Fred Donovan

Kith And Kin 20-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had… friends. 

I had a team.

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Kith And Kin 20-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, the next day at school was awkward. I kept wanting to talk to Tomas, but had no idea how to start with all that. I needed to ask about Maki, clearly. Tomas was my best chance to actually find out what was going on with that situation, yet the whole thing was just… so complicated. Seriously, even if Tomas had no connection to the Ministry and didn’t know anything about them, which I was seriously doubting, how was I supposed to press him for information about his new boyfriend without looking like I was jealous or something? 

And yes, being mistaken as being jealous was basically at the bottom of the list of priorities, but still. I couldn’t just start pressing Tomas for answers without likely looking at least somewhat suspicious. I had to be careful and delicate about the whole thing. Which wasn’t helped by the fact that every time I started to think about going up to the boy and talking to him, a lump formed in my throat and I felt like I was going to throw up. Not really because of the new boyfriend thing, but because of my increasing thoughts that he was somehow involved in the Ministry stuff. It sucked, but I couldn’t make my brain shut up with its paranoia that Tomas had only been dating me to keep an eye on me or something. Just the thought that any part of our relationship had been a product of my parents’ meddling was awful. 

To that end, it wasn’t until I was walking out of school at the end of the day and I saw him ahead of me that I finally actually did something. Taking a deep breath, I picked up the pace to move alongside the boy. He glanced my way and smiled, making my heart clench in on itself. “Hey there, Cassie,” Tomas greeted me with a completely unfair wink. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I know, it’s weird, huh?” It wasn’t the best segue, but I continued with, “And let me guess, you’re running off to spend time with your mysterious new boyfriend?” 

The words made Tomas almost double over, snorting with amusement. “Dude, Maki is a lot of things, but mysterious? Nah, he’s basically an open book.” Glancing my way once more, he slyly added, “But then, you probably know a lot about him, after getting ice cream over there.” 

“You know about that?!” I blurted unthinkingly, before flushing deeply. “I mean, of course you do. Dad’s kinda–and he was–and we were–” My blush was even worse. “I swear I didn’t know who he was when Dad said we should go there. I wasn’t trying to check up on your–I mean I wasn’t–I mean–” 

Snickering at my reaction, Tomas patted my back. “Easy, easy there. I know, but it was worth seeing your expression. God, Cass, at some point you’re gonna have to get more of a poker face. You gotta figure out how to hide things a little better, you know?” 

The fact that I managed to keep a mostly straight face in response to that proved him wrong. Well, not exactly a straight face. I covered my reaction by exaggeratedly rolling my eyes and giving him a goofy expression. Was it cheating to deliberately have such an over-the-top reaction that there was no way to pick out the subtleties of it? Whatever, it was enough to hide how I really felt, and that was what mattered. “Yeah,” I managed, “I’ll get right on that. Maybe my dad can show me how he bluffs people at work.” Despite everything, I made sure to keep an eye on the boy’s expression when I mentioned my father’s work. But either he didn’t know anything, or he was really good at the poker face thing he had just been talking about. Whatever it was, he didn’t give any reaction that I could read. 

“Anyway, Maki’s cool,” he went on with a shrug. “We really should hang out sometime when he’s not at work. I think you’d like him.” His voice softened a little as he rubbed the back of his neck a bit awkwardly. “But, you know, if that’s too–I mean…” 

“Sounds good,” I made myself say. No matter how I felt about it, having this open invitation to talk directly to the boy again and possibly find out more about what was going on with his (or her/their) situation with the Ministry was too important to pass up. My family would have no reason to wonder why I was spending time with Maki if it came through Tomas. “We’ll hang out sometime. I’ll umm… yeah, just lemme know. I’ve got stuff to do today, so I suppose you’re free to spend time with your boyfriend by yourself.” With those teasing words, I nudged his shoulder. By that point, we had reached the front of the school and I saw Jefferson there with the car. “Text me about it!” 

Tomas agreed casually, as I started heading off. Before I could reach Jefferson, however, someone else fell into step beside me. It was that new girl, Dani. She was already speaking casually. “Heard you like skating. Actually, I heard you’re pretty good at it.”  

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” My head bobbed quickly. “I guess. I do it enough, anyway. Why?” 

She offered me a shrug. “Oh, you know, I’m just trying to put something together. A bunch of us are hanging out at that skatepark on Grand River sometime this weekend. Still working out the details. But somebody said if I want to get a lot of people there, you’re the one to talk to.” 

That made me stop and blink at her. “People don’t care where I go,” I replied with confusion. “Why would me being there have anything to do with how many people show up?” 

Dani shrugged. “I dunno, babe. I think it has something to do with people wanting to see what crazy stunts they can get you to do or something. Whatever, the point is, it could be pretty cool. I’m ahh, not a bad skater myself. Be kinda fun to see what Miss Rich Girl can really do.” 

Snorting despite myself, I replied, “Yeah, maybe. Give me a text whenever you figure out when it’s actually supposed to be, and I’ll see what’s going on.” I gave her the number of my regular phone, before waving as I headed off to join Jefferson at the car. 

“Was that something important?” he asked once I got in the back. 

“Just an invitation to hang out sometime, I guess,” I replied with a shrug, leaning back in the seat. “Sorry for taking a couple minutes, I should’ve told her I’d talk later.” 

There was a brief moment of silence from the front seat, before Jefferson turned a bit to face me. He wasn’t an especially tall man. Actually, everything about him was unassuming. He had a very plain, pale face, thin glasses, and average cut dark blond hair. He didn’t stand out in a crowd. Hell, he barely stood out all by himself. 

“Miss Evans,” he began after that brief pause, “I am aware of my reputation for preferring punctuality. It is one I encourage. But I do not fault you a moment after school to speak with your peers. Time is allotted for that before we pick up Miss Amor. There is a marked difference between lagging behind in the morning and being late for school than there is in taking a few minutes to speak with your… friends when classes are over. Do not… feel that you must apologize for that. It is never my intention to force you to abandon all social niceties to placate my desire for haste.” 

That was all he said. And honestly, it might have been the most words I’d heard him say in a single go the entire time I’d known him. I was still sitting there in silent surprise as he turned back around and began to pull the car away from the curb. I had no idea what to say to that. Finally, I managed a somewhat weak and awkward, “Thanks.” 

From there, we picked up Izzy and headed home. It had been tempting to simply say that we didn’t need a ride so I could go straight to working on that whole tunnel thing finally, but I didn’t want to give my parents any reason whatsoever to think anything was up. They had just gotten home the day before, so I was going to play things as cool as possible. We would go home, make an appearance for my mother, and then make our exit with an excuse about hanging out somewhere. That was the best way to handle this, no matter how much I just wanted to jump into it. 

On the way, I talked to Izzy about completely innocuous things. Mostly about how her school stuff was going. Apparently, she was settling into classes pretty well. She said that she’d already made some friends there, which didn’t really surprise me considering how cool she was. It was just too bad her mother didn’t give her the chance to show her that. 

With effort, I pushed that thought out of my head and focused on keeping things casual. Even disregarding the whole secrecy thing, pretty much the last thing Izzy needed was me bringing up her mother right then. Or any time, really.

Soon, we made it home, and the two of us were met at the front door by my mother. She’d had snacks prepared by the kitchen and wanted to sit with us out in one of the gardens. There, she talked to both of us about how our days went, and her own as well. At least, as much as she was actually willing to tell us. Obviously, she didn’t get into any of the Ministry stuff. Though I had to admit, that would have been a good way of completely shocking me into giving something away if she ever wanted to. As far as Tomas’s earlier mention of poker faces went, I definitely wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face through my mother just randomly starting to talk about this stuff. 

Actually, that was something to think about. At some point, my parents probably were going to want to start telling me about this stuff. I wasn’t sure when, but it would happen. And what was I going to do when they did? How was I going to react? How was I going to pretend that I didn’t know what they were talking about? How much could I think about any of that without making my reaction seem rehearsed? Would it be a long time from now? God, would it be soon? How much of the whole Paintball situation would have changed by then? 

Of course, I had to force myself to focus mainly on actually carrying on a real conversation so my mother didn’t get suspicious. Thankfully, she was a busy woman and couldn’t sit with us for too long. We were only out there for about twenty minutes or so before she got a call and had to excuse herself. Which left Izzy and me sitting together out at the table, surrounded by gorgeous and exotic flowers, with a small fountain burbling away next to us. 

Clearing my throat, I glanced to her. Just in case Mom had anything nearby that might overhear us, I simply said, “Hey, you wanna go hang out at the mall?” 

“Sure,” she replied easily, pushing herself up. “We could probably get food there too, huh?” 

Making a show of snickering, again just in case, I nodded. “Yeah, we can do that. Come on.” I was already pulling my phone from my pocket to text the kitchen staff so they’d know not to worry about dinner for the two of us, then I ordered an Uber. 

Soon, we were close to the alley that led to Wren’s shop. The two of us found an isolated area to change into our costumes out of sight, and then quickly made our way to the store itself. It was really Izzy’s first time there, but we had both agreed that the time had come to stop tiptoeing around this whole thing. I’d called ahead to make sure Wren was okay with me bringing Raindrop. Given the loud squeal of excitement that came through the phone, I was assuming she was fine with it. 

Someone was waiting for us by the back door as we approached. Seeing her, I immediately reflexively took a step back, only to belatedly realize it was Alloy. She wore a new set of armor made out of her black and purple marbles. This one had a purple base body-suit-like structure that ran from her toes all the way up over her head in a ski-mask sort of thing. It was fairly thin. Meanwhile, the black marble had turned into armored plating around her chest, knees, hands, and across her face. 

“Wha–oh, jeeze, hey, warn me next time you’re dressed up in something new,” I managed after that initial reaction. Beside me, Raindrop had tensed up as well, only to turn slightly to blink at me. 

Alloy, for her part, made a chastised sound and stammered, “Ahh, sorry. Sorry, I forgot I wasn’t–I mean I was–I mean… sorry.” Seeing the other girl with me, she quickly stepped forward and extended her hand. “Hi again! I mean, hey. Nice to see you without the, you know, whole life and death Scion situation going on.” Belatedly, she seemed to realize just how different she looked in her new armor and stammered a quick, “Oh, it’s me! It’s Peeeaaaaayntball’s assistant. Partner. Friend. Sidekick. Alloy. I’m still Alloy, just a new costume. I like to switch it up.” In a quieter voice, she half-hissed, “I have your action figure.” 

It was clearly Raindrop’s turn to blush, though it was hidden behind her reflective mask. “Uh, hi.” She accepted the other girl’s hand and shook it somewhat awkwardly, as if uncertain how to go about this whole thing in meeting another Touched who was also apparently a super-fan. “I’m umm, uh, glad you’re okay.” 

Shaking my head at the two of them, I looked to Alloy and quietly asked, “How’s Hobbes doing?” 

She gave a heavy sigh and offered a weak shrug. “She’s still with Calvin and his family. They’re taking care of funeral arrangements and… and all that. Or trying to. Do you have any idea how expensive something like that is if you don’t want them to just dig a hole in the woods somewhere and drop them in? Seriously, it’s like ten thousand dollars. They’re setting up a crowdfunding thing, but you know, who really cares enough about him to help with that? People don’t even know him. All they know is–” She stopped, clenching her fists. From behind her, the other marbles rose up into view, contorting themselves into boxing gloves as though they wanted to hit something too. “Never mind. People suck. It all sucks. There’s some other fundraising going on and they’ll get part of it, I just–I wanna do more, but I can’t. I can’t do anything. I can’t help her. I can’t help any of them.”

Reaching out, I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. “People will help,” I insisted. “Don’t worry, they’ll get the money they need for the funeral.” Even if I had to make sure it happened myself. I couldn’t do much to help Murphy with her pain and loss, but I could damn sure get the money for the funeral and all that. 

Izzy and I exchanged brief knowing looks, just before another figure appeared nearby. It was That-A-Way. She popped into view near the wall before turning to us. “Hey. I guess I’m not late, huh?” 

My head shook. “Nope, you’re right on time. And you definitely beat–” 

Before I could finish that sentence, a loud squawk interrupted. We all looked over to see Riddles fly down from above, landing on a nearby dumpster. She squawked at us again, clearly informing everyone that we should wait.

We didn’t have to wait long. Within the next thirty seconds, a van came into view through the alley. It rolled to a stop, before Pack stepped out. She had her lizard backpack with her. “Fancy seeing you guys again. Think we can avoid a running gunfight with the Scions this time?” As she spoke, Riddles flew down to land on the backpack itself, perching there while giving a watchful look all around. 

“Let’s hope so,” I muttered. “We’ve got enough to deal with. Now come on, let’s get in there.” With a look around at the rest of the group, I exhaled before reaching out to grab the door. One by one, the other four filed inside before I brought up the rear and let the door close behind me. 

