Hallowed

Hostile Witness 18-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Going to classes with Amber that day was weird, after everything I knew now. But then, it was obviously weird for her too. I kept seeing her glance over at me, catching me looking at her. Not that we actually said that much to each other all day long. And when we did talk, it was while Jae was around at lunch. So we didn’t exactly get into anything important. Which was just as well. Talking about secret stuff at school was probably a bad idea anyway. We had to be careful. 

We did, at least, take a couple of minutes out in the yard behind the school between classes to have a quick conversation about what was going on. Apparently she had already talked to Pack, and we were going to deal with that whole Amanda situation tomorrow. I wanted to hope it would be a simple in and out thing where we got her to tell us what she knew, but I wasn’t counting on it. We were going to have a plan just in case everything went sideways. After all, when it came to anything involving Pencil and the Scions, it was almost certainly best just to assume that things were going to end with screaming, terror, and probably a lot of fire. And that was probably if things were going relatively well. 

I also exchanged a few texts on my second phone with Peyton herself, setting up a time to meet up and talk. She couldn’t do anything immediately after school, thanks to some sort of plans with her mother that she couldn’t get out of. Not that I would have wanted her to try anyway. She needed to make things seem as normal as possible for the clearly very protective woman. 

So, we were going to meet up around eight in the evening instead. The next day was Saturday, so there wouldn’t be as much of a push for her to be home early. We could find a private place and… and talk. Yeah, I wasn’t going to give her my full identity just yet. But she deserved to know the truth about the Ministry, and about why I couldn’t let myself join up with any of the established teams. She deserved to know what we were dealing with, and to decide if she wanted to back off entirely. She still had that choice. Peyton could just walk away from this whole thing without too much trouble. 

Yet, I found myself hoping she didn’t. Yeah, it was selfish, but I couldn’t help it. Just the fact that she had been right there watching my back inside that whole computer simulation thing had helped a lot. Yeah, Pack and That-A-Way had been there too, and that was even more helpful. But Peyton was… Peyton was a partner. I barely knew her, yet what I did know was that she was really brave, not to mention competent. It was… it was good to have her around. 

Still, if finding out the full truth, or at least as much as I could tell her, about the Ministry made her want to jump out of the pool and walk away, I wasn’t going to stop her. I wouldn’t try to talk her out of it. Mostly because if I had been in her situation, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t want to walk away from the whole thing. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. This was my family, my problem. I had to be involved. She didn’t. She could be safe. So if she wanted out, she deserved that much. 

Either way, I would deal with all that later, after actually telling the girl what was going on. For the moment, it was the end of the school day and I had something else to deal with. Namely, going over to the Seraph place so I could actually finish up my chores there. After all, it was probably a good idea for me to get that done before they decided I was trying to skip out on the work. I wasn’t sure what they’d do if they had to chase me down and get more stern about it, but it was a situation I wanted to avoid in general. 

Still, I didn’t go straight over there. Instead, I took the ride home with Jefferson and Izzy, spending about an hour there to make things look as normal as possible. Also, homework. Yeah, I still had that to deal with too. I was pretty sure my parents would have a few questions if I started getting straight F’s in all my classes. It wouldn’t do much to help me keep my extracurricular activities secret. So I spent an hour doing as much of that as I could, setting a little bit aside to cram on later that night before bed. Then I called my mother as Jefferson had said she wanted, having a conversation with her about how school went, what I was planning to do that night (at least, the version I was willing to tell her), and about what they were doing (at least, the version she was willing to tell me). Yeah, we were a completely normal family, alright. 

Once that little charade was over with, I took the time to have a little snack in the dining room with Izzy, the two of us chatting about utterly meaningless stuff to give the impression we had nothing better to worry about. Yeah, another charade. If I’d had any spare time, I might’ve signed up for the drama club, because I was getting to be a pretty good little actress. 

Finally, I made a point of telling Izzy, within earshot of a couple housecleaners passing by, that I was going out with a few friends and would be back in a few hours. We made a show of making sure she would text me if she needed anything, before I headed out. Of course Izzy knew what I was really doing, but we had to cover our bases in case (okay, when) my parents asked the staff what the two of us had been up to while they were gone.

Taking an Uber to a small strip mall that was about a mile from the Seraph headquarters,  I stopped in a nearby alley behind one of the shops and changed into my costume. From there, I painted my way across the remaining distance, taking the time to wave at a few people who called out when I was passing by. I even left the logo I’d made up while at Ten Towers (the black oval with Paintball written in white intricate cursive letters and a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other) in a couple places for them to take pictures of. They seemed to like that a lot, especially if they could get photos of me moving in front of the logo.

At some point, I had asked myself why I did this sort of thing. I mean, obviously it was kind of fun to be liked and cheered on, and it helped me push negative thoughts away. But there was another, more important reason I did it. If worse came to worst and my parents started to use the Ministry against ‘Paintball’, they might try to shift public opinion and make me look bad. I wanted to get ahead of that by making sure as many people as possible actually liked me.  

Was that selfish or… or wrong? Was it manipulative? Yeah, maybe. Probably. But I only had so many ways of protecting myself against the sort of things the Ministry could do to make me look bad. I had to stay ahead of that sort of thing. Besides, I wasn’t exactly… lying or whatever. I really did enjoy having fun by showing off for these people. Actually, that was probably the biggest thing connecting Cassidy Evans to Paintball. I had always loved to show off for an audience while doing my tricks on my board or blades, when I’d done gymnastics, or even that brief, single semester of cheerleading back in junior high. 

