Flea

Interlude 22B – Meanwhile On Breakwater (Summus Proelium)

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The drone passing over the island known as Breakwater was silent, while its physical appearance was masked by the thick clouds. Clouds which threatened rain, but had not amounted to more than a few drops just yet. Yet before the day was out, it would certainly become a deluge. Being an island in the middle of the ocean, rain was not exactly an uncommon occurrence. Its inhabitants had long-since learned to recognize the signs that a particularly strong storm was coming and seek shelter. From their various caves, holes, and more man-made shelters, these people who would have been (and once were) considered some of the most dangerous supervillains in the world would watch the rain when it came. For most, it was a welcome sight each time, as it meant they would have more fresh water collecting in the various tarps and bins they had set up for such a purpose. More water meant they could be more active, and even meant they could eat more food. Digesting food properly required water. When there was less water, even when they had food, it was dangerous to eat. They would dehydrate faster if they ate food without having enough water. Having as much as possible was important, and it wasn’t always possible to get to the island’s main river, or the various smaller streams that led off from it. 

There were three ready-sources of potable water on the island, if someone didn’t want to go through the process of making the sea water drinkable. One was the river that ran through the center of the island. But the river, and the streams leading off from it, were often dangerous. Even if one avoided passing through claimed territory, there were those who hunted one another along its banks. After all, the people of this island had not been sentenced here for their ability to be nice to one another and get along. While the island was thirty-six miles long and sixteen miles wide, the river was only about nine miles in length, originating just north of the center, and angling southwest. Those nine miles were heavily protected either by various established and fortified camps of prisoners who had agreed to work together under the often dictatorial fist of their strongest and/or most dangerous member, or by rogue loners who ambushed anyone foolish enough to come into their view and look vulnerable. They had been removed from society for being monsters who killed, tortured, and destroyed lives. They didn’t all stop and become better people simply because their only possible targets were others like them. 

The second source of decent water was the rain, like that which would soon be pouring heavily onto the island, ensuring that even those who stayed far from the dangerous river would survive. Even if they had to slurp from the heavy leaves the rain left soaked through, they could keep going. 

And the last real source was the supply drops, where large crates of not only water, but also food, medicine, and even entertainment were sent to the island. There were two different kinds of these drops. The first sent the supplies to the same location every time, regular drops that could be depended on. Like the easily-defensible spots of the river, the areas each of these drops were made had almost immediately become encircled and fiercely defended by the largest gangs of Breakwater prisoners. Though ‘largest’ wasn’t saying much, given no gang on Breakwater had more than twenty members. They simply could not get along beyond that. Larger groups inevitably broke apart as their personalities clashed. 

In any case, these smaller groups sometimes did work out. They formed camps around where these drops were. The boundaries of these camps constantly fluctuated, as the various gangs fought to bring and keep as many of the steady supply drops within their territory as possible. Especially any supply drop within a near enough distance to the river for a gang to control both. Those were the single most dangerous parts of the island, as small-scale wars often broke out for control of them. A lot of blood had been shed in the name of holding onto the most coveted areas.

But the second type of drop was far more interesting in some ways. Rather than being sent to the same location every time, these drops were random. The crates would simply be sent down first, then have their locations broadcast over the island’s speaker system so that everyone would know where to go find them. 

Why did they do that? Because the people behind the island enjoyed mixing things up and seeing their prisoners fight one another. Which was why the crates with the most entertainment and extras beyond the bare necessities were often these random drops. The people behind Breakwater had long-since found that the island’s inhabitants would fight the hardest for these extras. The prisoners saw water and basic food as possible to get in other places. They had fish, they had animals, they had ways of feeding themselves and drinking, even if it wasn’t the best and wasn’t easy. Books, though? Pillows and blankets? Batteries for their music devices and new music itself? Even cards and board games, and other ways of making the days go by. Those were what worked best to encourage the prisoners to go out and run into one another. They were what the people would most often fight and even sometimes kill for. So those were what was often put into the randomized drops. Even then, they often weren’t really random. They were deliberately chosen in ways that would push so-called interesting groups or individuals together in order to create intriguing or exciting situations. 

After all, it was important that the prisoners entertain their eternal watchers. 

“You’re sending out a drop now, in this weather?” 

The question came not from one of the island’s prisoners, and not even from the island itself. Rather, it came from a man standing in the hatchway of a small room located on a large military ship several miles away. His dark blond hair was cut short on the sides, though the top was a bit of a mop of curls. At a glance, he would have been guessed to be in his late thirties.

Meanwhile, the man he was addressing appeared to be ten years younger, with black hair that was worn somewhat long, just past his ears. This one sat at a console, watching several monitors in front of him as the drone he had launched passed over the island they and those like them were charged with watching over. 

“I’m sending those Stars a little help,” the man at the console replied. “They’ve survived this long, it’s about time they got something.” 

From the doorway, the other man made a noise in the back of his throat. “You know what the orders were, Colin.”

“Yeah,” Colin confirmed. “They can’t get off the island because finding out people can be sent there would make everyone paranoid. And because this is our biggest ratings boost since this whole show started. I get it, Lyle.”

“Do you?” Lyle stepped into the room, shaking his head. “All three of the Earths that we broadcast this Vile Island reality shit to have reported record numbers. Having those two on that island with all those people looking for them is gold to the Board. They are seeing cartoonish levels of dollar signs, my man. Before this happened, they were talking about doing some other big stunts to spice things up. I even heard a couple of them talking about possibly letting the people on this world watch the show.” 

Colin gave him a brief, disbelieving look. “This world? There’s no way that would fly. We’d get shut down so fast the Boards’ heads would spin if the people of this world knew the ultimate island prison was a goddamn supervillain Truman Show mixed with one of those battle royale flicks. Has the Board lost their minds, or did they just forget that that’s the whole damn reason we broadcast to other worlds? Worlds where they know no version of Baldur exists so they can’t rat us out to this version, I might add. If they’re so paranoid about being caught they won’t even broadcast to a world where another version of Baldur exists, how the fuck were they going to broadcast it here?” 

“You got me, man,” Lyle replied with a shrug. “All I know is they were talking about it. But since those two showed up, it’s all about them. They want to see more. They want the prisoners to keep chasing them, keep fighting them. And it’s not just views. People have been betting on this shit. On how long they last, on which of them will die first, how many they’ll take out with them, whether they’ll find a way off, all of it. And since the Board owns all of the official betting sites, they take a cut. I think they’re getting visions of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. So trust me, if anything threatens that, they’ll come down on us like a hammer the size of this ship. If they even get a whiff that we’re about to fuck up their bottom line, they will shove the fist of God up our asses and rip our colons out the hard way.” 

“Relax,” Colin retorted, “I’m not threatening their bottom line. Everything in the drop is kosher.  Nothing in there that isn’t approved by the Board themselves. You know how hard it is to sneak something new into those crates. Everything has to be approved sixteen different times. All I did was give them some extra supplies to keep going, and send it near their last known location.” 

Lyle watched him for a moment. “Let me guess,” he slowly put in while tugging a chair out to sit next to the other man at the console, “you’re not announcing the drop over the PA.” 

“Rules are rules,” Colin pointed out, “I have to announce it. Except I always get the grid mixed up. Is this area six-eleven or eleven-six? Oh well, I suppose if it turns out to be the wrong announcement, I can always correct it later.”  

“After all the prisoners are sent in the wrong direction,” Lyle murmured with a very faint smirk. “So those girls you like can get everything out of it and move on.” 

Colin turned back to the monitors then, watching as the drone targeted the area for its drop. “Maybe I can’t help those two get off the island, or tell anyone what’s going on so they can get them out of there. But I can damn sure give them a little bit of a fighting chance to keep going. Especially after they’ve made it this far on their own. You got a problem with that?” 

There was a very brief pause before Lyle offered him a sly smile. “Nah. I’ve got money riding on them getting out of this.” 

******

Irelyn Banners had not had a very good week, to say the least. Since the moment she and Trivial had ended up on this island, they had been fighting to survive. The best of the people here wanted to kill them. The worst… well, she’d rather not focus on that. There were cannibals and truly horrific monsters among the Breakwater inhabitants. Being evil was a requirement to be sentenced to this place. The population was one hundred percent hardened supervillains. 

Or rather, ninety-nine point nine percent. She and Trivial had thrown off that perfect score slightly. 

The two of them had been moving around a lot, staying away from the gangs as much as possible. As confident as she was in her own abilities, and Hazel’s, they couldn’t stand up to all of these monsters at once. And if there was one thing that gave the assholes reason to work together, it was hunting for a common enemy. So, Irelyn and Hazel kept moving, finding various safe places to stay for a day at the most before moving on. 

At first, Irelyn had not expected to be on the island that long. Surely as soon as someone behind the multitude of cameras watching the place saw who they were, there would be an extraction. But as the hours and days went on, she very soon realized that there would be no help coming. The people behind those cameras didn’t want to admit what had happened. If they let the public know that a couple of Star-Touched had been sent by some third party to this place, there would be panic about others being sent there. Or about people who were supposed to be here being transported off of it. There would be a huge mess for the people in charge, a potential shake-up of the whole system. 

So, Irelyn and Hazel were on their own. How they were going to get off this place was… a question for later. Right now, they were focused on surviving. And on hoping that their teammates would raise enough of a fuss for a real investigation into their whereabouts to happen. 

She still cursed the fact that she had dropped her phone back when they first arrived. They’d run into trouble almost immediately after realizing where they were, and in the ensuing fight, she’d lost the cell. Now it was who the hell knew where. Not that it would’ve helped that much anyway, given this island very obviously had no cell service, and no way to charge it. As evidenced by Hazel’s phone. But still, it would have been nice. 

Just what the hell was going on that whoever was behind Paige’s… entire situation had ended up transporting them to Breakwater? Irelyn had no idea, but she knew who did. That Albert Elcott guy, the one who had posed as the agent who had processed Paige’s adoption, and two others that same year. The man who had built the portal machine that transported himself as well as Irelyn and Hazel to this island to begin with. He had answers. If they could find him, if they could get him to talk, they would find out the truth. 

Unfortunately, finding him was hard when they couldn’t even go anywhere without being hunted by the assortment of psychopaths who had been forced to make this island their home. The two of them were working on that. Right now, their best plan was to find a way to make it look as though they had either died or been taken off the island so that the search for them would fade. Once they didn’t have so many people scouring this place for them, they could start their own search for Albert. He was here somewhere on the island. And whoever he had been trying to help get off the island with that teleporter would have the real answers. If they found Albert, they would find the truth about what was going on with Paige. 

But first, they had to survive. Which had led them here. At one point this had been a decent-sized stream, if not a full on river. But other prisoners had diverted the water with a dam in order to direct it to their own base years ago. Now it was a dry creek bed, about twelve feet across and two or three feet deep, like a ditch running through the ground for two miles or so. Sitting in the center of that creek bed right then was the latest cargo drop, a bright red metal crate six feet across on all sides. The parachute it had used to land safely lay nearby, connected via an assortment of cords. 

The intercom had lied. Though she had only been here a short time, Irelyn had quickly realized how the grid system worked, and where they were. Whoever was doing the announcement of the drop had inverted the numbers. Whether that was intentional or no–it was intentional. She had to believe that. The fact that the drop had come practically right on top of them, yet the gangs who would have been after it were sent in a completely wrong direction couldn’t have been a coincidence. The people in charge may have decided not to help them get off that island, but someone out there was deliberately sending them supplies. 

Unfortunately, it still wouldn’t be as simple as just walking up and taking them. They weren’t the only ones who had noticed the actual physical drop. Even as Irelyn crouched on the outstretched limb of a tree that hung over the dry creek bed, she could see two men approaching the crate. One was about six and a half feet tall, wearing a pair of ratty old jeans that were falling apart and a black tank top. The exposed parts of his brown skin were covered in dozens of small, crescent shaped white markings that ran across his upper chest, down his arms, across his face, and so forth. The other man was a few inches under six feet, with short blond hair and clothes roughly similar to his companion. They approached the crate, keeping a wary eye out for anyone trying to intercept their prize. 

It was now or never. Waiting until the two men had their attention focused on opening the crate, Irelyn (or Flea as she was in-costume) gathered herself before leaping that way. From her crouched position a good thirty feet away, she lunged straight to the men in a single bound. The taller man spun that way, but her foot collided with his chest and sent him flying backward six or seven feet before he fell to his back and skidded through the dirt even further. 

“Haha, two for one!” the man’s partner crowed while pivoting to face her. His hands began to glow brightly red. “We get a supply drop all to ourselves and a tasty treat to play with.” Even as he said that, a pair of red rings of energy shot out from his extended hands, flying straight at Flea.

Meanwhile, behind her, the man she had knocked down was picking himself up as his hand literally ripped one of the white crescent shapes from his own skin. As it was pried up, the mark transformed into a fully three dimensional shape, extending and growing into what amounted to a boomerang. Just as his partner let loose with those two ring blasts, the second man hurled that boomerang. Rather than fly straight at her however, the thing took off like a miniature drone of its own, flying up and to one side as tiny yet very dangerous and rapid laser blasts shot from it. 

With a snap of one hand, Flea sent a sword flying up and to the side, cutting through the ‘drone’ and sending it crashing to the ground. At the same time, she gave what was for her a very slight hop, carrying herself six feet to one side as the rings of energy shot through the space she had been in a moment earlier. The man fired several more times in rapid succession, but Flea was never where he expected her to be. Her quick hops carried her back and forth as he grew increasingly frustrated, firing those rings faster and faster. 

Then, as quickly as if a switch had been flicked, the man passed out. He collapsed abruptly, hitting the ground already snoring. Through those rapid few seconds, Flea had been using her stamina draining power, until he was so tired within even that brief amount of time that he literally fell unconscious while standing up and actively fighting. His body hit the ground and he started to snore. 

Meanwhile, the sword that she had tossed to cut through the small drone had been caught in midair, as Trivial appeared. Turning invisible for three seconds and teleporting one foot at a time might not have sounded like much, but it added up to a lot very quickly when she was coming up from behind the crescent-marked man. Especially when her ability to float several inches off the ground meant he never heard her footsteps. She had run up to a spot almost directly behind him, then turned invisible, taking a few more steps past the man before teleporting that single foot at the last moment to grab the sword. By the time he actually saw her, Trivial had spun back that way, putting the blade right up to his throat. “Touch another of those crescents and I’ll carve a new one that you can’t rip off.” 

The man glowered that way, though he didn’t move. “You think you stand a chance on this island? You should give up now and ask for protection. Or maybe beg for it. Yeah, I like that idea. How about the two of you… sorta… tell me how… far… the dragon… kicked the… ehhhh….”

Trailing off like that after starting to speak exhaustion-inspired randomness, the man’s eyes rolled into the back of his head as he collapsed not far from where his partner had fallen. 

“I do like when they rant or monologue,” Irelyn noted. “Makes it so much easier to put them to sleep. And it makes them say funny shit like that when it kicks in.” Glancing to the other woman, she added, “Are we good?” 

“We’re good,” Hazel confirmed. “Just help me pull them up next to each other.” 

So they did, putting the two men side by side. Hazel knelt between them, putting one hand on each man’s forehead. “Remember, I only get to erase one minute worth of memory per person, per day, and I forget everything that happened in that minute too.” With that, she focused, then abruptly sank back with a gasp. “What–wha?” Her gaze snapped around quickly before realizing where she was, and the two unconscious figures lying on either side of her. “Oh. I guess we won?” 

“We won,” the other woman confirmed. “And within the sixty seconds too, so if we move these guys somewhere else before they wake up, they won’t have any memory of seeing us, or what happened here.” 

The two of them were interrupted by the sound of slow clapping. As their eyes snapped toward the source, a heavy-set pale-skinned man with long red hair and eyes that were jet black with no visible whites stepped into view from the treeline. “Oh, excellent. Excellent indeed. Now I don’t have to share.” 

As Irelyn took a step that way, he held up one hand. “Bup bup. I assure you, I have seen more than sixty seconds of this situation. And even had I not, a word from me and every person on this island hears my voice. You come toward me, and I will ensure they all know where you are.” With those words, the man rubbed his hands together as his eyes turned from black to white, and both women felt the uncomfortable sensation as though their own hands were rubbing together. When he touched his neck while his eyes remained white, they felt a hand on their own necks. Not only could the man share his voice with the entire island, he could make anyone he wanted to within his line of sight experience the exact sensations either he himself, or anyone else within the same area, experienced. 

“Now,” the man continued. “We can come to an arrangement of course, one that does not necessitate that I share my bounty with anyone else.” 

“You’re not getting a damn thing,” Trivial informed him. 

Her words made the man chuckle low, his eyes shifting back from white to black as he ceased focusing on his power for the moment. “No? Because from where I’m standing, you both have very few choices. You could take me prisoner, but I’m too far away right now for your little sleepy power to work, so you’d have to get to me before I can speak the words that would summon every nasty fiend on this island right here. I promise, you can’t fight all of them. And even if you did manage to take me prisoner, I’d get the word out eventually. It seems to me your only chance is to do what you’re told, or try to kill me. But you’re just a couple of superheroes, you’re too good and pure and perfectly innocent to do what–”

In mid-sentence, the man was abruptly cut off. As was his head, which went tumbling off into the bushes. He’d never had a single moment of warning before Flea, in one instantaneous lunge, had put herself right in front of him, slicing through his neck in a blindingly-quick slash. 

“I carry swords for fuck’s sake,” she informed his body as it fell one way, his head rolling off in a different direction. “Did you think I don’t know how to be lethal if I have to?” She looked down at his fallen form, murmuring, “You know who that was?” 

Hazel nodded. “Sharealike. He kidnapped four girls and three boys over a two year period before he was imprisoned here. Most of them didn’t survive. The one who did is going to be traumatized for the rest of her life. Then he killed another thirteen people in one mass terror attack at a grocery store. When the police searched his apartment, they found his girlfriend. The one he killed when she tried to call the cops after she found out who he really was, just before the grocery store incident.” 

“Yup,” Flea confirmed. “So if his fucking ghost thinks I’m going to lose any sleep over him being dead,  he can think again.” 

With that, she gave a sharp flick of the blade and sent the blood away before looking over to her companion. “Are we clear?” 

Cocking her head to the side, Hazel listened with her slightly enhanced senses. She wasn’t exactly able to hear a fly land on a leaf, but it was the best they had. After a moment, she nodded. “I think so, but we should hurry up and get away from this place. Those flipped coordinates are only gonna confuse people for so long.” 

“Right,” Irelyn agreed, hopping away from the body, back toward the crate. “Let’s see what we’ve got in here. 

“And hope it gives us what we need to hole up until this heat dies down, so we can go find Albert and smack some fucking answers out of him.” 

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Patreon Snippets 25 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 25th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). 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. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Paige and Sierra

The sound of bladed skates sliding across ice was joined by that of a hockey stick tapping the puck back and forth a few times as it was brought forward. Then a loud crack filled the air, followed by a solid whoomph as the puck was sent flying into the net just over twenty feet away. Almost all of the lights were off, leaving the ice rink only dimly lit. There was only one person out there. 

Well, two now. 

“Good shot.” As she said those words, Paige glided across the ice from the entrance onto the rink, joining her… sister (the fact that she was using a body that looked like Cassidy was confusing on multiple levels as far as that went) in front of the remaining pucks that had been lined up across from the goal. “But then, I suppose it would be.” 

“Pittman did program us to be good at all sorts of physical stuff,” Sierra agreed without looking up. She raised the stick, judged the distance and angle, then whacked the next puck hard. It bounced off the inside of the left post and ricocheted into the net. “And don’t you still have that whole school thing going on right now? Playing hooky your first day back seems like a bad idea. Were you that paranoid about what I was doing?” 

Paige addressed the latter point first. “Free period. Which you knew when you let me know where you were going to be. And I wasn’t talking about him.” As she spoke, the girl held her hand out for the stick. 

Sierra considered that before taking her next shot. After watching the puck hit the net dead center, she handed the stick over. “You’re talking about Irelyn.” She paused briefly, then added, “About how she brought you here and tried to teach you how to skate, and how to play hockey. Just because you mentioned liking those Mighty Ducks movies.”

“Us,” Paige corrected while lining up her own shot. With another loud track, the next puck was sent into the net. “You have all my memories of those times.” 

Shaking her head, Sierra pushed off and glided around in a slow circle along the ice. “Not really the same thing, babe. I wasn’t really there. It was more like reading a book or watching a movie for me. A movie I’ve completely memorized, but still. I wasn’t actually there experiencing it.” Another pause, then, “I mean, I wasn’t here, I guess. The point is, it’s not a real memory for me. It’s just something that was uploaded when I got… eh, shot into you, literally.” 

“Is that why you’re here?” Paige asked curiously, even as she lined up the next shot and sent the puck flying that way. “Trying to get some sort of personal context for that memory you inherited? Also, considering this place isn’t even supposed to open for another hour today, how much did you bribe the guy to let you in?” While asking that, she held the stick out that way. 

“Fifty bucks for half an hour,” Sierra replied. “Why, did you want me to get a receipt so I could pay you back?” Her hand took the offered stick as she teased Paige, quickly and efficiently lining up another shot so it would bounce back and forth between the front two posts a couple times with a loud ringing sound before going in the net. 

Snorting, the other girl shook her head. “Trust me, there’s a lot more where that came from. Too much, really. And considering the source, I don’t really care what happens to it. I just wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth. You know, since you don’t exactly have a lot of experience with buying stuff.” 

Sierra gave an exaggerated gasp. “Ohh is that why the waitress looked so happy when I handed her two thousand bucks for my meal? The bill probably said twenty dollars, but I just got so confused with the period before the zeroes for the coin amount.” 

“You’re hilarious,” Paige retorted flatly. “But uhh, Sierra, huh?” 

“Sierra Nevada,” the girl confirmed. “First name, last name. If anyone asks, my parents were eccentric. Which, if you ask me, is a step up from the truth.” That time, she pushed off and did a couple slow skating circles before taking another shot. “A pretty fucking huge step up.” 

Rather than respond to that immediately, Paige was quiet for a few seconds. And when she did respond, it wasn’t directly to that. Instead, she asked, “You remember when we… when I was sitting over there, the first time Irelyn brought us to this place?” Her hand gestured over to the bench behind the entrance gate, where people would sit and tie their skates on. 

“She thought you were nervous about being out on the ice,” Sierra murmured, her own gaze moving that way. “She gave that whole pep talk about trying new things and not worrying about being laughed at.” She glanced away with a small frown. “You were only partly listening. Mostly you were worried about looking too good on the ice. You had to hide all that perfect balance, aim, enhanced strength, and everything else that Pittman programmed into us, so you’d actually look like a normal kid skating for the first time. She thought you were afraid of skating and looking bad, but you were really afraid you wouldn’t look bad enough.” 

Paige was quiet once more, her gaze locked onto that bench in the distance as she played that memory out a few times. “You’re right, especially about the part where I wasn’t really paying attention to her. But then, why would I? As far as I knew, she didn’t really care about me being here anyway. I thought she was just going through the motions, doing what was expected of her as the ‘older sister.’ She was already literally disowned, I guess maybe I thought… I dunno, I thought she was just doing that because I might bring her back into the family once her dad was gone or… something.” Saying it out loud like that made her grimace. “Or looking better for her mother. Or for the public. Whatever, I don’t know. I just never considered it as… I never thought she was…”

Sierra’s skate lightly kicked the front of hers, making her look that way. “Never thought she was doing all that stuff because she really wanted to spend time with you? Never thought she really, genuinely wanted to get to know you?” 