We had been in the shop for approximately two and a half seconds before a loud squeal of excitement filled the air. Wren–or Trevithick, as she was in the same costume she’d worn when Lion had visited, the black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels over her arms, legs, and chest, with a black helmet and pink visor. Her rapidly-moving dragonfly wings were buzzing as she flew straight down from the ceiling to land right in front of Raindrop, talking a mile a minute. “Ohhh you’re here you’re really here I can’t believe you’re really here and you made it and it’s really you and you’re so cool I watched you on the news forever well really only a few times cuz the news is boring but you’re not boring you’re awesome and I saw you fight that mean Janus guy and the other guy with the big hammer but you said I don’t think so and made it float away and you hit him with a tidal wave and I have a hat with your name on it but I couldn’t find it and Uncle Fred said it might be at the other shop but we didn’t have time to go over there and I have a backpack too and that’s over there and it’s got your picture on it that’s why I said I had a backpack and I made a birthday cake I mean Uncle Fred did but I helped and it had all the Minority on it and you were my favorite piece and–” 

Coughing, I quickly stepped in and put a hand on the brilliant little girl’s shoulder. “She’s pretty awesome, yeah. You both are. Raindrop, this is the awesome Trevithick. Trevithick, this is the awesome Raindrop. It’s about time we all started working together to deal with the real problems around here. Which means getting everyone on the same page. Almost everyone else is already. Just uhh…” I hesitated, then looked to Wren. “Where’s Fred? I need to talk to both of you about something important. That’s why we’re all here together. It’s why I brought Raindrop too.” 

“Did someone say–oh.” That was Fred himself, coming out of the doorway leading to the stairs. As he saw everyone, the man came up short. I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he gulped before stepping forward. “Ah, well, I guess it’s ahh, yeah. You’re all here.” 

Introducing Raindrop to him, and vice versa, I gestured. “Would you and Trevithick mind sitting down?” After a brief hesitation to gather myself, I added, “There’s some really important stuff we need to talk about. Secret stuff that you need to know. It’s time.” 

Fred and Alloy gathered a few chairs and everyone took a seat. Everyone except me, anyway. For my part, I stood in front of them and let out a long breath before focusing on Fred himself. “I don’t mean to single you out. I’m sorry for that, for this. But I have to, right now, in front of everyone. You know what you did before was a mistake. But what I’m about to tell you and Trevithick is a lot bigger than anything else. It’s… it’s big, and you could f–screw over all of us, everyone, if you wanted to after I tell you about it.” 

Fred, for his part, was quiet for a moment. He saw everyone looking at him, but didn’t react. He stared at the floor, then shifted his weight to meet my gaze. “I’m not that guy anymore.” His voice was firm. “I–I did–what I did before, trying to get money the cheap way, the illegal way, that’s not–I won’t do that again. I don’t know how to promise that any better than–than just saying it. I give you my word, I swear. I won’t screw you over.” 

I had to believe him. If this whole thing was going to go on, he needed to know the truth. They both did. We needed Wren’s help going forward. Which meant getting everyone on as close to the same page as possible. Scary as the whole prospect was, it was time. The encounter with Simon and that whole situation had convinced me of that much. 

So, after taking one more deep breath to brace myself, I launched into the whole thing. The others piped up now and then to give their own perspective, but mostly it was me. I explained what the Ministry was, and how much control they really had over everything. And I explained how that related to what had happened to Murphy’s brother and those other people who had died. 

By the time I was done, Fred had stood up and was pacing back and forth, listening while covering his face with his hands. Once in a while, he muttered something about how much sense that all made. But mostly he was quiet. 

Wren, meanwhile, absorbed it all in silence, aside from shifting a bit in her seat now and then or asking a clarifying question. She seemed far more mature in those moments than her actual age and appearance would have suggested. 

Finally, in the end, she asked, “What… what are we gonna do about it?” 

“What are we going to do?” I echoed, glancing to the others. “We have a plan. I mean, not a full plan. But a start. We have an idea of how to get into one of the Ministry’s bases, to get more information. That’s where we’re going to get our friend upstairs the info we need to find her a new body. And it’s where we’re going to find out as much as we can about how they operate and any more of their secrets we can get a hold of. That much we can do. But if we’re going ahead with this, if we’re actually going to go up against the Ministry, we… I need help. We all do. I know it’s a lot to put on you, Trevithick.” 

“Wren.” She pulled off the helmet, facing the others. “I’m Wren. And… and yeah. Yes. I wanna help.” With that declaration, she straightened up, fists clenched. “They hurt Hobbes. If… if you think you can find out where that bad guy went by breaking into their secret base, then I’m gonna help.”  

Giving one short nod, I replied, “And you, Fred?” 

He, in turn, continued to face away from me for a few seconds before turning to face us. “I can’t do much. Just watch over Wren there, really. Maybe drive a car if you need it. Be an innocuous face. Fetch things. But if that helps–whatever you need. I’m… I’m in. I’m in for whatever this is, wherever it goes.” 

“Good,” I managed after a moment. 

“Then let’s talk about what we need to get this tunnel started.” 

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Interlude 19A – Murphy and Roald (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winging It 19-02 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cuz we’re about to have some fun.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-11 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The monthly non-canon chapters were posted over the weekend! You can find the chapter for this story, Summus Proelium, right here and the one for Heretical Edge right here

I had definitely experienced bigger shocks in my recent history. Certainly much worse ones. Everything that had to do with my family and what they really were totally beat out this moment, no question about it. And yet, standing there right then, staring at the girl across from me, still ranked pretty high up there. The sudden revelation that the Minority-Touched I had been working with so much, and the girl I spent time at school with were the same person sent me reeling, both physically and mentally. A series of noises escaped me, but they weren’t coherent or even vaguely decipherable as words. They were only sounds, filling the air meaninglessly. Somewhere in the middle of that, I plucked my helmet off and held it loosely in one hand (I hadn’t put the actual mask back on) so I could stare bare face to bare face with the other girl. I just… I had to see her straight on, with nothing between us. Not that I was entirely sure how it would help, but still. 

“Now you know how I felt back at… your house,” Amber informed me dryly while arching an eyebrow pointedly. “And I had to jump right to it and keep trying to fight that son of a bitch. At least you’ve got downtime to process.” 

After a very momentary pause, she visibly winced at the words that were about to come out of her mouth before asking, “I mean, it is you, right? That wasn’t actually some trick you and the kid programmed in to distract that guy if anything like that happened, just in case?” It was clear that she didn’t think that was in any way possible, but still wanted to cover her bases just in case. And really, who could blame her? This entire situation was pretty fucked up. 

Before I could answer, Raige, whom I had forgotten was standing there with the shock of this whole revelation, spoke up almost cheerfully. “Oh no, it’s really her. And it’s a pretty good disguise, if you think about it. I mean, who’s ever going to think that Cassidy Evans is willingly posing as a little boy? Especially after everything my doppelganger over there put her through.” 

“Shut up,” Paige muttered, her face slightly flushed. She was looking at me the whole time, voice softening slightly. “I didn’t have a choice. My–” She glanced at the identical girl nearby before belatedly amending her words. “Our father set the rules about that very clearly.”

A brief start of realization, Amber looked back and forth between us. “Oh my God, your dad has some huge grudge against the Evans, so he made you treat her like an enemy all this time? What the hell did that accomplish?” she demanded, sounding exasperated with the whole thing.

“She was supposed to do more than just antagonize me for years,” I informed her without taking my gaze away from Paige herself. “Back at her birthday party, she was supposed to kill me.” 

While Amber gave a double-take at that, Paige and I took turns explaining, with a little ‘help’ from Raige, exactly what was supposed to happen that day, along with what had actually happened. We filled in the blanks about that whole situation so that Amber knew the full story. At least as far as that went. There was a hell of a lot more story to fill in for everything else. 

Which was made perfectly clear when Amber let out a breath. “Okay, I guess I understand that day and all that, but what about everything else? How did you get powers? Why did you start going out as a boy in the first place? What do you know about these Ministry people, and how? What does any of that have to do with Paige’s father? Why does he have some big grudge against your parents, and what–” Abruptly, she trailed off. Her eyes widened dramatically with realization as she snapped her gaze to me. “Oh my God! It’s them, isn’t it? The Ministry. Your parents are connected to the Ministry. That’s how you found out about them, and…” She slumped back on her heels, head shaking. “That’s why you’re so obsessed with hiding your identity. It’s why you won’t join the–” Once again, she interrupted herself as a different realization jumped to mind, making her blurt a sudden, “Oh God, Izzy! I mean–”  She cut herself off, blanching as though she had said too much already.

“It’s okay, I know,” I assured her. “And I’m pretty sure those two know everything about the Minority.” I said that while looking toward the twins. “They’re pretty well-informed, after all.” 

Sounding pretty cheerful and amused by the entire situation, Raige nodded easily. “Oh yeah, we know all your identities. Parts of the benefit to having a backdoor in with the Ministry. Okay, maybe not an entire door. But at least a window. Enough to know some pretty juicy secrets.”  

“Secrets we don’t talk about,” Paige snapped pointedly, before adding, “And you two should get out of here before they send someone in to check on you. I mean, you can have this whole conversation somewhere better than this place, right?” For a brief moment, she looked as though she was going to say something else, before stopping herself. I had the feeling she actually wanted us to stay even longer, and pointing out that we should leave was her way of ripping the Band-Aid off. 

But she also had a point. We had to eject before the guys outside freaked out and came in after us. They would obviously give us a little leeway, but I didn’t want to push that even further. So, biting my lip, I focused on the blonde girl who had antagonized me for so long. “I’ll come back and check on you when I can.” Belatedly, I glanced toward Raige. “I’ll check on both of you, I mean. So try not to antagonize each other too much while we’re gone. Like I said, just go to your own corners of the world if you have to. Whatever it takes to play nice and get along until we can separate you.” 

“What he–I mean she said.” Shaking her head a bit at her own correction, Amber continued. “Seriously, just leave each other alone if you need to. We’ll both come back and check on you whenever we can. And we want to find you both without all these bruises, so no more fighting.”

“Hey,” Raige replied easily with a shrug, “I was just following orders before. Now that Daddy made it abundantly clear what he thinks of loyalty, I don’t have any reason to fight with that one over there. I mean, as long as you work on getting me that new body so I can go off and live my own life far away from all of you. Just do that and everything’ll be totally hunky-dory.”

Exchanging brief looks, Amber and I both replaced our mask and helmet respectively. Really, I wasn’t exactly sure why we did that. It wasn’t like whether we had them on or not would affect our bodies in the real world. Maybe it was just a psychological way of telling ourselves that we were going back to being That-A-Way and Paintball for the time being. 

In any case,  I watched intently as her facial features shifted slightly along with her hair turning blonde. Touched-Tech, obviously. Which again, made perfect sense. It had always seemed a little odd that the adults behind the Minority would let her get away with only hiding her identity behind a little domino mask. The fact that it did so much to actually change what she looked like solved that question.

Once we were suitably disguised, I glanced over to the twins to promise one more time that we would check in on them. There was more I wanted to say, but it would have to wait. I really didn’t feel like talking to Paige about all the issues we had while in front of an audience. Even if I was now aware that I knew That-A-Way much better than I had thought. And yeah, that would be a whole thing in and of itself. The two of us were clearly going to have a long chat. Between that and the fact that I definitely still needed to talk to Peyton about some of the stuff she’d heard in here, I had several of those ‘important conversations’ coming up in my near-future.  

For the moment,  Amber and I simply spoke the code to eject ourselves from the simulation. Again, my vision was filled with the kaleidoscope of lights, colors and all the random sounds. Seriously, at one point it sounded like one of those old World War One fighter planes had flown practically right through me. To say it was disorienting was a massive understatement.

Finally, there was that reddish-purple fog from before, accompanied by the sensation of falling straight down on a roller coaster. I had thought I was ready for it this time, but a yelp still escaped me. Then I was conscious and aware, jerking a bit against the seat I’d been perched in. Nearby, I could see Wren watching anxiously, even as I heard Ambe–no, That-A-Way jerking in her own seat on the opposite side of the machine. We’d made it, we were back in the real world. Quickly, I pulled the sunglasses and special gloves off before fixing my mask and helmet. Only then did I push myself up and give an almost dog-like shake. My body felt weird and tingly. Probably a side effect of sitting for so long while my brain thought I was actually moving. “Wow, that’s some nifty gizmo you got there, dude,” I informed Wren with an only slightly shaky thumbs up. “Seriously, that French guy you got this prototype from really knows his shit. And you put it together, just–maybe see if he wants to collaborate on something, cuz you two do good work.” 