The point was, I liked attention and I liked showing off. But I did have a valid, strategic reason for wanting to make people like having Paintball around. Anything to make it harder for the Ministry to cast me as a bad guy or a threat. Not that I expected to be completely immune if they decided to really come after me, but every little thing helped. 

In any case, I made it to the front gate of the headquarters and found Matthew Orens on duty. After greeting the man, I slipped off my backpack and dug inside until I found the (already laminated) papers on which I had drawn the pictures and text for his son’s storybook. The two of us had worked out what the general story should be and how to insert Josh (his son) into it. The man had a few specific details he had wanted to be included that would make his kid feel like he was really the person in the book. Phrases he liked to say, a pet turtle that needed to be seen, that sort of thing. Basically, I had made a thirty page story about Josh and his turtle (named Kiwi) going on an adventure through time using a magical skateboard that took them to various parts of history. 

After reading through it and examining all the pictures I’d made, Orens looked up to me. “Two things. First, I’ve got a guy who can bind these pages into a real book cover. Think you could stop by in a couple days to put a picture on that? Josh’s birthday is next Wednesday.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course. I’ll come back before then and help finish it up. Uh, is it okay though? What was the second thing?” 

“The second thing,” Orens informed me, “is that this is good. Really good. A kid with his turtle time traveling with a skateboard? You should think about working on your writing to make it a little better. Take some extra classes or something when you get into high school. I mean, it’s good, the basic story is great. You just need a little technical help. Anyway, the point is, having a job that’s easy to make your own hours for is good for people like you once you get older and can’t rely on your parents anymore. And being a writer, from what I hear, that’s a pretty good choice. Practice for a while and you could probably make a living with stuff like this.” He waved the papers demonstrably. “Kids’ll probably love it. Just keep it in mind. Hell, if you published as Paintball, you’d get a lot of readers just from the novelty of reading a book drawn and written by a Star-Touched. And they have a whole system set up for keeping your identity secret in those cases.” 

Flushing just a little, I nodded. “Uh, thanks. Really, thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” With that, I started to move around him to head for the gate. 

“Hey, don’t you want to get paid?” the man asked, reaching for his wallet. 

“Uh, nah, why don’t you wait til we finish up,” I replied quickly. “Once I put the pictures and stuff on the cover, then you can pay me.” Part of me wanted to say that he didn’t need to pay anything at all, but I had a feeling he was too proud for that. Besides, it probably wouldn’t do great things for my secret identity to act like I didn’t need money like that. And I could always hand the cash over to Wren for building the business we were trying to get off the ground. After all, he was right about one specific thing. I couldn’t just rely on my parents forever. 

Making my way back to the building where I’d been working, I took a moment to talk to Tricia Peppernickle, the elderly lady I’d met before, who was back behind the desk. Of course, she insisted I take another handful of hard candy from the bowl on her desk, and talked about a couple of her grandkids for a minute before sending me on through. 

From there, I headed past the security lasers using the pass code I’d been given, back to the room where I’d already been working. It looked like someone else had come through and done a little work on it as well while I was gone. But there was still plenty to do, so I got back to it. I had to move broken furniture out to the freight elevator, then go down with it and leave the stuff in a pile on the loading dock at the bottom. I did, of course, have a few reflexive questions about why there was a loading dock several levels below ground level. But I’d heard rumors about a large, truck-sized tunnel leading away from the Seraph HQ. Looking at the enormous rolling metal door at one end of the loading dock, I figured the rumor must be right. They had an underground tunnel leading somewhere that a truck could drive through. That made me wonder where it came out and which vehicles used it.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t really ask. Mostly because I was pretty sure they wouldn’t answer that sort of question, and it might look a little suspicious to be asking where their secret tunnel went. Especially considering I was here in the first place because I’d helped steal from them. Yes, it was for a good cause, and they knew that. But still. Trying to get details about that sort of thing almost certainly wouldn’t go over that well. 

So, I just relegated that to a bit of curiosity that wouldn’t pay off anytime soon and kept working. I had to finish up with the last of the debris, then stack the remaining folders in the filing cabinets I had already put back into place in the other room. When that much was done, I headed out to the hall to find the phone Patchwork had pointed out the other day and dialed zero before asking the woman who answered on the other end to send Bernard out for help patching the holes in the walls.

Bernard, as it turned out, was a middle-aged black guy with a cybernetic eye that was a bit distracting. He was pretty cool about it though, popping the little metal orb out and showing me what it looked like. There were tiny wires that attached themselves to the eye socket when it was inserted, in order to send the visual input to his brain. He claimed that taking it in and out didn’t hurt at all, but I was still a little creeped out by the idea. Still, it was really cool for him. Apparently one of the Seraph Tech-Touched in another state had made it in exchange for some sort of special work Bernard had done for them. 

He brought the stuff to start patching the holes, and the two of us spent forty-five minutes or so to get that all done. He even told me some stories about being a support member of the Seraphs  while we were doing that. Apparently, his wife had been one of the early Touched members of a Seraph squad over in Chicago (where he’d gotten the cybernetic eye), before being killed while helping to deal with a Collision Point. I expressed sympathy, and he looked sad for a moment before assuring me that it had been over twenty years by this point. Which actually just made things worse, because it made me think about how young of a couple they must have been when she was killed. Yeah, Abyssals were pretty awful. 

