Fragile

Exhibition 25-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

It would’ve been nice if I could have called a time-out for a few minutes so I could explain everything that was going on, including the new power tricks I had figured out, to my newly-arrived friends. But something told me the bad guys here weren’t exactly likely to accept something like that. Especially not with the Minority people still in the middle of fighting those other two. To say nothing of how many random mooks they had helping them. Thanks to the flurry of chaotic motion, water, random bits of flying glass, and flailing energy coils, I couldn’t see how Fragile, Whamline, Wobble, Raindrop, and That-A-Way’s fight against Banneret and the goons helping her was going. And it was completely impossible to have any idea of what was going on with Carousel and Syndicate with Fogwalker. 

Unfortunately, we couldn’t check on them any more than we could call a time-out. Poise, Style, Calvin, Hobbes, Alloy, and I had our own immediate problem, in the form of Theory and Praxis, and their own thugs. I’d taken several of them down, and Alloy knocked down more with her arrival. But more were showing up, and they did not look happy. 

That wind blast from Praxis had knocked all of us flying, scattering our group across the grass. And even as I scrambled back to my feet, my eyes caught sight of the woman holding one hand out toward where Poise, Hobbes, and I were, while the other was pointed more toward the other three. My mouth opened to blurt a warning, just before twin blasts of wind tore into us. I tried to brace myself, but it didn’t help. Once again, we were picked up and thrown, tumbling end over end under the sustained barrage of wind. On the way, while I was crashing and rolling along the grass, I tried to shoot a bit of red paint toward the woman. Honestly, the mere fact that I could aim at her in the midst of that was pretty crazy. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. My paint was caught by her wind and tossed aside, scattering into useless droplets across the grass behind me. 

Okay, so I couldn’t shoot her with paint. But I could use it on myself. While the wind continued to throw me, I focused on making red paint appear on my hands and knees, then put more of it directly under me on the ground and activated all of it. The paint yanked me down and held me in place against the force of that rushing hurricane-like air. Thanks to the visor of my helmet, I was able to look that way without the wind tearing into my eyes. I could see Praxis focusing even more of her power on me, trying to force me to go flying again. But my paint held firm. To one side, I could see Alloy shielding herself, Calvin, and Style with a low wall made out of a couple of her marbles. Poise and Hobbes, meanwhile, were crouched behind a heavy tree. Even that was bowing sideways against the force of the wind. Most of the leaves were gone, and even a few branches had snapped off to fly away along the grass. I was afraid the whole thing was going to be torn out of the ground any second. 

Fortunately, Praxis’s power didn’t last forever. After those thirty seconds (which honestly seemed like a hell of a lot longer than that in the heat of the moment), the wind died down. She immediately shifted back to Theory, with his lab coat and goggles. Which we would’ve taken advantage of, but the instant that happened, a handful of those armed thugs took up position in front of him and opened fire with an assortment of guns. It happened so smoothly that I was pretty sure they had training and practice with jumping in to cover their boss while he took the time to set up new plans and powers for his partner. Which made sense. Of course they would’ve compensated for that sort of weakness. 

Seeing those goons jumping into position with their weapons raised, I quickly triggered an orange bullseye symbol across my chest, just before those first few bullets hit my arm and shoulder. It stung a bit, but I ignored that and scrambled to my feet. The others were protected by Alloy’s wall and that tree. But we still had to move quickly. Any second now, Theory was going to finish making his ‘plan’ and bring Praxis back out with a new power. The wind had been bad enough, I really didn’t want to think about what other dangerous shit she might come out with now that they were even more pissed off and had seen how we could defend against that wind. I had a feeling that whatever they came out with next would be even more dangerous, and very different.

To stop that, I planted blue under my feet and launched myself forward and up while shouting, “Rebound!” toward Alloy. 

Thanks to all the talks we’d had, she immediately knew what to do, positioning one of her marbles in a flat, wall-like shape in the air above me. It was angled just a bit toward the group of bad guys. Just before hitting it, I sent a new shot of blue that way while inverting myself in the air. My feet hit that spot, and the blue circle launched me off it like I was a ping-pong ball, sending me straight toward the gathered group. They were still trying to adjust to my rapid movements, most of their shots flying past me. 

The plan was for me to crash into Theory and take him down before he could bring out Praxis with new powers. Unfortunately, just before I would’ve hit the man with that flying tackle after rebounding off the marble wall, one of his minions threw himself in the way. I collided with that guy instead, and we went tumbling head over heels. I could hear him yelp and curse in pain. 

Seriously, these guys were both trained enough to immediately cover their bosses weakness, and loyal enough to throw some selves into the path of my flying body? How much were they being paid? Would it seem weird if I asked this guy if I could top it? 

While those thoughts were flying through my mind, I activated a purple unicorn shape on my arm before slamming my elbow into this guy’s face. His head snapped down into the ground, leaving him dazed for the moment. 

Meanwhile, from the corner of one eye, I could see Style driving her foot into the back of one guy‘s knee from behind while he was focused on me. Her hand caught the back of his neck as he started to stumble, and slammed his head forward into another guy’s temple as that one spun to see what was going on. Beside her, Calvin quickly dropped down next to the two fallen figures and snapped a pair of handcuffs on each of them to keep their hands trapped behind their backs. 

By that point, I managed to roll backwards off of the guy who had thrown himself between Theory and me. My foot lashed out to catch his chin as he started to blearily lift his head, putting him back down for the moment. 

Now that I was up and facing the other way, I could see Poise step smoothly between two guys while catching their extended arms as they aimed their weapons my way. Before they could react, she swung their captured arms around so the pistols in their hands slammed into one another’s faces hard enough to make them stagger backward. The guns fell, and Poise caught them in mid-drop, pivoting while firing one shot from each into the two men’s feet. In the exact same motion, as she continued pivoting, her foot came up to kick each of them in the face, one after the other, while they started to collapse from being shot in the foot. 

In the span of about two seconds, these guys had both gone from pointing their weapons at me, to having their arms grabbed, guns slammed into each other’s face, shot in the feet, and then kicked in the face in the exact same spot their own guns had hit. Needless to say, they both hit the ground and didn’t seem that interested in getting back up. 

Alloy and Hobbes were also doing something, but I didn’t have the chance to see what it was. After all, I was still standing in the middle of a large group of bad guys, who were reacting to my arrival by taking quick aim. They weren’t quite aware of what was going on to the guys on the outskirts, and it would take another couple seconds for the others to reach me. Seconds I wouldn’t have before these guys opened fire. 

Luckily, I had a plan for that. I just hoped it would actually work. Even as I was taking in what Paige was doing, I had been painting a new symbol across my chest, of a sword stretching from my waist up to my neck. At the same time, my hands snapped out to send a thin spray of paint at the semi-circle of thugs in front of me. They all recoiled reflexively, likely expecting to be yanked together or sent flying. But this time, it wasn’t red or blue. Each of them was hit, much to their probable confusion, by a tiny bit of the orange paint. It wasn’t much at all, just a thin line across each of them. They were clearly confused, yet didn’t waste time trying to figure it out. Instead, they opened fire. 

And that was their big mistake, because by that point, I had activated the paint I had put on my torso in that sword shape. The blade itself was orange, while the handle was pink. Praying that this would actually work, I had fed the pink power into the orange before immediately canceling it.

Normally, when I canceled the pink paint early, it made the spot that it was affecting very bouncy. Unfortunately, it only affected the actual spot it was touching, unlike the rest of my paints, which affected a larger area. Like, in this case, the orange paint, which would protect my entire body. But if I could use my newfound ability to combine my paint into new effects…

It worked. The temporary bounciness from the early-canceled pink paint fed into the protection from the orange. As these guys opened fire, their bullets rebounded off me much faster than they would’ve with just the orange protection. They went flying back the way they’d come. And since these guys were directly in their path, they ended up basically shooting themselves. 

That, of course, was why I had hit them with orange paint, so I wouldn’t turn into a killer. I didn’t give them enough to completely protect them, just enough that the bullets wouldn’t slaughter them. It was still obviously like being hit by dozens of baseballs or whatever. Enough that the assembled group in front of me hit the ground, cursing and groaning in pain. They had no idea what had just happened, only that they started to shoot me, and had suddenly been hit by a bunch of stinging pellets that would leave pretty solid bruises and possibly even a few broken bones. But hey, at least I didn’t let them actually take the full damage from being shot?  

I didn’t have time to think too much about that. I was already pivoting to catch sight of Theory so I could take him down. Unfortunately, just as my eyes fell on him, his form shifted again. Now he was gone and Praxis was back, with that same dark blue bodysuit and mask with white chestplate, boots, and eye lenses. Her powers, however, were obviously very different. A fact that was made rather obvious as she extended her arm, with electricity coiling around her finger. She sent it flying toward me, while I flinched reflexively. Thankfully, while the bouncy part of the canceled pink paint had gone away, the actual orange was still active. So I wasn’t completely destroyed by that shot of lightning. It still shocked me a bit, yet I was able to throw myself that way through the crackling line of electricity. 

“Hey!” I blurted while catching her extended wrist. I’d already activated a couple purple dagger shapes along my legs for added strength so I could yank her off balance. “Didn’t you know I already fought an electricity guy a few minutes ago?! You’re supposed to vary things up so the audience doesn’t get bored!” 

She was still trying to shock me, even as I kept hold of her arm. I could feel the electricity pouring into me, making my body spasm and jerk a bit out of my control. But, through sheer force of will, I kept my hands on her while rearing back to kick the woman in the stomach. I just had to hit her hard enough to make her stop trying to electrocute me before my protection wore off. 

Unfortunately, her new powers apparently weren’t limited only to shooting electricity. Just as my foot passed through the spot she had been in, the woman vanished with a burst of lightning and clap of thunder. I stumbled off balance, hearing another burst of thunder a short distance away, somewhere behind me. 

Pivoting quickly, I saw her appear behind Alloy, hitting the girl with a quick shot of electricity that knocked her to the ground, twitching and crying out. 

Poise was right there, already taking aim with one of the pistols she had stripped from those guys. Before she could fire, another burst of electricity shot from the other woman’s finger. Thankfully, Paige managed to throw herself into a sideways roll, letting it go right over her head. Belatedly, I realized that she had been acting as a distraction, giving Style a chance to hit the woman from the side. But just as she would have crashed into her, another lightning bolt appeared and Praxis was gone, leaving Sierra to crash into the ground where she had been an instant earlier. 

That time, she reappeared near Hobbes and tried to grab her, hands crackling with power. But Hobbes reacted faster, hand already extended toward Calvin as she snapped her fingers and activated the suit’s teleportation power. It was Praxis’s turn to have her plans foiled by someone vanishing right in front of her. 

Before anyone else could move, a voice shouted over the sound of fighting, “Praxis!” It was… Fogwalker, who was, as promised, a lynx. A gray-furred lynx with black spots, with some sort of metal collar around its neck. The animal was perched just on the very edge of the cloud of fog he had created. Fog that Carousel and Syndicate were apparently still trapped in. 

“Time to go!” the lynx TONI called toward Praxis. When he spoke again, the voice was clearly coming from the collar itself. Apparently he wasn’t one of those that could speak normally. It always seemed weird that some ended up with the power to talk and others didn’t. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to wonder about that too much, as Fogwalker added, “Target’s near the west exit!” 

Without a word of question or protest, Praxis vanished in another burst of lightning. A couple more followed as she appeared next to Fogwalker before disappearing with him. Then she did the same with Banneret, who was still fighting the others. Her time with that power had to be about to run out, but it didn’t happen before all three of them were gone.

The fog vanished almost immediately, and I could see all four Syndicates alongside Carousel, staggering suddenly as they could finally see where they were. Meanwhile, Whamline, Wobble, Raindrop, and That-A-Way were spinning around to look for where their own opponent had gone. They were also moving slowly and clumsily, practically falling over as though they were very thoroughly drunk. That was obviously thanks to the assortment of those small, flag-like marks over their bodies, courtesy of Banneret. The weapons she had taken over with more of her markings had all hit the ground together the instant she disappeared.

“Hey, what the fuck?!” That was Whamline, almost falling over as the marking slowing him down vanished and he went back to normal speed. “Where’d that bitch go?!” Belatedly, he glanced toward Raindrop and Fragile before sheepishly amending, “Sorry, I mean, what happened?” 

One of the Syndicates managed to orient himself and look back and forth between our group and the rest of their team. “Everybody okay?” 

Alloy, picking herself up from the ground after being hit by that electrical blast, grunted, “Fine, just peachy. Wait, is it over?” 

My head shook quickly. “No!” I shouted despite myself. “They’re still after Inessa Sidorov! And they found her by the west exit!” I was already trying to orient myself that way to start running, even though I wasn’t sure what good it would do. Not with that group being able to teleport. Yet even as that thought filled my mind, I saw the other group. Or rather, Fogwalker and Theory. The two of them were running past a nearby basketball court. They hadn’t teleported all the way to their target after all. Apparently Praxis’s teleportation had been strictly line of sight, and now it would take time for Theory to give his partner another transportation power. Time that we could hopefully take advantage of. Where Banneret was, I had no idea. But there wasn’t time to think about that. Not when Theory could finish charging up new powers for Praxis any moment. 

“There!” I was pointing while starting to move. “We’ve gotta stop them before they can teleport again!” 

The others were already moving to follow me, our combined teams starting to chase after the departing trio. But, of course, there were still the remaining Prev goons, who had pulled themselves together and were moving to intercept us. Worse, now we knew where Banneret was. Namely, right there in the middle of the assorted thugs, several of whom she had already applied boosting powers to. 

“We don’t have time for this!” one of the Syndicates blurted, before looking at me. “Take your team and go, stop those two! We’ll handle these guys.” 

So, we split up. Alloy created another board for our team to hop on top of, before it flew open over the heads of Banneret and her minions. They tried to aim up at us, but the Minority hit them from below, taking their attention and giving us the chance to fly after the other two. 

“Why the hell are they so obsessed with going after this skater chick anyway?!” Murphy shouted from her crouched position as she clung to the handle Peyton had created for us. 

My head shook quickly. “Dude, I’ve got no idea!

“But something tells me we really don’t want it to happen!”

Previous Chapter

Exhibition 25-05 (Summus Proelium)

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No answers about why these guys were after Inessa, or where she had disappeared to, presented themselves as Amber, Izzy, and I raced across the park together. Apparently the other main source of fighting was going on near a small baseball field that had been built in the past couple years. There had been a Little League game going on, and the thought of those kids being traumatized and attacked by a bunch of gang members really pissed me off. Seriously, what were these assholes trying to accomplish? Had my family actually approved this? That didn’t make sense. Why would they let something like this happen, no matter how much money was paid? Attacking a Little League game? What the fuck was up with that? 

On the way, I realized that my call with Eits had been disconnected. A surprisingly painful flash of worry shot through me then, but a quick glance at my phone revealed a text from him promising to contact me as soon as he could. He said something about Pack showing up and how they had to do something now that I had Raindrop and That-A-Way for help. And he wished us luck.

It was taking us a minute to get over there. This wasn’t a small park, to say the least. But it did give me a chance to get filled in on what was going on, and what we were running into.

Beyond this whole situation, there had apparently been a flare-up of fighting between some of the Easy Eights (or the Fantastic Fives or whatever they were calling themselves now) and Oscuro near one of the old malls. Neither Deicide or Cuélebre were involved, but things were still pretty heavy, which was what some of the other Star-Touched were dealing with. 

Even worse, it sounded like Jennica had chosen now to make a nuisance of herself as well. She was in one of the police precinct stations, using her control-gems to force several of the cops to attack the others. So my dad and a couple others had to go do something about that. What made it worse was that they apparently had no idea how many of the cops in the station had been affected, or where Jennica herself was at the moment. 

The point was, between those situations and the usual crime around the city, it was taking time for more people to show up here. Which, come to think of it, maybe that was the problem? Maybe my parents expected the hero types to show up and drive these guys off pretty quickly, before there was any real danger, but then this other stuff happened. Hang on, was that the problem? I was completely positive that Jennica didn’t clear any of her criminal activities with the Ministry, so they wouldn’t have known about her plans. And from what Amber and Izzy were saying in those few moments while we were running together, the gang fight by the mall had erupted naturally, just when a few members from each side ran into each other and started a shoving, cursing match. That had escalated into a full brawl including Touched. So yeah, I was definitely willing to bet that this was the only situation that had specific Ministry approval, and likely only because they were supposed to be interrupted and driven off or whatever. 

All those thoughts flashed through my mind in a couple seconds, even as I looked toward the baseball field. Right now, all I could see was a bunch of indistinct shapes, but they were getting larger and more clear with each step. “Tell me what we’re dealing with!” I blurted that with a glance toward Amber. I knew Janus and Juice, along with that Devil’s Due guy, had joined up with a brand new gang from out of town. Well, technically they had been recruited by Cuélebre and then traded to this new gang in exchange for their own Latino Touched. But either way, I had no idea who these other people were. 

Speaking quickly, Amber explained, “Banneret looks like a mix between a medieval knight and a biker! Any inanimate object she touches she can put a mark on that makes that object do what she wants. Any living animal she puts the mark on gets a boost if they’re on her side and a penalty if they’re not. Stronger, weaker, faster, slower, all of it!”  

Izzy explained the next one, “Fogwalker’s a lynx TONI. He makes these clouds that’re like air for his friends, but really thick and hard to move in for other people, like Jello! It’s like moving underwater! I mean, what that’s like for most people.” She added the last bit a little sheepishly. 

Finally, Amber put in, “Theory and Praxis are the last one!” She saw my glance and gestured while we continued running. “They’re like Janus! Two people sharing one body, only there’s just one of them physically present at a time. They shift back and forth!” 

