Fred Donovan

Project Owl 14-09 (Summus Proelium)

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I was going to have to tell Pack something. Some of the truth, that was. She’d earned it. More than earned it. She and That-A-Way both had been there for me time after time. They knew about the Ministry and were still helping me. I owed them more than I was giving them. And at the very least, I owed them some explanation about what had happened tonight. 

But I also owed Paige. She trusted me. Trusted me to keep her safe and to find a way to fix her so she could wake up again. Wren was my best… my only idea of who might be able to deal with what had happened to her, but even that seemed like a long shot. Wren didn’t deal with… with whatever Paige was. What was I supposed to do? Who was I supposed to talk to? 

“Paintball? Earth to Paintball.” Pack’s voice interrupted my panicked and confused musings. “I said, what the fuck is going on? Who is this girl? Why’s she unconscious? What was she–” 

“Paige,” I interrupted, forcing myself to focus. “Paige Banners. And as to what’s going on, I… I can explain it, sort of. But wait until Way gets here. She deserves to hear it too, after what she…” I swallowed. “She saved my life. Our lives.” My hand gestured to the motionless blonde. “Once she gets here, after she’s done covering for us, I’ll explain everything that I can.” Everything I could, as opposed to everything. Because even now, I had to keep things to myself. 

Pack didn’t seem happy about waiting, but she didn’t push the issue too much. All she did was look past me to Paige for a moment before asking, “Doesn’t she need a doctor right now?”

“She needs a lot of things,” I murmured under my breath with a glance over my shoulder. Then my head shook. “But I don’t think any doctor can help. Trust me, it’s a long story, but there’s nothing we can do for her right this second. I… I don’t think she’ll get any worse, anyway.” 

“Any worse than… that.” Pack pointedly stared at the completely motionless girl who looked like she was sleeping. “Right. Look, I-I’m sorry I didn’t show up sooner.” There was guilt in her voice. “I was–fuck. I was busy with other things. Kind of in the middle of something and couldn’t get away. Couldn’t even check my phone. By the time things were clear enough for me to have some breathing room, you were already… shit. Just, I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.” 

“It’s not your fault,” I insisted, turning back to look at her. “I know you’ve got your own things. I’m just glad Way showed up when she did. I don’t… I don’t think we would’ve made it out if she wasn’t there.” 

“Yeah, she’s got some good timing,” the other girl agreed before glancing away. I couldn’t see her face through that full black mask that covered even her eyes and mouth, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t thinking about me or this situation just then.  

Her silence gave me a chance to look at Paige again. God damn it, what was I going to do? I’d promised I would find someone who could help her. Again, Wren seemed the best choice, yet even she probably wouldn’t know what she was doing with something this advanced. She didn’t work with… with cyborgs or… fuck, what was the right term? Biolem? Was Paige still a biolem like the others we’d faced, even though she was so much more advanced? 

“New look?” Pack finally asked after that moment of silence, nodding to my makeshift costume. “Going for something even cheaper-looking? Blackjack was already thinking of bribing you with a nice, cool new suit with all sorts of bells and whistles, you know. Go around like that and he may just give it to you out of pity.” 

Coughing, I gestured helplessly. “I didn’t have time to get back to my real costume. I had to make do with what I could scavenge real quick. And I don’t need a handout from Blackjack.” 

“Yeah, I told him you’ve got Trevithick to handle any costume upgrades,” she informed me with a very light chuckle. She had Tuesday on one shoulder and was lightly scratching him with her other hand. “I’m not sure that actually dissuaded him that much. He likes you, Paintball. I mean, that’s the impression I get anyway. Pretty sure he’d accept you in a heartbeat if you decided to switch sides.” 

“Does he like me?” I shot back. “Or did the Ministry tell him to put out feelers to find out if I could be pulled to that side? How much of what he does is him and how much is what he’s told to do? I already know he’s really connected to them. How much, I’m not sure. But still.” 

Yeah, I was probably still a little amped up after everything that had happened. Being ‘killed,’ however temporarily, waking up to find that video from Paige explaining all that and then saying she was going to kill herself. Racing across the city, fighting through the building, finding Paige, getting a few answers about what the hell she was and what her father was up to, fighting to keep her safe, fleeing with her through the building, and finally almost being blown up before That-A-Way saved us at basically the last second? 

It had been a bit of a day, to say the least.

Before too long, my phone buzzed. It was a message from That-A-Way, wanting to know where we were. So I gave her directions, and she showed up a few minutes later, skidding to a stop after super-speeding her way up to the parking lot. “Paintball, there’s bodies in that building!” she snapped abruptly. “What the hell was–” 

“They’re not real,” I quickly informed her. “I mean, they’re not–um, they’re not real people.” 

Yeah, Pack and Way exchanged obvious looks at that before turning back to me. Pack found her voice first. “Not real people? Come on, Paintball, I think you better explain now.” 

They were right. I needed to explain some of it, as much as I could. There was no way I was going to be able to help Paige without help. Besides, they’d more than earned an explanation. So, I carefully started to tell them what happened, starting with a… well, not quite a lie, but a very deliberately presented version of the truth. I told them that Paige had left me a message telling me that she was probably going to die because she was going after her father, who was the real threat. I told them about tracking her down, finding her in that building, and the whole biolem thing. I explained the part about her dad being a Tech-Touched and his plan, or what I understood of it. And about how Paige herself was apparently an incredibly advanced prototype version, who had to obey her father’s specific commands until she managed to turn on him. 

“But what does this have to do with–” Whatever Way had been about to say, she cut herself off, shaking her head. “I mean… are you sure she’s a umm…” Hesitating, the girl stepped over to where Paige’s motionless form was. “Are you sure she’s a r-robot? Or whatever she is.” It sounded like she was freaking out a bit. Which was pretty much completely fair. I was still freaking out too. 

“That’s what she said,” I murmured, “and I believe her at this point. After everything I saw in there… yeah. Paige Banners is–well, not a robot. She’s a biolem. Somewhere inside she’s got one of those little orb things with all her memories, personality, and everything else.” 

Way muttered a curse under her breath, staring in what looked like dull shock at the figure in the van. “Oh my God. But if she… if she was… and if…” Finally, the girl seemed to shake that off, focusing a bit to ask, “What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she waking up?”

Exhaling, I explained what Paige had said, that her father’s last-second countermeasures had forced her to shut herself down and that I needed to find a tech genius who could actually help fix her. 

“A tech genius like Trevithick?” Pack put in before reconsidering. “Except this might be over the kid’s head.” 

That-A-Way gave a brief glance her way at that. I could tell she had a laundry list of her own questions, but saved them aside from one. “Can she do something about this?” 

“I don’t know. I hope so.” Sighing, I gestured to both of them. “I thought Paige Banners was some kind of threat, but she was just a victim. We have to help her, have to find someone who can fix whatever her father did. We’ll start with Trevithick, at least see what she can figure out. If she can’t do anything, I… I’ll go from there.”

“This is a lot, Paintball,” Way muttered at me while still staring at the (essentially) unconscious Paige. “Seriously, are you sure about all this? Because I don’t–I mean…” She gestured helplessly, clearly fighting for the right words before being reduced to repeating, “It’s a lot.”

“Believe me, I know.” Grimacing with that reply, I hesitated before adding, “If we can help this girl and wake her up, we can get more answers. She said that all the biolems her father had would be drawn to that building, but she could’ve been wrong. So we have to be careful. Between that and the way the Ministry is gonna look into the whole thing, especially once they find the remains of the equipment in there and realize the bodies aren’t normal people…” 

Pack spoke up then. “Right, getting this chick restarted is a pretty big priority. You said she knows a bunch of stuff about this Ministry thing anyway, so add another tally into reasons to wake her up. But can I just point out, if she’s a robot–err, okay, not a robot. If her brain and personality is all… tied into a computer, one that her father built, what’re the odds of him just being able to control her and make the girl into a killing machine with just a few words? One pointed at us. I mean, don’t programmers usually leave in backdoors and stuff like that?” 

“I know what you mean,” I confirmed quietly, heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I know. But Paige already turned against her father once. She–” I was about to say that she had rules-lawyered her way around leaving me dead, but caught myself. “She went after his entire organization here. Look what she did to the plant where he was manufacturing all these things. She’s not on his side and she’s already figured out ways to sabotage him. Now we have to help her. We find someone who can get into her programming and remove her father’s control so we can wake her up. I don’t know if that’ll be Trevithick or not, but someone. Not just because she can help with the Ministry, but because we owe it to her. I owe it to her.” 

Despite saying all that, I still realized that my feelings for Paige were complicated. I felt resentment, even anger about the past few years. Some bitter part of me wanted to know why she hadn’t found a way to violate her orders at least enough not to hit me in quite such an emotionally damaging place. If she was my friend, she should’ve known that making fun of my… of how I looked was one of the worst things she could’ve done, shouldn’t she? Had her father’s orders really made her hit me that personally when the entire point had simply been to establish conflict to make her eventually snapping and killing me believable? Did she really need to say the things she’d said? 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t logical. But I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Paige, even after all these revelations. However, I did know that I owed her, and that if I was ever going to work my way through those feelings, it was going to have to be with Paige herself to get answers from. Besides, if I voiced any of my doubts about Paige’s personality, it would just lead to questions I couldn’t answer without revealing a lot more about myself. Too much about myself. 

“Right, so we take her to Trevithick,” Pack announced. “And try to figure out who else might help. You know what the obvious problem with that is, right?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, basically every Tech-Touched in the area reports to Braintrust, who report to the Ministry. So we’re kind of screwed that way. There has to be someone else, someone… I don’t know. I can’t think.” I sighed again, shaking my head. “It’s… been a long day.” 

“Tell me about it.” That-A-Way’s voice sounded almost as tired as I felt. “I have to get back to give reports before someone notices how long I’ve been gone. But I want to be kept in the loop about what’s going on with this, you two.” 

We both agreed to that, and she took off. Which left Pack and me looking at each other. “To Wren’s?” I offered. 

“To Wren’s,” she agreed, gesturing. “Let’s go. I’ll drive, since you look too wiped to get there your usual way.” 

“Yeah, I might leap into the side of a building,” I muttered before moving to climb in the van. “Let’s go see how much Wren can do with this.” 

*******

“Ummmmm, I can’t do anything with this.” The words came from Wren herself some time later, once Pack and I had brought Paige into her lab in the upstairs area of the old store. We’d set the seemingly sleeping blonde girl on a convenient couch. Then, to an increasingly shocked audience of two, had explained–well we’d explained some of it anyway, the parts about Paige being a biolem whose father wanted to do bad things while leaving details about the Ministry out of it.

 “I know it’s a lot,” I quickly assured the young Tech-Touched. “Believe me, but it’s just–” 

“No, I mean I can’t.” Her head was shaking, eyes wide. “That’s blood and flesh and a person! I don’t know anything about–I mean she’s–I make things go fast, things teleport, things fly. I can’t dig into a human living person! I’m not a doctor! It’s not–I don’t get a–I mean I’m not–”

Fred, who had been staring at both Pack and me like we’d sprouted new heads throughout this entire conversation, spoke up. “Even if the kid had any chance of working on the actual mechanical part, this orb thing you said is in that girl, getting to it without killing her… ahh, the biological part of her is still a big fu–freaking problem. You need a doctor for that. A really good one. You need someone who can work the tech side of things and someone to work the biology part. Probably at least two techs. Maybe Wren can help with some of it, but come on, this is too much to put on her.”

“I-if I mess up,” Wren tentatively pointed out, voice cracking as she stared at Paige. “I could… I could…” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know. I just–you’re right. We just don’t know who else to take her to. But I’ll find someone. I’ll find some people who can help. Can she… uhh…” 

“She can stay.” Wren’s voice was firm as she gave a quick nod. “I mean, umm, maybe I can look at her? I could maybe make a scanner or something to try to find where the orb is, exactly, so we can find out more about it. But I won’t cut into her. I won’t go that far. I can’t.” 

Pack spoke up then. “Don’t worry, kid, it’s okay. No one blames you for not wanting to risk something like that. It’s not your job, not your… power.” She shrugged. “You keep the girl here for now, Paintball and I can both reach out in our own way to find someone who might help.” She glanced to me, clearly reading my apprehension. “There’s gotta be Tech-Touched mercenaries from somewhere outside the city who might be able to do something. Though it’d probably cost a pretty penny.”

“We’ll worry about cost later,” I insisted. “Focus on being careful. No drawing attention. Don’t give details. And don’t–” 

She interrupted. “Don’t ask Blackjack about it, I know. I’m not an idiot. I’ll be subtle, Paintball, trust me.”

We talked a bit more, all four of us. It was obvious that Wren felt incredibly guilty about her immediate and firm refusal, but I tried to assure her that neither of us blamed her and that it was okay. Better she have a solid grasp of what she couldn’t do, than go for it and end up doing irreparable damage, or even killing Paige for good. 

In the end, we settled on coming back to figure out more later. Paige would be staying here at the lab for the time being, where Wren would do what little she could while we found someone who knew what they were doing. 

All of which left me heading back home after changing out of the temporary costume and into a pair of jeans and tee-shirt that I bought from the very surprised clerk in a small tourist-trap shop. Exhausted as I was, getting new clothes and making it home took about all I had. The only thing I wanted to do was take a long, hot shower and then sleep for about a week. 

Naturally, I had to go in and apologize for taking off early from Paige’s party and abandoning Izzy. Except she wasn’t there for some reason. Neither was Dad, but he at least I understood. According to my mother, Simon had taken Izzy out for ice cream and a few things. She made it clear I wasn’t in trouble, that they knew my going to Paige’s had been hard and they appreciated the effort I put in. But she also made sure I knew that leaving Izzy with other people like that without clearing it with them first wasn’t acceptable. And that I needed to make sure Izzy was okay with a situation like that. 

I promised to be careful in the future. And it was pretty obvious that Mom didn’t know how connected Paige was to the situation at the warehouse, because she was entirely too casual about the whole thing. 

In the end, I made my way upstairs, took that shower, and fell asleep while wondering what was taking Izzy so long to get back from ice cream. 

Unfortunately, despite my thoughts about sleeping for a week, I barely managed a few hours before my racing mind woke me up. It was the middle of the night, and I just… my brain was too active. All that stuff about Paige, everything I’d learned, it was just… too much. I couldn’t relax. 

It also felt like I couldn’t breathe in here. I needed some air. Making my way to my balcony after pulling on some shorts to go with my long tee shirt, I glanced around to watch the cameras before turning to point at the roof above me. A quick shot of red paint hauled me up there, where I would lay back and watch the stars. 

At least, that was the idea. But that idea shattered like glass as I landed on the roof, after being pulled that way by my red paint, as a voice from above me blurted, “Cassidy?” 

Spinning, I stared upward at a visibly damp Izzy, who floated there, hovering in mid-air. Both of us stared at the other for a long few seconds before blurting out loud, our words matching each other’s. 

“It’s you!”

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New Deals 13-06 (Summus Proelium)

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For a few long seconds, I just sat there, frozen from confusion. Pack saw two guys standing there talking to Blackjack. But I saw my parents. Was I being affected by some kind of power that made me see things differently? No. That didn’t make sense, did it? No one in here knew enough about me to make me see my family members over there. Plus, if it was some kind of ‘see people you know’ power or something, Pack wouldn’t just be seeing two random guys. 

Okay, so it wasn’t that. My flash of panic that someone in here knew about my identity and my family and was fucking with me only lasted a brief moment before I got it under control. There was another explanation, one that didn’t involve all my secrets suddenly being out, thank God.

“Dude.” Pack sounded confused and maybe a little exasperated. “Are you okay over there?” 

Was I okay? Hah. Not really, considering the way my heart had just been trying to claw its way out of my chest so it could escape. “Sorry,” I quickly muttered, resisting the urge to stare at Blackjack and the people who were either my parents or looked exactly like them. “It’s been a long day.” And from the looks of it, getting longer by the minute. Wait, all days got longer by the minute. Fuck, I knew what I meant. “You were talking about those… guys.”

Guys, she saw guys. It had to be a power of some kind, right? My parents–wait, was that how they hid their identities? By appearing as different people to others–but why would I see them for who they were? Was I immune to the power or something? Why would I be–hold on…

“Like I said,” Pack was in the middle of replying in a low voice, “they came in to talk to Blackjack. I didn’t hear a lot before they went into the other room, but I heard a name. Tate.” 

That made me do a double-take, looking at her while seeing my mother and father still in the middle of what seemed to be an intense conversation. “Tate? You definitely heard that?” 

“Yeah, as in the name of that kid you were talking to Way about,” she confirmed. “What was it–Andy? Tate, that was right, wasn’t it?” For a brief moment, she sounded uncertain. 

“Anthony,” I corrected in a much lower voice. I still wasn’t comfortable here like this. “Anthony Tate, yeah. So those two came in and talked to your boss, and they said something about Tate.”

“I told you,” she reiterated, “I didn’t hear much. They went into the other room pretty quick. I heard something about Tate, and then something about someone’s father being dead.”

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “Someone’s father being dead? Whose?” 

Snorting, Pack retorted, “The fuck should I know? I wasn’t exactly in a position to ask for clarification, dude. They said something about someone’s father being dead–oh, I kind of got the impression this wasn’t something new. The way they said it, he’s been dead for awhile.” 

Someone’s father had been dead for awhile. Biting my lip, I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Which one of them said it? What’d they say, exactly? I mean, as much as you can remember.”   