Eventually, we had the holes patched, and I used my power to paint the walls the way he said they should be. Meanwhile, Bernard stood by with his arms folded and gave a low whistle. “Boy,” he remarked as I finished with one wall, “you make this a hell of a lot easier than doing it the old-fashioned way. You say this stuff won’t disappear or whatever? It’s permanent?” 

My head bobbed a bit. “As far as I know, it should stay as long as I don’t activate it for my power. And I don’t really see any scenario where I’d need to activate the paint inside this specific room. Or you can scrub it off with paint remover, or, you know, whatever.” I shrugged a little. “Point is, it should stay like normal paint on the wall as long as you want it there.” 

Giving me a thumbs up, the man slowly looked around the room with a smile. “You did good work here, kid. If this hero thing doesn’t work out, maybe you could get a job as a contractor.” 

Snorting, I casually replied, “That’s the second suggestion of a mundane job I’ve gotten in the past couple hours. Should I take that as a hint that my hero stuff is slacking?” 

He laughed out loud at that, shaking his head. “Not a chance. From what I’ve seen on the news and the YouTube, you’re pretty damn effective for a kid. Hell, even for an adult. Anyway, like I said, good work. I think you can consider your debt repaid.” Abruptly, he snapped his fingers. “Oh, shit, except there was one more thing Patches and Hallowed wanted you for once this was done. You should probably head up and ask Tricia at the desk to ring them up for you. And hey, thanks for this, kid. I know you sorta had to do it but still. You really saved me and my squad a lot of work.” 

Flushing a little behind the mask and helmet, I assured him that it was no big deal, then headed out to follow his suggestion. Tricia promptly made the call, speaking with whoever was on the other end for a minute before disconnecting. “Okay, sweetie,” she addressed me, “have a seat over there for a minute and they’ll be right with you.” 

So, I did. For about ten minutes, I sat idly, checking out magazines from the table nearby and alternately chatting with the woman herself. She had a lot of stories about what it was like to do her job, and loved to tell them. It was pretty sweet, honestly. 

In the end, it was Hallowed himself who showed up. He still looked incredibly intimidating, with his glowing golden armor, expansive metal wings, and an enormous sword attached to his back. Enormous even then, but I knew it could get even bigger (larger than the man himself even) when he deployed it. 

Thankfully, he seemed to be in a good mood. Not that I could really see his face through the helmet, but there was a smile in his voice as he greeted me. “Paintball, good to see you again. Glad to hear you finished up. Bernard tells me you did a good job.” 

Okay, part of me reflexively wanted to ask when he had spoken to Bernard, given I’d needed to have Tricia call to tell him I was ready. But that was clearly at least part of what that ten minute wait had been about. He’d probably just called the man up to find out how I did and to make sure I was really done.

So, shaking that off, I simply nodded. “Oh, uh, well thank him for me. I couldn’t’ve finished up without his help. Paint I can do, but I’ve never really patched holes before.” Abruptly, a grin found its way to my face. “And I didn’t even have Patchwork to help.” 

Hallowed gave a soft chuckle, and I heard Tricia snicker behind me. Before he could say anything else, the door slid open behind him and a small black form came flying through to land on the man’s shoulder. “Have I missed the opportunity to extend the invitation myself?” 

“Invitation?” I echoed before catching myself. Quickly, I waved. “Hi, Dad!” 

That, of course, prompted another round of chuckles, especially when Lucent greeted me in kind. “I pray you are endeavoring to make your family proud, my boy.” 

Thinking briefly about what would really make my family proud, I grimaced and pushed those thoughts aside before forcing a casual, “Oh, you know, I’m doing my best, Pops. You’ve really got to take me out one of these days and show me how to be a real hero.” 

The dark-eyed raven gave me an intense, clearly curious look before he spoke up. “Yes, I do believe that would be quite an interesting and rewarding excursion. If you truly wish such a thing.” 

“Oh, uhh…” I’d been kidding, of course, but now I nodded. “Sure, I mean, at some point. It’d be cool to get some real tips from someone like you.” 

“Excellent,” came the cheerful response. “And I shall introduce you to a friend of mine along the way while she is in town. Shall we say… Sunday? You may call to let us know what a good specific time would be.”

Really fast, but I was pretty curious to know what it would be like to go around the city with him. To say nothing of how fun it would be to fuel those rumors about our relationship. Besides, I also wanted to know who this friend of his was. So, I nodded in agreement. “Sure, do I just call the main desk and ask for you or something?” 

He confirmed that, before Hallowed cleared his throat. “That sounds like a good idea. And speaking of invitations…” 

“What–oh, right.” I flushed a little. “Sorry, sir, you had one more thing you wanted me to do to make up for that whole… yeah, that thing?” 

His head shook. “I would say your debt is paid by now. This is more about an invitation, as I said. You see, we’re having a bit of a party next weekend with a lot of important guests visiting. There’s a dinner and a whole round of speeches. We would like you to attend as one of our guests. I promise, you won’t have to give a speech and we always protect everyone’s identities. But it would be very nice to have you here, perhaps answering a few questions. And your new partner, of course. Does she have a name?” 

“Alloy,” I informed him, my mind spinning already. “And uhh, yeah, I think we can come. I’ll make sure she’s okay with it. But you really want us to come to your fancy party? I don’t think I have a tuxedo version of my costume. Oooh, but maybe I could paint it to look right.” 