“Never occurred to me,” Paige confirmed in a soft voice, wincing inwardly. “I always thought she was playing the role or making an angle for something in the future. And since I never expected to actually have a future in that family, I ignored it. I ignored her. Or, I mean, I ignored the overtures she made. I played the role like I thought she was playing it and… and just assumed she didn’t care beyond that. Back when we were stuck on the couch, when I heard about the Banners disappearing, I thought she might look into that. I thought she might look for them. You know, because they’re important people. And they’re her parents, even if they did disown her. Either way, I thought she might look for them. But me? Why would she look for me?” She turned a bit, her gaze moving from the bench across the way over to where Sierra was quietly watching her. “Why would she look for me?” There was urgency to her repeated question, her voice rising slightly. 

“Because she wasn’t going through the motions,” Sierra informed her flatly. “She wasn’t faking anything, wasn’t pretending. All that stuff she was doing, or trying to do, it wasn’t an attempt to look good, or convince you to bring her back into the family, or anything like that. It was about you. It was about her wanting it to spend time with you. Because she cared about you, dipshit. She was trying to treat you like a real sister. And now she’s looking for you like a real sister.” 

Paige thought about that for a moment, turning away to gaze into the distance without actually seeing anything in front of her. Her focus was directed inward, playing through memories with a different point of view. She thought of everything Irelyn had said to her in the past, everything she’d done, all the times she had invited Paige out to eat, or to an event, or just to spend time together. And she thought of all the times she had used any excuse to get out of it. 

“Fuck,” she finally muttered. 

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sierra agreed. “And now she’s out there in trouble because she wouldn’t stop looking for you. Well, for you and for the parents who disowned her in the first place. Even after we sent her on a wild goose chase, she somehow managed to track something all the way to one of Pittman’s actual labs. Or one of his biolems found her. Or–fuck, I don’t even know. We sent her to Florida, the other side of the fucking country. How the hell did she manage to get anywhere near anything important to Pittman? How’d she manage to end up on Breakwater, for fuck’s sake?” 

Paige took in a breath before letting it out. “I guess we’ll have to ask her, once we get her away from that place. Once we….” She trailed off, words turning into a heavy sigh. 

“Once we actually have a plan for how to do that,” Sierra finished for her. “You know that’s easier said than done, right? This is Breakwater we’re talking about, not just some random prison. The whole point is that it’s supposed to be impossible to get anyone out of there. It–”

“I know!” Paige blurted. “I know it’s going to be hard. Hell, I know it’s going to be practically impossible. But we have to. I mean I have to. I’m not gonna make–I mean–” She blanched, folding her arms as she stood there on her skates. “I’m not gonna force anyone else into anything stupid. But I have to get Irelyn off that island. Her and Trivial too. They were trying to help me. They–she… Irelyn’s there because I sent her on a wild goose chase, and then she actually found real danger. Now she’s a Star-Touched in literally the worst possible place on the planet for her to be. They both are. It’s my fault they’re there, and I have to help them. I have to help her.”

“And then what?” Sierra asked. “I mean, not to completely skip past the impossible part of getting them off that island, but assuming we manage that, what will you do next?”

After a brief pause, Paige admitted, “I don’t know. Honestly, I have no idea. I know I want to talk to her. I want to ask… why. You know, why she actually cared so much, why she tried so hard to find me, and why she wanted to get to know me. I want to ask her why it mattered to her. She was already gone from the family when I was ‘adopted.’ They kicked her out, disowned her, then took me in. I was her replacement. Why wouldn’t she be angry about that? Why wasn’t she angry? Why did she want to know me? Why did… just… why?” She had unfolded her arms by that point, putting her hands up against her forehead. “I don’t understand.” 

With a loud crack, Sierra sent the last puck into the net. “Speaking as someone with a unique perspective, considering I have all those memories but it wasn’t me experiencing them, maybe she was trying to be what she wished she had.” She pushed off and started to skate over to the goal while adding, “I mean, when she was younger. She knows exactly what growing up in that family was like, how demanding her parents are. She went through it and she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe she was trying to be the sister she wished she had. And maybe she kept trying so you’d always know she was there if you needed someone. Even when you barely paid attention, she still–you know, wanted to be in your memory. Just in case you ever opened up.”

Paige didn’t respond to that at first. She ran the words through her head a few times along with her own memories. Memories that she knew the other girl was running through as well. Finally, she repeated her earlier, “Fuck.” That was followed by an enthusiastic, “Damn it, damn it! She gives a shit. She really, genuinely gives a shit. And we just–I’m sorry, I mean I just wrote it off like she was playing a role. Maybe because that’s what I was doing all the time. I don’t know. But like I said, I have to get her out of there. And then tell her the truth. At least about myself. I have to tell her about me, and why all of that happened. She deserves that much. Deserves to know what was really going on, what her parents wanted, what my–yeah. And if she’s repulsed by that, if she wants nothing to do with me once she knows what I really am, then… then fine. But she needs to know.”

“Let’s focus on getting her out of there,” Sierra replied, while giving the pucks one light smack after another with the stick to send them out of the net and back that way. “We can worry about the details about what we’re going to tell her once she’s not trapped on an island full of the worst supervillains who have ever been imprisoned.” 

“We?” Paige echoed, glancing that way curiously. 

Sierra opened her mouth, then hesitated. “I mean, yeah that might get kinda complicated.” She glanced down at herself with a slight grimace. “She knows Cassidy. So this…” Her hand gestured up toward her face. “This might not work. So yeah, maybe you should talk to her yourself. But fuck it, I’m still gonna help get her off that damn island.” 

Paige nodded slowly in agreement. “That’s the part that matters right now. We can figure out the rest of it later.” She bit her lip, a guilty flush crossing the girl’s face. “Maybe you can help me come up with an idea of how to start making up for sending her on the wild goose chase that landed her and Trivial on Breakwater to begin with.” That tone of disbelief that such a thing had actually happened was still apparent in her voice. 

For a few long, silent seconds, the two of them stared at one another. Finally, Sierra broke that silence with a quiet, “She brought you here. She taught you how to skate and play hockey. Or tried to, anyway. She did all that stuff, because she really… she actually cared.” 

“She went looking for me because she cares,” Paige put in, her own voice equally soft. “She turned a total wild goose chase all the way down in Florida into a one-way trip to Breakwater just because she wouldn’t give up trying to find me. And the parents who disowned her. She did all that because she really cares about me. She was trying. She was really, genuinely trying, and I just–” Cutting herself off, the blonde girl sighed heavily once more. “Can I see that?” Raising her hand, she held it out and waited until Sierra had silently passed her the stick. Then she lined up a shot on one of the pucks, staring down at it intently for a long moment of contemplation. “When she’s off that island, I’m gonna bring her back here.” She paused, then looked over. “We. We’ll bring her back here.” 

“We?” Sierra raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that complicated?” 

“We’ll get you a better disguise or something, I dunno.” Paige shrugged. “What I do know is that you have my memories. You’re part of this too. If… if you want to be.” She waited until the other girl gave a slow nod before continuing. “We’ll figure it out. But whatever we have to do, whatever happens, we’re bringing her back to this place.” 

With that, she raised the stick and snapped it down. The puck was sent flying not into the net, but off the left bar. It rebounded backwards through the air, before Paige smacked it with the stick once more, swinging the thing like a bat. The puck was sent forward to bounce off the right bar, coming back toward her. Once again, she smacked it that way, making it rebound off the top bar that time. From there, it flipped up, end over end through the air before coming down neatly on the fat end of the hockey stick that Paige was holding out sideways. 

“And maybe we’ll be the ones teaching her some stuff next time.”

*********

Aftermath Of A Joyride (Continuing the NON-CANON storyline from chapters here, here, and here)

Most of the general public would have been disappointed to see the utter mundanity of the room that the collective leaders and second-in-commands of the various Star-Touched groups of Detroit were meeting in. Most anyone, upon hearing that such an important and powerful people were gathering together to make big decisions, would almost certainly have pictured a grand room with walls of solid steel, high-tech displays along every wall, a massive table in the center of the room projecting a holographic map of the city and surrounded by chairs with each Star-Touched’s name and symbol emblazoned across the back, and possibly even more amazing things. 

In truth, however, they met in an average conference room on the third floor of a local police precinct. The smell of old coffee and stale donuts filled the room, which itself consisted of a heavily-cracked linoleum floor, wooden walls that had seen better days, and a tiled ceiling that probably needed to be replaced soon. It was furnished simply by a couple wooden tables and an assortment of metal folding chairs, as well as an old podium near the front, next to an actual chalkboard.

Silversmith was standing at the front by that podium. Beside him was a plainclothes police detective who was murmuring a bit in his ear, while Flea stood on the opposite side, flipping through messages on her phone. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the room, Brumal and Trivial from the state-sponsored team known as the Spartans, Caishen and Skip from Ten Towers, and Hallowed and Lucent from the Seraphs were scattered and engaged in their own private conversations with one another, or looking through their own phones. 

Finally, Trivial looked up from the file she had been glancing through and cleared her throat until Silversmith looked at her. Once he did, she asked, “So are we going to get this show on the road or what?” Straightening up in her costume consisting of purple scalemail armor, a black hooded cloak, tan pants, and a purple helmet with black visor, she gestured toward the nearby (somewhat stained) window. “You know, before the bad guys out there get the idea that we’re all off the streets and start acting like kids whose parents went out of town for the weekend.” 

Beside her, Brumal (also wearing her own standard costume of blue and white camo, a tactical combat helmet with an interwoven mesh covering the rest of her face, and bright blue lenses over the eyes) gave a short nod. “She’s right. Blunt, but right. If we’re going to discuss the situation, we should get into it.” 

“You mean discuss Joyride,” Flea put in. The futuristic ninja/samurai-clad woman put her phone away while adding, “And what exactly we’re going to do about her.” 

“Ahem, what are we planning on doing?” That was Lucent, perched atop the edge of a lamp on one of the tables. “Thus far, the girl has not overtly harmed anyone. In point of fact, she has aided us by exposing a quite… negative influence within our own Minority team.” 

“Whamline,” Silversmith muttered, giving a nod toward the plainclothes man nearby. “Detective Lanner here was just filling me in on what they’ve found so far. Apparently they have enough evidence to officially charge the boy with a few different murder counts, now that they started digging. More might be coming, we’re not sure yet. I won’t give into the details right here, but I’m having him send the files to each of you.” He paused before continuing. “But of course, we’re not here to talk about Whamline. This is about Joyride herself.” 

Skip, wearing her blue-black bodysuit with a short-sleeved white robe including a hood over her hair and a black cloth mask over the bottom half of her face, spoke up in her typical calm, nearly-emotionless voice. “She exposed the boy as the dangerous psychotic that he is. In our book, that makes her more of an ally than a threat.”

Beside her, the woman in black boots, dark gold pants with black lines running down them, purple scalemail armor covered by a gold leather coat, and a black metal helmet with purple lenses shook her head. She was Caishen, Skip’s own older sister and team leader. “She also decided that Lightning Bug is her archenemy,” she pointed out quietly. Her voice was very slightly strained as she added, “And Bug is very excited about that fact.” 

Silversmith took a breath before gently pointing out, “She doesn’t seem to have any intention of harming your daughter, considering she… summoned you to help the girl rather than leave her alone out there after their… confrontation.” Though his face was sealed behind that metal armor, they could hear the smile in his voice. Everyone in the room had seen the recording of the ‘fight’ between Lightning Bug and Joyride, and how little actual danger either had been in. It was far more of an imaginative play-fight than anything else. 

Hallowed, in his bright golden armor and metallic wings, spoke up while folding his arms across his broad chest. “Can we talk about that whole ‘summoned her’ bit? Because that’s what concerns me. It sounds like this little kid managed to teleport the leader of a Star-Touched team all the way from one side of the city to the other with a snap of her fingers. She didn’t have time to set something special up at the time, so she must have had that in place already. Does that mean she could teleport anyone anywhere? Could she hit a button right now and teleport all of us in this room to Kansas? Or worse if she ever decides to be more violent? So far she hasn’t really hurt anyone, but she obviously could. She has that teleportation tech, and the…” He paused as though unable to believe what he was saying. “The giant robot dinosaur.” 

“Toto,” Lucent put in. “She called it Toto.” 

“Yes, Toto,” Brumal flatly confirmed, head shaking. “The girl has run circles around everyone who encountered her, stolen anything she wants, and demonstrated the ability to transport other people at will, as well as use a giant robotic dinosaur as a direct threat. If she intended to do real harm, we would be in trouble.” 

“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Trivial put in. “She obviously doesn’t intend to do real harm. She’s been really gentle with everything she’s done, considering what she’s capable of. And she sent Lightning Bug’s mother to pick her up. It’s obvious that she’s intentionally holding back. She wins, but she doesn’t hurt anyone. And like we were just talking about, she exposed a murderer inside the Minority.”

“She would be an incredible asset on our side,” Silversmith pointed out, his tone curious. “If we could somehow convince her to stop stealing things, can you imagine the amount of help she’d bring to the city? Just being able to transport our people anywhere they needed to be instantly, as soon as trouble came up, all by itself, would completely revolutionize our work here in Detroit.” 

Hallowed shook his head. “Except she’s never shown any interest in helping us. Not beyond exposing Whamline or making sure Lightning Bug wasn’t left by herself with those criminals. She’s been pretty clear that her motivation is to steal things.” 

“She steals from the rich, from corporations and wealth-hoarders,” Trivial pointed out. “Should we really give that much of a shit?” 

Coughing, Caishen replied mildly, “Those corporations are a large part of why Detroit has progressed as much as we have in the past twenty years. If they begin to see the city as not safe enough, they will take their business elsewhere. We cannot have her running completely amok and doing whatever she wants.” She paused briefly, before adding, “That said, my daughter likes her. And is very… enthusiastic when it comes to the idea of being her archrival. And I do believe she does not mean to harm anyone.”

Lucent straightened up on his perch. “Thus, what we have before us is the question of what to do about a young girl who is clearly physically capable of much worse harm than she has ever engaged in. She intentionally holds back, while using the bare minimum force necessary for her to achieve her… goal of stealing from what she considers acceptable targets. What do we intend to do about that, precisely? We have proven inadequate at stopping the girl thus far, and I believe that escalating force to the level required to capture and detain her would cause more of a problem than it would solve. I, for one, would prefer to convince her to curtail her criminal efforts in exchange for compensation leading toward mutual benefit.”

“You mean you want to pay her not to steal things,” Brumal put in, giving the TONI bird a long look. “Would she be a salaried employee, or would we simply do it on a contract-basis? Say, find a list of places we would prefer her not to steal from and pay a flat fee for each?” 

“Your sarcasm is noted,” Silversmith informed her. “And yet, with some adjustments, is that such a bad idea? Surely the companies involved would be willing to pay for such… insurance against being directly attacked, and if such funds were pooled, it would be enough to pay this girl under what we could refer to as a mercenary contract for protection. Shift her from a Fell-Touched to a Sell-Touched and pay her for security against threats to these locations. We wouldn’t technically be paying her not to steal from them, we would be paying her a ‘security fee’ to… protect those locations. Including targets she herself might have hit. Those would appear to be our two options. We either escalate force beyond what she herself has demonstrated to reach a level of being able to potentially contain her, or we make an offer to cease her criminal efforts and attempt to eventually negotiate that into actual cooperation.”

“A vote then?” Lucent suggested. “A raised hand–or wing as the case may be, if you prefer escalating force against a newly-emerged juvenile Tech-Touched who has made a clear effort to avoid harming anyone.” He glanced pointedly around the room, waiting until no one had raised any hand. “Ahem, and a raised hand or wing if you prefer attempting the diplomatic approach.” 

Silversmith raised his own hand, then watched as the others all did the same, including Lucent with one of his wings. Then he smiled behind the helmet. “Okay then, now let’s get into specifics. We’ll contact each of the companies who have expressed concern and see what they’re willing to offer.” 

“Ah, how do we pass that offer onto the girl herself?” Trivial asked. “I don’t think she left her number lying around.” 

Caishen spoke flatly. “Something tells me that won’t be a problem. It won’t be long before Joyride makes a spectacle of herself again.

“And personally, I find myself… disturbingly curious to see what happens when she does.” 

*********

During The Ministry Base Incursion 

The short, unassuming man stood just a hair over five foot seven, and would have been considered very slightly underweight. His short brown hair and hazel eyes were incredibly average, and he wore glasses with thin metal frames, as well as a simple suit of moderate worth and fit. Not too expensive, yet not too cheap. His job was to blend in. He was known as Alcazar, the word for a Spanish fortress or castle. One of the top lieutenants within the Ministry, his job was to attend to the security and protection of their various facilities throughout the state of Michigan. 

At that particular moment, Alcazar was sitting at his desk in an office in downtown Detroit. It was very late at night, but that was normal for him. His typical schedule found the man sleeping during the day, as most of his work was done at night. Night was when people tended to attempt to cause problems. He would sleep from roughly eight in the morning until early to mid afternoon, then spend time with his family until seven or so before making his way to one of his offices to start his actual job. It was a little after midnight just then, and he was looking forward to the next day (or later that day, rather), when he would cut his sleep short in order to visit his youngest son’s school to watch the boy perform in a play. Eleven-year-old Karl was incredibly excited about his part, even if it wasn’t a leading role. It was still important, and he had extracted a firm promise from his father (who he believed to be an architect) about being there. 

Alcazar had made arrangements to leave the office a bit early that day, getting home by five or so just to have enough sleep so he could enjoy the play and then take his wife out to lunch. That would be in another few hours, and he needed to get all the work he could done by then. Sitting at his desk, he flipped through a folder while typing an email to one of their contractors, arranging for a new shipment of steel beams for Project Carpenter. Very few people in the Ministry were aware of the colony of Touched Termites that had been brought into the city, but he was one of those few. And he worked directly with their spokesman (spokesbug?) in gathering the proper resources, providing them what they asked for. Which, in this case, was more steel for the termites to melt down with their fog-breath and then convert into a larger amount of the stuff for building purposes. Specifically, for building the structures within the city that the Ministry was contracting them to build. 

In the midst of his work on that, his nearby cell phone, sitting silently on the desk next to a pile of folders, abruptly went off. It rang audibly rather than buzz, which meant that it was coming from one of the few numbers he had programmed into the phone to bypass his normal silent mode. And that would only happen if this was an emergency. 

A slight frown found its way to the man’s face as he reached out to answer the phone with a simple, “What happened?” 

The words he heard made the man immediately stand, almost knocking his chair over in the process. “What? Right now? How many? Lock down. Get everyone there. Alpha level priority. Have you contacted White and Gold? Do it, right now. Interrupt the play.” Even as he spoke, Alcazar was plucking a separate phone from his pocket, rapidly texting one of his contacts. “Are they still in the building? Then lock down the entire area. Get a chopper in the air. Who’s close? Yes, move that one over. Find the spot where they started from and be there to meet them when they evac. Do everything you can to hold them in that building until I get there, but be prepared to track them if they escape.”

Taking the phone away from his ear, he held the second one up to the opposite side and spoke. “Yellowbrick, I need a walkway. Yes, there.” He waited for a moment then before getting the go-ahead. Once that came, the man opened the door of his office. Beyond was what appeared to be a black void and an amber-colored path leading out into nothingness. Without missing a beat, he walked straight out onto the path. As always when doing this, the void itself felt cold, though not to the point of being a problem. It was like a chilly wind that made one hunch in on themselves a bit. Or typically did. In the current situation, he barely noticed. 

Striding quickly along the bridge through that void, the man made it precisely thirty feet. It was always thirty feet, no matter what the actual distance between the two connected doorways happened to be. Whether Yellowbrick was creating a path between two doors in the same building, from one building to another in the same city, or between two different continents, the bridge through the void was always precisely thirty feet. The void itself seemed to go on much further, as did the bridge. It extended off seemingly endlessly. But after walking that thirty feet (and only after walking, it wasn’t visible before), a new doorway appeared in front of the man. It was the door into one of the supply closets within the Ministry’s base under the local mall, and he didn’t break stride at all before reaching out to grab the knob and pull it open as he stepped through. From an outsider’s point of view, it would have looked as though he was simply stepping out of the closet, as they wouldn’t see the void and bridge behind him. Yellowbrick’s paths were only visible and accessible to people she wanted them to be visible and accessible to.

The very instant he was in the base (stepping into one of the secondary labs where an unconscious Ministry security guard lay on the floor next to an overturned chair), Alcazar activated his power. He had no idea whether the intruders were still inside or not, but there wasn’t time to waste finding out. As soon as he focused on his gift, the man could see the effects. The small lab around him shifted, the floor, walls, and ceiling turning somewhat fuzzy and wobbling like jello for a brief moment before completely transforming. The floor became beaten and cracked old wood, while the walls and ceiling were made of intricately carved stone. The door behind him, leading into the closet, became an ancient wooden type with a metal latch. The view through that half-open door revealed not the closet it was supposed to be or Yellowbrick’s void, but a set of stone stairs leading down. 

The stairs would go nowhere. Or, more to the point, they would go everywhere. They would lead to a corridor, or another room, which itself would lead to more corridors and more rooms. That, in essence, was Alcazar’s power. While he was using it, the structure he designated (the Ministry base, in this situation) would physically transform into the interior of a medieval castle or fortress. Not a specific one and never the exact same. More importantly, space itself was twisted and expanded within his affected area. Even if he only used it on a single room, the resulting castle interior would appear to stretch on forever. Every hall would lead to a new room, every new room to a new hall. No matter how far one walked, no matter how many doors they went through, there would be more and more in front of them. Eventually, they would loop back around to where they started. You could walk straight for a solid mile of corridors and rooms, go up six different flights of stairs at six different locations, then pass through a final door and find yourself right back where you had started from, height differences be damned. 

Alcazar and those he designated were the only ones who could properly navigate and leave the affected area. Now, if the intruders were still inside, they would be trapped. There would be no escape. And they would be answering questions very soon. 

The moment his power clicked into place, Alcazar walked through the opposite door, which would have led into the main hall adjacent to the stairs leading out of the base. Now it was about twice as wide as it should have been, which was right. There was also a hole in the wall near the base of the stairs, which was wrong. As soon as he saw that hole, Alcazar strode that way. It had to have been there before his power took effect. The hole wasn’t a normal part of the structure, so his power hadn’t taken it into account. It had built around it. 

Looking into the hole, he saw several of their security people attempting to dig through what had apparently been a cave-in about twenty feet in and upward. Undoubtedly intentional by the intruders to block pursuit. 

“Hold,” he ordered, before sticking his hand through the hole to touch the dirt. This tunnel wasn’t great for him. His power worked best on established buildings. With a bit of extra effort, he could affect something like this, but only within the immediate area he could see. Still, it would help somewhat. As his hand touched the dirt wall, the man released his focus on the rest of the base. Behind him, it reverted back to its normal condition (aside from the hole). Meanwhile, this area of the tunnel became another castle corridor. The area the guards were trying to dig through was transformed into a full-sized room. The dirt and rocks from the cave-in were still there, but the room was large enough for them to simply move around all of it. About ten feet past that room, the effect of his power faded and it became ordinary dirt once more. 

“Go,” he ordered the men. “Catch up with them if you can.” That was all he said, all he needed to say. Before the words had even finished leaving his mouth, the men were off and sprinting. 