Like Fisher and Price, I realized, though I wouldn’t say that out loud. Not out here right now. 

Amber continued. “Theory’s the guy. When he’s out, he’s planning. He’ll look at a situation, figure out what he wants Praxis to do, then switch with her!” 

“And what can she do?” I called, eyes scanning ahead of us. We were definitely running into a mess. That much was clear. I could see a bunch of people on the ground, though they didn’t look dead. It was like they had hit the ground and were staying there to avoid drawing attention or getting hit. There were also what looked like gang members, armed with a mix of shotguns, pistols, and more melee-oriented weapons, running from group to group. I was pretty sure they were checking their faces. Were they looking for Inessa? 

“Anything!” Amber answered, making my eyes glance that way. Her head was nodding. “Within reason! I mean, within Touched reason! If Theory wants her to lift a bus and throw it, she can do that. If he wants her to fly up to the top of a building, she can do that! If he wants her to teleport, she can do that too! She gets powers based on what he plans, and his plans can only last something like thirty seconds or so before they have to switch back again. Once he’s out, he has to focus and plan out what happens next! The more power he wants to give her, the longer it takes. That’s when they’re vulnerable!” 

“Could he just say, ‘I want you to punch that Abyssal and kill it in one hit’ and give her the power to do that?!” I demanded. “Cuz I gotta tell you, I’m gonna be really pissed off if that’s a thing they could do!” 

“The power isn’t unlimited!” Amber called back. “She can get ‘shot put a tank’ strong, not ‘punch out an Abyssal’ strong! And she can’t just snap her fingers and kill people or anything. We don’t know what sort of limits there are, only that she’s only got about thirty seconds per ‘plan’ and she can’t become a god or anything.” 

Right, well, that was good to know. I would’ve hated to try to go fight someone who could turn into a god. That didn’t exactly sound like my idea of a good time. Then again, even with their so-called ‘limitations,’ I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be easy. 

By that point, I could see Whamline, Wobble, and that new Fragile girl. They were facing off with what had to be Banneret. She really did look like a cross between a knight and a biker, with black leather over most of her body, a gleaming silver chestplate, leg and arm guards, and a helmet that looked like both those things at once. It had sort of a medieval design, but was shaped like a motorcycle helmet. The visor was painted on the front to look like a knight’s helmet visor, but was clearly transparent from the inside. She had half a dozen guns, and twice that many knives, all spinning around her, along with a bunch of other random objects that she had clearly taken over. It was all the three Minority members could do to keep up with her. Fragile was using a bunch of glass shards to intercept the incoming knives, or hit the guns to knock them off course. Between that and Whamline’s coils plus Wobble’s vibration waves, the three of them were barely able to avoid being torn apart.

I couldn’t see Fogwalker the lynx, but I could definitely tell where he was. There was a thick reddish-gray… well fog over on the infield, stretching about from home plate to just a bit past second base, and covering first as well. I could just barely make out third. Whatever was going on inside that fog, we couldn’t see it. But I was willing to bet that that was where at least some of the Syndicates were. Three of them could be intangible at a time. That had to help with moving through that fog, right?  

I was guessing Carousel was in there too, because I couldn’t see her either. But I could see the person who had to be Theory. He was black, and his costume made him look like a scientist, basically. He had a long white lab coat that was just a bit thicker than it should’ve been, making me figure it was armored in some way. Beyond that, he wore heavy combat boots, cargo pants with a lot of pockets (all of which had random tools, notebooks, and other stuff sticking out of them), and a gray and black checkerboard-pattern plaid shirt. His head was bald, and he wore heavy green-tinted goggles over his eyes and a fairly large portion of his face. 

For a second, I couldn’t tell what he was doing. Not from this distance. Then I realized. He was talking on the phone. His focus was on that, as he turned in a circle while gesturing wildly. It looked like he was yelling on the phone. Whatever was happening here, it wasn’t going perfectly. Probably because they still hadn’t found Inessa. 

And seriously, why the fuck did they all want to find Inessa?!

Whatever the reason, an answer wasn’t coming immediately. Especially since Theory noticed us. I could almost see his double-take and the way he cursed, still holding the phone. Then he shouted, and I barely caught the word ‘those guys’ while he gestured our way. 

The thugs who had been going around from civilian to civilian all looked up, before focusing on us. Which meant the good news was that those people weren’t going to be harassed for a bit (or anymore at all, hopefully). The bad news was that now we had trouble, of the ‘lift their guns and start pointing them at us’ variety. 

“You guys go!” I blurted, activating the green and orange paint I had put on Raindrop and That-A-Way while we were running over here. “Help the others with Banneret! I’ll do something about our new friends!” Even as I said that, my eyes were scanning for Alloy or any of the others. The last text I’d gotten said they were coming and would be here soon. I just hoped it was soon enough

There were seven Prev thugs coming our way. Or rather, my way, once Izzy and Amber took off running toward Banneret and the others. Two of the approaching guys had shotguns, one had a long chain with some sort of blade attached to the end, another had a simple knife, two more had bats, and the last one had a pistol. That last guy was already lining up a shot, but I trusted the orange barbells I just activated on both of my arms to protect me from that. Not that I was going to be sitting idle anyway. Even as he was taking aim and starting to pull the trigger, I sent a shot of red paint that way while activating a bit of blue under my feet to send myself upwards. As the red paint hit his chest, I activated a bit of matching red on the bottom of one of my shoes. I was yanked that way in a Kung Fu-style wirework thirty-foot long jump kick that ended with me colliding with the man foot-first. He hit the ground, having only been able to let off a couple shots, which rebounded off my costume like hurled pebbles. 

At the same time, I put both hands out to either side, hitting the two baseball bats that the nearest guys had with red paint. They were already in mid-swing, but the paint yanked them toward one another rather than into the back of my head. The bats slammed into each other, and before the guys could actually let go, I took advantage of them being right next to each other by slapping the ground at their feet to make a blue circle. And this time I tried something else. Thinking about how I’d mixed white and green as well as red and green, I tried something similar here. First I made a quick empty circle of yellow, then I filled it in with blue and sort of… focused on both being connected. Then I activated them at the same time. 

It worked. The two men were launched into the air, but after they reached the first few feet off the ground, their flight slowed dramatically. They were still flying upward, but it was in slow motion. And more than that, they were flying higher than they normally would have. Like twice as high, actually. The entire effect was slowed down but also extended dramatically. It took them longer to reach the normal height, they went up twice as high anyway so that was even longer, and then they had to come back down. Which was also slowed. 

Well, at least they wouldn’t hurt themselves when they landed. And that little show even worked to distract the other guys here. While they looked that way reflexively, I hit the nearby shotgun with a bit of pink right around the middle of the barrel, while simultaneously activating a set of green wings on my back. With that burst of speed, I reached up to twist the barrel around so he couldn’t fire the gun. Not unless he was very stupid, anyway. Unlike when I used the pink paint on living targets, inanimate objects stayed the way I left them. 

Boy, between this and using the pink paint on that lamp post earlier, I really was turning into a cartoon, wasn’t I? 

The man cursed at me and dropped his weapon while trying to grab my arm. At the same time, the other shotgun guy was trying to slam the butt of that weapon into the side of my helmet. I supposed he didn’t feel great about trying to actually shoot me with it while I was so close to his buddies. Which, of course, was one of my main reasons for closing the distance the way I had. 

So one guy trying to grab my arm and the other trying to hit me with the butt of his shotgun. I certainly wasn’t going to let either of those things happen. Fortunately, I still had the green speed, so I was able to snap my arm out of the first guy’s grasping fingers before using a set of purple dart images across my leg to boost my strength enough to grab his wrist and twist it. He cried out and stumbled, before my foot collided with his knee, making him collapse fully. 

Oh, and the other guy, the one who had been trying to smack me from the side? I did something special for him. First, I made an orange smiley face appear on my helmet, right where he was aiming. The orange face had a blue mouth for a smile, along with blue sunglasses. Blue with orange. I focused on the former feeding into the latter.

In this case, when the butt of the gun hit that paint, I expected to be protected while the man was knocked away. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, the instant the impact happened, I was fine, but the man himself jerked his head a little with a yelp of surprise, turning to look behind him. It was like someone had smacked him in the– Wait. Oh. 

Right, feeding blue into orange didn’t simply make it repel an object and protect the thing it was on. It protected the thing while also rebounding some of the damage back into the person responsible for it? I was guessing that the amount of damage returned had to do with how much blue I included. Either way, orange paint protected from damage, and blue-infused orange paint sent a portion of that damage back. 

Well, that was sure something. But I didn’t have time to focus on that now. Even as the guy turned his head away from me to see what had popped him, I was lashing out with my elbow into his stomach. It made him double over, before I caught the collar of his shirt and shoved him forward so he crashed into the guy whose leg I had kicked out from under him. They both went down in a tangled heap.

Before I could focus on the others, one of Alloy’s marbles flew in and transformed into a long, wide bar to slam into them. As I went down, my gaze snapped over and up. Sure enough, the girl herself was there, along with Style and Poise on one side of the long, wide board three of her marbles had turned into, and Calvin and Hobbes on the other side. 

They landed next to me, with Peyton asking, “Hey, are we late?”

In that moment, I caught a glimpse of Theory in his mad scientist getup walking our way. In the mid-step, his body transformed. No, he didn’t transform. He switched places with his partner. Now we were facing a woman in a form-fitting dark blue bodysuit that had a white chest plate and white boots. Her face was covered by a blue mask that covered her entire head, with white lenses over her eyes. 

Just as I took that in, the woman extended her hand and a blast of powerful wind erupted from her palm. It caught our entire group, picking us up and throwing us a good ten or fifteen feet. 

As we hit the ground and rolled, I called, ”Nope, I’d say you’re right on time!”

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Interlude 24A – Fragile And Deicide (Summus Proelium)

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Her father would never approve of this. As she stood on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in Detroit, Melissa Abbot knew that much for sure. He didn’t know she was here, and if he had, he would have bent reality in half if that was what it took to get her away from there. The nine-year-old girl wasn’t sure exactly how he would react to seeing her standing with her toes on the very edge of the roof, but she did know it would be dramatic. Her father was good at being dramatic. It probably came from being the leader of a gang of supervillains. You had to be dramatic for stuff like that. Deicide, Cuélebre, Sandon, even Pencil, they were all dramatic. 

Did the Ministry have something to do with that? She knew they kept crime in the city under control, but still present, so they could get rich off of it or something. It was weird, and she didn’t completely understand the whole thing. But she did know that they wanted a lot of tourist people to come, and they wanted a lot of exciting Touched things to happen. It brought money to the city in plenty of ways. Money and power. The government sent the city money to help deal with the Touched situations, which allowed them to recruit more Star-Touched, which made people see the city as being safe so they brought more tourism dollars and business. They just had to like, balance it and stuff.  

The way Melissa saw it, the Ministry was sort of like the sun. It was big and powerful, staring too hard at it would be bad for her, but she needed it to stay alive. Also, if it was suddenly gone with nothing to replace it, she was pretty sure life everywhere she looked right now would get a lot worse. And yet, if it got too much stronger, that probably wouldn’t be good either. 

Not that the actual sun was out right now, of course. It was too late for that. The sun had gone down before she finished with her patrol with Wobble and Whamline. And oh how tempted she had been to come up with a W name so they could be WWW. 

Heee, patrol. Last month she had been completely bedridden. No, not just last month. She had been bedridden basically her entire life, as far back as she could remember. She was always too weak to run around like a normal kid. She just sat in her bed and dreamed up stories. She imagined grand, epic adventures. Adventures that some part of her had always known she would never get to have for herself.

Known. She had known it, and yet, here she was. She had used a spray of her glass shards to trap a man with a knife earlier. He had been harassing this girl who was only a few years older than Melissa herself, barely a teenager, which was just super-gross. He’d threatened to cut her if she didn’t do what he said. He was a bad guy, a real bad guy, and she stopped him. The boys were busy with other things down the street, but she had seen the man drag the girl into an alley, and she stopped him.

It was possible that she was still a little hyped up after all that. Going from being trapped in her bed with a body that would break if she stepped too hard, to being… well, technically she still had a body that would break if she stepped too hard, but now it didn’t matter. She had been metaphorically made of glass, and now it was literal. But it was also better, because she could shatter apart over and over again, and just put herself back together.

Not that that stopped her father from worrying completely. Hence why he would probably freak out a little bit if he saw her standing on the edge of this roof. He’d asked her more than once if she had a death wish, and not jokingly every time. He was seriously worried about her. Which was silly. Of course she didn’t have a death wish. The whole reason she kept throwing herself into these situations and doing the stuff that made him worry was because she wanted to live. She wanted to experience everything.

She had spent years trapped in her bed, imagining the things she would do if she ever had a chance. Now she had it. Her body was fine. Well, in a manner of speaking. Every memory she had up to the moment she had Touched was filled with the fear of breaking. 

But now? Now breaking couldn’t kill her, so she refused to be afraid of it. She refused to be afraid of falling as she tilted her head to look at the ground down far, far below. From now on, she was going to live.

It was now or never if she was going to do this. Her ride back home didn’t know she was already done with patrol, but he would be coming soon, and would want to know why she wasn’t waiting at the usual spot. If he wondered more than a few moments, he would call her father, and that would start a whole thing. If she was going to try this, it had to be now.

Of course, she could’ve tried it from much lower, or even the ground, but hey, her dad wasn’t the only dramatic one in the family.

Taking one last look down and around at the street below (mostly empty thanks to the curfew), Melissa walked back several long, deliberate steps. She glanced at her glass arms and legs, currently not hidden behind the incogniter. Then she looked over her shoulder at the crate full of glass bottles she had carried up here. Without wasting another moment, she clapped both hands together hard enough to make them shatter. Then she sent the resulting shards from her broken hands flying out to hit the bottles. Every bit of glass they touched, she could suddenly sense and control. 

A moment later, the pieces of her hands came back and reformed themselves before safely attaching to her wrists. Meanwhile, the bottles she had taken control of rose and hovered in the air behind her. There were a hundred of them, and they all shattered at once. The resulting thousands of shards all flew around like a swarm of bees around the girl as she looked across the street toward the next building once more. Taking a moment to collect herself, Melissa smiled very faintly before whispering, “This is for you, earlier me.” 

With that, she ran forward and leapt off the roof of that enormous skyscraper. The nine year old girl plummeted rapidly toward the ground, even as her swarm of broken glass shards dove after her. Several hundred of the shards merged under her feet to form an angled ramp that swooped down and around. Landing on it, Melissa maintained her momentum by racing along the ramp toward the steep, curved slide that the rest of those shards were making. With a loud whoop, she dove onto the slide head first, riding it down through midair. Shooting off the end and tumbling through the air, she laughed riotously even as the ramp and slide disintegrated, their pieces swarming after her to form a sideways, slightly angled path right in front of her. She hit the ramp hard enough to shatter her feet, but that only made her stumble very slightly before the glass reformed and she was able to keep running. 

To one side, she could see a few people looking out the windows of the building. She waved at them cheerfully before making the glass walkway shatter under her so she could drop once more. Tucking her arms to her sides and angling her feet downward, the girl plummeted and spun, squealing out loud. This was the most amazing, wonderful moment in her life. No, no, that was when she had been able to run around the block alongside her father. Yes, maybe most would have found that shockingly mundane in comparison to this. But for Melissa, it had been everything she dreamed of while being stuck in her bed.

She was still falling and squealing as something flew in from the side to form a different ramp under her. No it wasn’t a ramp, it was a funnel of some kind. Melissa barely had time to notice it appearing before she was suddenly sliding down the funnel. It carried her around in circles, like a spiral slide while she tried to focus on using her glass to break through it. But it all happened so quickly. The twisting slide was carefully angled to slow her descent until she finally came to a stop lying directly on her back, cocooned within this weird material. Wait. Curiously, Melissa moved her arm a bit and easily cut through it with her sharp glass finger. Paper? Wait, the slide was made of paper? That meant—

“Are you okay?”

The question came from everywhere at once, the words filling the air even as the top of the enclosed paper slide opened to reveal an armored figure standing there on top of two floating books, one foot on each. A dozen other books were hovering around this figure, the source of the voice. The books would open randomly and flip to a page before a word on that page was spoken aloud in that loud, seemingly omnipresent voice.

Taking all that in before focusing on the figure in armor, paper armor, Melissa pointed while blurting, “Deicide? Wait, do we have to fight right now? I was having fun.”

There was a pause as the figure stared at her before the box flipped through pages again and the voice spoke. “Fun? Are you saying you weren’t in danger?”

The question made Melissa giggle a little bit before she quickly covered her mouth. “Oh, sorry. I mean, not really?” To demonstrate, she focused on her own glass form and made it float up off the paper slide. She hovered there in the air and spread her arms to either side. “See? I could stop whenever I wanted. Besides, if I hit the ground and broke, I’d just put myself back together again. Thanks, anyway? But, um, I thought you were a bad guy?”

There was a mix of faint annoyance and dry amusement in the voice now as Deicide replied, “There are different types of bad, I would have you know. Allowing a small child to plummet to her death is slightly worse than I prefer to see myself as. Even if others would disagree.” 

That made sense, of course. Melissa’s own father was one of the nicer types of bad. Still, she didn’t want to say that. Instead, she formed a new ramp under her feet so she could stand there next to the villain. “Everyone says you’re really angry right now. You know, after—”

“I know what they’re referring to,” the books interrupted. That armored figure folded her arms while continuing to seemingly stare at her. “I’m still not about to let someone like you fall and die. Doesn’t matter how pissed off I am. I’m not a monster.” 

After another moment of hesitation, Melissa asked, ”But you are going to kill other people, right?”