Chuckling, the man assured me, “I think you’ll be just fine as you are. When you come over on Sunday, we’ll arrange the details. Just find out if this… Alloy is going to come with you. It’s next Saturday, around eight pm. The food will be worth it, even if you have to sit through some boring speeches to get to that. And hopefully, not all of them will be boring.

“After all, Sterling Evans is supposed to be making one of them. And I hear he’s pretty good at keeping things interesting.” 

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Friends and Enemies 8-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, so this was a nightmare. Great, just great. After everything, all the things we had gone through to keep this a secret, it turned out that the Seraphs actually knew that we had taken their device.

Whose bright idea was it to put competent people in these organizations? It was pretty annoying when it worked against me, I could say that much. 

For a few long seconds, I said nothing. What could I say? I just sort of stood there staring at the man while my brain ran the television test pattern. I think I may have even made a strange humming sound out loud to go with it. 

Hallowed, meanwhile, didn’t say anything either. He seemed content to simply watch me for the moment. My brain did run through a quick thought of what he was capable of if it happened to come down to it. From what I knew, he basically infused objects he held or touched with power that made them stronger, tougher, sharper, that kind of thing. 

Additionally, his very presence gradually empowered an area around him that made him stronger, faster, more all-around capable the longer he spent in it. The effect extended to a lesser degree to his allies and gradually hindered his enemies. In areas he spent a lot of time in, the effect lingered even when he wasn’t there. It would fade gradually if he didn’t return, but from what I understood, in the Seraph base here in Detroit the effect was strong enough that he was basically invincible there. 

So if we ended up having to fight, the solution was to get the hell away from him. Real good, Cassidy. You had to stretch far for that plan. Run away. Excellent. Five stars. Panicky stars running in circles. 

Finally, I managed a weak, “I suppose saying I don’t know what you’re talking about would be a bad idea.”

I heard a slight chuckle in the man’s voice as he replied, “Well, it probably wouldn’t get you very far. But the thing you should notice is that I’m talking to you right now, not doing anything more drastic.”

Despite myself, I gave him an actual thumbs up. “And don’t think I don’t appreciate that talking bit. That’s much better than attacking. I’ve had enough fighting lately to last me for a while.”

His head cocked to the side a little in what looked like curiosity, but he let that pass with a quiet, “Hmm.” Then he picked up his sword and sheathed it on his back. “Like I said, we need to have a chat, but that’s it, a chat. I want to talk to you about what happened and why you did what you did. I’ve got my own suspicions, and most of them are why we’re talking instead of anything more drastic. From what I’ve seen and heard, you seem to be a pretty good kid. So let’s talk about it.”

Considering my options for a fraction of a second, I ended up nodding. “Do you mind going up onto the roof where we have more privacy? I’m just more comfortable on roofs these days.”

“I can imagine,” the man replied before glancing up to the nearby roof. Nodding, he crouched a bit before leaping a good fifteen feet straight up. His foot caught the edge of one wall and he kicked off toward the opposite one, kicking up from there to reach nearly the top of the roof before one more jump got him there.

Briefly, I wondered if him going straight up there was his way of saying that he trusted me to follow, or that he knew I wouldn’t get away if I tried. Maybe both.

Either way, I extended a hand and used red paint to yank myself up after him. Once we were both on the roof, I glanced around before sighing. “So, how long did you know about it for?”

His response was a simple, “Basically from the beginning. At least, if you define the beginning as when you broke into the Taurus facility. Let’s just say one of our security people happened to notice something getting a maintenance check that didn’t need it yet. So we had a guy watching the facility and he saw you go in with your partner in… crime, sort of? Let’s just say he was a little confused when he saw you with one of Blackjack’s people. Asked if he should make an appearance, but I told him to hold off until we had more info. Because the last time I checked, you weren’t part of that group.” 

“I’m not,” I replied. “It was–” 

“A complicated situation,” he cut in. “I kind of guessed that. Which is why we waited a bit to see what happened. I’ve got to tell you, it was pretty close for a while. Our group was going back and forth on whether we should confront you or not, but every time you appeared in public, you were doing good things. Hell, we saw you going around buying sandwiches and stuff for homeless people. Made us wonder if that was all an act, but none of what you were doing had anything to do with that thing you stole. And La Casa didn’t seem to be using it either. Then one of our people went through the system for a seventh or eighth time and found out that your little friend left a backdoor, and even had a delivery notice set up to send the equipment back to our facility. The only thing missing was a date. Which meant that you were planning on returning it. That’s what made us decide to give you more time. Part of that was curiosity. We wanted to see what you were using it for. Some of our people had their own ideas, but we were all curious. Curious enough to wait and see. Lo and behold, we eventually heard what happened with that guy who stole from Blackjack. We also heard that something seemed to be controlling his movements. As you might imagine, the pieces fell into place fairly quickly then.” 

Biting my lip behind the helmet and mask, I slowly asked, “So you worked all that out just from watching and hearing about things? You guys are really good at your jobs, you know?” 

There was a smile in the man’s voice as he replied, “That’s why we have the job. Also, because we know when to back off and see what happens instead of jumping to a confrontation. That helps too. Which is what brings you and I here right now.” 

For a moment, I just looked at him. Then I exhaled and spoke carefully. “Right, you definitely figured out why we had to borrow it, and didn’t drop the hammer. I guess this is where I say thanks for not busting us? And sorry for taking your thing, even if it was only for a little while.”