Turning away from the hole, Alcazar took one of the phones from his pocket as it buzzed. “Yeah. Bring the chopper in from the east, sweep across the mall lot just in case they popped up there, but I think they started from further back.” He paused briefly, then grimaced. “The construction site across the street, where they’re building the hotel. It’s been shut down for awhile. Focus there. Send the call to get our people over there right now.” 

Without another word, he disconnected the call. At nearly the exact same instant, the phone rang in his hand. Rang, not buzzed. A single word was displayed on the screen. No number, just a name. White. Minister White. She’d gotten the message, apparently. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Alcazar answered. “Yes, I’m here. They’ve already left. The troops are in pursuit, through a tunnel leading to what I believe is the motel construction site. Yes, we have a police helicopter diverting there right now, eta twenty seconds. I have people loading up in a few of our cars to head them off above ground as well. Absolutely. We’ll have a full sitrep for you when you get here. I have no idea what they took, I was about to look into it. Yes, ma’am.” 

That was the end of the call, so he disconnected before looking back the way he had come. Unconscious figures littered the hall, and the rooms around him. Whoever this was, whoever had broken into the Ministry’s base, they had come in here for something. But what? 

More importantly, who the hell were they? This attack came out of nowhere. The Ministry was… well, not quite totally peaceful. But they were secure. Every Fell-Touched gang in the city either worked directly for them, or paid tribute to them and had enough informants within who would rat out anything like this. Well, almost every Fell-Touched gang. There were the Scions, but this wasn’t their style. Leaving everyone alive? They’d never do that. 

So again, who in this city had taken the time and care to secretly tunnel into the Ministry base, steal things while leaving everyone alive, and then leave? Whatever the answer, whoever they were, Alcazar was certain of one thing.

They were just getting started. 

*********

Sterling and Elena 

Standing on the edge of the road where the group who had invaded the Ministry base had gone sliding out of control and into the water beyond, Sterling Evans watched divers attempting to search the submerged wreck for anything useful. Raising his gaze toward the sky, he saw two helicopters combing the banks in either direction, their spotlights scouring for a sign that the intruders had come ashore. More of the Ministry’s people were searching surrounding neighborhoods, talking to potential witnesses, digging through anything and everything they could find. 

There wouldn’t be much. He knew that. This hit was too well-coordinated, too perfect. This wasn’t an amateur outfit. They knew what they were doing, and had the training, equipment, and skill to pull it off without getting caught. How long had they been working in secret, building that tunnel leading straight to the mall? Weeks? Months? They had gone completely undetected, despite the security measures the Ministry had in place. Which meant they had been quiet, somehow digging that entire tunnel without making any more vibrations than cars passing overhead. And that implied powerful Touched-Tech, a surprise considering the Ministry themselves owned the only purely Touched-Tech group in the city, as well as the company responsible for transporting it safely. If such machines had been delivered or ordered here, he would have heard about it. 

This raised… many questions. 

Stepping up beside him, Elena watched the water in silence for a moment. The two of them, to everyone else in the area, would look quite different than they appeared to themselves. Thanks to Elena’s gift, others would see him as a bald man who resembled Principal Strickland from Back To The Future, while Elena had made herself a near dead-ringer for the character of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. 

After standing there with him in contemplative silence as they watched their people work for several moments, Elena quietly spoke. “It was an excellent play, at least.” 

She was right, of course. The play had been excellent. At least, as much as they’d seen of it. The lead had been one he’d kept an eye on from back when he was still barely more than a background player, and Sterling’s early faith that the man had strong potential had not been misplaced. Through his life, even as a near-nameless accountant for the Russo mafia under his now-wife’s father, Sterling had had a way of predicting potential. To him, potential was a combination of natural talent, drive, and a bit of luck. The first two were what he looked for when it came to investments. Luck was something he could manufacture for them. A word in the ear of a basketball recruiter to visit a certain high school to see a student who would have gone unnoticed, leading to a starring role on an NCAA drive to a state championship, a moderate donation to the science lab of a university in order to ensure that a brilliant geneticist had the funding they needed to continue the research that had eventually led to saving many lives. Those and far more examples, many as subtle as bringing the right two people together at the right time, had allowed his life to progress to what it now was. 

Sterling knew he was lucky. He had no doubt about that. His brilliant, beautiful wife, his strong son, amazing daughter, and now potentially a second daughter whom he was coming to care about as much as his own biological children. A life as charmed as his had taken a lot of work and sacrifice to reach this point, but it was all worth it. As close as they had come to losing it several times, particularly when it came to Elena’s father, and yet they had come through on top. 

Whatever it took, he would protect his family. He would continue to build this empire, would continue to strengthen and solidify it. When the time came, he wanted his children, all three if Izzy agreed to be adopted, to have the best possible foundation. He would, at some point, pass the keys to this kingdom to the three of them. And then he would see just how far they could take it. As solid as the Ministry was, as strong as it had become, he had no doubt that his children could take it further. They were who he built all of it for. Together, his family would create a legacy that would shape the state of Michigan, and far beyond, for a long time to come. 

Bah, he was getting ahead of himself. And perhaps swelling too much with pride for his family. It was far too easy to let his thoughts and hopes run away, like a poor child being dragged along by an overly-excited dog on a leash. He sounded arrogant to his own thoughts, which wasn’t his intention. He simply… wanted his family to build something truly lasting, something that could be passed down through their generations. As more and more superpowers emerged, as the world grew into this new era, things would change quickly. 

The truth was, Sterling Evans believed that it would not be long (relatively speaking) before states across the country, and even countries across the world, began to break up into smaller territories. Kingdoms of a sort, smaller areas protected by powerful Touched. The militaries and governments themselves simply could not keep up with so many random citizens gaining often incredibly destructive powers. There was no test they had to take, no money to be paid, no qualification in wealth, race, gender, orientation, or any other thing that had previously been used to prevent one group or another from gaining power. It could happen to anyone anywhere. 

Thus, Sterling believed that the old rules of society, of government power, would gradually break down as more and more people who would previously have been considered ‘nobodies’ or ‘inconsequential’ gained true power. He believed that the government’s power would fail, and far more localized fiefdoms, of a sort, would rise. That was the entire point of the Ministry. That was their endgame, to have this structure in place so that when the inevitable collapse of government came, they would still be there in its place. They would keep Detroit, and Michigan beyond, safe and prosperous. 

And that goal was why he would not allow whoever this group was, whatever their intentions might have been, to escape judgment and punishment. If other groups, other organizations, saw that the Ministry could be hit like that, they would become emboldened. An example had to be made. They would be found, dealt with, and everyone would see that the status quo would be maintained. 

Whoever was behind this attack would find themselves regretting it, Sterling promised himself. Whatever their endgame, whoever they were, wherever they had come from, he would make an example of them. Every gang, every snake now poking their heads out with interest at the news that the Ministry had been attacked, would see what became of such people. 

With a nod to Elena, Sterling took the phone from his pocket, hitting the number to contact Alcazar back in the base itself. “Talk to all of our people in every gang. Find out who knows something about this. Shake the bushes, kick the trash cans, call in favors, make every threat we need to make. Do everything you can until five o’clock, then go home. Yes, Alcazar, I don’t want to hear it. Go home at five, that’s an order. Your son needs you at that play tomorrow. Karl’s been looking forward to you being there too much for you to put it off. Do the work, then go home. We have plenty of people to keep searching while you’re busy. Delegate, it’s the only way to survive in this business. And tell Karl I said hi.” 

He paused then before nodding slightly. “Yes. Yes, I do think our people will find something. There is someone in this city who knows the truth. There is a weak link somewhere, a link connected to the people responsible for this. 

“And when we find that weak link, we’ll snap the chain in half.” 

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Interlude 21A – An Unexpected Detour (Summus Proelium)

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“Thanks a lot, keep the tip.” With those words, Irelyn Banners (dressed as a civilian rather than as her costumed identity of Flea) stepped back into the fairly cramped motel room with a box of piping hot pizza. Kicking the door shut behind her, the brunette woman with her hair kept in a loose ponytail held the treat up in one hand so her companion could see it. “Here we go, the real dinner of champions.”  

From the other side of the room, Hazel Ruthers (better known to the public as Trivial) raised an eyebrow. Outside of her own costume, Hazel had straight black hair that fell only a couple inches above her shoulders, with fairly dark skin to indicate her mixed-race status. She had a two-liter bottle of soda in one hand and was using it to fill a couple of plastic cups provided by the motel. “Could we really be considered champions when ordering pizza is basically the height of what we’ve been able to accomplish the entire time we’ve been down here? I don’t want to say we’re bad at our jobs or anything, but we’ve been here for days and have nothing to show for it. At this point, after all the people we’ve talked to, I’m not convinced your sister even exists, let alone that she’s ever been here. Are you sure she wasn’t just the result of some manic and incredibly elaborate fever dream you had?” 

Snorting at the question, Irelyn set the pizza down on the nearby bed (one of two in the room they were sharing) before grabbing a paper plate. “You do realize that you’ve met her before, right?” She was already loading up the plate with several pieces, which she handed over that way. “Multiple times, actually. We went and got lunch together a few months ago.” 

“Maybe we were both having elaborate fever dreams,” Hazel retorted while taking the offered plate. She traded it by handing over a cup of soda before taking a seat on the end of her own bed. “I can’t rule that out. But come on, seriously, if your sister was anywhere around here, someone we talked to would have seen her. We’ve got nothing. I mean, nothing here anyway. Maybe she made that call and left immediately? Or maybe she found a way to bounce the signal. All you’ve got that says she was here is that phone call Bryson tracked down to this place, right? It could be faked.” 

Heaving a sigh, Irelyn took the cup and sat down to get her own plate of pizza. “By that standard, the whole thing could have been faked. Even her being the one talking. God knows, Dad has pissed off enough powerful people. I wouldn’t put it past some of them to–but they don’t know what I am. She was clearly stopping me from exposing my identity to whoever was sitting there listening, and–” Cutting herself off, she blanched. “Yeah, maybe they were threatening her or something. I don’t know. I was hoping we’d get some easy answers just by tracking her down, but you’re right. She’s obviously not here. Unless she’s a lot better at hiding than I think she is, someone around here would’ve seen her.” 

Scooting over to the edge of her bed, Hazel spoke gently. “Well, there is some good news about all that, you know?” She took a bite of the pizza, waiting for the other woman to look toward her expectantly before explaining. “If they went through all the trouble of making a phone call or whatever to send you down here, it means your family is probably still alive. I mean, if they were just gonna… umm, you know, just gonna kill them, they wouldn’t go through all that to distract you. They wanted you distracted and out of the way, and sending you all the way down here to Florida probably means it’s something elaborate and time-consuming. And the more time-consuming it is, the better chance your family is still okay.” Having said all that, she visibly grimaced. “I know that’s not exactly the best news in the universe, but–” 

“But it’s something,” Irelyn agreed, her voice coming with another heavy sigh. “I know what you mean. Obviously they had a reason to distract me. There’s no point in sending me on a wild goose chase if they were just going to kill them and dump the bodies. There’s… something else going on. Something I don’t know anything about, that’s just–fuck. I don’t know.” She set the plate down before throwing up her hands helplessly. “If this really is a dead-end, then I’ve got nothing. At least with that phone call I had a lead. But if she’s not here, if my parents and sister aren’t–I mean… they could be anywhere.” 

“Hey now.” Reaching out, Hazel put a hand on the other woman’s arm. “I don’t come bearing only problems, I’ve also got solutions.” Belatedly, she amended, “Okay, maybe not exactly solutions. But at least clues, or hints, or… another idea. I’ve got something we can check.” 

Irelyn arched an eyebrow that way. “You’ve been looking into other things too, haven’t you?” 

“Well, the same thing, your missing family,” Hazel pointed out. “Just different avenues for finding them. I mean–okay so I started looking into where your sister came from. You know, where your family adopted her from. I know, you think this is all about your dad pissing someone off, but I figured it might be a good idea to look at your sister’s past too, since you weren’t. Sorry if that was, like, overstepping or whatever. I just, you know, thought it was worth it.”  

“You don’t need to apologize, Hazel,” Irelyn assured her. “I was laser-focused on it being some guy from my dad’s business. If that’s wrong–well then it’s wrong. But are you saying you actually found out something about Paige?” The very thought that this whole situation could have come from her adopted sister’s past instead of someone that their father had pissed off was enough to make her reel inwardly. But she wasn’t going to dismiss the prospect. Not now that they had already spent all this time looking for Paige here in Florida to no avail. She was ready to pursue any lead at all, as long as it actually led somewhere.

Hazel hesitated before giving a very slight nod. “Yes and no. I mean, I found out some stuff, including a lot of dead ends. Like, for example, the group your dad adopted her from doesn’t exist. They never existed.”  

That made Irelyn do a quick double-take. “Wait, what do you mean they never existed?” 

“I mean that group was never a real adoption agency,” Hazel informed her. “As far as I can tell, the agent your father worked with to secure the adoption isn’t real. Well, obviously he’s real, but the name is fake. The name of the group is fake, and even–” She grimaced while passing on the news. “Even the name of the doctor who supposedly delivered Paige as a baby is fake. It’s all fake, Irelyn. There is no such doctor who ever worked in that hospital. There was no adoption agency by that name, no doctor, no nothing. The agent never did any adoptions before that one. As far as I can tell, every single name on the official records about where Paige came from, aside from that one adoption agent, is completely made up. The rest of them aren’t real people. The judge, the lawyers, all of them. They don’t exist. Or at least, they used fake identities for this whole thing. Which itself is pretty fucked up, you know?” 

By the time she finished all that, Irelyn was staring at her, having completely forgotten about the pizza. “You’re telling me that almost everyone behind my sister’s adoption and–and her entire life before we got her was completely made up? How is that even possible? I mean, why would–did my Dad–of course he knew.” Her head shook rapidly. “He had to know. Maybe he went through some illegal channels to adopt her. But why? Why would he need to do that? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of perfectly legal adoption services out there. I don’t–oh my God.” Her eyes had widened dramatically. “You think my father had Paige kidnapped from someone?” The very thought was enough to make her physically recoil. Irelyn had plenty of problems with her father, but she’d always seen him as generally a decent person, for what he was. And if not decent, at least not the type to have a child kidnapped like that. She had plenty of issues with the man, but he wasn’t that sort of person, was he? The fact that she had to seriously ask herself that made bile rise in her throat. She felt physically ill. “You think he had her kidnapped and… and got some schmuck adoption agent to make it look legitimate? But wait, why would he do that? If the rest of the identities are fake, what was the point of having a legitimate adoption agent?”

There was a brief pause before the other woman answered. “I don’t think this person was a legitimate adoption agent, Irelyn. Like I said, he never did any adoptions before that one, before Paige. He’s a real person, but there’s no record of him ever existing before Paige’s adoption. And the agency he was supposed to work for doesn’t exist, it never has. So this guy came out of nowhere, no background, no real history. I think he was mostly used to make the adoption look good for anyone your parents talked to. You know, so their friends or business people could see a real live person discussing the adoption with them.” 

Irelyn was still visibly reeling from all that. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “But… but would my parents really…” 

“I don’t know,” Hazel hesitantly replied. “I don’t know enough to say what your father knew about the situation or–but I mean, obviously he had to know some of it. There’s no way he didn’t realize that a lot of this information was bogus. He’s not an idiot. He’s a lot of things, sure, but not that stupid. He had to know that the adoption agency wasn’t real. Maybe he thought there was a legitimate reason, or… I don’t know. Maybe there was a legitimate reason, Irelyn. We don’t know enough to say for sure. All we can say is that all that information is fake.” 

Absorbing all of that, Irelyn shook her head. “So, basically, all we know is that we don’t know anything. We’re right back to where we started from. If none of that information is real, then… then we’ve got nothing to go off of. Which means if this is about Paige’s own history instead of something my dad did, they could be literally anywhere.” 

Hazel offered a very slight smile while rubbing a hand over the back of her neck. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got nothing, exactly. I umm, I might’ve asked Bryson to check for anything he could find about those names. You know, whether they ever popped up again in relation to adoptions or anything like that. Especially the agent, the only guy who actually existed, even if everything about him was fake.” 

Irelyn’s gaze was intense as she stared that way. “Please tell me he actually found something useful.” She needed some actual good news.

Hazel, thankfully, gave her a nod. “Yeah, he found something. Turns out that guy, ahh Albert Elcott, he did two more adoptions that same year. It’s definitely the same guy too, not just the name. The signature matches the one on your paperwork. Both of the other adoptions were in Salt Lake City.” 

Taking a moment to process that, Irelyn slowly replied, “Salt Lake City? Does that have any sort of relevance?” 

“Not exactly,” came the response, “But get this. Those three adoptions, Paige and the other two, were the last–the only ones this guy ever did, before he retired… at age thirty-four.”  

Irelyn gave a double-take at that, squinting. “He retired at thirty-four?” 

With a nod, Hazel explained, “Apparently he ‘inherited’ a small fortune from some dead great-aunt or something. Enough to buy a big house in some small town south of Salt Lake and live without working for the rest of his life. I mean, he’s not in some giant mansion or anything, but he’s comfortable. And it gets more interesting than that.” 

“More interesting?” Irelyn shifted a bit on the bed. “I dunno, it’s already pretty up there.” 

Smirking a bit, Hazel continued. “Those other two adoptions he did, the birth parents’ signatures are different names, but they’re all in the same handwriting. At least, according to the experts Bryson asked. Two different experts looked at the handwriting and they said all six signatures from all six different birth parents for the three kids were written by the same person. They were trying to disguise it, but these guys were pretty sure.” 

That… was a lot. Irelyn had to take another minute to think her way through it. “Okay, so what we know is that the agency my parents worked with to adopt Paige was fake. The agent who worked with them obviously changed his identity before then, because there are no records of him anywhere before that. The doctors and nurses back at the hospital who originally delivered Paige as a baby don’t exist. Her birth parents don’t exist. And the one person in this entire situation, besides Paige, who does actually exist, the agent who facilitated the adoption, bought a house and retired that same year after two more adoptions. And all three of the adoptions were signed off by the same person posing as all six birth parents.” 

“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” Hazel confirmed. “It’s all pretty weird, huh?” 

“Pretty weird…” Irelyn echoed a bit blankly, gazing off into the distance. “Yeah, I’d say so. But you know what we’re gonna do now?”

“Go see this guy in Utah?” Hazel guessed. 

“Go see this guy in Utah,” Irelyn confirmed. “So what’s the name of this town he lives in, anyway?” 

*******

“Actually, it’s pronounced Tooele,” the friendly waiter who had been serving Hazel and Irelyn lunch politely informed them. “Too-ill-uh. Too-ill-uh, not tool or toollie. Yeah, I know how it looks, but here we are.” 

“Damn,” Hazel lamented. “I guess neither of us wins that bet. Thanks though. And hey, this is a nice place.” 

Beaming, the man thanked them for stopping by, gave the pair a last refill of iced tea, then stepped away to handle a couple newly arriving customers. Which left the two women to look at one another in silence for a moment. 

Irelyn spoke first, keeping her voice low despite the fact there was no one nearby the back corner booth they had requested. “So, this town has about forty thousand people. You know how big Detroit is right now? Two point five million people.” 

“I think it’s cozy,” Hazel noted, glancing around. “I mean, I’d get bored pretty quick, but it’d be a nice place to visit sometimes. I can see why our strange friend decided to retire here. That money he got probably wouldn’t give him a very nice life for long in a place like Detroit. It’s too expensive. But here?” She gestured around. “Cost of living can’t be that high. It’s quiet, peaceful, people probably leave him alone.” 

“Something tells me it’s not just that,” Irelyn flatly replied. “Come on, I’ll tell you about it on the way.” She took a final gulp of her iced tea before getting up to leave, tossing a twenty dollar bill on the table for a tip on the way out. It had been good food, and good service. 

Once they were outside the so-named Chubby’s Cafe, the pair headed for their rented car. Irelyn drove, checking the GPS on her phone before heading for the house their target lived in. They had thought about showing the picture they’d taken off his (quite barren and ignored) Facebook page to the waiter in there, but given the size of the town, they didn’t want to accidentally tip the man off ahead of time. This seemed like the sort of place where a lot of people knew one another. 

“So, what’s got you suspicious now?” Hazel asked. “I mean, besides this entire thing.”  

“You know how this Albert Elcott guy bought a fair-sized house to retire?” Irelyn started. “Well, see, I took a look at the property records around him, and it turns out he owns the houses on either side too. They’re owned through a shell company, and he has people going in and out every year. Different renters, probably paid off to keep quiet about anything he’s doing. Or, you know, anything they hear.”

Giving a low whistle, Hazel shook her head. “So you think he’s up to something else after all, besides just living the good life.” 

Irelyn confirmed, “Yeah, I definitely think there’s a reason he doesn’t want real neighbors who might snoop in on what he’s doing in that house. Owning those other two homes gives him a buffer to do whatever he wants without prying eyes. And there’s more than that. I found several deliveries of… pretty high tech stuff. He tried to split it up with different companies, months or even years apart, even having it delivered to one of those other two houses sometimes. But trust me, whatever he’s doing, it involves building something pretty advanced. And now I really want to know what it is.” 

“So you wanna go in like this, or suit up?” Hazel’s question came as she glanced out the window at the houses around them. “You think this town even has any Touched?” 

“Not on the record they don’t,” Irelyn replied. “The nearest Touched teams are up in Salt Lake, thirty miles north. And they’re mostly still dealing with the fallout from that Collision Point between Hollow and Grote. Pretty sure they wouldn’t be down here. Which is another reason this place is probably good for whatever that Elcott guy’s working on.” She paused to consider then before adding, “Let’s suit up. It’s a little risky, but I don’t want to take the chance of letting this guy get away just because we couldn’t go all out to catch him.” 

So, the two of them parked the car in an alley they found near the neighborhood in question, changing into their costumes before driving the rest of the way. It was barely afternoon in the middle of the week, so they didn’t expect many people to be around. Still, rather than park in front of the house, they stopped a few doors down. The neighborhood itself looked like any suburban street, with perfectly maintained green lawns, lush bushes and trees, everything neatly arranged and quiet. The place felt eerie and strange to Irelyn, for all its complete bland normality. 

Still, there was nothing else to do beyond walk up to the door and get some answers. So, that was what they did. The two stepped out, glanced around once more, and then strode that way. There was no one in sight, but they wanted to get into that house before someone happened to glance outside and raise questions. 

“We just gonna knock on the door?” Hazel (or Trivial when in costume) asked, her eyes scanning carefully for any threats. 

Irelyn considered, even as they got to the chain link fence surrounding the property. “You know, I think we’ll go right inside, and–” Abruptly, she stopped talking, as the door of the house opened. They saw a brief glimpse of the man that they were after, a short and wiry figure with stringy black hair and a ruddy complexion. But as soon as he saw them, the man’s eyes widened dramatically and he abruptly jumped back inside and slammed the door. 

“Hard way it is, then!” Flea snapped, hopping right over the fence and all the way to the porch in a single motion. Her foot reared back before kicking the door off its hinges. It was reinforced, but that didn’t matter when it came to her leg-strength. The door snapped open and fell to the floor with a loud clatter in the small entranceway. She heard footsteps running down some stairs to her left, and sprinted that way, passing through the short corridor to find an open door to the basement. 

With Trivial right behind her, Flea pursued their quarry, calling out, “Albert, stop! We need to talk to you! We’re not here to–” 

She cut herself off, as they had reached the bottom of the stairs. The basement was unfinished, a simple cement floor and walls, totally open save for a complicated-looking machine in the middle. It was about ten feet wide, reaching almost to the ceiling, consisting of a wild assortment of pipes, sheets of metal, glowing lights, tubes with various liquids in them, spinning wheels, and more. 