The other girl took a moment, clearly focused on recalling as best as she could. “The guy with the red hair said, ‘The Tate situation was supposed to be over and done with. We put it behind us.’ Then Blackjack said, ‘At least the father’s dead.’ Wait. Wait, did he say ‘the father’ or ‘your father?’ Shit. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. He either said ‘At least the father’s dead’ or ‘At least your father’s dead.’ Then they went into the other room.” 

Sinking back in my seat, I thought about that for a few seconds. The Tate situation, my parents were annoyed because something about it was coming back to bother them after they thought it was handled. But what? Was it something about Paige? Paige had been erased from my memory around the same time that Anthony was, and I’d heard her talking about how whatever she was doing had something to do with him. She’d specifically said that my mom and dad had no idea where she came from or why she was doing… whatever she was doing because they hadn’t thought about the name Anthony Tate in years. So of course they were connected, but how much of that did my parents know? Was this whole conversation about the Tate situation not being over because of Paige, or because of something else? What prompted that? 

“You sure you’re okay?” Pack was asking, her voice clearly uncertain as she absently scratched one of her lizards. “Do you know those guys over there or something?” 

Boy, talk about being simultaneously very wrong and very right. For a moment, brief as it was, I almost considered telling her about how I wasn’t seeing those two the way she was. But that would’ve led to her asking who I was actually seeing. And even if I just described them instead of saying they were my parents, she’d definitely start looking into those details. And if that led her to who they really were… well, was that really bad? Did I think it was bad because it would put her in danger, or because it would put my family in danger? Which one was I really bothered more by? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Finally, after shaking myself, I nodded. “I’ll be fine. And no, I’ve never seen those two guys.” Hell, those words were the literal truth, I had most certainly never seen the two guys she was talking about, not even when I looked right at the two who were supposed to be them. 

And yet it was still a lie. A lie that made me feel like shit after saying it. Pack was a villain, but she’d also been my friend. She’d helped me, had gone out of her way to come save me from Pencil. She had put her lizards in danger to help me, and how was I paying her back? 

Fuck. This whole thing was just so complicated. Too god damn complicated. I had no idea how to make it better. I couldn’t tell her the truth. Not… not yet, right? But no matter how many times I said ‘not yet,’ it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was going to have to make that kind of leap at some point. Once I did, it would be a leap I couldn’t take back. And it felt like the longer I waited, the harder the fall after that leap was going to be. 

I couldn’t see her face, of course, but I had the feeling that Pack was squinting at me uncertainly. After a moment of that, she shook her head. “Well, keep an eye out for them. Sounds like they’re connected to this Anthony Tate thing you’ve been looking into. And…” She hesitated before offering a shrug. “And that other thing you were talking about.” Apparently even Pack didn’t actually want to mention the Ministry out loud right here in the casino. 

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I promised, before adding, “Thanks, Pack. Seriously, I know this whole thing is hard for you after everything La Casa’s done.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m not doing anything against La Casa,” she insisted firmly. “Just looking out for my own interests on top of that. I wanna get to the bottom of this whole thing. I–” In mid-sentence, she glanced over before squinting. “And there they go.” 

Sure enough, my parents and Blackjack were walking away together, heading for one of the exits. Not the one I had come through, of course. 

After we both watched the trio head off, Pack turned back to me. “Right, so, about this whole Trevithick thing. You want help getting Braintrust to play nice.” 

“I want to make sure they know that pushing any harder is going to end up being more of a pain than it’s worth,” I confirmed. “I know we can’t get away with telling them to fuck off completely. Not like that. But giving them something so they feel like they’re walking away the winners, while making sure they know they can’t get anything more than that without a bigger fight? That sounds doable. I mean, with help, yeah.” 

Pack was quiet for another few seconds, before she gave a short nod. “I like the kid. Not just gonna sit around and let her be exploited. So yeah, I’ve got your back. Just tell me when and where so we can make an impression.” 

Thanking her, I added, “Speaking of making an impression, you’ve gotta tell me. What does the new lizard turn into?” 

“Scatters?” There was sly amusement to the girl’s voice. “Oh, I’m not telling you yet. 

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

*****

I couldn’t just leave Wren out of the situation entirely, much as I might’ve liked to. That wasn’t fair to her, given the fact that the whole thing was about Braintrust wanting to use her talents in one way or another. She deserved to know what was going on and be included in this situation.

So, Pack and I went there next. Actually, we called to arrange a meeting the next day, but Fred said the kid tended to work through the night and sleep in the mornings (being home-schooled through the afternoon). So, we headed over right then. To keep things subtle and avoid drawing attention to the girl, we used her car (or at least, a car that La Casa allowed her to use), with heavily tinted windows, heading for Wren’s shop. 

The girl herself met us on the main shop floor, literally (with the help of her little winged jetpack thing) throwing herself clear from the elevator to the entrance to half-crash into the girl beside me for a tight hug while squealing, “Pack! You’re okay! Hi! Are the lizards okay?! Can I see ‘em? Are they sleeping? Can I pet ‘em? Are they hungry? Can I feed ‘em? Did you really get a new one? Is it a boy or a girl? Did you bring her? Wait, did you eat already? Are you hungry? We could get pizza. For us, not for the lizards. But I have crickets and worms and stuff for them just in case! Hey, maybe they could put those on a pizza!” 

The words all came in a rush, blurted out as soon as Wren thought of them, without any pause to allow Pack to actually respond. And through it all, she clung tightly to the other girl as if she was a long-lost best friend who had only just returned. It reminded me of the fact that these two had bonded for days while Pack stayed around Wren when the whole situation with the vials was going on. Pack wasn’t some criminal to Wren. She was a friend. 

Then again, she wasn’t some criminal to me either. It was a lot more complicated than that. More complicated than even she knew, really. I didn’t exactly have that much right to judge her given who my family was and the fact that I still hadn’t told anyone about it. Yeah, it was dangerous, but it was also… fuck. It was complicated. All of it was just so complicated. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I watched as Pack introduced Scatters to Wren, who basically lost her mind over the adorable little neon gecko. Pack pulled the rest of her lizards out of their cage and carried them to the nearby table, where they ate from the assortment of reptile-appropriate food that the Tech-Touched girl had provided. Wren, of course, asked the same thing I had, about what Scatters turned into. Again, Pack deferred for the moment, promising to show both of us after we talked to the girl about what we had to talk about. 

And then we did just that. Well, after asking for Fred (he’d been up in the apartment area) to come down so we could talk to both of them together. I laid out everything that happened with Braintrust, how they had approached me, their offer/request/demand, and why I thought it was for the best to appease them at the moment to avoid any problems. I promised that I was going to look into dealing with their group for good, but that that was a long ways off and I didn’t want Wren or Fred to become targets in the meantime. 

“I’m not making anything for them,” the nine-year-old blonde insisted flatly, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest while setting her chin. “They’ll hurt people with it. And I’m not helping them fix their own stuff.” 

“Yeah,” I replied with a glance toward Fred. “That’s kinda what I assumed. Which leaves the option of paying taxes to them for operating in the city. Pack and me are gonna go over there, find them, and let them know that they’ll get a small bit out of whatever you sell, and that’s it.” 

“But you can’t just beat them up and arrest them?” Wren sounded confused, staring at me with those wide sea-green eyes. “They’re bad guys, they do really bad… err…” She trailed off, glancing toward Pack as though only just realizing that the other girl was technically a villain.

Pack, for her part, sounded a little amused as she casually drawled, “Everyone’s got their reasons for doing stuff. And everyone’s got friends that do bad things sometimes. These guys aren’t your friends, and they’re demanding you give them money or toys to hurt people with.” 

“Yeah, what she said.” I agreed, before adding, “And I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to take on a whole gang of Touched-Tech-Enhanced supercriminals yet.” My fingers tapped the side of my helmet. “Not that I haven’t pissed off plenty of them already, but it feels like I should pace myself.” I did not point out that I didn’t want Wren and Fred to be targets. It felt like the younger girl wouldn’t take that very well. I wasn’t sure if she’d insist she could take care of herself, or be upset that I wasn’t fighting the bad guys just to protect her, or what. But I was pretty sure framing it as me having too much to take on right then without adding yet another gang of pissed off supervillains would play better with her.

From the way Fred looked at me, he understood the rest of what I wasn’t saying. The man offered me what was obviously a thankful nod, but let his niece do most of the talking. 

It worked. Wren still clearly didn’t like the idea of appeasing the bad guys, for sure. But she accepted that it wasn’t a fight we needed right now and that the best way to handle it was to hand money to them so they’d go away. At least until we were ready. She did, however, insist that she was going to work on ideas to deal with Braintrust while also reiterating that she was never going to build anything for them, no matter what. That was her firm line in the sand. 

After that was settled, Pack took Scatters and transformed the tiny, colorful lizard into her alternate form. Which, as it turned out, was an equally colorful large reindeer. Seriously, this thing was metallic blue along most of the body, its legs were darker blue, it had a black stripe running down the sides to offset the two blues, and its head and antlers were bright green. 

Wren lost her mind all over again, grabbing onto and hugging the incredibly beautiful reindeer-lizard while cooing about how adorable she was. 

Pack informed us that they were working on a saddle for Scatters, after helping Fred pick Wren up and set her on the animal’s back. The young inventor held on tight, squealing happily as Scatters took her for a short, slow trot around the inside of the shop. She was having the time of her life. Which made me wonder how much she’d love it if the lizard-deer could go out on the street and let loose. 

Someday, I told myself, I’m gonna show that kid how to have a really good time, without a bunch of stupid supervillain bullshit getting in the way.

Pack interrupted my thoughts about that by raising her voice to ask, “Hey, Wren, you think my new friend is cool, has Paintball over there shown you his new paint thing yet?” 

“New paint thing?” Wren, still perched atop the neon lizard-deer, echoed curiously while looking over at me. Fred, standing a bit out of the way, also looked interested. 

So, I showed them how the pink paint worked. That was as much of a hit as Scatters was, especially once I showed Wren how she could stretch her limbs out while they were pink. She thought that was the funniest thing in the world, and kept having Fred hold her hand in place while she ran the other way to pull her arm as far out as she could. 

Watching the kid goofing off like that while occasionally redoing the pink paint again, or shooting some random object she pointed out with it, I found my thoughts shifting back to what I’d seen at the casino. My parents except not my parents. They had been at the casino in some kind of… power-enhanced disguise? Except whose power? Maybe it was a Tech-Touched device. Right, that made sense. Some kind of… umm…illusion-generator that somehow didn’t work on our own family? Maybe so that they could keep track of each other and still see each other for who they–wait. 

Was that why I’d seen Simon out without any kind of mask or anything on? Was that why he’d been going around apparently without anything to protect his identity, because he was using one of those illusion devices? That made sense too. I’d wondered before about just why my brother could go around without a mask or anything to hide his face. If he was using that illusion tech, it would explain a lot. Even if it didn’t explain exactly where those illusion devices came from. At the very least, it made sense that my family would have access to them. 

Which might also explain how my father could be in two places at once, come to think of it. It could help explain how he could operate as Silversmith and appear as himself at the same function, if they used that illusion tech on someone else to look like him. That was probably part of it. 

“Hey, kid.” That was Fred, watching me curiously from nearby while Pack and Wren whispered about something over by Scatters. “You okay? Seemed kinda… lost there for a minute.” 

Forcing all those thoughts away for the time being, I made myself nod. “Oh, yeah. I’m good. I just found a couple pieces to a puzzle I’ve been working on for a long time.” 

Of course, this illusion thing meant it would be even harder for me to prove my family were the bad guys even if I found someone I could safely point that out to. What was I supposed to do, point at someone who, to everyone else looked like some random guy, and insist he was my mother? Somehow, I didn’t think that would go very well. To say nothing of all the other illusion-tricks they could pull. 

It was something, at least. As I’d told Fred, it was a couple more pieces to this puzzle. It didn’t solve the entire problem, but at least it answered a couple questions for me. True, none of those answers were to the question of what I was supposed to do with everything I knew. But hey, at least I was making progress. 

While lost in those thoughts, my normal phone buzzed in my pocket. Knowing that I had to check in case it was my parents so they didn’t send out a search party, I made sure no one was paying attention before tugging it out. It was an e-mail, and I almost put it away again before doing a double-take. The e-mail was an invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, just a few days away. That wasn’t that odd, considering how many birthdays and other things I got invited to regularly. The odd part was that it was for Paige. 

Now why the hell would Paige Banners invite me to her birthday party? 

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Pink 12-05 (Summus Proelium)

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I had a dozen texts and three voicemails from Wren once I tore my replacement phone out of its plastic packaging, set it up, and downloaded my old Touched phone data to it. Mostly they were a three-to-one mix of her being terrified of what had happened to me and her wanting to show me the stuff she’d been working on. Apparently she and Fred had already started moving stuff back to the old shop, and she had some spiffy new defenses she wanted me to see. 

So, I called her up to let the girl know I was on the way and that I was fine. Fine enough, at least, that she really didn’t need to know how sore I felt or how much my ribs hurt if I turned too fast or bent over. Yeah, I wasn’t going to make her even more worried. She was a kid, and was still trying to put her own life together. No way was I going to put something like that on her. 

Wren hurriedly informed me that she and Fred were at the old store right then, and I promised I’d be there soon. After that, it was just a matter of getting another ride over to that general area, using a random roof to (somewhat awkwardly) change into my costume (sans the helmet, which was still back with the damn Scions), then heading over to the pawn shop itself. On the way, I kept a sharp lookout for anything out of the ordinary. Yeah, people weren’t after the vials anymore and most knew that attacking a Tech-Touched on their own turf was a bad idea. Not to mention the fact that very few should have any idea a Tech-Touched lived there. But still, the whole idea made me nervous. I really wanted to tell Wren to give it up. Except this was her dad’s store. There was no way she would just walk away from it, no matter what the potential danger was. Getting her to create defenses was the best I could hope for. Well, that and hoping that if things were actually bad, Fred would insist they leave. 

Stepping through the front door, I found the main floor of the shop looking about the same as it had the first time I was there. It was, of course, still an enormous open space about as wide as the school gym, with dozens of shelves scattered around that were filled with all sorts of seemingly random stuff, while the central third of the space was several feet lower than the rest, with various built-in steps leading down into that pit area. 

The same four glass counters formed the same rectangle around the space where the clerk worked. As I entered, both Wren and Fred were there, busy talking about something. The moment the bell dinged, Wren blurted my name (well, Paintball at least), slid off the counter she’d been perched on, and dashed my way. Two steps into it, the wings popped out of her metal backpack thing and she glided the rest of the way before landing right in front of me. Then I was being hugged tightly. Luckily, I saw it coming and popped an orange circle onto my back for defense so I wouldn’t crumple from the force of it. As it was, I had to grit my teeth tightly, managing a weak, “Hey, Wren. Sounds like you’ve been pretty busy lately, huh?”

Pulling back a bit, the little blonde nine-year-old squinted up at me, very obviously annoyed. “Pretty busy? Pretty busy? You go off and almost get yourself killed and all you have to say about it is that I’ve been busy?!” She gave a loud huff, folding her arms. “You’re in trouble.” Despite her words, it was obvious that it took a lot for her to sound as stern as she did. The kid was trying as hard as she could to be serious and let me know just how upset she was without too much squeeing and hugging. 

Still, I knew she was right, and had to wince at how much I’d obviously upset her. “Sorry. I guess Pack let you know what was going on then?” Obviously, just being scolded by That-A-Way and Pack herself hadn’t been enough. I had to have Wren and her puppy eyes sicced on me too.  

“I was trying to call you and you never answered,” she informed me in a sad voice, head shaking. “So I asked Pack if you were okay and she told me what happened.” Again, the girl squinted at me. “She said you got in trouble cuz you said you had help but you didn’t.” 

“That’s… about the size of it,” I confirmed while cringing a little bit. “I definitely learned my lesson, believe me. I won’t do something like that again. If I say I have help, I’ll have help.” 

“Good.” That was Fred, as the man approached. “Cuz I really don’t wanna have another night of sitting up with the kid until someone actually bothers to let us know that you’re okay.” 

“My phone was broken,” I mumbled helplessly. “And I had my own parents to–I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you worry, Wren. I’m sorry I made both of you worry. But seriously, I’m okay. And I really want to see what you’ve been doing over here. Are you sure it’s safe to be in this place?” 

“Don’t worry,” Fred informed me, “I told the kid we couldn’t come back here until she had a fool-proof way of getting us out if anything went wrong.” As he said that, the man waved a hand, showing me the watch attached to his wrist. “It’s a teleporter linking this place to the other shop. Something happens, just push the face in and say the command. Then poof, we’re not here.” 

Wren showed me her own watch, nodding eagerly. “And I’m working on one for you! That way if you get caught again, you can just teleport away.” Squinting pointedly, the kid added, “I’ll hurry and make it faster, cuz you get in trouble a lot.” 

She wasn’t wrong, but I still made a huffing noise. I would’ve stuck my tongue out at her, given my lack of a helmet, but that seemed a bit childish at the moment. “Just make sure you guys are safe here first. You can really teleport out as soon as anything happens?”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh! And there’s another defense too, you wanna see?” Even as the girl said that, I could see the mix of eagerness and mischievousness in her eyes. Apparently, whatever she wanted to show me was really funny. 

Glancing to Fred briefly, I waited until he gave a subtle nod before agreeing. “Okay, let’s see.” 