Wren proceeded to blush deeply, hopping off the edge of the table she had been anxiously perched on. “You’re okay? You’re all okay? It took you awhile to come out of it, longer than the others.” Even as she said that, the girl was looking over to the corner of the room, where Pack and Alloy were clearly exercising/playing with the lizards. They had both straightened up when That-A-Way and I had emerged from the machine, Pack standing with two of her lizards (Twinkletoes the chameleon and Holiday the skink) perched on either shoulder, while Scatters the tiny Neon Day Gecko was settled right on top of her hooded and masked head. “You two good?” she asked, though her attention was more on That-A-Way than me.  

“We made it,” Way confirmed while casting a brief glance back toward me before her attention shifted to Wren. “And he’s right, that was a lot more realistic than I expected. Hope your French guy gets it up and running so I can talk the bosses back at the Clubhouse into buying one for the rest of the Minority to use in training. Seriously, just being able to practice stuff and have full-contact sparring without worrying about hurting anybody would be pretty amazing.”  

Alloy, who had picked herself up from the floor while holding Riddles in her small bearded dragon form, abruptly spoke up. “Are we seriously just being this casual right now after what happened in there? Who the hell is Paige’s father and how did he send some… some virtual copy of himself into her computer brain thing and oh my God I sound like a nutjob.” 

“Welcome to the club,” I replied, reaching out to squeeze Wren’s shoulder briefly before leaving the girl to walk over to where Alloy herself was. “Seriously, welcome to the club. There’s a lot of stuff to talk about. And I will, I promise. You’ve earned some answers. And maybe I should have talked about it with you before. But I just… it’s hard for me to get into all that. I’m sorry. You deserve more of an explanation than you’ve gotten so far. Especially after you went in there with us. I really don’t know what we would have done without your help.” 

“Damn straight,” Pack put in. “You were the MVP in there. So if he doesn’t treat you right and start giving you answers, I can talk Blackjack into a really good signing bonus for you.”

Letting out a clearly exaggerated sigh, That-A-Way protested, “Seriously? Could you at least wait until I’m not in the room before you start trying to recruit for your criminal boss?” 

“Sorry, babe,” Pack replied casually and without any actual regret, “You know what they say. Always be hustling. Especially when your boss offers such attractive bonuses for anyone who recruits a good Touched to begin with.” Slyly, she added, “Speaking of which, do you have any idea how much bank you and I could make if I bring you over to the shady side? Huh, huh? We could have a lot of fuuuun.” She intentionally and pointedly drawled out the last word. 

Visibly flushing a little behind that mask, Way shook her head. “Sorry, not interested in anything Blackjack has to offer. You’re just gonna have to do without. Why don’t you try robbing another bank to make up for it,” she added while rolling her eyes. Even as the words were out of her mouth, however, the girl was already frantically trying to verbally back up. “I mean, not that I–” 

It was too late, as Pack raised both hands triumphantly over her head, playing that whole thing up for all it was worth. “And there it is! You all heard it. I have carte blanche to rob a bank, given straight from a prestigious and, dare I say, truly stunning member of the Detroit Minority.” 

“Sorry,” Way retorted while giving a dismissive wave of her hand. “You forgot to get it in writing, so I guess you’re screwed and you’ll just have to go to jail like the other bank robbers. Oh, I know, how about you have a total redemption moment and come over to the sunny side?”  

Pack, in turn, shot back, “Tell you what, as soon as the kid over there joins you guys, so will I.” She was nodding in my direction, of course. Considering how clear I’d made my unwillingness to do that, as well as (at least partially) why, Pack obviously felt safe making the bet.

Before they could banter back and forth any more, Alloy abruptly blurted, “Oh shit, I need to get home.” She was looking at her phone before wincing while glancing up. “Sorry, I didn’t realize what time it was. We were in there for longer than I thought. I umm, I really have to go, before Mom has a coronary. Uh, thanks for inviting me to that… crazy thing, I guess?” Looking to me, she added, “I really do want answers about what’s really going on and all that. And about what that guy wants and how he’s ‘trying to end death’ or whatever. But you know, Mom comes first.”

“Oh, believe me,” I assured her immediately, “I know exactly what you mean. And yeah, we’ll definitely talk later, I promise. Just go do what you need to. And Alloy, thanks. Seriously, I wasn’t just saying it before. I really don’t know what we would have done in there without your help.” 

Obviously embarrassed by the attention, she made a few noises about it not being a big deal and headed for the elevator to leave. Just as it started to descend, she called out that she would text me sometime the next day so we could meet up again and have that conversation.

Once she was gone, the three of us who were left gave Wren an actual update about what had happened. Alloy and Pack had given her the CliffsNotes, but they had been waiting for us to get into the whole story. So, over the next few minutes, we explained what was going to happen. Unsurprisingly, as soon as we got to the part about needing to find another body, the Tech-Touched girl was immediately apprehensive. Her head shook, insisting she couldn’t build anything like that. But I assured her that we already had some leads about how to possibly find one of Paige’s father’s prototype storage places. All she would have to do was look it over, and possibly help us compare it to Paige’s body to see if we could figure out what was different. 

“Plus,” Way pointed out, “since Raige isn’t actively fighting her anymore, she can probably talk you through some of this stuff herself. You know, with that communication thing you built. Hell, if it’s about getting her own body working, I bet Raige would help out too. You three could all collaborate to figure it out. You’d just be their hands. You know, in a manner of speaking.” 

That calmed the girl down a bit, and eventually Pack said she needed to go as well. After a little more teasing back and forth about what kind of crimes she was off to commit, she headed out. Meanwhile, Wren was yawning and trying to hide it, leaving Fred in the corner of the room giving us meaningful looks. He’d been downstairs before, but came up as Pack was on her way out. Now, the man was basically doing everything up to pantomiming that we should leave so he could get Wren to go to sleep. Yeah, after all the work she’d done to get that machine working in such a short time, the kid definitely needed to get some rest. Even if she was trying to hide exactly how exhausted she was. Any minute now, her head was probably going to hit the table. 

Without even needing to look at each other, That-A-Way and I both said we needed to get out of there. We thanked the kid one more time before taking the elevator down and heading out. Both of us were completely silent the whole way through the store, and even once we got outside. Together, we walked silently through the alley behind the shop, before Way caught my arm and looked meaningfully to a nearby roof. When I nodded, she teleported us up there. 

Once we were on the roof, the girl looked around to make sure we were alone before taking off the mask. As her hair and face shifted to normal, she stared intently at me. It looked like she was taking a moment to try to find the right words. While she did, I slowly pulled the helmet off and set it on top of the nearby air conditioning unit. Then I took off the mask. And boy did that ever feel weird. It made me feel naked, standing there with my face exposed. Finally, I plucked the Bluetooth device out of my ear and put it, and the mask, next to the helmet. And then I just stood there, looking at the other girl in silence for what felt like an eternity. There were several times that one or both of us started to say something, before stopping. Neither of us knew exactly what to say. 

Finally, I let out a long breath and looked to her while trying to clamp down on the nerves that were making my heart want to beat its way out of my chest. There was no point in holding back right now. Amber knew who I was. She was way too close to things for me to push her off, and quite frankly she’d earned the truth. So, that was exactly what I was going to give her. “Okay,” I announced, “I’m gonna tell you what happened the night I got my powers. And everything that came after that. I’ve only told the whole story once before, and that was to Izzy.” 

Amber blinked at that, hesitantly asking, “You mean Izzy really does know about you? How… how much does she know, exactly? And for how long?” 

“All of it,” I informed her. “I told her everything. And she found out the night we had that whole thing with Paige in the first place. When I got home after all that, I guess I wasn’t really thinking too clearly. I ended up going up on the roof, and she was already up there. She saw me use my paint and I saw her floating. That kind of forced us to talk about everything.” 

“Like you’re gonna talk about everything now?” Amber pressed, folding both arms as she watched me intently. 

“Yeah, like–wait a minute, she knows who you are, doesn’t she?” I suddenly realized. “She–boy, she really is good at keeping secrets.” After processing that realization, I shook my head before focusing on the matter at hand. “Okay. Well, here goes. 

“It started when I was pretending to drive one of my family’s cars, and my brother came into the garage…” 

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In Like Flynn 17-03 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t that hard to convince That-A-Way to come meet us. Apparently, she had to beg off from doing some kind of school project with somebody, but didn’t really mind that much. In fact, going by her texts, the girl almost seemed grateful for the excuse. Especially when I told her I was with Pack and that this was something important that had to be done within the next few hours. Obviously, she had questions, but the girl held them until she got to the tire shop where we had both gone back to wait for her. It was close enough to Wren’s shop for this. 

Patient as she might have been over the phone, Way definitely wanted the whole story as soon as she showed up. Looking back and forth between the two of us as we all stood on that roof, she insisted that we tell her everything that was going on and what kind of emergency this actually was before anything else happened and before she would agree to go anywhere.  

So, I gave her the quick version, explaining what our Tech-Touched friend had found out about Paige’s apparently increasingly desperate situation, and how we were going to try to deal with it to at least buy ourselves time so we wouldn’t end up with the virus duplicate taking over and turning her into Evil Paige. Way made a few noises of confusion and surprise as I went through all the VR stuff, but mostly remained quiet until I was finally done explaining the whole thing.

Once I was finished, the blonde girl slumped back a bit and seemed to be lost in thought for a few long moments. She was clearly going over all of that in her head before eventually straightening up. “Wow. You really do get into some really crazy stuff, you know that?”  

With a cough at her words, I shook my head. “Trust me, you really don’t know the half of it.” 

She, of course, gave me a look while flatly pointing out, “And whose fault is that, exactly?” 

Shifting uncomfortably, I waved that off. “Anyway, like I said, we’ve got an extra slot for someone to help us go in there and help that girl. If you’re interested. But we have to do it tonight. Like, in a couple hours, so if you’ve got something else you can’t get out of… I mean, it’s short notice.” 

Snorting, That-A-Way drawled, “Totally smooth change of subject there, Paintball. How do you do it?” That point made, she firmly added, “And yeah, I’m totally in. Absolutely. If you two are going into some kind of Tron world to save Paige from turning into psycho evil crazy Paige, then I’m going too. No way am I letting both of you have that kind of adventure without me.” 

Before I could say anything, Pack spoke up first. “Technically, it wouldn’t be the two of us anyway.” Her gaze moved over to me as she slyly added, “Not with Paintball’s new sidekick.” 

Well, that definitely got Way’s attention. Her gaze snapped from Pack back to me, staring a bit. “You mean it’s true then? You really did recruit that girl you were with? Why? Who is she? Do you trust her? Have you told her about this Ministry thing? Have you told her what we’re doing at the mall? What else does she know? How long have you known her? How many times–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “I haven’t known her very long. And no, I haven’t told her anything about the Ministry. But she kind of already figured out that there was a good reason not to join the Minority, because I keep refusing to even though I’m obviously fine with working with you guys.”

“Yeah, who could’ve seen that coming?” With that flat retort, Way shook her head before continuing. “So, are you going to tell her the truth about all that? I mean, if she’s signed up to be your sidekick or partner or whatever, she’s probably going to figure out there’s something bigger going on eventually. That, or something horrible is going to happen to her because she doesn’t know the truth and you’ll feel like a gigantic piece of shit for not warning her about it. Do you really want that? Do you want to put this girl in danger because you wouldn’t tell her the truth?” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “I’m gonna tell–okay I think I’m gonna tell her the truth. Just not–not yet. I want to build up to it first. More to the point, I want to get to know her first, see how she reacts to things, you know? I just need to get to know her more before we jump into the deep end with all the Ministry stuff. I mean, that’s a lot to shove onto a brand new Touched.” Glancing down, I muttered under my breath, “Seriously, it’s a lot.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Way’s mouth open as though she was going to say something. But she stopped herself. I had the feeling she was going to bring up my not telling them the whole story and keeping important things to myself again, then thought better of it.  

Of course, Pack chose that moment to speak up with, “Don’t worry, once you guys get through taking down Pencil and the Scions, you’ll definitely know her really well.” 

What?!” Yeah, unsurprisingly, Way had a bit of a reaction to that. Her eyes behind that domino mask were wide as she pointed at me. “Dude, what is she talking about? You are not going after Pencil or the Scions and you’re definitely not doing it with this brand new girl. What the hell?” 

Giving Pack a quick, pointed look (which she ignored), I sighed before launching into an explanation of the situation. I told the girl about the whole favor thing, and that we weren’t actually going after the Scions themselves, but a living witness from Pencil’s early days who might possibly have some kind of secret important insight about that piece of shit that would give Deicide an edge over him. With, of course, the added note that pointing her at the Scions was a hell of a lot safer than us having anything to do with trying to take them down. 

By the time I was done, Way had sat down and picked up Holiday (in her little skink form) to hold in one hand while gently rubbing the back of the lizard’s head with the other. She was watching me dubiously. “Do you really think it’s going to be that simple? You’re just going to track this girl down and get her to tell you some secret about how to stop Pencil, a secret she hasn’t told anybody else yet because she’s so scared of him? She’ll just tell you because you, what, ask nicely? Then you’re going to give that secret to one of the leaders of a Fell-Gang and she’s going to deal with him? And if this whole thing works, there won’t be any terrible consequences and nothing will go wrong?” 