“What… the hell?” Trivial managed, her gaze moving from the weird machine to the man himself. “Hey! We need to talk to you!” 

“No, no, no, no, you can’t be here. It was ready, it was finally ready, why are you here?!” Albert demanded. He was standing in front of the machine, head shaking violently. “I did everything he said. I did everything right. How did you–why would you–no, no! You can’t be here!” 

“Albert, hang on.” Irelyn held a hand up cautiously. “Who are you talking about? We’re not here to hurt you. Do you know who we are?” 

The man wrapped his arms around himself with a slightly crazed giggle. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I did my part. I did what I was supposed to do. I was always Plan B. Just Plan B. But then I was Plan A. I was supposed to have more time, and then I didn’t, but I still fixed it. I followed all his instructions and I made it work! It needs more tests. I was supposed to test it. One more month. One more month to perfect it, just to make sure. But you had to come. You had to fuck it all up and come! So oh well, no more tests. No more perfection. We have to do it now.” 

“Albert, get away from that–” Irelyn started. But before she could say more, the man abruptly snapped his hand out, smacking a button on the side of the machine. She and Trivial both launched themselves that way, but their vision was overtaken by a blinding flash of light even as a sense of weightlessness filled them. It felt like they were floating for a few seconds, before the light faded and the ground rushed up under them. They both fell onto dirt, grass, and pebbles. 

With a grunt, Irelyn looked up just in time to see that Albert guy vanish through the trees. Trees? Yes, there was a forest around them. They had… teleported? Frowning, she lunged to her feet. 

Trivial was right behind her, blurting, “Where the hell are we?” 

“I dunno, but he does,” Flea replied. She was already rushing toward the trees where Albert had disappeared. Only to stop short a few seconds later, as she came through them and found herself on the edge of a cliff. There was no sign of Albert, but far below was a rocky beach next to a tumultuous ocean. On that beach was an assortment of people all gathered around several fires, apparently cooking food. Some had very obvious physical changes, such as visible spikes, horns, one who looked like an eight foot tall living tree, and another who was more like an anthropomorphic caterpillar. 

“Wait, are those… are those Touched down there?” Trivial demanded, staring that way. 

“Yes,” Flea confirmed, her throat suddenly dry. “I know where we are. Trivial, we… we’re both dressed up as well-known Star-Touched. 

“And we’re standing on Breakwater.” 

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Patreon Snippets 23 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 23rd edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). 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. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Shortly Before 20-06

He was definitely being watched. Ryder Towling knew that much even as he stepped out of his car, parked in front of the Fosters’ house. Of course, he could have said as much before ever coming into Sherwood territory. Everyone knew how the gang operated. Feeling eyes on him as he closed his door and walked around to open the back was hardly surprising. It took a lot of effort for him to resist the urge to look around. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he grabbed his satchel from the backseat, hoisted it over his shoulder, and closed the door. 

Yes, there were definitely plenty of eyes on him. Which was why he had to be very careful not to let anyone know the real reason he was here. Or anything about his other identity. Something told him that if the Sherwood people found out that he had any connection to another gang, let alone that he was Eits, someone who primarily used their hated technology, they wouldn’t be too happy. He might not even get a chance to explain the situation. 

And even if he did get that chance, what would he say? Was he supposed to tell them that he had been repaying a favor to a secret organization that had helped him… become who he really was inside, and had actually kept information they probably didn’t want him to have? Information which revealed that Cup and Pencil were desperately trying to find someone who had been adopted years earlier. Someone who now lived in Sherwood territory, in this house. Errol Fosters. 

The Fosters themselves shouldn’t even have been living in this area. The family was rich specifically thanks to a business involving transporting technology. Ryder had no idea how they managed to convince the Sherwood people to leave them alone. It was one of many questions he had about this whole situation. Some of which he might even be able to get answers to. 

As he walked away from his car and approached the front door, the boy asked himself for about the thousandth time why he didn’t just go to Blackjack, explain everything he knew, and ask for help. Seriously, what was he doing here? He wasn’t a fighter. He was a behind-the-scenes sort of guy. And he sure as hell wasn’t some sort of secret agent James Bond type. If he ran into trouble here, deep in another gang’s territory, what was he going to do?

It was stupid. Not asking for help was stupid, the whole thing was stupid. Yet something made him stop every time he thought about going to Blackjack. He had no idea what that whole situation was, how close his boss was to the people who had helped him. For fuck’s sake, they had helped him, so he didn’t even know for certain why he wasn’t going straight to them with this, or just letting them handle it. He just… he couldn’t explain it. He owed them so much, but he wasn’t blind to possible problems. 

He needed to find out more about what was going on, why the Scions wanted to find this kid so much, why his family was living here of all places given what they did for a living, what–all of it. He just had to be careful and find out as much as possible before he made any real decisions. Because once he told anyone about what he knew, there would be no going back. 

With that thought firmly in mind, the boy reached out to push the doorbell. Here went nothing. If this whole thing went wrong, he was totally going to tell himself that he had said so. 

He only had to wait a few seconds after pressing the button for the bell before hearing the sound of several deadbolts and chains being unlocked. Finally, the door was pulled open, and he found himself looking at a beautiful, tall blonde girl who was probably incredibly popular at her school. She wasn’t exactly his type, but he could tell at a glance that the girl was accustomed to being ogled. More than accustomed, she expected it, pausing there with the door open and a knowing smirk on her face. “Hey there,” she greeted him, looking the boy up and down. “Arleigh Fosters. You my new college prep buddy?” 

Yes, this was how he had decided to get into the house and find out more about Errol. Searching through posts from the family online, he had found out that they were looking for a tutor, and a little bit of electronic trickery thanks to his little Mites meant that he was given the job. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to go from working with the girl to learning exactly what was going on with Errol, but at least this gave him a foot in the door. He had even gone through the trouble of making some fake business cards for his supposed services, as well as giving himself a mixture of reviews online. Most good, a few middling based on personality differences, even a couple bad ones. He’d wanted it to look as realistic as possible. 

“Ryder Towling,” he confirmed, extending a hand reflexively even while berating himself for the gesture inwardly. “It’s uhh, nice to meet you.” 

Gazing briefly at his hand as though trying to decide how to react, Arleigh finally offered a very faint, somewhat amused smile before reaching out to gently squeeze it. She didn’t exactly shake his hand as much as… grasp the back of it briefly, but at least she didn’t leave him hanging entirely. 

With that, she pivoted and beckoned. “Come on in. Dad’s back in his office, and my little brother hasn’t gotten home yet. My big brother… who the fuck cares, he’s not here, that’s what matters. Are you hungry? Carol’s probably still in the kitchen.” Without waiting for a response, she raised her voice to call, “Carol, bring some snacks up to my room! Something fun!” 

“Ah, it’s okay, I–” Stopping himself from objecting too much, Ryder shifted his focus to the other thing the girl had said. “Your room? I mean, you want to go up there to study?” 

Giving him a light, clearly teasing glance, Arleigh replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll leave the door open. For now.” With that, she pivoted, flicking her hair over her shoulder as she walked to the nearby stairs and began to ascend. The way she walked made it clear that she wanted him to watch her. This was a girl accustomed to having everyone in a room be attracted to her. More than that, she encouraged it. Which… was kind of cool for her, actually. He wasn’t interested, at least not beyond the obvious biological sense. But still, he wasn’t going to fault her for owning it. She seemed, well, certainly not modest in any sense of the word, but sociable enough so far. 

Shaking off those thoughts, he followed her up the stairs. Spending several long seconds trying to think of a casual way to bring it up, he finally settled on a simple, “So you’ve got two brothers, huh?” 

“That’s right,” the girl replied without looking back. “One younger, one older.” She paused by an open door and gestured. “That’s Errol’s room. My little brother. He should be home soon, but you know, if he bugs us too much I’ll just throw shit at him until he leaves. It’s usually not hard to make him fuck off. Micah’s the one that’s the real pain in the ass.” 

They had reached what was obviously her bedroom by that point, as the door was shut and had a big whiteboard hung on it with the words, ‘Stay The Fuck Out Micah’ written on it. Before opening the door, Arleigh spoke clearly. “Xanah, disable the alarm on my door, code Eulogy Kermit Piggy Grover.” 

After a brief pause, a female voice coming from a nearby speaker acknowledged, “Alarm disabled, Miss Fosters. Have a pleasant afternoon.” 

“You put an alarm on your door?” Ryder asked, raising an eyebrow. 

With a snort, the girl pulled it open. “Like I said, Micah’s a pain in the ass. And I mean that with a capital P and A. I can’t give him any opening.” 

This all felt… like a very awkward and strange house to live in. But Ryder pushed those thoughts aside for the moment, following the girl into her quite large bedroom. He was pretty sure the place was bigger than his whole apartment, actually. She had her own bathroom, accessible only through this room, with what looked like a full whirlpool tub inside, and a separate enclosed shower. The bed itself, on the opposite side of the room from the entrance to the bathroom, was big enough for about six people to sleep on, yet it didn’t even take up half the room. 

Looking around briefly, he finally stepped over to where the desk with her computer was. There were already a couple chairs there. “But you ahh, you don’t think your other brother’s such a pain?” 

Shrugging, Arleigh replied, “He’s little, I can kick his ass. I mean, I can kick Micah’s ass too, sometimes. It just–” She stopped, seeming to consider her words once more before simply finishing with, “Micah can go fuck himself. Errol’s not bad. Annoying sometimes, but… you know, not a big deal.”

Looking to a picture on the wall, Ryder stepped that way. “This them?” He focused on the younger boy in the photo, who looked nothing like the other two. He was little and scrawny, with glasses and a very awkward appearance. 

“Yeah, that’s my brothers,” Arleigh confirmed with a dismissive roll of her eyes. “But come on, you’re not here to tutor them, remember? Micah’s already in college and Errol’s like, really smart anyway. He’ll be fine.” 

Turning away from the picture, Ryder started to step over that way, when a sight through the nearby window made him pause. “Someone just pulled in.” 

“What?” Arleigh jumped to her feet, moving next to him to look out. “If Micah’s back already, I swear–oh. Hey, that’s Cassidy.” 

“Uh, Cassidy?” Ryder looked again. There was a small girl behind the wheel of the car. From that distance, she looked pretty, in a way much more understated than Arleigh’s in-your-face hotness. Her hair was cut short on one side and long on the other, with pink-tinted bangs. Standing at the window, he found himself staring intently that way before noticing the older man sitting next to her, and the two kids in the backseat. Including a very familiar sight. The boy whose picture he had just been looking at, and who was the very reason he was here. 

“Cassidy Evans, she’s the one driving, next to her dad,” Arleigh announced, already pivoting to head for the door. “And that’s Errol in the back. Come on, let’s say hi. We can get to the tutoring thing in a minute.” 

Well, that was strange. She was really eager to run downstairs and greet this Cassidy. Even as he followed her, Ryder asked himself why that would be. Did she have a crush on the girl or something? 

Forget it, that didn’t matter. Whatever her deal with the Evans girl was–wait, that Evans girl? The realization struck him suddenly, making the boy stop briefly. He had… never thought that–okay he hadn’t really put a lot of thought into what Sterling and Elena Evans’ daughter would look like, but from that brief glimpse he’d gotten, that wasn’t it. She… wow. 

Shaking that off, he told himself to focus on being pleasant and getting through this whole thing. Then he could try to push for more information about Errol, maybe even talk to the boy himself a bit if an opportunity presented itself. 

After all, he was here for answers, and he probably wouldn’t get any by focusing on Cassidy Evans. 

*************

Immediately After 20-09

As the video call from her adopted little sister ended, Irelyn found herself staring at the phone in her hand. A wide assortment of thoughts were running through her mind, many of them involving a lot of curse words. Of course, the very first thing she did was hit the button to call the girl back, ready to launch into a diatribe about what exactly Paige thought she was doing. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, there was no response. The call went to an automatic voicemail after a few rings, and Irelyn left… not quite (anywhere near) the full list of things she wanted to say in that moment, but enough to make it clear that she needed Paige to call her back immediately. 

Not that she expected that to work, of course. Paige was incredibly stubborn when she wanted to be. So, Irelyn turned away from the grocery store she had been about to walk into, thoughts of preparing dinner that evening completely gone in the moment. She called a different number while striding toward her car, sticking the bluetooth device in her ear to talk as the person on the other end picked up. “Hazel? Yeah, listen, can you get hold of your brother for me? I need him to trace a phone number. Yes, I could go through the official system, but I don’t want to for this. And you both owe me for making those introductions. Yeah, you guys love it here and you know it. Right, here’s the number. Thanks, let me know what he comes up with.” 

Reading it off for the girl, Irelyn got into her car and started it up before realizing that she had no idea where she was driving. She had been in such a rush to move somewhere and feel like she was accomplishing something after that frustrating call from her sister that she had briefly forgotten that she had nowhere to move to just yet. 

Instead of pulling out and driving aimlessly, she took a moment to replay everything that had been said on the phone. Then she paused, a frown touching her face. Paige had stopped her from bringing up the fact that she was Touched, that she was a member of the Conservators. Irelyn had been about to remind the girl that she had experience with this sort of danger specifically because of that, but Paige had spoken up quickly to cut her off. 

Someone else was there with her. Someone had been with Paige and the other girl hadn’t wanted them to overhear Irelyn give away her secret identity. But who? And why hadn’t Paige said anything about someone else listening in? Why–was she captured? Was she being held prisoner? Fuck. Fuck, fuck. That made sense. Of course, that was why she had refused to say anything more. They probably heard about Irelyn asking around and had forced Paige to make that call, likely at gunpoint. This was all bad, so bad. Unless she was jumping to conclusions. It was possible, possible, that there had simply been someone there who wasn’t a threat, but whom Paige didn’t want to hear about Irelyn’s secret. She had to find out more. 

It wasn’t long before Hazel called back, her voice coming through the car’s speaker system that time. 

“Okay, Bryson says this thing’s coming from Florida. Down just a little north of Miami. You wanna tell us what this is all about? Or do we have to play twenty questions? Is it a person? I bet it’s a person. My second guess is animal.” 

Frowning inwardly, Irelyn muttered, “Florida, who do they know in Florida?” The answer, of course, was a lot of people. Her parents were rich and had contacts all over the place. But maybe the Miami part could narrow it down a little. Finally, she shook off those thoughts and focused on what the girl on the phone was saying. “I don’t know exactly. My parents and little sister disappeared a little while ago. And now Paige called me to say they were looking into one of Dad’s businesses, but they got in trouble somehow and she was going to get them out of it.” 

There was a brief pause at that before Hazel replied, “Uh, is your sister some sort of super-ninja secret agent or something? Wait, is she–” 

“She’s not Touched,” Irelyn assured her. “And she’s not–I mean she knows self-defense, Dad made sure of that. So did I. But she’s not–no. I don’t know what she’s thinking. But I have to find her, and our parents, before something terrible happens. There’s something going on around here, and I’m pretty sure Paige knows all about it. She’s the one I need to get answers from.” 

“Well, let Bryson keep working at this on our end,” Hazel tentatively replied. She sounded uncertain, yet curious. “He says there are a few weird things about that signal, like they were trying to mask it or something. But he’s pretty good with this stuff, so he can probably work it out eventually. I’ll make him keep digging a little deeper, let you know what we find out. If anything.” 

“Hazel Ruthers, you and your brother be careful,” Irelyn cautioned. 

“Ew, don’t use my full name, it makes you sound like my mother,” the girl on the other end retorted. “And the last thing I need is to be reminded of my mother. It ruins the mood.” 

Snorting, Irelyn shot back, “Right, right, sorry. Consider me chastised. And… do me a favor, keep all of this off the official record on your end too? Don’t take it to your boss just yet. I don’t know why, it just feels like the right thing to do. I’ve got a weird feeling about all this.” 

“You always have a weird feeling,” Hazel lightly teased before sobering a bit to add, “Seriously, we’ll keep it on the downlow, sure. It’s the least we can do. Well, that and help you find your family. Give Bry a little more time to pick through this thing and see what’s so weird about it, then we’ll get back to you.”

After agreeing with that, Irelyn disconnected before heaving a sigh. She still had no idea what to do about this. Well, she did. The call had come from Florida. She could go there and look around in person. Was that the right thing to do? There was a war going on right here in Detroit, yet her sister and parents… Fuck, what was the right call here? If something happened to her family because she stayed here, she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself. But on the other hand, if she left and this war kicked into even higher gear and people died because she wasn’t around…

Cursing once more under her breath, Irelyn reached out to hit the button on her dash to call Silversmith. Once he picked up several rings later, she tersely spoke, explaining a bit about the situation as succinctly as possible while trying to keep any emotion out of her voice. She didn’t want him to think she wasn’t being professional about this whole thing. Mostly she simply said that her parents and sister had gone off the grid and she needed to go check on them. 

Once she finished, there was a brief pause before the man replied, “I’m sorry to hear about your family, Flea. Of course you can take the time out to go down and look for them. I have a few contacts in the Conservators down there who can help out.” 

“What about the–” she started to bring up the gang war. 

“Don’t worry about us,” he assured her. “Finding your parents and your sister is the important thing right now. Make sure they’re safe. If I need to, I’ll call in some help up here to fill in for you. We’ll be fine, I promise. You head to the airport right–wait, no. I’m going to call in some favors and get you a rapid-transit. Head for–here.” He paused briefly before reading off an address. “Go there, I’ll have a teleporter meet you in twenty minutes or so. They’ll take you straight to Miami where you can meet with the Conservators and get the ball rolling to figure out where your parents and sister went.” 

Still taking a bit aback by the man’s quick reaction to all of this, Irelyn finally found her voice. “Right, thanks, Smith. I’ll get this done, find them, and get back here as soon as possible.” 

“Don’t worry about us,” the man insisted. “Take care of your family. And let me know if you need anything else while you’re down there. We’ll be ready to back you up if we need to. That’s what a team is for.”  

After hesitantly agreeing and thanking the man, Irelyn disconnected once more and began heading for the address. She set the car into autodrive before rolling her seat back to change into her costume. The whole time, a multitude of thoughts were running through her head about what she would find in Florida when she got there. What had her father gotten himself involved in now? And why was Paige so insistent on dealing with it herself? There was something incredibly suspicious about the whole situation, even if she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. 

Whatever this was, whatever was really going on, she was going to find out the truth. And then she and Paige were going to have a long talk about not running off on her own. 

Florida though? Really? Why the hell did it have to be Florida

A few minutes later, she pulled up in front of what looked like a disused warehouse. Parking her car, Irelyn stepped out, now fully-clad in her costume as she looked around. Catching a glimpse of a man waving toward her from the doorway, she strode that way. 

The man stood just under seven feet tall, heavily muscled under a black bodysuit with a silver cloak and hood. His face was covered by a dark red metal mask with holographic white numbers displayed across the front. Currently, the numbers simply read zero point zero zero. 

“Snapback?” Flea, now that she was in costume, asked. “He called you over from Chicago?” 

“I don’t mind,” came the surprisingly gentle and cheerful response given the man’s size and build. “Good luck finding your family though. You let me know if you need anything, yeah?” 

Agreeing, Flea reached out to take the man’s hand. Immediately, she felt the air twist around them. It was a disturbing sensation, making her stomach flip over. The view around her distorted to the point that it hurt to look at it, and she closed her eyes before the nausea would have taken over. 

And with a popping noise, they were abruptly standing elsewhere. As her eyes opened, she found herself still grasping the man’s hand, as they stood in the middle of an alley. The beach was visible in the distance, and the ocean beyond that. 

“Miami Conservator base is about two blocks north,” her ‘lift’ informed the woman. The zero point zero zero previously displayed across the front of his red metal mask had changed to one thousand, three hundred and ninety six. “Thought you might want to get your bearings a little bit before heading that way to check in. But ahh, this is a pretty big jump so you might want to let go before I snap you back with me.”

Snapback was well-named. Essentially, he was capable of transporting himself to any location he had a decent understanding of, no matter how far away. But he could only stay in that location for a limited time. The further the distance, the shorter his time there. When he released his grip on the second location, the man instantly returned to his starting point and gained a brief moment of total invulnerability, as well as a level of super strength depending on how far away he had transported and how long he held it for. Like a stretched rubber band. The strength and invulnerability only lasted a couple of seconds, but it allowed him to hit someone or something with utterly devastating force simply by making a jump to somewhere very far away, holding the teleport for a few seconds until he could stand it no longer, then transporting back and lashing out. He could smack ordinary people around incredibly effectively just by teleporting several miles away and then ‘snapping back’ to swat them. Even better, if he wanted to, the man could expend his temporary strength in a single concussive blast from his hands rather than a physical blow, if his target had moved. 

Alternatively, he could choose to ‘snap’ the connection entirely and stay in the location he had teleported to. Doing that would send a concussive wave out at both his starting and ending locations, though he could choose exactly how to divide that force, giving his starting location the brunt of it and the ending point only a minimal amount, vice versa, or anywhere in between. When he was making a long trip and trying to stay there, the man had to find starting and ending areas that wouldn’t be damaged in the process. 

Thanking the man for the lift, Flea watched him vanish with a rush of expanding air that made a popping sound, before turning. Florida. Time to go visit the local Convervators, and–

“So,” a voice abruptly interrupted. “We heading out?” 

Jumping a bit, Flea pivoted, finding herself facing a familiar figure in a costume consisting of what looked like purple scalemail body armor over her chest, a black hooded cloak, purple metal helmet with black visor, and tan pants over dark brown boots.

Hazel?” she blurted. “What the hell are you doing here? I just–I told you to help your brother look for–how did you–” 

“Hey, you’re not the only one who can call in teleport assistance when you need to,” the other girl retorted. “I’ve still got friends from my old Minority squad in Nebraska. And I had time-off to take. I told you, I wanna help. 

“And hey, don’t call me by my real name. It’s not Hazel Ruthers while we’re in costume. 

“It’s Trivial.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 18A – Flea (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Irelyn Banners was having a very frustrating day. She had set several hours aside to track down the actual location of her parents and adopted sister, and none of her attempts were panning out. As far as anyone in authority was concerned, her family had simply gone on vacation over in Europe. After all, it wasn’t as though Aaron and Constance Banners going off on a retreat without much in the way of notice was exactly unusual. They did it all the time. If anything, the fact that they had supposedly taken Paige with them was the only part that stood out at all. 

Unfortunately, ‘my parents are being too nice to their adopted daughter’ wasn’t the sort of slam dunk proof the cops, or even other Star-Touched groups, were looking for. Especially when it was coming from someone who had been disowned by those same parents. She just looked like someone was jealous, even if that was wildly incorrect. But she could see why they would come to that conclusion, unfortunately. 

She could potentially have forced the issue by appearing as Flea and telling the authorities to look into it, but that would mean potentially exposing her identity to far more people than she was comfortable with. The bar to become a member of the police force was far too low for Irelyn to risk handing out that sort of information willy-nilly. To say nothing of how easily one of the local Fell-gangs could bribe them. No, worried as she was, that would be a bad idea. 