With an excited squeaking sound, Wren cleared her throat before loudly declaring, “Intruder defense Alpha-Zero-One engage, ninety percent.” 

As soon as she said that, I heard a weird… humming sound. It filled the room, and I started to look around. But then a blur went rushing past me. It was Wren. She went from standing in front of me, to the door behind me, to the counter, back to one of the other shelves, then back to me, then to a shelf on the far side of the room all in just a brief few seconds. 

The same thing happened with Fred, as he vanished into the elevator leading upstairs, then came back, then checked on something at the register, then came to me with something in his hands all before I could so much as raise my hand. He held it up, and I belatedly realized it was an analog clock. As I stared at it, the second hand spun rapidly. In the brief four seconds or so that I watched, about three minutes passed. 

Finally, I saw Wren open her mouth. The sounds she made came out in a rush so fast they didn’t sound like words. At least at first. But finally, humming sound stopped and I heard the tail end of her saying, “– and restore to default security measures.” 

Things were back to normal. My gaze snapped around quickly, as I blurted, “Wren, are you screwing around with time stuff?! Are we–we’re not–you didn’t–” 

With a giggle, the younger girl shook her head. “No, see, there wasn’t any time travel or anything. I mean, not like you’re thinking. The defense system targets intruders and makes them slower. Everything else was moving at normal speed. You were just moving and thinking really, really slow so everything around you seemed really fast. See, you were in there for fifteen minutes and to you, it was only about thirteen seconds. That way, if anyone comes in who isn’t supposed to be here and we turn on the defense, we have time to do basically anything. Even call for help if we need to.” 

As she finished explaining all that, Wren stared at me eagerly, eyes shining with delight as she blurted, “Isn’t that cool?!” 

I didn’t even have to exaggerate my agreement as my head bobbed. “It’s totally cool, Wren. You outdid yourself with this. Nonlethal and super-effective. How long can it keep going like that?” 

Squirming a little, the girl admitted, “Only about twenty seconds or so of slow-time. But we’re working on getting the time up and cutting the energy use. And that’s almost half an hour real-time, which is plenty for us to do a lot of things while any intruders are basically frozen, you know? Even if it’s just leaving.” 

“You’re right, a lot can happen in half an hour.” I gave her a thumbs up that made her grin happily before asking, “So teleporters to escape and this slow-down effect as soon as intruders get in. Can that be automatic or do you have to actually give the command like you did just now?” 

It was Fred who answered. “Either-or. Kid set it so we can set it off manually, or tie it to an alarm for whenever the shop’s not open. As long as no one else but us is supposed to be here, if anyone does show up, it slows them down and lets us know what’s going on.” 

“And there’s gonna be more!” Wren insisted. She was bouncing up and down with excitement. Which, considering her jetpack wings were still out, actually sent her up above my head, then back to the floor with each bounce. It was enough to make me snicker a bit before containing myself. Meanwhile, she was still explaining. “I’ve got ideas about Flingbeams, they’re–err, wait, I’m not gonna say it yet cuz they might change. Also they’re a surprise. But they’re gonna be cool! No one’s gonna break Dad’s store again. I mean, not without being hurt a lot and stuff.” 

“As long as you’re safe,” I agreed, glancing to Fred before adding, “I don’t think you being here is exactly common knowledge or anything, but you should still be careful. Especially with Braintrust out there and interested. If anything seems fishy, you jump out of here and worry about details later, okay? Call me, call Pack, call whoever you need to for help.” 

“Don’t have to tell me twice to look after our skins,” Fred assured me. The man gave a very slight self-deprecating smile. “Seriously though, what the kid said before, that goes for me too. You’ve done… right by us, even when I didn’t really deserve it. Don’t go getting yourself in hot water like that without help of your own. You uhhh…” He coughed, sounding self-conscious suddenly. “You’re a good one, so don’t be an idiot and get killed.” Belatedly, the man added, “Who’d bankroll the kid’s business without you, huh?” He sounded more comfortable then. 

Snorting, I gestured vaguely. “Silly me, I can’t die without making sure Wren’s Nest becomes the best tech shop in the city. Maybe one of you could write a note so I could give it to the next person who tries to stab or shoot me?” 

My reward for that was a poke in the stomach from Wren (luckily she didn’t jab higher or I might’ve yelped), as she countered, “What about a new helmet instead? Pack said yours got lost or something, and you don’t have a replacement yet.” Her hand waved toward my simple mask. “You weren’t gonna go get into another fight without something to protect your head, were you?” There was definite recrimination in her voice at that idea.

Quickly, I raised both hands while shaking my head. “Nope, no, ma’am. I just didn’t wanna make you wait anymore. I was gonna go get a new helmet after this, before I… umm, do the next thing on my list.” After defusing that quickly, I blinked before adding, “Wait, new helmet?” 

“It’s not super, super special like the boots,” she lamented. “I didn’t have time to do that much with all the stuff I was making for the shop. But it’s still something! And I’m totally gonna improve it later, in different versions, I swear.” With that, she turned and launched herself into the air and clear across the room, soaring over a dozen random shelves to reach the far side of the central counter, where she started digging through a few different bags. 

While she was gone, Fred glanced to me. His voice was quiet. “You seen a doctor about those ribs?” When I shot him a quick, surprised glance, he snorted. “You’re good at hiding things from the kid. But I saw how you reacted when she hugged you, and that poke. I’m not gonna scare her, just… you saw someone who could take care of it, right? If not, I think I can–” 

“I saw someone,” I hurriedly assured him. “A doctor, I mean. It’s–it’s a long story, one I can’t get into. But he looked at me and… and it’ll be okay.” Belatedly, I added, “Um, thanks. You know, for caring.” I knew the whole thing sounded awkward. It felt awkward. Still, it was the best I could do. 

Before Fred could respond to that, Wren was back. She had, as promised, a helmet in her hands. It looked almost identical to my last one, with the front part that could be pushed up out of the way while still leaving the secondary visor in place across my eyes. This helmet, however, had what looked like two small headlights built into either side of it, facing forward. It also had a little speaker grill bit built into the front (the part that could be pushed up out of the way when I opened the helmet). 

Wren quickly explained while handing the helmet over. “See the volume thing on the left side? You can push that up to project your voice really loud. You know, if you need to shout over people or call out to someone. It’s like a megaphone. And the lights are for when it’s dark and you don’t want to use the night vision.” 

Raising an eyebrow (which was dumb considering she couldn’t see it anyway), I asked, “Night vision?”  

The kid’s head bobbed up and down so fast I thought it might fall off. “Uh huh! Of course there’s night vision, what kinda amateur do you thi–never mind.” Giggling despite herself, she informed me, “there’s night vision and thermal vision, you just have to say ‘night vision engage or night vision disengage’ or ‘thermal vision engage and disengage’ while you’re wearing it. You can whisper it too. Or touch that button there right next to the main visor for three seconds, then let it go for night vision and five seconds then let it go for thermal vision. Then touch it again to go back to normal.” 

Turning the helmet over in both hands, I smiled like an idiot before managing, “Wren, that’s really cool. I didn’t–I mean I don’t–I mean thanks.” 

It was her turn to blush a bit, squirming in the air (she was hovering about a foot off the ground) before hurriedly explaining, “That’s not all. There’s one more thing. Put the helmet on and pull the front down.” 

So, I did as she asked. The helmet fit snugly in place, and I slid the front part down, making it lock in place before giving her a thumbs up. “All good so far.” 

“Okay!” With clear excitement, Wren explained, “Now say, ‘Map me, then give an address or a request, like ‘nearest McDonalds.’” 

Considering that briefly, I settled on, “Map me the Henry Ford Museum.” 

As soon as I said that, a few images appeared on the visor in front of my face. At the bottom, which I could only read by focusing my eyes that way, were the words Henry Ford Museum and an address. In the top right corner of the visor was an arrow pointing me in the right direction, along with a thing telling me how many kilometers away I was. 

Wren pushed on quickly. “The arrow appears on the side you need to turn to, or right at the top if you just need to go forward. You can say ‘dim map’ to make it go away so you can focus, then ‘raise map’ to bring back the same thing without asking directions again. Or you can say ‘end map’ to turn it off completely.” 

“Wren, this is…” Swallowing hard, I leaned over to hug the girl as tightly as I dared. “Thanks. This is awesome. Seriously. Between this and the shoes, you’re really decking me out.” 

With a clearly self-conscious giggle, Wren insisted, “It’s nothing big. I can do better. I will do better. You know, with more time, and… and everything. I’ll make it better.” 

“This is enough for now, I swear.” Smiling, I nudged the girl while releasing her. “Really, take care of your shop and all that. You’re just… you’re awesome. Thanks.” 

After that, I stuck around for another twenty minutes or so, just hanging out and making sure Wren knew how grateful I was. And, of course, reassuring her that I really was okay. With a promise to check in soon, I excused myself. It was time to go visit the Seraph base and hopefully find out just what the hell was in that file once and for all.

And hey, with this fancy new helmet, at least I wouldn’t get lost. 

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Private Affairs 9-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on That-A-Way and Pack posted yesterday. If you have not seen that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find anyone else that I could hit that night. I did run across a couple… situations, but by the time I got there, they were already well in hand by one Star group or another. I mostly watched while a few of the Conservators or Ten Towers people mopped up some bad guys here and there. In a way, it was bad for the fact that I didn’t get to hit anyone else (and I was really in the mood to hit things). But it was also cool to watch other Touched from a good vantage point when I didn’t have to worry about life and death problems. 

Okay, correction, I was worrying about life and death problems. But not immediate ones. 

Anyway, it was also a good thing because less crime meant less people being hurt. As much as I wanted to work some of my stress off, that much was undoubtedly true. And just what the hell was wrong with me anyway? What had changed so much in such a short time that I felt at least a little bad that I couldn’t find more violent bad guys to punch? Was that really the best way to deal with all the stress I was feeling because of the whole… every bit of my current situation?  

No, probably not. Undoubtedly not. Ideally, I should talk to someone about it and just vent to a live person. But who the hell was I going to talk to? Who could I tell… half this stuff to, let alone all of it? Telling anyone about who my parents were was just… it was either too dangerous or unfair. I couldn’t dump it onto Wren. I wouldn’t dump it onto Wren. She was a kid. A pretty great kid with an incredibly useful power, who was fun to talk to and all that. I trusted her. I liked her. That was why I wouldn’t tell her about all this bullshit. She didn’t deserve that kind of stress. 

In the end, I found a less violent way of working off my aggression. Specifically, I spent an hour or so skate-painting my way across the city. Jumping from building to building, running along walls, popping the wheels out to race down the side before hitting a blue patch that sent me rocketing back up to a nearby billboard, and so on. It was my own insane extreme sport and I actually noticed a few people here and there taking pictures and video recording. I might’ve hammed it up a bit for them just because it was a way of putting everything else out of my mind. 

So, while I couldn’t hit anyone, I did manage to… exercise a lot of my aggression out. At least enough that when I finally made myself go home… home to a house full of bad guys save for Izzy, I actually fell asleep very quickly. And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t have any bad dreams. Or any dreams at all. I was able to sleep through the whole rest of the night, and because it was Saturday, I didn’t even wake up until midway through the next morning. It was almost eleven when I finally dragged myself up. Apparently I’d really needed that extra sleep. Go figure.  

Yup, I was well-rested. Which was probably a good thing, considering tonight was supposed to be Amber’s big birthday party. And I was pretty sure she would hunt me down if I didn’t show because I was too tired. If I was afraid of nightmares now, the thought of Amber kicking my door in while I was napping through her party was even worse. Yeah, I was definitely going. 

And so was Izzy. I had no doubt we wouldn’t be going anywhere without the entourage that had ‘secretly’ followed us around when we went to the mall to pick up treats for that movie night. Which meant I was going to have to be super careful not to do anything that might give away my own secrets. Because I was positive that there were going to be a lot of eyes, my family’s organization watching to make sure that… whatever threat they were protecting Izzy from didn’t touch her. Or making sure that she stayed put and didn’t run away. Or making sure she didn’t–

Okay, so I still had absolutely no idea what that was about. Was my family protecting her? Were they keeping her prisoner, even if she didn’t know she was a prisoner? Some combination of both? Part of me wanted to drag the girl into a closet and get answers out of her about all that once and for all, but that… that would probably be a bad idea. A very bad idea. 

In any case, I spent those few hours I had before the party taking a trip out to see Wren. Making my way to the other girl’s hidden shop, I found her and Fred hard at work in the basement once the door buzzed to let me in. The two appeared to be converting the room where we had been keeping Ashton into some kind of metal workshop. Which probably made sense, given the fact it was already apparently soundproofed. Actually, Wren had said something about setting up that room for ‘little explosions and stuff’, which… come to think of it, should that kind of worry me?

Nah. I was sure Wren knew what she was doing. And if she didn’t, I certainly couldn’t be any help. 

“If you install a swivel chair that can turn around slowly,” I informed her while leaning against the doorway to watch her work, “I think I might know someone who can get you a fluffy white cat.” 

“Hi, Paintball!” she blurted, popping to her feet and pushing the welding mask she’d been wearing up away from her face. Her hands were covered in what looked like black soot. “I like fluffy white cats, but it’s not an evil lair. It’s a room for me to build things that could, um…” 

“Things that could damage the rest of the building if they aren’t contained,” Fred finished for her. He was just setting a heavy H-shaped metal beam thing down against a spot on the wall that had been marked out with tape to show where it should go. As he spoke, the man picked up an electric screwdriver sitting nearby and proceeded to start driving in screws through slots in the metal thing. Clearly, he was doing the heavy lifting part of this after Wren detailed what to do.  

“Well, it’s a good thing you have this room to contain anything like that, huh?” Stepping into the room, I asked, “Is there anything I can do to help? Even just grunt work. I need to take my mind off… things.” Why did I say that? Why did I even bring it up? Now Wren was going to– 

“What’s wrong?” Sure enough, the little girl immediately piped up with that question. 

My head shook quickly. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, really. It’s okay, if I need help, I’ll definitely ask.” Giving her a thumbs up in the hope that it would stop her from worrying about me, I gestured. “Like I said, I need a distraction right now. So, how can I help out around here, huh?”  

I spent the next couple hours just helping them fix up that room. There was a lot to do to get it ready for all the stuff Wren wanted to build and experiment with, And the more she talked about all of that, the more excited she was. Not that I really followed what she was saying that well, but her eagerness was infectious. It really did help me take my mind off all my stuff, thankfully.

When we were done, at least for the moment, Wren beckoned for me to follow her into the main room. She moved to a box and produced what look like the same shoes I was wearing. “Ta da!” 

Grinning behind the helmet, I teased, “Hey, they look just my size too. If this whole Tech-Touched genius thing doesn’t pan out in the end, you could probably make a killing as a cobbler. Mmmm, cobbler. Now I want pie. Do you think shoe cobblers want pie a lot? I bet someone at some point heard ‘shoe cobbler’ and got very confused about people’s tastes.” 

“You’re weird,” Wren informed me with a giggle before tossing the shoes to me. “Try them on! Come on, come on, I wanna see!” She was bouncing up and down with obvious excitement. 

Chuckling despite myself, I moved to sit down on the nearby couch. While Wren (And Fred, who stood in the doorway and looked pretty curious himself) watched, I took off my own pace-skates and pulled the new shoes on. As expected, they fit just fine. Perfectly, really. Lacing them up, I stood and walked back and forth across the room a couple times. “Yup, they feel great.” 

Literally bouncing up and down eagerly, Wren urged, “Say, ‘Wheels-Out’.” 

Readying myself, I did so. Of course, the wheels popped out. The phrase ‘Wheels-In’ brought them in. According to Wren, the skates would only respond to the code being spoken by the person wearing them, which was nice. It meant I could make them work even if I wasn’t using my voice changer thing, without asking her to program my real voice into it. Part of me wondered just how much of a coincidence that actually was. Did she, like Blackjack, know I was using a voice changer and simply wasn’t pushing to find out why? 

“But I didn’t just reinvent the same pace-skates,” Wren excitedly informed me. “That’d be boring. They’ve done that already. These are special! Check it out, when the shoes or the skate wheels are against something like a wall or a ceiling, they’ll stay there unless you pull them away yourself.”

“But the wheels still roll and everything?” I asked, certain she knew better than I did how to make something like that work, but still curious about the specifics. 

Sure enough, her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, uh huh. See, they don’t… ummm… they don’t really stick like your red paint does. It’s more of a… a gravity thing.” 

Blinking, I asked, “Gravity thing?” 

So she explained. “See, whenever the shoes or the wheels are pressed against something, they project a sort of… umm, okay well the simple version is that they change your personal gravity depending on the orientation of the thing they’re pressed against. If you’re walking on the ground, your gravity is normal. If you put them against the wall, it’ll change your personal gravity so that it’s coming at you from the side instead of above, see? And if you’re upside down with the shoes against the ceiling, it’ll reverse gravity so it’s coming at you from below to keep you up there. No matter which way you’re facing, the shoes will make the gravity bubble around you act like you’re standing right-side up on solid ground!” As she finished explaining that much, the kid was (understandably) beaming. 

“Holy shit, Wren,” I muttered in amazement. “You do good work on short notice.” 

She shrugged at that. “Not really short notice. I was working on the gravity thing for my own stuff, and started sketching ideas for your thing right after we met. Getting your size was the last part and that was just to buy shoes to put the equipment into. It–” She hesitated, biting her lip with obvious apprehension and uncertainty. “You really like it? I thought it’d help if you could get around like you do without using as much paint.” 