The armored figure seemed to shrug. “Why, do you want to try to stop me?” At first, Melissa thought the voice was taunting, but then she realized it was more curious. It was as though Deicide really wanted to know if the girl was going to try to intervene. “You might have trouble with that. I can be pretty persistent.” Another pause came, before she added, “Especially when I’m pissed off.”

Once more, Melissa hesitated. She wasn’t sure she should bring this up, but then again, when would she ever get a chance like this again? “How come you hate Cuélebre so much? A lot of people keep saying this seems personal. It’s not just about taking territory. It’s like you really wanna, um, hurt him.”

Several long seconds of silence passed. Deicide seemed to be staring off at nothing. It was like she couldn’t decide if she was going to answer or not, like the way Melissa’s dad would get when she asked him how bad her illness was getting. The young girl waited before starting to speak up to tell her never mind, not wanting to push her luck. But before she could do more than open her mouth, that voice came again.

“Let’s just say, I am one of his many victims, whom he has never thought about. The specifics don’t really matter to anyone but me, certainly not to him. But he has hurt too many people. He has a reckoning coming, and I am going to give it to him.”  

Melissa raised both shoulders in a shrug. “But aren’t you hurting people too? And not just to get to him. You run one of the biggest gangs in the city. They definitely hurt people.”

“Hardly one of the largest gangs right now,” Deicide pointed out with a dark tone. “Not after those arrogant mother—” She stopped, seeming to take in who she was talking to. “Oh well. They’ll get what’s coming to them just as he will. They were useful for a while, now they’ve proven not to be.”

Melissa wasn’t sure how to react to that. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to be able to talk Deicide out of her whole revenge thing. Not that she expected to be able to, but hey, getting confirmation that there really was some sort of personal history between her and Cuélebre was more than she expected. There had been rumors about it for a long time, and all the online stuff that she read. But she was pretty sure this was the first real confirmation.

Finally, she replied, “So, I guess that means you’re not gonna just let it go and walk away?” 

The pages of the book flipped rapidly, as sounds emerged. They were all ‘Heh’ sounds, but seemed to be taken from the start of words. It was as though the woman was creating a slightly unsettling approximation of a laugh by simply taking the H sounds from the start of words like Home, Hamilton, Harris, or Hockey, without allowing the rest of those words to be said. It was… weird. The whole thing was weird, really. Was she mute? Did she have to talk through her books? Did her being mute have something to do with why she hated Cuélebre so much? Did he do something that made her lose her voice? 

She couldn’t spend too much time thinking about that before the off-putting laughter stopped. Deicide spoke flatly, that eerily omnipresent voice sounding even stranger now. “No, I will definitely not be walking away. But you should, now. Your ride is here, I believe.” With that, the armored figure pointed downward and over a bit, to a spot where an unmarked sedan was idling. The driver got out and looked around as though wondering where Melissa was. Then he looked up. Melissa could see the way his eyes bulged at the sight of her and Deicide standing in midair, before he fumbled to get his phone out. 

“You should go now,” Deicide informed her. “Before your… driver does something unwise.” 

The way she said it made Melissa blink that way very briefly. Did she know something about who Melissa’s family really was? Her tone… it was clear that she knew the man down there wasn’t her father or another relative. Maybe she just thought he was an Uber driver or something? But that didn’t really fit with the way she said it. 

Still, she couldn’t exactly ask about it. Not without giving something away if the woman didn’t actually know much. She might’ve been fishing for information or something. Melissa really wasn’t sure, and she didn’t want to mess anything up by saying too much. Plus, Duke down there really did seem like he was freaking out. He was probably trying to call Melissa’s dad. And if he thought she was in trouble–oh no, she couldn’t let that happen. Dad already had enough things to deal with, and he’d already been hesitant as it was to let her come out like this.

With thoughts of her father losing his mind and sending an army of his people filling her head, Melissa quickly waved at the woman and let herself drop toward the ground. She caught herself right before landing next to Duke, blurting, “It’s okay! I’m okay, I’m fine. It’s okay, okay?” She was saying okay too much, but the rushed words came out before she could think about that. 

Duke, a short, unassuming-looking man with graying brown hair and hazel eyes, stared at her with the phone to his ear. He hesitated slightly before speaking. “Hold on a second, I think we’re good.”  Slowly he lowered the phone. “You sure we’re good? That–” He looked up, only to give a doubletake. “Where’d she go?” 

Sure enough, there was no sign of Deicide anywhere. The woman had vanished already. Melissa looked around, but the only other sign of life on the street was a teenaged Latina girl walking past at a quick pace while talking on a cell phone to someone who seemed to be her mother, telling her she was just going to the store to get a drink and that it was no big deal. She did give a double-take at the sight of the glass girl, waving excitedly with a called, “Hey!” Then she quickly informed her mother that she had just seen one of the Minority and she should guess which one. Other than that, the street looked empty. 

“I guess she had to go,” Melissa replied with a shrug after waving back to the passing girl. “She probably didn’t wanna deal with the police she thought you were calling.” She almost pointed out that she thought Deicide might’ve known about her connection to La Casa with the weird way she had mentioned Duke as her driver. But she definitely didn’t want to let her father know about that. He’d freak out even more. 

“Okay, well, let’s get out of here before she starts another war and we end up in the middle of it.” With those muttered words, the man opened up the backseat of the sedan, gesturing for Melissa to get in.

Melissa, in turn, had just started to climb into the car when something came flying up from behind to slam into her. It was more paper, this time hundreds of sheets shaped like a large hand. It knocked Melissa to the side, before catching hold of Duke to hold him tightly within that enormous fist. 

Landing hard enough on the pavement to make several pieces of herself shatter, Melissa stared as Deicide came into view once more. “Wh-what’re you doing?! Let him go!” She focused on bringing her swarm of glass shards back, wondering if she could actually do anything to hurt the Fell-Touched leader. 

“I don’t think you want me to do that,” Deicide’s assortment of flying books replied, before the woman walked right up to the struggling, cursing man. She reached out, making the paper fist open just enough for her to stick her hand inside his jacket. His struggling got worse, as did the cursing. But she managed to pull out a folded piece of paper, and some sort of remote control. “Here.” With that, she held the paper out. 

Melissa stared at it uncertainly. On the paper was written, ‘Do it tonight and the debt is forgiven. Stand back from the car when you hit it. See if that little bitch can rebuild herself out of this.’ 

Once Deicide was sure the girl had read it, she held the remote up for Melissa to see, then pressed the button. As she did, the entire inside of the car, the car she had been about to get into, was suddenly engulfed in flames. It wasn’t a simple explosion. The car, centered on the backseat, had been transformed into a ridiculously intense blast furnace or… or something. It was really hot, that was all Melissa knew. Hot enough that, within a few seconds, there wasn’t much left of the car. The flames died out soon, leaving Deicide, Melissa, and Duke, who was still held tightly in that paper fist. 

“So,” the armored woman started after a moment. 

“I think you need a new ride. And a new driver.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Oookay, so my dad, as Silversmith, wanted to talk to me. This was fine. This was good. This was okay. This was… was–oh boy. Yeah, I had no idea how this was going to go. But I couldn’t exactly refuse without causing even more suspicion than he might already have. And given who he was, I couldn’t even pretend that there was an emergency that I had to go take care of. I had no reasonable way to get out of having this conversation right now, much as I might’ve wanted to. And what really sucked was that if I hadn’t known the truth, I would have been incredibly psyched to have a conversation with Silversmith. But then, if I didn’t know the truth, a lot of things would’ve been different. And not for the better, tempting as it might’ve been to think otherwise sometimes. Knowing the truth was the right way to go in the long run. 

For a brief moment, I even wondered if this was really my father or not. But the thought vanished as fast as it had appeared. Of course this was my dad. They wouldn’t leave something like this to a minion or body double or whatever. Now that the speeches and all that were over, he’d probably excused himself from the table. Hell, for all I knew, that Eric Abbot guy was aware of the whole story. Actually, I was willing to bet he was part of the Ministry, if not a full on Touched himself. He clearly knew the truth. So yeah, this was definitely the real Silversmith. Which meant it was really my dad.  

Somehow, I managed to keep all the confusion and uncertainty out of my voice as I offered a shrug that I hoped was convincing. “Uh, sure, I guess.” Glancing to the others, I gestured for them to go ahead. “I’ll catch up with you guys in a minute.”

From the very brief look that Amber gave me, it was clear she wasn’t sure about leaving me alone. But it disappeared just as quickly, and she kept a straight face while calling for the others to keep up. Like it didn’t matter at all. Because we had to pretend it didn’t, or it really would. 

So, they kept going while I turned back the other way with a bright, “You wanted to talk?” Inwardly, I was telling myself that there was nothing to worry about. My father wasn’t going to try anything right now in the middle of a huge group of people. 

Of course, the moment I had that thought, Dad immediately announced, “Let’s take a little walk to someplace a bit more private, hmm?” His hand gestured around us at all the people. “Fun as it can be, it’s kind of hard to hear yourself think sometimes in a place like this, you know?” His voice was casual, but I could tell he was paying attention to everything I did. 

“Sure,” I made myself respond. I couldn’t let him hear any hesitation or fear in my voice. Well, he could pick up some nervousness. That was to be expected. It’d be weird if I wasn’t nervous. But it couldn’t be–yeah. I had to be careful with this whole thing. It could blow up in my face so easily. Saying the wrong thing, or even giving the wrong reaction, could make this go so very wrong. 

It was a thought that I had to push out of my mind while following after my father as he led me through the crowd. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I was doing my level best to breathe in and out as normally as possible in order to stay calm. Well, sort of calm. 

Thankfully, no one else was paying much attention to us, so I didn’t have to worry about someone else getting involved or being a distraction. Aside, of course, from the few people who complimented our costumes. No one actually thought we were the real deal. Why would they? Walking around an event like this was basically the perfect disguise. Which made me wonder how many real Touched were hanging out here. Hell, I already knew that there were at least two Fell-Touched disguised as different Touched in this place, and I was willing to bet there were probably others. I just had to hope that none of them were planning to cause trouble. 

Or maybe not hope that. Maybe actually hope the opposite. If there was trouble right now, I wouldn’t have to talk to my father about… whatever it was he wanted to talk about. If someone started a distraction, I could be saved from this whole thing. But no. No, I couldn’t let myself hope that something went wrong here, no matter how convenient it might be for me. The rest of these people didn’t deserve that. 

So, forcibly shoving the thought out of my head, I focused on my father just as he pushed open a semi-hidden door ahead of us and gestured for me to go through. This was my last chance. If I didn’t want to be alone in a private place with him, I had to do something now. And then live with the consequences. Yet which would be worse, the consequences of showing him that I knew more than I was supposed to by refusing to be alone with him, or of walking into that private place and… dealing with whatever came next? 

In the end, the only real choice (and it wasn’t a choice at all) was to go with door number two. Taking a deep breath as silently as possible, I stepped through the door, my senses keenly alert for anything out of the ordinary. I had, of course, been covering the inside of my costume with as much paint as I could manage this entire time. There were various-colored shapes all over me, though out of sight so my father wouldn’t know I was prepping. If things did go down right now, I was about as ready as I could be. 

The door turned out to lead to a small hallway with another door to the left before continuing straight ahead to another that was marked emergency exit. There wasn’t much room here, but I was able to walk most of the way to the exit before turning back, putting about six or seven feet of distance between myself and my father as he closed the other door behind him. Then, we were left alone in that much quieter space. The soundproofing was still incredibly good here, to the point that I could have believed we were the only ones in the building. Despite the fact that there were thousands of people just a few feet away, it felt like I was completely alone with my father, cut off from any outside interference. Which was a prospect that really shouldn’t have scared me as much as it did. 

And yet, here we were. I had no other excuses, nothing to stop me from having this face to face with my dad. Standing there, I made myself sound as casual as I possibly could, praying that my voice wouldn’t crack as I spoke up. “So, you wanted to talk? Please say you’re gonna let me borrow the Silvercruiser. Wait, you do really have one of those, right? I know they have a toy of it, but I’ve never been completely sure if that’s a real thing or not.” 

I could hear the amusement in my father’s (altered) voice. “A silver hovercycle that can turn invisible? Of course I have one of those. I mean, I’m not going to get into whether the toy or the real thing came first, but still.” I could tell he was smiling at me. “Those companies have pretty good ideas sometimes.” 

Oh boy were there a lot of things I wanted to say to that. But I pushed most of them aside and simply replied, “Maybe I can get some of them to push the idea of a Paint Buggy. You know, big four-wheeler thing with wide tires and this tank full of paint on the back that you can spray with a hose from the gunner position. If I can make it popular enough as a toy by the time I get my drivers license-err, how do they handle finding out if you can drive in your costumed identity without giving away your identity?” 

Something curious, my father asked, “Is that a legitimate question? I mean, do you really want to know?” 

Well, now I really did. So I gave a quick nod. “Wait, you mean there’s a real answer?” 

“Of course there is,” he assured me. “Believe me, you’re far from the first person to have that thought. It came up a long time ago, and they worked out a system for it, which allows them to verify that a Touched is drive-legal without exposing who they really are.” 

“Okay,” I admitted, “now I’m really curious. How can they manage something like that? And, you know, how secure is it really?” Not that I had any intention of following through, because no matter how secure the system was, I didn’t trust my family not to have some way of gaming it to work out peoples’ identities. Still, I was curious to hear what they’d done to make enough people believe it was safe. It had to be something pretty good. 

“Actually,” Dad informed me, “it’s an international system. Started down in California, if I remember right. And I usually do.” That bit was said with clear charismatic teasing amusement, and I made myself chuckle to avoid making the whole situation worse than it already was. Dad continued after giving me time to react. “In any case, if you look at the back of a driver’s license, you’ll find what looks like a serial number. It’s twelve digits. When you get your license, that number is added to a special international registry, and the only information it gets is the fact that you are legal to drive, along with any restrictions. At any point, you can go to a secure website and input that number on your license. It’ll send back a three word code. Something like Bear Sofa Clock, or Headphones Chocolate Paper. That’s all you need to remember.” 

“I get it,” I put in. “So if cops want to find out if you’re legal to drive, you give them your three word code. They put the code in the computer and it tells them whether you’re legal to drive or not.” 

“That’s right,” he confirmed. “The authorities don’t get the numbers from your three-word code, so they can’t check your actual identification. All they get is a ‘yeah, this is a licensed driver.’ And sure, it’s not a perfect system. There’s ways to game it, such as a licensed driver letting someone who isn’t use their code. But, you know, if you’re a Star-Touched, or at least a Sell-Touched trying to make nice, the hope is that you’ll play by the rules. Besides, once you have a code associated with you, if someone else uses the same one, it sends up red flags. Then you’ll have some questions to answer.” 

Offering a shrug, I replied, “Well, I’ll keep that in mind whenever it comes up. You know, if I actually survive this whole thing long enough for it to matter.” That last bit came out before I could even think about what I was saying, and I immediately regretted it. But it wasn’t like I could take it back. I was just glad that my father couldn’t see my face. 

Of course, I had something else to focus on almost immediately, as he lifted his head slightly to regard me. “Yes, well, as it happens, you surviving is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.”  

Do not react, I immediately practically shouted at myself. Do not react to that, do not give him any sense of fear or nervousness. Do not show anything. It took everything I had not to recoil or give anything away through my body language.  

Instead, I made myself tilt my head curiously. “Should I be worried that the leader of the Conservators wants to talk to me about whether I’m going to survive or not?” My voice was even, as I managed, if barely, to keep it from cracking. It had to sound like I was still totally casual about the whole situation. Even if, in reality, I was double-checking that every spare concealed surface had some form of paint on it. Okay, quadruple-checking.

Dad simply chuckled, head shaking. “That depends on how well you react to a, well, let’s call it a gentle reprimand.” He pushed on before I could react. “I know, I know, you don’t work for me, or for any of us. I get that, believe me. It may be hard to believe, but I understand the lure of working by yourself in situations like this. So yes, I know you aren’t working for me and I don’t have real authority over you. But Raindrop and That-A-Way are, and it seems that they’ve been doing a bit of… extracurricular work with you.” 

For a split-second, I had a positively terrified thought that he knew about the tunnel. I very nearly reacted badly. But, at the last possible second, I caught myself with the realization. He wasn’t talking about the tunnel or any of that. “You mean the whole thing with the Scions,” I managed, staring up at him. “You’re… you’re upset that they were involved with… with exposing Cup.” Saying that made my heart slow down a bit, so it no longer felt like I was going to need a quick trip to the hospital. Well, not just yet anyway. The jury was out on how well I’d feel once this conversation was over. 

My father nodded once. “I’m afraid so. We just need to have a quick little talk. As I said, I know you’re not subject to our rules. But believe it or not, we still care about what happens to you. And, well, Raindrop and That-A-Way are part of the Minority.” His voice softened slightly, as he clearly tried to keep what he was saying from sounding too much like a dressing down (while still maintaining its seriousness). “Finding out Cup’s real identity was a huge thing. Congratulations on that. But going by yourselves, not telling any adult what was going on, talking those two into leaving their team behind…” He was clearly staring intently at me from behind that silver helmet. “Tell me you have some idea of how dangerous that was.” 

Swallowing hard, I made myself nod. “I know, trust me. It was–if we hadn’t–it could’ve gone really bad. I mean, we didn’t know she was–” 

“I know,” Dad cut me off. “You had no idea who she really was. But you were still investigating something that you knew could set the Scions off if they found out about it. And you all went out without having real backup. If you had taken a couple adults with you, or even just–” He hesitated before sighing. “We could have captured Cup instead of just exposing her identity. We lost that opportunity, and she escaped.” 