With a long sigh, I shook my head. “I don’t know how it’s gonna go. Probably not that smoothly. But it’s the favor Deicide called in. A favor I definitely owe her. And quite frankly, she could have asked for something a hell of a lot worse than that. We all want Pencil to be stopped. If this works, great! If not, at least we tried. I’m paying back the favor by trying to help stop Pencil from killing more people. Like I said, Deicide could’ve tried to get me to do something a lot worse.” 

“Besides,” Pack put in, “I already told him to pull me in as soon as they get anywhere with it. He’s right, Deicide earned that favor. But she did it by helping save my boss’s kid. So I’m not letting him and his new sidekick run off by themselves and get hurt trying to pay her back for it.”

That-A-Way let out an audible breath, her voice dark. “Believe it or not, finding out that you’re getting involved in this whole thing doesn’t actually make me feel that much better. In fact, it kinda makes me feel even worse, because I really don’t feel like letting the girl I–” In mid-sentence, she stopped herself, clearly adjusting her words. “–the girl I’m pretty sure isn’t that bad make herself a target of that psycho piece of shit too!”   

Pack and I exchanged brief looks before the La Casa girl cleared her throat. “Sure, right. Well, the… girl you’re pretty sure isn’t that bad is already a target for Pencil. So are you. And so is our little buddy here.” She gestured toward me. “Sooner or later, he’s going to get around to targeting us to get back for what we put him and Cup through. So, you know, it seems to me that we ought to take this chance to get someone as strong as Deicide to maybe take him out. If that means we do a little digging and hopefully find an actual weakness no one else knows about so she can actually do something useful, so be it. Better than just sitting around waiting to see what his revenge for that night up at the cabin is gonna be.” 

It looked like Way wanted to argue with that for a brief moment. Then she exhaled and sank back a bit. Her finger gently traced along the body of the tiny skink before she found her voice. “Yeah, okay, I get it. You’ve both got a point. But don’t–don’t go running into life and death shit without getting help, okay? If anything happens–actually, scratch that. Anytime you’re doing anything that has to do with this… plan, tell me. Make sure I know where you’re going and what you’re doing. If you don’t keep checking in, I’ll be there. Just consider me your back-up. But that means you have to keep me updated. Got it?” From the tone of her voice, she wasn’t going to accept any arguments. 

“Sure,” I immediately answered, giving her a thumbs up. “Like we’re gonna argue against you having our backs? Fat chance, Pencil’s a piece of shit, but he’s a scary piece of shit.” 

“What he said,” Pack muttered, gesturing toward me. “I mean, if this thing works out perfectly we won’t get anywhere near him or any of the Scions. But I think we all know how unlikely that is. Nothing ever works out perfectly. Besides,” she added slyly with a look toward Way, “I could definitely think of worse people to have watching my backside out there.” 

Making a disconcerted noise in the back of her throat, Way pointedly looked at me. “What do we need to do to get ready for this? And, wait a minute, how are we going to do anything in there? I don’t know about you two, but I’m pretty reliant on my powers. I mean, yeah, I’ve had self-defense training, duh. But do you really think we can do enough in that place to help? Hell, you’re taking some brand new girl in there too and I doubt she’s had special training or experience. Unless you somehow managed to recruit a teenage ninja master commando.”

Briefly thinking about Peyton wearing a ninja commando outfit with a big rifle and a sword strapped to her back, I coughed before shaking my head quickly. “Not exactly, but Wren says we should be able to use at least some form of our powers in there. It has something to do with the system reading what we’re capable of, or something like that. I dunno, it’s complicated. The point is, we shouldn’t be completely helpless. Except…” Trailing off, I looked to Pack and frowned as a thought occurred to me. “I’m not exactly sure how you’re going to use your power. I mean, will she spawn in lizards for you or something? What’s the deal there.”

Before responding to that, Pack glanced to Way and informed her, “Wren’s the name of our friendly little tech kid.” 

“Kid?” the other girl quickly put in as she looked from Pack over to me and back, rising to her feet with Holiday still in her hand. “Hold up. You mean this Trevithick you’ve been talking about-”  

“That’s a long story too,” I muttered. “Yeah, she’s a kid. A genius kid, but a kid. Don’t worry, you’ll meet her soon. She said she’s cool with it. Apparently, she has this crazy idea that if I somehow get in trouble or something, having you to call for help would be a good idea.”  

Giving me an intense stare, Way flatly retorted, “Gee, what on Earth could ever have made her think she needed to plan for that ridiculous eventuality? You’re always so careful and definitely never take on more than you can handle. I mean, you’re practically the avatar of caution.”  

Flushing at her words behind the helmet, I waved both hands. “Yeah yeah, I get it. You’re hilarious. Anyway, we don’t have a lot of choice right now. If we wanna save this Paige girl, we have to get in there. And the only way we’re gonna get in there to save her is with Wren’s help. Believe me, I wouldn’t–I’d be dead without her. Several times over. I’ve made it this far because of you guys, and her. Yeah, she’s a kid. But she knows what she’s doing.” 

After a brief pause, Way gave a slow nod. “Right, well, I guess it could be worse. I mean, I go out in the field with Raindrop and she’s saved me a hell of a lot more than once. And this kid isn’t going out to fight or anything, she’s just building stuff.” With that, her gaze snapped over to stare me down intently, “She’s not going into the field, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course not. She’s support. And she’s really good at that. Hell, her being really good is the only reason we even know about Paige being in trouble, let alone have any chance of doing anything about it. Seriously, Wren’s building a virtual reality system and patching it into Paige’s computer core in like twenty-four hours. She’s pretty amazing.”

“He’s right,” Pack agreed before pushing on. “Anyway, as far as being helpless in there goes, the kid already said she could patch exactly two of my little friends with me. Something to do with technical limitations or whatever. Point is, she can wire in two of my buddies so they’re linked to me in there, just like in the real world. I just uhh…” She trailed off, looking from Holiday on Way’s hand over to the backpack cage where the rest of the lizards were. “I have to choose which two to take in there.” I could hear the grimace in her voice. “Really wish we knew more about what it was like so I knew who I should take with me.” 

Shrugging, I pointed out, “I guess we could head over there and see if Wren needs any help. Maybe she’ll know more about what we’re dealing with.” Glancing to Way, I added, “And you can meet her. You know, if you don’t have anything better to do right now.” 

She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Trust me, I cleared my schedule for this. Paige sounds like our best chance of finding out more about the Ministry. I mean, we’ve got the mall thing, but that’s going to take a while. Plus, it’d be better if we knew what Paige knows before going in there.” 

So, keeping an eye out for anyone watching, the three of us carefully made our way through those alleys to reach the shop. We took the same route Pack and I had before, and I noticed the homeless guy from earlier was gone. Briefly, I wondered if he had just moved to a different spot, or if he had already taken the offer to start working for La Casa. Not that I could blame him if he had. The dude was living on the streets. Getting safety and resources from Blackjack and his people was probably pretty tempting. 

In any case, we made it back to the shop, where Pack and I introduced That-A-Way to Fred and Wren. To my surprise, Fred immediately copped to what he had done to make the whole Ashton thing worse with that tool to break into the bank vault. For a moment, Way looked like she wanted to say something about how stupid that was, but she saw the look on his face and let it go. He already knew just how bad it had been. 

Besides, by that point, Wren had already jumped in to start asking her a million questions about her power, her costume, and everything else. The kid looked even more worn out than she had earlier, making it clear just how much effort getting this thing done in time was taking. But at that moment, she really didn’t seem to care that much. The exhaustion fell from her eyes as she excitedly pressed Way to answer all her many, many questions about how the Minority worked. 

It was only a few minutes of that before the kid quickly shook her head. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. Gotta get the machine done. Getting there. Almost there. Really close. It’ll be done in time, I promise.” That last bit was directed toward me. “I’ll get it done.” 

Quickly, I spoke up in as reassuring a tone as I could manage. “Wren, it’s okay. You’re okay. I know. You’ll get it done. Just don’t kill yourself over it. And tell us how we can help, okay?” 

So, for the next hour or so, the three of us kept moving through the shop, carrying stuff up to Wren, holding things for her, passing the kid whatever tool she needed, and generally being as useful as we could. 

We also used that time to ask her about what we were going to be walking into. Unfortunately, Wren didn’t know much. Mostly because she hadn’t wanted to interrupt or distract Paige from defending herself against that invader. The best she could tell us was that the area we were entering kept changing appearance. Sometimes it was an open city street, sometimes it was a mall, a forest, the roof of a building, a huge mansion, a library, whatever. It changed all the time. So we couldn’t exactly plan on what kind of surroundings would be there. 

Eventually, the three of us were downstairs sorting through a couple of shelves when the buzzer at the backdoor rang. It was Peyton, covered by the armor she’d used yesterday, the purple and silver Power Rangers-like bodysuit with the ‘helmet’ that was purple on top across her head and silver across her throat and lower half of her face, leaving her eyes and nose exposed. 

The girl looked surprised to see That-A-Way when we let her in. She was also slightly surprised to see Pack, but at least I had already told her we would be working with the La Casa girl. There was a quick back-and-forth of introductions and explanations as I informed Peyton that we could trust That-A-Way with this. 

“Alloy, huh?” Pack put in as soon as that was done. She looked the other girl up and down curiously. “Cool name. Guess it fits with the whole melding your marbles together to turn into things.” 

Alloy, for her part, looked a little uncertain as to how she should react to the supervillain complimenting her name choice. In the end, she offered a little shrug. “Uh, thanks, I guess.”

“Hey,” Way put in, “I’m just glad you don’t have yet another P name.” 

Peyton, of course, practically choked, head snapping that way. “What?” 

“You know,” Way continued, “We’ve got Pack and Paintball.” She gestured between the two of us in question. “And the girl we’re supposed to be helping is named Paige. Too many P names. It’s becoming a thing.” 

Clearly glad that most of her face was covered to hide her expression, Peyton nodded slowly. “Right, good thing.” 

“Hey,” Pack suddenly put in, “speaking of names, what exactly are you two gonna call your little team-up thing? Hell, pretty sure you should count Trevithick too, so what’re you all gonna call yourselves? Every group’s gotta have a name, especially if there’s two of you out in the field.” 

“Batman, Robin, Batgirl, and the rest of that group didn’t have a team name,” I pointed out. “I mean, besides Bat-family. Hey, you could be–” 

“We’re not being Paint-family,” Peyton immediately interrupted. “And definitely not the Ball-family. Forget it.” 

That, of course, was the cue for Wren to come down the stairs, blurting, “Are we choosing a team name?! We’ve gotta choose a team name, right?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Is this really the best use of our time right now?” Another part of me was really resistant to the idea of making this whole team-up thing official in any capacity. It was dangerous, it was reckless, it could backfire with–

“I have an idea.” That was Alloy, hesitantly speaking up. “I mean, it might be a little silly, but I was thinking about Paintball’s powers, and mine, and the way Trevithick makes brand new things. And I sorta… I sorta came up with a suggestion?” She squirmed uncomfortably, kicking her foot against the floor. 

Not wanting to discourage her despite my trepidation, I nodded. “Okay, whatcha got?” 

So, she told us, and explained the spelling. Once she had it out, all of us exchanged looks. Pack shrugged. “I’ve heard worse. I mean, it ain’t my team, but I wouldn’t mind jumping under the banner now and then whenever you need a guest star.” 

Wren was bobbing her head rapidly, of course, gushing about how cool it was. 

“Yeah, it’s definitely cool,” Way agreed, looking to me. “What do you think?” 

“Let’s see how it looks,” I murmured, raising both hands before using my paint to spray the name across the wall in red with black outline. Once it was there, all of us stared at it. 

“I like it,” I finally agreed despite the worry I felt. “Good job, Alloy.” 

After we’d all taken in the name that we would apparently be using, Way turned from the wall. “Well, should we get busy? From what you guys said, time is sorta of the essence.” 

She was right, of course. So, we all got back to work, finishing up the last things that needed to be done before we would be able to jump into virtual reality to save Paige. Hopefully. 

In the background, meanwhile, the name of my brand new team remained in bold red letters across the wall. 

Avant-Guard.

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In Like Flynn 17-02 (Summus Proelium)

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For those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you missed that, you can read it right here

So yeah, Pack obviously had a lot of things to say about the whole thing with this Amanda girl. Mostly centered around how many ways it could either be a trap or backfire on us. She went on about how stupid it would be to intentionally piss off Pencil and make myself and my new friend an even bigger target for him then we were now. I had made him angry already, first by screwing up his plan at the Children’s Hospital so that he didn’t do nearly as much damage as he meant to, and then by escaping up at the cabin. Not to mention the fact that I had actually hurt Cup. Yeah, obviously he didn’t need an excuse to target me. And yet, here I was, about to poke my nose into his business again. Pack had more than a few loud opinions on that idea.  

