this dream, and go back to the sort of life where throwing a rock through the door of a gas station so they could run in and grab as much food as they could stuff into their bags was the best way of feeding themselves.

Murphy, meanwhile, was shaking her head. “Dude, I tried to get their attention before we came out here, and they were just completely absorbed in their thing. And this is like the second day in a row they’ve been like this. Trust me, they’ll be fine. They’ve got Fred to get whatever they need. And something tells me they’re going to be having this whole meeting of the minds until like midnight. I’m not waiting around that long. Let’s just get out of here. Come on, remember, large combos. Milkshake. Not counting out pennies and asking for a water cup, then sneaking soda into it while they’re not looking. We’re living the good life.” 

Snorting at that, Alloy gestured. “Sure, you guys are totally living like the Evans or Banners now.” Sobering then, she added, “Seriously though, I’ll catch you guys tomorrow. We’ll do some more practice. I think my marbles are really starting to like you.” As though to prove that point, a couple of them moved up to dance in the air in front of their faces, clearly showing off before Alloy waved for the marbles to transform into a hoverboard. Then she was off, flying into the air. 

The pair watched her go before looking at one another. Roald spoke first, voice a bit awed. “She’s pretty cool, huh?” 

“Super-cool,” Murphy confirmed. “And I’m pretty sure she’s hot too. But come on, let’s get that bus. You know if we miss this one, they switch to that creepy driver.” 

They both shuddered at the thought before reaching down to grab their backpacks. Without another word, the two of them jogged out of the alley and made their way through the dark street to the nearest bus stop. Soon, they were on the bus and moved to the back, ignoring the curious glances they got. Both knew that being seen together tended to attract attention around here, given their appearances. Murphy was clearly mixed-race, with brown hair that was short enough to make people do a slight double-take as they worked out whether to classify her as male or female. Roald, on the other hand, was incredibly pale-skinned with longer blond hair, itself light enough to almost make someone wonder if he was albino. At a glance, many people reflexively thought of Roald as the female of the pair and Murphy as the male, before their brains had to adjust. 

Sitting in the back of the bus, the pair were already planning out where to stop near their apartment building to get food and carry it home. The two were in the middle of a debate about whether McDonalds or Wendy’s was better for that, when a shadow fell over them. Both looked up to see a heavyset Latino man with clearly dyed blonde dreadlocks perch himself on the edge of the seat across from them, feet firmly planted in the aisle. “I know you,” he said to Murphy. “You’re Ty’s little sister. Eleanor.” 

Making a face as the guy used her given first name rather than her preferred last, the girl corrected him. “It’s Murphy. Just Murphy.” 

“Well hey, Just Murphy,” the guy half-drawled. “Fancy meeting you here. See, the name’s  Luciano. Maybe you heard of me, maybe not. The point is, your brother owes me money, and he keeps ducking my calls. I don’t like it when people who owe me money duck my calls. Makes me feel ignored, you know? I really hate feeling ignored. Makes me just wanna lash out. Which isn’t good for anybody. I gotta talk to my therapist about that. But you know, she’s outta town. So I’m feeling some lashing coming on.” 

Murphy, in turn, retorted, “Yeah, well I’m sure you’ve got a lot of people who owe you money. What with that whole shoving drugs on them thing.” 

“Hey, I don’t shove shit on anyone,” Luciano objected with a slight snarl. “They come looking for me, let’s get that straight. Just like your big bro did. I did him a favor, hooked him up. Now he’s ghosting me. And hey, ain’t your folks locked up right now for slinging hard stuff?” 

“They sold antidepressants,” the girl shot back. “Not Fentanyl-laced crack, LSD, Heroin, any of that. Happy pills, not that shit.” 

“My shit makes people happy too, kid,” Luciano snapped, showing his teeth (many of which had been replaced with gold or silver caps. “And let’s not get off topic here. Your brother owes me, so the three of us, we’re going to go back to my place, then give him a call and see if he wants to get you back.” His gaze dipped down to take the girl in briefly before smiling once more. “Who knows, maybe if you’re real good, you can work off some of what he owes. Make it a little easier on everybody.” Even as he spoke, the guy used one hand to lift the bottom of his shirt, revealing the revolver stuck into his waistband to illustrate the implicit threat.  

Both friends froze for a moment, processing everything that had just happened and how quickly their situation had changed. Murphy finally shifted just a little, turning to face the man directly, since she had the aisle seat, with Roald next to the window. “Okay, fine, look. I have some money right here, if you just–” As she was speaking, she rose partway, reaching into her backpack. But it wasn’t cash she came out with. Instead, the girl produced a small canister of pepper spray, which she unleashed into the man’s face while he was anticipating cash. With a cry, the man fell backward in the seat, swiping at his eyes. Yet Murphy didn’t let up, continuing to spray it all over the man as she leaned over him to grab the cord against the opposite window. The ding signaling a requested stop filled the air, as the bus promptly began to move toward the curb. 

Both teenagers bolted toward the front of the bus together, while Luciano bellowed in pain and shouted threats. He was still swiping at his eyes as they practically shoved their way out the still-opening door, ignoring the driver blurting questions at them. The two could hear the drug dealer behind them, staggering toward the front while shouting for the driver not to go anywhere. 

Without looking back, Roald and Murphy took off running toward the nearest building, a three-story apartment place. Unfortunately, the door was locked and neither had any way in. An elderly woman taking mail out of her box within the lobby saw them knock at the door, but shot both a disgusted look before pointedly continuing down the hall. 

“Yeah, fuck you, old cunt!” Murphy shouted after her. “I hope you–” 

“Come on!” Roald interrupted, grabbing her arm. He yanked her, and the two of them took off again. By that point, Luciano had made it off the bus, still wiping at his eyes and coughing between blurted threats. He was fumbling for the revolver in his pants, while the pair made it to a nearby alley and darted through it. 

“Really would be nice,” Murphy managed between pants as they ran, “to have a couple of those marbles right now. Or any superpowers, really.”

“Just keep running,” Roald insisted. By that point, they had reached the end of the alley, where a wall blocked their path. But there was a much narrower space between buildings to the right, where they could squeeze through. It was full of trash and other, likely worse things that neither wanted to think about as they slid their way along. They could hear Luciano making his way through the alley, kicking over trash cans and shouting about what he was going to do when he found them. Yet the two reached the end of the narrow space, emerging into a rear parking lot behind the apartment building they had tried to get into before. Without any hesitation, they took off once more, racing through the lot, crossing the street at a sprint (causing two different cars to blare their horns at the two), cut through the lot of a car wash on the opposite side, then hop a couple fences to dash across the weed and rock-filled ‘lawns’ of nearby houses. 

By the time the two felt safe enough to stop running, they had gone three more blocks before stopping in the concealing shadows of a large tree to watch the way they had come for five minutes. When they saw no sign of the man who had been chasing them, both exhaled and slumped. 

“We could’ve given him the cash,” Roald pointed out. 

“Fuck that,” Murphy shot back. “It’s our money, not his. We earned it. Besides, you give a guy like that money and he’ll just keep coming back for more. Nothing’s ever enough. He’s a piece of shit leech.” She gave a visible shudder at how skeevy the man had been, before shoving it to the back of her mind. “Come on, now I’m really hungry after all that. I might just get two full combos.” She was clearly trying to play off what had just happened, but her voice shook a bit. 

Still, Roald wasn’t going to push things. With a slight nod, the boy gave one last look up and down the street before pushing off the tree. “Sure,” he murmured, “let’s get some food.” 

******

Some time later, Murphy told Roald good night while standing in front of the door of the apartment she shared with her brother. It was on the ground floor, while Roald and his family (his older and younger sisters) lived on the third. The stairs and doors were all on the outside of the building, with no interior space besides the apartments themselves. She watched her friend head up the steps, listening for the sound of him getting into his own apartment before going to unlock the door of hers. On the way, she glanced through the nearby window. In the gap between the curtain and the wall, she could see Tyson lounging on the couch, playing a game. 

“Hey, Ty!” Murphy forced enthusiasm into her voice while stepping inside. She took the time to lock, deadbolt, and chain the door behind her. “Got food!” Holding up the sack of burgers and fries, she stepped that way. “Figured it was my turn to cook.” 

Pushing himself to a sitting position, Tyson looked at her. He took more after their father, looking almost fully black without Murphy’s obvious mixed-heritage. His dark eyes were damp, as she belatedly realized he hadn’t been playing the game at all. He had been crying to himself. 

“Hey,” the boy murmured. “Why… why’d you come back? Before, I mean. I… I cut your face, Murph. Why’d you ever come back here with a fuck-up piece of shit like me?” 

Exhaling, Murphy stepped that way, sitting down on the couch beside him. “Shut up, dude. Take your burger. I know it’s not your fault.” 

“Not my fault,” Tyson muttered, shaking his head. He took the offered food, but didn’t unwrap it. Instead, he sat there, staring at the floor for a long moment. “I was supposed to give this cash to this guy, you know. Luciano. Had the cash and everything, after Jaylen finally paid up for that favor last week. But I didn’t. At first, I thought I would. I was going to. Then I was in front of this… place. This rehab place. I don’t even know how I got there. But I was standing there looking at it and all I could see was your face. After I cut it, I mean. All I could see was the stupid, fucked up shit I keep doing. So I uhh… I went inside. I paid ‘em. I gave them the money, got a reservation. Thirty days. It ain’t the best place, but they’ll take me.” 

“You… you’re going into rehab?” Murphy carefully asked, squinting at her brother. 

He nodded, pushing himself up from the couch. “Yeah. I just… I’m so sorry, Murph. I’m a fuck-up, and you deserve better than that. Especially with Mom and Dad gone and just–I’m gonna be better, okay? I’m gonna go into this place, get through rehab, get a job, a real one, and just… you and me, we’ll be alright. I promise. No more hard shit. No more… none of it. I’m done with all that.” Offering her a faint smile then, he extended his hand. “Ain’t gonna be easy, but we’ll be okay. You and me, ain’t nothing we can’t–” 

In that moment, as Murphy accepted his hand, a rapid series of deafening, cacophonous thunder cracks filled the air. The window shattered inward, glass spraying in every direction, as Tyson jerked repeatedly. His eyes met his sister’s, as he pitched forward, hitting the floor. Blood soaked through his shirt out of half a dozen holes in his back, as he lay in a heap on the floor. 