Unfortunately, he had a point, and that realization made me flinch a bit visibly. Taking a deep breath, I hesitantly replied, “You’re right. If we’d had more backup, maybe we could have captured her. But…” Now I really hesitated. Did I really want to say this? “But as often as the Scions have found out when someone was coming after them, as much as it seems like they have inside information, do you really think it’s impossible that they might have gotten wind of what we were doing if more people knew about it?” 

Dad was almost deathly silent for a moment, regarding me intently before speaking very carefully. “Are you accusing one of our Star-Touched of being a traitor who works for the Scions?” His voice sounded as though it could have cut through glass. 

Hurriedly, I shook my head. “No. No, I’m not saying that at all. But you have a lot of support personnel. You know as well as I do that the moment some official thing went down the line about talking to a witness who might know something about the Scions, there’d be a whole bunch of red tape to go through. And every bit of red tape is another person who could spill the beans. For all we know, if we let it be an official operation, it could’ve turned into a trap against us. They could’ve put a bomb in the apartment and killed everyone the moment we went in. Or… or something. The point is, the more people who knew about it, the bigger chance of it blowing up in our faces. Uh, no offense or anything.”  

I could actually hear Dad snort quietly before he responded. “I suppose I can see where you’re coming from. You’re a very suspicious person, aren’t you?” His gaze seemed to bore right through me. “I don’t suppose there’s any particular reason for that you might want to get into?”

I was silent for a second, before he gently prodded, “If there’s any problems at home or anything. You know, any reason why you don’t tend to trust other people very much.” 

Yeah, he wanted to see if there was any chance I would talk to him about the Ministry. And, come to think of it, probably also wanted to test my reaction to find out if I knew about his connection to them. That’s what this entire conversation was about, at least in part. 

My head shook. “I guess I just prefer going my own way. Helps avoid that red tape I was talking about.” Belatedly, I added, “But I know it was dumb to go out there by ourselves when the Scions were involved. Even if we didn’t expect to run into them, especially like that. I promise, we–I’ll be more careful.” 

Dad seemed to regard me in silence for a few brief seconds before clearing his throat. “Good to know. And in the future, if you ever want to get help without going through all the official channels, feel free to call me. Believe it or not, I do know how to keep a secret.” He was extending his hand with a card in it. A card that had his name and a phone number on it. “This will get through to my cell any time of the day. If you need help, with anything at all, just ask.” 

After a very brief hesitation, I took the card and held it tightly. Somehow, I managed to make my voice sound casual. “Thanks. I mean, thank you, sir. I uhh, I’ll keep it in mind. You–you’ve always been my favorite hero, you know.” That time, my voice shook. But that was okay, it made sense for it to do so, even if he didn’t know the reason. 

I could hear the smile in my father’s voice. “Well, thanks. Glad to know an old fogey can still inspire the new generation. And like I said, you call that number any time you need anything. Now go on.” He opened the door and gestured for me to head through. “Have fun with the others. 

“Who knows, maybe they’ll be better than me at convincing you and your partner to join up with the team.” 

So, I thanked him again and went through the door, forcing myself not to look back. When I eventually made my way through the crowd to find the others, I saw that they had been joined by Syndicate, Whamline, and Wobble. All of them were in front of the entrance to the phase room, clearly waiting. When Raindrop saw me, she said something to the others and everyone turned my way. That-A-Way spoke up. “Hey, Paintball. Everything okay?” She was clearly trying to keep her voice casual and even to avoid sounding nervous about that whole thing, but I could see just how tense she was. Not to mention how tense Izzy and Peyton were too. 

“It was about the Scion situation, wasn’t it?” Wobble put in, a bit knowingly. “That’s why he wanted to talk to you.” 

Syndicate spoke up before I could respond. “Yeah, the boss wasn’t too rough on you about that whole thing, was he? I mean, yeah, we weren’t happy about finding out that you all went off and nearly got killed without telling us what was going on, but you still managed to find out who they really are. That’s more than, well, anyone else has been able to do.” 

“Couldn’t be that bad,” Whamline pointed out. “Not like he could assign the dude toilet duty or anything. He doesn’t work for him.” Pausing, he added, “You know, I’m starting to see the benefit of going solo.” 

Snorting despite myself, I waved both hands. “It’s fine, I’m fine. Silversmith just wanted to have a little talk about being careful, that’s all. We’re all good.” 

Clearly knowing that I didn’t want to get into all that right then, Izzy announced, “We let another group go ahead so we could wait for you.” Her eyes found mine as she added, “If you still wanna do it?” 

“Sure thing,” I agreed easily. “No way am I missing out on this. Then again, everyone keeps talking about how cool it is, like walking through solid objects is gonna change everything.

“But personally, I think it’s just a phase.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Two quick things! First, there was a non-canon for this story posted yesterday for EVERYONE to read, focused on Joyride vs the Minority, right here. And second, if you only read this story rather than Heretical Edge, there is an important note in my comment at the end of this chapter concerning updates to Patreon bonuses and goals. If you do support these stories or have any interest whatsoever in doing so to help ensure they are as good as they can possibly be (and help get every reader even more of those stories), it would be fantastic if you could read that comment after you finish the chapter. If you do read Heretical Edge and have already seen that comment/update, there’s nothing new there.

So, that Andy guy and I stepped away to a small hallway just outside the main room. It led to some offices or something, and while we could still hear people going nuts through the closed door, it was at least quiet enough that we could talk without shouting to make ourselves heard. For a few minutes, I talked to him about having a Tech-Touched friend who was looking to get into selling stuff and how we wanted to make sure she wasn’t giving away her location that easily. He made it clear that he had a pipeline of people who could move the stuff and sell it if it was any good, including himself. So, I told him I’d talk to Trevithick and set up a meeting if she wanted to, or just continue to be the go-between if she didn’t. He seemed pretty stoked about either option, to be honest. Especially when I asked for his phone number and an address where I could maybe find him later. He fumbled a bit, but eventually gave me a card with a business office listed on it, quickly letting me know that he shared it with a couple other people but all I had to do was ask for him and someone would track him down. Or call the number on the back, day or night. He stressed that part, making it clear I could call him any time I wanted. 

After promising that I would be in touch, and that he should be ready to move product as soon as Trevithick had something done, I made my way back out onto the main floor while stowing the card he had given me. Alloy was waiting by the door, apparently preferring to let me handle that part while she simply watched more of the convention. Which was fair, given how much there was to see. 

When I emerged, she glanced my way and tilted her head curiously. “So how’d it go, Mr. Businessman? Are we gonna be rich and powerful?” 

“Well, you’ve got the powerful part down already,” I pointed out. “As for rich, let’s hope for successful to start out. Gotta build contacts, make it clear we can deliver what we promise, that sort of thing. Being Touched will help somewhat, but if you screw up early on or overhype it, people’ll just end up turning on you as fast as they turned to you. Better if we build a solid ground network and improve it from there. This guy’s got his own contacts, if we can get some stuff into his hands and let him sell it, we’ll have a better chance at laying a foundation that–what?” I blinked that way, realizing she had been staring at me intently for most of that. 

Quickly, Alloy shook her head. “Uh, nothing. I mean, you’re just really into this stuff. You know a lot about it for a–you know, middle schooler. No offense. Err, I guess that would be more offensive to everyone else. You just–never mind.” 

Blushing a little bit despite myself, and glad that I had the helmet to cover it, I shrugged helplessly. “It’s really not a big deal. I just read a few paragraphs out of a book in the library. You know, after we talked about doing something like this with Trev the other day.” What else was I supposed to say, that I had heard my father talking about business stuff and what sort of problems startups ran into since I was a little kid sitting on his knee? And then I’d just follow up by telling her exactly who my father was. That would sure go over well. 

Okay, I thought that sarcastically in my head, but really, I did need to tell her the truth at some point. Just not right at the moment. There was way too much to deal with as it was. I wasn’t ready to get into that whole thing, even if it would help the whole feeling of awkwardness around her thinking I was a kid. 

Yes, yes, there were several good reasons to tell her everything. Another large one being that she deserved to know if we were going to work together. Soon, I told myself. It would have to be soon. Even if I couldn’t make myself get into it right now, it would come up eventually. It had to. And better that it be on my own terms. Just… yeah. 

Shaking all that off, I gestured for her to come with me. “Where’d the other three go?” 

Stepping up beside me, she raised a hand to point. “That Fragile girl– boy that’s a weird way to phrase it–she wanted to check out something called a dimensional-phase room. Which, for the record, sounds completely amazing, and we are so going over there. You’re lucky I lost the paper rock scissors game for who had to stay and wait for you.” 

I pointedly adopted an exaggerated huffy voice. “And here I thought you were just being a loyal partner.” 

“Partner shmartner,” she shot back, “did you hear what I said about dimensional-phase room? Sorry, but if it comes down to a choice between you and one of those, you’re gonna lose.” She seemed to consider those words briefly before amending, “I mean, unless it’s a villainous dimensional-phase room. Then… well, how villainous are we talking, on a scale from say, rob an ATM to murdering innocent children… a four and under, you’d probably lose out too.” 

Before I could even start to try to respond to that, someone dressed like Boulderdash began to approach us. It was a pretty good costume too, with clear effort put into small foam rocks over most of the body, and a big shell over the back that was probably fiberglass or something. For the head, they had a black and gray ski mask to match the rest of the body, with painted goggles to mimic his large eyes. They were a little bit short for the real thing, but still. 

The Boulderdash person slipped through the crowd, walking up before stopping right there in front of us. Their voice was muffled. “Here to see all your adoring fans, huh?” 

Confused, I exchanged a glance with Alloy before turning back that way. “Uhh, do we–” 

Before I could say anything else, ‘Boulderdash’ reached up to the shell on their back, opening a little slot on it so I could see a familiar face peering out at me. A familiar lizard face. It was Mars Bar. I swore he smiled as soon as he saw me, giving me an iguana grin. 

“Wha–” Giving a quick double-take at that, I snapped my attention back to the figure herself while demanding, “What the hell are you doing?” 

In a voice that was still muffled yet suddenly recognizable, Pack teased, “Well, I had to wear a costume that allowed me to get my little buddies in. You really think I’m going to come here and not let them see all this cool stuff? They’d never forgive me.” 

Giving the girl a look, I retorted, “Believe it or not, it’s not the lizards’ presence here I’m concerned about. I mean, okay it is, but they’re only here because you are so why are you–what’s–are you guys–” 

“He’s freaking out, isn’t he?” That particular question came from Lucent. Or rather, a giant version of him, a person in a raven costume, who stepped over to join us. “I told you he’d freak out.” 

“If you’re one of her lizards that she’s somehow given full speech capability to, I swear to God,” I managed, shooting a look back and forth between them before the voice struck me. “Wait, Broadway?!” I hissed that name, of course, not that it was strictly necessary. It wasn’t like anyone was eavesdropping. Actually, I was pretty sure I could have screamed, ‘Two real life members of La Casa are right here’ and no one would’ve heard me or paid attention. Not with how nuts and loud everything was around us. 

“Aww, he recognized me!” Broadway was clearly beaming under her costume, shooting a look toward her criminal teammate. “Wait, did he get me faster than he got you? Does that mean he likes me more?” 

“Dude.” It was Alloy’s turn to hiss at me. “How many members of La Casa are you friends with?” 

Once again, I was glad that my costume choices left my flushed face undetectable. Yes, that was clearly the biggest benefit, rather than stopping anyone from knowing who I was in the first place. With that filling my mind, I coughed. “We’re not exactly–I mean– that is…” Okay, I gave up on that, turning to face the other two. “Wait, are we about to have a problem?” I said that while trying very hard not to pointedly look at the several cameras around the room. I had no doubt that there was some advanced security in here including audio. Not that they would necessarily just happen to be paying attention to us, but still. 

Pack, however, shook her head as she interpreted my meaning. “Don’t worry, we’ve got it under control. Some of their surveillance equipment is just having a little bit of a hiccup now and then. Nothing too dramatic, just enough to make sure they can’t hear us. Or a few other places, just so it’s harder to narrow down where it’s coming from.” 

“Their surveillance is having issues and they’re not like, evacuating the building?” Alloy questioned. She too seemed to barely resist the urge to literally look at the cameras. 

“Like she said,” Broadway put in, “it’s just audio. And maybe a bit with not allowing them to zoom in, blurring a few cameras here and there, that sort of thing. They’re not gonna evacuate the building for that. Especially when they can stand right there and see that nothing’s going wrong. Besides, with all the amateur Touched-Tech all over the place in here, they’ve gotta expect it.” 

“On that note,” I questioned, “What’re you guys doing here?” 

“He keeps asking me that,” Pack informed Broadway in a clearly put-on confused tone. “It’s like he thinks we’re not supposed to want to go to places and have fun or something.” 

“Okay, I think my question is, are you here to have fun or here to have fun?” I managed with a somewhat weak voice. “I mean, you did just point out that there’s lots of… toys around here.”  

“Pshh, now he thinks we’re here to rob the place.” Pack was clearly rolling her eyes. “Honestly, if we were, we wouldn’t announce ourselves to a couple Boy Scouts. I mean–” She looked toward Alloy and gestured. “Not Boy–you know what I mean.” 

“They let girls in now anyway,” Alloy informed her with a shrug. “And what are you doing here if you’re not being nefarious? Which, for the record, is a very fun word.” 

“Having fun, without the nefarious part,” Broadway replied a bit primly. “And yeah, totally a fun word. But seriously, dude, look around. We’re not like, supervillains twenty-four/seven/fifty-two. We have time off.” With that, she gestured around us. “This place is sweet. We came in to have fun. Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun.”

“Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun that requires you to use security jamming tech?” I pointed out. 

Broadway, in turn, giggled. “We’re not using it all the time. We just have it in case things go wrong and we need to skedaddle, you know? And in this case, to come over and say hi without being eavesdropped on. And without you guys getting in trouble for not immediately starting in on the whole ‘halt evil-doers’ business. So slow your roll. Or, you know, whatever the right term would be.” That last part came in a distracted tone as her head (still covered in the raven mask) turned to follow a large man dressed up as The Hyperborean, a seven-foot-tall muscular guy made of ice who wore bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sunglasses. This guy didn’t quite match the real Hyperborean in height or muscle, but it was pretty close. And the costume he wore over himself resembled ice pretty well. 

“See, now she’s distracted.” Shaking her head, Pack nudged her partner. “Like she said, we’re here to have fun, not cause trouble. Scout’s honor. And as your partner there said, we can actually join them now, so it’s all kosher. I mean, I’m not Jewish either, but you get the point.”

Before I could find my voice to respond to that, That-A-Way approached with Raindrop and Fragile, the three of them holding several light green balls. The (currently) blonde girl was already speaking. “Okay, so they let us take a couple extra–uh?” She had just noticed the other two. 

Clearing my throat, I nudged Peyton and slipped a twenty dollar bill in her hand. “Hey, there’s souvenir hats over there, why don’t you take our new friend to get one?” 

“Super-subtle, I don’t suspect anything weird at all,” Fragile announced, giving me a thumbs-up before pivoting on her heel to walk that way with Alloy. 

“Aww, man, that’s a great costume,” Pack abruptly announced, giving Way a pointed look. “You look just like the real Way, only even more attractive and smart.” 

“Uhh,” Way managed to repeat her previous noise. 

Broadway, in that raven costume, was looking after the departing Fragile as she noted, “Hey if she’s hanging out with you, she must be that new chick, right? That was a nice entrance she had up there. Should’ve seen the look on those rich fucks’ faces. It was a hoot.” 

“Uhhhhhhhh!” Way’s gaze snapped to me, her eyes wide. 

“God damn it,” I muttered before waving my hands back and forth. My voice was as low as it could be while still being audible to them. “It’s Pack and Broadway.” 

Even as I finished saying that, Pack was opening up the little slot in her costume shell. That time, it was Tuesday the Gecko who was looking out at us, joined quickly by Scatters the Neon Day Gecko. Both of them seemed to brighten when they saw Way, who had turned that wide-eyed stare at them. 

“You–what–how–why–” Her brain was clearly stuck, as she couldn’t put a full sentence together and had resorted to simply pointing. 

“They’re not here to cause trouble,” I finally put in while shaking my head. “I mean, obviously they’re here to cause us some mental trouble, and having a lot of fun with it, but other than that…” 

Looking back and forth between them as she processed all of that, Amber opened and shut her mouth a couple times before focusing on Pack. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” She hissed those words while her eyes darted toward Broadway a couple times. 

The other girl agreed, and they stepped out of the way. Which left me standing there with Raindrop on one side and Broadway on the other. Which was just the most comfortable and excellent position to be in. But at least–nope, I wasn’t even going to think about hypothetical ways it could get more uncomfortable. That just seemed like a recipe for disaster. 

While all those thoughts were running through my head, Broadway gave Raindrop a thumbs up. “Hey, while we’ve got the chance, great job the other day with that whole dropping the tarp from that hardware store on us? I swear, you almost got me.” 

“Um, are you… complimenting me for almost arresting you?” Izzy sounded understandably confused. 

“I mean, sure?” Broadway shrugged as much as the bird costume allowed her to. “We do illegal stuff, you try to stop us. If you manage it, good for you. It’s not personal, dude. And like I said, it was a cool move. I’ll be ready for it next time, but you uhh, you keep me on my toes. It’s cool.”

Izzy clearly had no idea how to respond to that, but eventually settled on a weak, “Um, thanks.” Then she thought about it for another moment before adding, “I uh, I don’t suppose you’d like to give me some advice?” 