In the end, all I could say was that at least we weren’t actually going anywhere near the man himself. And, I pointed out that someone had to put a stop to him. The longer he went on being able to torture and kill people, the longer his list of innocent victims would get. Even if I didn’t have a chance in hell of confronting him directly and winning, the least I could do was contribute to bringing him down by finding Amanda Sanvers and trying to convince her to tell Deicide about any actual weaknesses Pencil might have so that she could actually do something about it. 

“I’m not stupid. I know it’s dangerous. But he has to be stopped. And I do owe Deicide for that vial. The vial that saved your boss’s daughter. She came through with it and asked for a favor. She could have asked for a much harder favor than this. Okay, maybe this isn’t exactly easy, but it’s not bad or wrong. I don’t have a moral issue with stopping Pencil and the Scions. This might be hard and dangerous, but it’s still a good thing to do. And I’m going to do it. Or try, at least.” 

Through all of that, I could tell Pack was staring at me intently. She seemed to be weighing something back and forth in her head for a silent moment before giving a long, audible sigh. “Right, fine. But don’t go digging too far into finding this chick without me, got it?” When I started to object, she interrupted. “No, you’re right. You got into this favor to help save the boss’s kid. You saved her life, and now Deicide wants you to pay that back by possibly pissing off that psycho? You’re not doing that alone. Or even with some girl who’s had her powers for like half an hour. I’m not saying I’ll fight that son of a bitch, I’m not stupid either. But me and my buddies here can help everyone get away if shit goes south. If you’re doing this, I’m gonna be there to make sure you don’t go too far with it. Fuck, I owe you that much for the vial thing. Plus, you know…” She trailed off, kicking the roof with her foot before muttering, “I don’t exactly hate you. And the list of people like that isn’t long, so I’d rather not have to deal with that fucking freak getting his hands on you. Not to mention how Way would react if she found out I just let you… yeah. So, that’s it. If you’re doing this, I’m going with you. No arguing about it, capisce?” 

Snorting despite myself, I gave a short nod. Behind the helmet, I was smiling a bit. “So, my takeaway from all that is that you like me. You really like me!” 

A low growl escaped the girl. “Don’t make me change my mind, kid. This still all seems pretty stupid. But if you insist, I’m gonna make sure you don’t go too stupid with it.” 

“Not going too stupid, got it.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “But hey, at least we don’t have to worry about that for a while. I mean, that’s the problem behind door number two. We’ve got a whole other problem behind door number one we have to deal with first. Isn’t that great?”

Pack didn’t sound incredibly enthused, for some reason. “You know the whole ‘door number one or door number two’ bit is supposed to imply you pick one or the other? It’s supposed to be a choice, not a thing where you dive headfirst into both of them whenever you want.” 

“Meh.” I shrugged. “I always was a little selfish. Gotta have all the doors for myself. But hey, you’ll be there too.” I adopted a teasing tone once more. “Because you liiiiiike me. Because we’re super-good friends and you won’t let anything happen to me. Because we–”

She shut me up with a kick to the shin that made me yelp, then pointedly replied, “So, are we gonna find out if Wren’s got another slot we can slide Way into before we call her in, or what?” 

Giving her a thumbs up while using my other hand to rub my leg, I nodded. “Sure, sure. Let’s head over there and see what she can do. The more friends we can pull into this whole Tron adventure, the merrier.” Grimacing then, I added, “I can’t believe I’m saying that with a straight face. This is all super-weird, right?”

Snorting at me, Pack plucked Riddles off her shoulder where the bearded dragon had crawled. “Yeah, definitely super-weird. But you know, that’s pretty much par for the course as far as you’re concerned, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like you ever do anything the normal way.” 

Opening my mouth to argue, I ended up hesitating before coughing. “Okay, fair. I guess I really don’t. But whatever, come on, let’s go talk to our kid-genius inventor friend about letting the Minority superhero chick we’re both friends with come along on the trip to go into the cyborg-girl’s brain so we can save her from the evil duplicate virus her supervillain psycho father installed before she gets erased.” 

So, the two of us collected the lizards, put them back in the backpack-cage thing, then headed down and made our way through the maze of back alleys toward Wren’s shop. We passed a confused homeless guy on the way as he poked his head up from his sleeping bag next to a dumpster, and I gave him a twenty dollar bill before heading on. Pack watched me do that, seemed to consider for a moment, then sighed and passed him a twenty as well before whispering something in his ear. 

“What’d you say to that guy?” I asked once we had moved out of the man’s earshot. 

“Hmm?” Pack glanced toward me, then looked over her shoulder that way. “Oh, I just told him if he wants an easy lookout job that pays really well, he should call the number on the money I gave him. Blackjack’s always looking to recruit the unfortunate. Even if they don’t have any powers or skills, you’d be surprised how much information they can get for you. Plus, like I said, they can play lookouts really well. No one pays attention to them. Get enough on your side, and you have a whole spy network working for you. Just takes a little cash here and there. Which is something Blackjack has to spare.” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I sighed. “You know, I genuinely have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about that. At least he’s giving them money, I guess?” 

“Money they’re earning,” Pack clarified pointedly with a raised finger. “That’s the big part. Plus, some of them do enough to get promoted into the actual gang instead of just being street-eyes. All depends on how much work they do, and how good they are at it. There’s actually a decent amount of ex-military types on the streets.” 

I was still processing that as we made our way up to the back door of the shop and rang the bell. There was about a twenty second pause before the door was pulled open by Fred, who looked a little distracted and disheveled. “Come in, then. You can help carry some shit upstairs.” With that, he gestured to two milk crates on the floor that had random bits of equipment piled up in them. It looked like he had been pulling pieces off the shelves and shoving them in there. 

“Everything okay?” I asked while stepping in and moving to pick up one of the crates. Beside me, Pack did the same while the lizards chirped and squeaked from the backpack. 

Fred was taking a long drink from a bottle of water before wiping off his forehead. “Yeah. I mean as good as it can be. Just busy. Wren’s been working all day on getting this VR thing up and running, and it’s… look, she’s working really hard, so take it easy on the kid, okay?” 

My head bobbed quickly, and I started to ask if she was okay, but Pack beat me to it. “How’s she doing with all this? Gotta be a lot of pressure on the girl, even for someone with a techy brain that big. You made her get some sleep last night, right?” There was a firm tone to her voice that reminded me just how much Pack cared about Wren too, after the time they’d spent together. She definitely didn’t like the idea of the kid stressing herself out over this whole thing. Which was fair, even if I was worried about what was going on with Paige. I was worried about Wren too. The kid was taking a lot onto her plate, with trying to put her dad’s store back in business, designing things we could actually build and sell, upgrading my equipment, and trying to help with the Paige situation. She’d even apparently gone as far as building that whole communication thing just to check on Paige herself, found out there was something wrong, and reached out to her Tech-Touched friend in France to find a solution she could jury-rig. It was a lot for anybody, let alone a nine-year-old who should be focusing on having fun. Part of me wished I could just tell the kid to forget about the whole thing and focus on her shop. But, of course, I couldn’t do that because it would mean hanging Paige out to dry.

Fred had already nodded by the time I worked through all that in my head. “You’re damn right I made the kid go to sleep. Wasn’t easy either, she was bound and determined to work through the night, but I nipped that in the bud. So yeah, she slept, otherwise she wouldn’t be conscious right now. But she’s still working her butt off on this whole thing, so take it easy with anything you ask about, got it?” His gaze moved back and forth between the two of us. 

Pack and I exchanged glances before nodding. That time, I found my voice first. “Yeah, we do… we do need to ask her about something as far as this VR thing goes, but we’ll take it easy. Trust me, Fred, we don’t wanna pile anything else onto her. She’s done enough with all this.” 

His gaze seemed to bore straight into and even through me. “So you’re not about to ask her to try to fix that orb thing anyway, even after everything she said about not being able to do it?” 

Okay, that one definitely took me by surprise. Giving a double-take despite myself, I couldn’t find my voice for a second. “Wha–no! No, I swear, that’s not why we’re here. I mean, she said she couldn’t do it, that’s–I get it. Trust me, Fred, we are not about to try to talk her into working on the orb. I know it’s more than she can handle. I didn’t–” Oh. He thought I’d brought Pack for backup in talking the poor kid into taking on that job too. No wonder he was making a point of talking to us like this, especially after Wren had outright refused to work on Paige the first time. And now he thought we were here to pressure her into taking it up, just because it was an emergency and–oh. Now I definitely understood what his whole deal was. 

“He’s right,” Pack put in, clearly having gone through the same thought process. “We’re not here to talk the kid into doing stuff she already said she couldn’t do. We just think we might need more help if we’re going into this… computer world thing, so we were wondering if she could make enough links or helmets or whatever it is for us to bring That-A-Way over.” 

Quickly, I added, “And, you know, ask if she’s cool with That-A-Way knowing where the shop is and all that. I mean, she knows a good bit already. Some of it anyway. But it’s a pretty big step to have Way over here. Especially since she always knows what direction she’s facing, so putting a bag over her head to drive her to the shop wouldn’t really do that much. She’d probably still be able to figure out where we were going and all that.” 

Without missing a beat, Fred pointed out, “We could teleport her directly here, you know. Her knowing what direction she’s facing wouldn’t tell her the exact location if she was teleported in from somewhere else, right? It’d just take time to calibrate for her and all, as the kid would say.” 

Oh, right. Pausing to consider that, I slowly nodded. “We’ll ask Wren what she wants to do. Either way, having masks around for you or anyone who wants one would probably be a good idea, just to, you know, be on the safe side.” 

Fred looked like he was going to say something to that, before shaking it off. “Right, yeah. Well, if that’s what you need, go ahead and carry those crates up to the kid. And let me know if I need to start calibrating that teleport marker. Kid made me learn how to do it in case there was an emergency or whatever, and God knows she’s got enough to work on today as it is.” 

Yeah, Fred had definitely changed since I first met him. Or had he? His whole thing when he had gone against Wren’s rules and made the deal with Ashton had been to get money to take care of her and to pay the bills for her parents’ hospital and funeral stuff. Yeah, he’d definitely done something bad, but he hadn’t known how bad at the time. He had just wanted better for himself and his niece, and that wasn’t exactly the worst crime in the world. And now he was still trying to take care of her, just without going too far. He’d learned from his mistake, but he was still the same guy, for the most part. 

“You okay over there?” Pack asked as the two of us walked to the stairs with the crates.

Heading up first, I nodded quickly. “Yeah, sorry. Just been thinking a lot. You know, about everything. It’s just–” I sighed. “There’s a lot going on.” 

Snorting, Pack nodded while starting up after me. She had left the bag with her lizards inside on one of the counters downstairs with strict orders for them to stay put, eat their food, and relax. Aside from Twinkletoes, who was perched on her shoulder, curiously watching everything. “A lot going on, right. And yet, here you are, taking on more responsibility day after day after day.” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “Hey, I told you, it’s not my fault. I owed Deicide for the–yeah.” 

“I know, I get it,” she muttered, reaching up to scratch under Twinkletoes’s chin affectionately. The way she brought him with just as we were going up the stairs, I had the feeling Pack didn’t like to go anywhere without at least one of them. Which, again, made me curious about how she went to school. Did she go to school, or was it just like some kind of tutoring situation in La Casa? And why did I keep wondering about it? Seriously, it was none of my business. I had no idea why the question kept popping into my head. Like I didn’t already have enough to worry about and focus on? 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and moved through the hallway there to get to the lab where Wren was working on what I swore looked like a large, makeshift MRI machine that was taking up a decent portion of one corner. The kid had the side of the machine open and was lying on one of those little wheeled carts that mechanics use, buried up to her waist in the wire-filled guts of the machine. We could both hear the girl talking to herself, or rather, to the machine. She was mumbling about making the thing work whether it wanted to or not. 

Exchanging a brief look with the girl next to me, I stepped that way. “Uh, hey, Wren. You need any help down there? Got some stuff for you.” I shook the crate in my hand a little demonstrably.   

Hearing my voice, the girl slid out, blurting, “Paintball!” She saw the other girl then and added a quick, “Pack! And Twinkletoes!” Hurriedly, she climbed into her feet, almost slipping on the wheeled cart before managing to catch herself. “Hi! Oh, you can put that stuff right there on the floor, I’ve gotta dig through it and find the right stuff. Do you know if Uncle Fred found the–” And then she said something so ridiculously technical that she might as well have been speaking in a completely foreign language. Or even an alien language. Hell, for all I knew, she was talking in complete gibberish and that entire sentence was just the girl screwing with us to see if we had any clue what she was going on about. And from the sound that Pack made in the background, I was pretty sure she didn’t have the slightest idea what any of that meant either.  