Through her own scream, Murphy heard the familiar voice from the bus shouting that he should’ve paid, followed by the sound of squealing tires. 

Then the car was gone, leaving Murphy clutching her brother as she screamed, through a grief-torn throat, for help. 

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Winging It 19-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, that wasn’t exactly how I expected my time with Lucent to go. But then, since when had anything gone the way that I had thought it would since the night I decided to play around in Royal Thunder? The expected thing happening would be completely unexpected. Which was–never mind. I really couldn’t look at that too closely or I’d go cross-eyed. 

In any case, we were going to have to try that again another time. For the moment, I put it aside along with thoughts about Carousel and her whole deal as I pressed the buzzer at the back door of Wren’s shop. There were plenty of other things for me to focus on as it was. Like talking to Paige (and Raige, come to think of it), or figuring out what was up with that sex-shifting Asian person Amber had been talking about, and–

Wait, hold on. Back when Izzy and I had first found out about each other, my father had been right below us, talking with someone on the phone in Japanese. Was that related to this? It… could be, right? Not for the first time, I wished one of us spoke Japanese. 

Shaking off that thought, I focused on the other question. Namely, why Mr. Jackson had been there in the first place. Yeah, that was going to bug me for awhile. My best idea for getting information about that was to go hang out with Tomas at his house for awhile and try to sneak off to snoop around. Yes, that would probably be dangerous. And yet, if I didn’t start taking a few risks to get answers, I’d never get anywhere. 

I was still debating back and forth with myself about that when Murphy (still masked) opened the door. “Hey, boss,” she greeted me. “You’ve got to come in here and see this meeting of the minds shit. I have no idea what the fuck is going on, but damn if it’s not fascinating to watch.” 

So, I followed her in there and got my first glimpse of the, as she put it, ‘meeting of the minds shit.’ Wren was seated cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the shop, down in the slightly lower area next to the four counters that formed the rectangle. She was perched next to one of those counters. In front of her was what looked like a cardboard diorama of the shop itself,  made out of repurposed individual size cereal boxes. There were three different dioramas, actually. One that showed the outside, one of the shop floor, and one of the upper floor. They had everything in there, the shelves, the tables, the very same counters Wren was sitting next to, the fire hydrants and benches outside, the rooms upstairs, and so on. All of it represented in cardboard. 

Lion was there too, of course. She was perched right in the middle of the diorama of the outside area, using one paw to point at a park bench while going on at length about some sort of pneumatic system they could… do something with. Which sent Wren off on a whole three-hundred word spiel, of which I understood maybe half the words and about a tenth of how they actually fit together in the way she was saying. 

Okay yeah, this was confusing. I had no idea what they were talking about. Which really, for the first time, really drove home how Wren wasn’t a normal kid. Yes, yes, I’d already known that of course. The stuff she made proved it quite well. But I supposed that up to that point, somewhere in my head, I just saw what she did as something like magic, like she just touched something and poof, it became her inventions. Which was dumb, because I’d already helped her with collecting stuff for the suit that we made Ashton wear so he would lead us to the vials against his will. I’d even helped put it together, in the sense of doing exactly what she told us to do. I’d seen her power in action and knew, for a fact, how it worked. At least, to an extent. 

But this was really my first time seeing it put this way. Probably because it was the first time I’d had a chance to see the girl talk to someone who was on her level. Which was about fifty stories above my level, apparently. The two of them were babbling back and forth at each other in what might as well have been a completely different language for all that I could follow it. 

Murphy, who had been watching as I stared that way, gestured emphatically. “See what I mean? No freaking clue what they’re on about, but it seems pretty spiffy.” Belatedly, she added, “You like the dioramas? Calvin and me did those. See, we do contribute.” 

Calvi–oh, right. She’d given fake names for Roald and herself as Calvin and Hobbes. Which, to be honest, I was pretty sure it would have fit better if she flipped the names. At least, character-wise. She was much more of a Calvin to me. 

In any case, I wasn’t going to go judging her pseudonym choices at the moment. Instead, I gave a slow nod, before blinking. “Where is R–Calvin, anyway? And Fred.” 

“Shopping,” came the easy reply. “They had to go out and get some stuff that these guys asked for. They told me what it was, but you know.” She made a motion and whistled low to illustrate the information going in one ear and out the other. “No idea. They took the list with them. It was a long list.” She pulled her phone out to look at the time. “They only left about twenty minutes ago, so… yeah, probably gonna be awhile before they come back. I–hey.” 

Squinting at something on her phone, Murphy looked at me, then to the screen and back again. I couldn’t read her expression through the ski mask, but her body language made it clear she was confused. Finally, the girl tapped the phone pointedly before asking, “You stopped a bank robbery? I thought you were like, doing Master Splinter Miyagi shit with Captain Corvid.” 

I started to correct the other girl that it was Lucent, not Captain Corvid, then reconsidered. Given everything I’d seen of him, he’d probably actually be amused by the title. So I let that go before shrugging. “It was a little more complicated than that. We stopped one set of bank robbers, but there was…” I trailed off, my instinct to say as little as possible kicking in while the girl stared at me in anticipation. My whole deal of compartmentalizing information for so long meant that it was just instinct to not actually explain what had happened back there. But why shouldn’t I? Seriously, nothing in what had happened actually gave away anything I didn’t want to share. Why was I being so hesitant to talk about it? Was it just because I was pretty sure the entire event was connected to my family, considering all the Star-Touched patrols had been moved away from the area? Was even the slightest hint of a connection to my family enough to make me instinctively clam up? 

Apparently so, but I forced the impulse down and held up a hand for Murphy to wait a moment while I looked back to where Wren and Lion were. The two of them didn’t even seem to have noticed my arrival, considering how engrossed in their discussion they were. Another few seconds of listening proved entirely fruitless, as I was pretty sure they weren’t even using real words by that point. They were, however, finishing each other’s sentences and laughing a lot. It wasn’t… quite mad scientist laughter, but pretty close to the edge of it.

Yeah, I was going to let them keep doing the, uh, whatever they were doing. Turning away, I gestured for Murphy to come with as I moved away from that area and closer to the elevator. Stopping there, I quietly told her what actually happened, at least as far as someone without any of my extra knowledge would know from being there. I told her about the extra bad guys, the tunnel, finding our way to where Sandon and her men were waiting to back up Undermine, and about the agreement to back off and let them go rather than start a big fight right there.

“So,” I finally finished, “does that totally destroy your vision of me as a hero for letting the bad guys escape with everything they took?” 

A snort escaped the girl as she gave me a look. “Yeah, you’ve shattered my poor, delicate and bright-eyed naivety and opened me up to the harsh, gray world.” Clasping her hands, she gave a heavy, dramatic sigh. “Gone forever are my dreams of Paintball, stalwart champion of the people, unwavering protector of all that is good as he stands alone against the forces of–Ow! Did you just kick me?” 

Painting an innocent face across my helmet (complete with halo), I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You know how it is around Tech-Touched bases. Lots of weird half-finished inventions lying around. Maybe we set something off.” 

“Oh, we set something off alright,” she retorted, squinting at me before snickering. “Anyway, come on, you can’t honestly think that shit would change anything as far as me and R–” She leaned up on her toes to stare in the direction of Lion and Wren. Apparently Murphy didn’t trust that the mouse couldn’t hear, because she amended, “–Calvin are concerned. We didn’t go looking to work for some dumb Star-Touched paragon, you know? You asked us to work for you. That’s what we’re doing, it’s what we wanna do. At least you’re smarter than some of those wannabes out there. Gotta know when to fold your cards and walk away.”

Biting my lip, I watched her for a moment before shaking my head. “Right, at least it hasn’t changed your opinion of me or anything.” 

She, in turn, offered a wide, exaggerated shrug. “You’re the boss, boss. I uh, I know we joke about the whole minions thing, but seriously. You’re giving us a chance to make some cash and sorta, you know, move up a bit. You’re the one we’re loyal to. I mean, you and Trevithick over there. Long as you don’t start doing evil shit, or really fucking stupid shit, or… a few other kinds of shit, we’re here. Not starting a stupid, pointless fight you probably couldn’t win just to save some random rich fucks’ stolen goodies? Come on. If anything, my opinion of you just went up a little bit. But uh, don’t let that go to your head.”

“I’ll do my best to keep my ego under control,” I replied dryly. “And thanks, Hobbes. Glad to know I didn’t just lose Trev’s very best new sweeper and mopper for her.” 

“And duster, don’t forget that,” she retorted before lowering her voice into a faintly distressed, “Seriously, there is so much dust.” 

Smirking despite myself behind the helmet, I gave her a thumbs up. “I’ll try to remember to include that on your new job plaque. But uh, think you could stick around down here and keep an eye on what’s going on over there while I go upstairs for a few?” 

“Whatever,” came her response. “Trust me, boss, I’ve got plenty of shit down here to keep myself busy.  I’m pretty sure those two are going to be just fine without any help from me or anyone else. But you go do your thing. I’ll feel better with you here, anyway. If they manage to send this building into another universe or something with their super-science shit, at least you’ll be around to do something about all the alien monsters trying to lay eggs in our brains.” 

Painting a weirded-out face on my helmet squinting at her, I slowly replied, “Yeah, I’ll uhh, keep an eye out for that.” My head shook as I gave a soft chuckle before starting to turn to the elevator. Then I stopped and pivoted back. “What’s going on with Tyson? That was your brother’s name, right? The one who gave you that cut on the head because you wouldn’t run drugs for him. You still staying with Calvin or did you go back there?” 

Folding her arms defensively across her chest, the girl muttered, “I couldn’t stay with his family forever. It’s fine, it’s–whatever. Tyson’s fine. I’m here, ain’t I? I told you I wouldn’t let shit with my brother fuck this up, and I won’t.  You don’t have to worry about him. It’s fine. He took me out to get some lunch and apologized and all that. Not a big deal.” 

“Not a big deal?” I echoed incredulously despite myself. “I know you care about him, but he cut your face because you wouldn’t take a bunch of drugs over to his friend. Now it’s okay because he took you out to lunch?” 