“To catch me, my friends, or bad guys I don’t care about?” Broadway shot back with clear amusement. “Because something tells me the last one would still lead to the first two. Unless you want to hand over a written statement that you’ll never try to catch me again. And, quite frankly, I like the whole cat and mouse thing, so not even then. But, I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t know what happened to you recently, but you’re a hell of a lot cooler than you used to be. I mean, you’re more confident, you look like you stick up for yourself more, you’re even answering questions on the news sometimes. You used to be this quiet little wallflower who always looked like you were afraid the person who was asking you questions was gonna hit you with the microphone. I mean, I don’t ahh, I’m not trying to be insulting or whatever. I don’t mean it in a bad way. I mean, I do, but only in the sense that you’re not like that–and it’s fine to be like that if you’re not comfortable with–fuck.” 

For a brief handful of seconds, she was quiet, as though considering her words. Then she gave a short, decisive nod. “What I mean is, whatever changed in your life recently to make you more confident, it’s a good thing. You’re a lot more fun this way, and a lot harder to get away from. So whoever or whatever was making you all meek and stuff before, I’m glad you’re in a better situation now.” She paused, clearly ran those words over in her head, and then nodded once more. “That’s it.” 

I almost said something, but decided it was a bad idea. Not only because I wasn’t supposed to have that close of a relationship with Raindrop, but also because she could speak for herself just fine. Which, come to think of it, was Broadway’s entire point. 

So, I stayed quiet. Izzy, however, straightened up a bit. “Thanks, I um, I guess. But just so you know, I’m still going to try to catch you, even if you are nice to me.”  

“If I thought anything less, I wouldn’t have said anything,” the other girl informed her casually. “And who knows, you keep pulling out tricks like that tarp and you might just do it.” She didn’t sound worried about the possibility, yet it wasn’t as though she was dismissing it entirely or being insulting. She simply wasn’t worried about what would happen if she was caught. 

By that point, Pack and Way had finished their conversation and came back. Amber cleared her throat. “Let’s just say, you guys… don’t start anything and we’ll all just pretend we don’t know anything about each other.” She gave a quick glance toward the girl in her Boulderdash costume before adding, “Please don’t make me regret trusting you when you say you’re not here to do anything bad.”

“Promise,” Pack solemnly replied. “We are absolutely here for casual fun and nothing else. Legal casual fun,” she added quickly after giving that a second of thought. “You know what they say. Be gay, do crime. And you’re already halfway there.” With what was very clearly a wink that was hidden behind her costume, she took Broadway by the hand and they started off. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and Fragile approached once more. The latter had a quite snazzy-looking red top hat, which she was practicing flipping around in her hands, along her arms, and up to her head. She was surprisingly good at it. Once they arrived, she looked to me and brightly announced, “If you have any more friends around here that you don’t want me to hear you talk to, they’re selling these really cool belts at the booth next to the hat one.” 

Flushing a little, I mumbled something about keeping that in mind, before thanking her for playing along. Then I added, “What’s with those things you guys came back with, anyway?” My hands gestured to the light green balls she, Amber, and Izzy still had. 

“They’re for the phase room,” Amber explained. “They’ve got a lot of people waiting to go in, so they do it by colored balls. When these light up, it’s our turn. We got a couple for you guys too.” She passed them over toward Peyton and me. “Seriously, we’ve gotta try it. It’s all set up like a normal living room and kitchen, but they can phase you while you’re in there. You know, make you intangible. So you can walk around and wave your hands through stuff.” 

For a brief second, I just stared at her. “Dude, you can already do that by yourself. Why do you need to wait around and go in a special room for it?” 

“Pfft, I can do that while going one direction,” she retorted. “I always wondered what it’d be like to be able to use my power anywhere I wanted. Believe me, if they had a ‘teleport room’ or a ‘be super fast’ room, I’d try those too.” 

By that point, it was time to go over to where those guys were taking the photograph of all the people dressed up like Alloy and me. I felt a little weird about actually being in the picture, but then, it was also pretty fun to think that nobody there knew. 

It also turned out the guy who thought he could get the real us to sign the photo once it was blown up to giant-size was Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who was in charge of coordinating with law enforcement, recruiting people from the Minority, that sort of thing. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me while we were doing the picture, but as soon as one of the other Paintballs asked if he was sure he could get me to sign it, the man glanced my way. His eyebrow rose before he replied, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’ll be interested.” 

Shortly after we were done with that, the balls lit up. As soon as she saw that, Fragile seemed to light up herself. “Oooh, come on, come on, let’s go check out the phasing room!” 

Before we could head that way, however, my attention was drawn to one side, as none other than Silversmith approached. Okay, to be fair, there had been like fourteen Silversmiths, all varying levels of believable. But something told me this was the real thing. This was really my dad. 

“Ahem, sorry for interrupting,” he spoke while I did my best not to react to his presence. “I’ll let you guys get right back to enjoying the rest of the convention down here in just a second.” 

“Uh, so, there’s nothing wrong?” Amber asked, obviously worried about the whole Pack and Broadway situation. 

“Nope,” my father confirmed. “Nothing at all. Actually, you guys can go ahead.” His attention turned from her, sliding over the others and settling on me. 

“Paintball, you mind having a little chat for a minute?” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Boy was going downstairs a real shift. The difference between the rich people party on the upper floor, and what we walked into down there was like night and day. Alloy and I had followed the Minority people down some private stairway and to a door that was apparently in an unused corner of the room. As soon as that door opened, we were assaulted by a mix of light and sound. The whole place was lit up by hundreds of slightly too bright tube lights hanging from the ceiling of this enormous warehouse-like space. From what I had heard on the way down, there were booths filling almost every square inch of the place, and thousands of people making their way through to see exhibits, buy merchandise, and all the rest of that sort of thing. 

And yet hearing about it was nothing compared to literally hearing it. The place was a madhouse. I felt physically assaulted by the noise as soon as we opened that door. Thousands of people all talking at once, hundreds shouting for attention or trying to sell things, dozens of buzzers, alerts, whistles, chimes, and other noises. To say nothing of the like three different songs I could hear just from the entranceway coming from different areas. Someone was playing a guitar, another person appeared to be repeatedly breaking windows or something, somewhere off in the distance what sounded like a car alarm was going off, and a couple hundred feet to our right, a bunch of people were doing what sounded like incredibly loud tribal chants. 

“Yup,” Syndicate noted while slowly looking around from the doorway (having to raise his voice to a near shout even though he was right next to us), “pretty much the same as last year.” After a brief pause, he added, in an even louder voice, “Actually, I think they’re a little quieter this year!” 

The spot we were in was behind several large booths, blocking people from seeing us. There was a narrow pathway to the left and right leading to areas we could join the crowd and, apparently, blend in. According to the others, there were so many people in costumes here that we wouldn’t stand out at all unless we used our powers. They strongly advised not doing that, unless we really wanted to be mobbed and never be able to move anywhere. Which was a warning that had made Peyton push her remaining floating marbles into a ‘pocket’ in her armor for the time being. 

Fragile, the brand new glass-form Minority girl, leaned closer to peer out that way. Her voice was tentative. “This… this is quieter?” Realizing only a couple of us had heard her, she repeated it a bit louder. 

“Compared to last year, yeah!” That-A-Way confirmed with a glance my way. “If we all stick together, we’ll stand out more and people might wonder if we’re not cosplaying!” she called over the somehow even louder noise. “We should split up so we don’t attract attention!” Her head shook a bit. “Believe me, it might sound fun to have all those people know you’re the real deal, but it’s not!” 

“It doesn’t sound fun at all!” Peyton informed her, wincing a little. “I don’t need that kind of attention, thanks.” The latter bit was added a bit more quietly, so only I could hear her. 

After a moment of thought, Syndicate decided, “I’ll take a walk with Wham and Wobble. Way, Rain, think you guys can show your friends and the new girl around, uhhh…” Trailing off, he took a second glance at the glass figure as though only just remembering an important point. “Oh, you uhh, people aren’t gonna know you yet, but they will know that’s not a costume. How did–” 

“It’s okay,” Fragile assured him. Extending a hand, she showed us a small circular device, the size and shape of a coin, in her palm. It was red with a blue dot in the center. Once we’d all seen it, she closed her hand around it tightly. A moment later, there was a brief flash of light and suddenly a very different figure was standing there. She looked like an ordinary person with pale skin, long red hair, and green eyes. 

“An Incogniter?” Whamline put in, sounding curious. “I’ve never seen one like that. They’re usually bigger.” 

The ‘Incogniter’ was apparently really good at its job, because it even showed Fragile blush. I had no idea how it managed something like that. She looked down, kicking the floor lightly before giving a short nod. “Silversmith gave it to me so I could… um, be normal in public.” 

“That’s not what you really look like though, is it?” Syndicate asked, giving a brief look toward Alloy and me. “I mean, not that everyone here can’t be trusted or anything, but–” 

“What the boss means,” Whamline put in casually, “is that just in case we do get outed and people in here figure out we’re the real deal, it’s probably better if they don’t immediately associate your real appearance with the brand new Minority member, you know?” 

Fragile, in turn, quickly shook her head. “Oh, no, it’s not the real me. Just a random thing. Um, there’s a random mode and a few set things, like… what I really look like. I mean, what I looked like before. I mean–” She cut herself off and offered a shrug. “It’s safe.” 

“Oh, good to know, I guess.” For some reason, Syndicate looked a little uncertain. Well, his body language did. The red hard-shell mask he wore covered all of his face up to just a bit before his hair. Either way, it only lasted for a moment before he shook it off. “Just be careful, okay? I’m pretty sure those things won’t protect you from someone feeling that there’s something different about you if they bump into you too much. People are pretty distracted and all, but still.” He offered her a thumbs up. “Wouldn’t want you to get knocked down and shatter again. It was cool–uhh, terrifying but also cool upstairs. Down here might be hard to explain. And it’d definitely make the Incogniter earn its keep.” 

Fragile promised to be careful before we split up, which led to Amber and Izzy leading Alloy, the new girl, and me to the right and out toward one of the openings between booths. Finally, we could see the actual people instead of just hearing them. And if things had been loud and overwhelming before, actually being out where we could see the crowd was even more so. It was insane. There were lines leading out from every booth, and even more people moving between them, just shuffling along taking a look at everything on display. About half were in some sort of costume, be it an original creation or an established Touched. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure I recognized some of the costumes as Touched from other states, so maybe there were no original costumes. In any case, we wouldn’t stand out. 

Seeing all those people made me shake my head. “Okay seriously, how have I never heard of this?!” I called over the sound of the crowd, which was even louder now. “How did I not know it was a thing?!” 

Alloy glanced to me. “Maybe it’s a big fight club! You know, you don’t talk–never mind.”

“You don’t go on the SPHERE forum very much, do you?!” Amber called while leaning in a bit for us to hear. “This is sort of their annual fuck you to the people upstairs! See, they know that the rich bigwigs have their meeting on this night, and they’re not allowed up there, so a few years ago a few of them got the bright idea to rent out the rest of the hotel where the conference was happening and throw a really huge party to screw with them. Some sponsors found out what they were doing and sent some tee shirts and toys to buy, and it escalated from there. Now the VIPs upstairs do their business in the upper floor of this convention center and the little people fill up the rest of the space with all this stuff. What started as a thread on the forums to bitch about rich people not letting everyone into their private parties evolved into… this.” 

“Giving a bunch of rich people even more money,” Peyton noted flatly. “You know a lot of what the mob here are spending goes straight into the pockets of the people they started this whole thing to protest against, right?!” 

Amber gave a ‘what can you do’ shrug. “They still have fun! But that’s probably why you haven’t heard of it. Not talking about it in public is kind of part of the… game or whatever. It’s like an inside joke that you don’t talk about it. They give it a codename on the SPHERE forum, so if you don’t spend a lot of time there you probably don’t recognize it. There was a pinned thread for ‘fishing trip.’ 

“I saw that!” Peyton confirmed. “But I uhh, don’t like fishing!” She squinted. “Damn, that’s sneaky.”

The currently hologram-covered Fragile spoke up. “I’ve read about it a lot! I never got to go though, cuz…” She trailed off before fidgeting. “Cuz my dad thought it was too dangerous.” 

Amber gave a quick nod. “The people can be a little wild, but they’re usually pretty nice. At least they were last year. I–” She blinked over at us as though doing a quick headcount. “I’m the only one here right now who’s actually been to this thing before. Weird.” 

Right, because Syndicate had walked off the other way with Whamline and Wobble. I certainly had never heard of this thing before. Which still struck me as a little odd, considering I would have thought I’d have heard of it at school. But maybe it just wasn’t that big there, or… something. After all, Peyton didn’t know about it either. Huh. 

Shaking that off, I looked around at all the people that were here. God, it was so insane. There were dozens and dozens of costumed figures just within my line of sight. They were dressed up like any number of well-established Touched from all over the place. Not to mention the people selling stuff. Straight across from where we were standing, a booth was selling this special silly string that would blow apart into confetti a few seconds after being sprayed, which would subsequently dissolve into nothing. Next to that was a booth where they were selling multi-colored candles that made music as they burned. 

Then, I saw it. Or rather, him. Some guy dressed up like me–err, like Paintball. He was about six inches taller than me, but other than that it was a pretty good likeness. He had the overall costume just right, and even a matching helmet. He also had a mix of random color splotches and actual designs across it, like a red horse over one shoulder and a purple sword across the chest. 

Yeah, I had thought that I was prepared for something like this, but seeing someone dressed up like me was more surprising than I’d expected. For a second, I just stood there, staring that way. A mix of emotions and thoughts were running through my mind. This was–it was–oh. Someone was actually dressed like me, imitating me, making themselves look like–pretending to be–oh. 

A hand found its way to my elbow, and I saw Izzy looking at me. I couldn’t read her expression through the mirrored faceplate, but I could tell she was concerned. Her voice was just loud enough for me to hear over the commotion all around us. “Are you okay?” 

I gave a quick glance toward Fragile, but the hologram-covered girl wasn’t paying any attention to us. She was looking up and down the aisle, expression filled with delight as she kept blurting out for us to see one thing or another. Seriously, it was like seeing a little kid at the circus or something. Everywhere she turned, the girl found something new to gawk at and point toward. Actually, it was kind of adorable, weirdly. Watching her like that, I had the strangest feeling she didn’t get out much. Maybe she was pretty sheltered. Which made her being allowed to join the Minority a bit… odd. But then, she had demonstrated that she could be shattered into pieces and then just reform, so maybe that helped. 

Finally, I gave Izzy a quick nod and a thumbs up. I wasn’t sure how much I meant it, given the rush of emotions that seeing someone dressed up as me was actually instilling, but still. I wasn’t going to let all that confusion bring me down, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let it affect everyone else. Forcing a bit of brightness into my voice, I replied, “Just feels a little weird, that’s all.” 

“Tell me about it,” she replied, looking past me. Her voice sounded a little strained. 

Turning, I saw another person cosplaying. This one was dressed up as her. Except–uhh, well, it was a version of her that was about six years older and much more developed. Seeing that made me do a double-take, eyes widening a bit behind the helmet. “Oh, uhh, wow.” 

Making a noise in the back of her throat, Izzy managed a weak, “Uh huh.” 

The whole thing was so much to take in. We started walking, keeping together as a group while trying to see everything we could, and it was just… a lot. There were more people dressed up like us, including several in Alloy-like armor, which really threw Peyton for a loop despite hearing about it ahead of time from Lucent. Apparently she hadn’t really believed him, because now she kept rambling about how she’d barely done anything and only just started so why would anyone have a costume of her already and so on and so forth. I could tell she was just as delighted as she was confused, continually looking that way while Amber informed her (with more than a little amusement) that it didn’t take people long to put together costumes when they put their minds to it. Especially when those costumes were either super easy (like mine) or very visually neat (like Alloy). 

“Besides,” I put in as we all stood next to a booth selling funnel cakes shaped like various Touched, “like Lucent said, you have multiple sets of armor, so if they don’t like one of your looks, they can always just use a different one.” 

Amber was nodding. “Yeah, and think of the merchandising. You could have a whole group of action figures just made up of the different versions of your armor you’ve used.” 

Snorting, Peyton waved that off at first. “Yeah, sure, like people would actually make action fig–what?” She gave a double-take, staring at That-A-Way. “What’re you–” 

“Come on.” Amber nodded for the rest of us to follow before starting to head through the crowd once more. “There’s some more you should see.”  

We all exchanged glances, before Izzy reached out to gently catch Fragile by the elbow to get her attention as the other girl had been distractedly watching a guy dressed up as Big Top (a circus-themed Star-Touched from Chicago) juggling while riding a unicycle around in a circle. Once she was with us once more, the four of us headed off after Way. 

“Hey!” Someone else dressed up like–well, me waved as he passed. The guy looked more like a version of me who had been hitting the gym pretty regularly. “Nice one, dude.” He gave me a thumbs up. “You almost look perfect. Helmet’s a little off though. The visor part should be wider, and the gloves are all wrong. But hey, super-close.” 

Having no idea how to react to that, I belatedly managed a weak, “Uhh, thanks, I tried to go as authentic as possible.” 

My taller, athletic male duplicate cheerfully replied, “Solid effort, dude. And hey, you even brought the sidekick.” His focus shifted briefly to Alloy with an approving nod. “If you guys get a chance, you should stop by the photo booth over there in like an hour.” He waved to the far side of the room. “We’re gonna get everyone dressed up like those two.” His hand gestured to encompass Alloy and me. “You know, take a big group photo and blow it up. One of the guys around here thinks he can get the real Paintball and Alloy to sign it. Wouldn’t that be wild?” 

Coughing despite myself, I gave a quick nod while thanking the fact that I didn’t have to try to keep a straight face. “Sure does, totally wild. We’ll try to be there.” 

As he headed off, I found myself looking at Alloy with a mumbled, “Pretty crazy, huh?” 

She, in turn, looked me up and down a bit before dryly retorting, “Do I know you? I mean, you can’t be my partner. Your gloves are wrong and the visor isn’t wide enough.” 