“I am curious about why you didn’t just ask for it,” the man noted, “but I suppose you have your reasons. You had help from La Casa because you were doing all that for Blackjack’s kid. I get that, sort of. But does that mean you and them are partners now or something?” 

My head shook quickly. “Not partners. We were just… it’s complicated. But… mostly I just wanted to stop the war before it got a lot of innocent people hurt. All the gangs were going to rip the city apart looking for those vials, no matter who got in the way. And whatever kind of bad guy Blackjack is, his daughter didn’t deserve to die. I was helping him for her, not him.”

Listening as I said all of that, Hallowed gave a thoughtful nod before speaking. “Yes, that’s essentially the same reasoning we came up with, particularly considering your age. I mean, no offense, it’s just easier to believe that a…  someone young would compromise like that.”

“It’s just doing the best thing in a bad situation,” I muttered before folding my arms a bit uncomfortably. “So, what now? I mean, you already decided to let us borrow the thing and now you have it back. Or you will as soon as it gets delivered. So, what are we doing? I don’t think you showed up like this just to be like, ‘neener neener, we knew you had it all along, so there.’  Something tells me you’re not the type. So, like I said, what are we doing right now?”

“Right now?” he echoed casually. “Right now, we’re having a little chat while I decide what kind of person you are. Then, we’re going to talk about how you pay for borrowing our equipment.”  

I raised an eyebrow despite myself, not that he could see it. “I thought you just said you knew why we needed it, and you let it happen. You even have it back now. We returned it.” 

Hallowed’s head bobbed once. “Right on all counts. We did decide to let you keep it without throwing you to the wolves. And we do know why it was important. And it’s pretty much back in our custody. Which is a good thing, let me tell you. But this world runs on trade and negotiation. Especially between people like you and me. Things can’t always be free, or the whole system completely falls apart. You did a very good thing, but you also did something bad in order to achieve it. We’re not turning you in. We’re definitely not going to charge you what that thing is worth, even for a short rental period. You couldn’t afford it. What we are going to do is ask for a favor.” 

Slowly, I replied, “What is it with Touched and favors? The favor thing keeps coming up.” 

He actually chuckled a little bit. “True, you’ll have that happen a lot. Turns out that a lot of people with powers end up needing specific acts or bits of help here and there more than they need money. Even the Sell-Touched, a lot of the time. See, we can get money from plenty of places. But powers are a limited resource, not to mention the skill to use them. So, being Touched,  you’re going to find that most people want you to do something for them, not give them money. You’re also going to find that when the opportunity comes to secure such a favor, most won’t let it go. Not even if they’re definitely not holding a grudge and completely understand why you did what you did.” 

Considering that for a moment, I shrugged. “So, what you’re saying is that this is basically really gentle blackmail. You know something bad I did and you’re going to want something in exchange for letting that go.” 

“I’m saying some people will flat out blackmail you,” the man replied. “But I’m also saying that I don’t think we need to go that far. I think you’re a good kid who did the best he could. And I think you already want to make up for that. I think you already felt a little guilty about what happened. So, I’m going to give you the chance to make everything even. Hell, you might even get something out of it. Contacts if nothing else. We need your help with something, and if you work with us, you’ll never hear about the… borrowed equipment again. Call it a fair exchange.” 

A few things immediately leapt to mind that I wanted to say, but the truth was that he had a point. They didn’t have to let me get away with what amounted to temporarily stealing their very expensive item, no matter what my intentions had been. I’d done it for a good reason, but in an underhanded way. It was a very slippery slope, and he was giving me a chance to pay for borrowing it without making anything worse. Whether you called it a fair exchange or gentle blackmail, the result was the same. I could pay them back for the… rental, and have a clear conscience.

While I was working through all that in my head, the man waited patiently. He didn’t seem to be in any kind of rush, simply standing there watching me with an air of curiosity. Finally, I straightened and gave a short nod. “I won’t say I’ll do anything you ask, but I think it’s fair that we work something out.”

“Excellent,” Hallowed replied. He sounded genuine. “We have some ideas in mind, but why don’t you come in next week and we’ll see what we can set up. Let’s call it…  next Wednesday evening, around this time?”

“Come in?” I echoed. “As in come to the Seraph base?”

He nodded. “No need to try to be sneaky about it. The guard at the front will let you in. Unless, of course, you want to try your hand at getting past our security. That might be fun. And it could give our guards a little exercise to keep them on their toes.”

I coughed. “You know, I think I’ll probably just use the front gate.”

With a vague and wave of agreement, the man replied, “Well, if you change your mind, it could be interesting. Either way, show up Wednesday night. Or, if you run into something that keeps you busy, call this number.” His hand produced a card that he extended toward me. “Let whoever answers know who you are and that you’ll be delayed, or whatever. Sound good?”

I agreed, of course. What else was I going to do? Taking the card, I tucked it away. After that, there didn’t seem to be much else to say. So, I thanked the man for not being drastic about things before turning to hop off the roof, using a shot of paint to pull myself to the next one. A lot of thoughts were running through my head. 

Boy, I sure hope Hallowed and Deicide don’t call in their favors at the same time for opposite reasons.

That could get awkward. 

********

Needless to say, I went home after that, before anything else could happen. I needed a break. And I needed time to think about everything that had just happened. Was I going to tell Eits about it? He should probably know that the Seraphs were able to find the stuff he did to the computers, just in case. But I also didn’t want him to worry too much about it.