So, she was looking into the situation herself, without police help. Or official help, anyway. She still had contacts in the force who didn’t mind doing her a favor or two without asking too many questions. Unfortunately, none of that was actually leading anywhere. The only thing she had been able to confirm was that her parents’ private plane did take off with a flight plan for London on Paige’s birthday. It had not returned, and the exact number of passengers wasn’t clear. After that single point, there was nothing. Her parents and sister had gone completely off the grid, as far as she could tell. At least, from here. She was seriously getting to the point of requesting a sabbatical from her duties on the Conservators in order to take her own trip over there. She would start at the plane itself and find something about where the hell they had gone. 

Maybe she was overreacting to this whole situation. But Irelyn couldn’t shake the feeling that something very bad was going on. She needed to know they were all okay. Yes, she had her problems with her parents. Especially her father, demanding as he was. His reaction to her choosing to forge her own path rather than stay on as his dutiful daughter and use her powers in their own private security company had been to disown her entirely and go adopt a new daughter altogether, one he clearly felt that he could forge into the proper puppet he wanted.

Irelyn didn’t blame Paige for that, of course. There was… there was a lot she had always wanted to say to her adopted sister, but it never really came out right. She had the feeling that Paige thought she was, at the very best, just going through the motions. Or worse, that she actually blamed Paige for the way her–their parents had turned their backs on Irelyn. Which could not have been further from the truth. She really wanted to explain that, wanted to get Paige to understand that not only did she not blame her for any of what happened between her and their parents, but that she would be there for her if she ever needed to talk about her own situation. She wanted Paige to know that she wasn’t alone, that she could talk to her if she needed to, considering Irelyn knew exactly what it was like to be put under the kind of pressure Aaron Banners was capable of. 

Unfortunately, she was pretty sure that every attempt she had made at such bonding had been interpreted as attempts to remind Paige that she had been their parents’ daughter first. Her intention, of course, had been to make sure the younger girl knew that Irelyn sympathized with any problems she might have, and was there if she wanted to talk. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that Paige had instead taken it as some sort of, ‘I was their daughter first, not you’ warning. Which was a big part of why Irelyn had wanted to take the girl out for her birthday to begin with. She wanted to set the record straight. Now that Paige was seventeen and almost a senior in high school, it was more important than ever that she understand that she didn’t have to be the person their father wanted her to be, that she could make her own choices. More than anything, Irelyn wanted the girl to know that she didn’t have to be an obedient little puppet. 

In any case, all of that came down to the fact that they were far from the best examples of a family. But she still needed to know that they were okay. If all of this was for nothing and the three of them really had gone on a private vacation to celebrate Paige’s birthday, then so be it. But she needed to know for certain. And so far, nothing she found out was actually adding up. 

At the moment, she was just leaving the tower of the private airfield where her family’s plane had taken off from with them (supposedly) aboard, when her phone buzzed. She glanced to it, seeing That-A-Way’s name pop up. Huh. What could that girl need? As far as Irelyn knew, she wasn’t on duty at the moment. Still, it could have been important, so she stopped beside her car and lifted the phone to her ear. “Yes?” Her phone was already programmed to alter her voice appropriately whenever she was speaking to someone from her Touched contacts, or simply by pressing a button. 

“Flea,” came the quick, clearly somewhat uncertain response. “Um, oh boy. We need to talk.” 

Immediately setting aside her personal feelings about finding her family at the sound of the younger girl’s voice, Irelyn opened the door of her car and got in. “Way, what’s wrong? Are you in trouble?” 

“Just got out of it, actually,” Way informed her. “At least, out of the worst of it.” With that, she gave an incredibly brief explanation of what she, Raindrop, and that independent Star-Touched, Paintball (and his new partner), had been up to. A very brief, pseudo-explanation. Apparently they’d located the actual home of Cup, exposed her secret identity and that of Pencil himself, narrowly escaped being captured or killed for that, and were on their way back into the city. 

There was clearly a hell of a lot more to that whole story. That-A-Way had ‘explained’ in as few words as possible, just enough to make sure Flea understood the gravity of what was going on. And boy did she ever. All thoughts of finding her missing family fled for the moment, as she considered just how the Scions of Typhon would react to their leaders’ identities being exposed. They would not be happy, to say the very least. And they would act fast to disappear and destroy every single potential link to wherever they might go. To say nothing of what they would do to any civilians who might even consider accidentally being in their way. 

As soon as she understood what was happening, and just what was at stake, Irelyn immediately gave the other girl an address to meet at so they could talk in person. But not before she took the address of where Cup was supposed to live. Which was apparently some petting zoo ten miles outside of town. The moment she knew that much, Irelyn told Way to meet her at an old motel that was being worked on, and disconnected. Then she started her car and peeled out while making a call of her own. That one was to Silversmith. He was on a hiatus for the week, something to do with personal matters. But this was more important than a vacation. 

On her way out of the parking lot, while listening to the phone ring, Irelyn pressed the button under the dash that made the flashing red and blue lights appear around her car’s regular headlights, as well as an actual siren. It made her vehicle look like an unmarked police cruiser, which was very useful for getting places faster. She even had identification referring to herself as such if she were ever pulled over, and would be listed within the official police database for anyone looking her up. All benefits of being part of the Conservators. And, of course, one of the reasons she was capable of investigating her parents’ disappearance with any degree of success at all rather than being laughed out of the room. She may not have been able to call in official police assistance, but she could use her own false connection to them in order to get some answers. 

And right now, she could use it to force traffic out of the way so that she could get to that motel as fast as possible. Even if she did have to lean on the horn to convince some asshole in a truck to take the siren seriously. “Come on,” Irelyn muttered in annoyance as the phone rang again. “Pick up. Pick up, pick up, pick up.” 

Finally, Silversmith did just that. There was a click and she heard his voice speak calmly. “What’s wrong?” Just like that, he knew something had happened. 

“Smith, you need to organize a group to check out this petting zoo,” Irelyn immediately informed him. Using even fewer words than That-A-Way had, she informed him of what those four had been up to, and what they had found out. “You need to get a team out there to stop the Scions from destroying everything. You know what they’ll do to any civilians in the way. And be ready for Touched-Tech defenses.” 

Smith didn’t even question any of it. Instead, he immediately agreed, “I’ll have a group there ASAP. I take it you’re meeting with our little friends to get more information?” 

“Yeah,” Irelyn confirmed while taking a sharp turn through an intersection, cutting off a couple annoyed drivers in the process. “I’ll be there in six minutes, and let you know about any other relevant details.” 

“Good,” he replied simply. “Make sure they’re all okay, and check them for traps or tricks the Scions might’ve left, just in case. Silversmith out.” 

With that, the man disconnected, leaving Irelyn driving as fast as possible toward the motel. She just hoped he and the group he pulled together could get to Cup’s place before the Scions wiped the place off the map. And that she could get some real information out of the trio she was going to meet. Because to be quite honest, she didn’t believe for a second that there wasn’t more to that story. They had not tripped over the true identity of the Scion leadership by accident. Something else was definitely going on, and she was going to get to the bottom of it.

On the way, while practically flooring the pedal, Irelyn reached out to open the nearby compartment between the driver and passenger seats. There was an affirmative beep as the pad there read her fingerprints before the thing opened. Nestled inside was what appeared to be a single piece of her costume, the metal, samurai-like mask with mandible protrusions in the front. With a quick glance around to assure herself no one was close enough to her vehicle to see through the already-heavily tinted windows, Irelyn touched the mask to her face. As she did so, the mask extended with a series of rapid clicks and the sound of sliding metal. Soon, it had transformed into a full samurai helmet, covering her head entirely. Once it was in place, she glanced instinctively toward the rear view mirror. As always, the distinct look of Asian eyes visible between the top of the plate covering the bottom three-quarters of her face, and the helmet itself, was a little surprising. The truth was, Irelyn was only about a quarter-Asian. Her mother’s mother was Japanese. Irelyn herself bore almost no physical resemblance, having taken heavily after her father in appearance (and her mother didn’t look all that like her own mother to begin with). At a glance, very little about the woman’s appearance gave any hint of her heritage. But with the rest of her face covered and only her eyes visible, the slight Asian features were isolated and exaggerated enough that anyone looking at her would picture someone very different under the costume. 

With the helmet on, Irelyn checked the road once more. She was two minutes from the on-ramp that would lead to the motel. A quick tap of a button on the steering column put the car into auto-drive, allowing it to follow the road toward her selected destination in the GPS. At the same time, the driver’s seat slid backward while the rear seat folded up. It gave Irelyn room to grab the rest of her costume from a hidden compartment in the floor and change clothes. 

Once she was dressed properly, the seat slid forward once more, and the woman took the wheel, turning the car to head through a nearby alley. The moment it was out of sight from the street, she touched a different control under the dash. This one shifted the car’s color from red to black, deactivated the lights, and changed the licence plate. Between those changes and a couple other minor cosmetic ones, it was a very different-looking vehicle that came out the other side of the L-shaped alley. From there, she pointed the car toward the onramp and made her way those last couple minutes toward the motel, taking that exit and sending the car practically screaming through the empty (save for a few construction vehicles and a lot of safety cones) parking lot. 

Stopping the car, the newly-dressed Flea stepped out and looked around. Her eyes were immediately drawn to an arrow that had been graffitied on the wall of the nearby building. It was big and blue, with the quite well-done image of her own helmet next to it just to make sure she noticed. The arrow pointed toward a space between the main office structure and one of the buildings with the various suites. There were vending machines and a narrow pathway with a gate. Next to the gate was a sign, indicating it was the way to the pool. 

Her eyes narrowed, but she could hardly fault them for being careful, given the situation. Still, she wasn’t allergic to being careful either. Rather than walk through the gate, Flea took a step before leaping upward. The lunge carried her to the top of the four-story building, before she paced along the edge of the roof looking down. 

Abruptly, the woman had to stop, finding herself face to face with what appeared to be a bronze sword floating in midair right in front of her. 

“Stop! Stop, stop, stop!” The frantic voice came from above, and Flea glanced that way to see a figure come gliding in on top of a literal silver surfboard. A part of her wondered if that was intentional, but she set it aside to focus on the figure itself. Or herself, rather. The girl gliding down on the flying board wore metallic purple armor with white across the arms and up into a full helmet. It was a different look than either of the costumes that girl had been reported as wearing before, but it was obvious who she was. 

“I’m sorry, he was just trying to protect me–us,” the girl hurriedly babbled, even as the bronze sword went floating over to her. It was joined by a black mace and a gold shield. 

“You’re Paintball’s new friend,” Flea noted coolly. “Different look today?” 

“Alloy,” the girl informed her before stammering, “a-and umm, sort of. I’m playing lookout and we thought maybe if I looked different anyone the Scions had out looking for us might not immediately recognize me, you know?” She was clearly blushing underneath that helmet, adding, “I know it’s not likely, but every little bit helps.” 

“Yes,” Flea agreed, “every little bit helps. And I’m glad you were on the ball.” Her eyes glanced toward the floating bronze sword before she added, “As was your friend there.” 

Was it just her imagination, or did that sword find a way to preen? 

Shaking that off, the woman focused on the situation. “Where are the others? Are they–” 

“We’re fine.” Way herself had suddenly appeared next to them, one hand on Paintball’s arm and the other on Raindrop’s as she brought the younger boy and girl with. “We’re all fine. Mostly.” 

Forgetting everything else for a moment, Flea stepped that way and put one hand on Way’s shoulder and the other on Raindrop’s. “You’re safe? You’re not hurt?” Her head turned slightly to look toward Paintball and Alloy. “You’re all safe?” 

There was a series of nods from all of them. Even in costume, they looked exhausted and like… well, like they had just discovered Cup and Pencil’s true identities and barely escaped with their lives. They were clearly jumpy, turning to look sharply at the sound of a semi passing on the distant freeway. 

“Good,” Flea informed them. “I’m glad you’re safe, that you’re not hurt.” She squeezed That-A-Way and Raindrop’s shoulders, wanting to embrace them but unsure of how that would be taken. Instead, she let them go and took one step back while clearing her throat pointedly. Her gaze slid over each of the group in turn, making sure they were all paying attention. “Now tell me exactly what happened back there. I need to know the full story.” 

“Um, not to object about that,” Paintball tentatively put in, “but are you sure you don’t want to, you know, go check out the petting zoo itself?” 

“Silversmith and some others are doing that,” Flea informed him. The boy seemed to recoil a bit at that news, and she immediately assured him, “They’ll be fine. Smith knows how to be careful. They won’t go blundering into any Touched-Tech traps or anything. Believe me, they’re the best group for the job.” 

That said, she turned her attention  back to the rest of the group. “But, I still need to know exactly what happened with all of you. Cup and the others aren’t stupid enough to hang around there. Our best chance at tracking them down is to hope our people got there soon enough to pick through any evidence that was left behind. And give their identities to all law enforcement so it’s harder for them to hide anywhere. Which is happening right now. But in the meantime, I need to know what happened, and how you ended up in that situation.” 

Paintball did most of the talking. He told her about the deal he had made with Deicide of all people, in order to get the vial back to save Blackjack’s child. Flea had… opinions about that, but she could hardly fault him for being willing to do risky things and make deals with bad people to save a child. 

In any case, the boy went on to tell Flea all about how the deal had been to find this Amanda girl as a witness to one of Pencil’s first murders, with the idea that she might know more about him. And boy did she ever. When Paintball and Alloy (accompanied by That-A-Way and Raindrop for backup) had tracked down Amanda, she turned out to be Cup herself. Not only that, but she revealed the truth about her power, that she was the one who kept building those Touched-Tech toys for Pencil. And, in fact, that it was one of those very toys that allowed her to paralyze Paintball and Alloy while they were talking to her, before That-A-Way and Raindrop interceded, grabbed them, and escaped in a van they had borrowed. Well, started to escape. That had led to a rousing car chase. 

“And here we are,” Paintball finally finished. “So what’s going to happen with Cup now?” 

“Now, we’ll do our best to track her and her brother down,” Flea replied simply. “Knowing who they really are under those masks, having their true identities, faces, all that, it’s…” She exhaled. “It’s a pretty damn big break. To say nothing of finding out what her real power is. They’ve managed to keep that secret for a long time. It’s a big deal. But you were all still incredibly reckless. Do you have any idea what those psychopaths would’ve done if you didn’t–if they managed to–” Her voice rose. “Don’t ever do that again, do you understand? Not just you two,” she noted with a glance to Way and Raindrop before turning her attention to Paintball and Alloy. “But you two as well. You might not be part of the Minority, but I can damn well make your life difficult if you keep running around doing dangerous things like that. And pulling these two into it.” 

Raindrop started to say something, but Flea raised a hand to stop her. “I get it. I do. You all did something incredibly important today. But it was also incredibly dangerous, and if it had gone wrong, you all could’ve–” She cut herself off, taking a deep breath to avoid going into a long rant that wouldn’t have helped anything. “Just call for help next time. Adult help. If you’d taken one of us with you, there might–we might have been able to…” God, she didn’t want to say that. If she told them taking an adult with them might’ve led to Cup being arrested, they’d blame themselves for any further deaths. Biting her tongue, Flea simply ended with, “Be smart about it, okay?” 

Raindrop hesitantly asked, “Are they going to tell everyone who Cup and Pencil really are? I mean, everyone?” 

“We’ll be informing every registered Star-Touched team in the state immediately,” Flea confirmed. “They’ll be on the lookout. And certain higher levels of law enforcement as well. As for the rest…” She paused before explaining. “That’s up to a judge. How much of a Fell-Touched’s identity is revealed to the public in a situation like this is determined by a judge at the time, based on a lot of factors. The danger they pose, the potential for rehabilitation, extenuating circumstances, any previous aid they’ve been, and so on. In this case, I think it’s safe to say everyone will know who they are by the end of the day. But it’s not our place to make that decision.” 

That all said, Flea added, “Now, I want all four of you to go home. You’ve done your part. I mean it, if I see you out working again today, I will find a way to slap you into a private detention cell for the rest of the night. Go get some rest. 

“God knows, you’ve earned it.” 

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Interlude 16B – Conservators (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – For anyone who might have missed it due to me forgetting to mention, the non-canon for Summus Proelium was posted last weekend right here

At one point, an enormous warehouse had taken up an entire block of Gratiot Avenue. The original, smaller version had stood for many years before Touched had become a thing. Once the city began to be revived, the warehouse had been almost entirely rebuilt and expanded to take up much more room. Just another in a very long list of ways that Detroit had been reborn. 

And now it was gone. The entire place had been burnt almost entirely to the ground. There was barely anything left, save for a few pieces of wall, some of the foundation, and scattered rubble. 

In a way, that perfectly fit with the whole comparison to the city being reborn thanks to Touched. Because they did a lot of damage too. The warehouse was reborn, expanded, and improved. But in the end, it was also destroyed. The very thing that gave it new life ended up taking that same life, and now there was almost nothing left. It had been rundown before, but at least it existed. Now, after a relatively brief burst of renewal, it was all-but completely gone. 

The woman known to the public as Flea truly hoped that the analogy with Detroit itself wouldn’t go that far. And yet, as she stood on the sidewalk surveying the broken remnants of the demolished building, she couldn’t help but compare it to the gang war that only seemed to be getting worse. 

“There a reason Smithy doesn’t have to play detective today?” 

The voice that interrupted Flea’s thoughts belonged to Dynamic. She was a speedster of unlimited stamina who was capable of draining other people’s powers by running near them, then using that power to create energy constructs with additional elements related to the powers she had drained. And that unlimited stamina thing extended as far as never needing to sleep. It truly was a bottomless well of energy.  Which was one of the main reasons Flea and Dynamic worked so well together. The fact that Flea was capable of draining stamina from people to add to her own, combined with the fact that Dynamic had an unlimited amount of it, meant that any time the Detroit Conservators’ second-in-command needed a little hit of energy to keep going, she could always take some from the speedster. They had an arrangement for that. 

“Silversmith had prior commitments.” As she gave that simple, pat answer, Flea glanced over toward the younger woman. At that moment, she couldn’t help but compare their appearances. Her own costume consisted of a black Tech-Touched chainmail-like top, simple blue pants that were loose on her legs and gave her very free range of motion, and a helmet that was essentially that of a samurai, with mandible-protrusions to fit with her theme. A light blue cloak with gold trim hung from her shoulders, and she carried a katana across her back along with two short swords attached to her hips. 

Dynamic, on the other hand, looked very different. Her entire body was encased in gem-like purple armor that was so smooth and featureless she appeared to be a glass statue when standing still. The look was completed by the fact that the helmet she wore left only the vague impression of facial features, as if they had been chiseled into the amethyst gemstone the armor appeared to be made out of. In motion, Dynamic was incredibly fast and agile. But when she wasn’t moving, an onlooker could be excused for believing that some incredibly talented artist had sculpted her. 

“Prior commitments, huh?” Dynamic made a noise in the back of her throat that made her opinion of that clear. It was… odd. While the man was a clear champion for the city, who had risked his life so many times and was loved and trusted basically above all else by basically everyone of note, for some reason Dynamic had never liked him. Oh, she followed his orders and did everything she was supposed to. She worked with the team, and he was the leader of the team. She didn’t argue with him… much. And never in battle. But she never liked him. It was a fact she kept mostly quiet about to everyone except Flea. Yet when the two of them were alone, she made no secret of her dislike for the man. 

Then again, Dynamic generally liked to be contrary anyway. She was one of a quickly growing number of people pushing to have the name Conservator changed. Apparently they wanted to rename the organization Corona (as in the circles of glowing light seen around the sun or stars for Star-Touched) and call members of the group Coroknights. The movement had been gaining traction in recent weeks when several members of the senate had expressed interest.  

“Yes,” Flea replied simply, “prior commitments. He has his own life he has to take care of. A… family, I think.” That was another odd thing, this time about Silversmith himself. And perhaps a big reason for Dynamic’s dislike. The rest of the Detroit Conservators had all unmasked to one another. They knew each other’s real names, their families, everything. Which certainly wasn’t required. Anyone on the team was allowed to keep their identity secret if they chose to. But the fact that their leader was the only one who exercised that right was, perhaps, a little strange. He, however, simply said that he had people he loved who had to be protected and that as long as everyone knew he never let even his own teammates know his identity, no one would try to get at those loved ones through that team.

For a moment, the two women looked at each other. Flea imagined she could see Dynamic’s much younger (nineteen compared to her own twenty-eight) Hispanic face through that violet gem-like helmet, staring pointedly at her, eyes silently yet clearly insisting that their team leader was just as much of a dick as she had always been convinced he was. 

However, before either of them could speak again, the sound of footsteps approaching made them turn to see the rest of the team (sans Silversmith, of course) approaching. Three figures, all male. They came from the van that they had clearly just arrived in and parked across the street. 

“You guys found anything important yet?” Kriegspiel asked. He was the oldest member of the team. Older than Silversmith even, Flea was pretty sure. The man had turned fifty a month earlier, though he was in pretty good shape for that. Which was helped by his Touched ability. It allowed him to enhance the strength, power, speed and so forth of everyone in an area he considered an ally, as well as allowing them all to communicate with one another mentally and even see through each other’s eyes or share what they were seeing. He always used his power on himself to even greater effect than others, meaning that though just over fifty, he had the physical attributes of someone half his age in top condition. For ten minutes at a time (one minute less for each additional person he was aiding beyond himself), he could push his power and raise that boost to about double what a normal human was capable of. He was also a fairly tall man at nearly six foot five, with gray-black hair worn long, to his shoulders. His costume consisted of tan body armor under a brown duster, with a black mask that covered the bottom half of his face, and a wide-brimmed sable fedora identical to that worn by Indiana Jones. He wore what appeared to be an ordinary revolver, but was actually a Touched-Tech gun, from a holster on one hip. 

“Nope.” The answer didn’t come from Flea or Dynamic. Instead, it came from the shorter man walking to Kriegspiel’s left, who had been the youngest member of the team at barely twenty-two before Dynamic had joined them straight out of the Minority. RePete (his real name wasn’t Pete, he just thought it was amusing to make people think it had to be) wore his usual costume of green camo pants, army boots, a black turtleneck, dark gloves, a green ski mask, and quite possibly half of the guns in the city. He wore a pistol on either hip, a shotgun across his back, a smaller pistol on either ankle, and another pair of small pistols holstered halfway up either arm. Those last two were holstered with one on the outside of his right arm and one on the inside of the left, their grips positioned so that he could cross his arms and yank both weapons free. 

And those were just the guns that were in plain sight. Flea was confident that he had more. 

“They just got here, same as us,” RePete continued.  

“Reap,” Dynamic flatly reminded the man while using what the team had settled on as the more serious ‘nickname’ version of his chosen moniker, “you know everyone hates it when you do that, right? We’ve made that clear?” 

“As crystal,” was the response. If he was abashed at all, the man didn’t show it. No matter how often they complained, he would still randomly use his power to, in his mind, speed along conversations. His gift was a powerful, though limited one. It allowed him to set a marker and then repeat (hence the name) the previous five seconds with everything he already knew from that time. After that, he could choose to repeat four of those seconds again, then a third time for the last three of those seconds before the marker would expire. It gave him three increasingly short-windows to change or react to something. 

Or, in this case, to answer a question someone else had answered in the original timeline.

“Hey, hey, be nice to the ladies!” Those words came from the final member of their team. And what a member he was. Walking on Kriegspiel’s right, opposite from RePete, was a wiry black man in his late thirties, just over six feet in height. His costume consisted of full padded body armor. But rather than being dark or camo-colored, the torso part of the armor was colored and patterned after a bright, loud Hawaiian shirt (he had several versions using different specific colors, this one was blue with bright palm trees). The pants part of the outfit were the usual black. Meanwhile, his identity was concealed behind a metal helmet that covered the top half of his face and almost his entire head, leaving only his mouth exposed. His eyes were covered by lenses whose color matched that of whatever Hawaiian pattern he was wearing at any given time. 