“Fuck no,” she snapped, “it’s not okay. None of that is okay. Like I said, his friend got him hooked on the shit. He used to be totally cool, just a normal stoner, you know? Little weed now and then. Maybe a little more than now and then, but still. Weed. Nothing hard. He was funny when he got the munchies. Used to send Calvin and me out to pick up shit from the gas station in the middle of the night. Then that fuckface got him on the harder shit and… and he changed. But he’s still my brother. He’s fine most of the time. I can deal with it. So just, you know, do whatever shit you need to do upstairs and let me worry about my brother.” 

I had the distinct impression that trying to say anything else about it wouldn’t go very well. Still, I made a mental note to ask Roald for a little more information about that whole thing when I had the chance. Then I nodded to her before stepping on the elevator. All I said to the girl before the doors closed was, “Let me know if anything happens down here. Especially if those two manage that whole going to another universe thing. You have blanket permission to interrupt anything I’m doing if that happens.” 

With that, I hit the button to head upstairs, before stepping off a moment later once we were there. After giving a brief glance up and down the hall, I headed for the lab workshop area. Paige was still there, though she had been moved out of the MRI-like machine and was laying on a couch nearby. Someone had put a pillow under her head, and a blanket over her, so it looked like she was just sleeping. Which at least made the whole thing look a little less creepy. 

I needed to get this done, of course. And yet, for a moment, I just stood there and hesitated. A rush of thoughts ran through my mind as I stared at the motionless and silent form of the girl who had been forced by her father to treat me like shit for so long, but I pushed them aside to focus on the important thing. Which was asking Paige about this Irelyn chick. 

I wasn’t sure how to run the whole virtual reality thing, of course. And I sure wasn’t going to attempt it by myself. But there was still the other way of communicating with Paige. I picked up the Gameboy-like device and carefully wrote in the question, one word at a time, about ten minutes apart. 

SISTER

LOOKING

4PAIGE

That simple thing took about thirty minutes to send. It definitely wasn’t as convenient as the VR system. But on the other hand, I could use it without help and not risk blowing the whole building up or something. Now I just had to settle in and wait for however long it took Paige to send back a response. 

Not that long, apparently. The response came within about thirty seconds. But it didn’t come through the Gameboy-Atari thing like I had expected. Instead, Paige’s actual voice abruptly spoke up. “What’s going on?” 

Yeah, I’m not too proud to admit that I jumped. I had been sitting on one of the nearby chairs while thinking about what I should do while I was waiting, and damn near leapt out of my skin when the frozen girl started talking. A yelp actually escaped me before I got it under control and looked that way. Her eyes were still closed and she clearly still wasn’t moving. “Uh, Paige?” 

“She’s letting me talk directly to you right now, for this,” came the response. “Talk and listen, no moving. Slight control. So tell me what’s going on.” 

Before I could respond, she abruptly spoke again. Only it clearly wasn’t Paige this time. “Yeah, babe, just a little slack in the agreement since this seems like something we might want to nip in the bud before it turns into a problem. But I don’t exactly trust this one to hold even this little bit of power for very long without abusing it, so get to the explaining part.” 

So, I did just that, carefully explaining everything that I knew. I told them both about being stopped outside the restaurant by that Irelyn woman, though I left out the whole thing about Arleigh and her brothers being there, since it didn’t seem relevant. I explained that the woman was clearly looking pretty intently for Paige if she was asking me about it, and that it didn’t seem like something she was just going to walk away from, satisfied with half-answers. 

“So, I’ve gotta ask,” I finally put in once the actual explanation was over, “How come you never mentioned that you still had a sister who was going to start poking around asking questions about you and your parents disappearing? Cuz that whole fake vacation thing can hold up to some outside poking, but I’m pretty sure it won’t last long with someone like that looking into it.”

There was no response at first. And given the position Paige was in with the whole laying completely motionless with her eyes closed thing, I honestly wasn’t sure for a moment that she had even heard what I said.  

Finally, however, Paige spoke once more. “She didn’t really care.” Her voice was odd, like… well, I couldn’t really place it at first. There was something in her tone that didn’t sound like her. For as long as I remembered knowing Paige, she had almost always sounded confident. Whether it came to tormenting me as much as possible, being the popular girl everyone else looked up to, or handling a bunch of biolems sent by her father to kill both of us, she was self-assured. But now? This almost sounded like… vulnerability? Uncertainty? Confusion? All of the above. And more. There was a lot in her voice. But none of it was confidence. 

“She was their real daughter, before they got pissed and disowned her because she didn’t want to be the exact person they wanted her to be. She did her own thing, so they threw her out of the family and bought me instead. I was the replacement. I wasn’t–I’m not her real sister. Why would she start going around looking for me? That doesn’t–I can’t…” 

She trailed off for several long moments before her voice finally spoke again. But once more, it wasn’t Paige. “Uhh yeah, you’re gonna have to give us some time with this. I think you got the gist of her reaction though. We’ve got no clue why a girl who was disowned from the family and replaced like that would give two shits about what happened to the parents or the adopted sister. Give that some time to digest and come back in a couple days, maybe we’ll be able to tell you something else. Send the word Aardvark to let us know you’re back and want to talk about that whole thing and we’ll do this again.”

I really hadn’t expected Paige to be quite that stunned by the news that Irelyn had been out there looking for her. But, I supposed that was fair. She deserved the chance to think about that for a bit. It was clearly a lot to dump on her, especially if she was so taken aback and lost in her own thoughts that Raige was talking. 

So, I straightened up. “Yeah, I’ll give you some time. I just–” Pausing, I shifted indecisively, unsure if I should ask. Finally, I went for it. “What actually happened to your parents? I mean, where… I mean, did they… I mean…”

“We don’t know what happened to them, exactly,” came Raige’s response. “I mean, it’s not hard to make a guess that Daddy dearest wanted them out of the way, but how he went about that, how… permanent it is, all that, no idea. They weren’t there when the party thing got started, that’s all we know.” 

That didn’t exactly make me feel better about the Banners’ fates in general. But at least I could trust that Paige herself hadn’t killed them. Still, I frowned before rising to leave. “Thanks. I’ll let you guys talk about that whole sister thing amongst yourselves, and come back later.” 

With that, I left the room and headed down the stairs rather than use the elevator that time. Paige had clearly been completely shocked by the revelation that this Irelyn woman was out there looking for her, to the point that she completely stopped responding and left Raige to do the talking. That… that was… I didn’t know what that was. I may have had my… whole complicated situation with my family, but at least I would never be surprised that they wanted to find me if I went missing. Paige, on the other hand, had been so shocked that Irelyn was actually looking for her that she actually went silent. She had been completely stupefied by the simple fact that someone cared enough about her to look when she disappeared. Which was pretty big. And, I supposed, went with the fact that she hadn’t brought it up as a possibility, if she was that stunned by it. 

In any case, I’d go back and talk to both of them some more about that in a day or two. For now, I was going to set that aside and focus on other things. Namely, what was up with the sex-shifting Asian person Tomas’s dad had driven off with. Which meant I was going to have to go over there. 

Was it bad that I wasn’t sure which made my stomach feel worse about spending time around, the guy who had used his superpower to literally erase my memory, or my ex-boyfriend whom I still had feelings for and whose loyalties I had no idea about. Tomas still could’ve been nice to me, even dated me to begin with, just because of orders from his dad. That was… it was a thought that made me feel like curling into a ball and not doing anything for a long time. Instead, I was going to shove that deep down into a hole, then call him up and ask if he wanted to hang out at his place sometime. I was going to bury all my doubts and insecurities, all my feelings in general, and convincingly put myself around one guy who had already fucked around in my memories, and another who might have been manipulating my emotions for years.

You know what? I was starting to wish I had started that fight with Sandon. 

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Winging It 19-02 (Summus Proelium)

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As I had told Izzy, I wasn’t planning on going over to Wren’s place until after my whole thing with Lucent. But how could I possibly say no to Lion’s request to meet the girl? Well, okay, maybe Wren wouldn’t want to, and then I would say no. But something told me she wouldn’t.

Indeed, as I used my phone to call the girl in question and raised the subject, her answering squeal of joy made me flinch and wish that I could pull the Bluetooth thing away from my ear. It ahh, went on for a few seconds. Somewhere in the background, I heard the others quickly and repeatedly asking what was wrong. Oh, and they were also pleading with her to come down, so I could only imagine she had used her wing pack thing to fly up by the ceiling in her excitement.

“Trevithick!” I managed to cut in, glancing toward Lucent and Lion. From the way they both had their heads cocked as they looked toward me, I had the feeling they could hear at least part of that squeal and were amused. “Hey, if you really don’t want to meet her–” I started to tease. 

“No, no, no!” the kid immediately blurted. “I do! Yes, please! Bring her over! It’ll be great, it’ll be fun, are you serious? Is she really coming? It’s really the real Lion and she’ll come over?” 

Before I could respond to that, I heard a rather panicked Fred demand to know where Paintball had gotten a lion and why the hell I thought bringing it over there was a good idea. And that no, very firm no, absolutely no, she could not keep the lion. Also, was I/Paintball ‘completely nuts?’

Leaving Wren to explain the situation to her uncle for a moment, I looked at the two TONIs and cleared my throat before giving them a thumbs up. “I uh, think it’ll be okay. She’s really excited to meet you.” 

“And I to meet her,” Lion quickly assured me, tiny head bobbing up and down before jerking a bit to the side to watch as a car drove past in the distance. She turned just as sharply to look upward, and I glanced that way to see a bird flying past. The moment it had moved on and was no longer an immediate danger, her nose twitched and she snapped her head yet again, looking toward the gate nearby as a man walked out, heading down the sidewalk. 

Watching all that drove home just how vulnerable she must feel. She was even more intelligent than most humans, yet Lion was trapped in a body small and vulnerable enough that, without the armor she wore and her inventions for protection, a small human child could have killed her with a single kick. No wonder she was so nervous. And that didn’t even count all the actual predators out there who would have eaten her in an instant, without any regard for the things she could design and build. She had a mouse’s fearful instinct combined with a very intelligent understanding of just how vulnerable she could be. That must have been utterly terrifying. 

