Jared Keene

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.” 

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Commissioned Interlude 7 – Lion (Summus Proelium)

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The following is a commissioned interlude. The regularly scheduled (Heretical Edge) chapter will be out tomorrow as normal.

To any outside observers, the man striding casually across the semi-crowded floor of the Detroit Metropolitan Airport would not stand out in any way. He was of average height and build, his face entirely nondescript and clothing just dull enough to avoid attention aside from the simple glasses that he wore. There were no logos on his shirt, and they were clean without being obviously new. He wore his dark hair at average length, and offered faint smiles to those he passed without stopping for conversation. Not that many would care to strike up a discussion with the clearly incredibly boring figure who passed them. 

Nor would passersby be any more interested in the simple-looking backpack the man wore over his shoulders. There were no logos or patches on the brown and white bag, nothing that would give any indication that there was anything special about it at all. What appeared to be a very cheap padlock held the zippers shut, just as anyone moving through a public space like this would use. The bag, and the man who wore it, could have been any number of the thousands who passed through the airport every single day. To any who saw him, even those who paid attention, the man would disappear from their memory almost immediately. He was just another face in the crowd, one who did absolutely nothing that could make him stick out in their minds. 

That, of course, was entirely intentional. The man’s ability to blend in and attract no attention was specifically why Lion had hired him to begin with. And in these past couple of years, Jared Keene had become a very trusted friend. One of very few whom the little Touched-Mouse felt comfortable with taking her through a place as terrifying as this busy airport. 

She was in the backpack, naturally. And, like the man who wore it, the bag wasn’t nearly as simple and run-of-the-mill as it had been intentionally designed to look. Within the bag were three levels, separated by plastic dividers and slanted tubes that she could scurry up and down. The top level, just below the main zipper, was a bit of a watchtower. What appeared to be opaque cloth or leather material from the outside was actually easily see-through from the inside, like a fairly thin mesh that allowed the little mouse to peer through at the outside world. 

Meanwhile, the middle level was where her temporary living area was. Down there was a soft and warm nest to curl up in, her water and food, and a smartphone that had been set up to function as her main television. It wasn’t simply for watching movies or browsing online, however. It also allowed Lion to view the outside world through the cameras built into Jared’s glasses, or any of the several other cameras in the bag or his clothing. Or through the cameras of several small fly-shaped drones which automatically followed them from various distances.

All of which meant that at any point, she could look in any direction to see what was around them. It was, again, the only way she could feel even slightly comfortable in a place full of as many dangers as an airport. Or any public space. 

Then there was the bottom level of the bag. That was the smallest and most protected section. It was essentially a safe room, surrounded by a thick, reinforced metal that would stand up to almost any level of abuse up to and including being in the middle of an explosion. From inside that small space, Lion could employ any of the dozen weapon systems and other defenses the backpack contained. She could also call in the fly-drones with their own attack capabilities.

Many would have called all these measures completely paranoid and unnecessary. A hired (and highly skilled) bodyguard intentionally made to look as nondescript as possible, cameras facing in every direction, a secret panic room that was harder to break through than almost any actual bank vault, tiny fly-robot drones capable of putting a grown man down within a couple shots, and more weapons built into the bag itself. Most would have said all of that was patently unnecessary when one was simply walking through an airport to board a plane. 

To those people, Lion would have pointed out that… they were people. Humans. Tall and strong compared to her. She was literally a mouse. At the absolute best of times, she was vulnerable to people stepping on her because they either didn’t see her or did and panicked. Even if they recognized what her golden armor meant, some would still lash out. Either because they hated Touched-Animals like her, or thought it was funny because they didn’t see her as a real living, thinking creature. She was perfectly and painfully aware of how many humans thought of her and those like her as abominations. Some thought TOuched Nonhuman Individuals (or TONIs) were connected to Abyssals somehow, or that all of them were Abyssals or would become them. Others believed their god dictated that animals ‘cursed’ with intelligence be purged. 

And that wasn’t even counting the people who would try to actually abduct Lion to work for them. Her Tech-Touched ability to design elaborate structures and defenses would, after all, be an incredible boon for any Fell-Touched who wanted a new base. Or simply eccentric rich people who didn’t want to commission and pay for her designs, but still wanted her work. 

The point was, between everyone who would accidentally or casually kill her, those who would intentionally do so out of maliciousness or religious fanaticism, and those who would abduct her to work for them, Lion had every reason in the world to be careful. Especially in a place she didn’t visit often, like Detroit. In her home of Seattle it might have been different. People knew her there, and she knew them. It was much safer to be seen. But here, in this place? She would take no chances. 