“Like it?” I echoed, stepping over to hug her tightly despite myself. She gave an eep of surprise and then returned it with a giggle. “It’s amazing, Wren. I mean damn. This is ridiculous. Come on, let’s see…” 

Letting her go, I stepped over, lifting my foot to press it against the nearby wall. Then I lifted the other foot and put it against the wall too. Sure enough, I just sort of… stood there, sideways, with my feet against the wall. It was kind of disorienting, but not hard at all. There was a brief twisting sensation in my stomach as my own personal gravity reoriented, but nothing too bad. After that, it was just like Wren said, I felt as though I was standing upright on the ground.

Standing like that for a few seconds, I started walking up the wall. Whistling casually, I walked all the way to the ceiling, put my foot up to that, took a breath, and then put my other foot up. That twisting sensation came back as my stomach briefly protested gravity adjusting the way it did, before I was suddenly crouching against the ceiling. Crouching against the ceiling with no paint. Holy shit. Holy shit. This was…

From below, Wren called, “You can jump to get down, but be careful!” 

Taking her advice, I pushed off with both feet. Gravity swung up and around into the proper position again, and I felt a rush while flipping over. I didn’t exactly land completely smoothly, stumbling a bit to the side. But still, it was pretty good. 

Popping back upright, I grinned. “See, I knew partnering with you was gonna be awesome. I just didn’t know it was gonna be this awesome this quick.” I was smiling broadly like a goofy idiot. She was right, I’d be able to move around as Paintball a lot more easily like this, traveling the way I liked to without using up red paint to stick to walls. That would free up paint for a lot more things. 

“I’m gonna make more!” Wren promised quickly. “More fun things that’ll be even better for you, I swear. I’ve got lots of ideas, and I think you’ll really like them. But they take time and work and stuff. But I–” 

Stepping that way, I embraced the girl. “It’s okay, Wren. These are amazing. Seriously, thanks. Every bit of paint I save from not having to use it to stick to walls will be paint I can use other ways, to help people. I can move faster like this. You’re amazing, and so are these.” 

“Superkid’s right,” Fred put in. “You did good work. But you know the rules, what we said.” 

She nodded, glancing to me, “Gotta do homework, not just fun work.” 

Chuckling, I rubbed the top of her head. “Good. I’ve got things to do too. But I’ll put these things through their paces, I’ll tell you that much. Thanks for making these so fast, Wren. 

“Something tells me they’re gonna come in handy real soon.” 

*****

Of course, hopefully that real soon wouldn’t apply to tonight. Because it was time to go to Amber’s party. I changed into my street clothes before stopping by the mall on the way back to look for a present that she might like. In the end, I grabbed her some new AirPods and an iPad that I thought she’d like, along with a box of chocolate candy, and had them all wrapped there. 

Yeah, part of me still felt bad about using what was obviously dirty money from my parents to buy gifts for some girl at school. But the truth was that that money was already there. Whatever had been done to get it was over. It wasn’t like ignoring it would make whatever bad things that happened to get it just… disappear. Making my parents contribute to some random girl’s birthday was a hell of a lot better than a lot of other ways the money could be spent. 

Besides, if I didn’t spend money to buy Amber a present, it would look awfully strange at this point. Mom and Dad knew we were going to a party, knew Amber was a close enough friend that we’d brought her home to see that movie, and so on. If they noticed me not buying her something nice, it’d attract attention.

All of which were things I told myself repeatedly while picking out those gifts. It didn’t help entirely erase the guilt about that whole situation, but it was something.

Catching an Uber ride home, I found Izzy and the two of us headed out to where Jefferson, the driver, was waiting. He led us to Henlein (Jefferson’s favorite black BMW, named after the guy who invented the watch), and we were off. 

On the way, I glanced to the girl beside me. “Here.” I offered her the package with the AirPods. “Those can be from you.” 

Blinking in surprise, she looked at me with a frown. “But I didn’t help–I mean I never–I didn’t even… what?” 

“Don’t worry about it,” I assured her. “Just help me with something now and then and we’re totally even. I mean, technically my parents bought the gifts, so you might as well get as much credit as I do for one of them.” With a wink, I glanced out the window to watch as we passed other cars on the road, adding, “Oh, that reminds me, Dad said I should give you your allowance card. He said as long as you’re living with us, you should get the same benefits Simon and me do.”

“Um. Allowance card?” The other girl was clearly baffled. “What’s an allowance card?” 

Digging into my pocket, I came out with the thing, handing it over. It was a debit card with her name on it. “Dad said he’s starting you out with a thousand a week, but if you end up needing–”  

“A thauuuuuwhat?!” Izzy blurted, jerking in her seat as she dropped the card as if it had burned her. “What? A what–he’s giving a–what?” 

Reaching down, I plucked up the card, holding it out to her again. She eyed it like it might be a snake. “A thousand a week. You should be able to get whatever you need with that, but like I said, if you need more, Dad’s usually good with fudging it and adding extra to the account.”

Now she was staring at me like I’d grown three extra heads. “Why would I need more than a thousand a week? What–how do you–what bills do you even have?!” 

First I giggled reflexively at her reaction, ignoring the pit in my stomach. How bad was it to get Izzy involved in this whole thing by handing her dirty money? But as with the whole gift thing, Mom and Dad would really notice if I didn’t give her the debit card and tell her about the allowance. Then I’d have a lot more questions to answer. I had to act like the money didn’t bother me. 

Again of course, giving it to Izzy was another way of putting at least a little bit of that dirty money to better use. Even if it was just like bailing water out of a sinking boat with a teaspoon. 

“Just have fun with it tonight,” I urged. “Play whatever games you want. Buy games for other people too. It’ll be great.” 

Izzy was still staring at me open-mouthed, as I put the card back in her hand. “I guess so… all this stuff is… you know how weird this is, right? That’s a lot of money for most people.”

“Yeah, I know.” Looking back to her, I replied, “I mean, not personally, but I kinda get it. But seriously, it’s okay. If this freaks you out, you should see where Dad wants to take us for vacation next time.” 

Flatly, the other girl replied, “Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was Mars.” 

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted with a grin. 

“Like he’d take us to the same place two years in a row.”  

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Showdown 7-10 (Summus Proelium)

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“So that was how my night went,” That-A-Way informed Wobble and me a short while later, as the three of us stood just inside one of the store bathrooms. She and the other Minority Cape were watching carefully as I took the special suit off of Ashton. He had clothes on underneath, of course (none of us back at Wren’s place had wanted to have anything to do with putting the suit on him otherwise), which must’ve made wearing this thing pretty warm. Oh well. 

Wobble, taking up basically the entire doorway with his massive body and green medieval-like armor, stood with his arms folded. “Sounds like this Jailtime guy’s a real piece of work.” As he said it, the guy cracked his knuckles, each audible pop making clear, without words, just what he’d like to do to that particular piece of work. “Glad you made it out of his funhouse, Way.” 

I nodded. “Yeah, me too.” Unsnapping a couple of the clasps in the back of the suit after using the control box to retract the wires that were controlling Ashton’s muscles, I added, “You and Pack.” Maybe I shouldn’t have brought up the fact that, technically, another villain had been involved in that whole situation. But I was sore and both mentally and physically exhausted. Besides, That-A-Way had just finished describing all the ways being with Pack had helped get her out of there. 

Speaking of Pack, she and the rest of La Casa had left along with their boss. I was sure I’d talk to her soon (not to mention Eits, given… given what he now knew about me), but for the moment, no one on either side had wanted to exactly… push things. There was a brief truce to sort all this out, sure. Flea and Dynamic had both agreed to let Blackjack and his people go to avoid escalating things tonight, but had made it clear that the truce would not extend past that. Now they were outside with the rest of the Minority (aside from Raindrop, whose absence I still wasn’t quite clear on beyond her apparently needing a vacation), making sure all the civilians were okay and sorting out the members of the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners who hadn’t escaped. All the Touched were gone, unfortunately. Which made sense, considering how important they were. Of course people with powers would be the priority when extracting and escaping. Given Longhaul’s presence, it was probably somewhat more surprising that there were any regular guys left behind to be arrested at all, honestly.

Disconnecting the last of the suit, I pulled it down and off of Ashton, lifting his legs one at a time before taking the body part of the suit off and balling it up. Tucking the suit under one arm, I reached up, unclasped the helmet, and took it off his head with a muttered, “There we go.” 

As soon as the helmet was disconnected from the guy, he took off running. Yeah, we’d expected that. He got about three feet before stopping short as he saw Wobble standing in his way. 

“Hiya, Sunshine,” the large boy greeted him, before flicking a finger to send a small, lazy pulse of force that knocked Ashton back several feet and to the floor, where he landed with a curse. 

“That son of a bitch had me locked up, dumbasses!” Ashton blurted from where he was sprawled. “False fucking imprisonment, kidnapping! He and his friends locked me in a little room until they could build that thing, shove wires and needles inside my fucking body, and parade me all over town just to get stuff for one of the worst villains in the city! Fucking arrest him! Cuz I’ll tell you this much, I am going to press charges until he can’t afford to put shoes on his fe–ohhh… oh God.” In mid-rant, the man suddenly stopped. I could see very faint distortion waves in the air, going from Wobble’s finger. It wasn’t enough to knock Ashton down or anything, but he did abruptly turn, grab the nearby trash can, and throw up into it. 

“He’s right though,” That-A-Way put in a bit tiredly from where she was leaning against the wall. “I mean, not the arresting you part. But there is something you’ll have to do if you don’t want the whole… complicated issue of finally turning him in to come back and bite you in the ass.”  

Right, the detaining him thing. I’d known that would come up, but it was always sort of just pushed out of my mind. Now that it was here and Ashton was making a fuss (because of course he was), all I could do was blink at That-A-Way and slowly ask, “Something I have to do?” 

“Ahem.” Behind Wobble, a voice spoke up. “I believe I may be able to assist with this.” 

Wobble stepped out of the way and turned, revealing the woman in the doorway. She wore dark gold pants with black lines running down the sides to meet black boots. Her belt was black, and she wore what looked like a shirt of dark purple scale mail armor with a gold leather coat over it. Her face and head were covered by a black metal helmet with faintly glowing purple lenses where her eyes were. The voice that came out whenever she spoke was clearly projected, with a very faint electronic distortion that probably served to make it harder to identify.

Caishen. It was Caishen, leader of the corporate-sponsored Star-Touched team known as Ten Towers. As the three of us (four once Ashton looked up from the trash can he had been heaving into) looked that way, she used her thumb to gesture back the way she’d come. “They’re ready for Mr. Austin, if you two would like to take him out there? I’ll stay with Paintball and talk him through the detainment application process. Believe me, I’ve written enough of them to do it in my sleep.” 

“Uh, she’s got a point,” That-A-Way agreed with a shrug toward me. “The Towers do that sort of thing all the time. You should talk to her about it. She’ll help.” To the woman herself, she added, “But don’t make him fill it out right now, he’s suffered enough today and we’re all tired.”

With a soft chuckle, Caishen promised to be nice. She then moved, allowing That-A-Way and Wobble to pull Ashton up by the arms and escort him out. He was, of course, ranting the whole way about how we were all going to hate ourselves as soon as Blackjack killed someone again. Which might’ve been fair to an extent, but he didn’t have any room out on that moral ledge. 

Left standing there with the rolled up control suit under one arm and the helmet to it in that hand, I reached out to pick up my own broken helmet from the sink. “Uh, detainment application? Sorry, context aside, that kind of sounds like I’d be applying to be detained.” 

“I suppose it does, doesn’t it?” the woman agreed easily, offering me a very slight nod. “Actually, it’s the opposite. You see, as a recognized Star-Touched, you are, in your identity as Paintball, allowed to temporarily detain prisoners whom you have probable cause to believe committed a crime or were in the midst of doing so. You should know that much by now. Flea gave you cuffs for that very purpose, I believe.” 

When I nodded, she went on. “Now, where it gets a little complicated is in the question of how long you can detain someone for before turning them over. It has become remarkably clear over the past two decades of Touched actions that there are times when it is simply unwise or even impossible to immediately turn over a captured Fell-Touched or Fell-Adjacent prisoner to the authorities. There could be any number of reasons for this, from an ongoing and current threat making travel to the authorities difficult or even dangerous, to the authorities being ill-equipped at that particular time to hold the prisoner, to more… varied reasons. The point is, it was decided that each instance of such detainment would be judged on a case-by-case basis, so long as the one or ones doing the detaining were still in good standing with the local authorities. In other words, as long as the locals see you as generally good, you get a bit of leeway as far as exactly when you turn someone over. Normally this is only up to a couple of days on average, but there are extenuating circumstances that push it further. As I said, case by case basis. That’s where the detainment application comes in. You submit the paperwork explaining why you detained this Mr. Austin guy, detail your reasoning in why turning him in immediately would have presented a threat and that you turned him over as soon as reasonably possible. You’ll have to report in to explain to a judge that he was treated well, that he was not injured, starved, or anything else under your care and the judge will make the decision about whether it was proper.”

This was all really complicated. I’d never known that people out there doing the hero thing had to do all this other stuff too. I already knew from Flea that I’d need to go to court once a month to give depositions about the people I’d helped catch, and now there was this too. Not that it was a bad thing. Actually, in this case, the fact that they had a system like that set up to let independent Touched explain why they detained someone was indisputably a good thing. It was just… a lot to get used to. 

Apparently interpreting my brief silence as worry, Caishen assured me, “In this case, I’m fairly confident that you’ll be fine. The threat presented by the bounty against Mr. Austin made keeping him safe from gang reprisal or capture quite important. In addition, the possibility of Blackjack and La Casa becoming a much greater threat to the populace should his daughter’s medicine not be recovered, as well as the threat to the girl herself, are strong contributing factors. Just include all of that in your paperwork, tell the judge in person when they call you in, and you should be okay. I’m assuming you fed the prisoner and didn’t mistreat him?” 

I nodded once. “I–yeah, he’s fine. I mean, still kinda crazy and all because of… his friend dying and all.” Swallowing at the thought, I pushed on. “But still, he’s physically okay.” 

“Excellent,” Caishen replied simply, “then there shouldn’t be an issue. The threat to his life was obvious, the threat his actions presented to both the city as a whole and to Blackjack’s unidentified daughter is well-documented, and you turned him over in good condition. Just fill out the form and turn it in. Ah, I’m assuming you don’t have the form itself handy. Come to the Ten Tower offices first chance you get and one of our people will have a stack for you. If you like, someone will even help you fill it out.” 

“Why would you do all that for me when I don’t even–” I hesitated. “I mean, when I’m not even working for you or anything. Hell, I just barely met you and I don’t actually have any kind of history with your people or–” 

“I like to cultivate positive relationships with important people,” she interrupted. “Or people who could become important. And from what I’ve seen, you’re well on your way. Look what you’ve done in just the past couple of weeks. And at the people you’ve managed to annoy. Like Cuélebre.” For a moment, the woman paused as though considering before adding, “So, let’s just say I believe in helping to raise up and encourage people who are going to do good for this city. That’s just good business. The more stable things are, the better it is for the companies that Ten Towers represents. They make money. We make money. Everyone’s happy. Instability is bad for business, and bad for profits.” 

“That’s… good, I guess.” Biting my lip behind the mask, I asked, “So just show up and someone will know what I’m talking about?” 

“I’ll make sure of it,” she confirmed. “But for now, I suggest you get home. You look dead on your feet, and I’m pretty sure you have school tomorrow, wherever you go. And hey, good job tonight. You may not know just how much, but you saved a lot of people by heading off that little gang war.

“And on another note, you should really think about applying to Ten Towers when you’re old enough. This whole painting stuff across your costume thing would be a gold mine for advertisers.” 

********

Right as Caishen might have been about me being tired, I didn’t go home after leaving the scene at the store. Instead, I made my way back to Wren’s place. No way was I just going to go home and crash without talking to the others first. Not after everything that we’d all gone through. Besides, I still had to give Wren back the suit and helmet so she could extract the Seraph thing from it. Then I’d return it and this whole thing would be over. 

Except for the part where Eits knew I was a girl. Yeah, we’d talked it through and he promised not to use it against me or anything. And I was almost positive I could even trust him to do what he said. But it… it still made me nervous. Was that bad? Was I bad for not just… completely and one hundred percent believing him even after we had that whole conversation in the car? I did believe him. I did. Mostly. But that tiny hint of doubt that sat in the pit of my stomach was just… I couldn’t stop poking at it. 

My parents lied to me my whole life about what kind of people they were. Could I really trust Eits to not just change his mind and end up using what he knew at some point? Was it dumb to keep dwelling on it when I couldn’t change anything? What else was I going to do about it besides hope that he was telling the truth and didn’t change his mind? 

Shaking off those thoughts as I landed in the parking lot of Wren’s place (after making sure no one was following me this time), I headed in. The door buzzed to unlock as I approached, and I opened it. 

Wren and Pack were down there. I could hear Fred in the room we’d used as a cell for Ashton, apparently cleaning it out. As I appeared at the bottom of the stairs, Wren flung herself at me, hugging tight. “You did it!” she blurted. “You got all the medicine!” 

Coughing, I returned the hug before releasing her to step back with a look toward Pack. “So, it’s all good then?” 

She nodded. “Blackjack’s got all the vials and he’ll be keeping them right at home now. The girl’s gonna be fine. And ahhh, he said this was for you.” Reaching into a bag at her side, she pulled out a black fanny pack-sized pouch and tossed it to me. 