By that point, Wren had returned to the phone, her voice high with excitement as she urgently insisted that everything was fine and we should bring Lion over right now because she had so many things she wanted to ask about, and show her, and and and it went on. Yeah, she was basically losing her mind like a total fangirl at the very concept of meeting the mouse TONI. 

“Okay, okay,” I managed once I could get a word in edgewise. “But Trevithick, this is important. Do you want me to bring her to your shop directly, or do you want to meet her somewhere private?” I didn’t say it out loud, but I knew both she and the two in front of me would know what I was really asking. Which was, did she want Lion (and possibly Lucent) to know where her shop was and who she was, or did she want to keep her identity and place completely secret from them.  

In response, there was a pause. It told me that the kid was actually taking the question seriously, despite her excitement. I could picture her standing there, thoughtfully chewing her lip as she weighed the options back and forth a bit. “Hang on,” she finally replied. Then I heard her start a murmured conversation some distance away from the phone, talking to her uncle about it. And possibly to the others as well. Honestly, I was just glad she hadn’t dismissed the potential concern out of hand. Especially considering I still wasn’t completely positive that we could absolutely trust Lucent without question. Oh, I was pretty sure he was safe and all, but I wasn’t going to translate pretty sure into total certainty. Not when it came to something like my parents. 

Finally, the younger girl’s voice came back. “I want to ask her for ideas about protecting this place, so she should probably know where it is.” Unlike moments earlier, she was speaking calmly and rationally. It was clear she had put real thought into the answer. “It’ll be okay. ButI’mtotallywearingarealcostume!” The last bit came flooding out in a rush of words, followed by a lamenting squeal about how she had to find something good. 

Hoping that she was right about this being okay, I promised to be there soon, then disconnected and looked to the others “Well, guess it’s fine. You get to meet my friend, Trevithick. But umm, keep everything you find out to yourselves, please?” I wasn’t sure how to ask Lucent not to go as well. Despite the voice whispering in the back of my head that I can’t be certain he wasn’t compromised by the Ministry, I just couldn’t find the right words without being completely suspicious and rude. 

Fortunately, it turned out I didn’t have to find any words. Lucent himself gave what was the best bird-approximation of a bow. “I believe the invitation was for Lady Lion herself. Far be it from me to overstep. Perhaps you should take our exceptional friend here to meet this Trevithick, then meet me in some neutral location for our own training session while they converse?”

A swell of relief ran through me while I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. Yeah, I can do that.” Of course, then the relief turned into uncertainty as I looked down at Lion. “Um, do you mind if I carry you, or… umm…” Yeah, given how justifiably nervous she was, this was pretty awkward.  

Lion, for her part, turned a bit. “Jared, could you come out here, please?” 

Jared? Blinking uncertainly, I turned. Lion must have been speaking through a communicator or something, because it took a minute before the gate opened and a man emerged. Not that I would have noticed him if he hadn’t been the only person coming into view. In a crowd, he would have basically vanished completely. He looked completely ordinary and average in every conceivable way. He wasn’t short, and he wasn’t tall. He had dark hair with an unremarkable cut, his clothes were clean and might as well have been made by a company named Boring. He wore glasses, but they were so mundane that you would be forgiven for forgetting he had them at all five minutes after he walked away. The man seemed genetically predisposed to fade into the background of any situation, and everything he wore completely facilitated that. If I had seen this man in a crowd of people, I would have completely forgotten his existence a moment after they passed. Which, I was absolutely certain, was the intention. 

Stopping in front of us, the man offered a faint, polite smile. “Good morning,” he greeted me. 

“O-oh, umm, Paintball, this is ahh, my friend Jared,” Lion introduced us, raising one paw to gesture back and forth. “Jared, this ahh, this is Paintball. You uh, remember from the videos.”  

Videos? Oh God. As a pink flush of embarrassment crossed my hidden face, Jared gave a short nod and smiled at me. “You gave that demon guy a pretty good run across the city. Gave Lion and me a laugh, let me tell you.” 

Still blushing, I managed a casual shrug. “Yeah, well, I sorta had to run away, considering I wasn’t really in the mood to let him dribble me off the ground and toss me in a dumpster. My name is Paintball, not basketball.” 

“He could do it too,” Jared agreed with a grimace. “Glad you got away. And made him look like a fool in the process. But I hope you’re being careful.” 

My head bobbed. “Believe me, I have a lot to be careful about, it’s not just him.” 

“Indeed,” Lucent put in, “You have proven yourself quite adept at a great many things. But perhaps none as much as your proclivity for making enemies very quickly. The Scions and their admirers will not simply go quietly into the night. You must remain vigilant, and aware of your surroundings. I–” He paused before shaking his little bird head. “I will not attempt to insist that you join a larger group, particularly not now that you have gone so far as to attract others to your side and given yourselves a name. But please, be as careful as possible. And do not hesitate to ask others for help should you need it. I, for one, will always stand ready to swoop in and lend a wing, so to speak.” His dark eyes seemed to stare straight through my visor. “All parental jokes aside, I will be there the moment you request it. You have more than earned that aid. Please, you are enough of a hero as it is. Should the need arise, ask for help.” 

Feeling embarrassed and uncertain under the intense scrutiny, I squirmed a bit on my feet before mumbling an agreement. Then I turned back to Lion, as the little mouse carefully asked Jared to take off the backpack he was wearing. As a testament to how utterly mundane the man and his clothing were, I hadn’t even noticed he had one. But there it was. He carefully took the thing off. It was very simple-looking, a brown and white bag with what looked like a cheap padlock and several zippers across it. At a glance, the bag didn’t look any different than what you’d see on any of a thousand different backs walking through an average high school. But something told me it was much more unique than that.  

Sure enough, Lion explained that the bag was a home away from home. It held screens and microphones she could watch and communicate through, and was shielded in general against damage. Plus, there was a mouse-sized holdout bunker in the bottom that was capable of standing up against an incredible amount of damage if things got really bad. 

“Oh, you want me to wear that while we go visit Trevithick?” I realized. 

Her little mouse head bobbed quickly, voice emerging from the speakers built into her armor. “If you wouldn’t mind? I don’t umm, ahhh, think it would be very comfortable in your pocket.” 

Jared spoke up then. “You’ll have to wear this too.” He extended a hand, showing me a small pin. It looked just like a little silver eagle or hawk, with black beads for eyes. Except they weren’t beads. They were the lens for a camera. Jared explained that if I clipped it to the front of my costume, Lion would be able to see what I could. She could also see behind me through cameras in the bag, but this was her way of keeping an eye on what was going on in front of us. 

So, I carefully put the pin on, and Jared helped the mouse into the bag. We made sure it was all working and she could see and communicate with me properly before Lucent promised to talk to Lion later, and reiterated that he would see me somewhere else after I dropped off Lion. We settled on the roof of a grocery store we both knew about, and my bird-dad went flying off. 

Feeling a hand on my shoulder, I turned it to find Jared looking at me intently. “You be careful with her,” he warned. “The bag’s protected, but don’t go chasing problems while she’s there.”  

Before I could respond, the mouse’s projected voice came through speakers in the bag. “It’s ahh, okay, Jared. I’m sure um, Paintball will be ahh very cautious about running after trouble. Um, right?” Her voice took on a slight note of worry, probably considering my reputation in that moment.

Coughing under Jared’s intense stare, I weakly protested, “Oh, come on, I’m sure I can go five minutes without chasing after horrible bad guys or tripping over a bunch of crazy violence.” 

“Um, if it’s only five minutes,” Lion’s voice piped up once more, “maybe we should, ahh, hurry?” 

Jared warned me again not to go crazy, and I gave him a thumbs up before carefully adjusting the bag on my back. Cinching it tight, I spoke up. “Let me know if I need to slow down or anything. And uhh, I’ll avoid doing any flips.” With that, I raised a hand to shoot a blob of red paint toward the corner of nearby street light, and launched myself upward through a mix of that and blue paint under my feet, releasing the red on my way up so that I shot past it and used another red shot on the roof of a building across the street. Then we were flying that way. 

Landing on the roof in a jog, I asked, “How’re you doing in there? Everything okay? I can slow down if you want, or just take it easy on the jolts.” We were approaching the edge of the roof, but I slowed down to give her time to respond before the next jump. 

To my relief, she immediately chirped, “It’s quite alright, Mr. Paintball. The ahh bunker bag was built to dampen inertia and umm, compensate for sudden motion. You would have to move much faster than that to have any sort of problem. But umm, just in case, this–” There was a loud ringing sound, like an old telephone.  “–means please stop, there’s a problem.” 

Holding my hand in front of the pin-camera, I gave her a thumbs up. “That’ll definitely get my attention. Right, in that case, hold on. Or, you know, brace yourself.” 

With that, I pushed off from where I had stopped a few feet from the edge of the roof. Painting my legs green, I use the burst of speed to get there in an instant before activating purple circles on my arms. Using the boosted strength, I launched myself out into open air, windmilling a bit  before sending another shot of red at the side of the next building. I let it pull me that way, twisting a bit so that I landed feet-first against the wall, the gravity boots keeping me in place. Then I ran along that wall a few steps before using the voice code to make the wheels of my skates pop out. As we rolled toward the edge of the building, completely sideways, I called back, “Hope you’re ready back there, Miss Lion. 

“Cuz we’re about to have some fun.” 

*******

I didn’t go too nuts, of course. I kept my promise to avoid flips, for one thing. There might have been inertial dampeners in the bag, but I wasn’t sure how well they would stand up to going completely upside down. And I definitely didn’t want to test it with Lion in there. That felt like a really bad idea. Or at least a good way of ending up with an incredibly dizzy mouse. 

But I did make some long jumps and showed off a little, making sure Lion was okay after each one. She seemed to be enjoying herself, so I played it up a little more as we got closer to Wren’s place. Something told me she probably didn’t get out like this that often, so I wanted to make the whole thing memorable for her. Preferably without making her sick. 

Taking a moment at the end to make sure no one was close, I made my way through the alley leading up to the back of the shop while telling Lion that we were almost there. “Before you meet Trevithick,” I started, “there’s something about her that I should probably tell you ab–” 

“Paintball!” The back door of the shop was already open as we approached, and Wren came flying out. Literally flying, with her wing pack. As promised, she was wearing a costume… of sorts. It consisted of a sleek black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels along her arms, legs, and chest, and matching black helmet, covering her entire head and face. A pink-tinted visor ran across her eyes. 