He was, in short, not what people pictured if they knew that his chosen name of Bokor referred to a male vodou sorcerer who created zombies. That was, however, a decent name for someone with his power, which allowed him to create zombie-like duplicates of any person he could see. The duplicates weren’t able to use any Touched powers the original had, but they were very strong and tough. Plus, they could expel a gas from their mouths that made people who breathed it in tired, weak, clumsy, and generally more likely to surrender. 

“After all,” Bokor was saying, his voice bright, “we’re a team here, yeah? To be a good team, we make each other comfortable, not annoy each other. Hey, who wants to hear a joke?” 

Though no one on the team answered him, Bokor nodded toward a figure who had just appeared next to RePete. A ‘zombie’ duplicate of him who stood with his arm raised. “Why thank you, ReRePete,” Bokor spoke with a broad smile at his own humor. Then, he quickly asked, “How did the man build his house out of snow? Iglood it!” As soon as the words left his mouth, he was already guffawing, pounding a fist against his own chest. “My nephew told me that one!” The pride in the man’s voice made it clear just how he felt about the joke, and about his nephew in general. 

Chuckling despite herself, though mostly out of admiration for how much Bokor cared about and doted on his sister’s little boy, Flea gestured. “We need to get busy. Spread out, look for anything that might give us an idea of who or what took down this building. Anything the regular searchers might have overlooked or just missed.” 

So, that was exactly what they did. Each of them began picking through piles of ashes and debris. There was, of course, very little to find. Whoever had burned this building down had done a very thorough job. They had clearly wanted to be certain that it would be impossible, or near to it, to find anything that explained what this place had really been, or who had been behind it. The original inspectors had found nothing useful. That was why the Conservators had been called in to begin with, out of the hope that something would stand out to them based on their own experiences. Or that one of their gifts would be useful somehow. It was a long shot, but then, they didn’t exactly have much else. The authorities were torn between being very confused about why this place had been burned so thoroughly, and not… particularly caring that much because it was just a warehouse with no owner stepping forward to claim damages. The biggest reason for the investigation was due to just how thoroughly the place had been destroyed. Ironically, whoever had taken such pains to ensure that there would be nothing for investigators to find had actually drawn more investigators than there would’ve been otherwise. 

In any case, now it was time to find out just what there was to find around here. 

******

Nothing. There had been nothing to find… in the remains of the warehouse. Fortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the area around the warehouse. The authorities had already asked nearby businesses for access to security footage, of course, to no avail. However, while doing a run around the neighborhood, Dynamic had spotted something curious. A single, almost entirely-hidden camera pointed in the direction of where the warehouse had been. The camera was small, one of those that was meant to be set up above a garage or door at home for personal security. It had been secured to the wall of a building across the street, hidden behind a dumpster in a way that ensured it was almost impossible to spot. The camera itself had sent its footage across a wi-fi signal to a device attached to the bottom of the dumpster itself, which would in turn broadcast that footage to a receiver far away. 

It had taken some time, almost two hours, to get their tech people to track that signal to its source. Which was almost a miracle in and of itself, because according to the tech guys, the receiver was set up so that whoever was on the other end should have been able to shut it down the second they started tracking it. The thing had sent an alarm that way before they could stop it. Yet, the connection was never turned off. Apparently the person wasn’t paying attention to their alarm for whatever reason. The alarm they had specifically set up to warn them about someone tracking the signal, and yet they weren’t doing anything to stop that very thing? 

Regardless, the tech guys found the source. Which was what led the five Conservator members to this spot out in the middle of nowhere, an hour and a half from Detroit itself. Specifically, a literal cabin in the woods near Lake Victoria. 

They’d driven out here in a van, despite Dynamic insisting she should run ahead. Mostly because she got bored sitting still in a vehicle. Being capable of running hundreds of miles per hour, and having unlimited stamina, Dynamic really didn’t see the point of spending time in vehicles. Not knowing what might be out there, Flea had refused. She wanted everyone together, just in case they were about to walk into something bad. Whoever had gone through the trouble of burning down the warehouse had wanted to be damn sure nothing was ever found of it. And yet, they didn’t bother to shut down the signal from their hidden security camera after it was traced? Something strange was going on, and Flea didn’t trust any of it. Part of her wished Silversmith was here, whatever Dynamic’s reservations.

The cabin itself was a couple of miles up a gravel road once they had passed through a metal security gate. Or what had once been a gate. Something had smashed into it somewhat recently with enough force to slam the thing open permanently. That had led to even more confusion about what was going on here. Was this whole situation some kind of fight between two mysterious parties that no one knew about? Was it possible that the person who burned down the warehouse wasn’t the same person who owned or operated it? That had been discounted by the authorities simply because of how much work and set-up burning that place down so completely would have required. It wasn’t a simple arson fire. Someone would have had to be inside for an extended time, possibly weeks, to ensure everything was set properly for it to be so thoroughly destroyed so quickly. 

Hopefully, they would find some answers inside this small cabin. At least, that was what Flea told herself as the five of them stood together about twenty feet from the porch, eyes carefully scanning for anything out of the ordinary. They had parked the van so that the headlights illuminated the front door, and thus far had seen nothing suspicious. On the other hand, they hadn’t seen anything not suspicious either. They’d seen nothing, heard nothing. The cabin appeared to be empty. Which would go a long way toward explaining why nobody had responded to the alarm the camera had sent when they started tracing the signal, but still. 

“Hey, Flea,” Dynamic called over to her from the far end of their assembled line, “your family’s pretty rich, how many cabins did you grow up with?” 

“Just in the woods like this, or on the beach too?” Flea retorted. “Three and five respectively. Oh, six if you count the villa in Italy. That’s sort of a cabin. A little bit. Anyway, doesn’t really matter. I haven’t been to any of them since… you know.” They all knew. Her father had been angry with Flea (or rather, Irelyn) for choosing to go from the Minority to the Conservators rather than signing up to lead his own corporate security team. So angry, in fact, that he, and the rest of her family, had barely spoken to her since she’d done it almost ten years earlier. There was the occasional hurried e-mail, text, or christmas letter from her mom, and a bit more than that from her younger sister. But for the most part, they followed the family patriarch’s orders to leave the family traitor out in the cold. 

It had been a hard choice, but Irelyn wouldn’t change it if she could. She was overall happier this way, even if it had meant walking away from her family and her easy, privileged life. 

“We doing this?” Bokor finally asked, once the five had taken in the view for long enough. 

“Yeah,” Flea confirmed. “Go for it.” 

With a nod, the man gestured. Immediately, ‘zombie’ duplicates of  the five of them appeared and began to walk toward the cabin. Flea and the others weren’t going to take any chances about this place being booby-trapped, just in case. In fact, they took a few extra steps back closer to the van, and watched as their clone-like selves approached the door.

“And,” Kriegspiel announced, “we’re live.” 

With that, Flea was abruptly able to, with a small bit of focus, see through the eyes of her zombie duplicate rather than through her own. It had been a strange thing to get used to at first, but she had plenty of experience by now. Around her, the others would be linked to their own copies, as Kriegspiel used his power to connect each of them with the zombies that Bokor created. He also linked them with their other selves telepathically, allowing them to send messages. Normally this would simply be communication, but since Bokor had ordered the zombies to obey them, Flea and the others could essentially steer and control their duplicates through that mental connection. It was one example of how well Bokor and Kriegspiel worked together. Now if only the two of them would figure out the feelings they had for each other before she had to strangle them both. While Bokor had been an out-and-proud pansexual man since he was a teenager, Kriegspiel had grown up over a decade earlier and had more problems. He had been self-closeted through twenty years of an unhappy marriage before finally separating, and was only beginning to explore the fact that he was gay. 

The two of them really were great together, in personality and the way they could use their powers, but it wasn’t Flea’s place to point that out. No matter how much she wanted to.  

Instead, she turned her attention back fully to what her duplicate was seeing as they all worked their way through the cabin. Whoever had been living and working out here had something to do with that warehouse. Whether they were responsible for burning it down or not, they clearly knew something. Which meant the Conservators needed to talk to them. 

“Found something,” RePete finally announced, once they had been searching the cabin fruitlessly for about ten minutes. 

It was strange to hear that voice coming from just a couple feet to her left where the real RePete was standing, yet have to walk her zombie duplicate all the way through the cabin to where his was. But soon, Flea and the others had done just that, until all of their duplicate selves were standing together in what turned out to be the bathroom. 

“Couple envelopes fell behind the toilet,” RePete informed them, holding them up. “Whatever was inside is long gone, but we’ve got a name, at least.

“So who exactly is Robert Parson?” 

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Showdown 7-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Citing exhaustion after everything that had happened, which wasn’t exactly a stretch, I let Eits drive me back to the store where all that fighting had happened. The two of us sat in that car, staying quiet for the first part of the drive before he looked to me. “You believe me when I say I won’t tell anybody about you, right?”

I shrugged a bit. “I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? My black paint only lasts ten seconds, and I can’t exactly follow you around constantly reapplying it just to keep you quiet.”

He gave me a brief look, coughing once. “Why do I feel like you actually considered that for a second back there?”

Flushing under the mask, I retorted, “I was panicking, sue me. My identity is kind of sensitive.” With that, I turned a bit to stare at him. “So when you promise you won’t tell anybody, you really have to not tell anybody. I mean it. Not even Pack. Nobody. Don’t even write it down. It could… it could get both of us in deep trouble.”

Because I was pretty sure if my parents found out who I was and even suspected that I knew about them, they’d work to shut up anyone else who might know. That included anyone who had found out any hints of my identity. They wouldn’t take chances.

Eits looked uncertain for a moment, but finally nodded. “I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I think I’ll just take your word for it. Like I said, I’m not going to tell anybody about you. And I won’t write it down or anything. I’ll even try not to dream about it if that helps. No promises on that front though, subconscious Eits kind of has a mind of his own.”

Another moment of silence passed before he offered, “I guess we both know more about each other than we intended, huh? Funny how that works when you’re not even trying.”

I nodded. “I haven’t done anything to try to find out who you are from that whole baseball thing. Now, I guess we both sort of have power over each other. We don’t look into each other‘s pasts or identities, right?”

“Right,” he agreed readily. “Just… I swear this isn’t me trying to pry, but when you talk about how dangerous it would be if anybody found out who you were, it doesn’t sound like you’re talking in general. You’re afraid of someone specific. So, I just want to ask… are you okay? Sorry, you don’t have to talk about it. I just… yeah, if you need anything or whatever…”

Blinking in a bit of a surprise, I quickly shook my head. “I’m okay. I mean, you’re not wrong about it being dangerous, but it’ll be fine.” Pausing, I added a somewhat awkward, “Thanks. But you know what? This is going to make having to come after you once we’re on opposite sides again really awkward.”

He shrugged. “Like we said, you have ways of finding out who I am if I go too far looking into you, or give away any of your secrets. Besides, I am fully prepared to cool my heels in a cell if you grab me doing something bad. It’s not like Blackjack won’t get me out.” 

He paused then, head tilting. “Err, did that sound like I was taunting you? Cuz I wasn’t trying to taunt you. It’s just… uhh, yeah. La Casa look after their own. Blackjack has these strict rules about how much force we’re allowed to use if we’re actually caught, depending on by who, the situation, and everything else. The point is, we play nice and spend a little time in jail if we have to until the others resolve the situation.”

“So what you’re saying is,” I started slowly, “you’re not going to start screaming about me being a girl the second I catch you breaking into someone’s system and lock you down for the cops.”

He gave me a serious look then. “Like I said, your secret is safe with me. I’m not gonna tell anybody. I mean, I wouldn’t exactly be happy about it, but I trust Blackjack. Besides, if you catch me breaking in somewhere, I deserve to be caught.”

Snorting at that, I retorted, “Pretty big words for someone who had to call me for help to get him off a roof, dude.”

He was clearly blushing a little while waving that off with his hand. “A crazy fluke. Totally not gonna happen again.” Sobering a bit then, the boy looked to me once more. “You and me, we’re good. I know the risks of what I’m doing, and I’m ready for the consequences if they come. You catch me fair and square, I’m not gonna say anything. I swear. But you do have to catch me first.”

Hesitating, I took a breath before pointing out, “You could always just stop being a bad guy. Seriously, you seem really cool. It’d be a lot easier to avoid any problems if you weren’t stealing things anymore.”

He sounded honestly regretful while replying, “Sorry. I owe Blackjack, not to mention the rest of La Casa.  Without them, I’d… let’s just say I’d be in much worse shape.” Shrugging, he added, “Besides, I hate to tell you this, but stealing things is kind of a rush. Beating security systems, finding a way around the guards, even dealing with Star-Touched like you. Some of the other Fell take it way too seriously, or they’re just fucking monsters. Me, I just want to see if I can do it. And, like I said, I owe Blackjack more than I could ever describe.”

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I wasn’t sure how to phrase it. I also kind of wanted to ask the boy if he knew anything about a secret group who were paid by villains for the right to operate in the city. He was probably one of my best ways of getting more information about my family’s organization. But I couldn’t bring that up yet. I didn’t want to endanger him if he went looking for information, and I still wasn’t exactly positive about how much I should tell him anyway. I wouldn’t be able to unring that bell once I brought it up, and I was pretty sure he would be able to figure out that there was a connection between me talking about how dangerous it was if someone found out too much about me, and this random mysterious shadowy organization. He could put two and two together. 

So, I just stayed quiet as we pulled into the back lot behind the store. There were a lot of people there. Mainly I saw La Casa troops of both the Touched and Prev variety grouped up on one side, and the four Minority people on the other. There was obvious tension in the area, and I hoped things didn’t boil over. Quickly getting out of the car with a last look back toward Eits, I moved to Carousel and the others. “They’re not back yet?”

Syndicate (or the one of him who was standing there) spoke up. “No. According to those guys, this Jailtime asshole takes you into his own private prison and you have to find your way out.” He paused before muttering under his breath, “Way better get out of there.” 

Unable to help myself, I asked, “So where’s Raindrop? I figured she’d be with you guys, or at least show up by now.”

Syndicate quietly answered, “She’s… on vacation. She needed a break.”

Okay, there was definitely something more to that, but before I could think about it too much, Carousel looked to me. “Seems like you went many miles. Tell us you got the vials. All the danger this has fraught, it’d suck to be for naught.”

Wobble nodded, the huge guy looking to me. “She’s right,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “if we went through all this and those vials are still out there…”

“Almost,” I assured them. “We’ve got all but one of them. And that last one… well, it’s with Pack and That-A-Way.” Looking back to the spot where the two had disappeared, I quietly added, “So I guess that’s another reason to hope they make it out.”

Whamline spoke up. “You’re a pretty hard little guy to figure out, you know? You’re obviously trying to help people, but you’re also on friendly terms with villains like Blackjack and Pack. Not to mention that Eits guy. You’re not a villain, but you say you don’t want to join us either. So what’s the deal? Do we have cooties or something?”

Turning away from where he had been staring at the La Casa people, Syndicate agreed. “Yeah, we’ve been trying to figure out why you’re so adamant about staying on your own. I mean, you’ve seen how dangerous it is out there. Look at your helmet. That was Cuélebre, right? He nearly killed you. And let me guess, you still don’t want to join.”

Blanching a bit out their interrogation, I gave a quick shake of my head while holding the broken helmet tighter. “I’m sorry, guys. I’m just not a team player right now. You’re right, I’m not a bad guy. I just want to help people. But I have my own way of doing it. I don’t mind helping out, I just can’t join up with you.

“And I was helping Blackjack save his daughter. That’s it. I don’t agree with the guy or anything. I just don’t think his kid should pay for what Blackjack does. I get why Ashton is pissed at him. But he took it too far.”

The four of them exchanged looks, a silent conversation of some kind passing between them before Syndicate looked back to me. “I guess that’s fair enough for now. But we’ve still got a lot of questions. Sorry, I’m just pretty sure there’s still something more behind your whole situation than you’re saying.”

Inwardly, I blanched while trying not to show any reaction in my body language. How could I just tell them to leave well enough alone without piquing their curiosity even more? If I acted like it was a big deal and tried to warn them, they’d definitely dig deeper. And that could be really bad for everyone, considering my supervillain/hero father was basically their boss. 

So, I just did my best to shrug it off, deliberately changing the subject. “Are you guys gonna be okay after all this? I mean, you were technically fighting alongside La Casa tonight too.”

Carousel was the one who replied. “They’ll just have to let us explain. With that kind of danger, we couldn’t abstain.”

“What she said, only less rhymey,” Syndicate agreed. “At least for tonight, the truce was the best way to go. Two other gangs to fight, nobody’s going to blame us for not jumping straight into fighting La Casa too. And like you said, in this case it was about saving a little girl. Even if she was the daughter of a supervillain.”

Everyone stopped talking then, because the car with Blackjack himself had shown up. He stepped out of it, glanced over to us, and then said something to his men. After a brief back and forth, he approached, watching our reactions before speaking. “I owe all of you a debt of gratitude for what you’ve done tonight, and the risks you took to secure my daughter’s medicine.”

Wobble quickly asked, “Don’t suppose we could all trade in those debts of gratitude and get you to turn yourself in?” After a brief pause, he shrugged. “It was worth a shot.”

Chuckling in what sounded like genuine amusement, Blackjack nodded. “It certainly was. But no, I’m afraid tonight will not be the time you manage to talk a Fell-gang leader into surrendering. Given what I’ve seen of you all, however, I would hardly be surprised to see you manage it at some point. I’ll even wish you luck, given how my own organization could profit from such an event.”

He was still nervous. I could tell that much just from watching the man. He was trying to play things off, but there was a certain tenseness to him. Probably because he was so close to finally saving his daughter. There was only one vial left, and he could do absolutely nothing about getting it back. He just had to stand here and wait to see if… no, when Pack and That-A-Way got out of there. They had the last vial, and his daughter wouldn’t be safe until they were here. But he could do nothing to influence it and clearly felt completely helpless. I knew the feeling. 

Before anyone else could say anything, there was a rush of motion from above and to the side, I quickly looked that way with the others, just in time to see Flea come leaping down to land between the Minority Touched (as well as me) and Blackjack. She was joined a second later by another female figure in a purple and white skin tight suit with a helmet not too dissimilar from mine. Dynamic, the Conservator speedster who could temporarily drain the powers from people she ran past in order to create energy constructs. She came skidding to a stop beside the other woman, both of them standing with their attention fully centered on Blackjack. 

“Problem here?” Flea asked flatly, her voice full of warning. She had a sword in one hand, though she hadn’t actually raised it. The tip was pointed at the ground. But her intent was clear. 

Syndicate quickly spoke up. “It’s okay. Nothing’s changed since we reported in a few minutes ago. We’re still waiting for That-A-Way.”

Blackjack gave a slight nod. If he was at all intimidated or worried about the two adult Star-Touched, he gave no sign of it. I even saw him suddenly wave his hand back to motion for his own men to stay away. His voice was as calm as possible given the situation. “Your protege is correct. We have all held to a truce this evening to focus on more important matters. I hope that can be maintained through these last few minutes.”

Flea made a noise of curiosity. “Few minutes? The way I understood it, we have no way of knowing when our people will get out of that prison. Unless you’re privy to something the rest of us aren’t?”

She was trying to find out if his words had anything to do with his power, I realized. No one knew exactly how it worked, or how much information the guy could get. 

From the way he chuckled, the La Casa leader was just as aware of what she was doing. He bowed his head, seemingly in acknowledgment and approval of it before replying, “Let’s just say I have a certain level of optimism. Assuming our disagreements can wait until later?”

Dynamic spoke up, her voice bright and cheerful. “Oooh, by disagreements, you mean the fact that you’re a super villain who keeps robbing and hurting people and we’re supposed to take you to prison? Those disagreements?” She gave him a clearly embellished thumbs up. “Sure, we can wait to bring you to justice. It’s not like you’re suddenly going to disappear. Though, you know, that would probably be the best super villain move ever. Just completely vanish so no one ever finds you? I wonder if—” 

She stopped as Flea nudged her. I didn’t know a lot about Dynamic, except for the fact that she was the youngest member of the Conservators. She’d been part of the Minority only a year earlier. Not our Minority, but the one in the Utah/Wyoming area. On graduation, she’d been picked up by none other than Silversmith himself. 

Did that definitely make her one of the bad guys, or was I just being paranoid? Dad would obviously want good Star-Touched in the city, or he wouldn’t have anything to threaten people who didn’t pay up with. But was she just a good recruit to have, or actually part of the shadow organization? Having a loyal person on the Conservators besides himself, and one who could actually drain people’s powers at that, would be really useful for him.

“Paintball?” With a start, I realized that Flea had been trying to get my attention. When I looked that way, she gestured to the broken helmet in my hand. “Are you okay?”

“I…” Pausing, I swallowed before nodding. The brief memory flash of that lightning made my throat dry. I was really trying to focus on anything other than that. “I’m fine,” I claimed in a voice that I was proud to say was only shaking a little bit. “I just need a shower and a nap.”

With an audible giggle, Dynamic blurted, “Tell me about it, little dude. After all the shit that’s been going around tonight, I could use a spa day.” She didn’t seem nearly as tense as Flea was for standing in front of Blackjack. A sign that she was part of my parents’ organization after all, or just her personality? I wished I knew for sure. 

Belatedly, I looked to the two Conservator Star-Touched. “I… I saw Silversmith fighting Cuélebre. Is he–I mean, are they still–” God, how stupid was this? My dad was an actual secret supervillain and I was still worried about his safety. What was wrong with me? 

For her part, Flea simply offered me a short nod, clearly having no idea what was behind my question. “He’s fine. Cuélebre escaped, but I promise, Smith made him regret coming out tonight.” 

With that, she turned her attention to the La Casa leader. “It sounds like you treated these guys right.” She nodded to the Minority and me. “So thanks. Still, I have to say, this truce only lasts until you get that vial and get out of here. We see you again tonight, this whole thing is gonna go differently, got it?” 

Blackjack started to respond, but before he could say anything, there was a sudden flash of light nearby. Everyone’s eyes snapped there, as the light began to resolve into a figure. Or two figures. That-A-Way and Pack. The latter had all her lizards clinging to her arms and shoulders. 

As everyone stared, both girls staggered and stumbled a bit. They looked pretty haggard, worn out, and generally like they’d been through a lot. Finally, they looked up to find everyone watching. 

“Oh, hey, boss.” Pack’s words were light, though she was clearly barely able to keep standing. “Special delivery?”

Then she held up the final vial. The last one. She held it out, letting her employer take it from her with a somewhat shaking hand. Clutching it, he turned and nodded to someone. A moment later, Ashton was brought out and sent stumbling to me. 

It was over. Blackjack finally had what he needed to save his daughter. After all that, we’d actually pulled it off. 

And you know what, whether Dynamic was a secret bad guy or not, she was absolutely right about one thing. 

A spa day sounded really fucking good right about now.

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Alliances 6-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh boy, was this whole Reformation Ball thing a big deal. I’d always known that, of course. Even from the time that I was a little kid, I’d known the Ball was basically one of the most important events of the year in Detroit. But somehow, actually being there instead of sitting at home while my parents were out for the evening made it so much more obvious just how huge and important the whole thing was. I’d known it was a big deal before. But now I really knew. 