After a moment, I found my voice. “Uh, sorry he didn’t say anything about that. But it seemed like he found what you sent him for? So maybe it’s in there. If you want some help digging through it…” Oh, really? Where was I going to go with that, genius? I had no idea what any of what she was asking about looked like, so how exactly was I going to help her find it? 

Thankfully, Wren politely declined, saying she’d look through it later. Then she frowned slightly, looking back and forth between us while holding Twinkletoes (the chameleon had been quickly handed over to her and was quite thoroughly enjoying the attention). Curiously, the girl asked, “You guys aren’t here to do the thing yet, are you? Cuz I–I’m really sorry but it’s not ready yet. I’ve been trying and I swear I’ll get it working, but I had to sleep cuz Uncle Fred said I couldn’t–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “No, no, it’s okay. We’re not here for that.” With that, I explained why we were there, asking how the girl felt about bringing That-A-Way over, how secret she wanted us to make it, and whether she thought there would be a way of bringing one more person into the VR thing. But I made it perfectly clear that if adding someone else was too much to get ready in time, she absolutely shouldn’t worry about it, and that it was just a thought we’d had about getting more help in there.

Thankfully (because I really thought we were going to need all the help we could get), Wren immediately agreed. According to her, once she had the actual system working, it wouldn’t be too hard to create an additional link-in for it. Especially since she had apparently been planning on making another one ‘just in case’ anyway. It was intended to be just in case one of the regular link-ins didn’t work properly, but assuming everything did work, there would be an extra one for That-A-Way.

“And you want us to go the blindfold, teleportation route?” Pack put in curiously. “Cuz if so, I think Paintball should do it. Just cuz someone from La Casa putting a bag over a superhero’s head and teleporting them to a secret location kiiiinda has a weird feeling to it.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Nuh uh, you can bring her here. She’s a superhero! She’s a good guy–errr, girl. An’ besides, if you guys trust her, I trust her.” Belatedly, she added, “Besides, if bad stuff happens, it’s probably a good idea to have someone like her know where we are, right?” 

“Uh, good point,” I agreed, giving her a thumbs up before looking over to Pack. “So, what do you say? 

“Shall we go find out if That-A-Way wants to play Tron with us?” 

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Summus Proelium)

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

Murphy and Roald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is gonna be an awesome job.” 

********

Peyton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

Cavalcade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Brianna,” came the soft response. 

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Building Connections 16-11 (Summus Proelium)

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On the way through the back alleys to the shop, I explained who Trevithick was (as well as what the name meant). It was all stuff I’d meant to tell her as we were making our way through the city, but then our little race thing happened and well, here we were. So, I just filled her in with the brief SparkNotes version. As we approached the back door, I mentioned that the kid was pretty young, and asked if she would have a problem working with someone like that. 

I clearly hadn’t thought that question through entirely, because Peyton looked at me pointedly and asked, “Young like you? Because I’m pretty good with that. I don’t think I get to judge what a kid can do after one saved my life like… twice within the same month, dude.” 

Burying my annoyance at being seen as a kid again beneath the much more useful fact that my disguise was stopping anyone from suspecting who I really was, especially my parents, I nodded once. “Younger than me.” It was the literal truth, after all. Wren really was younger than me.  I just wasn’t specific about how much younger. “She’s a kid. But she’s a genius Tech-Touched.” 

That said, I reached up to hit the buzzer. But before I could, the back door was flung open, and Murphy stood there, looking back and forth between the two of us for a moment before seeming to realize who Peyton was. “Ohhh, it’s marble girl. You changed your armor.” With that, she looked the other girl up and down briefly as though judging it. “I like this one better.” 

Peyton, in turn, stared at her briefly before turning to me. “She’s not younger than you.” 

Exactly how many times was I going to be tempted to blow my cover within a five minute span? Seriously, I was starting to think this was just gonna be a thing going forward. Exhaling, I shook my head and gestured between them. “This is Murphy, she’s… helping. It’s a long story.” 

“He caught me and my friend, Roald, after we broke into a gas station to steal food, and told us we could be his minions and help out around here or whatever instead of going to jail,” Murphy promptly summed up. Then she looked at me and added, “It’s really not that long of a story.”  

Peyton, meanwhile, had turned to look at me with obvious incredulity. “Wait, you have minions?”

Before I could respond to that, Murphy put in (with a voice that was basically the most cheerful I had ever heard her sound), “Just for now. But I think if we do a good job, he might upgrade us to henchpeople.” That, of course, was accompanied by the girl raising both hands to show her crossed fingers. “I’m pretty sure that’s when we get the matching uniforms.” 

Shaking my head, I gestured for the girl to step back so we could come in. Once the door was closed behind us, I asked, “So where’s Trevithick? Upstairs?” 

“Who?” Murphy blinked at me before remembering. “Oh, right. Nah, she had to run out. Took Fred and Roald and made me stay to watch the shop. Something about needing to grab important supplies or whatever.” Her hand gestured my way. “Kid said she was gonna text you an update.” 

“Text me an–” As I echoed those words, my hand was taking the phone from my pocket, and I blanched a little behind the helmet. I had a message from Wren, alright. Sure enough, it was all about how she had to go grab a few super-important things and that she would explain everything about what was going on once they got back. “Oh, well okay then. I guess we’ll wait here for them.” 

As I finished saying that, Murphy had already shrugged and moved back to a corner of the main shop floor where she had apparently been sweeping and mopping. From the look of it, she was actually doing a pretty good job. Okay, a very good job. Better than I could have, considering I’d basically almost never done anything like that except for the times when I was a kid trying to help the maids. Actually, I remembered that being kind of fun. But even now, I knew the reason it felt ‘fun’ to me at the time was because I could stop any time I wanted to. I didn’t depend on doing that to live or put food in my mouth. If I had to do it every day, as much as the people who worked in our house or at my school had to? Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It was a thought that made me shift a little uncomfortably. Yet Murphy seemed pretty fine with what she was doing. It made me wonder how much cleaning she ended up doing at home. Which also made me think about her brother. Part of me wanted to ask how that was going and if he’d stopped being pissed at her about not running those drugs over to his friend. But I was pretty sure that would be pushing a bit even if we were alone, let alone with Peyton here. 

So, I decided that conversation could wait. Meanwhile, Peyton herself had started to walk around the shop floor, picking up and examining various things from the shelves. “Wow,” she murmured quietly while turning an old miner’s helmet over in her hands, “they’re actually selling all this random junk?  

Wincing, I stepped over that way. “Don’t let the kid hear you calling it junk. This was her dad’s store, she’s pretty protective of it. And right now I think a lot of it is just a way of having basically any random thing she needs at any point when she starts building stuff.” 

A noise of regret escaped the other girl, as she turned to me while shaking her head. “I–sorry. I didn’t mean to just–ugh. I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t trying to like–insult her family’s shop or anything. I was just… yeah, sometimes I don’t think before I speak.” She muttered the last words before giving a heavy sigh. 

“It’s okay,” I assured her before reaching out to squeeze the girl’s arm. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. All this stuff is a lot to get used to. Believe me, I know.” And boy was that a severe understatement. A lot to get used to? Wait until she learned the real truth about the city–no, stop it. I couldn’t tell her the full truth about the city. Except she was already helping, and she was going to push that help as far as helping me find the girl who might be able to take Pencil down. Even if the idea was to stay completely away from that piece of shit and never directly involve ourselves with him, there was no definite one hundred percent certainty that we wouldn’t see him. And she was still here, still willingly putting herself in danger. Didn’t I owe her the–fuck. Would this question ever end up getting me anywhere except for more uncertain and confused?

“Dude.” Peyton, who I belatedly realized had been staring at me for the past few seconds while I went through all that in my head yet again, spoke up hesitantly. “Are you okay?” 

“It’s fine,” Murphy called from where she was still working. “He just does that sometimes. I think he likes brooding or something. That or he’s listening to podcasts in that helmet and gets distracted.” 

Flushing a bit behind the aforementioned helmet, I shook my head. “It’s not brooding or podcasts. I just–never mind. I was just thinking.” 

“Hey, speaking of just thinking,” Murphy called out again, “what do you call yourself, anyway? I mean, we can’t just stick with ‘that marble girl’ all the time, right?” 

It was Peyton’s turn to blush, slightly visible through the space that left part of her face around her eyes uncovered. “Uhh, we sort of went over some ideas, but I’m not sure. It’s really hard to come up with a good one that doesn’t sound stupid or overly dramatic or… whatever.”

“Oh, I know all about that too,” I muttered mostly to myself before gesturing. “Well, while we’re waiting, why don’t we go over the list? You wanna help, Murphy?” 

She, in turn, looked at the mop in her hand for a moment before setting it aside to step over where we were. Shoving her hands in her back pockets, the brown-skinned girl rocked back on her heels before asking, “What sorta options are you working with?” 

So, Peyton and I tugged a couple random stools over and slid one over to Murphy before starting to go over all the potential names. The three of us went back and forth for awhile about the ones that sounded good, why they were good, the ones that probably wouldn’t work, and so on. 

We went over all that for a good ten minutes. Finally, Peyton said she had some favorites, especially after talking to the two of us, but she wanted to think about it some more before deciding, and maybe ask the others what they thought. Which was pretty good timing, considering it was only a couple minutes after that before Wren showed up with Fred and Roald. 

“Wow,” Peyton murmured very quietly in my direction as the trio arrived with armfulls of paper grocery bags, “you weren’t kidding about her being young. But she’s really that good?” 

“She’s really that good,” I confirmed before stepping that way to take a bag from Wren. It was heavier than it looked, geez. The bag was completely filled with what looked like half of an average-sized store’s electronics department. Peyton was already doing the same for Fred. “Hey guys, look who I brought back. It’s… uhh, she doesn’t actually have a name yet. So TBD. But TBD, this is Wren or Trevithick, her uncle Fred, and Roald.” 

That was followed by both Fred and Roald shaking the girl’s hand, the latter commenting that her armor looked different this time. Peyton then explained how that worked with her marbles. Both of them seemed a little awkward and uncertain in a way that almost seemed kind of cute. Especially when Murphy inserted herself and all three of them went back and forth about different types of armor and weapons she might be able to make with the various marbles. 

For her part, Wren waited until all the bags were put down and was quietly respectful of letting the other three talk for about ten more seconds before flinging herself that way with an added boost from her flight pack wings (the pack was on under her jacket and it projected the wings through a couple almost-invisible slits in the back) to cross the distance before landing directly in front of her. “Hi! I’m Wren, like he said! You are so cool, I watched the videos of you fighting those bad guys like eighteen times! When you hit Juice with the battering ram and then threw him with the gloves, that was so awesome! You were like, ‘don’t you touch him!’ then wham! Did you really just get your powers? You totally kicked his butt before he even knew what was happening!” 

Peyton, looking more than a little taken aback by the enthusiasm, managed a little giggle. “Uhh, thanks. Just beginner’s luck, really. I think he was more focused on being mad at Paintball, so he wasn’t paying any attention to me.” 

“He was definitely distracted,” I agreed, “but that doesn’t take away from the fact that most people wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of that distraction the way you did. Seriously, she’s right, you were awesome back there. I would’ve been screwed without your help.” Blanching a little, I added, “Still don’t know why they keep calling you my ‘sidekick’ though. I mean, I haven’t even been doing this for two whole months yet.” 

Wow, saying that part out loud made me think about just how much had happened in the past six-ish weeks. The vials, finding out about my family, being taken by Pencil, the whole situation with him and the rest of the Scions at the hospital, the Paige thing… Just how damn busy was I

While I was focused on that, Peyton had started to explain her whole naming situation and the various ideas she was working off of. Roald, Wren, and Fred gave their own opinions and went back and forth for awhile, until Peyton finally held up both hands. “Okay, okay. I’ve got it, I think. The name I’m gonna go with is…” She took a breath, letting it out before finishing. “Alloy.” Even after she said it, the girl looked uncertain. “I mean, is that good? I think– never mind. Sorry. I’m terrible at making decisions! I even like boys and girls cuz throwing out half my options is bullshit!” With that cry, she waved both hands vaguely. 

It was Fred who spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you uhh, close your eyes for a second.”

Looking a little confused and uncertain, the girl did so with a quiet, “Um, okay.”  

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up loudly. “Alloy, Paintball needs your help, get out there!” After a pause, he asked, “So, did that sound right? I mean, the name, did it sound like something you’d like to be called?” 

Peyton opened her eyes. I had the feeling she was smiling behind the mask. “Uh huh. That’s it. That’s the right name. Thanks, uhh, Mr. Donovan.” 

“Fred’s fine,” the man insisted, looking self-conscious as he rubbed his head. “I just know sometimes it helps to hear the name from someone else. It’s how…” He paused briefly before continuing in a softer, more subdued tone. “It’s how I helped Wren’s folks choose her name.” 