She flew right up in the air at eye-level, and grabbed my shoulders, staring at me through that pink visor. “Didja bring her, is she here? You weren’t fibbing, were you? She’s really coming?” Her gaze was darting around excitedly, like a kid anticipating Santa’s arrival. Which, for a Tech-Touched like Wren, being able to talk to someone like Lion probably was a lot like Santa. I had a feeling there weren’t too many people the kid could talk shop with. 

Laughing a little despite myself, I nodded. “First of all, you really threw that together in ten minutes? And it’s okay, she’s here. Lion, this is Trevithick.” 

There was a very brief pause before Lion’s voice emerged, “It is ahh, a pleasure to meet you. Quite a pleasure. May umm, may we go inside so that it can be face to face?” 

Realizing she was in the bag, Wren gave a delighted squeal. She spun three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, all the way around in the air. Then she did it again, only that time it was a full forward vertical flip rather than a simple sideways spin. “Come on, come on!” Inverting in midair, she flew right back through the open doorway while calling back for us to follow her. 

Clearing my throat, I managed, “Like I was gonna say, she’s young. But really effective.” 

“I-umm, I believe you,” came the response. “From everything I’ve ahh, heard, her age is no detriment to her skill. She is the uhh, one who built the forced movement suit?” 

Right, of course she would know about that. Lion probably had contacts within all the Star-Touched groups to have learned about what we did with Ashton. Plus, she was clearly friendly with Lucent from the Seraphs, and they knew plenty because I’d ‘borrowed’ a piece of their technology for the suit. 

So, I nodded while heading to the door, not wanting to make Wren wait so long that she spontaneously combusted or something. Only belatedly did I realize that nodding was dumb, because Lion couldn’t see my head movements. Flushing a little inwardly while silently thanking the fact that no one had seen that, I spoke up. “Yeah, that’s her. She’s umm, she’s done a lot.” 

For a brief moment, I actually considered asking for her advice about Paige. But I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Not that she wasn’t trustworthy, probably. But it really wasn’t my place to go exposing Paige like that to someone she didn’t even know. After all, with my secrets, how would I feel if one of the others took it upon themselves to tell someone else about them? Even if they thought the person could help, I’d still feel pretty shitty about it. 

So no, unless Paige said it was okay, I wasn’t going to get into all that with her. It wasn’t my place to make that sort of decision. Besides, I still needed to ask her what the deal with her older sister was. 

By the time I shook that thought off, we’d entered through the back door. Immediately, I saw Wren hovering over by one of the tables full of junk, clutching the side of it with both hands while literally vibrating in midair. She was hovering there, staring without moving any closer. Because, I realized, she was literally holding onto the table to stop herself from lunging my way and demanding once more to meet Lion. 

Oh yeah, and the others were there too. Fred stood in the background, watching with a wary, uncertain expression. He wore no costume at all, of course. Meanwhile, Murphy and Roald stood on either side of him. In their case, my two…. helpers wore their ski masks. Apparently they weren’t on board with exposing their identities to Lion. Which was fair. Not that it would be impossible for the little mouse to figure out if she actually investigated Wren’s shop at all, but still. 

Apparently Peyton wasn’t here yet. If she was smart (smarter than me, at least) she’d be using this chance to sleep in and relax.

Rather than torture Wren any further, I stepped over to the nearest table and slipped the backpack off. As I put the thing down, a little slot in the front opened and the guest of honor hesitantly poked her nose out. She snipped cautiously once, twice, then stepped into view. Her small head was darting around rapidly, looking almost panicked as she took everything in. By contrast with her rapid motions, her voice was actually fairly calm (at least as calm as she seemed to ever sound). “Ah, hello. It is uhh, my pleasure to meet another… ahhh… Tech-Touched such as you, Miss.” 

A rush of fear ran through me that Wren was going to squeal or scream and lunge that way, terrifying the poor mouse. But she actually seemed to understand what a bad idea that was. I saw her physically take a breath, then lower herself back to the ground before taking a few careful steps closer. “H-hi, Miss Lion.” Oh, and she sounded nervous, rubbing the back of her new helmet and squirming. “I’m… umm, I’m Wren. It’s really nice to meet you. Oh, that’s Uncle Fred.” She gestured that way. “And those are… uhhh…” She trailed off, as both she and I realized we weren’t sure what to call the other two if we weren’t giving away their names. 

Murphy, however, was on top of it. She gestured to her friend. “That’s Calvin. I’m Hobbes. Don’t mind us, we just clean up around here. Umm, Miss Talking Brilliant Mouse Lady.” Much as she was still trying to keep her cool and sound disinterested, I could tell it was all Murphy (or Hobbes) could do not to have a little squealing fit of her own. 

While Lion politely thanked everyone for greeting her, I heard Roald quietly hiss, “Calvin and Hobbes?” to Murphy. 

“Look,” she hissed right back, “that was what jumped into my head. It was that or Yogi and Boo Boo. And guess who would’ve been Boo Boo.” 

Smirking a little despite myself, I turned my attention back to Lion and Wren. “So, you guys cool to talk some shop here while I run around for awhile?” 

“Oh, oh yes.” Lion assured me. “I ahh, I believe we will be quite fine in your absence. 

“There is quite a lot I would like to speak with Miss Wren about.” 

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 20th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Murphy and Roald

“What do you think she’s like?” Roald asked Murphy as the two of them trotted up the last short distance to the pawn shop that Paintball had directed them to before taking off to deal with those Easy Eight people. “I mean, if she’s working with Paintball, she must be pretty cool, right?” 

Shrugging, Murphy looked up at the sign above the door as they approached. “Wren’s Nest. Looks like this is the place. So I guess we’re about to find out if she’s cool, or just some boring old rich chick who likes to build things.” She made a face then as a shudder ran through her. The two moved away from the front door to head around the back the way Paintball had said they should. “God, I hope she doesn’t smell funny. I’m not sure how much I can work for some old chick if she smells funny.”  

“It’s a real job,” Roald reminded her. “Paintball, he… he gave us a chance. He’s giving us a chance. C’mon, Murph. We can work for someone who smells funny, just get that chapstick stuff that smells really good and put it under your nose. Just remember, we’re not working for some smelly old woman, we’re working for a superhero.” Belatedly, he added, “Um, and don’t tell her she smells funny, okay? Even if she does. Cuz–” 

“That was one time, Roo!” Murphy shot back, holding up a finger. “One time. And that woman smelled like she walked through the perfume aisle at the store and dumped every single bottle they had on herself. There was a little girl on that bus who was crying because of that smell. She couldn’t breathe. Nobody could breathe. That woman was a danger to everyone. I’m pretty sure the driver was practically blind from the fumes! I did everyone a favor.” 

Snorting, Roald nodded slowly before pointing out, “Sure, right. It was bad. I’m just pretty sure there was a better way to handle it than dumping your water bottle out over her and asking if she was aware that chemical weapons are a war crime.”  

With an audible snicker, Murphy lifted her chin. “Hey, it got the point across, didn’t it? She got off the bus at the next stop. And I’m pretty sure she took it easy on the perfume after that. I really did a service to everyone she ever meets in the future. Sometimes you have to go with the direct approach. Tough love.” As she said that, they had reached the back door, and the girl put a hand out to ring the buzzer there. 

“Yeah, well,” Roald replied, “at least you don’t have a water bottle this time.” 

Spinning on him at that, Murphy pointed. “That’s why you wouldn’t let me stop to get a drink, you–”

She was interrupted then, as the door abruptly swung open to reveal a six-foot tall, roughly fifty-year-old man with dark slicked back hair and a pronounced potbelly that was at odds with the rest of his quite thin body. “You know, if you kids are trying to play Ding Dong Ditch, you forgot the ditch part.” When he spoke, the two could smell cigarettes. 

“Oh God,” Murphy managed, “are you Wren? I swear, he said she, right?” She looked to Roald. 

Squinting at them, the man grunted after a second. “Hold up, you’re those kids Paintball was gonna bring over.” He leaned out the doorway then, looking both ways before turning his attention back to them. “So, where is he?” 

“Uhh… he had to go fight some bad guys,” Roald hesitantly replied. “Easy Eights, they were driving by in a truck and um, and it looked like something bad was about to happen. So he sent us here, uhh, Mr. Wren, sir.” 

“What?” the man blinked that way, then laughed. “Hell naw. Name’s Fred, not Wren. C’mon, I’ll introduce you.” He stepped back then, holding the door as he waited for them to enter. 

For a brief moment, the two teenagers looked at one another, silently communicating. Finally, they shrugged and stepped in before looking around. Murphy gave a low whistle. “Wow. This place looks awesome. Look at all the shit you’ve got around here. Holy crap, is that a real record player? Like, that thing’s real and not just some fake with an MP3 player built into it or something, right?” She was already moving that way to squint at the thing on the shelf. 

“Uh huh!” A new voice piped up from right in front of Murphy, as a small blonde girl popped into view from where she had been bent down behind the shelf. She had an armful of random objects that she’d clearly just picked up. 

Murphy, of course, yelped and stumbled backward while cursing. “Shit, shit, fuck, what, what?” 

“Sorry!” the younger girl blurted before turning to carefully put the stuff she had collected into a nearby box. “You just sounded really excited about the record player. It’s a Pioneer PL-55X. Classic.” 

Roald, who had come up to Murphy’s side, blinked at the kid. “Oh, uhh, hey. That’s cool. So, is this your… mom’s shop? Your grandmother’s?” 

“Well,” the girl frowned thoughtfully. “It was my dad’s, but… but my parents died.” She went quiet then, before shaking off those feelings. “Now it’s mine.” 

“Yours?” Murphy managed a bit weakly, as the truth began to dawn on both of them. 

“Oh! I’m dumb. Sorry, hi.” With that, the younger girl extended her hand with a bright smile. “I’m Wren!” 

That, of course, left the two teenagers staring at her, then at each other, then back at her again. Roald was the first to find his voice. “Wren the… second, right? You live here with your… grandmother and…” He looked back to Fred. “And him.” 