But despite all the dangers of the world that she was all-too-painfully aware of, Lion still enjoyed watching people. She didn’t hate the world. Far from it. She was simply incredibly cognizant of the dangers it held. From the safety of her secure backpack, the tiny mouse eagerly gazed through the mesh to look in every direction, trying to take in everything at once. Every person she saw had their own story, and she couldn’t help but wonder what they were. And more than wonder, she actually made up stories about them in her own mind. Seeing a beleaguered mother half-dragging her two protesting children toward the restrooms while an uncaring father trailed behind with his attention on his phone, Lion instantly made up names and an entire story for their lives. The family in this story went through a harrowing adventure aboard a hijacked airplane that brought them together and made them much stronger in the end. 

While Lion was focused on trying to decide whether the mother and father in her story would be the one to land the plane in the end, the voice of her bodyguard/driver quietly spoke up with a simple, “Ahead.” That single word was almost more of a cough, but she caught its meaning.

The moment he said that, Lion scrambled in a circle, pivoting as fast as her tiny paws would allow. A second screen built into the back of the bag up on this top level showed the view through Jared’s glasses, and she immediately saw what he was drawing her attention to. Or rather, who. Approaching them was a Native American woman in casualwear, simple jeans and a dark hoodie. Yet Jared and Lion knew her immediately, despite the fact that she wasn’t wearing her normal costume of dark blue and white army camo and tactical helmet. This was Mika Holt, known to the rest of the world as the leader of the state-sponsored Star-Touched team of Spartans. And also, more importantly, a friend. Mika had, after all, been the one who introduced Lion to Lucent after the two had been online contacts for some time. 

“Hey, Jared,” the woman greeted, “and company. You mind if we find a place to chat for a minute? I know your plane doesn’t leave for another hour, and this shouldn’t take long.” 

Lion, of course, agreed by reaching out to touch a button beside the screen so that the voice from the speakers attached to her armor would be transmitted through the small button on Jared’s collar. “Ahh, oh, oh of course, let’s get something to drink. If, umm, if you’re thirsty.” The voice was soft enough that it barely reached far enough for the intended recipient to hear. 

A small smile appeared on the dusky-skinned woman’s face, before she gave a slight nod. “Sure, I know just the place. Expensive as hell and basically the only spot in the airport that isn’t fast food, but hey. It’s a place.” 

With that, she turned to walk, with Jared easily following. To anyone watching, this was nothing more than some random nobody guy meeting some random nobody woman and going for coffee at the horrifically overpriced airport shop. 

Choosing a booth at the back of the room, Jared and Mika both ordered their drinks and waited for them to be delivered before putting the privacy screen up. It was essentially a wall of colored light that surrounded the booth and kept all conversations within private. Popular, for obvious reasons, with businessmen trying to make last-minute deals before catching their flights. 

Only once the drinks were there and the shield had been raised did Jared carefully set the bag on the far side of the table. By that point, Lion was ready and waiting, and a small slot appeared for her to scramble out. Casually hopping from the opening in the front of the bag to the table, the armored mouse peered upward to the woman who sat nearby. “Ahh, hi there, Mika.” 

The woman, in turn, asked, “Biscotti?” With that, she snapped one of the treats in half and set part down for Lion before taking a bite of her own piece. “Heard you really helped Lucent out with his little project for the upgrade of the Seraph building out there.” 

Taking a little nibble of the treat while Jared carefully prepared a saucer with some of the tea he had ordered, Lion gave a quick nod. Her tiny nose sniffed the air, taking in every detail of the area surrounding the table and the dozens of people who occupied the restaurant beyond their private booth. “Ahh, oh, yes, well I’m just glad he found it, ahhh, helpful? Ahh, did… did he say so?” Even as she answered, the sound of a glass being set down a little too hard three booths away (where the privacy screen had not been put up) made Lion pivot quickly, nose sniffing frantically. Danger! Danger! No–no danger. No, just a somewhat clumsy waitress who apologized. No predator. No problems. No death. Still, she kept a wary ear that way while taking another quick nibble of the biscotti. 

“He did,” Mika confirmed. “But he didn’t have to. It’s sort-of your specialty, my mane friend.” The pun was accompanied by a wink before the woman casually added, “Well, that and secretly directing the affairs of an entire universe.” 

Mice didn’t blush. But if they could, Lion would have right then. Squirming a bit, she didn’t respond immediately. Instead, she turned to the saucer of tea Jared had set down, leaning in to lap from it briefly. Only then, once she had assured herself that the drink was perfect (as usual, Jared knew what he was doing), did the small mouse turn her attention back to Mika. “Oh, ahh, I only write some stories here and there.” 