Either way, I made my way close to home, changed out of my costume in the nearby park restroom, then took a short walk (about fifteen minutes or so) to get back to the house. I didn’t use my powers or anything. The walk gave me a chance to think. 

Eventually, I made it to the fence and waited there for the security camera to point another direction. Just as I was about to hop onto the grounds, the gate nearby opened. Quickly ducking back into the bushes on the other side, I watched as one of my mother’s cars started to pull through. She was driving, and there was a man in the passenger seat. It was Mr. Jackson. The car stopped there partway through the gate and I could see them talking.

Great, I had paint that could silence people. Why didn’t I have paint that could let me hear what they were saying from far away. That would be super useful right now. 

Looking around to make sure the coast was clear, I glanced to the top of the fence and used a bit of blue to launch myself up and over, landing silently on the grass right below another camera. Then I painted myself black, all of my clothes, my face, everything. Waiting for the camera to turn again, I quickly and silently moved along the fence until I reached the corner of the gate near the car. There were bushes there that would cover me from the cameras. This was all a big risk, but I needed to hear what they were saying. I had to know if they were talking about me, or about Paige. 

As I pressed my back to the fence and stayed low, the sound of my mother’s voice reached me. “Leave her alone for now. It’s too much of a risk. Until we have our experts ensure no more copies of her files exist, we can’t move on the Banners girl.”

Right, okay, good. So Paige’s plan was actually working. Whatever evidence she had over my family’s organization, it was too much for them to risk it getting out. I still had no idea what it was or what the other girl knew, unfortunately. That was going to take a lot to get out of her. But I could at least relax a little bit with the assurance that they weren’t going to be jumping her any time soon. It gave me a little breathing room that I desperately needed. Especially if I was supposed to somehow make Paige confide in me. 

Mr. Jackson was talking. “I’m sorry, Elena. Everything was under control until the boy showed up.”

“Yes,” my mother agreed slowly, “this… Paintball has complicated things now and then. He is a bit of a concern, but we don’t believe he knows that much. It’s very possible the Banners girl reached out to him for help and he noticed your men abducting her. Which may mean that he knows more about you than he should. Keep your eyes open, and if the opportunity arises to find out exactly how much he knows…”

“I’ll take it,” Mr. Jackson confirmed. “Thank you for understanding, Elena.”

My mother gave a soft chuckle. “Of course, Kent. There’s far too much history between us for one problem to drive a wedge through our relationship. We will handle it, as we always do.”

The car started to pull out then, their conversation apparently over for the moment. The last thing I heard was one last sentence from my mother, as the vehicle pulled away. 

“After you erased such a traumatic memory from Cassidy’s mind, the least we can do is forgive the occasional misstep.”

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Friends and Enemies 8-09 (Summus Proelium)

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“You want me to break her legs?”

Jolting a bit at the question, I looked across the lunch room table at the girl who had asked it. Amber. It was the next day after my whole… complicated evening at Tomas’s, and she and I were eating lunch as we waited for Jae, who was finishing up some kind of extra credit work in the science lab. I still wasn’t exactly sure what for, but whatever, she did a lot of extra credit stuff. Either she just liked doing it, or she was pushing to get into a really good university and wanted to pad out her application. Which was fair.

Seeing my surprised expression, Amber nodded across the room. “Paige. You keep staring at her. And you’re holding that fork so tight, I’m afraid you might snap it in half.”

Yeah, Paige was here. She must have been really confident in whatever leverage she had, because she had just shown up to school as if nothing had happened. Looking at her today, you never would have guessed that she’d had a gun pointed to her head the night before. You would never know she came so close to being killed. She was effortlessly smooth and interacted with people as if she didn’t have a care in the world. 

And she definitely wasn’t any nicer to me. If anything, she was even more caustic than usual. Which, I supposed made a certain sort of sense if she knew it was my family who had nearly had her killed. That had to be why she hated me so much, didn’t it? She knew something about my family, something that made them want her dead. That had to be connected to why she’d been so intent on attacking me every chance she got. Because Tomas had been right, last night when she didn’t know who I was, she was a lot more tolerable. So that had to be related. 

Except she’d very clearly hated me for years. And I was pretty sure my family hadn’t wanted her dead for that long. So what happened? Did she just get the proof she needed? How? What was it? And how did she know about my family in the first place? Hell, was her hating me even directly connected to that? It seemed like it had to be, but what could she have found out all the way back in middle school? Also, how was she immune to Mr. Jackson’s power? 

And while we were on that subject, had he ever used it on me? The fact that my parents had someone who could erase people’s memories made it somewhat easier to understand how they got away with as much as they did. But how many of my memories had been erased or changed? Had I found out the truth about them before and they just erased it? The thought had led me to throwing up in the bathroom the night before. 

Clearly, making sure they didn’t find out that I knew the truth was even more important than I’d thought before. I couldn’t give them any reason to think they needed to fix my memory. Not until I had a better handle on this whole thing. Not until I was ready to make a much bigger move. 

The point was, I had a hell of a lot of questions, many of them revolving around Paige Freaking Banners. So yeah, I had probably been staring at her more than I should. 

Flushing a little under Amber’s stare, I shook my head. “No leg breaking.”

Raising an eyebrow at me, the dark-haired girl asked, “You sure? I’d do it pro bono. I mean, I do still owe you for that awesome movie night. And for being a pretty good project partner, I suppose.” Adding that part thoughtfully, Amber tossed a tater tot in the air, tilted her head back, and caught it in her mouth. 