“Ha ha, hilarious.” Rolling my eyes, I pivoted back to where Amber was waiting. “What’d you wanna show us?” 

“This,” she replied before extending a hand. I had just enough time to see some sort of oversized glove of her own before a stream of liquid shot at me. No, not liquid. Paint. There was a button on the palm of the glove she had put on, and when she pressed it, blue paint shot out in a stream before hitting my chest. 

“What th–” Blinking down, I stared at the splotch of blue. 

“Don’t worry, it washes out,” Amber informed me, before pulling the glove off. “Right, Andy?” 

The man she was talking to was a few inches over six feet tall, though pretty scrawny. He had a long graying-blond beard and a nearly bald head. When Amber addressed him, the man gave a little nod. “That’s right. Don’t even need to scrub very hard, it’ll come right out with no stain. And it’s non-toxic. See?” He held up his own hand with one of the gloves on and squirted the stuff right into his own mouth. Which was… sure something. 

Grimacing after that, he admitted, “Doesn’t taste great. But it’s not poisonous. Believe me, that was our big thing if we’re gonna let kids run around with these. It had to be easy to clean up, and it couldn’t hurt them if they swallowed it.” 

“Uh, we?” I blinked at that, feeling slightly confused and overwhelmed by all this. 

Turning, the man gestured up at a sign hanging over his booth that read ‘Andy And Patsy’s Toy Box.’ After giving us a chance to read it, he added, “Lots of people in this line of work get a bit uppity when you call them toys, but we know what we’re doing. And we try to aim a bit lower with a lot of our stuff. That’s our rules, everything we put out has to be safe for a kid to play with. I mean, within reason, you know? We’ve got our toddler-line, but for the most part it’s about eight and up. Nice outfit by the way. Looks almost perfect, except–” 

“I know, visor’s too small and the gloves aren’t right.” Getting that out, I extended a hand toward Amber before checking out the glove as she handed it to me. “How’d you put this together?” 

“Check just inside the opening, under the little flap there.” Andy advised. I did, and found a half dozen slots holding tiny vials with different colored liquid inside. The vials were only about the size of somewhat large pills. As I was looking at them, he explained, “There’s only enough liquid in each of those vials for one spray unless you hook them up to this.” He showed us a small water bottle-like device with a clear plastic tube attached. “If you hook this onto your belt and run the tube up under your shirt and through your sleeve, you can attach it to the base of the glove right there, where the vials are hooked in. Then when you push the button on the palm, it’ll pull water up through the tube, color it with whatever vial you’ve got it set to, and shoot for as long as you have water and anything left in the vial to color it. Pretty neat, huh?” 

My mouth opened and shut a bit before I gave a slow nod, staring at the glove in my hand. “Really neat.” Shaking off the confused feelings, I looked up once more and continued. “Seriously, that’s cool.” 

The man beamed with delight. “I just wish I could get hold of the guy himself so I could make these things be certified.” 

“Certified?” I echoed. “Oh, that’s where the Touched it’s umm, based on or whatever signs off on it, right?” 

His head bobbed. “Yeah, see, these things can be bootleg, which means no one’s approved them. Most people won’t buy bootleg, and you can get in trouble. They can be registered, which means the authorities know about it and they’ve passed safety inspections and all that, which means some of the proceeds go toward the Fund.” 

The Fund, of course, was money that went toward rebuilding places and people damaged by Touched battles, especially Collision Points. Every country who had a member within Armistice contributed to it through taxes (especially those on Touched merchandise) among other things. 

Andy was still talking. “And those who get the actual Touched in person to approve it have the stuff certified.” 

“Which means that Touched gets a percentage of the proceeds too,” Amber informed us. “Usually like fifteen percent, same as the Fund gets. We Minority people have ten percent go to our college fund and get to keep five as part of our salary.” 

Andy started to nod, before giving a double-take. “Wait, we Minority people? Hang on–are you–wait–” He was starting to realize. 

“It’s pretty loud in here,” I put in. “Why don’t we take a little walk, Andy? I’ve got a friend who’s really into building some neat stuff.

“And I’m pretty sure she would love to get some advice from you on how to sell it.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Dad’s speech didn’t go on for very long. Which made sense, he was kind of an expert at reading a room and knowing just how much to talk. This audience consisted of a bunch of people who were all important in their own rights, and were also waiting to eat. If he had gone on too much, he would’ve annoyed them. So, he just propped up their egos a bit with a few words about how special they were and how wonderful it was that they gave so much back to the city. And, of course, a bit about how vital the Seraph’s work was when it came to protecting the hospitals. Soothe the sense of self-importance the rich people in this place had by talking about how the city was only doing as well as it was because of them, and then make it clear (in a subtle, encouraging way) that the Seraphs and other Star-Touched teams were largely responsible for keeping the city safe so the investments these people put into it could pan out.

He said all that in very few words, while somehow making it sound and look as though he was talking to each person individually. He didn’t call anyone by name, but he met people’s gazes and gave that… that special smile that made it seem like he knew everything about you, like you were both sharing some sort of private moment even though there were plenty of other people around. The room was full of men and women who were accustomed to being the most important people around, yet my father’s speech, short as it was, made them feel it in a totally different way. And he did it while actually being the richest person in the room himself. 

I had seen my father’s speeches before, but never exactly like this. Not from this perspective, and not… not knowing what I knew. It made the whole thing even more impressive somehow. My father wasn’t just obscenely rich, he was also one of the most powerful Touched in the country and ran an organization that controlled all crime in one of that country’s biggest cities. He was, inarguably, the most powerful man in the room. But no one would know that just from listening to the way he spoke just then. He made everyone else seem important without putting anyone down. He built people up, he–yeah. No wonder my dad was such a successful businessman.

In any case, the point was that he didn’t talk for too long. Soon, there were waiters going around asking what people wanted to eat, while the band started up in the background. A few couples started to dance, but mostly people got ready for food. Especially at this table. Not that we saw very much of each other. As the waiters began to spread out and take people’s orders, privacy screens rose around us. There was the main privacy screen, a square that rose up around the table blocking any of the other people from seeing us, while remaining transparent from our side so that we could see others. Then there were also the individual privacy screens that rose up around each of our spots so we couldn’t see each other and could eat without giving away our identities. They were like the ones back at Caishen’s place, extending back a bit off the table on either side. You could put the screen back down if you wanted to, or combine them so that the people immediately surrounding you who knew your identity already were included. Obviously, I left mine up. Then again, I also didn’t remove the mask entirely. I just slid the front of the helmet up and pulled the mask high enough to uncover my mouth so I could eat. 

Call me paranoid, but I wasn’t going to take that sort of risk around here. Not with my parents and undoubtedly plenty of their minions in the room. And that wasn’t even counting anyone else who might have interest in finding out people’s real identities. 

Beside me, Peyton didn’t totally uncover herself either. She looked around a bit and considered, before simply reshaping the helmet around her face so that her mouth could be seen. Then she leaned closer to me while whispering, “They aren’t gonna serve food with like fifteen different forks and then tar and feather us for not knowing which one goes with the salad, are they?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” Dynamic spoke up from where she was sitting, hidden behind her own screen, “we’ve been going to plenty more of these than you and we still don’t know which fork goes with what. But the secret is, they’re all too afraid of us to actually speak up and say anything about it.” 

Clearing her throat a bit, Brumal put in, “I believe the more important thing is that they can’t see how you’re eating, so there’s no complaint to make. But either way, don’t worry about it.” Her voice softened slightly, as I saw just enough of the top of her head to know that she was looking toward Alloy and me. “No one who matters is going to give you a hard time about what utensils you use.” 

“And if they try,” Amber put in, “just tell them where to shove it.” 

“Please don’t tell the financial backers to shove anything into any place,” Brumal pleaded, her head turning to give a look toward That-A-Way. “They are not that hard to ignore without causing a scene, believe me.” 

By that point, the waitress had arrived at our table (standing far enough back that she wouldn’t be able to see anyone’s face over the screens) and listed what was available. She proceeded to take everyone’s order, and even spent a minute explaining what different foods were past the fancy names for the benefit of the others. And technically mine too, since I wasn’t supposed to know what they were either. I tried to play as clueless as possible, asking easy questions. 

Once everything was ordered and the waitress had stepped away, the conversation turned toward the gang war. It seemed like everyone sitting there had a particular story to tell about something bad that had happened through it. They had saved plenty of people, of course. But there were others who had died or at least been injured, had their property destroyed, and so on. Every Touched sitting at that table had a story about watching someone lose, if not their life, then things that mattered deeply to them. 

Peyton and I glanced toward one another. I had lowered the screen between the two of us, since I still had most of my face covered anyway. Our eyes met, and I could see how troubled she was. It probably reflected back from my own gaze to her. We were both thinking about the Ministry, and how they could stop this war if they really wanted to. And about Pack. Yes, she was right about the fact that she couldn’t do anything to stop the war, but she also helped participate in it. Even if she personally avoided hurting innocent people, how much did her teammates? How much–urgh. Between her and Eits, I felt very uncomfortable about the whole situation. Hell, even Broadway. From what I’d seen of the girl, I liked her. That was my biggest problem with this whole situation. So many of the people I would have thought I was adamantly against were more likable than they should have been. It was my problem with my family, with Blackjack and the rest of La Casa, even with Deicide. 

It was all just so complicated. If only they could all be more like Cuélebre. At least I could be pretty sure that he didn’t have some special backstory that would make me sympathize with him or anything. Although, now that I actually thought that, it would probably turn out that his entire criminal Empire was built up to take care of a hospital full of injured orphan puppies or something.

Okay, yeah, that wasn’t very likely. But still, I was starting to think that everyone had their own understandable reasons for being involved in bad stuff. Well, except for the Scions. I was pretty sure there was no amount of tragic backstory or mitigating circumstances that could come close to excusing the things they had done. 

By that point, the waitress was coming back with a tray of drinks. As she approached, the privacy shield extended up and over our heads making it totally cover the table so she couldn’t see anyone’s face. Which made me wonder briefly how she would put the drinks down without dropping them, but maybe there was some sort of… thing? Curious, I stood a bit and looked down. Sure enough, the table was visible. The screen specifically only scrambled the appearances of people within it. Looking at the table itself was a bit like looking through an actual window screen. A bit distorted, but still plenty visible. But when I looked over at Peyton, her face (with the helmet still covering most of it anyway) was incredibly blurry and smudged. 

“Is everything alright?” A familiar voice spoke up nearby, and my head snapped that way. Immediately, I realized two things. First, this was not the same waitress who had taken our order. The one who would come with the drinks was different. And second, I knew her. Actually, I knew her fairly well, considering I saw her practically every day. 

Christiana Diaz. The thin, young Latina woman who worked as one of Chef Claudio’s assistants. I’d recognize her anywhere, considering one of the things we had in common was our height. She was only an inch taller than my five foot zero. And that wasn’t the end of our similarities. Christiana had the same ‘look younger than she really was’ thing I did, given she was actually twenty-two but looked more like she was in her late teens. She wore her hair short on the sides with a mop of curls on top. 

So, I recognized her instantly. A rush of thoughts went through my mind, and it took basically everything I had not to blurt her name in surprise. Boy would that have been hard to explain. But somehow, I managed to shove the reaction down and simply put all my surprise into a gasp before giving a sharp exhale that turned into as much of a laugh as I could manage. “Oh! Damn, sorry. You uhh, you sure you’re not a ninja? You kinda snuck up there.” 

There was a very brief pause before Christiana giggled and shook her head. “No, no, sorry. It’s my fault. I keep saying I should put some little bells on this outfit.” With a wink, she added, “Can I help you with anything, sir?” 

The lower half of my face was exposed. She could see my mouth. Did she know my face well enough to recognize me from not? No, of course not. That was ridiculous. And yet, I almost couldn’t stop myself from reaching up to pull the mask down. That would have been even more suspicious, of course. But it was still almost impossibly tempting. 

Shoving that impulse down as hard as I could, I gave a quick shake of my head. “Nah, nah.  It’s all good. I was just seeing how the–you know, what the screen–what it looked like.” I was babbling, and I was saying too much. I needed to stop talking. The more things I said, the more likely she would figure out who I really was. I had to give her as little to work with as possible. So, my mouth snapped shut after saying all that. Then I reached out. “Oh, uh, I’ll take ours.” 

There was a brief pause before Christiana nodded, carefully turning the tray and extending it so I could take the glasses meant for Alloy and me. Mumbling a thanks, I sat down and gave my partner her drink. 

Peyton, of course, was staring at me. “Are you okay?” she asked in a whisper that was barely audible. “You seemed a little… uhh, not.” 

Taking a gulp of my drink, I quickly shook my head. “It’s fine, I’m fine. It’s just … different being in a place like this, you know?” 

That seemed to do the trick. The other girl achieved a sigh while nodding almost frantically. “Believe me, I know what you mean. It’s so weird being here with all these rich people who wouldn’t even notice if they ran over me in the street.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat, and I winced at Peyton’s choice of words. But I couldn’t exactly explain why it was the wrong thing to say. Instead, I simply replied in a low voice, “Some of them would notice.” 

That started even more discussion around the table, centered around celebrities and rich people they had worked with, saved, or whatever. It was a mix of horror stories and nice ones, even a couple bits about celebrities who I thought would be real pains in the ass ending up actually sounding pretty cool. Which didn’t exactly prove they were nice to everyone, given who these people were, but still. 

Honestly, once I got past my surprise of being served by Christiana (she also brought our food), and the fact that my parents were on the other side of the room, it was… nice. I was able to just sit there and listen to more experienced Touched tell stories and exchange inside jokes. Sure, I didn’t get all their references, but they tried to explain it as much as they could. And even aside from that, it was just cool to sit and listen to these guys talk about fights they’d been in, people they had saved, villains they fought, it was… it was actually one of the first times I really felt like a part of this community.  

That wasn’t exactly a good thing, of course. I wasn’t a part of their community. I couldn’t be. I couldn’t trust all of them. For all I knew, half the people at this table worked for the Ministry in one way or another, even if they didn’t really know it. No matter how welcoming they seemed, I couldn’t let myself forget that fact. I could talk with them, even work with them, but I couldn’t entirely trust every single one of them. And that meant I couldn’t entirely trust any of the people here aside from Peyton. 

Well, and aside from Amber and Izzy, of course. They were a different story, and I was incredibly lucky that I had them as a connection to the Minority. For a brief moment, I tried to think of how this whole situation would have played out if I didn’t know who those two really were. It wasn’t a very fun thought. Actually, come to think of it, I might have been too paranoid to even come if I didn’t have those two helping. 

In any case, I was silent through most of the rest of the meal, content to simply sit there and listen as the others went on. And from the looks that Peyton gave me once in awhile,  she was enjoying herself too. We both sat there listening to the stories, feeling a bit like we had been given a backstage pass or something. Which was weird, given we were technically, like, one of the bands, to stretch the analogy. But still, it was just different somehow. Sitting here, listening to the far-more-experienced people trade war stories, made the whole thing more real. 

It helped that the food was pretty good. Or, if you listened to Peyton go on, it was completely amazing. She finished off her entire plate, and then a second one when Christiana came by to ask if anyone wanted more. It honestly just tasted like the food we had at home, but then, I supposed that made sense. If Christiana was here, maybe Claudio was too. He had, after all, been the head chef of a five star restaurant before my parents snatched him up. 

As dinner was winding down, we had another speech to sit through, but this one I didn’t mind too much. It was Radiant, standing right up there on stage to talk about how important Detroit and its Touched-Tech factories were to the nation at large, and how proud everyone here should be about how much the city had been turned around in the past couple of decades. It was no secret that Detroit hadn’t been in the best of shape before the whole Touched thing came around, but now we were one of the strongest, most economically sound cities in the country. Not to mention one of the fastest growing, to an absurd degree. The people who had come to the city and invested in that growth had a lot to do with that, and most of them were sitting in this room. Radiant basically told them to give themselves a pat on the back for that. 

At least, that’s how it started. And clearly it was where the rich people in the room expected it to stay. But before long, the woman shifted her focus a bit. She went from talking about these important, wealthy people giving so much to the city to talking about the city itself, and the people in it. And almost before anyone realized the subject had changed at all, suddenly Radiant was talking about how the people in the city were the ones who really changed it. The people here had benefited a lot, and their influx of money helped give the place the jumpstart it needed. But no amount of money-fueled jumpstarts would have accomplished anything if it wasn’t for the people who lived here, the ones out on the street doing the work every day. 

It was kind of amazing to sit there and watch, because it wasn’t that she insulted or demeaned the rich people in the room. No, she propped them up just fine. She gave them their dues. But she also pulled other people up, putting them on an equal level with the millionaires and billionaires (and even the Touched) in this room. She lifted everyone up, noting the importance of each contribution. She wasn’t denouncing the rich people while making some stand for the little guy. She had started by propping up the people in this room, making it that much harder for them to disagree or be offended when she brought the rest of the population up to the same level. 

Leaning a bit closer to Peyton without taking my eyes off the woman on stage, I whispered, “If I was the type of person to be interested in someone older than me, I might be in love.”

“Oh, believe me,” she replied in a hushed voice, also without looking away from Radiant, “you’re not the only one.”

With a chuckle, Wobble spoke up. “Sorry, you guys. We’re pretty sure she’s already spoken for.” 

Amber was nodding. “We’re not sure by who, but we’ve seen her with a wedding ring. So, you know, you’re kind of late for that train.” After a brief pause, she added, “And I don’t think you meet the age requirement.” 