Well, that was sobering. I still wasn’t sure about the whole story there, other than the fact that her mother and father had died in the hospital after racking up quite the medical bill. Which was the whole thing that led to Fred selling that device to Ashton so he could steal the vials in the first place. Not that Fred had known what his plan was at the time.

Of course, thinking about that reminded me of why we had come here today to begin with. “Um, Wren? You said you had something really important to talk about. What’s wrong? And, uhh, does it have anything to do with the fact that you just went on a huge shopping spree? All this stuff looks pretty intense.” I said that while gingerly reaching into one of the bags and picking up what appeared to be a circuit board with seven different colored wires leading out of it and a large computer power supply attached to one side.  

Immediately, Wren looked guilty about her distraction. “Oh, uhh, yeah. I should probably talk to you upstairs about it.” She winced, shifting back and forth on her feet, clearly anxious. 

I had the feeling Peyton really wanted to ask what was going on. Instead, she gestured to the others. “Hey, you wanna see how I raced Paintball to get over here? I could show you outside, if y–hold on!” Tugging her buzzing phone out, she blurted, “Everybody be quiet, or sound like shoppers!” Then she was answering it, talking to her mother, who was checking in again. After a moment, she muted her phone, grabbed Murphy by the arm, and hissed at her to pretend to be someone named Dana coming up to say they had to check out some sale somewhere.  

Looking to Wren while that was going on, I whispered, “Are you okay?” 

“Wha–oh.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s not about me. It’s–it’s about Paige.” 

Of course it was. I’d figured it had to be as soon as whatever the problem was didn’t turn out to have anything to do with bad guys at the shop, her or Fred’s health, and involved her going out to buy a bunch of things on an emergency shopping trip. Much as I might’ve loved to hope this whole thing was just a kid overreacting to some brand new idea she had about an invention that she wanted to show off, I knew Wren better than that. And I knew my luck better than that. 

So, while Peyton (or Alloy now) took the others out back to show off the whole hoverboard thing, I went with Wren upstairs. The two of us took the elevator, the younger girl being oddly quiet and subdued all the way. Finally, once the door opened and we stepped out into the hall, she turned to face me. “Okay, see, I felt really bad that I couldn’t help wake up your friend. So I thought maybe if I could at least find a way to communicate with her, it might help. You know, connect with her umm, mind or whatever?” She was fidgeting nervously or self-consciously. 

“Did… did you manage to communicate with her?” No, that didn’t make sense. Why would her succeeding at something like that make Wren so… like this? It certainly wouldn’t be an emergency. 

Sure enough, the blonde girl shook her head quickly. “No–I mean yes, I mean sort of. Hang on–c’mere.” Pivoting, she grabbed my hand and led me into the lab where Paige was lying comfortably (I hoped) on a padded table. There was a wheeled cart nearby with some electronic equipment stacked up on it. Wren picked up what looked like the drum and tubing part of a stethoscope that led into what I swore was part of an ancient Atari video game system with an original Gameboy attached to it via a series of wires. Yeah, it was a whole confusing thing.

“This,” Wren told me while holding up the end of the stethoscope, “sends electronic messages and receives them at close range. It–okay it gets complicated. The short version is that you’re supposed to be able to put it on Paige close to where her CPU thing is, then it’ll send a message to her. Then she can send a message back. Or, you know, whatever tiny part of her is still conscious. They have to be simple messages, and slow. Like one or two words every fifteen minutes. It’s like talking to her in her dreams.” 

“I’m guessing the big emergency isn’t that it didn’t work?” I asked hesitantly, staring at the thing in her hand, then back to Paige. 

“No,” she confirmed quietly. “It worked. I sent a message asking, ‘Can you hear?’ and she sent back, umm, well it took awhile to get all of it, but…” 

Rather than finish, she simply picked up the Gameboy and turned it so I could see the screen. Written across it were eleven words in succession, one under the next, all in capital letters. 

HELP

DAD

VIRUS

SECOND

ME

COPY

TRYING

ERASE

REPLACE

KILL

HELP

PLEASE

Reading all that through, I took a second to process it before my eyes widened. “Her dad made a virus that’s like a copy and it’s trying to replace her. I–we don’t have any more time to try to come up with the perfect plan or find the perfect people to help. We don’t have time for any of that.

“We have to start saving Paige right now.”

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Building Connections 16-04 And Patreon Snippets 19B (Summus Proelium)

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So, after a very quick detour to grab the girl’s phone from where she had apparently dropped it, I helped her get away from that scene. She was freaking out about needing to go home before her mother found out what she was involved in, but waited at least long enough for me to give her my number to stay in contact. There was a moment after that where it looked like she was going to say something important. She looked at me awhand I saw uncertainty in her eyes, visible through the helmet. But in the end, she just shook her head and promised to text eventually. 

Then, with the sound of sirens still filling the air as more Emergency Services arrived, she took off running out of the alley we were in. For a moment, I stood there and watched her leave before shaking my head. What was I going to do when she did call? Should I point her toward the Minority? What if she asked what I thought of them? What was I supposed to say to that? I didn’t even know this girl at all. I couldn’t just start telling her about the Ministry and all that shit. Even if she was a good person, which I didn’t really know at all (though risking her life to help those hostages was a really good indicator, to be fair), I still didn’t know how she might react to the actual truth. I had no idea how good she was at keeping a secret, especially not one that huge. Or if she would even want to. For all I knew, she would see the Ministry as a great thing and immediately side with them. I really had no idea what would happen if I told her the truth. 

Right, sigh. So, at the moment I had absolutely no idea what to do about the girl. Which was an ongoing theme. Hopefully, I would think of something useful and stop being so indecisive before she called. But for now, I needed to put it aside and focus on other things. Important things, like-

“So, who’s the chick with the sweet armor?” 

Taken completely by surprise when the voice behind me suddenly spoke up, I spun that way to see a different armored figure standing over by the nearby dumpster. Of course, I immediately recognized her. “Broadway?” I found myself blurting the La Casa Touched’s name. Suddenly, I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I wasn’t exactly as close with her as I was with Pack, and the lizard-controlling girl didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. I didn’t know Broadway at all, though the fact that she had helped save me from Pencil was about a million points in her favor. So I wasn’t exactly on my guard. But I wasn’t relaxed either. 

She, in turn, actually giggled at my reaction, taking a moment before speaking again. A moment which gave me time to take her in a bit more fully. As always, Broadway wore dark-purple armor with white speaker system vents all over it. Her helmet was the same color purple, with three vertical speaker vents where the girl’s ears would be, angled forward. There was a wide V-shaped visor over the face part of the helmet, where a series of bright, multi-colored lines bounced back and forth in rhythm with the words whenever she actually spoke. 

“You know her name?” the girl asked, making those lines dance with her words. “Tell me she’s got a name–wait, no, if she doesn’t it’ll be cool to come up with a good La Casa name for her.” 

Squinting at her, I shook my head. “She’s not joining La Casa, or any other gang. She just helped stop your allies from holding hostages over there, you know.” I gestured back toward the shopping center with those words. “And hey, speaking of which, since I was just fighting them, shouldn’t you be like… swearing vengeance or starting some kind of brawl or whatever?” 

“Meh,” she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand, sounding fairly bored. “Whatever. I mean, Easy Eights and us, we’re basically allies in the sense that… Churchill and Stalin were allies? The slightly lesser asshole of the bigger asshole is my asshole. Or something like that.” 

“You know, Stalin killed an awful lot of people before he was done,” I pointed out flatly. 

“True,” the girl agreed, head tilting just a little as she looked at me. “The point is, I wouldn’t say we’re exactly friends. And personally, I definitely don’t care what you did to stop them from whatever the hell that was. I’m more in this whole thing for the fun, the rush, you know? Not taking hostages and hurting people.” 

For a moment, I just stared at her. “You really think your boss doesn’t hurt people just like these guys were? Cuz I’ve got news for you, he definitely takes hostages too. He steals from innocent people, and innocent people get hurt because of things he does. Just because he’s more–I dunno, classy and cool about it doesn’t make him some upstanding figure or anything.”  

“Yeah, that’s fair,” the girl easily agreed. “Never said we were great people or anything. But there’s like… levels of that shit. The people I work with try to avoid putting civilians in unnecessary danger, though scaring them’s a bit fun. We don’t go out of our way to kill and torture anybody, and most of the shit we take is insured stuff from businesses anyway. You don’t see me mugging old ladies on the street, do you? Hell no. You can call it petty justification or whatever, but the way I see it, capitalism is a fucking failure that just makes the rich get richer and stomps on the poor. Anything I can do to fuck with that system and have a little fun while I’m at it is fine with me.” She pointed to her own armored chest then. “I’m not a hero, never claimed to be anything of the sort. But I’ve got my own standards, and I stick with them. Blackjack, he’s got standards too. He keeps his word, he lets us refuse jobs that make us uncomfortable, he doesn’t intentionally go after innocent civilians or target people like that. And right now, he’s fighting a war to deal with people who tried to let his kid die. Gotta say, I’m totally onboard with that. You would be too, if you ever met the kid.”

“Of course I want the people who almost got Blackjack’s daughter killed to be brought to justice,” I pointed out. “Not just for that, but for everything else they’ve done too. But if your boss really wants them to pay, he could just work with…” Then I trailed off. He could work with who? The authorities? I knew the truth. The Ministry would only allow Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners to be brought to justice if it worked for their bottom line. They were allowing this war to happen, probably because doing so would keep Blackjack on their side. But that didn’t mean they’d just let the cops actually put them all away. I had a feeling that whatever came out of this war, my parents and their business would somehow end up in an even better position than before. 

Broadway, arms folded across her chest, had clearly noticed the way I trailed off. But she didn’t actually address it. Instead, the girl offered me a simple shrug. “It’s complicated. I chose my side and I stick with it. You, on the other hand, seem really confused about where you want to be. You won’t join the Minority or any of the other heroes, and you helped my boss get those vials. You’re even like… sort of friends with good ol’ Pack. But you won’t join us either. You’re right in the middle of this whole thing, you know? Whose side are you really on?” 

For a moment, I was silent. Then I let out a breath and looked back to her to reply firmly, “I’m on whatever side protects innocent people at the time. The rest of this, I don’t–I don’t know. Sometimes the Star-Touched are right, sometimes the Fell-Touched are. It’d help if–” Again, I stopped myself. Fuck. I couldn’t say ‘if the Ministry wasn’t a thing.’ Instead, I ended that with, “It’d help if it was actually simple. But it’s not.” 

Broadway pointed at me. “Hey, I’m pretty sure that’s the smartest thing I’ve heard you say. You’re right, it’s complicated. But just to be clear, I’m still a bad guy most of the time. And I’m okay with that. I steal some things, break other things, piss people off, and you know what? I have one hell of a fun time doing it. I think you could have a lot of fun too if you just let go a bit.” 

My eyes, hidden behind the helmet, narrowed. “Were you here trying to recruit me, or that new girl?” 

I could hear the grin in her voice. “Hey, whatever works. I wouldn’t mind getting a two-for-one deal.” She paused then, watching me for a moment before adding, “Does this mean you’re not giving me her number or name?” 

“I don’t have either,” I retorted honestly. “She’s brand–never mind. You know, we’re probably supposed to be fighting right now or something.” 

“You saying you wanna wrestle?” came her response with obvious amusement. “Sorry, buddy, I think I’m a little too old for you.” With that, she held out both hands to either side. “Actually, to be honest, I mostly came over to make sure you were okay. For Pack’s sake. She likes you. But not like that, don’t get any ideas. She’s more into That-A-Way, if you get my drift. Though that was less drifting and more plowing straight through the wall.” 

That-A-Way and Pack. They were–oh right. Blinking at that, I started to say something before catching myself. There was no reaction I could have that wouldn’t either just amuse her or give the girl way too much information. Instead, I just managed a slightly weak, “I’ll uhh, keep that in mind, thanks, I guess. But you’re still not gonna recruit that girl.” 

That earned me a thumbs up. “We’ll see, PB. It’ll be fun to find out where she ends up. And hey, glad to see those guys didn’t rough you up too bad. I’ll let Pack know you’re cool.” 

With that, she gave me a salute, then pointed up and over my head to the roof of the nearby building. The sound of a dog barking came from her armored gauntlet, as the girl vanished, teleporting along the soundwaves. 

Which left me standing there, belatedly realizing that one of the phones in my pocket had gone off a couple times already. Quickly, I took it out to check. It was the Touched phone, with messages from Wren wanting to know if everything was okay now since she’d been watching reports online about what was going on. There was an adorably rambling bit about how she didn’t want to send any message while I was busy fighting bad guys but now the news said the fight was over but wasn’t saying anything about me so was I really okay and what happened, etc. It was a pretty long run-on sentence which ended with, ‘PLZ CALL PLZ’ and then a series of hugging bear emojis. So yeah, pretty freaking adorable. 