“Something tells me that breaking Paige’s legs would probably complicate more things than it solves,” I replied dryly. “And I told you before, you don’t owe me anything. It was just a fun night.”

From the grin that abruptly blossomed on the other girl’s face, I realized that I had just walked into some form of trap. “Well, then I suppose the best way for me to pay you back is to give you a fun night, isn’t it?”

As I stared at her, wondering what I had just opened myself up to, she pointed at me. “It’s my seventeenth birthday party this weekend. And you’re going.”

Oh, right. Amber‘s birthday. She, like most other people in our grade, was almost a year older than me, since I’d skipped first grade. It was another thing that contributed to me always being smaller than everyone else. Not the main thing. I was small regardless. I could probably come to this school in my twenties and still look like a freshman at best. But still. 

Amber was explaining. “My mom and uncle are renting out that place on Lynnwood with the arcade and the batting cages and all that. Saturday night from six until whenever we’re done, we’ve got the whole place to ourselves. There’s gonna be dinner and games and lots of other shit. And plenty of people, including you.”

Declining at this point felt like a bad idea. Besides, I liked Amber. I liked Jae too. With everything that was going on, would it really kill me to take a night off just to help celebrate the girl’s seventeenth birthday? 

While I was working my way through that, Amber continued. “You should bring that girl that’s staying with you, too. Izzy? Arcade games, batting cages, miniature golf, there’s gotta be something she’ll like. Although now that I say it, you probably have all of those things in your house, but still. Maybe she’ll like the fresh air?”

Izzy. Getting her out of the house and letting her have fun did seem like a good idea. And I could tell from the look on Amber’s face that she knew she’d hit the mark. So, I heaved a long, put upon sigh before waving a hand vaguely. “Okay, okay, I get it. I suppose I will just suffer through an entire evening of fun and games if that’ll make you feel better, birthday girl. And I’ll see if Izzy can come.”

Grinning at me, Amber held up another tater tot between two fingers and flicked it my way. After I caught it in my mouth, she glanced past me. “Everything good?”

She was talking to Jae, who took the open seat beside me while nodding once. “Done,” she replied quietly, setting her tray of food down. Sticking a fork in her salad, the pale girl added, “Did you ask?”

Amber shrugged. “I just got through the inviting her part. Haven’t gotten to the posters part just yet. I wanted to make sure she wanted to come first.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Posters part?”

She nodded. “See, my mom wants to do this charity thing. She had the idea to have an artist at the party taking pictures. Then everyone who donates to that children’s hospital that got attacked could get a drawing of themselves with a certain theme. You know, like pirate or ninja or anything like that. The size or the detail of the picture and all that would depend on how much they donate. They can fill out a form saying what they like to see along with a receipt of their donation. She had a guy lined up to do it, but he had to back out at the last minute. I said I knew someone who was a really good artist at school. She can find someone else if you want, but I just thought I’d ask if you’re interested. We can pay you for it, then mail the pictures ourselves once they’re done. “

Staring at her, I blinked a few times. “Drawing… oh. Oh, umm… I… yeah. Yeah, I can do that. I mean, I hope I can do that. Sure.”

Grinning widely at my agreement, Amber looked to Jae. “See, told you this was gonna be the best party ever.”

Jae, for her part, simply looked over at me, her voice soft. “Is your friend coming?”

“Friend? Oh, you mean Izzy,” I realized. “I’ll ask if she wants to. Thanks for inviting her, you guys. I know you barely know her.”

Amber shrugged. “She seemed pretty cool. 

“And this party needs all the cool people.”

******

By the time school let out, I still had no idea what I was going to do about the whole Paige situation. And I had other things to worry about for the evening. Two things in particular, each on opposite sides of the legal line. First, I needed to take those papers down to the courthouse and turn them in before the judge got too antsy. I’d been told that I would generally have a week or two, as the law didn’t exactly move fast anyway, and they knew that a lot of us were busy. But still. 

The other thing I had to do was get that device we’d… borrowed back to the maintenance place so it could be returned to the Seraph hospital before they noticed anything wrong. Wren had apparently finished extracting it and making sure the thing was okay, so I would get it where it needed to be tonight. 

That was for later, of course. Once things all closed down, I would worry about that. For the moment, the courthouse was the number one priority. 

Well, the number one priority after I visited Wren, at least. But that was related to the court house anyway. I had to take some of those papers over to her, as the person who was responsible for Ashton being confined inside her base. There were parts she had to sign and fill in under her chosen moniker of Trevithick. 

That didn’t take too long, and I promised to come back and see her again shortly before heading out again. Eventually, I was waiting in costume in front of the back door of an unlabeled, unremarkable building a block or so away from the courthouse. I’d texted That-A-Way for advice and she let me know that this was the way most Star-Touched got into the courthouse without being mobbed or anything by going in the front door. Apparently, there was a tunnel leading to the court from this building that helped keep all that stuff out of public sight. 

A second after I knocked, there was a soft whirring sound  and I saw a small camera in the upper left corner turn a little to focus on me. There was a brief pause, then the sound of a couple electric locks disengaging before the door opened to reveal a man in a police uniform. “Paintball, I assume?” 

“In the flesh,” I confirmed. Waving the papers in my hand, I added, “I was just hoping to drop off these detention things.”

The cop nodded. “Yeah, they said you’d probably be coming by. Just in case though, could you show me your power so I know I’m not letting in a stranger with your costume?”