After Peyton and I both made a show of snapping our fingers in disappointment, our attention turned back to the woman in question as we listened to the rest of her spiel. She made it clear through all of it that the people in this room needed to keep contributing to the overall benefit of the city if they wanted it to continue to thrive, pointing out the forces that were already trying to drag it down. She talked about how Star-Touched chose to use our powers to help people, and that those with resources like these people possessed had the same responsibility. And yet, it wasn’t like she was shaming them or anything. The way she phrased it made it sound as though she was proud of the opportunity these people had, going on a bit about how they could have everything they wanted while still contributing to raising the standard of living for everyone in the city. 

It was more than a little impressive, made even more so for how relatively short it was. She didn’t talk for very long before simply promising that she would be keeping an eye on things here to see how California could incorporate the incredible ideas that they came up with, and bring some of those ideas…. and the people involved, to projects in her own state. 

So there it was, the biggest crux of her speech. She wasn’t just praising these people for the work they could do here, she was essentially saying that she would be keeping an eye on the city and the people she liked would get her recommendation for all-new projects in California. How much money would that be worth? A lot, to say the least. Without actually shaming anyone, Radiant told these people that she expected them to look after the regular population, and that those who did would be rewarded with enormous new contracts. 

As she left the stage and the music picked up, we watched more couples move to the dance floor. Including my parents. I was focused on staring at them while trying not to look like I was staring at them, when Amber reached over to touch my hand through the privacy screen. “Hey,” she started, “you wanna go down with us to check out the convention floor? I’ve gotta see if there’s more people dressed up as you or Whamline. 

“And it better be you, or I owe him fifty bucks.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, okay then. Apparently there was a new member of the Minority. A pretty young one from what I could see. As murmurs came up all around the room, I stared a bit more intently at the girl in question. She wasn’t hiding her face or anything, but then again, it probably would have been hard for someone to mistake her for some other girl made of glass. The detail was incredible, even from here. She looked like an ice sculpture that had been carved by the best in the world. Well, if ice sculptures were capable of looking around, her eyes clearly shifting to scan the crowd. Again, the parts that were ‘skin,’ like her face and exposed hands, were clear, like regular glass or ice. The parts that were supposed to be her clothes were like stained glass. It was a pretty neat effect, especially the fact that she was very clearly alive and moving around. For a brief moment, I found myself caught up in just staring.

“Another child.” The voice was a murmur just above my head, and I belatedly realized that it was Lucent, muttering those two words with what sounded a bit like disappointment. Or possibly dismay. He didn’t elaborate further, however. Instead, he gave my helmet a very slight peck for attention before adding, “If you will pardon me, I have a few people to speak with. Do enjoy the party and I hope to see you soon.” Giving a short look toward Hallowed, he launched himself off my head and flew over to another side of the room. His motions got some people’s attention, but when they realized who it was, they just turned back to their business. Well, their business of staring at this new Minority girl who had so dramatically introduced herself. 

After those few seconds had passed, Silversmith raised his hand for attention before speaking up once more. “As always, we are incredibly grateful every time we are blessed with another addition to our young team. One of my greatest honors in this life has always been to see the way the youngest among us can grow and become truly remarkable heroes, protecting the innocent and vulnerable. Having this opportunity to watch their growth, and guide them into the type of stalwart champions this world deserves, is truly one of the most gratifying and humbling aspects of this job. Each and every one of these Minority kids are very special. They put their time and gifts toward helping to protect this city. And they risk far more than they have to.”

He let that hang in the air for a moment before speaking again. “But, I’m sure you’ve all heard me ramble on long enough. Well, for now anyway. I promise, you’ll be hearing more later. So much it might make some out of you consider withholding the donations you’ve pledged until they give this job to one of the other team leaders we’re fortunate enough to have with us tonight.” 

Once the scattered chuckles to that had died down, he continued. “Our new friend here has made it clear, in more than one way, that she would like to introduce herself. So, why don’t I just give her the chance to do that.” Stepping aside, he raised one hand as though to gesture for her to go ahead. At the same time, he turned a bit to look out into the crowd, and I followed his gaze before finding my parents. Yes, including my father. They were both sitting at one of the tables near the front, along with Kent and Mills Jackson, Tomas’s parents. Oh, and that Eric Abbot guy I had been introduced to right before I’d gotten the call from Pack to tell me that Eits had been attacked for looking into the name I’d asked him about. He was there too, though he didn’t have anyone else with him. All five were sitting at the table, watching what was going on intently. 

Well, that clearly answered the question of whether my dad was really in the Silversmith armor, at least. Though I still wondered if he was projecting his voice to it somehow, or just having someone else speak for him. It really could’ve gone either way. 

The urge to interrupt them and cause a distraction, just to see if anything happened to the Silversmith on stage, was incredibly strong. But somehow I doubted I could get away with that without causing suspicion. Besides, they had almost certainly already planned for anything that might take my father’s attention off his other self. I’d risk exposing myself for no real benefit. 

By that point, the new girl, Fragile, had stepped up to take center-stage. As she did so, a small tornado of glass emerged from behind the nearby curtain, flying up in front of her before transforming into a podium, and a small set of stairs for her to step up to it. So she wasn’t just made of glass, she could also manipulate it, and turn it into new things. It wasn’t like the glass shards were just vaguely in the shape of a podium. She had literally transformed them into a solid structure. 

“Wow,” Alloy murmured beside me, “that’s pretty fucking cool.”  

Her words made Hallowed, who had apparently been just as caught up as the rest of us, start a bit. I was pretty sure he had briefly forgotten that we were there in the first place. With a quick glance our way, he whispered something about showing us where to sit, then gestured for us to follow him as he started to move. Alloy and I glanced at one another before following. Meanwhile, Fragile was talking into the microphone, her voice filling the room. “Hi, everybody! It’s so cool to see you guys, and be here! Seriously, you have no idea how awesome this is. I have superpowers, isn’t it neat?!” With those words, the glass podium reformed into the shape of a horse that she was perched on top of. “And now I get to make my own pony, so I can stop bugging my dad!” That made a few people chuckle, before she shook her head. “But you know what? Horses are kind of lame. Alligators are better.” And sure enough, the glass horse transformed into a large alligator underneath her, its head swinging back and forth as its mouth opened and shut repeatedly to reveal large dagger-like teeth. 

The display of her powers made everyone clap a bit. And by then, Hallowed had led Alloy and me through the room. We were seen and recognized by a few people, who gave us whispered greetings, or just waved, to avoid interrupting. We waved back, a bit awkwardly, while keeping up with our guide. 

Soon, we found the table we were being led to. It was on the far side of the room, up closer to the stage but half-hidden by the orchestra pit. I knew it was where we were going because there were a bunch of other Touched already there. Unlike most of the tables, this one wasn’t circular and meant for only a few people. Instead, it was one of the long, rectangular tables, large enough to hold like thirty people. The Minority (or at least everyone aside from Carousel) were seated at the table, as were most of the Conservators and Spartans. 

As we approached, I could see every member of the Minority, especially Raindrop and That-A-Way, staring very intently at the girl onstage. But they weren’t the only ones. The Conservators and Spartans were pretty focused that way too. Something told me this was as much of a surprise for the people here as it had been for everyone else. Which seemed a bit odd to me. Did my dad really just put this girl on the team without telling any of the other Star-Touched in town until just now? 

Not just odd, actually. Suspicious. But… she was just a kid. She couldn’t be working for the Ministry or–fuck, I was really getting paranoid about this. Or maybe I wasn’t paranoid enough. I seriously couldn’t tell. 

When she saw us approach, Izzy whispered something to Amber before nodding subtly toward a couple seats across from them. Amber openly gestured for us to come that way. So, Alloy and I did just that. We took a second to thank Hallowed for the invitation, before moving over there. I took the seat across from Amber, while Alloy sat next to me and across from Izzy. The seats on our opposite sides were both empty for the moment. The way the table was set up, the Minority people (and the rest of us) were at one end, while the Conservators were at the other end on the side the Minority were seated on, and the Spartans were at that end on the other side (the one Alloy and I were seated on). Well, three members of the Spartans were, anyway. Brumal, Skin-Head, and Versed were there, while the large, rock-formed Boulderdash with his big armadillo/turtle-like shell was seated on a special reinforced chair at the very end of the table. He wouldn’t fit sitting in a normal seat like the others. 

Meanwhile, the Conservators who were here consisted of Dynamic, Kriegspiel, RePete, and Bokor. Four members of the Spartans and four of the Conservators were attending this thing. Also Silversmith, of course, who was still standing back on the stage to watch that Fragile girl. Or at least, the person posing as Silversmith was. Or my father’s empty armor with a voice–never mind. It was complicated. 

Either way, as soon as we sat down, I met Amber’s gaze and gave a little wave. “Looks like you guys have a new teammate, huh?” 

It was Syndicate (or at least the one who was physically sitting here) who spoke up from his spot two down from That-A-Way. “I’d say good because we need the help, but she looks a little young.” He glanced down the table toward Raindrop before adding, “Uh, no offense.”  

Whamline, seated between him and Amber, reached around the girl beside him to pat Izzy on the back. “If she’s anything like our Raindrop, our team just got a huge upgrade. The kid’ll be saving our butts in no time.” 

Wobble, seated on the far side of Syndicate, looked toward Alloy and me. “I think what my teammates are trying to say is hi, glad you could make it. Sorry, I guess we’re just a little surprised by this whole thing.” He nodded toward the stage, where Silversmith was just stepping up by Fragile to put a hand on her shoulder and guide her down off the stage. And, as it happened, toward the rest of us. The audience was applauding, while several photographers took a few pictures. The same photographers noticed Alloy and me sitting with the Minority and snapped pictures our way too. Peyton immediately made a noise deep in her throat and turned away as though afraid of being recognized, before clearly remembering that her face was covered. I felt her embarrassment and put a hand on her arm before giving the girl a quick nod, trying to be encouraging. That was probably the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

By that point, Silversmith and Fragile had reached the table. He kept his hand on her shoulder, looking at the rest of us. “Ah, sorry for the little ambush about all this. It felt like a fun surprise at the time, but in hindsight, maybe we should have let you guys meet in private.” With a self-conscious cough (or at least a put-on one), he gestured. “Anyway, everybody, this is Fragile.” To the girl herself, he added, “Fragile, meet your new teammates. And the others you’ll be learning from.” One by one, he introduced everyone on all three teams by name, while guiding the girl around to sit next to Izzy. “I’ll let you guys all get acquainted. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other away from here. For now, just ahh, have a good time.” With that, he patted the glass-girl’s shoulder once before stepping away to go back up on stage, where one of the city’s politicians was already starting to give a speech of his own. 

Now I was getting a closer look at her face, and it was even more detailed than I had thought it was before. That really shouldn’t have surprised me, of course. Seriously, her body was literally made out of glass. Why wouldn’t it be detailed? It was her face. Still, it was kind of fascinating to see. Especially when she turned a bit to look straight at me and offered a bright smile. “Hi! You’re Paintball! You’re so cool. I was gonna ask to join your team, but I didn’t know if you were hiring or anything. Is hiring the right word? I dunno, but you’re not really open to new membership, and besides, my dad really wants me to be on the Minority, cuz he says they can keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t get in trouble. He said you have a habit of finding your way into trouble you shouldn’t be in, which is silly cuz I think the trouble really finds you. But I said that and he said that didn’t really change the point that you and trouble are really close and he wants me to be here instead, I mean on the team with–” 

In mid-sentence, she turned to look at Izzy sitting next to her, then leaned over to see the rest of the Minority watching her. “Hi, guys!” She gave a happy wave once more. “Sorry, that was probably pretty rude, huh? I didn’t mean I didn’t want to be on a team with you guys. I just meant that–uhh…” A slight red tint came over her clear glass face as she tried to find the right words.

“It’s okay,” Amber immediately assured her. “Trust me, we know how cool Paintball is. Maybe with you onboard, you can help us try to recruit him and his new partner over to the team.” She offered me a wink while saying it. Of course, Amber had to keep looking as though she was trying to get me to join. It would have been suspicious otherwise. And the last thing we wanted to do was make the Ministry at all suspicious about what she knew.

“Sorry,” I replied as casually as possible, “still just a lone wolf over here.” At a cough from Peyton, I shifted and amended, “Or a duo wolf. Dual wolves? Actually even that’s not true. We uhh–we’re a very small pack. A–never mind. Hey, look at it this way, being separate like this means that we can play back up for you guys. And vice-versa. Trust me, we’re gonna need your help a lot.” 

Syndicate focused on me. “Hey, that’s right. Way was saying that you came up with your own new team or something? Even had a name.”  

“Is that right?” The new voice was Dynamic, speaking up from further down the table. She had turned a bit to face us and was giving a little wave our way. “Hey there. Good to finally get to talk in person. I mean, after all the stuff you’ve been into, I feel like I should be asking for your autograph.” 

RePete, seated beside her, raised a hand as well. “Hey, me too. My niece would kill for a Paintball autograph, especially if it was a signed picture. Actually, I’m pretty sure she’d kill me for one, which makes me a little jealous, cuz I used to be her favorite.” 

Their words had attracted the attention of the rest of the adults down there, and now we had both the Conservators and Spartans looking at us. Which made me want to squirm a bit uncomfortably at all the attention. It was one thing to be out on the street showing off for crowds, in or out of costume. I was accustomed to doing crazy (even stupid) shit for the hell of it. But here, sitting at a table with a bunch of costumed heroes who were all looking at me like I was one of them? That was a lot to take. Beside me, I was pretty sure Peyton was feeling pretty much the same, if not worse. Probably worse. But I pushed the thought aside and embraced my role. Paintball wouldn’t be embarrassed here. 

“I’ll trade you any autographs you want, one for one,” I quickly found myself replying. “But believe me, I’m pretty sure yours is worth a lot more than mine. So really, I’m making out like a bandit.”  

That prompted a couple soft chuckles, and some actual official introductions were passed back and forth. The adults at the table were all pretty laid back, though Brumal remained a bit standoffish. Or maybe that was just my impression. She didn’t say very much and seemed distracted. But the rest of her teammates who were there made up for it. Skin-Head, Boulderdash, and Versed were all really friendly and quick to make jokes. Boulderdash in particular had a very distinctive roaring laugh that he had to muffle a few times when people from other tables shushed him because people on stage were still talking. 

And that was another thing. There were important people up there. Important as far as the city went. They were giving long speeches about donating money to the Seraphs and their related organizations, basically patting themselves and each other on the back for all the good they were doing. But no one at this table was actually paying any attention to them. We were all talking amongst ourselves (albeit in whispers) and basically ignoring that whole situation over there. It wasn’t what I had expected when we came here, but I wasn’t going to complain either. I would much rather talk to a bunch of Touched than listen to self-important rich blowhards. After all, I’d been doing the latter since… well, basically since I could talk. 

The others all wanted to know what was up with our supposed new name and all that too, so Alloy and I exchanged glances before I put my hand out onto the table. As they watched, I made the name appear there in bold red letters, just like I had on the wall of Wren’s shop. Avant-Guard

“Okay,” Versed announced while pointing to it. “That’s a cool name. You’re not accepting new members after all, are you?” She was clearly teasing, and grunted as Boulderdash nudged her. “What, I didn’t say I wouldn’t take you with me, big guy.” 

Snickering despite myself, I held up both hands. “Before any of you get eager about jumping over to this side, I should probably point out that we don’t exactly offer a salary or benefits.” 

Versed immediately made a show of grumbling. “Oh, well in that case, I think I’ll stick to this team.” She looked around, frowning. “Huh. I was going to tell the boss that he’s lucky, but he’s not here. As usual.” The last bit came in a muttered voice that made me blink that way. It sounded as though she was a little annoyed with Silversmith, which… huh. 

It also made me think of something else, and I quickly asked, “How come not everyone’s here? I mean, where’s Carousel? And uhh, Flea and Trivial. Are they around here somewhere?” I had noticed that both the Spartans and Conservators had a missing member earlier, and this felt like the best time to bring that up. 

“Flea had some personal business to take care of out of town,” Kriegspiel informed me. “She’s on leave for a few days. Not the best timing, but you know. Shit happens when it happens. Ah, sorry, stuff happens when it happens.” 

“I’ve heard the word before, it’s okay,” I assured him, before giving a double-take toward Raindrop and Fragile. “Oh. Right. I’m not the only one sitting here.” 

“I’ve heard it too,” Izzy put in, her voice dry.

“Anyway,” Brumal announced with a short clearing of her throat. “Trivial took a little time off as well, to help out with Flea’s situation. And I’m sure if they need anyone else, they will ask for it.” That was said in the direction of Skin-Head, who had started to say something. Clearly, that was a bit of a long-standing argument between the two of them.

“And Carousel just stayed home tonight,” Wobble informed me. “She needed the night off to spend with some friends who came in from out of town or something. So, you know, she’s just chilling out, playing games, while we’re stuck here watching…” He gestured up to the front. “This.” 

“I don’t know about you,” Amber corrected him, “but I haven’t been watching it for about twenty minutes now.” She looked down the table toward Fragile before adding, “And that was some entrance.” 

Giggling, the girl shifted in her seat. “Yeah? Sorry, I didn’t tell Silversmith about that, or my dad, or… anyone. I just thought it’d be cool to see everyone’s reactions.” 

“Well, it was definitely an exciting introduction,” Wobble confirmed. “I don’t think anyone will forget about it anytime soon.” 

And then it was time for yet another rich, important blowhard to talk. Specifically, my father. As the others continued to chatter, I noticed him get up from the table, give my mother a brief kiss, then start up to the stage. My eyes followed him, and I sat up a bit reflexively. 

There was a strong impulse to stand up and shout out questions about how he divided his attention between his regular business pursuits, leading the Conservators, and being the leader of the secret organization that ran all crime in the city. I didn’t do that, of course.

But boy, was it tempting. 

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Equal And Opposite 21-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“Okay, this is not what I expected,” Alloy declared a short time later. “You didn’t say it was gonna be like this.” 