The location for the event bounced around a little from year to year, as each of the three biggest and most amazing hotels in the city took turns hosting it. This year, it was being held at the Cloud Regal, a twenty-five story hotel that was shaped like the letter C. In the middle of the curve was the main grounds of the hotel, an elaborate garden area with twin fountains on either side of the main path. The water from the fountains shot high into the air in a complicated series of patterns that included shooting back and forth to one another in an arch-shape over the path. 

There were technically three separate parties. The biggest one was out on those grounds, where tables of food and drink had been set up, along with a stage for a live band and other entertainers. There was an entrance fee, but it was minimal. To buy a ticket cost about twenty dollars, which got you into the grounds, allowed you to see the entertainment, and provided access to all the food and most drinks, though the higher shelf stuff was still charged for. 

The next step over being on the grounds was being inside one of the three separate banquet rooms within the hotel. It was apparently a few hundred per seat to be in there, which got you much better quality food (not that the food outside wasn’t great, but the more rare and expensive stuff was inside), and even more entertainment. It was a quieter dinner there, while outside was slightly more of a rambunctious, energetic party. 

Then there was the roof party. All the way at the top of the twenty-five story hotel was the roof garden where the true power in the city held their own dinner. The mayor, the chief of police, the governor of Michigan, the leadership of various hero organizations, business owners, community organizers, everyone who could afford a ticket or was sponsored by someone who could. Being on the roof required a minimum five thousand dollars per head. 

That was the general cost of each area. Twenty bucks to be outside, a couple hundred to be inside, five thousand to be on the roof. And every single ticket had been sold weeks ago. As happened every year, the event was completely sold out. And as always, one hundred percent of the proceeds from tonight would go to a charity. It was a different one each time. This year, all the money would go to the Gold Horizons Children’s Hospital located just across the street from the hotel. Apparently the guy who owned this hotel had built the hospital because of his own son passing away from cancer, and when some rich guy tried to have the hospital closed down because it made him feel bad, the owner had had him banned not only from this place, but from every hotel, resort, and business he owned. Which, apparently, was a lot. 

My family, of course, was on the roof. I was there, in my ungodly expensive and beautiful dress that made me feel like a mutt that had crawled into Cinderella’s gown and run off with it. The thing was so amazing and beautiful, all teal and shiny and… and… I was just… not… that. I wasn’t right for it. This dress belonged on a tall, beautiful blonde prom queen, not on a little tomboy who barely topped five feet, with black hair that just would not stay tamed and was long on one side but short on the other. 

My mother’s hand gently brushed my shoulder, and I turned a bit to see her smiling down at me. Her voice was soft against the light sound of quiet music in the background. “You are radiant this evening, my beautiful Principessa. Thank you for coming, I’m certain you could have found any number of other things to do. But having you here makes me so very proud.” 

I was still trying to work out how to respond to that, when her hand very gently brushed my face. Apparently she could still see dark circles there. “Are you alright? You look so tired.” 

Well, Mom, I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. First I found out that you and Dad are running some massive evil supervillain conspiracy. Then I became basically responsible for making sure an innocent little girl doesn’t die or the city itself doesn’t descend into war. And on top of all that, I was just recently knocked unconscious and abducted by a two-faced monster who really, really wants to torture me. Did I forget anything? Oh, right, and I owe a favor to that two-faced monster’s boss for letting me get out of there with my blood still inside my body. 

Forcing a smile, I shook my head. “I’m okay, Mom. It’s just been a long day. Thanks for letting me come tonight. This is…” My eyes glanced around the roof, at all the beautiful candles that lit various pathways through the glass sculptures, the rich and beautiful chatting amicably, and the ungodly famous musician with his funny glasses playing his Candle in the Wind song on the piano. “This is really great.” I looked back to her then. “And kind of crazy.” 

Her beautiful smile returned, and she gently touched two fingers to her lips before brushing my cheek with them. “You get used to it,” she murmured softly before glancing over my shoulder. “I have to speak to Grant for a minute. Enjoy yourself, my beautiful girl. Make yourself known here, let people see you. I will make sure Simon or someone else is available to take you home in an hour or so if you’re ready to leave then. There is no need for you to stay for the whole evening.”

Promising to mingle, I watched my mother head over to chat with ‘Grant’. Also known as one of Michigan’s senators. They started talking, and I heard Mom ask him about his son’s football scholarship. It made me shake my head, turning away. How weird was it to be a part of all this? Because I’d grown up with it, so I didn’t really have the right perspective. Even then, however, this felt pretty weird. I stepped away from the spot where I’d been talking to my mother, carefully making my way through the crowd. Here and there, I smiled to someone who recognized me (there weren’t that many), greeting them and exchanging a few words. One of the passing waitresses handed me a wine glass with ginger ale in it, which I took a sip from while standing at the edge of the roof to look down at the main party. It was in full swing, and looked like they were having a lot of fun. There was an open space on the grass where people were dancing.   

The sound of someone clearing their throat made me glance back to see Tomas standing there. He gave me a smile that made my stomach start a boxing match with my heart, before moving up beside me. His voice was casual. “Hey, Cassidy. Ahh, how are you doing?” 

I swallowed a bit. The past week had been complicated. I hadn’t avoided Tomas at all. We hung out a few times, even got lunch together once. But it was just… so… yeah, complicated. I felt like even more of an idiot every time I thought about how him being bisexual had made me feel. 

I knew he cared about me. I knew he liked me. This changed nothing. He liked me for being me, regardless of whether I was a boy or a girl. That was a good thing, right? Yes. Yes, it was. It was indisputably a good thing. Logically, I knew that. I told myself that. I even thought I’d convinced myself of it multiple times. Yet, every time I saw him, my brain whispered things like, ‘Are you sure he doesn’t just like you because you look like a cute little boy?’

Feelings were annoying, why did they have to be so complicated? I should just be able to tell my heart something and make it accept the plain stupid truth. Stupid emotions. Stupid, stupid emotions.

Quickly, I forced myself to reply dryly, “Oh, you know. Just another day.” Biting my lip, I looked at him. “I didn’t know you’d be here.” Pausing, I added, “But I really should’ve.” 

He chuckled lightly, waving vaguely over his shoulder. “Yeah, Mum and Dad are over there somewhere. I’m supposed to be here, look presentable, and not embarrass them.” 

“Sounds like we have similar jobs,” I replied. “You wanna share? Maybe it’ll be easier.”

He smiled again, and my heart did a little spin at the way it made his dimples show. “That sounds like a pretty good idea to me. We can look presentable together. My parents love you enough anyway. My dad kept asking if I talked to you yet. I think they want to have you over for dinner at some point.”

Oh. My… my ex’s parents wanted to have me over for dinner. That wasn’t as weird as it could be considering we’d only broken up because of distance, right? Wait, if he was back, did that mean that he expected… or that they expected… wait, was this—

Tomas’s hand found my arm, gently squeezing. “Hey, hey, it’s all right. None of us are dumb enough to think we’re just going to go right back to the way we were, okay? And if Dad or Mum think otherwise, they’ve got another thing coming. A year is a long time. I’m sure we’ve both changed a lot. I mean… you know about my… yeah. Maybe something else will come of it, maybe it won’t. But you’ve always been important, Cassidy. Whether we’re just friends or end up being more than that, I want to get to know you again. So, I’d love it if you came over for dinner at some point. No pressure, and if my parents start turning that on, I swear we’ll go get one of your American pizza concoctions.” 

Squinting at him, I pointed. “You can’t fool me anymore, buster. I know for a fact you guys have plenty of pizza over in the UK.”

Meeting my gaze, he gave a sage nod. “Of course, we just call it open stromboli. Or opomboli.”

He had me for just a second. I blinked, head tilting as I watched his expression. Then I frowned, punching him in the arm as subtly as possible, not wanting to cause a scene. “You do not, jerk.” 

He laughed, looking charming again before turning to look out at the people below once more. For a moment, he was quiet before speaking again. “I did miss you, Cassidy Evans. Even if you are not nearly as gullible as you were.” His gaze moved back to me with a wink. “You’ve changed too.” 

Swallowing back all the thoughts that brought up, I managed a shrug. “I guess that’s just a thing that happens. And I haven’t changed all that much.” Boy, if he only knew. “But I… umm…” Shaking off the feelings, I gestured. “We should probably go see about mingling a little bit more, huh? Pretty sure my parents–or my mom mostly, would prefer I be seen instead of hanging out in the background.” 

“We could dance, if you like,” he pointed out mildly, knowing full well that no one else was dancing. Not up here, anyway.

“I said ‘be seen’, not ‘make a complete ass of myself,’” I retorted before pulling him by the arm. “Come on, we’ll just walk and talk.” 

He obliged, and the two of us meandered our way through the crowd, making a couple circuits of the roof. We stopped now and then, chatting with various people. I tried to be as polite as possible, wanting, for some reason, to make a good impression for my supervillain parents. Weird. 

I also saw my dad twice. He was standing over with a few other rich guys, and Silversmith was right across the roof, talking to Flea and Caishen, leader of the Ten Towers corporate sponsored hero team. Other Star-Touched, including all the Minority members, were mingling with people too.  But I still had no idea how my parents were managing to make it look like Silversmith and my dad were both here. Maybe Dad had a body double? He could certainly afford one. 

In any case, it was eventually time for us to separate and rejoin our own families for dinner. I made my way over to the round table that had been set aside for us and found Simon and my parents already there. Dad took a moment to tell me how wonderful I looked, teasing me about being around Tomas again. Then he held Mom’s chair out, Simon held mine, and we sat down before they joined us. 

“Dad’s right, you actually look like you belong here, Booster,” my brother teased. “You haven’t tripped over anything or started talking about Power Rangers or Ninja Turtles yet.” 

Forcing myself to smile, I retorted, “Well, I didn’t want to take away your most educational topics, dear brother. That would be terrible. What on Earth would you talk about then?” 

Mom cleared her throat pointedly, but I could see her smothering a small smile as she looked to us. “Let’s be nice,” she murmured softly before looking up to thank the waiter who brought our drinks. Wine for the three of them and apple cider for me. Dad had said it would be okay if I had one glass with them, but that didn’t sound like a great idea to me, so I declined. Cider would be fine. 

We took our food a few minutes later, and watched as the mayor, followed by the governor, got up to give their speeches through the meal. ‘Grant’ the senator would be next, apparently. They would be going down to mingle with the other two party groups shortly, playing for future votes, of course. But first they would make nice with the rich people, like my parents. As part of that, Mayor Carter Bens would be accepting gifts on behalf of the city. It was another tradition born over the past couple decades, where the mayor would be given various presents of expensive things that would be put on display in City Hall for a few months before being donated and the proceeds given toward the city’s emergency services like police, fire, and hospitals. 

Once that started, Dad made a small noise in the back of his throat while looking to Mom. “You know, I think–” 

“We forgot our gift in the room,” she finished for him, sighing a little. She glanced around as though to flag down a waiter, but they were all busy. Finally looking to me, she added, “Cassidy, would you mind running—I mean… walking very carefully and discreetly… down to the suite we borrowed for the evening and picking up the gift. It should be in the living room beside the television.” 

I agreed quickly, taking the room key and heading to the elevator. From there, I headed for the penthouse suite that my parents had rented out to grab the gold-wrapped gift. 

Carefully managing the present with one hand, I went to open the door and began to step out when movement from the corner of my eye made me look that way. Men. There were men walking down the hall ahead of me, having just passed the room a few seconds earlier. Which wouldn’t really be a big deal, except for the assault rifles they held. Yeah. Guns. 

There were armed guards at this event, of course. To say nothing of all the Star-Touched hanging around. But the armed guards weren’t that obvious. They looked like Secret Service type people, not men in army camo carrying giant-ass automatic guns. 

No, this was obviously something different. Something bad. I quickly ducked back in the room and closed the door most of the way before they could spot me. Peeking out, I saw them heading for the elevator. They were met by a few more guys that were coming out of other rooms, and all of them headed up to the roof. 

Oh boy. Oh God, what was I supposed to do now? Quickly, I took my phone from my pocket, only to find it had no signal. That had to be purposeful, some kind of jammer or something. A check of the room phone produced no dial tone. Great. Just great. This was absolutely, definitely something bad. But what? What kind of crazy idiot would try to attack the place swarming with armed guards and heroes from every team in the city?

Maybe it was just a stunt or something. Maybe I was overreacting. But the lack of a cell signal and dial tone told me I wasn’t. I had to find out more, without getting caught. 

To that end, I headed for the closet where I had dropped my stuff when changing into my dress here. Digging deep in the backpack under the layer of other stuff I’d use to cover it, I came out with the bag that had my costume in it. I’d put it under some unmentionables, just in case. 

Taking a moment to slip the costume on after changing out of my dress, I made my way to the balcony, peeking out and around to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing nothing, I stepped out there before red painting myself up to the edge of the roof, clinging to the bottom edge of the balcony as I listened. 

A male voice was speaking. “I’d say let’s not have anyone playing hero, but I think that’s a moot point by now with the kind of company we’ve got up here tonight, don’t you?”

Painting myself black, I hesitantly peeked up over the edge. Everyone was seated aside from the man who was speaking, and a dozen or so of those camo-dressed men with guns. 

As for the guy who was talking, I knew who he was. The sackcloth mask gave it away. Pencil. It was Pencil. 

That answered my question about who would be crazy enough to attack this place, at least. Seeing him made me shrink back a bit under the edge of the roof while he continued. “But still, let’s be smart here. No one wants a massacre, after all.” He paused before amending, “Well, none of you want a massacre. Personally, I think we’re kind of due.”

Silversmith, or rather, whoever was posing as him, spoke up. “You can’t possibly think you’re going to get away with anything here. What’s your game?”

I could hear the smile in Pencil’s voice as he looked that way. “My game? I’m so glad you asked. The game, ladies and gentlemen, is very simple. Everyone here pretends they care oh so much about all the poor sick children in that hospital across the street that you’re all donating to tonight. But let’s see how much you actually care. See, they’re being visited by a bunch of my friends right now as we speak. And unless you rich motherfuckers start giving until it literally hurts, well, let’s just say there won’t be any more kids to donate to. Which, for the record, is also what will happen if anyone here tries anything. So let’s just keep it all in our pants. 

“As for how much we need, we’re trying to break records here tonight for most stolen in one event. And I hear there’s some stiff competition, so dig deep people. Or don’t. Personally, I’m kind of curious to see if you can hear a few hundred sick kids being mowed down by machine guns all the way up here. 

“Aren’t experiments fun?”

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Legwork 3-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“Um.” Raising one finger, I hesitated for a second before asking, “What do you mean, after we catch the bad guys? Isn’t that when we say woo hoo or whatever and celebrate?”

Staring at me through that stylized and sleek-looking samurai bug mask, the woman dryly replied, “Woo hoo indeed. But there is more to it than that. At least, there is if you wish to be effective. Cuff the man there and we shall discuss it.”

Realizing that I had basically, however briefly, forgotten about the man lying at my feet, I quickly knelt beside him. “Sorry,” I murmured to him without really knowing why. “I’m still new at this.”

The look that he gave me seemed incredulous. “It’s okay,” he informed me. “I’ve been here a few times, we’ll get through it together.”

“See, I know you’re being sarcastic,” I replied, “but thanks.” With that, I pulled the man’s hands behind his back and put the cuffs on him. As I did so, they changed from plain silver to blue.

“Do you know what those are?” Flea asked idly. I noticed that she had already cuffed the other two guys. “And what the color means?”

Belatedly, I realized I did have an idea. I’d just been surprised that she would give me one of them. Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I slowly nodded. “I think so? It’s Touched tech, right? When the cuffs are hooked up to someone it makes it hard for them to move? I don’t know what the color means, though.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “They’re called stay-downs. When they are attached to someone, that person cannot move more than a foot or so from their original position. If they do, the stay-downs will gradually magnify their weight up to many times over, dragging the person back to the ground. When they are on the ground and still, the weight will decrease. The cuffs can sense the amount of strength being used and adjust accordingly, up to a thousand pounds or so. It’s enough to keep most down once they’re applied. Not perfect, but it helps against basically all but those who are Brawn-Touched, and there’s special cuffs for them.”

“Brawn-Touched?” I echoed. “People with strength powers?”

Flea gave me a brief look of curiosity, nodding. “You really are new to this. Yes, we use the something dash touched descriptor to explain what people are. Or at least to give a very slight overview. There are eleven basic categories, including Brawn, Tech, Mind, Travel, Bang, Form, Vary, Psy, Field, Crowd, and Friend.”

“Wow.” Blinking, I thought through it. “Okay, so Brawn-Touched are strong, tough people. Tech-Touched are people who make things. Mind-Touched are… people who affect other people’s minds?”

Her head shook. “That’s Psy. Psy-Touched affect other people’s minds in some way. Mind-Touched are people with mental gifts that affect themselves, like enhanced intelligence, knowledge that just pops into their head, an understanding of people, future knowledge, things like that. Enhanced senses tend to be classified under that too, even if some people think they shouldn’t be.”

“Oh, right.” Nodding to that thoughtfully, I continued. “Travel-Touched are obviously people with like… super speed or flight or whatever. Bang-Touched… umm… I wanna say explosives but… maybe like lasers and stuff?”

“Correct,” she confirmed. “The second part, I mean. Bang-Touched are people who project any kind of obvious outward attack. Lasers, fire breath, ice blasts, they’re all Bang-Touched.”

“Got it.” Thinking for another second, I guessed, “Form-Touched are probably people who can shapeshift or, you know, alter what they look like in some way.”

At a nod from her, I winced. “But uh, I have no idea what ‘Very-Touched’ could mean. Unless it’s like… they’re very powerful.”

I heard a very slight snicker from her before she caught herself. “No, ahh, vary. As in with an A, not an E. A Vary-Touched is someone whose powers change based on… well, various things. Someone who gains different powers based on the situation, or who can change their powers a lot.”

“Lastword,” I blurted. “His powers change based on what he last said, so he’d be a Vary-Touched.”

“Exactly,” she agreed. “And that leaves Field, Crowd, and Friend.”

Those three I considered for a couple seconds before offering, “Field is someone whose powers affect the world around him?” Glancing to the woman to see her nod again, I added, “Crowd must be affecting other people in a way that’s not just like blasting them.”

“Correct,” the woman confirmed. “Crowd-Touch powers are those that affect one or more living targets in a way other than direct damage or the mental effects that Psy covers. Healing, for example. Or petrification.”

Slowly, I nodded before finishing with,  “And Friend is someone whose powers summon things, or in some way create like… minions for him to use?”

Flea gave me a thumbs up. “You got it. There’s more specifics to it, but that’s the basic idea. Also, they’re often given other descriptors or combined to make things more understood. Like, someone who can control plants might be called ‘Nature-Field-Touched.’ Or someone who can shoot lasers that change the emotions of the targets they hit would be ‘Psy-Bang-Touched’. If you see two of the categories together like that, it means they’re connected in the same power. If, say, someone had lasers and flight, there would be an ‘and’ between them. Bang-And-Travel-Touched. That’s common enough that people will use BAT as a descriptor. Or BABAT.”

“Bang-And-Brawn-And-Travel-Touched?” I guessed. “For someone with flight, lasers, and super strength.” When the woman nodded, I added, “So people like Carousel and Raindrop would be considered Field-Touched, because their powers affect the things around them.”

“Technically,” Flea amended for me, “Raindrop is Crowd-And-Field-Touched because her power can affect living people as long as they’re wet. That’s also a common enough combination that people abbreviate it to CAF-Touched, or CAFT. Carousel is only Field-Touched because her power doesn’t affect living beings.”

“What about the ones that start with the same letter?” I asked. “How do you tell the difference between, say, someone who is Bang-And-Travel-Touched or someone who is Brawn-And-Travel-Touched? Both abbreviate to BATT.”

“Good point,” she agreed. “That’s why they usually say it all out at least once to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Every group is different about how they abbreviate them, or even some of the exact terms they use. It’s a good idea to get clarification.”

As I was nodding to that, the guy I had cuffed muttered, “Spiffy, do I get credit for class attendance too?”

“Yes,” the woman informed him. “I’ll be certain to note your interest in attending academic courses to the warden of your prison.”

With that, she made sure I had the guy properly cuffed, then turned to walk back into the store while gesturing for me to follow. On the way, the woman continued. “In any case, the colors of those cuffs refer to what kind of person is authorized to properly move that person. An authorized person can touch the cuffs and they will allow the prisoner to move normally as long as they stay close to that person. Blue is the most common, and it means uniformed police officers. Or anyone above them. All members of the government sanctioned Touched teams are authorized for them as well. Or, of course, the person who applied the cuffs.”

By that point, we’d gotten into the main part of the store, and I could see the damage that had been done. There were several racks tipped over, bullet holes in the walls and shelves, a pile of discarded shopping carts, and about four or five unconscious figures lying around. Flea had been busy. Actually, her power to make people tired probably really helped with the whole ‘making sure they stayed down’ thing. She just drained them until they fell asleep.

The two of us pulled all the unconscious figures to the middle of the room, cuffing them. They were still unconscious by that point, as Flea straightened up. “Now what?” she asked while looking to me. “What do you think we do next?”

“Um.” Shrugging, I offered, “Call the cops and let them know? Just leave seems pretty bad.”

With a soft chuckle, she agreed, “Yes, pretty bad indeed. I assume you already know how to use the Doephone app from Ten Towers.”

For a very brief second, my mind instantly flashed into panic mode, as I reflexively wondered if she somehow knew that I was the person who had sent the message the other night about the dead guys back in that motel. But that was dumb. Even if she did guess that much (like, say, if she had contacts who told her about the whole paint thing), it didn’t mean anything. The Doephone was anonymous. There’d been actual court cases about keeping it anonymous. It was a whole big deal.

“I’m aware,” I confirmed simply, trying to keep it somewhat vague. “I’m pretty sure you guys don’t use it, though.”

“You’re right, we don’t,” she agreed. “But it works just fine for you. Unless you’ve changed your mind about joining up.” Letting that hang very briefly as she glanced to me, the woman then went on without making me answer. “Regardless, you can use the Doephone to report the situation, or call the number That-A-Way provided if you need assistance in containing a more… imminently volatile situation. For something like this, you use the Doephone. And then?”

Biting my lip, I offered, “I’m guessing ‘and then leave’ still isn’t the right answer.”

I had the feeling she was smiling slightly while replying, “It can be, if that’s your choice. But that also risks the people you’ve stopped being released fairly quickly, without some kind of testimony.” As I flinched, she went on a bit quicker, reassuring me, “It doesn’t require you unmask. Simply put, if you want to be more effective, set up a case logger.”

“A case logger?” Frowning a little uncertainly, I asked, “What’s that?”

She explained readily. “Basically, a case logger is a confidential voice mail system accessible by you and the DA’s office. Whenever you complete something like this, you call in and leave a voicemail giving as many details as you can about what happened. Someone in the DA’s office will listen to the logs and attach them to case files. Once a month, they will also leave you a message about various cases that they need your deposition for. If you agree to it, you can go in and do that. It means sitting in a private room in the courthouse, in costume, they won’t make you unmask. You’ll sit there with a judge, a court stenographer, and they’ll cycle through each of the attorneys for both sides of all the cases involving you. Both sides will have the chance to ask questions, just like in a courtroom. You’ll give your testimony about what happened and have it recorded for potential use at trial, then leave. That’s it.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” I murmured thoughtfully. “So they just do that once a month?”

The woman nodded. “Yes. It’s different and more involved for official government Touched, but for someone like you, that’s what they’ll do. If you want, I can help you set up your case logger and get it connected to the court.”