“That’s Uncle Fred,” Wren informed them. “And nope, it’s just us. Me and Uncle Fred. We help Paintball! And now you get to help us help Paintball. Isn’t that great?” 

In a dull, flat voice, Murphy agreed, “Totally fantastic. He just uhh, he didn’t exactly mention that…” 

“He didn’t tell them you were a kid,” Fred grunted from where he was standing by the door. The man sounded amused by the whole situation. “Probably wanted to see their faces or something. His loss.” 

“So–so wait, wait.” Murphy was clearly still reeling from the whole thing. “This is real? Like, really real? It’s not a joke? You–you’re the Tech-Touched Paintball wants us to help around this place?” 

Scrunching up her face a bit, Wren hesitantly asked, “Is… is something wrong?” 

Once more, the two teenagers exchanged looks before turning back to her. Roald shook his head. “You know what? Nope. Nothing’s wrong. We’re good. You’re like, this really cool Tech-Touched, right? You can really build things?” 

“Can we see some of it?” Murphy put in then, her eagerness totally eclipsing the uncertainty she felt about apparently working for a child. 

The worried, uncertain look on Wren’s face faded quickly, and she brightened. “Sure! C’mon, I’ve got some really great stuff.

“If you think the record player’s cool, wait till you see the machine that makes people really, really slow. Or the teleporter, or–” Abruptly, she hit something on her sleeve, and a pair of dragonfly-like wings sprang out, as she lifted off the ground. “Or these!” 

“You know what, Roald?” Murphy managed, staring up at the hovering, giggling girl, “I don’t care if she’s a kid, a toddler, or an old lady. Even one that smelled. 

“This is gonna be an awesome job.” 

********

Peyton

“Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What’s up with you? What? Whaaaat? Are you serious? Fell-Touched? Like, real bad guys? What? No, no, I wasn’t there. Nope, I was at McDonalds. I was walking home. I was at the bus stop. I was grabbing a sandwich from the store. I was behind the mall buying a bagful of drugs to sell at school. You should see the profit margin on that shit.” 

As she walked across the back parking lot behind the apartment building where she lived, Peyton Favors slowed, grimacing. “Yeah, probably not that last one.” Opening her cupped hands where the assortment of colored marbles quivered and pulsed excitedly, she asked, “What do you guys think? Which excuse is Mom gonna buy?” 

The marbles floated up off her hand, spinning around in circles rapidly before bouncing off each other. Which wasn’t exactly helpful for making up the right thing to say, even if it was cute. Plus, they were going to attract attention. So Peyton quickly pulled them back and pushed the marbles into her pockets. “Just be quiet for a little bit, okay? I can’t explain you to Mom. She just… she wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t understand any of this.” Muttering that last bit to herself, the girl took a deep breath and then jogged across the parking lot. “Time to face the music.” 

She still hadn’t settled on exactly which excuse to use by the time she had gone in the back entrance and used the elevator to reach the ninth floor, where the apartment she and her mother lived in actually was. There, she headed down the hall, and was just about to use her key to unlock the apartment itself when the door suddenly swung open. 

Automatically, Peyton began to launch into her recited speech. “Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What–” 

If her mother noticed that the girl had accidentally started responding to questions she hadn’t even been asked yet, she didn’t show it at all. Instead, the short, red-haired (just like her daughter) and almost abnormally skinny woman grabbed Peyton by both arms and pulled her into the living room, then hugged her so tight the girl thought she might’ve cracked a rib. “Oh my God, you’re home! I was just talking to the police, they told me you weren’t one of the hostages down there and I told them how fucking incompetent they were and–” 

“Mom! Mom, what–” Taking a deep breath to prepare herself for what was coming while her mother was holding her so tight, Peyton managed to extricate herself. “What are you talking about? You called the cops because I was a little late? What hostages? What? Mom, what happened? What did you say to them?” She did her best to look completely baffled and lost about the whole situation, hoping her mother wouldn’t see through it. 

Then she met her mother’s frantic gaze and had to suppress the urge to react. Oh boy, this was hard. It wasn’t like Peyton enjoyed lying to her mother. As much as she might have bristled against the woman’s overprotectiveness lately, she really did love her. Seriously, it had been the two of them basically on their own for as long as she could remember. Lying to her mother right now was hard. But she knew what would happen if she didn’t. Her mom would overreact. She would try to stop her from doing anything dangerous. After Peyton’s dad left, they just… she kind of lost her mind at the thought of losing her daughter too. 

Peyton understood that. She really, truly did. But she couldn’t let that stop her. She had these marbles, these powers, for a reason. She had to use them to help people. Someday, she would be able to explain it to her mother, once she proved that she was a real hero. She would establish herself–her Touched self, as a bonafide, genuine hero. Then she would show her mother who she really was. Once her mother saw what she could do, how she could help people… maybe she would understand? 

Pushing all those thoughts down, she focused on looking as confused as possible while her mother went on about the attack at the shopping center. Through it all, Peyton continued to insist that she hadn’t been there, that she went earlier but had been gone by the time any of that went on. She claimed she was eating with a few people from school that she’d run into. Thankfully, any doubts her mother might’ve had were forced to contend with the fact that Peyton was right there in front of her and that the cops had told her she wasn’t with the group of hostages. 

Of course, Peyton had to explain why she hadn’t answered any calls or texts from her mother. Thankfully, she had an excuse ready for that. Namely, her phone was dead. Mostly thanks to the special app she had downloaded and run to make sure it had been completely drained by the time she got home, but still.

Finally convinced that her daughter was fine after all, and had never been in any actual danger, Suzanne Favors gave a long sigh before looking over to her own phone. “Okay, I guess I’ve got a police lieutenant to apologize to. Let me get that done and then I’ll make you some–oh, you’re not hungry.” 

Peyton started to object that she was starving, only to catch herself. Fuck. She’d said that she was eating with those people from school. Right, damn it. She was going to have to grab some food later. Eating now would just make her mother suspicious again. “Yeah,” she murmured, “couldn’t eat another bite. I uhh, I’m gonna go to my room.” 

Her mom hugged her once more with a sigh of relief, before Peyton headed off with a sigh of her own. But hers was not one of relief. She heard her mother starting to apologize on the phone, hesitating before looking over her shoulder to see the woman standing with her back to her. For a moment, Peyton just stood there, staring for a moment while listening to that. Her voice, when she spoke, was a barely audible whisper. “Sorry, Mom.” 

Yeah, it was probably a good thing she wasn’t trying to eat anything right now. 

She probably wouldn’t be able to keep it down anyway. 

**********

Cavalcade

Technically, the woman who drove her Range Rover through the gates of the storage facility somewhere in the middle of Detroit, a mile or so away from downtown, was known to the world at large as Cavalcade. But no one would have recognized her now. Her hair in that public identity as a Sell-Touched was long, flowing, and black. The woman who was parking her vehicle near the building that served as the main office had short blonde hair styled in a pixie cut. She also wore thick-rimmed glasses. And yes, she was aware that she was leaning into that trope, but the truth was she actually needed them. The goggles she wore in costume weren’t just for show, after all. They had prescription lenses. 

In addition to the different hair and the glasses, she wore a pair of slightly loose jeans and a somewhat too-large shirt and jacket that helped to play down and conceal rather than emphasize her voluptuous figure. The opposite of her Touched-Self’s red bodysuit. 

No, it was quite clear from both a glance and further inspection that this woman and the mercenary known as Cavalcade were very different. By design, of course. Being someone who worked for the highest bidder on either side of the legal line tended to also make you enemies on both sides of that line. Even when you lived by your own code, kept things professional, and refused to either rat out criminals who employed you or work with total psychopaths like the Scions, there were still those who would love to make life hell for a poor mercenary who was just trying to get along. 

Okay, ‘poor’ was a very bad descriptor for her in almost every way. But still. 

Stepping out of the Range Rover before crossing the short distance to the main office on a pair of simple, functional tennis shoes, the much-less outrageous and attention-getting woman tugged open the door before poking her head in. “Morning!” she called toward the desk that took up about half of the room in this small office. 

“Miss Mclean?” the dark-haired young woman, practically a kid really (she was still in college, after all) rose from the seat. “Is everything okay?” 

Brianna Mclean. That was what people (generally) knew her as whenever she wasn’t being Cavalcade. It wasn’t the name she had been born with, of course. She’d left that behind at least two identities ago. But Brianna Mclean worked. 

“Oh, absotively!” Brianna confirmed with a smile, still standing in the doorway. “I just wanted to let you know I got your request for next week off, and you go right ahead. We’ll get people to cover your shifts, you focus on studying for that test, Jessie.” 

Brightening, Jessie thanked her, and Brianna gave the girl a quick thumbs up before stepping out again. There, she had done her job as the owner of this place. Time for a little fun. 

She left her vehicle where it was. It wouldn’t surprise anyone, since her apartment was actually connected to the lot itself. She often left her vehicle at random places on the property. 

However, rather than walk toward that small building, barely a stone’s throw away from the door into the main office, Brianna turned the opposite way and began to stroll through the parking lot, past dozens of storage sheds where random people kept their random junk. 

Walking to a specific storage unit, Brianna hummed to herself while reaching out to open the nearby keypad. Thumbing in the code, she waited until it gave a confirming beep, then looked straight at the tiny lens on top, waiting for it to scan her face. As it did, there was one more beep, followed by a ding. The ding was from the woman’s phone in her pocket, where she would have just gotten an alert that the door had been accessed. Even if someone managed to copy her face and get her code (and know to come here in the first place), she would get the alert that they were there. 

Taking the phone from her pocket, Brianna entered the six digit code there that would prevent the place she was about to enter from engaging security measures. Then she reached down, hauled the door up, stepped inside, and let the door roll back down behind her. 

The storage room looked like any other, on the surface. There were boxes stacked up that had various clothes and books, a pair of skis, a rundown chair, and some paintings in the corner that weren’t worth more than twenty to thirty bucks a piece. Walking around all that, Brianna moved to the back corner of the room. Taking her phone out, she pressed a button, and, with a low grinding noise, a small section of the floor there slid away to reveal a set of stairs leading down. 

She descended, letting the hidden trapdoor slide shut behind her before continuing on to emerge into what turned out to be an enormous penthouse condo that took up a large portion of the underground area beneath the storage facility lot. The place would have been right at home functioning as the imperial suite in a five star hotel. 