Obligingly, I turned and held my hand out, shooting a bit of red paint to a stick on the ground before yanking it back to myself. “Good enough?”

“Yup,” the man confirmed before stepping back and gesturing for me to enter. “I’m Officer Metts. Good to meet you, kid. Pretty sure this won’t be the only time. I get stationed out here a lot.”

Stepping in, I took another look at the man. He was black, and looked to be in his thirties, very well built, with dark hair cut short and hazel eyes. His nose was maybe just a little too big for his face and had been broken at least once, but he was still pretty handsome. 

“Well,” I replied, “I’m glad the guy at the door isn’t someone who hates Touched.”

Chuckling, the man nodded. “Don’t worry, they figured out a long time ago that having someone who can’t get along with the masked types is a bad idea. Just makes things worse for everybody. Come on, I’ll take you down to the tunnel and let ‘em know you’re coming.”

We were in what looked like a simple apartment lobby area with stairs leading up, a couple apartment doors to the left, and an unlabeled door to the right. He went to the right and opened the unlabeled door, revealing another room with another set of stairs, these ones leading down, and a couple elevators. We took the stairs, heading, as promised, into the tunnel. It clearly went on a long distance, but the man simply pointed. “There’ll be a guy meeting you at the entrance to the courthouse. Just head that way and you can’t miss him. Unfortunately, I’m not gonna be here when you get off. You’ll have to be let out by one of my coworkers. But don’t worry, none of us bite.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “Maybe I’ll see you next time when I have to come in for those deposition things.”

“Maybe you will,” Officer Metts agreed. “Good luck for now, though. And hey, watch your back out there. 

“I hear Cuélebre’s really pissed off at you.”

*******

So, I turned in those papers before waiting to have a short chat with the judge. I had to sit around for about half an hour, but that wasn’t a big deal. And it was definitely understandable, considering I didn’t have any kind of appointment. Eventually, the judge had called me up out of the basement room where I had been waiting, and I had a talk with him about what happened with Ashton. He was thorough, but not too prying. He got the information he needed and said he’d make an official ruling after consulting some books, but that I shouldn’t worry. 

Eventually, that was over and I had gone home to have dinner and be visible for a little while. Not to mention hang out with Izzy. I brought up the party thing and both she and my parents were pretty accepting. I had no doubt we’d have escorts we didn’t even know about, but Mom still seemed pretty happy with the idea regardless. 

Izzy, meanwhile, seemed okay with it too. She clearly wanted to get out of the house, big as it was. And I couldn’t blame her for that. So we would definitely be going to the party. 

Of course, for that to happen, it would probably help if I wasn’t a fugitive from the Seraphs. To that end, it was time to return their device. So, I’d let Eits know to add it back into the schedule using the back door he’d built into their system, and he told me what packing label to put on it once I was in there.

And there I was, crouched on the roof of the building across the street from the Taurus repair facility. It was late enough by now that there was almost no one there. All I had to do was sneak in and drop this off. Eits was standing by to loop their cameras as soon as I gave him the signal, and he’d unloop them once I was out.

So, here went nothing. Holding the box under one hand, I sent the text his way, waiting for the acknowledgment before shoving the phone in my pocket and taking a running start. Like the last time, I used the nearby billboard and dropped in on top of the smaller building in the middle of the compound. From there, I waited for the guard to pass, then hopped down and made my way to the place we picked this thing up from to begin with. 

Unfortunately, I had to duck back and wait there, because there were a couple guys in work overalls having a discussion about the Pistons (as in the basketball team) right in the doorway. There was some good-natured arguing back-and-forth, as one of the man apparently was more into some other team. Or maybe it was a completely different sport. Honestly, I had no idea. 

Either way, I anxiously waited, knowing the cameras couldn’t be looped for too long. But, finally, the two men left the building, walking together towards the much larger one. Watching them go from my hiding spot, I slipped around the building and in through the door. 

Once inside, I called Eits and had him talk me through printing out the right label with the number on it. It took a couple tries to get right, but finally, I stuck the label on and thanked the boy for his help. “Seriously, no way could I have pulled this off without you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” came the response. “The boss’s kid needed it. And now she’s safe, thanks to you. So we’re good. Maybe we can find another reason to hang out at some point before you have to try to arrest me.”

Snorting, I replied, “Arresting is sort of like hanging out. But we’ll figure it out later. Thanks again, I’ll put this back and then get out of here.”

Disconnecting from the call, I found the spot on the shelves where the box would wait for pick-up in the morning. Satisfied that they would find it, I quickly checked the yard to make sure it was clear before making my way out. 

Great, that was one more thing off my mind. The hospital would get its device back and no one had to be hurt or anything. Now I could focus on the important things, like finding out just what the hell was going on with Paige, how to deal with the fact that my ex-boyfriend’s father worked for my supervillain parents, what Izzy’s whole deal was… yeah, I had plenty to occupy my mind, that was for sure. 

Which, of course, was why I had barely taken two steps after landing in the alley outside of the repair facility when a voice spoke up. 

“I guess a thanks is in order.”

Spinning that way, my gaze found a man in gleaming golden armor, with metal wings and an enormous sword bigger than he was resting against the ground with his hand set casually on the pommel. 

It was Hallowed, one of the local Seraph leadership and also one of the most powerful Touched in the city. 

“After all, you returned our item without us having to go track it down ourselves,” the tall man continued casually. 

“Though I do think it’s time that the two of us had a little chat about borrowing things that don’t belong to you.”

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