Her words were met with a disbelieving raised eyebrow. “Write some stories here and there? Is that what they call being one of the primary writers and directors of canon for a multibillion dollar franchise? You know they’re saying the new movie is going to break records again, right?” 

Lion, of course, simply shrank back into her golden armor a bit from the attention. It was true. Much as it would have surprised people to know that the simple privacy booth in the corner of the airport restaurant held the Touched-Mouse known most for designing incredibly high-tech defensive structures, it certainly would have floored them even more if they were to realize that that same mouse was responsible for writing several of their favorite science fiction novels over the past several years under various pseudonyms. Specifically, three books within the Outlanders of Reach series. And that, since her first book in that previously-established universe had come out, she had been secretly made a consultant for shaping the direction of the overall narrative. She was credited as one of the screenplay writers under the name Eve Titus, writer of the old children’s novel series Basil of Baker Street (which Disney had turned into the movie The Great Mouse Detective). 

Very few people knew of her work, given the names she used. Only three or four people within the publishing and production companies knew the true identity of their director of canon and the author of several of the most successful books in the series. Which was how she wanted it. Because if the public knew, Outlanders would suddenly become the series written by a mouse, rather than being judged on its own merits. And she desperately wanted those works to stand on their own. Her Touched-designs were one thing, but knowing she could write stories that people enjoyed based on nothing more than actually enjoying them was priceless. 

It was no real surprise that Lion was so involved and knowledgeable of the Outlanders universe, or that she loved writing so much in general. After all, before his untimely death in the same event that had given Lion her intelligence and powers, the tiny mouse had been the personal pet of the original creator of the books, long before they were turned into movies, comics, a toyline, and more. Aaron Nodgers, the man who had written the first books over two decades earlier, had kept Lion right next to his desk and often spoke of everything he was writing at the time.

Of course, she hadn’t understood any of it at the time. The man’s words were nothing more than sounds. But they were comforting sounds that came from the man who fed and cared for her. And once the… tragedy happened, once poor Nodgers was killed by the man who broke into their home before her orb appeared and changed Lion’s entire existence, she finally did understand the words. She understood the things he had said when he picked her up in his enormous hand and cooed at her. She remembered and understood every word he’d spoken to her in the privacy of their little home. 

It was that hindsight understanding of everything her owner and first friend had been telling her throughout their time together that really instilled the love of writing and of the Outlanders universe within Lion. Being able to direct his vision now the way she believed he would have wanted, that was worth more than she could ever possibly be paid for it. 

And that was the other half of the reason she didn’t want her work in that fictional universe to be known. Because ‘a Touched-Mouse wrote the new stories’ would be all anyone knew about them. They would never understand or remember that the stories had originally been created and written by Aaron Nodgers, and Lion would rather die than take over his legacy like that. Outlanders was his baby. 

“I–ahhh, I’m glad people like the stories,” was all she could manage, shifting a bit to look toward Jared with a slightly quieter, “You said it was doing okay.” 

The man, in turn, offered a very faint smile, completely unabashed. “It is. I’d call breaking records doing okay.” 

With a small chuckle, Mika put in, “You keep teasing her like that and one of these days, she’s going to find a way to replace you with a robot. Then where are you gonna be?”  

Jared, in turn, simply replied, “Maybe I’ll find out if the hive in Oregon needs an errand boy.” 

Making a soft squeaking sound of distress in the back of her throat, Lion quickly assured the man that his services and friendship would always be needed. Then, after taking a few more nibbles of the treat, finally asked the woman across from them, “Ahh, umm, did… did you really just want to talk about the uhh, movie until it’s time for the plane?” 

Sure enough, Mika shook her head. “Actually, I was kind of hoping to talk you out of taking that plane.” Once she let those words penetrate and knew that she had the mouse’s attention, the woman pressed on. “You might’ve noticed we’ve got a bit of a rising war going on between a few of our gangs. I’m afraid it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, so I had a few ideas about setting up some defenses around the jails and some other areas. I was hoping you might stick around and offer advice. For a regular contracted fee, of course.” 

Pausing, she put a hand out, flat against the table close to the mouse. “I know you want to get home. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. I just–something tells me the fighting here is gonna escalate beyond what other people think. We could really use an edge, and I think you’d be a good one to have.” 

Lion, for her part, was quiet at first. Mika was right, she did want to get back to her own comfortable (and very well-fortified) home. But how could she walk (or be carried) away from a request like that? How would she ever live with herself if she left and found out people died here in Detroit because they weren’t protected the way she could protect them? 

So, after considering for almost a full minute while the two humans watched her in silence, Lion gave a short nod. “Cancel the flight, Jared. 

“We’re staying in Detroit for awhile.”

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