Smiling just a little despite myself, I agreed, “I… yeah. Thanks. That sounds nice.”

Okay, Flea was cool. I really hoped she was actually a good guy and not one of my dad’s secret minions.

That would really suck.

*******

When we were done, Flea gave me a box with a bunch of simple zip-ties, and six of those actual metal ‘stay-down’ cuffs. According to her, I could get more when I needed them from the courthouse if I showed up for those deposition things.

It was probably a pretty good sign of trust that she gave me the things. So I felt kind of bad that I didn’t trust her enough to take them home. Because despite the fact that Flea seemed nice, I didn’t know if those cuffs might have some kind of tracker on them. So there was no way I was going to take them back to the house. Instead, I put them in a safe place for the time being. Namely, back at the half-finished rec center that I’d been training at near the school

After that, I headed home. I’d been out to practice moving around, but it was getting pretty late by then. The last thing I wanted was for my parents to notice I was gone too long and start getting curious. Besides, it may have been Saturday, but I was still supposed to meet up with Jae and Amber so we could work on our project.

It was even easier to sneak in tonight than it had been that first night. Mostly because I understood my power a lot better now. Waiting until the camera at the gate was faced the wrong way, I used a bit of blue paint to jump to the top of the wall, making sure I was in black stealth mode. Keeping low, I ran along the wall toward the house, passing all the trees, flower gardens, and the fountain on the way. Finally, I reached the spot of the wall just across from the house. I could see my bedroom window up there. All I had to do was red-paint myself there and climb in.

Except just as I was about to do that, I saw shapes moving at one of the other windows, one floor above where my room was and a few rooms down. It was one of my dad’s offices. And the people I could see through the window were him and Mom. My parents were in there, clearly talking.

Did I dare? Would I really push my luck? Was that more brave or more stupid?

Whichever one, I had to hear what they were saying. Telling myself I was being dumb, yet unable (or unwilling) to stop, I shot a glob of black paint over to the spot of roof near the window, then used red to yank myself over there, activating the black just before impact to silence my arrival.

There was a ledge there, running along the wall near the window that I could rest on without having to use my paint to stay. Thankfully, the window was open a crack, so I could hear what was going on. Pressing myself against the wall, I leaned closer and listened.

“But until then, we’ll just have to wait and see what he does,” my mother was saying.

“I don’t like being passive when it comes to new Touched,” my dad replied. “Especially new Touched who might know more than they should about our business.”

Wait, they were talking about me. Did I get here just after they said something important and relevant to my situation? What the hell? That’s not how this was supposed to work. TV lied to me.

My mother was talking then. “Of course not, but we have been over this. Spilled milk and all that. Focus on what we can affect right now. Namely, this bounty.”

“Blackjack just tripled it,” Dad replied. “It’s up to three million now. He wanted to go as high as fifty, but I convinced him to leave it at that. He’s desperate and not thinking straight.”

“Would you,” Mom asked, “if it was Cassidy’s life on the line? This is his daughter, Sterling. I’m surprised you convinced him to keep it at three million.”

Blackjack? The leader of La Casa? Dad had enough pull to convince him about what to do with the bounty on that Ashton guy? And whatever was taken from that safe deposit box had to do with the guy’s daughter? Apparently something that was worth her life, from what they were saying. But what could’ve been in a bank that put her life in danger when it was stolen?

Right, it was even more clear that I should’ve been eavesdropping earlier. Or constantly.

“Yes, his daughter,” Dad agreed. “And even if the other gangs don’t know exactly why it’s so important, they know he’s losing his mind over it. So they’re just as determined to get the vials for themselves. Which is not helping Blackjack stay calm about any of this. If we don’t find the boy or those vials, there’s going to be a war. The people of La Casa will bring hell to this city to save that girl. And you know what it means if things get too out of control.”

Mom sighed. “Attention. Which we don’t need any more of. Brumal already wants to bring more reinforcements in as it is. If a gang war breaks out in the streets, she’ll have the excuse she needs.”

Brumal. She was the leader of the local Spartans, the state-level Touched team as opposed to the Federal-level Conservators. No wonder my parents were concerned about her bringing in more people. Especially if they didn’t have a way to control her.

Wait, if they didn’t have a way to control her, could she be a good person for me to approach?

“Have our people keep an eye on her,” Dad murmured. “If there’s a problem… we’ll deal with it. We know how to bring her in line if need be.”

Never mind. Restraining the urge to sigh, I focused once more.

“Yes,” Mom was agreeing, “but let’s not tug on that particular line just yet.  There’s a better solution to this problem.”

I heard Dad chuckle darkly. “Of course there is. All we have to do is find one of the Austin boys. Or this… Paintball.” He said the last bit with distaste. “And maybe tell him to pick a better name.”

Pffft, rude. What did he know? His real name was Sterling and not only did he pick a Touched name with the word silver in it, it even fit his power. He had it easy.

“As far as we know,” Mom clearly reminded him, “neither of the Austin siblings are anywhere in the city. Which leaves the new Touched boy.”

Dad was quiet for a few seconds before muttering something I didn’t hear. He followed up with, “You think he knows anything about where the vials are?”

“Perhaps,” Mom mused softly, sounding thoughtful. “But at the very least, I think he knows more than we do about what happened to them.”

Boy was I going to disappoint her if we ever had to talk. I didn’t even know these so-called ‘vials’, whatever they were, existed until now.

That said, I really hoped we didn’t have to talk. I didn’t exactly trust myself to fool either of my parents in a straight conversation, voice changer or not. I felt like the second I started talking, they would both instantly know who I was. It wasn’t something I wanted to test.

Both my parents were quiet for a few moments, and I thought they were done. Then Dad spoke up again. “Maybe the direct approach would be best.”

“Direct soft or direct hard?” Mom asked. It sounded like she was right near the window, and I silenced the area around me with a shot of black before edging a little bit away, just in case.

“Soft,” Dad replied. “There’s no reason to put him on guard if he doesn’t know about us. But if one of the Minority approaches him and asks about the Austin brothers…”

Mom finished for him, “They could tell him about the impending gang war. They don’t need to know details, only that La Casa is going to burn the city down looking for what was stolen. If the boy wants to be a hero, he’ll want to stop that.”

Dad had moved closer by then, also standing near the window as he replied, “Yes. Which should push this Paintball to tell them what he knows about where either of the brothers went. Or where the vials are. You see, there’s no need to play the hard game just yet.”

Hearing the squeak of the window, I quickly put both hands up, shooting a burst of red paint to yank myself up from that spot to the roof. Clinging there, I looked down as my father’s head appeared. It made me tense up, but he didn’t seem to be looking for me. He was just glancing around.

Before he could happen to look up, I climbed over the edge and laid on the roof for a second. Staring at the sky, I thought about what I’d overheard.

The thing that was stolen from the La Casa bank was some kind of vial. Or vials, rather. And whatever they were, losing them put Blackjack’s daughter’s life at risk. Medicine, maybe? Probably. Either way, it was definitely a big problem. Even if Blackjack was a bad guy, I couldn’t just let his daughter die.

The problem was, despite what my parents thought, I didn’t actually know anything useful about where those vials were. I knew that Josh had a ‘friend who lived in Illinois’ that he was going to stay with. But Illinois was a whole state. It didn’t exactly narrow things down. Plus, even if we found him, he didn’t know where his brother was.  

So my parents and I were actually on the same page. They wanted the vials returned to Blackjack to save his daughter’s life and so did I.

But I didn’t have the first fucking clue about how to do that.

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Legwork 3-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“So I guess I’m a superhero now,” I announced to my unicorn.

Right, backing up. I didn’t have an actual unicorn. My parents were rich and powerful, but not that rich and powerful. They couldn’t magically produce things that didn’t really exist. At least, I was pretty sure they couldn’t. If it turned out I could have had an actual unicorn this whole time, I was going to be even more ticked off about my parents being secretly evil supervillains.

Ugh. Bad time to joke. Bad thing to joke about in general.

The point was, the thing I was talking to was my toy unicorn. It was a little plastic thing that fit in my hand, pink with a couple white stars along its side. His name was Felony, because I’d been a precocious seven year old when I got him and had thought that was hilarious. Felony the unicorn. I’d actually made up stories about myself and Felony running around having adventures. Only where most girls that imagined meeting a unicorn had magical princess fantasies in an enchanted forest, Felony was a thug unicorn. Bright pink with white sparkling stars… and a leather jacket (as much as a unicorn could wear a jacket) who spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent, cursed a lot, and took me through the streets of New York.

I was a weird kid.

It was the next night after my not-so-little fight with Janus and his men. A fight I had survived mostly thanks to a lot of help from a few members of the Minority, but still. And now I was standing on the roof of a building downtown, talking to my toy unicorn that was sitting on the air conditioning unit near me.

Sue me, I’d needed something to talk to and Felony sounded like a better idea than my dad.

“I’m sort of a superhero. I saw my name in the news this morning. I mean, not my name. Not Cassidy. Paintball. I called myself Paintball.” My gaze slid over to the toy. “What do you think? Good, bad? I guess whatever it is, it’s me now. So I’m just going with it.”

After that whole business that had taken me through lunch and into part of sixth period, the rest of the day had been pretty normal. I’d told my teacher that I was late because of ‘girl things’, which was an excellent way of avoiding any further follow-up questions. It meant I had to endure the mock-surprised exclamations from people upon ‘learning that I was a girl’, which never ever got fucking old, let me tell you. But beyond that, everything was fine. I’d gone to Thursday night family dinner and even managed to make something resembling conversation.

Just a few days into this whole thing and I was already getting depressingly good at pretending my family didn’t leave me violently shaking while I clutched a pillow and cried into it at night.

Adrian hadn’t been at school today, which was pretty much what I’d expected. The authorities probably had him and his siblings deep in protective custody, or whatever. He wouldn’t be coming back to work here at least until they sorted out this whole situation with the bounty.

Would he be fired for missing work? Would he get paid for going through all this? I’d wondered that all day. Actually thinking about money was a pretty new experience, and it made me wonder if I should do other things besides just be a superhero. Like… volunteer at a soup kitchen or something. Smacking around bad guys was all well and good, but how much did it help regular people who were hungry and had bills to pay? Could I do something more for them?

I was still thinking about that (and discussing it with Felony), when a figure caught my eye. A figure on the roof across from me, in fact. As I watched, the figure drew close enough to make out details. I saw loose-fitting pale blue pants, a black chainmail-like top that was mostly covered by a long, light blue cloak with very faint goldish trim, just enough to offset it a bit. A long katana was sheathed across her back, and she had two more much shorter swords, one against each hip. Her head was covered by a samurai helmet with slight mandible-like protrusions across the front of the metal mask, almost like the head of a bug.

I knew her at a glance. It was Flea, one of the members of the local Conservators. Any other time, before I’d known the truth, I would have been positively giddy at just seeing her. Now the first thing that sprang to my mind was, ‘Did she know her boss was an evil, murdering monster?’

Reaching the end of the roof, the female figure didn’t even miss a step before springing easily across the gap that separated the two buildings. It was that jumping ability (she could literally leap a tall building in a single bound), combined with her power to drain people’s stamina and make them tired if she was within a few feet of them, that made the ‘Flea’ name stick. I thought she was also strong and had some kind of speed boost too, but I wasn’t sure. Mostly people knew about the jumping and the stamina-drain.

In the midst of gaping at the woman’s easy leap, I remembered my unicorn sitting nearby and quickly shoved Felony away into the bag that lay at my feet. In the next second, Flea landed smoothly a few feet away. “Good evening,” she started politely, her voice clearly feminine, yet also slightly electronically distorted, like it was coming through a faulty intercom.

Oh, right, she was talking to me. Shaking myself, I managed a weak, “Um, hi.” I’d been standing around with the front of my helmet up, so only the ski mask was covering my face. Thankfully, my voice changer was still active, so I didn’t accidentally give myself away by letting her hear a girl talking.

Her brown eyes, the only part of the woman’s face I could actually see (they were very clearly Asian), watched me carefully before she spoke again. “You are the one who calls himself Paintballs.”

“Err, just the one,” I corrected quickly. “Paintball. But uh, yeah, that’s me.” Clearing my throat a little, I added, “I’m not doing anything wrong here or whatever, am I?”

Her head tilted, eyes never leaving me. “I don’t know,” she replied coolly, “are you?”

Eyes widening a little behind my mask and helmet, I quickly shook my head. “N-no, no. I mean, I’m not–I wasn’t–” Taking a breath, I managed, “I’m just standing up here.”

“Then you’re not doing anything wrong,” she pointed out simply, voice very matter-of-fact. The woman’s head tilted slightly as she regarded me for a moment before adding, “Are you okay?”

“Uh huh,” I assured her, letting my head bob up and down. “I’m fine. I’m just–um, thinking. And talking to myself. I do that sometimes.”

Her response was a nod. “Most do.” Slowly, she raised a black-gloved hand, extending it to me. “I’m told you did very well yesterday, that you risked yourself to save that man and his siblings.”

Blushing a bit despite myself, I accepted the offered hand. “Oh, um, I was just… trying to help.”

Her hand squeezed mine firmly, before she replied, “You certainly did that.” I saw those eyes focus intently on me then. “And you painted a target on your own back in the process.”

“I–um, did you just make a joke?” I asked uncertainly. “I mean, with the whole ‘painted’ thing.”

I couldn’t see her mouth, but I was pretty sure the woman smiled just a little bit before ignoring the question as she spoke in that same careful, even tone. “That bounty is still active. Without either access to the original thief, his brother, or the man who drove the latter out of town, the only visible target left to get any information out of is the person who somehow happened to save both the brother and the driver.”

Swallowing hard, I shifted my weight a bit nervously. “Um, right. Me. I guess you’re right about that whole painted target thing, huh?” Managing a weak smile, I added, “At least I’m making a name for myself?”

“You are certainly doing that,” Flea agreed before glancing away. She turned, facing the edge of the building to look out over the street below. We stood there in silence for a moment that she seemed far more comfortable with than I did. Finally, after that had dragged on for a minute or two, she spoke again. “That-A-Way said that you seemed less than enthused by her invitation.”

Wincing inwardly, I offered a weak, “It’s complicated. It’s just… um, better if I’m by myself now.”

Her head turned to glance at me, clearly trying to read my body language or something before she replied, “If you cannot be convinced to join the Minority for safety, I will not waste my breath or our time. But perhaps I can still offer other suggestions and advice. You are new to this life.”

Again, my head bobbed. “Yes, ma’am. I am very, very new to this.” But apparently it’s old hat to my family, I added silently.

She returned her gaze to the street below. “Then if you would like, I will offer what advice I can.”

“I, um, I’d like that, ma’am,” I agreed. I didn’t know if she was part of my dad’s whole secretly a villain thing, but I was going to guess that most of the Star-Touched on the Conservators were really good guys who didn’t have anything to do with that stuff. Besides, I didn’t really have a good reason to refuse without drawing even more attention. And I really did need advice.

“Flea will work just fine,” she informed me. “And perhaps we can start with that.”

Belatedly, I realized she was looking at something. My gaze followed hers, and I saw the lights on in some kind of electronics store. There were people in there, long after hours. A blue van had been pulled up to the side door in the alley next to the building.

“Would you like to stay and watch, or assist?” the samurai-clad woman asked without taking her eyes off the store below, where we could both see shadowy figures moving through the windows. From their motions, they were clearly in a hurry, not that it would do them much good.

“Oh, I’ll go with you,” I quickly replied, not wanting to miss any of this. Seeing a full-on Conservator member like Flea do her thing, from a front-row seat? I would’ve been all-in just from that. But to actually be part of the whole thing, to help her? That thought made me giddy, though I tried to keep it out of my voice. “Ahem, I mean, I’d like to help.”

Her head gave a single nod. “Then you are welcome to come. Please be careful. You may not wish to join the Minority, but all Star-Touched are appreciated.” She looked toward me, eyes softening just a little as she added, “And you seem nice. I would hate to lose you so soon.”

With that, Flea took a quick step forward, right off the edge of the roof. As I watched, she fell all the way to the ground several stories below before landing as smoothly as though she had just stepped off a curb. There wasn’t even a hesitation as she started walking to the building.

Be professional, I told myself, just be calm and professional, like her.

In this case, being calm and professional meant putting both hands over my already ski-masked covered mouth while muffledly ranting about how amazing and cool that was for a second or two. Then I collected myself, reached up to shove the front of the helmet down to lock into place, and jumped from the roof myself. Painting my legs orange, I fell to the ground and landed in a crouch just a few feet from where the other woman had dropped.

She was waiting for me, I realized. Her slight (she was only about five foot four inches, which also contributed to the whole ‘Flea’ thing) figure stood in the middle of the empty road, turned sideways so she could glance back my way without taking her gaze entirely off the store.

“There is a lookout,” the woman informed me as I quickly joined her. She nodded toward the alley where the van was parked. “Near the side door. Can you handle him?”

I had no idea how she knew that, unless she’d seen him while jumping down from above. But I knew she wasn’t wrong, nodding quickly. “Oh, uh huh. I mean… um, I think so?” My eagerness to impress the woman was at war with the fact that I was still nervous about actual fights. Still, I didn’t want to look like a baby, so I made myself stand up a little straighter as the woman’s gaze snapped to me questioningly at my first response. “I can do it.”

She watched me a little closely for a second then before simply telling me, “Be careful. Get into position, then wait for me to make myself known. When he reacts, take him by surprise. If you get into trouble, shout ‘green grass’ and I will be there to help you.”

“Green grass,” I echoed, giving her a thumbs up. “Got it.” With that, I painted myself black (yay for working stealth mode at night!) and quickly moved to the parked van. Pressing myself against the wall, I gave the waiting woman a thumbs up. Rather than return it, she simply strode steadily toward the front of the store, and I ducked to peek under the van.

Sure enough, there was a guy there. He was standing next to the door, partially hidden by a some kind of stylistic outcropping of brick wall there. Which made me even more uncertain about how the Conservator woman had managed to spot him so easily. But hey, she was right.

Okay, now I just had to wait for the–

“Oh shit, shit, shit!” The shout came from in the store, and was accompanied by the sound of three quick gunshots.

Right, that was probably the sign. Staring under the van, I saw the lookout quickly spin that way, almost falling over himself as he grabbed a shotgun resting against the wall. Before he could do more than take a step toward the door, I extended a hand, shooting a bit of red paint at the barrel of the gun while using my other hand to put a matching crimson blob on the ground beneath the van. The paint activated, and the shotgun was torn from his grasp as the man yelped in surprise, flying over to land out of his sight.

“What the fuck?!” I heard the man blurt, before he came running over to the van. There were already more gunshots coming from inside, and I silently hoped Flea was okay. But right now, I had to deal with this guy.

To that end, I waited until he got close, then shot a bit of black paint onto the van to silence it so the thing wouldn’t groan as I painted my legs purple and hopped from the ground to the top of the van itself. My timing was perfect, as I landed on the roof just as the lookout dropped to his knees to look under the vehicle.

“How the…” I heard him mutter while stretching out to grab the gun. As he was focused on that, I quickly moved to his side of the van, looking down to shoot out two spots of red paint, one at his left boot, and the other at the the ground about ten feet away. Then I activated them.

Apparently I managed to do that before he could get hold of the gun he’d been reaching for, because it wasn’t in his hands as he went sailing backwards with a strangled cry, yanked by his own boot.

He saw me then, crouched there on top of the roof. As his confused, then angry gaze snapped up to me, I waved. “Hi!” My voice was a pleasant, cheerful chirp, as I hopped off the van to drop in front of him. “You know, I’m pretty sure you don’t want to go in there.” My thumb jerked a bit toward the store, while I cupped my other hand against the side of my mouth, stage-whispering, “They’re having a bad day.” My words were accompanied by the sound of more shooting, more shouting, and more crashing sounds.

“You–” The guy jerked backward, then stopped upon realizing, “You’re that paint kid! Ohhh, they’ll pay good money for you!”

Oh God, oh God, there really is a bounty on me too. This is fucked up. What am I doing? What the hell am I doing? I’m gonna die. I am going to die. This is so stupid. I’m so stupid. What am I doing?

That was inward, of course. Outwardly, my head tilted. “Really? Maybe I should go for it. I could use a new iPhone, have you seen what they’re charging for that thing? If you ask me, they’re the real crimi–”

That was as far as I got before the man was suddenly hurling himself at me. He was a pretty big guy, and probably thought he could hold me by himself. So he came charging straight in, arms swinging.

It was a bad move for a lot of reasons. But mainly because I simply threw myself to the side. As I went, both of my hands snapped out. From one, I shot a ball of green paint at the man. Suddenly, he was going much faster than he meant to. Before he even knew what was happening, the man sailed right past the spot where I had been and crashed into the van.

Which was where my other hand had shot a blob of blue paint. Running full-tilt, his speed about twice as fast as it should have been, the man hit the blue splotch and was suddenly airborne, flying backwards in the opposite direction before crashing into the far wall. I was pretty sure he even did that yell that Goofy does when he’s falling.

He hit the wall, sliding down it with a groan before collapsing on the ground. Before he could get his bearings, I announced, “So, I can ping pong you back and forth off the walls for awhile if you want, or you can lay on your stomach with your hands behind your head and take a break. Your call.”

He went for the latter, interlacing his fingers while shifting onto his front with a grumbled curse about how screwed I was going to be. Before I could respond, however, there was a sudden rush of movement from the doorway, as two guys in ski masks and carrying guns came rushing out. One of them saw me, spinning with his gun up. But before either of us could do anything, a short sword was hurled through the open door, colliding with the gun and knocking it from his hand.

The second man pivoted back that way, just as Flea strode into view. His own gun snapped up to take a shot at her, but she jumped just as he opened fire. A simple hop launched the woman a good thirty feet in the air, as she threw her second short sword, knocking the gun from the second man’s grip before he could adjust.

Both men were still reacting to their weapons being knocked from their hands as the samurai-clad figure dropped to land between them. The first guy took a wild swing at her from behind, which she ducked, driving her elbow into his stomach to double him over while simultaneously catching hold of the katana on her back, snapping it up just enough to make the hilt hit the guy hard in the chin. His mouth snapped shut, and he stumbled back, clearly dazed.

Meanwhile, the second guy tried to sucker-punch her as well, this one from the front. Her head twisted away from the first swing, before she sidestepped the second one, then pivoted to avoid his follow-up kick. She treated it like a dance, as if she knew every move he was going to make.

By that point, the first guy had recovered enough to try to grab her from behind. But she somehow anticipated that, ducking out from under his grasping arms and stepping away to make the two men collide with each other.

They took a few more swings, but they were half-hearted at best. The men were moving more slowly with each passing second. Their punches were sluggish, and each of them were stumbling like they were drunk.

Then they collapsed, and I realized, it was her stamina-draining power. She tired them out within a few seconds just from being within a few feet. The guys couldn’t manage more than a few swings like that before they hit the ground, completely unconscious.

Once the two men were down, she turned my way. “Under control?”

A brief moment of silence passed, before the thug on the ground whispered, “Dude, she’s talking to you.”

Oh, right. Snapping out of it and forcing my mouth to stop gaping, I made myself nod quickly. “Uh… uh huh. Uh huh. He surrendered.”

“Smart man,” Flea replied, stooping to pick up her short swords before sheathing them. “Here.” She threw me something. A pair of metal handcuffs. “Put those on him.

“Then I’ll show you what you’re supposed to do after you catch the bad guys.”

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