Of course, how could I make her keep worrying? I had to let her and the others know I was okay. But first, I used red paint to pull myself up to the roof of another building (different from the one Broadway had used), looking around to make sure I was alone. Only once I was satisfied did I hit the button on the phone to connect with Wren’s, using the bluetooth in my ear rather than the actual phone itself for the conversation. 

“Paintball?!” came the blurted word after the phone had gone for like… half a ring. 

“Hey, kid,” I quickly confirmed. “Everything’s fine. I’m on my way. How’re my new friends doing?” 

There was a very brief pause at that before the girl’s voice returned, sounding just a little scolding. “They were really surprised when we met them.” 

Snorting despite myself at the thought of those two finding out just who their boss was, I admitted, “Yeah, I’m sorry I missed it. Anyway, things are good here. I’ll be at the store in just a few minutes. Everything okay besides that little surprise?” 

She confirmed that things were chill there, and I disconnected before heading off. Time to pick up the pace a bit. I still had about an hour before I needed to head home for family dinner, but still, I definitely wanted to at least say more than two words to the people who were supposed to be helping Wren. Especially now that they knew just who they were going to be working for. 

Again, I was really sad that I’d missed that reaction. 

In any case, I managed to make it back to Wren’s shop in record time, even with taking a short loop to make sure no one was following me. Then I moved to the back door and hit the buzzer to be let in. The moment I did, Wren was right there, wanting to know everything that had happened. Behind her, I saw Murphy and Roald watching the whole thing from next to one of the shelves full of random junk in the middle of the main pawnshop floor. It looked like they had already been set to work organizing things. Which was almost unfair, given how chaotic the whole shop was. It was definitely a job that would take awhile. 

So, for all three of their benefits (as well as Fred’s, as the man came downstairs just after the start), I explained everything that had happened, including meeting the new girl. It was during that part that Murphy finally piped up. “So that girl just got her powers because those fucks attacked the place she was shopping at?” 

Pausing, I shrugged. “That’s what it seems like, yeah. She definitely wasn’t used to them, that’s for sure. She didn’t have a name or anything. But she’s got my number, so hopefully she’ll call back.” 

“You gonna tell her to go to the Minority?” That was Roald, his voice sounding curious. Belatedly, I realized he was also curious about why I myself hadn’t gone there. Apparently everybody wanted to know that these days. Either way, it was a fairly clever way of getting around outright asking the obvious question, and I gave the boy a brief, appraising look. 

Before I could respond, however, Wren piped up. “You should tell her to join our team! We don’t need no Minority! She can be with us.” Giving me a dual thumbs-up, the girl added, “Besides, you said she was afraid of her mom finding out about it, right? If she goes to the Minority, they have to tell her parents. If she comes here, we don’t. Plus, we get another person on our team. See? Perfect plan.” 

“We have a team now?” I asked, watching the girl. 

“Well, it’s either a team or a gang,” Wren pointed out. “Team sounds better. I mean, you already have minions!” She flailed both hands randomly back toward the other two. 

“Oh my God, they’re not minions!” I insisted with a groan. 

Wren, of course, chose that moment to pivot back that way and demanded, “Guys, what are you?” 

That, of course, made Murphy and Roald look at each other. There was a moment of mostly-silent conversation with a few muttered words before both turned back and nodded, the girl speaking. “Yeah, we’re minions.” 

“Cool with that,” Roald confirmed. “Long as you don’t make us wear blue overalls and speak gibberish.” 

“And become weirdly associated with incredibly stupid antivax mothers on the internet,” Murphy added. 

“I’ll uhh, do my best not to let that happen,” I managed with a soft cough, shaking my head. “But seriously, you guys are just–I mean… I’m not gonna–look, you’re here to help and I appreciate that. Seriously. You’ll get paid just to work here in the store, not to go out and get in trouble.” 

“Whatever,” Murphy replied. “You want help, we can help. Better than stealing shit and going hungry. Or ending up in jail. Or dead.” 

“She means there’s a lot worse options than playing minio–assistants to a superhero,” Roald added. “We get paid here, we get to work without involving drugs or hurting people, it’s…” He paused, seeming to search for the right words before settling on, “It’s cool.” 

“Really cool,” Murphy put in. “If you need more than just some clean-up and shelf stocking, you let us know. Seriously, we don’t have like–you know, powers or anything, but we can do other things. Whatever you need. We–uhh…” She kicked the floor, suddenly looking self-conscious. “We wanna help.” 

“Okay, but… I’m still not gonna put you guys in any more danger than I have to,” I insisted. “I’m glad you’re here and willing to do stuff, but just… just focus on helping Wren.” 

We talked a little more, I promised to let them know if I needed more help and about what happened with the newly-Touched girl. Then it was about time to head home for dinner. But first, I went upstairs to see the still comatose Paige. 

Standing by the motionless figure, I hesitated, putting my hand in hers and squeezing it. “Sorry this is taking so long,” I murmured, unsure if she had any idea I was even there, let alone speaking. “But I swear, we’ll find the right person. I’ll find whatever we need to fix you and wake you up. Just hold on a bit longer, okay?” Then I snorted. “What do I mean, hold on? You’re just taking a little nap, right? You probably won’t even know any time has passed by the time we turn yo–by the time we wake you up.” 

Still, standing there, staring at the girl, I couldn’t help but feel like I was failing. She was counting on me and I was failing. It felt like there was a time limit, like… like there was some bomb counting down and if it hit zero, everything would… what, explode? 

I didn’t know. But one thing was for certain. We needed to help Paige and wake her up as soon as possible. Maybe then the awful feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach whenever I looked at her lying unconscious like that would go away. At the very least, it would be nice to scratch one damn thing off my to-do list. 

And hey, at least my whole encounter with the new girl and that conversation with Broadway were two more examples of how I was gradually building connections in this city. 

Wait a second.

Hold up. 

I was building connections… I had built more connections… made… connections.

That was it. I had an idea. 

I knew how we were going to break into that base under the mall.

Patreon Snippets 19B – Lightning Bug

“C’mon, c’mon guys, we gotta go to bed in a hour! That’s like–that’s a, that’s less than a movie. That’s like half a Frozen. They didna even make it to the ice castle in half a Frozen!”

The blurted, rushed words in the doorway of the brightly lit room heralded the arrival of what was quite possibly one of the strangest-looking Conga lines in anyone’s memory. At the head, and the one speaking, was the small, red-skinned five-year-old girl with long white hair, too-large compound blue eyes, and insect-like wings. Her arms were outstretched to hold onto a truly massive (relative to her size) bowl full of popcorn. The bowl was decorated with images of fairies flying through some trees, surrounded by various insects. It was known as the Bug Bowl, the closest thing they had to something that showed the girl and her friends, with the fairies standing in as images of Lightning Bug herself. Despite its size, the girl ate all of her snacks and treats out of it, along with some of her meals, even when they only filled a very small portion of the actual bowl. While her arms were full of the bowl, in one hand she also carried her ‘Bug Cup’, a bright blue sippy cup with a lid shaped like a ladybug. 

Behind the bowl and cup-bearing girl came the rest of their strange Conga line in the form of the five-and-a-half foot tall praying mantis named Simminin (Or Cinnamon), the three-foot-tall emerald-green beetle named Snugglebug, and then much smaller (but still relatively enormous) cat-sized and metallic purple-colored Orchid bee named Kenobee bringing up the rear.

The room they entered together was the entertainment room of the penthouse apartment where Bug and her mommy lived with Aunt Hana. The room had a massive flatscreen television that was hung up in the middle of the wall, surrounded by a big couch and several chairs. There were even several video game systems set up on the nearby shelf. But Bug and her companions ignored all of that, instead moving to the other corner of the room, where several fluffy cushions and a couple beanbag chairs lay haphazardly around a second television that was set close to the floor. A plastic table nearby held various half-finished crayon drawings, a few toys, and a computer pad covered by a shock-proof plastic shield with large, colorful designs. 

Plopping herself down on one of the bean bags while her trio of insect friends spread out to perch themselves around her on various cushions, Lightning Bug carefully settled the bowl in her lap and put the cup on the nearby table. Then she picked up the computer pad and tapped it a few times. As she did so, the screen of the nearby television popped on to display the YouTube homepage. From there, Bug typed in her search request very carefully, tongue poking out the side of her mouth as she painstakingly typed the right letters while sounding them out. Partway through, she turned a bit in her seat and called loudly toward the doorway. “Mommy, what’s the letter for T?! Tuh Tee Tuh Tee.” She giggled then, happily repeating the sounds to herself to the point that she nearly forgot what it was she was actually asking. 

A moment later, her mother appeared in the doorway. Out of her public-people costume, Bug’s mother was an Asian-American woman of mixed descent, with short, close-cropped black hair and a faint, barely visible scar across one side of her face, from her cheek, over her right eye, and up to her forehead. She held her phone in one hand, telling whoever was on the other end to hold a moment. “T, Buggy? Hold up the pointing finger.” As her daughter did so, holding up an index finger, she added, “Now put the other pointing finger on top.” A fond chuckle escaped the woman as the young girl put the tip of her other finger against the tip of the first, so they were pointing to each other. “Good try, other way, see? Sideways. There you go!” She smiled when the girl got it right. “Like that. You see it? The T looks like–yup, good job!” 

While her mother went back to the call, Bug finished typing in her search request, then scrolled her finger along the screen of the pad while watching the television until she found the video she wanted. It took a couple tries, but eventually she got it. “Oh, oh, this is a good one! It’s really funny.” With that promise to her trio of insect friends (all of whom were watching the screen with far more understanding and intelligence than should have been possible), she started to hit play, only to be stopped as Simminin bumped one claw gently against her arm, somehow managing to look beseechingly at her.

“Oh! Sorry, guys.” Quickly, the young girl reached into the big bowl in her lap. She began producing several smaller bowls that had been stacked up inside it. The first, which she set it down in front of Simminin herself, was full of small dead crickets. The second, placed in front of the cushion where Snugglebug had draped himself, had seeds, bits of leaves, pieces of dry fruit, and some honey mixed in. Finally, the bowl she put in front of Kenobee’s perched form held a sugar-nectar mix, which the bee immediately stuck his face up against to start slurping from. 

Now all her friends had their respective treats, Bug took a handful of popcorn out of the bowl for herself, then hit play on the computer pad while shoveling the snack into her own mouth. 

Immediately, a video about Paintball started up. She’d seen it before, of course, but this one was one of her absolute favorites. It was a combination of scenes from people’s phones and the news all about Mr. Ball jumping and flying through the air, and making bad guys look dumb. The music in the video came from one of the Super Mario Brothers games, and whoever made it put in the Mario jumping sound effect whenever Paintball bounced around, along with various ‘jump on an enemy’ sounds when bad guys were hit. It was funny every time, and Bug was quickly doubled over in the seat, laughing so much her mother poked her head in once or twice to make sure she was okay. 

For most of the hour she had before her bedtime, Lightning Bug watched more videos, alternately bouncing in her beanbag chair and hovering above it with her rapidly beating wings. The videos weren’t all about Paintball. Some of them were about Aunt Hana or Mommy. Or other people. But the Paintball ones were her favorites. There was just something about the colorful, bouncy Star-Touched that made for fun videos. Some of the videos were mean, like with the dumb guys who said Paintball should stop being selfish and join a team. She turned those ones off really quick. 

In the midst of watching another of the fun ones, Bug pointed. “Look!” she blurted, as though her insect trio’s eyes weren’t already firmly fixated on the screen, “it’s Mr. Lucent!” 

Sure enough, on that particular video, someone had captured the image of Lucent the Touched-Raven perched on a lamppost as he watched Paintball jumping through the air in the distance. The video, taken from the high-up balcony of a hotel room, went on to show Lucent follow Paintball for a short distance, before diving away into an alley. From there, the video switched to showing various scenes of Paintball and Lucent each fighting criminals at different times (none of them together, but the video made it look like they were), while a song about fathers and sons played. 

Eventually, Bug’s time with the videos ended as her mother called that it was time for her bath. Finishing the last of the juice from her cup, the girl hit the button on the pad to turn off the TV before pushing herself up. “C’mon, you can help Mommy!” she announced while starting to leave. 

It was fun watching videos about Paintball. Bug really hoped she would visit again soon and make more pretty designs for her friends. 

He. She hoped he would visit again soon, Lightning Bug told herself sternly. He, he, he. She had to make herself think of Paintball as a he. 

After all, she wasn’t supposed to give away people’s secrets.

A/N: Do YOU have an idea of what Peyton’s Touched name should be? Just like when Cassidy got her name, I’m leaving it up to you guys to decide what it should be. Submit your suggestions either in the comments of this chapter OR via e-mail to ceruleanscrawling(at)gmail.com and a future chapter will list as many possibilities as I can out of what is given. After that chapter, I’ll list the possibilities again and everyone will be allowed to vote on them.

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