Catching it, I looked inside. Cash. A hundred thousand in cash, just as he’d promised. At least, I was assuming it was a hundred thousand. It was all in a mix of fifties and hundreds, and I wasn’t going to stand there and count all of it right then. From everything I’d heard and experienced, Blackjack was a man of his word. If he said he would pay a hundred thousand, I believed him. 

Holding the pouch in one hand, I managed a very faint smile as I looked to Pack. Her lizards were all in a cage nearby. “I guess this is it then, huh? At least until I catch you doing something bad out there.” 

“Yeah, then we’ll just have to fight for real,” she replied casually. “I’ll try to take it easy on you, since you’ve been pretty cool.” 

“Gee, thanks,” I retorted, shrugging one shoulder. “And I’ll do my best not to let the cuffs hurt too much when I put them on.” Pausing then, I grimaced. “This is gonna be awkward when it comes up, isn’t it?” 

“Probably,” she agreed easily. “Guess we’ll take it as it comes.” To Wren, she added, “Good luck with everything, kid. Err, sorry, guess I should call you Trevithick, huh?” Sobering, she nodded seriously. “Good luck. I’ll see you around.”

With that, Pack picked up her lizard cage and headed out. I watched her go, listening to the sound of the door opening and shutting before looking to Wren. “Maybe she’ll miss all this and get tired of being a bad guy. But hey, we did good anyway.”

“Really good!” Wren agreed enthusiastically. “They got the vials and… and the suit worked. And you didn’t die!” 

Chuckling, I murmured, “That last one’s definitely a bonus. Anyway, here.” Extending the suit and helmet to her, I informed the girl, “Extract the thing whenever you can. I’ll get it back to the Seraphs first chance after you do that.” Even as I finished saying it, an audible yawn escaped me. It had been a long evening. 

“Sounds like Wren isn’t the only one who needs to get some sleep,” Fred noted as he emerged from the other room with a mop in one hand. “I hate to pull the adult card given my track record, but isn’t it about time for that?” 

“Yeah, I’m on my way,” I agreed before opening up the pouch once more. “But first…” Carefully, I extracted some of the bills from the pouch. About ten thousand dollars for an emergency fund, just in case. I would put it somewhere safe. The rest of the pouch I tossed to Wren. “Should be about ninety thousand in there. That’s your sixty percent plus my first investment.” 

“Ninety… ninety thousand dollars?” For a moment Fred looked like he might faint, stepping over to look at the pouch in Wren’s hands. 

“Like I said, we’re in this business together,” I reminded them. “Use that to start getting set up. I know it’s not like… unlimited funds or anything, but it should help get off the ground a little bit. We’ll figure out what you can put together that we can sell and go from there.” 

“You… you really believe what you said,” Wren murmured in an awed voice that cracked just a little as she looked up to me. “You just… you just gave us all this money because you think we can really do it.” 

“I know we can,” I corrected. “I know you can. It’ll be great. Just… worry about it tomorrow. For now, Fred’s right, we need to get some sleep.” 

After exchanging a few more brief pleasantries, I headed out. Leaving Wren’s place, I looked around before finding a nearby alley with a loose brick. Pulling it out, I hid the phone that Eits had given me in it. I… mostly trusted him, but taking a phone that a guy who could manipulate technology had given me back to my home felt like a bad idea in general. Just in case, I wasn’t going to risk it. So, I hid the phone there for the time being, to deal with later. I’d have to get a real new phone of my own. 

But for the moment, I simply stepped out of the alley, stood by the street, and breathed in. 

It was over. Well, for the most part. Ashton was with the authorities. Blackjack had his vials so his daughter would be safe. And sure, Cuélebre was definitely even more pissed off at me, I still didn’t know enough about my family’s evil empire to do anything about it, I still owed Deicide that favor, Eits knew I was a girl, I wasn’t sure why Izzy was living with us, I was going to have to prove to a judge that I’d done the right thing in keeping Ashton locked up… and probably something else I was forgetting. 

But that was stuff to worry about another day. For the moment, I was going home, where I was going to fall into bed and sleep for… oh. For a few hours, apparently, considering there was still school in the morning. School where I would have to somehow be conscious enough to give my part of that big project Jae, Amber, and I had been working on. And that was something I definitely couldn’t miss. Mostly because I’d never be able to explain to the other two why I wasn’t there. 

But it was kind of fun to imagine the looks on their faces if I tried. 

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Showdown 7-03 (Summus Proelium)

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We waited until after dark to go out with Ashton. That was just the easiest way to avoid as many issues as possible with people seeing what we were doing. Of course, we tested it on him first, getting him into the suit (against his will) and getting him to walk to various places in the room by asking him to think about the couch, or the television, or his cell, that kind of thing. He wasn’t happy, which he made very vocally clear in the course of cursing us out. Especially once it became apparent that the suit actually worked and that he couldn’t stop himself from walking to the thing we used the control box to tell him to think about. The suit wasn’t fast or anything. He kind of walked at what felt like a snail’s pace, though that was at least partly my impatience. 

In any case, it worked. After that, we just sort of hung out until well after dark, when things had settled down as much as possible. We didn’t want to wait too long (not that we were running out of time just yet, it was just very hard to sit still and be patient when we were so close), so as soon as we felt like it was late enough, we started suiting Ashton up again (we’d taken it off him while waiting so there would be less chance of him being able to damage it somehow). It took me using purple paint along with both Pack and Fred to get it on the guy without hurting either him or the suit itself too much. Tempting as it might’ve been to be rougher, we couldn’t do that.

Finally, I pushed his leg down into the thing while Fred zipped it up in the back. Once the suit part, which still looked like thick thermal underwear, was securely on him, I nodded to Wren. She pushed a button on the control box, and I heard the snapping sound as dozens of tiny needle-like wires poked through his skin to find his nerves and muscles. It sounded awful the first time I saw it, but Wren had promised that it would only feel like a series of little pinches for him. She’d even put her own arm in the suit and let it clamp down on her to show that it wasn’t that bad, and all she’d done is gasp a little when it happened. I’d tried it then, and she was right. It wasn’t super-fun or anything, but it definitely wasn’t like getting dozens of shots. You could barely feel the wires. The suit did some kind of numbing process when it poked you. So yeah, there was absolutely a series of pinches all the way through the suit, but nothing that bad. 

Not that that stopped Ashton from bellowing and cursing like we’d literally set him on fire, of course. He jerked, struggling to free himself while ranting about how we were torturing him and what kind of hero did I think I was. He also did a whole chorus about how my helping Blackjack meant I was just as much of a villain and that every person he killed or helped kill in the future would be my fault because I encouraged him by saving his daughter and yada yada yada. 

“Dude,” I reminded him once the suit was attached and linked up with him, “I told you before, you have no high ground here, none. You want to let an innocent little girl die just to hurt her dad. That is the opposite of the high ground. You’re under water, down in the Marianas trench.” 

“And what about all the people it could save?” the man all-but spat at me. “If Blackjack loses his nerve, if losing his kid makes him think about all the other people he’s hurt, what if that makes him stop being an evil piece of shit, huh? What about all the people that might survive if he stops being a villain? Isn’t that worth losing one little kid if it saves a bunch of others? What–” 

Whatever he was going to say next was cut off, as Fred of all people punched him in the face. His head rocked backward with an audible yelp, and I saw blood coming from his nose. He also had a bit of a bruise under his eye. Fred, meanwhile, was rubbing his hand and wincing. “Shit, ow,” he mumbled, walking over to the bathroom to run some water over his knuckles. 

Pack and I looked at each other before shrugging. I looked to Ashton. “You had that coming. Now shut up, before someone else loses their temper and hits you. I can’t promise it won’t be me.” Reaching down for a box of tissues on the nearby table, I used a few to wipe off his face as gingerly as possible. Yeah, he was a dick, but I knew what had driven him to be like this. Even if I didn’t agree, I could still somewhat sympathize with how losing his friend had broken him. 

Pack and I put the helmet on him, securing it in place. Again, Wren hit the button on the control box, and there was a snapping sound as the helmet linked into his brain. The bit inside the helmet was the most important part, the one we’d taken from the Seraphs. Ahem, the one we’d borrowed from the Seraphs and would absolutely be returning once this was over. Yeah. 

Fred came back, looking embarrassed by his outburst. “You about ready to take this jackass out and finish this so we can all move on?” He muttered the words, clearly about as done with this whole situation as I was. We had to get those vials and then turn Ashton in to the police for everything he’d done. I still didn’t know how Blackjack was going to handle Ashton being in police custody. After the guy endangered his daughter, could he possibly just let him sit in prison?

I had my doubts. But I would just make sure to warn the authorities that Blackjack would want to kill him. After that… well, I’d warn them, that was all I could do. 

“We’re ready,” I announced, holding out a hand for the control box. Wren passed it over, and I smiled at her for a second before remembering that she couldn’t actually see the smile. Nor could she see the subsequent blush, as I quickly spoke aloud. “Thanks. You guys gonna monitor things back here?” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly, and she held up a cell phone. “Stay in contact, Paintball. Tell us everything that’s going on.” 

“Soon as we get started,” I assured her before nodding to Pack. “Okay, let’s do this.” With that, the two of us guided Ashton up and out of the basement. He couldn’t just go on his own for a couple reasons. First, we definitely didn’t trust him with knowing where this place was. There was too big of a chance of him ending up talking to a bad guy about it. So, his helmet was also currently blinding him. That made it somewhat harder for us to expect him to be able to walk anywhere. Plus, the suit wouldn’t actually let him move very well on his own. It severely limited his range of motion so he couldn’t just run off or attack us. 

Similar to the special staydown cuffs, however, if other people were guiding him, he could move slowly. So I led him up the stairs, announcing each step on the way so he wouldn’t trip, while Pack followed behind to help with that. 

On the way up, the man kept talking. His voice, muffled by the helmet, alternated between pleading and threatening. I really don’t think he expected us to take it this far. But what else were we supposed to do? I refused to let a kid die just so he could stick it to Blackjack. If that meant strong-arming him to this extent to force him into showing us where the vials were hidden, so be it. Yeah, it made me a bit uncomfortable. But I’d take feeling uncomfortable over letting a kid die just so he could spite someone he hated. How justified that hate happened to be was irrelevant when it came to letting a child die, period. To paraphrase a certain cop show I’d seen before, having a cool motive to murder was still murder.

To give us some peace and quiet without Ashton bitching the whole time (and also to make sure he didn’t try to play any games with alerting passersby or claiming we were abducting him, Wren had included a mute function in the helmet. It wouldn’t let any sound escape. I enabled that, silencing the man before we reached the parking lot. 

Once there, Pack and I looked around, making sure the lot was still empty before I murmured, “I guess keeping where Wren’s place is secret from you kind of went down the tubes awhile ago. But still, I hope–” 

“I’m not going to go blabbing about it,” she informed me flatly. “I like the kid too, Paintball. Blackjack isn’t in the habit of forcing anyone, let alone kids and even further Tech-Touched, to work for him. It’s a seriously bad idea on several levels. But even if he was, like I said, I like the kid. She’s safe, okay?” 

“Okay.” I felt like I could trust Pack by that point. Especially when it came to something like that. She might’ve been okay with stealing from people, but hurting kids was totally beyond her level of villain. And, for that matter, I thought she was probably right about Blackjack. 

Letting it go at that, I asked, “Got your friends?” 

“In the car.” She nodded toward the nearby red sedan that Wren had apparently fixed up for her to use. The lizards were in there, apparently. I saw the one I recognized as Riddles the bearded dragon sitting up on the dash, staring at me through the window. I waved, before the other girl and I guided Ashton that way. It took a few seconds to get him situated in the back seat, then I took the front passenger side (Riddles dropped down into my lap and I scratched her head), while Pack took the driver’s side. A moment later, we were pulling away. 

The spot we drove to wasn’t too far away, but we did drive for a longer time than we needed to. In order to throw off any chance of Ashton being able to figure out where Wren’s place was, Pack took a few random turns, drove in circles a bit, doubled back, went through a few parking lots, stopped in the middle of an open street (when no one was behind us) as if waiting for a stop sign or traffic light that didn’t exist, and so on. When we finally stopped, it was technically only a few blocks from where we’d started, but we took about ten minutes or so to get there. 

Pulling Ashton out of the car, I disabled the blinding effect and let his visor turn clear once more. His eyes were wide as they darted around, taking in his new location. We were in the parking lot of a self-serve car wash. Actually, at the moment we were actually in the car wash. It was a good way of being out of sight for the moment. 

Pack and I put a long coat on him to cover up the suit. Then I nodded to her. “Right, I’ll keep you updated,” I promised, looking over at our guide for the evening. “Let’s do it.” 

She got back in the car, already calling Wren. A moment later, my own phone buzzed, and I accepted the conference call. I already had the phone linked to the mic I was using to alter my voice, so that was all set. “Wren, you good back there?” 

“Trevithick,” she informed me. Before I could ask what the hell that meant, the girl amended, “My name. You should call me Trevithick. If everyone else gets a cool codename, I do too.” 

Blinking at that, I looked over to Pack, who shrugged at me. “Err, sure. Does the word mean something, or…” 

There was a giggle from the other end of the line, before she explained, “Trevithick was the name of the guy who created the steam locomotive. He basically invented the train. Plus, it’s a funny name. And he was really cool. He said that people called him insane and that he deserved to hang for what he created, but that even if that was the only reward he ever got from the public, he’d still be satisfied by the pleasure and pride he felt just from knowing that his invention would push everything forward so much. He said no matter how poor he might end up being, no one could take away the honor he felt at being useful.” 

“Wow.” I blinked again, that time from being impressed rather than confused. “Okay then, Trevithick it is. You ready back there?” 

“All good,” she assured us. “Right, Fred? He nodded. He has chicken in his mouth, so he can’t talk. I don’t think I was supposed to say that. Oh, right, just, uhh, keep telling us what’s going on.” 

Snickering despite myself, I nodded to Pack, then looked to Ashton. “Right, dude, here we go. See, walking all over town with you would take too long. So we’re going to shortcut this whole thing.” To that end, I first told him exactly where we were, the address and a description of the area just in case he wasn’t that great with directions. Once he knew the location, I took the control box, hitting the button. “Now, think of where the nearest vial is.”

He was clearly struggling not to. But it was no use. Wren did good work, and he immediately turned to start walking out of the car wash. I gave Pack a thumbs up, heading after the guy while she got back in the car. “Okay,” I announced for both her and Wren over the phone, “he’s heading… south on Rosa Parks. Making the jump.” 

Using the control box, I told Ashton to stop. Then I put one arm around him, gave myself a bit of extra strength with purple paint, and used my other hand to shoot a spray of red paint off toward the roof of a building across the street. With a grunt, I let it yank both of us up that way. Once we were in almost there, I cancelled the paint before shooting another bit toward a metal bit that stuck up further onto the roof and let that yank us the rest of the way.

After landing, I did the same thing across the next couple rooftops, going about six blocks that way while keeping the others updated. Once I saw a decent, mostly empty parking lot behind an old apartment building, I brought us down. Then I used the control box and told Ashton exactly where we were before repeating the order to think about the same vial he’d been focused on before. 

Again, he began walking immediately. And again, he clearly wasn’t happy about it. But I was done pleading with him to do the right thing. So, we were doing it this way. 

I kept doing that, narrowing down just where this first vial was by going several blocks at a time, setting him down, and seeing where he started walking next. At one point, we overshot, because he started walking back the way we’d come from. Which narrowed it down even more. It was like playing hot and cold, sort of. 

Eventually, we ended up in front of an old coin operated twenty-four hour laundromat. There was no one inside, so Pack pulled in and we had Ashton lead us right in. He went to one of the machines before I stopped him. Then Pack and I searched around the thing for a couple minutes until she found the vial duct taped to the back of it, up underneath a bit. 

“Another one down,” she announced, holding it up with what sounded like a grin behind her featureless black mask. “Blackjack has two, this makes three. We’re halfway there.” 

“And we’re getting the rest tonight,” I murmured with a glance toward Ashton. “See, we can do this just like we got that one. Or you can make the whole thing easier by just telling us where the rest are. Then we can be done with this. You hurt Blackjack, man. You scared him. Give it up now.” 

I unmuted him, and he stared at me for a few long seconds. His mouth stayed closed, but his lips kept moving, like he was working himself up to reply. But in the end, after waiting through it, all he said was, “Fuck you.” 

“He said no, didn’t he?” Wren’s voice asked through the phone. 

Sighing, I nodded. “Yeah, he said no. So, we keep going.” 

And we did. For the next couple hours, I took Ashton all around the freaking city just to get two more. He’d hidden the vials as far as he could while staying within Detroit, it seemed. They were all in out-of-the-way spots that he could easily get to at any time of day. 

Finally, we only had to get the last one. Pack had one of the vials in the car jockey box and the other in her hand, toying with it curiously, as we stopped in front of what was apparently the last place. It was a supermarket, one open twenty-four hours. Apparently the last vial was in there somewhere. Pack and I looked at each other while standing at the back of the lot next to the car. “We could wait until no one’s there,” I pointed out. “It’s not that busy now. We hold off for like an hour, it’ll be empty except a few employees. Then me and our buddy here can go in and grab it.” 

She started to nod, then looked past me and cursed. “Motherfucker. Isn’t that–shit!” 