This was Brianna’s real home. She spent enough time in her supposed apartment at the edge of the lot to make it look as though she lived there, and it was where her official residence was. But this was where her money went. This was where she relaxed. She had everything she needed here, far from prying eyes and legal entanglements. 

With a smile, the woman glanced around the luxurious living room that her hidden tunnel opened up into. Her gaze passed over the ‘windows’ along the opposite wall, which were actually video screens showing a view of the skyline over Tokyo at the moment. 

“Lana,” she addressed her personal assistant computer. “Dim the lights to half, run a hot bath in the master whirlpool, and put last night’s Pistons game on the screen in there, starting from the second quarter when I had to leave.” 

“Yes, Brianna,” came the soft response. 

As the lights dimmed and she heard the distant sound of basketball and running water, Brianna sighed in appreciation. Then she walked that way, stripping down as she went. 

Even the Evans couldn’t have it much better than this. 

*********

The following takes place a short time in the future from the current regular chapters

Right, I couldn’t avoid it anymore without drawing attention. Even though I was still dealing with everything that happened (and was still happening) with Paige, there was something important I had to do. Okay, there are a lot of things I had to do, but this one jumped to the top of the list. I had to go to court. Well, I had to go to the courthouse and give my depositions for everything official that had happened since I started this whole Star-Touched thing. Every bad guy that got arrested because of me, every official police case I had any involvement in, all of that. 

First, I’d gone through that same unremarkable building a block away from the courthouse That-A-Way had directed me to so I could turn in those papers about holding Ashton prisoner before. I’d even been escorted through to the tunnel that led to the courthouse itself by my old pal, Officer Metts. 

And now, here I was, sitting in one of the so-called deposition rooms. As Flea had promised, the room consisted of a long table. The judge sat at one end, the court stenographer at the other end. I sat in the middle on one side, while a couple empty chairs sat opposite me, and one just a little bit down from where I was sitting. 

The judge, an old, entirely bald black man with the last name of Pamure, gently asked, “Do you know how this is supposed to work?” 

Swallowing back the nerves that I felt, I nodded. “Those folders next to you are all the cases that I have something to do with. You’ll go through each case one at a time, call in the lawyers for both sides. The defendant lawyer sits over there, the prosecuting attorney sits over here on this side. They each get to ask questions about everything in the case, just like they would in court. The stuff I say gets recorded by her, and by that.” I nodded toward the stenographer, then to the camera up in the corner of the room. “We do that for every case, then move on.” 

Judge Pamure confirmed, “Yes, pretty much. We also like to move these things along as quickly as possible, because there’s a lot to go through every month. You, it’s been more than a month, but we let newbies slide a little bit. Not like the system doesn’t have enough to deal with anyway.” He cleared his throat then. “Anyway, that’s the gist. You don’t have to answer any questions about your identity, your personal life, anything you feel uncomfortable with. We’ll zip through the questions from both sides, you just tell the truth about what happened–you’ll be sworn in before we start, and we’ll all get out of here. Okay, you’ll get out of here. I’ll move to the next Touched in line. So, you ready?” 

After I confirmed that I was, the judge had the first pair of lawyers brought in by the bailiff–who happened to be the same man who subsequently had me put my hand on a copy of the state constitution and swear to tell the truth. I did, of course, and everyone settled in for the first set of questions, from the prosecuting attorney. 

Ashton. This was all about Ashton. I should’ve figured they’d start with this one. Bit by bit, question by question, I established everything safe for them to know about what had happened, why we held him prisoner for a short time, what we’d done to get back the vials that he had stolen and why, and so on. 

Ashton’s lawyer, of course, had her own questions. But honestly, she didn’t seem all that invested. Oh, she did her job. She pushed back on a few things I said, just enough for the judge to calmly tell her to back off at least once. But she didn’t really seem completely devoted. Probably because she was a public defender. She did her job well enough to be counted, but Ashton wasn’t an important case to her. He was just a number. I also had the feeling that some of those questions had come from Ashton himself, thinking he was going to trip me up. A few I saw her cross off with a pen without even reading them. So those ones must’ve been real doozies. 

Eventually, it was done. Both lawyers said they had no more questions. But instead of leaving, they both shuffled some papers around, and suddenly we were talking about a different case, a random mugging I’d stopped weeks back. It took me a bit by surprise before I recovered. Right, of course the same lawyers would work different cases. They were going to run through every case that involved the same attorney(s) while they were already here. 

Yeah, this was going to take awhile. But at least I only had to do it once a month. So, I pushed my thoughts away from worrying about that whole… Paige thing and focused on answering questions. 

If nothing else, trying to answer all these questions without saying the wrong thing was a pretty good distraction from everything else going on in my life.

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Building Connections 16-13 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, congratulations! We have pushed over the 400 dollar per month mark on the Patreon! Which means you’ve hit the reward level that raises the minimum chapter length from 3000 words to 3500 words! As long as we stick above 400 (or generally close to it) I’ll keep that minimum length there. And hey, if we ever get up to 500, that will mean the minimum length goes up to 4000 words! Thank you all so much and now let’s get on with the last chapter of this arc.

Of course, talking to Peyton about Paige meant that I was going to have to expose a bit about the other girl. But what else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t save her by myself. Well, I could try, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t go very well. If there was someone in there that was giving Paige a hard time, if that virus duplicate was enough to make Paige desperately call for help, then I couldn’t deal with her by myself. I just couldn’t. And I was pretty sure even one other person helping wouldn’t be enough. Especially considering Wren wouldn’t have any control over what happened once I was in there. I’d seen plenty of movies and games about going into computers, and the person in control tended to be able to, like, manipulate the environment. That would complicate things, to say the least. Especially if I was in there by myself. 

Yeah, I had no choice but to involve Peyton in this situation (if she was willing to be involved), because I was going to need all the help I could get to save Paige from this virus thing. It wasn’t the most… optimum situation. But then, when had I ever been in an optimum situation since that first night? The night when my entire life had changed, when I’d found out the truth about my family. Or started to. Things had been complicated ever since then, and they only seemed to be getting more so as time went on.  

At the very least, it was possible that I could stop Peyton from actually finding out who Paige really was beyond her first name and what she looked like. Seriously, it wasn’t like she had any reason to recognize the girl on-sight or whatever. Paige wasn’t famous, and her face wasn’t all over the news. She hadn’t been reported missing. Most people had no idea who she was, thanks to the fact that her family (her adopted family anyway) didn’t exactly go showing her off for the press or whatever. Sure, she was pretty and all that, but lots of people were pretty. I was fairly sure that even her name wouldn’t be recognizable. Well, maybe her last name if it happened to come up for some reason. But just a blonde girl named Paige? Yeah, maybe I was just trying really hard to justify it to myself, but I was pretty sure Peyton wouldn’t have any clue who the other girl was, even if she heard her called Paige and saw her face. After all, she definitely didn’t go to our school. That was one benefit to knowing who Peyton was. I already knew for a fact what school she went to. Paige would be just some blonde girl she knew nothing about, right? 

Not to mention, all of that, again, depended upon Peyton actually agreeing to go along and help with this ridiculous, insane thing. As I reached the main store and saw the girl in question over helping Murphy and Roald pick some things up and restock them, I had a sudden wave of doubt. Should I even bring it up? God, what was the right answer?  Even if she wanted to contribute to this, what if something happened to her in there? Okay well, supposedly nothing could happen to her in the virtual reality system. It was basically the safest mission we could go on, aside from what would happen if we failed and the evil virus duplicate took over and started controlling Paige. And the best way to stop that would be to have as much help as possible, right? Yeah, just great. This was all just so great. Wonderful situation I’d found myself in, yet again. 

Taking a deep breath just as the others noticed me and looked over, I walked that way. “Hey, Alloy, could I talk to you for a minute outside? It’s kind of important. Okay, it’s really important.” I was trying to stress that importance with my voice without actually sounding as panicked as I felt about the whole thing. 

After a brief pause where she glanced at the other two, Peyton shrugged and nodded. “Uh, sure, yeah. No problem. I’ll be back, you guys. But remember, don’t you dare ask the kid what that machine in the corner is without me. I’ve still got five bucks that says it makes waffles and I’ll be damned if I’ll let you cheat me out of it.” 

That said, the two of us headed out through the back door together and into the alley behind the shop. Once we were there, Peyton just watched me curiously while I hemmed and hawed for a few long seconds, trying to decide exactly how to bring this whole thing up and explain it. Because boy was this ever hard to jump into. Seriously, how was I supposed to easily bring her up to speed and then ask her to get involved?  

Finally, I settled on giving her the basic story, that there was a girl who was part android thanks to her evil Tech-Touched father who wasn’t in the city anymore, but her identity had to remain mostly secret for her own safety. I explained that we had to use virtual reality to go into her mind, essentially, to stop an evil duplicate virus from that same evil father from taking over and controlling her into doing lots of horrible things. And yes, the longer I went on, the more crazy it sounded even to me. And I had been living it. I knew it was true, but I still felt like a complete gibbering psycho the more the words about it came out of my mouth. How did I go on day by day living with this kind of insanity? 

Unsurprisingly, by the time I finished, Peyton was staring at me like I had just told her the most ridiculous, absurd story she’d ever heard. Funny, that. She made a noise now and then as though to say something, but no words came out the first several times she tried to speak. Finally, with one finger raised (the index, not the middle as some might have after that kind of story), she asked, “Are you fucking with me right now?” 

Snorting at that despite myself, I shook my head as firmly as possible. “No, believe me, a big part of me wishes I was. I wish this whole situation was a joke, that my life wasn’t actually this complicated and ridiculous. And you really don’t even know a quarter of it.” Muttering that part under my breath, I shook it off and pushed on quickly. “But the point is, I’m telling you the truth about what’s going on here. You seriously don’t need to get involved in this if you don’t want to. Trust me, I will absolutely understand if you decide to turn around and run away as fast and as far as you can. Err, metaphorically speaking. Don’t run away from home or whatever. The point is, this is just something I have to do. And it would be pretty nice to have as much help as possible, especially considering I have no idea how much control this virus thing is going to have over the… you know, environment or whatever in the virtual reality system. Honestly, I don’t know anything about how it’s gonna go in there. Maybe you’d be safer leaving well enough alone. Maybe you’ll regret it if you go. Maybe we both will. But I’m going in there, and if–if you’d help me do it, I’d be really grateful.” Yeah, that whole thing sounded and felt incredibly awkward both in my head and out loud. But what else was I supposed to say? This was the simple and easy part of how things were. If I told her the full story about my family, the Ministry, and all of that, I was pretty sure she really would run screaming in the other direction as fast as she could go and I’d never see her again. Sometimes, I really wished I could do that. Just run away from the whole thing.