“I… uhhh….” I trailed off, unable to speak. 

The convention center was, to say the least, packed. Seriously, you would have thought that there was some sort of championship game being played there, or that a big star like Lou Devereux was going to show up. There was no room in the parking lot aside from the super VIP spots, so it was probably a good thing we weren’t showing up with a car. Similarly, I really hoped that we wouldn’t have to wait in the line that stretched out of the building and down the sidewalk, full of people waiting to show their tickets and get in.

Standing atop the roof of the convention center, staring at the packed lot and the line of people below, I found myself swallowing nervously. “Uh, that’s a lot of people,” I murmured under my breath. 

Alloy gave me a look, having switched up her marble costume to go with (mostly) the first set she’d ever used, metallic knight-like armor that was black along the legs and arms with gold highlights, and a gold chestplate with black highlights. Rather than her initial white knight helmet, however, the black and gold rose up to form a samurai-shaped one. “You think?” she demanded, nerves clear in her voice. “I thought this was just going to be, like, a school assembly sort of thing. Or, you know, some private function with a few rich people we could laugh at behind their backs. You didn’t say it was gonna be like–like–the fucking Superbowl!” 

“Oh, trust me, this is nothing like the Superbowl,” I reflexively replied, before catching myself. “I mean, have you seen how huge those crowds are on TV?” Pausing, I grimaced. “That’s not really helpful right now, is it?” As her head shook, I quickly put in, “If you want to take off, don’t worry, I get it. That’s a lot of pressure down there. I umm, I didn’t really expect it to be like this either. Really, really didn’t.” I felt a little faint, standing there staring down at that.  

I had already texted the number that Hallowed sent me, to ask how we were supposed to get in. If he said wait in line like everyone else, I was going to smack myself for waiting so long to actually come here. And for coming in the first place. This was, it was…

Alloy hesitated a moment, clearly considering before her head shook. “If you can handle it, so can I. I’m not going to abandon you here.” Straightening up a bit, clearly forcing herself to look at me rather than the huge crowd, she pointedly added, “That’s not what good partners do.” 

“Hear hear,” a new voice abruptly spoke up, making both of us spin to find Lucent behind us on the roof, perched on a piece of machinery. “Tis quite the fine thing, to see such excellent allies prepared to brave the uncomfortable and awkward for one another.”

Schooling myself to avoid yelping too much, I ignored my quickly-beating heart and replied, “Hey, I know your team is all about working with hospitals and stuff, but are they so empty you have to drum up new business by giving people heart attacks?” 

Lucent’s head dipped a bit in what I took as a gesture of apology and contritement. “Beg pardon, twas truly not my intention to startle either of you. Nor to spy upon a private conversation.” Lifting one wing, he gestured to the machine he was perched on. “This happens to be my own private entrance and exit from this facility, to avoid the ahh, crowds you have noticed.” As he said that, a hatch opened to reveal a small tunnel, just big enough for him to get through. “I received a message from Hallowed that you were waiting up here. My intentions were to welcome and aid, not frighten and eavesdrop.” 

“Wow,” I found myself noting, “that’s a pretty spiffy private entrance.” Pausing, I teased, “And speaking of getting inside, I don’t suppose it gets any bigger than that?” 

With an audible chuckle, the Touched-Raven shook his head. “Apologies, they did not prepare it to accommodate humans. Clearly an oversight. Yet, should you wish to enter the building privately, there is a more appropriately sized door on the far side of the roof, that way.” He raised a wing to point. “It is manned by a security gentleman who will simply assure that you are truly who you present yourselves as before allowing you admittance. Most Touched who come to events in this building enter through there.” 

Glancing that way, I saw the back of a raised structure. “Oh, uhh, thanks, Pops.” Giving him a quick thumbs up, I gestured toward Alloy. “See, told you we didn’t have to get in the back of the line.” 

“Good,” she retorted, “Because I forgot to bring my tent and sleeping bag.” Even as she said that, the remaining four marbles floating behind her abruptly transformed. Three became a tall, rigid tent-like structure with an open front, while the last one turned into a hammock hanging inside. Alloy, in turn, shot a look that way. “Not that I couldn’t have improvised.” 

Lucent’s voice was proud. “You appear to be gaining skill and creativity with your power by the day, Ms. Alloy. I applaud your progress.” 

Clearly blushing, Alloy stammered, “I mean–it’s not a big–I ahh, um, thanks.” She coughed, squirming a little before waving both hands as the tent and hammock turned back into the marbles. “Shouldn’t we go inside before we get in trouble for missing this whole thing or whatever?” 

“Judging from the line out there, it won’t be starting any time soon,” I pointed out, snickering a little as she shot a look at me. “Yeah, yeah, we should get in there.” Lowering my voice, I focused on Lucent. “But seriously, was this thing always such a big deal? How are they supposed to get all these people inside by eight o’clock? Let alone get them seated for dinner and–wait, how are they going to feed all those people?” 

“It is quite the event,” he confirmed. “But I’m afraid you may be slightly confused. You see, the people below are here for the SPHERE forum convention, which will be happening throughout the main floor throughout the next couple of days. The dinner you have arrived for is actually in one of the smaller rooms on the upper floor. But you are, of course, welcome to tour the rest of the convention center afterwards to see various exhibitions. Or even demonstrate your own if you wish. Though, you should be prepared to run into others dressed as either of you. Most likely will not believe that you are the, as they say, ‘real deal’ without some proof.” 

Peyton coughed behind me. “You mean dressed as him. No one knows me. I mean, no one would…” She trailed off, staring at him. “Right?” 

“I assure you, Ms. Alloy, your popularity has been growing exponentially as well,” Lucent insisted. “Your tendency to switch between multiple costumes aids those wishing to cosplay, as they may simply choose their favorite version, or any combination. Some even make up their own vaguely similar outfits and call themselves a future version of you.” 

Obviously blushing, Peyton made a noise in the back of her throat. “Uhhhh, right. Um. That’s really–I mean–” Turning to me, she hissed, “You didn’t say there were going to be people dressing up like me.” 

“I didn’t know there were gonna be people dressing up like me!” I shot back. “This whole thing is a lot bigger than I thought it was. But uhh,” I glanced to Lucent. “You said the actual dinner thing is more private?” 

“Quite a bit,” he assured us. “And should you wish to leave afterward, that is entirely your prerogative. Though I will note that mingling with others on the convention floor can be quite fun. I’m told it can be amusing to walk through while the crowd assumes you are simply another cosplayer as they are. And rest assured, all who enter the building are thoroughly scanned for weapons or Touched-Tech disguises. Those in heavy masks for costumes are asked to reveal themselves to security, to be on the safe side. Between those measures and others, it is quite safe here.” 

“Thanks,” I murmured. “I guess we’ll see how we feel after the dinner thing, right Alloy?” Honestly, I felt more comfortable with the idea of moving through the crowd of people down there than I felt about sitting in a private room listening to my parents give speeches while wondering how many of the super-rich people and other Touched sitting around me were actually connected to the Ministry. But I couldn’t exactly say that. 

“Honestly, I like the idea of being down with a big crowd of ordinary people having fun more than the idea of hanging out in a stuffy room with a bunch of rich and powerful people looking down at me,” Alloy informed me. Which–okay fine, she could say that. 

Reaching out, I patted her on the shoulder (ignoring the fact that I had to reach up to do so). “Don’t worry, I get it. But hey, we have a ready-made crowded place to disappear into if things get too awkward or uncomfortable. Maybe we could even find a couple people dressed up as us to take our places.” 

Chuckling once more, Lucent flew over to land on my helmet. “I wish you both luck with all such endeavors. Now, shall we get you inside so that you may at least make a token appearance as yourselves? There are those who will be quite pleased by your arrival.” 

So, we headed over to the area he had pointed out. As promised, there was a door there, partially concealed to look like the rest of the machinery. It was obvious once you were on the right side of it and close enough, but from the air it would blend in pretty well. As we approached, the door opened and a tall black man in a suit and tie stepped out. I could tell by the bulge in his jacket that he was armed, but he simply smiled our way. “Paintball and Alloy, the real deal?” With a low whistle, he added, “Name’s Rubin Davis. I just wanted to thank you for what you did for my friend last night.” 

“Your friend?” I echoed, confused. 

“Santiago Mendoza,” he confirmed. “He’s been down on his luck lately and he said some guys from the Easy Eights were harassing him, when you stepped in.” 

“O-oh, him.” Brightening, I gave a little nod, exchanging glances with Alloy. “It was no big deal, really. Those assholes were just–uh, assholes sums it up.” Shrugging, I added, “He’s okay, though?” 

The man nodded. “Yeah, my wife convinced him to stay with us for a little bit. He was too proud before. I ahh, I should’ve insisted.” With a sigh, he glanced away for a moment, lost in thought before returning his gaze to us. “Oh, sorry. You’d probably like to go inside. I uh, I know this is probably stupid after all that. Especially with Mr. Lucent right there.” He gave a cheerful salute that way. “But just to keep things on the level and dot all the t’s and line all the i’s, could you both show me your powers? I gotta write down that I checked.”

We did just that, as I sprayed a bit of blue paint on the ground before letting the man drop his pen on it before catching it with red paint as it flew high into the air and bringing it to the red star I had painted on his chest. Alloy, meanwhile, had her four floating marbles put on a little show for him, switching between several forms while he grinned even more at each transformation. 

“Aight, aight, you’re good.” With a voice that made it clear he would have loved it to make us stay longer just to see more demonstrations, the man stepped aside and waved us in. “You all have a good evening, and keep up the good work. Lucent, I’m still holding you to that Yahtzee rematch you promised. I’m ready for you this time.” 

From the way Lucent moved on my helmet, I was pretty sure he was giving a wide bird-bow. “I eagerly await such an opportunity to part you from more of your shiny coins, Rubin.” 

There was a stairwell just beyond the door, and the three of us descended two flights of stairs before reaching a landing with another open door. There was a familiar figure standing there waiting for us, wearing that golden armor that seemed to glow with an inner power, and metal wings that were currently tucked in close to his back to make room. The helmet he wore covered his face, but I could hear the smile in the man’s voice as he spoke. “Glad you made it.” He gave a nod toward Lucent. “Thanks for bringing them inside.” That said, he extended a hand toward Alloy. “Good to finally meet you. I’m Hallowed.”

“I… I…” The girl stood there staring at him in what was clearly open-mouthed surprise, a few more incoherent sounds escaping her. It was a reaction that made me do a double-take before realizing the truth. Hallowed was her Silversmith. Err, not her father, her favorite hero. The way that Silversmith had been mine before I found out the horrible truth. She was starstruck right now.

Quickly clearing my throat, I nudged her with my hip while putting a hand on her back to give her a very slight push. “Yup, this here’s my partner. I’d be in pretty deep caca If it wasn’t for her. I mean, even deeper than I usually am.” 

Alloy, by that point, had managed to recover a bit and quickly grabbed the men’s extended hand with both of hers to shake a bit too enthusiastically. “Yeah, hi, hi! I’m puuuuhhherrrfectly capable of introducing myself without screwing it up. Alloy! I’m Alloy. Hi, hiya. You’re uhh, you’re uhh, wow. You’re wow. You’re…” Then she trailed off and just started giggling a bit awkwardly, all while still pumping the man’s hand up and down with both of hers as though she had forgotten she was even doing that. 

Thankfully, I was pretty sure that the man was accustomed to getting that sort of reaction. He offered a small chuckle before nodding. “It’s quite alright. We’re all doing the same job here. Seems to me you’ve hit the ground running straight out of the gate.” Smoothly extracting his hand without making it look like he was yanking away, Hallowed looked to me. “In which case, I hesitate to say whether you’re in excellent company, or terrible. You both seem to feed off each other in ending up in dangerous situations.” His tone was still light, but there was clearly a mixture of worry and a bit of recrimination mixed in. “I do hope you are both aware of just how dangerous that particular one was.” 

Blanching a little despite myself, I gave a quick nod. “Oh, don’t worry, we totally get it.” I didn’t want to jump into the details just what the extenuating circumstances were, nor ask how much he knew about the situation. As the leader of probably the most important defensive Star-Touched team in the city, a team focused on protecting important medical personnel and who had to be deeply involved in the Scions situation given they had just blown up part of a children’s hospital, it wasn’t exactly surprising that he would have been given a full rundown of everything we had told Flea. 

Giving me a look that made it clear he recognized that I hadn’t actually promised to never do that sort of thing again, Hallowed still remained silent on that point. Instead, he gave a short nod of acknowledgement before pivoting. “In any case, you should come along. We have quite the event planned tonight. And if being around a bunch of rich, self-important fogeys isn’t the sort of incredible experience you’ve been waiting for, I don’t think anyone would blame you for heading downstairs to check out the rest of the convention as soon as the first couple speeches are over and dinner gets underway.” Glancing my way, he inclined his head with another slight chuckle. “It’s what plenty of others will be doing.” 

Speaking up cheerfully, Lucent noted, “I believe Lady Patchwork is already there, in point of fact.”

As Hallowed muttered something under his breath about never being able to keep her trapped in a room full of boring rich people if his life had depended on it, we moved through the corridor beyond that doorway. Honestly, the place looked like a plain old boring office hall. The walls were dully painted and the carpet was cheap, with a few very generic-looking paintings that looked like they had come from a thrift shop or something. Between that and the few very… economical chairs and tables spaced through the hall, I was pretty sure someone had been told to decorate and furnish this entire floor on a budget of about thirty bucks. Probably because this particular area was never supposed to be seen by anyone aside from the people who worked here, rather than the actual guests. 

Either way, we soon moved to the end of that hall and to a plain, unmarked door. Hallowed glanced back to us with his hand on the knob. “You guys better take a deep breath, because this is… ahh, really something.” And with that bit of warning, he pushed the door open, stepping partway through to hold it in place before raising his arm for us to proceed. 

Stepping through that door was like going through some sort of magic portal or something. The hallway behind us was as generic and drab as anything could possibly be. But the room on the other side? That was a different story. First of all, it was enormous. Some sort of grand ballroom or something fit to allow hundreds of couples to dance on the gleaming polished wood floor without disturbing hundreds more people who could sit at the circular tables that took up either side and the back of the room. Straight ahead from the dance floor was a stage, including an orchestra pit and a balcony above and to the side of that stage. 

There was a band there, but they weren’t playing at the moment. They appeared to be getting themselves sorted out, preparing for later. Nor were any of the guests dancing or eating. But there were a lot of people standing and sitting throughout the place. It looked like everyone was still in the ‘just arrived and greeting one another’ phase. 

The door we had come through was in a far corner of the room, clearly not the main entrance. In fact, looking over my shoulder, I could see how the door would blend in with the wall when it was closed. It was meant as a staff entrance or something. No, the actual main entrance was to the right, a pair of stairwells that met at the bottom before winding upward to a landing in front of a set of grand double doors. Looking through those doors from this angle, I could barely make out a wide hallway that looked just as beautiful as this room did. That was where all the actual important people were coming in. 

Hallowed spoke as though reading my mind, following the direction of my gaze. “I didn’t think you would quite appreciate that sort of entrance. But by all means, if you would like the star treatment–” 

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s… totally fine.” I was already letting my gaze pass over the crowd. They hadn’t noticed us yet, standing in the corner. Another thing I was grateful for. It gave me a moment to catch my bearings and look at the people I would soon need to interact with. And… well, it was about what I figured. A bunch of very rich, very important people. Billionaires, their less-important cousin millionaires, actors and actresses, politicians, singers, rappers, a few important authors or television personalities, and so on and so forth. Not to mention the various Star-Touched spread throughout the room, having conversations with one another or with the rich people themselves. 

“Wow,” Alloy finally managed in a small voice. “We are definitely underdressed for this.” 

Lucent, however, insisted, “I assure you, my dear, you are perfectly fine the way you are. Though one must endeavor to play nice with those who carry the purse strings, never believe that you are their lesser in any way. You have chosen to use a power you were given to aid those less fortunate. You have every right to stand shoulder to shoulder with every person in this room.”

Hallowed gave a nod and started to say something, only to fall silent as a louder voice spoke up from the stage. “Pardon me.” 

My dad. Silversmith. I hadn’t noticed him step up there, but all my attention was on him now. As was the attention of everyone else in the room. He was in costume and everything. Unless that wasn’t him and was just his body double or… or an empty suit or–I had no idea. The point was, Silversmith was apparently standing in front of the microphone there. 

“Sorry, folks. We’ll get started with a nice welcoming speech that takes way too long so you’re gnawing your own foot off before dinner finally gets to the table in just a moment.” His words made the crowd chuckle appropriately, and Dad (if that was really him) paused to allow that before continuing. “Right now, I just wanted to allow all of you to become the very first to officially meet–” 

“Hi!” A small voice interrupted, drawing everyone’s attention away from my father and up to the balcony overlooking the stage. There was a figure there, one made of… wait, was that… glass? She was entirely made of glass, even her ‘clothes.’ It was like the clothing part of her was painted while the ‘skin’ part was plain see-through glass. Her hair was a long, incredibly intricate braid of glass. If I had to guess, I’d say she was about Izzy’s age.  

Once everyone’s attention was on her, the girl jumped off the balcony. There was an assortment of cries, just before she shattered against the stage, sending shards of glass in every direction. It all happened before anyone could even move. Horrified, I started to lunge that way, my hand rising. But Hallowed grabbed my shoulder, his other hand finding Alloy’s. 

In that moment, the scattered shards flew backwards off the floor, reforming into the girl once more, good as new. 

“Ahem,” Silversmith continued, putting a hand on her head. “As I was saying, I’d like to introduce you all to the queen of dramatic entrances. This is Fragile. 

“The newest member of the Detroit Minority.” 

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