“What?” I blurted, confused. “What–” Reflexively, I whipped that way, just in time to see movement in the sky across the street. A figure there was flying away out of sight, carried on enormous wings. “The hell was–” 

“Yahui,” Pack replied shortly, already shoving the vial she had into her pocket before yanking out a different phone from the one we were using to keep in contact with Wren. “It was Yahui. She was watching us. Probably been following us for awhile.” 

Yahui. That was one of Cuélebre’s people, one of Oscuro. She had the ability to manifest basically any animal part on herself at any point, mixing and matching as much as she wanted to and gaining the abilities related to those particular animal parts. If she was following us, she could have seen or heard anything depending on what animal eyes and ears she was manifesting at the time. This was bad. This was really bad. 

“Go!” Pack gave me a shove. “I’m calling in reinforcements. Go get the vial.” 

“I’m coming!” Wren called through the phone. 

“No!” Quickly, I shook my head, using the control box to order Ashton to go to the vial before addressing Wren again. “Stay there, we’ll get this and get out of here. Just wait. We’re almost done.” 

Rather than let Ashton stall by walking, I grabbed him and painted us right up to the store. A guy coming out stopped and stared, while I shoved Ashton through. “Sorry, sir,” I blurted, “but I really suggest you get out of here, fast!” That was called over my shoulder while I dragged Ashton through the front of the store, pausing just long enough to see where he started moving before dragging him again. 

We attracted attention. Because of course we did. But I managed to get to the ice cream aisle, finding the vial itself hidden way in the back, taped up under the top shelf. Yanking it out, I felt a surge of triumph. 

Then I heard Pack through the phone. “Problems,” she informed me. “More problems. A bunch of Oscuro vans just pulled up. I barely got out of sight. I’m working on getting my pals in fighting shape.” 

“How long til your other friends get here?” I asked. 

“That’s another part of the problems,” came the terse response. “Double Down says one of our main safe houses just got attacked by other Oscuro troops, right out of the blue. Oscuro troops and Ninety-Niners, working together. And… yeah, some Ninety-Niners just showed up outside here. They’re talking in the lot. Definitely working together. And… shit. There’s people in the back too. They’ve got you cut off and pinned in there. And–” 

“And your people are busy,” I finished, thinking fast. “Hold on. I’ll call back, just wait.” Disconnecting, I quickly fumbled through my coveralls until I found the card That-A-Way had given me, frantically dialing the number on it. 

“It’s That-A-Way,” the by-now familiar voice greeted me a couple rings later. “I always love saying th–” 

“This is Paintball,” I quickly interrupted. “Our old trucy ally and me, we’re at the Huey’s on Park West. Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners are about to come in guns blazing to get the stuff Blackjack’s been tearing apart the city looking for. So, you know, I don’t know if you’re busy or anything, but a little help would be great.

“And, uhhh, you probably better hurry.” 

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Showdown 7-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Okay, that’s it!” Wren chirped a couple hours later while straightening up and dusting her hands off. “It’s all done.” Her tone was one of excitement and a bit of nervousness. “At least, I think so.” 

She and I, along with Fred and Pack, were standing in the middle of the lab, surrounding a mannequin wearing what looked like a set of slightly thick thermal underwear with a motorcycle helmet. The helmet itself wasn’t too unlike mine, though it was more basic. Plus, mine didn’t have all those wires coming out the inside of it that made it look really god damn creepy. 

Fred poked the suit curiously while asking, “So this thing is gonna control our friend in there?” 

Shifting from foot to foot, Wren hesitated. “Um, sort of. When we use the control box and ask him to think about where something is, like those vials, the suit will read the place he’s thinking about and translate that into movement. It only reads the thoughts connected to the question when you use the control box, so he can’t just start thinking about something else and take us to like… McDonalds for lunch or whatever. But even when he takes us to a place, we might have to keep looking around that spot for exactly where they are. I’m not sure how close it’ll be.” 

With a nod, I looked to the Tech-Touched girl. “Sounds good, except for the ‘we’ part. We don’t know where he hid these things, but it could be dangerous. Especially with people still looking for him. I think you and Fred should stay here tomorrow.” When her mouth opened to object, I quickly added, “Trust me, Wren, you’ve done more than enough. Seriously. All this wouldn’t have been possible without you. You had the idea, you built this thing, you did it. You’ve done enough. Let me take Happypants out tomorrow and find these vials to finish it up.” 

“There’s still a ‘we’ in that,” Pack pointed out, watching me with her arms folded. “Remember, this is my boss’s daughter we’re talking about. I’m going with you and taking the vials back to him when we get them.” Her voice made it clear she wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“Right, see?” I gestured to Wren. “I’ll have backup. And we’ll stay in contact with you guys back here just in case something happens.” Voice softening, I put a hand on her arm. “Wren, it’s okay. Like I said, you’ve done enough. You didn’t really have anything to make up for to begin with, because you’re not the one who sold those things to Ashton. And… and Fred didn’t know what he was going to do with them.” Saying that with a brief glance to the man in question, I added, “You guys wait here tomorrow, okay? I swear, we’ll finish this and then we can all celebrate.”  

Still looking a bit discomfited, Wren hesitated before giving a slow, reluctant nod. “Okay, I guess. We’ll stay here. But you better keep your phone on, and if something happens, we’re gonna come help.” Standing there, fists on her hips, the girl stared as if daring me to object to that.  

Knowing that was the best I was going to get, I nodded. “Great. But uhh, should we test it before tomorrow? Actually, come to think of it, is there a reason we’re waiting until tomorrow? I mean, it’s late enough now that we shouldn’t attract too much attention. And it might take more than one day to actually get to all the vials if he separated them too much.” I didn’t know that he had, since he still wasn’t exactly cooperating. But finding out that he’d left that one vial in Wren’s shop had made me nervous that the rest were all scattered in different places. That would suck. 

Unfortunately, Wren shook her head. “The suit still has to charge,” she informed me. “It won’t be ready until tomorrow. I mean, it’s all put together and everything, but now it needs power.” She indicated the cord running from the mannequin to the outlet. “I couldn’t start charging it until it was all put together. I… sorry.” Her foot kicked the floor as she looked abashed. 

“No, sorry, it’s okay,” I quickly assured her. “We said we’d do it tomorrow and that’s fine. I was just thinking we could get it started early. One day shouldn’t make a big difference. Especially since Blackjack… got that new vial from Deicide?” I looked toward Pack for confirmation of that. 

“Yeah,” she replied, “he’s got it. I mean, he’s still not extending the deadline or anything, but he’s got it. And we’ve got time before it’s up anyway. Tonight, tomorrow, it’s all good. Still got days.” 

“Right, yeah.” Nodding, I looked back to Wren. “That’s cool, because I was also kind of hoping we could talk about something else, anyway. Something a little more… uhh… after this whole thing.” Finishing that slowly and hesitantly, I glanced toward Pack, suddenly feeling awkward. 

“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” The La Casa Touched waved her hand dismissively. “Can’t have the big, bad villain hearing all about your future plans. I’ll go check on the prisoner and make sure he’s ready for his big debut tomorrow. You have your little pow wow and call me when it’s over.”  

She went over and entered the room that was functioning as Ashton’s cell, closing the door after herself. Meanwhile, Wren and Fred both looked to me with a mix of confusion and expectation. 

Taking a second to collect my thoughts (I’d been going over this in my head for awhile), I finally exhaled and nodded decisively. “Okay, so I was thinking about what was going on with you guys. You know, the bit about how you need money. Probably even more now that Cuélebre’s people got into your old shop and trashed it. I don’t know if you’re planning on going back there or what. Personally, I’d really suggest not, at least for now, because those assholes know a Tech-Touched lives there. So if you go back and they find out about it, you’ll probably be dealing with people coming after you like… constantly. I’m sorry, it’s just… they will. You’re a kid and they’ll think they can like… mold you or whatever. They’ll think they can force you to do whatever they want, so they’ll keep trying to grab you. Or grab Fred to make you do it.” 

For his part, Fred looked like he was about to say something, then just sighed and nodded. “She’s right, I really screwed the pooch with this one, kid. They know you’re out there now, and they’ll keep trying to come after you. We can’t go back to the old place anytime soon.” 

“But it’s Dad’s shop,” Wren protested, her eyes wide as she looked back and forth between us. “We can’t just abandon Dad’s shop. We have to go back and clean it up. We have to open it again. Dad wouldn’t just let it stay closed. He built it. We can’t just… just abandon it forever.” 

“No one’s saying abandon it forever,” I assured her quickly. “Just… don’t go back until you’ve got good defenses, enough to make sure people can’t just waltz in and hurt you or Fred. Trust me, I’ve heard lots of people say that the one place you don’t want to attack a Tech-Touched is their own home. But you don’t have the resources or funds yet to build up the place to be that protected.” Pausing briefly, I glanced away to ask myself if I really wanted to do this. Of course, the answer was yes. I needed to do this. It was the best chance I had, and also the best chance Wren had. 

“So I want to help. But… I also want your help. See, I have some money, and I thought if I sort of… invested in you, it could help both of us. I give you money to buy supplies and design things, then we both profit when you sell them.” Quickly, before she could object, I added, “Just the ones you choose to sell. The things that are safe. Hell, it could even be stuff that people bring to you to fix. You repair it, charge for it, we make money and put it toward getting you built up as much as you need to be to get back to your shop safely. Or whatever you decide to do.” 

Slowly, Wren pointed out, “We could build stuff for you too. A better costume, tools, and stuff like that.” Seeming to suddenly realize that what she’d said might’ve been insulting, she hurriedly added, “Not that your costume is bad or anything. I just mean, umm, you know, it’d be… better?” 

Smiling despite myself, I held up a hand. “It’s okay, I get it. Yeah, I was kinda hoping we could work out something like that. You’re an amazing inventor, Wren. You just need some cash to build your business a bit so you can really make some cool stuff. I can help with that. I could invest right now, help you get off the ground, then we both profit later. Literally, with money, and figuratively, with cool new toys and a base that you can actually protect. So, what do you think?” 

Wren was staring at me, shifting from foot self-consciously. “You really want to give money to me to build stuff? What… what if it goes wrong? What if no one wants to buy anything I build? What if I can’t get customers? What if I mess it up and you lose all your money? What if I–” 

Quickly, I interrupted, holding up both hands. “Hey, hey. First of all, you’re an amazing inventor, Wren, like I already said. It’ll be fine. And even if it takes awhile to get off the ground, I won’t really be in any worse shape than I already am. Neither will you. It’ll be okay, trust me.” 

Fred was the next to speak, sounding like he wasn’t sure he should even say anything. “How–I mean… okay, I’m not asking for actual specifics or anything here, but seriously, how do you have ‘investing’ money? You helped buy all the shit for that suit over there, and you still have cash to spend? What, did your great-grandmother recently leave you a fortune or something?” 

I’d been thinking a lot about how to answer that question, because I knew it would come up at some point. Some part of me had considered just telling them the truth. At this point, I knew I could trust them. Or… Wren at least. And despite his mistake, I was pretty sure Fred had learned his lesson and wouldn’t do something stupid. But not positive. Plus, I didn’t want to put that kind of target or responsibility on them. They had enough to deal with as it was. 

So, instead of telling the whole story, I just shrugged. “Yeah, let’s just say I inherited some cash recently and leave it at that for now.” It was a lie, of course. But a… relatively minor one. It made me feel bad, yet it also protected Wren from getting a target on her back if she knew who I really was. There was a voice telling me that she could still have a target on her back for not knowing who I was, but I wasn’t sure there was actually a really good answer to this. Later I might tell them more. But for now, I was… being cautious about the whole thing. Maybe too cautious, but as far as I was concerned, that was better than not being cautious enough. This was dangerous. 

“So,” I settled on, “I’ve got money to invest and I’d like to do it with you. Partly because it means I’d have an excuse to hang out here more after we’re done with this, and that sounds cool. And because like you said, you could make me a new costume, or pieces of it. Hell, I’m pretty sure I could use anything you put together.” Tapping the side of my helmet, I added, “This thing’s already getting banged up from me being thrown around so much. An upgrade would be cool.” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly, the girl looking eager by that point. “Oh! Yeah, yeah, for sure. That… I could…” She trailed off, eyes looking off into the distance. I was pretty sure there were ideas already rushing through her head about the kind of upgrades and toys she could work on. Her hands were fidgeting like she wanted to write something down, and without saying anything, Fred slipped a pen and a small notebook into them. She turned to scribble on it.

“She’ll be busy for a few minutes,” the man informed me, sounding both amused and proud. Then he focused on me. “Are you serious about this whole investment thing? It’s a pretty big word for someone that–I mean..” Seeming to realize he had just walked off a verbal cliff, he tried desperately to cartoon run across empty air to get back onto the safety of solid ground. “Not that you’re ‘just a kid’ or anything, but… I mean, money’s money and all that, and you’re doing plenty of dangerous stuff pretty much by yourself already. It’s just, I wasn’t…” He made a helpless gesture, looking to me for help. Or at least for an excuse to stop talking.  

So, I gave him one. “Yeah, I get it, don’t worry. And yeah, I know what I’m doing. At least, I’m pretty sure. Can’t be any worse than trying to get investment from people you don’t know anything about, right? I can put in some cash to start, help you guys get going. And you don’t have to rely on a bank loan or anything. Or outside investors who, like I said, you don’t know.” 

“We don’t know much about you either,” he pointed out mildly before nodding. “But more than we’d know strangers. Plus the kid likes you. Which says a lot. Yeah, I mean, if you want to do something like that, I don’t see why not. It’s kinda hard to have any sort of enforceable contract without knowing everyone’s identity, but…” 

Wren spoke up then. “We don’t need a contract. We promise we’ll use your money to build stuff for you or stuff to sell and share the profit. Fifty-fifty.” 

Smiling despite myself at the brief look that crossed Fred’s face, I offered, “How about we go with sixty-forty in your favor? You’re already the ones building and selling the stuff. Not to mention the fact that I already profit from you building and fixing things for me. Plus you’ll have to pay for stuff like electricity, the property tax, any other incidentals, stuff like that. I’ll help with that too anytime you need, but you know, you should still be prepared for it with the extra.” 

“The hell kind of kid are you?” Fred demanded, squinting at me. 

“The kind who knows that having a business costs money, especially when you’re getting started,” I replied coolly. “So let’s do it like that. Sixty-forty for you guys, and we make up the difference with equipment maintenance. Does that… you know, sound fair?” 

Wren spoke up quickly. “Uh huh! This is gonna be so cool!” Suddenly, she was hugging me. “We’re gonna be superhero partners, Paintball! I’ll be like your Q! Which isn’t really a superhero thing, but still!” Giddily, she bounced up and down a bit, still holding on tight. 

Restraining the giggle that tried to sneak out, I returned the embrace. “Except for the part where you’re cooler than Q, yeah, just like that. But really, we can talk about the specifics later, after we deal with this whole thing. I just wanted to find out if you guys were interested. I’ll work on putting some money together and we’ll see where we can go with it, cool?” 

They agreed, and Fred went to retrieve Pack. Honestly, she hadn’t really needed to leave, but I wasn’t sure where all that would go at the time and wanted to be safe. For both our sakes. 

“So,” the girl started as soon as she was back in the room, “you guys work out how to split your profits from Paintball’s investment?” In response to all of us staring at her, she turned to look to her lizards in their cage, her tone teasing. “See? They think I’m dumb.” 

Flushing (and glad they couldn’t see it), I started to say that we definitely didn’t think she was dumb. But in mid-sentence, my phone buzzed. Holding up a finger, I pulled it out to look at the text. It was from Mom, asking if I could come home soon because she and Dad had something to talk about. Something to talk about? We’d already had dinner and everything hours earlier before they went to their meeting. What could they want to talk about? 

Realizing there was really only one way to find out (and trying in vain to clamp down on all my paranoia surrounding it), I excused myself with the promise to come back the next evening so we could finally get those vials. Then I headed out. 

The whole way back, as I made my way to another part of the city away from where the bookshop was (just in case), I kept asking myself why my parents might want me to come home to ‘talk.’ My paranoia about the whole thing was just getting worse, and continued doing so while changing clothes, summoning an Uber, and throughout the ride. The logical part of me was almost positive that it didn’t have anything to do with my extracurricular activities. The problem with that was the almost part. 

Still, I told myself it was fine. I couldn’t panic every time my parents said my name. I’d die of a heart attack inside of the week. 

Paying the driver after being dropped off at the gate, I put in my code and headed inside as it creaked open. A minute later, I went through the front door, starting to text my mother to let them know I was there. But both Mom and Dad were already in the front foyer, seemingly waiting. That… did nothing to calm my nerves, to be honest. 

“Oh, uhhh… what’s up?” I tried to sound casual. It probably didn’t work. 

The two of them exchanged glances, doing one of their ‘silent conversations’ that, at this point, I wasn’t sure weren’t actual conversations. Who knew what kind of tech they had access to, or what other powers my dad might have as Silversmith that he didn’t advertise. 

Either way, it only lasted for a moment before Mom turned back to me. “Cassidy,” she started carefully, “your father and I understand that what we’re going to ask of you might be difficult…” 

Oh God, were they about to tell me what they were really doing, who Dad really was? Wait, why would it be about asking me something? What? 

Mom continued and I forced myself to focus. “But we’re hoping you might… open your rooms for a little while, and… accept a… house guest.” 

I stared at her, confused. My head tilted. “Uhhh… wait, what?” 

“It’s okay,” my dad called, raising his voice enough to make it clear he wasn’t talking to me. “You can come in.” 