So, I just got all of that out there, breathed a couple times, and looked to the girl with a hesitant, “So, ready to change your mind about that whole ‘teaming up’ idea now that you know what kind of insanity comes with it? Believe me, I will absolutely understand if you’re ready to bounce.”

For a few seconds, Peyton was completely silent. She seemed to be weighing the whole thing. Which, I honestly couldn’t blame her for either. I would have needed a hell of a lot more than a few seconds if I was going to process being told what she had just been told without any real warning. It was a lot to take in. Eventually, however, she straightened and looked at me. “If this is the kind of stuff you’re involved in, then it’s the kind of stuff I’m involved in. I told you, I wanna team up. I know you’re still keeping a lot of important things away from me. I’m not dumb. But I don’t blame you for keeping things to yourself. You don’t even know me. Not really. And if this is how I can start to earn your trust, I’ll do it. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but we’re teenagers with superpowers, of course it all sounds crazy. For all I know, this is a completely normal day for Touched people. Maybe they go into virtual reality machines to help android girls all the time. I just–I wanna help, Paintball. Seriously, I want to be involved. Whatever it takes for me to prove you can trust me.” 

Yeah, even after she said that, a part of me wanted to tell her to turn around and get the hell out of here. But I pushed the impulse down and just told the girl to be back here tomorrow evening. And that we would focus on looking for that Amanda Sanvers girl once we dealt with this situation. Yeah, repaying Deicide was important, and so was doing whatever we could to get rid of Pencil before he killed more people. But we had to prioritize, and Paige came first right now. Especially after everything she had done to avoid killing me. I owed her.

Finally, Peyton looked to me before asking, “So, it’s just you and me going in there tomorrow? Or are you taking your minions in too? That Murphy girl seems like she’d be a good scrapper.” 

My head shook quickly. “We’re not taking them in. But there is someone else. There’s… okay, so there’s this girl I’ve sort of been… right, this is gonna sound weird, again.” With that, I explained that Pack would be coming over to help, assuming she agreed. Which required a lot of explanation about how I was almost, kind-of, sort-of friends with someone from La Casa and all that. Even after I did explain it, I was pretty sure that Peyton was still confused about the whole thing. Which, who could blame her? The entire situation was really strange. But, she basically accepted it, shaking her head before muttering something about how I seemed to have a lot of contacts on both sides of the fence. 

“Actually,” the girl quickly put in, “that reminds me, what’s that whole thing about how it’s not ‘time yet’ for you to talk to Glitch? Or whatever you said. Something like that. You thought Cavalcade was there to get you to talk to Glitch instead of Deicide. How many bad guys do you owe favors to? And does that have anything to do with why you won’t join the Minority or any other team? Is this about trying to play both sides just to make good things happen? Cuz that seems pretty complicated. Oh, wait, is this about me? Do you owe Glitch a favor because of me and that whole thing?” 

Snorting at that, I replied, “Trust me, it’s definitely complicated. And no, it’s not really about you. It’s about…” Glancing over my shoulder, I gestured to the store behind us, explaining the whole thing about Glitch wanting to be paid a fee to allow Wren to operate in the city without being part of her gang. 

Immediately, Peyton asked, “What about Switchshift? You know, the Tech-Touched who works for Ten Towers. Do you really think he’s paying some kind of fee to a bunch of villains just to work in the city, when he’s actively working for people like Ten Towers? Hell, do you think they’d let that happen? I mean, it wouldn’t really be good for their business to let themselves be extorted, right? Not when their entire thing is, like, keeping businesses safe from bad guys.” 

Right, Switchshift did exist. People didn’t really see a lot of him, since he didn’t do much in the way of fieldwork. Which came from the fact that he was apparently paralyzed from the waist down. Or at least, he had to use a wheelchair. Still, he was a guy who made ‘things that transformed, changed position, or switched places.’ There were rumors that he helped make special tools that allowed the heroes of the city to quickly get from one area to another, though nobody was really sure how that worked. Or if it was even true, aside from the fact that the Star-Touched did tend to be able to get around faster than you might expect in this city. 

Anyway, the point was, he was part of Ten Towers. Who might indeed have a problem with paying extortion money to a group of villains just to allow their guy to operate without the constant harassment. For a moment, I considered that, weighing it back and forth my head.

“Maybe,” I finally murmured. “Or maybe they consider paying a small, secret fee to be better than having to fight all the time. Especially if there’s some kind of provision about how much Glitch and her gang are allowed to do against them as long as they’re paid up. I mean, we’re talking about a bunch of corporations here. They care about the bottom line. Like, I can see them deciding that writing off a monthly or yearly fee or whatever is worth it if it makes a group like Braintrust play somewhat nice.” Getting all that out, I reconsidered, adding, “On the other hand–” 

“On the other hand,” Peyton put in for me, “Braintrust attacks Ten Tower places all the time. Okay, I mean, not all the time. But they definitely do it. Would they really be okay with paying them off to leave one guy alone, while Braintrust just keeps hurting their customers? It’s like you said, if they were going to make that deal, they’d want to get more out of it. I mean, if that was even on the table, they probably go ahead and pay enough of a fee to get Braintrust to back off completely, right? It just seems weird if they’ve got some financial arrangement like that with a group that’s actively attacking their property and stealing from them.” 

Thinking about that for a moment, I gave a slow nod. “Okay, so maybe they don’t go after someone like Switchshift because he’s got strong friends around him. Too strong for Glitch and her gang to intimidate. Or maybe it’s something else. The point is, they are coming after Wren. They want her to start paying them for permission to operate here in the city, and she doesn’t want to join Ten Towers, or any other big group in the city that could protect her from them.” 

Peyton was squinting at me, her voice dry. “Yeah, gee, I wonder where she could possibly have gotten the idea that joining some big, powerful group in the city would be a bad idea.”

Flushing a little, I shook my head. “It’s not like that. It’s not– I mean–  okay, maybe I’m not sure what it’s like. I just…” This was getting entirely too close to a conversation we weren’t ready to have yet. Instead, I waved that off. “I know it sounds bad, but I think the best thing to do is to pay the fee, at least for now. We can work on getting rid of Braintrust later, or at least getting into a position where we’re too strong and they have to back off. Right now, I really don’t want to give them a reason to target Wren or this place, you know? We can’t be here twenty-four seven. She’s got defenses already, and she’s working on more, but these are other Tech-Touched. It just–it feels like a bad idea to push things when we don’t have to. If they’ll take money to leave Wren alone until we’re in a better position and know she can protect herself, it just feels like that’s the best move.” 

Peyton thought about that for a few seconds. I wondered how much she was considering what the Braintrust people had done for her before, when they ruined that asshole’s life and exposed him for being a creepy pedophile piece of shit. Even if they had basically done it for their own purposes, just to punish him for stealing their equipment, it had to affect the way she saw them, right? Did she think they were nicer than they really were? I wasn’t sure how that would go. 

In the end, she gave a short nod. “Okay, but is this place even ready to start paying fees, or whatever? Cuz I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly get enough of an allowance to help pay off a supervillain gang. And I don’t think this is the best time to go get a job.”

“Actually,” I pointed out, “it might be the very best time to get a job. Just not a real one. Or at least, not a normal one.” As the other girl stared at me, I quickly explained, “If your mom thinks you have a part-time job, she won’t be as curious about where you keep going all the time, right? It might keep her happy.”   

“Okay,” Peyton agreed, “maybe, but where exactly am I supposed to find a place where I can pretend to have a job, which includes getting paid, but also be able to run off with you whenever…” She trailed off, following my pointed gaze back toward the building we had come out of. Staring that way, the girl raised a hand, then lowered it, quietly murmuring. “Oh. Wait, you really think that’d actually work? You think I can just pretend to have a job here?”  

I shrugged. “I don’t see why not. I mean, come on, it’s just a small pawn shop as far as your mom would be concerned. Run by some guy and his little niece after her parents passed away. They’d pay you to clean up, help around the store, whatever. It sounds like a good cover to me.” 

She was quiet then, considering the point for a few seconds before giving a slow nod. “Okay, yeah, I guess that might work. But isn’t that asking for this little pawn shop to pay out even more money when they haven’t even officially reopened or whatever? I mean–wait, they’re doing more than just pawning stuff, aren’t they?” 

Chuckling, I nodded. “As soon as Wren gets a chance to catch up on everything, which includes this… situation we’re dealing with tomorrow, she’s gonna start working on projects that she can sell. That’ll bring in more money. Trust me, she’s already got ideas, and I’m pretty sure they’re good. The pawn shop’s just a cover. But it should be a pretty effective one. It’s–it’s gonna be okay, Peyton. I know everything seems really complicated right now, and it is. I can’t even–fuck. I can’t get into it right now. But if you can stick with it, I think playing at being an employee here could really give you the cover you need to…” 

“To go out with you and help people?” she finished for me, offering a slight smile. “Sorta like a sidekick?” 

Squinting at that, I looked away, running the thoughts through in my head before turning back with a short nod. “Yeah,” I murmured, “that’s probably fair. You know, to try it out, see if you umm, if you actually want to stick with it once you see how crazy everything is.” That said, I extended a hand to her, waiting for her to take it. “I know I haven’t told you everything. That’s gonna take awhile, if–it’s gonna take awhile. We’ll work up to it. I’m not exactly super-quick to trust people. I mean–it’s a long story. Maybe I’ll even get into it someday. But for now, if you’re up for it, I… yeah, I’d like to work together. You really up for all that, sidekick? What do you say?”

“What do I say?” Peyton echoed. 

“I say, give me a month, and I’ll get you to call me partner.”  

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