Still clueless, I looked over as a small Latina girl slowly came in through one of the other doors. She looked even more lost than I felt, slowly shuffling her way over near my parents while staring at the floor. She peeked up once, met my gaze, then quickly looked down again. 

“Cassidy,” Mom started, “this is Izzy. 

“She’s going to be staying with us for a little while.” 

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Alliances 6-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Run, run, run! I had to get back to the hotel before my family figured out I had been gone. They were going to be freaking out as it was, and if they realized I wasn’t anywhere in the hotel, the whole damn city would shut down. I’d never be able to explain it. I had to get in there and convince them that I hadn’t gone anywhere, before my whole situation got a hell of a lot worse than it already was. 

In a blind rush, I made it to the top of the hospital while the firefighters and Raindrop were still working. From there, I made it through the next roof over and went through a quick loop to reach the back side of the hotel. It was hard, considering everyone was on high alert. I could see people all over the grounds, cops and Touched alike. It was chaos down there. Police lights, both the red and blue flashing kind and the bright spotlight variety, were so prevalent they made the parking lot almost as bright as day. 

Somehow, perhaps by a miracle I’d earned for saving those kids or something, I made it back to the balcony of the hotel. There was a spotlight coming my way, so the second I was down, I dropped and flattened myself against the floor of the balcony while the light swept by just above my head.

Landing also reminded me of the pain in both my leg and wrist. I was pretty sure the wrist wasn’t actually broken or anything. Or even sprained. It was just bruised where Pencil had stepped on it. My leg, however, had that cut in it from Fork’s quill. And my parents would undoubtedly notice both. How was I going to explain those

Wait, I knew how. Scrambling to my feet, I painted myself green for speed and rushed through the bedroom of the suite just in time to hear someone shout my name muffledly. It was coming from out in the hotel corridor, and I could see the door handle jiggle a bit. My name was shouted again, and that time I recognized my father’s voice. It sounded like he was fumbling for the key. 

Still sped up, I stretched one hand out toward the dress I’d left on the floor and shot red paint at it. At the same time, I lunged for the nearby desk. As the dress was summoned to my red glove, my other hand yanked the drawer there open and found the fancy letter opener with the hotel’s name engraved on it. 

There was an affirmative beep from the door just then, as my dad managed to get the key card in. At the last second, I threw myself sideways into the connected bathroom and yanked the door shut, locking it. 

I was still sped up, but I had to change clothes. Looking down at my arms, I painted those green. Not the suit, my actual arms. With the added speed, I stripped out of the costume probably faster than anyone had ever change clothes in the history of the universe. I could hear the door opening out in the main room, my dad‘s voice louder and clearer then as he called for me. 

Ignoring it for the moment, I grabbed the dress and yanked it on haphazardly. It was rumpled and wrinkled to hell, but that was the least of my worries. 

The bathroom doorknob jiggled, then there was a loud bang against it as my father shouted my name once more. He sounded frantic, maybe even close to tears. 

But there was one more thing I had to do. Putting black paint over my chest to silence my yelp, I used the letter opener to stab into the dress and my leg right where the wound was. I tried to be careful, but it had to look right. Even if it did make me cry out (silently thanks to the paint) and stagger.  

Dad banged on the door again, sounding like he was about to knock it down. Marshaling myself, I started to say something. Then I caught myself and yanked the helmet and mask off. It would’ve been pretty bad if my voice was still changed. Saved from making that kind of fatal mistake, I made myself sound afraid. It wasn’t honestly that hard. “Wh-who’s there?” That gave me time to yank open the cupboard under the sink, shoving the costume in there. 

There was a brief pause, and I heard my dad take a shaky breath. “Sweetie, it’s Dad. It’s okay. You can come out.”

Checking myself in the mirror, I belatedly yanked the gloves off and stashed them under the sink as well. Then I smoothed the dress down as much as I could before hesitantly stepping over by the door. Slowly, I cracked it open, peeking out with the letter opener held tightly in one hand. When I saw my father standing there, I pulled it the rest of the way. 

He was on me immediately, picking me up from the floor while crushing me against his chest. My dad hugged me tightly, so much so that it was hard to breathe. He murmured my name a couple times, voice cracking a little bit in the process. 

“Dad,” I managed to get out a bit weakly, my exhaustion from everything that it happened, including my rush to get back here, helping me sound even more out of it and afraid. “What happened? There were men with guns and they were in the hallway so I hid. I’m sorry, I was just hiding and I didn’t do anything and my phone didn’t work and—”

“Shhh, shhhh, it’s okay.” Dad still held me crushed against his chest, shuddering a little bit as he held me. “You’re safe now. They are gone, it’s over. You’re safe. You’re safe.” It sounded as though he was talking to himself as much as to me. 

I started to say something else, but was interrupted by the sound of someone else coming into the room. It was my mother. She practically flew through the doorway, eyes wild until she spotted the two of us. My name fell from her trembling lips as she came our way. Dad set me down just in time for her to scoop me up, pulling me into a new tight hug. “You’re okay, you’re safe.” She too was clearly telling herself that as much as me. Then she looked down, giving a soft gasp. “You’re bleeding!” 

Dad had clearly just noticed that too, his eyes snapping to the letter opener in my hand. “What did–” 

Flinching, I stepped back, ducking my head as if I was embarrassed. “I… I saw those guys so I took the letter opener in case they came in. It was all I could think of. But I… when I went to hide in the bathroom, I slipped and… and fell. I guess I sort of… cut myself? I might’ve sprained my wrist a little too.” 

“Let me see.” Dad already had something in his hand. It was a safe-seal bandage, one of the professional variety, meaning it had medical gel on it that would prevent infection and help the wound heal faster. He took a knee, and I lifted the dress enough for him to carefully put the bandage on my leg. It looked like a large white patch, which sealed to the skin as soon as he pressed it firmly against the wound. I could immediately feel the very slight sting, followed by a soothing cool gel. The bandage would come off on its own sometime the next day, and would either need to be replaced by another or not, depending on how bad the wound was. 

“Th-thanks, Dad,” I managed. “But… but I think I ruined the dress too. I was hiding and laying on the floor after that and it’s all bloody from the stupid knife thing and I was all curled up and I know you’re not supposed to do that, but I was afraid. And I was trying to call somebody, but the phone didn’t work and I was—”

Head shaking quickly, Mom stepped over to pull me into another hug before looking down at me. “I do not care about the stupid dress.” Her hand moved to cup my cheek tenderly, tears in her eyes. “You are safe, Principessa. You are safe, that’s all I care about. You are safe. I was afraid that… I was afraid. You are okay. The men who came, they didn’t…”

“They didn’t see me,” I confirmed. “I saw them in the hallway, so I shut the door. But then I was afraid they’d come in, so I took the letter opener and hid in the bathroom. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t hear what was going on, I wasn’t… I mean…”

She shushed me again, pulling me into another hug with her trembling arms. “You are safe. That’s all that matters.”

Simon had made it to the room by then, hearing my explanation. He too came over to hug me, without even making any kind of smartass remark. He actually looked worried, his hug genuine and firm. “Lucky you,” he managed after a few seconds of that. “Missed all the excitement. Even if you did manage to hurt yourself anyway.” Okay, maybe he couldn’t avoid every smartass remark. It was probably genetic. 

“I… I don’t want anything more exciting than that,” I murmured before stepping back to smooth the wrinkled and bloody dress down. “But what happened? Who were those guys? They look like soldiers or something, but… not.”

Dad shook his head. “Definitely not soldiers. It was…” He and Mom exchanged brief looks, some kind of silent conversation going on between them before he continued. “It was the Scions. But it’s okay. They’re gone now. They’re all gone, I promise. We’re safe.”

“Th-the Scions?” I made my voice whimper weakly. “Are you sure they’re gone? What if they come back? What if they’re still around? What if—”

Mom quieted me with another embrace, promising that all the danger was gone and that there were police and Star-Touched all over the place. Dad took me by the hand and led me out to the balcony to look down, showing me all the cops down there while telling me all about the heroes who had shown up and were scouring every inch of the hotel. “The Scions aren’t stupid enough to stick around with all this here,” he murmured. “They’re gone by now, I promise. They’re gone.”

Somehow, I stopped myself from pointing out that there had been plenty of cops and Star-Touched around when Pencil first showed up with his fanatics. It didn’t feel like that would actually accomplish anything useful. 

Instead, managing a little nod, I turned a bit to look over at the hospital. The fire was out by then, but there were still fire trucks and police. Raising my hand, I pointed. “Oh my God, what happened over there? Are they okay? That’s the kids hospital. What happened?”

Dad assured me that things were handled over there too, that from what he heard, no kids had been killed. “The fire was contained to one floor that was already evacuated. It’s okay. It could’ve been a lot worse. A lot worse.” He repeated that in a quiet, somewhat shaky voice while putting both hands on my shoulders with a gentle squeeze. He was clearly still convincing himself I was really there and I hadn’t been hurt. 

“The Scions are monsters,” I murmured before turning to look at him with wide eyes. “What about Pencil? He had to be here too, right? Did they catch him?” I was still curious about how he had gotten off the roof of this place and all the way over to the hospital. 

Dad sighed. “They took down the one pretending to be Pencil. Or being forced to pretend.”

Blinking at that, my head tilted. “Forced to pretend?”

With a grimace, Dad explained. “Someone who looked like him was on the roof, someone with his costume. He was going on the way Pencil does. But when it all went down, someone tackled him and it turned out he was just some innocent civilian under that mask. He was gagged and had a speaker system rigged up under his suit so the real Pencil could talk through it. And a bomb collar to make sure he did what he was told. They just managed to disable the thing in time.”

Mom cursed in Italian quietly before adding, “He probably thought it would be amusing if someone took a shot at the man and ended up killing an innocent civilian.”

“They would have killed more than that,” Dad pointed out. “That collar was linked to his life signs too. If he died, he would’ve blown and taken off a good chunk of the roof in the process.”

“Sterling,” Mom chastised, “that is enough. We don’t need to scare her any further.” To me, she added, “The point is, they did not find the real Pencil.”

“Of course not,” Simon muttered from the doorway onto the balcony. “Why would they do something useful like that? They oughta grab that motherfucker, bury him in concrete, and drop the whole slab into the Marianas Trench. Just be done with it. Go be invulnerable thirty-five thousand feet below sea level, dickface.”

The fact that Mom didn’t reprimand his language said more to me about how shaken up she was about this whole thing than basically anything else could have. Instead, she stepped up behind him from within the room, looking to me. “Your father and I need to take care of a few things. Can you stay right here in this room and not go anywhere until we get back? Simon can stay with you, if you need someone.”

I started to respond to that, but there was a knock against the still open doorway out in the main hall. Tomas was there, raising a hand. “Uh, I could stay if she wants. Sorry, I was coming to check on Cassidy and… I guess I interrupted.”

“It’s okay,” I quickly put in. “I’ll stay with Tomas. We’ll  just stay here in the room. We won’t go anywhere, I promise. Trust me, I… I’m not really in the mood to go wander around. And I’d be limping anyway.” Considering everything I had just been through, it was an easy promise to make. I wasn’t interested in doing anything else for a long time. And at least this way it would be Tomas staying with me. I knew he didn’t have any kind of involvement with my family’s criminal empire. Unless they had some kind of London branch, which was just me being ridiculously paranoid. 

My parents exchanged looks once more before Mom stepped out to gently kiss my forehead. “The phones are working again,” she murmured, “so if you need anything, anything at all… just call one of us, okay?”

Once I promised to do so, she, Dad, and Simon headed out to do… whatever they were going to do. I was left standing there in front of Tomas, feeling awkward. 

“So,” the boy started hesitantly, “I guess this was all a stupid game for those guys. They were just trying to get money and stuff out of all the rich people here,  threatening those kids at the hospital for it. Pretty fucked up, huh?” 

“Fucked up?” I echoed before nodding as I stepped into the room and moved to sit down on the nearby couch. “Yeah, I’d say it was really fucked up. 

“Then again, that’s kind of the Scions in a nutshell.”

*****

Things were busy through the rest of the night and most of the next day. I stayed at home, making sure my parents understood I was safe and that, as far as they knew, I had never been in any direct danger. They insisted on checking the cut in my leg, and put a fresh safe-seal bandage on it after calling in the family doctor to make sure it wasn’t infected or anything. I held my breath through the examination, but she didn’t say anything out of the ordinary. The cut I’d made with the letter opener clearly covered up the puncture wound from the quill, so the pain had been worth it. And my wrist wasn’t actually sprained, though there was still some soreness to it. 

In the end, my family thought I had hidden in that bathroom and never saw anything more of the bad guys than their backs. If they’d had the slightest clue of just how close I’d come to being killed last night, regardless of the being Touched part, they probably would have locked me into my room and not let me leave until I was in my mid-twenties. 

As it was, I waited until evening when I knew they were at some kind of big meeting for all the rich and powerful players who had been there last night before I went anywhere. Once I finally felt safe getting out of that house for awhile, I changed clothes into my costume and made a beeline for Wren’s place. 

Reaching the parking lot in front of the bookstore, I saw Fred hosing down some kind of sedan. When he saw me, the man twisted the nozzle to shut down the water before speaking. “Hey, you okay? Lizard girl said you ran into that Scion shit down at the party last night.”

Nodding, I replied, “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks mostly to her. She’s pretty cool. You know, for a villain.”

“For a villain,” he echoed quietly, frowning for a moment before heaving a sigh as he looked to me. “Hey, listen. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about before. Sorry for how I treated you and for helping that crazy asshole. I didn’t know what he was going to do with that stuff, but it’s not an excuse. I should’ve asked more questions, I shouldn’t have gotten involved. Shouldn’t have sold the kid’s stuff like that. It was wrong, and I was an asshole. So… yeah, I’m sorry.”

Blinking at that, I gave a short nod. “It’s okay. You’re working on fixing it. I’m pretty sure that’s what matters.”

“Hell yeah, we’re working on it,” he confirmed. “Speaking of which, the kid’s downstairs. You should go talk to her.”

So, I did, heading in and down. Reaching the lab, the first thing I saw was Pack. She was sitting over on the couch, legs held up to her chest in a pretty casual posture for someone in a costume. Her attention was focused solely on the phone in her hands. When I entered, she looked up and waved the phone at me. “Hey, you know what? Your friend That-A-Way is pretty cute. I see why you like playing hero with her around.”

Flushing under the helmet, I started to say that I hadn’t noticed, only to stop myself. Would a boy have noticed? Hmm. 

Shaking that off, I decided to change the subject by asking, “Is Holiday okay then?”

She nodded, pointing to the cage where all the lizards were curled up asleep in their natural forms. “Yup, giving them a break today. They put in a lot of work back there.”

“So did you,” I pointed out. “And you didn’t have to, so… thanks. Seriously, I’m pretty sure a lot of those kids would’ve died without you last night. Actually, I know they would have. Without you, there’d be a bunch of dead children in that place. And they would’ve lost a lot more of the hospital with that bomb. Seriously, you were awesome.”

The full black mask hid her expression, but I had the idea she was blushing a bit. “No big deal. I’m not some monster who’s going to let a bunch of little kids die. But it’s over. Let’s talk about the important stuff, like, for example, do you have That-A-Way’s number, or what? You know, so I can thank her for saving Holiday.”

Hesitating briefly, I carefully replied, “I better make sure it’s okay with her before letting you have it, you know? I mean, you guys are still on opposite sides. Unless you wanna join the Minority so you can see her again?”

She laughed, shaking her head. “Nice try, kid. Hey, if the Minority’s so amazing and all, why aren’t you joining them? Last time I checked, you actually were trying to play hero. And they’re kind of the big thing for teen heroes, right? You get training, support, friends, all that stuff you should be interested in. So what’s with the whole keeping them at arm’s length thing?”

Thankfully, I was spared from having to respond to that very good question by Wren, who popped her head up from the pile of junk she had been buried in, waving excitedly. “Paintball! Hiya. Good timing, we just need a little more help and poof, here you are. I got through some of this faster than I thought I would.”

“Faster?” I echoed. “Does that mean…?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s almost done. Like, really close. We just need to do a couple more things, and I think you can help finish it up. With a little luck, it’ll be ready by tomorrow. And then we’ll be able to use the suit and find those vials.”

“Well then,” I replied with a smile. “What are we waiting for?

“Let’s get to work.”

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Interlude 4A – Wren (Summus Proelium)

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“Hey, kid.” A foot nudged Wren Donovan’s leg as the nine-year-old lay on a wheeled creeper board underneath a sedan. With a flashlight in her mouth and tools in both hands, the girl hesitated. She really didn’t like to interrupt her work when she was on a roll. Especially when the person interrupting her was someone she wasn’t exactly super-happy with at the moment. 

The nudge came again. “Come on, kid, I’ve got pizza inside. You’ve gotta eat.” 

That did it. She might’ve been upset with Uncle Fred for giving that bad guy the stuff he needed to hurt that girl, but pizza was pizza. Besides, he didn’t mean for things to go that way. Pushing her feet down, she rolled herself out from under the car and blinked up at the man while spitting out the flashlight. “Pepperoni?”

“Extra pepperoni with more pepperoni on the side just in case they don’t get the message, just the way you like it,” Uncle Fred assured her, reaching down to offer both hands to the girl. She took them with her own grease-covered fingers, and he grimaced a little before pulling her up to her feet. They were standing in the back alley area behind the ‘bookstore’ that served as the entrance to her back-up lab. The rear door into the store itself was standing open, and she could already smell the promised pizza beyond. It was quickly making her mouth water. 

“Uh uh,” Uncle Fred stopped her with a hand. “You go wash your hands first. Soap and water.” 

“Yeaaaah yeah,” Wren grumbled a bit. Not because she actually wanted to taste oil and grease while she was eating, but for the principle of the thing. Heading off quickly, she thoroughly scrubbed her hands in the small restroom attached to the store before going back. Fred had taken the pizza downstairs to the lab by that point, and she followed her nose that way.

Once the girl had filled a plate with food, she made her way to the couch to watch cartoons, switching the channel away from whatever daytime courtroom drama had been playing as she settled in to scarf hungrily at the food. Watching Pearl, Amethyst, and the other Gems was much more interesting than people complaining about someone stealing their dog or breaking their window or whatever. She could see her uncle watching her from nearby, but waited until a commercial before she addressed him. “Are you mad at me, Uncle Fred?” 

“Mad at–” The man sighed, moving around to sit on the nearby chair. “Kid, I was trying to figure out how angry you were at me. I mean, I did sort of really fu–screw things up back there.” 

He was right. He had screwed things up, and a girl was in trouble because of Wren’s inventions. But… she supposed he hadn’t meant to make that happen. Thinking through all that as she silently munched her pizza, Wren finally swallowed and looked back to him. “Yes. I’m mad at you. You were a jerk and you did what I said not to just because you thought you knew better. A girl is really in trouble, Uncle Fred, cuz of my stuff.” 

The man winced. “I… I know. I’m sorry, kid. You’re right. I didn’t think it–I didn’t think. That’s not an excuse. I royally screwed up.” 

Meeting his gaze, Wren slowly nodded. “Everyone messes up sometimes.” Her brow furrowed, and she added pointedly, “But no more selling any of my stuff without telling me, okay? If my stuff gets someone killed, I couldn’t…” She stopped, biting her lip while staring at the food on her plate before finishing with an awkward, “Just tell me. And no means no. You’re the adult, but they’re my inventions.” 

“You got it,” Fred promised, taking a slice of pizza for himself from the nearby table before asking, “You ahh, mind telling me what you’re planning to do with that car out there?” 

“I’m not sure yet,” Wren admitted. “Mostly just trying to get it running again. Then I was thinking about making a Transformer.” She said that just to watch her uncle choke on his food, snickering to herself before amending, “Or maybe I’ll just make it go faster.” 

While Uncle Fred was still trying to react to that, the phone rang. Dropping her plate next to herself on the couch, Wren dove for it, grabbing the receiver before hitting the button. “Mllohn?” 

Right, food. Chewing her pizza hurriedly before swallowing, she tried again. “Hello?” 

There was a brief pause, before she heard a by-now-familiar voice, “Wren, that you?” 

“Hi, Paintball!” Grinning at the sound of the boy’s uncertain words, Wren found herself nodding pointlessly while hurriedly blurting, “Did you find that guy you were looking for? Did he have the things he stole? Oh, oh, did you save that girl? Is she okay? Did her dad say thank you? Is he still a bad guy? Are you gonna–”

A hand touched the back of her head, as Uncle Fred stood behind the couch. “Maybe let the kid answer one of the questions at a time, huh?” he suggested before taking a bite of his pizza. 

“Oh, right.” Turning her attention back to the phone, Wren settled on a simple, “What’s up?”  

She could hear Paintball chuckle just a little. “Hi, Wren. Yeah, um, we sort of–yeah, we have the guy and one of the medicine vials. But I was kind of wondering if we could bring him over there for awhile so we can figure out how to get the location of the rest of the stuff out of him. I know it’s a lot to ask, but your place is hidden and I don’t exactly have much in the way of options.” 

As he finished saying that, another voice spoke up, saying something that Wren couldn’t catch. Then Paintball’s voice came back, “Yeah, I know your boss would take him off my hands. Call me crazy, I don’t really want to be responsible for sending this guy to be tortured and executed.” 

“Uh,” Wren had to put in, “tortured and executed?” From the corner of her eye, she saw Uncle Fred do a double-take while silently echoing her last words. His face looked funny that way, and she had to restrain a giggle. Giggling after saying tortured and executed was probably bad.

“Sorry, sorry,” Paintball quickly replied. “That wasn’t–never mind. The point is, could we bring him over to your place until we figure this out? The um, one of… ahh, one of Blackjack’s people wants to come with to make sure he won’t get away and to see how we might get the truth out of him without her boss taking fingers and toes.” 

The person with Paintball spoke again, and that time Wren clearly heard, “Ehh, mood he’s in, I’m pretty sure he’d start with a full hand and just work his way out from there.” 

“Yeah, sure, bring him.” Wren said those words while giving her uncle a brief glance and an exaggerated thumbs up together with a wide smile to show him that it was all okay. “Wait, can you get him here?” 

“That’s actually the other thing,” Paintball reluctantly replied. “Things could get pretty nuts out here if people see this guy, so I don’t exactly want to go walking down the street with him.” 

Before the boy could continue, Wren brightly put in, “That’s okay, Uncle Fred can come get you.”

“He can?” The exact same words came from both Paintball over the phone and Fred himself from right beside the girl. 

“Uh huh.” Wren covered the receiver and gave her uncle a sharp look. “Dead. Little. Girl.” 

The man sighed, slumping a bit before waving his hand acceptingly. “Just tell me where to go.”

“Hey, Paintball? He’ll be there. Just tell us where you guys are.” Wren grinned. “See? You totally found the bad guy. I knew you would. Did the remote thing help a lot? Where was he? Did he fight you when you found him? Did you hit him really hard? Did he run away? Did you–” 

The phone was plucked from her hand, as Uncle Fred spoke. “Where are you? Huh? Yeah, got it. Bring a what? And–is there room in the car for a cage? A cage of lizards, as in multiple lizards? What kind of–never mind. I’ll be there.” Disconnecting, the man dropped the phone and heaved a sigh while heading for the exit, grumbling, “Car full of lizards, gonna ruin the upholstery. Never gonna get the smell out. Could’ve moved to Florida, but nooo.” 

As he left, Wren helpfully called, “I’m pretty sure they have lizards in Florida too, Uncle Fred!” 

*******

“Wait, so you weren’t kidding about your tech expert being a nine-year-old?” The girl who stood there in the main room of the upstairs bookstore, staring at Wren, wore a black and green leather jacket with a hood that covered her hair, her face hidden by a full black mask that didn’t even have any eye or mouth holes. 

Wren wasn’t offended. She was pretty used to that kind of reaction from anyone who found out that she was the one who built things back at the shop. Instead, she focused on the cage in the girl’s hands, blurting, “Oh wow, you really do have lizards! They’re so cute!” 

Head tilting, the lizard girl paused briefly before nodding. “Yeah, okay, I like her.” Setting the cage down, she extended a hand. “Name’s Pack. So you’re the genius, huh?” 

“I just like building really cool things,” Wren informed her while accepting the hand with both of hers. She shook it excitedly before blurting, “How come you’re a bad guy?” That time, it was both Paintball and Uncle Fred who choked and gave her surprised looks. Which was silly. Why did adults act so weird about actually asking the important questions or just saying what they meant? 

If she was offended or whatever, Pack didn’t act like it. She just shrugged. “Law never really did anything for me, so I don’t see why I should care that much about it. All the authorities have ever done is break up my family, take away my friends, repossess my stuff, throw us out in the street because we couldn’t pay rent, shit–I mean stuff like that. Not like I’m going around getting innocent little girls killed like some people.” With those words, she shot a look toward the handcuffed man nearby. “There’s levels of bad, y’know?” 

Wren blinked twice, thinking that through for a moment. It sounded wrong, but she wasn’t sure how to say it. Instead, the girl simply turned to Paintball with a grin. “You really found him!” 

“Yeah, thanks to your thing,” the boy replied before gesturing to the man in question. “So first up, any idea where we can keep him for the time being?” 

“You dumb shits know this is false imprisonment, right?” the man demanded. “Some heroes.” 

“Some of us don’t claim to be heroes,” Pack pointed out. Her expression was hidden behind that full mask, but her voice was dangerous. “And some of us have a boss that would really rather we take you to him instead of leaving you here. If you’d prefer that, it can be arranged.” 

Wren was pretty sure the guy didn’t want that, considering how quick he stopped talking. She looked back to Paintball, pointing to the stairs. “Come on, I’ll show you! There’s a room. I was setting it up for another lab, a uhh, soundproof one for little explosions and stuff. But it’ll work. Wait, he doesn’t have any powers, does he?” 

“Other than being a giant pain in the ass to track down?” the boy replied before shaking his head. “Nope. Not as far as we know, anyway. And I’m pretty sure he would’ve used them by now if he had anything. We searched him pretty thoroughly. No more weapons or tools. And no phones besides the one I was tracking.” 

“Don’t forget, also no vials,” the man pointed out with a tiny sneer. “And you’re not getting them.” 

Ignoring him, Wren led the group, with Uncle Fred bringing up the rear, down the stairs to the private area, then to a mostly-hidden door in the back. She fumbled in her pockets briefly, managing to bring out a small remote, which she pointed at the door. There was a beep as she pressed a button on it, and the door slid open. 

“It worked!” Wren blurted despite herself. Oh boy, that was perfect timing. The thing had been sticking for the past–The girl stopped, blinking over her shoulder at the assembled group. “I mean… he can go inside there.” She pointed into the room, which was basically a twenty-foot by twenty-foot square with blank walls, since she hadn’t moved anything in there yet. “We can get a mattress and a blanket or something for him, and some books. Oh, and we have pizza, and–” 

Paintball guided the man past Wren into the room, looking around for himself before pointing. “Just stay put, Ashton. Like she said, we’ll get you some stuff to take care of you. And you know, you could make this whole thing a hell of a lot easier if you just told us where the vials are. Do that, and I think I could probably talk Blackjack into letting you walk away from all this.” He paused, looking over to Wren and the others before turning back to amend, “Or at least give you a head start.” 

Paintball closed the door before giving the man a chance to reply, letting out an audible breath before looking over to Wren. “Thanks for helping take care of that guy. And um, I really hate to impose even more, but–” 

“You want something that can make him tell you where the stuff is, right?” Wren blurted, unable to keep quiet any longer. “I can’t make a telepathy thing. I mean, I’m pretty sure I can’t. I’ve never really tried, but I thought about it for awhile and I couldn’t think of anything. Usually it’s really easy to think of things. So I don’t think I can do mind reading stuff.” 

Setting the cage with her lizards down, Pack asked, “Can you do something to make sure that whatever he says is the truth?” 

“Like a Poliwag?” Wren started before frowning to herself. “Wait, that’s not right. That’s–polygraph!” She blurted that while raising a hand in triumph. “Nailed it! Polygraph. I… maybe can make a polygraph? I think. Wait, hold on. Gimme a second.” She spun on her heel to start away, stopping in mid-step to look back over her shoulder. “I mean, gimme a sec to plan something, not to actually make the thing. I’m not that fast. Okay, just a sec.” 

With that, Wren sprinted over to one of her tables of junk, dumping out a box before frantically moving parts and tools around. “Uncle Fred!” she called, “where’s Linus?” 

The man didn’t need to be told any more than that. He simply stepped over to one of the other tables, dug around in a box until he had a tiny screwdriver with tape over the handle and a happy face drawn on that tape, and handed it to her. 

“Hi, Linus!” Wren held the tool up so she could see the bright smile she had drawn on it. “We’re gonna figure out how to make somethin’, okay?” 

She set to work then, mumbling to herself as she moved parts around, undoing pieces of equipment with the help of Linus, Charlie, and Marcie. The latter two were her favorite wrench and pliers, respectively. 

It took about fifteen minutes. From the corner of her eye, she could see Paintball and Pack sit down to watch the TV, while Uncle Fred went to get that mattress, a blanket, and a few other things. Once that stuff was in the room with the prisoner guy, Paintball stepped in and came out a minute later with the cuffs that had been on him before returning to her seat. 

Through it all, Wren kept working. She didn’t want to tell them she knew what to make until it was definitely clear that she could do it. Grabbing a sheet of blueprint paper and a pencil, she scrawled on it for a few minutes, crossing things out and erasing until she had the right idea. It was a bit of a mess, but she’d clean it up later. 

Finally, she had enough. Checking her calculations one last time, Wren grinned excitedly while pumping her fist. “Gardyloo!” 

“Gardy-what?” Pack, jumping from her seat at the sound, stared at her. 

“Um, gardyloo,” Wren hesitantly explained while blushing a little. “It’s um, it’s something they used to say a long time ago in Scotland when they were throwing the, umm, slop from the windows out to the street. I just think it’s a funny word, so when I figure things out, I say it instead of eureka. Everyone says eureka. Nobody says gardyloo.” 

“Huh.” Shrugging, the lizard girl gave her a thumbs up. “Well gardyloo to you too. You figured out what to do, then?” 

Head bobbing quickly, Wren explained, “Uh huh. I can totally make something that’ll work. See?” She held up the sketch she had made of an armored suit. 

“What am I looking at?” Paintball asked, stepping that way to squint at the drawing of the armor. “You… uhh, you want us to build a suit that can beat the information out of him? Because that’s not exactly the way I was hoping we’d go.” 

In response, Wren grinned at him, tapping the paper. “Nah, silly. The suit is for him.” 

Paintball stared at her. “Okay, um, I think you might’ve been confused on the goal here. The point is to get him to tell us where he hid the vials, not give him a suit of armor.” 

Giggling, Wren glanced toward the snickering Pack before shaking her head. “The suit isn’t about protecting him, it’s about making him move around. See, the helmet there plugs into his neck and his head. If he’s wearing the suit and you make him start thinking about where the vials are, the helmet will translate his thoughts into movement, and make him go that way. All you have to do is follow.” She was grinning brightly. “See, it’s like trying not to think of a pink elephant. He doesn’t have to tell you where the medicine is. Just make him think about where it is and his body’ll go there. He can’t stop it.” 

“Oh. That…” Paintball trailed off. “That’s really cool, Wren. Yeah, you know, I think that just might work. And hey, you made it fit into that whole ‘movement’ theme.” 

Blushing, Wren kicked at the floor and shrugged self-consciously. “It makes things a lot easier to build if I design them around that. But it’ll take me about a week to make it. And I’ll need some special supplies. I’m not sure what yet, but… definitely things I don’t have here.” 

“I’ll take care of anything you need,” Paintball quickly assured her. “And a week… should be okay, right?” He looked over at Pack. 

She, in turn, shrugged. “Dunno. I’m gonna have to call the boss and clear all this just to be sure. We’ve got the one vial, so that should keep the kid okay for a month, but he’s not gonna wait that long.” 

“Two weeks,” Paintball replied. “Like I said before, just tell him we need two weeks to get the truth out of Ashton. If Wren can build something to make him talk, we can get the rest of the medicine before she’s ever in danger again.” 

Once more, Pack shrugged. “Like I said, gotta call the boss. He’s the final say on all this.” 

“Use this phone.” Standing beside her, Fred offered the girl one. “It can’t be tracked, so they won’t know where you’re calling from. Just like you don’t know where you are.” 

“Gotcha.” Taking the phone, the girl stepped away, stopping by the cage to take one of her lizards out, setting him on her shoulder. Then she dialed the phone and moved to a corner of the room, murmuring quietly. After a minute of that, she turned and held the phone out to Paintball. “Boss wants to talk to you.” 

As the boy took the phone and had his own conversation, Pack returned to stand by Wren. “A week, huh?” 

“I can do it,” she assured the older girl. 

“If they come to a… an agreement on this,” Pack informed her, “it sounds like the boss is gonna want me to stick around here and keep an eye on that jacka–that guy. You mind if my little friends and me crash in the corner?” 

Brightening, Wren shook her head. “Nope, that sounds fun! It can be like a sleepover. I haven’t had any of those in a long time.” 

“Huh. A sleepover, huh?” Pack considered before shrugging. “Yeah, aight.”

Apparently finished with his call, Paintball disconnected. “Okay,” he announced, “ten days. Blackjack wouldn’t agree to two weeks. He said ten days. We’ve got that long to build this thing and get the rest of the vials out of Ashton. Then we ca–” There was a chime from the boy’s costume, and he dug around inside before coming out with a phone. His face was hidden behind the helmet, but his eyes very clearly widened as he blurted, “Oh shit! I’ve gotta go.” 

“Go?” Pack echoed, the frown evident in her voice. 

“Yeah, I’m gonna be late getting my dr…” Trailing off, Paintball coughed. “Late getting my drums.” 

Dryly, Pack gave him a thumbs up. “Smooth, totally saved it.” 

Looking awkward and fidgety, Paintball cleared his throat. “I–uh, whatever, I’m gonna be late. Call your boss back and tell him to send a car with someone he trusts completely to the public library on Woodward. I’ll give them the vial there. But they better be there quick.” 

With that, he was gone, hurrying up the stairs and leaving the building like his pants were on fire. 

Watching the boy go, Wren asked, “Uncle Fred, could you go to the store and get some marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers? We’re gonna make s’mores! And then we’ll tell ghost stories, and watch silly movies, and play music, and truth or dare, and, and, and–”

Her excited rambling was interrupted once more by Pack. “Y’know, I’ve thought a lot about how my first official mission as part of La Casa would go.

“Gotta say, I did not see this coming.” 

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