Lucent

Patreon Snippets 25 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 25th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Paige and Sierra

The sound of bladed skates sliding across ice was joined by that of a hockey stick tapping the puck back and forth a few times as it was brought forward. Then a loud crack filled the air, followed by a solid whoomph as the puck was sent flying into the net just over twenty feet away. Almost all of the lights were off, leaving the ice rink only dimly lit. There was only one person out there. 

Well, two now. 

“Good shot.” As she said those words, Paige glided across the ice from the entrance onto the rink, joining her… sister (the fact that she was using a body that looked like Cassidy was confusing on multiple levels as far as that went) in front of the remaining pucks that had been lined up across from the goal. “But then, I suppose it would be.” 

“Pittman did program us to be good at all sorts of physical stuff,” Sierra agreed without looking up. She raised the stick, judged the distance and angle, then whacked the next puck hard. It bounced off the inside of the left post and ricocheted into the net. “And don’t you still have that whole school thing going on right now? Playing hooky your first day back seems like a bad idea. Were you that paranoid about what I was doing?” 

Paige addressed the latter point first. “Free period. Which you knew when you let me know where you were going to be. And I wasn’t talking about him.” As she spoke, the girl held her hand out for the stick. 

Sierra considered that before taking her next shot. After watching the puck hit the net dead center, she handed the stick over. “You’re talking about Irelyn.” She paused briefly, then added, “About how she brought you here and tried to teach you how to skate, and how to play hockey. Just because you mentioned liking those Mighty Ducks movies.”

“Us,” Paige corrected while lining up her own shot. With another loud track, the next puck was sent into the net. “You have all my memories of those times.” 

Shaking her head, Sierra pushed off and glided around in a slow circle along the ice. “Not really the same thing, babe. I wasn’t really there. It was more like reading a book or watching a movie for me. A movie I’ve completely memorized, but still. I wasn’t actually there experiencing it.” Another pause, then, “I mean, I wasn’t here, I guess. The point is, it’s not a real memory for me. It’s just something that was uploaded when I got… eh, shot into you, literally.” 

“Is that why you’re here?” Paige asked curiously, even as she lined up the next shot and sent the puck flying that way. “Trying to get some sort of personal context for that memory you inherited? Also, considering this place isn’t even supposed to open for another hour today, how much did you bribe the guy to let you in?” While asking that, she held the stick out that way. 

“Fifty bucks for half an hour,” Sierra replied. “Why, did you want me to get a receipt so I could pay you back?” Her hand took the offered stick as she teased Paige, quickly and efficiently lining up another shot so it would bounce back and forth between the front two posts a couple times with a loud ringing sound before going in the net. 

Snorting, the other girl shook her head. “Trust me, there’s a lot more where that came from. Too much, really. And considering the source, I don’t really care what happens to it. I just wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth. You know, since you don’t exactly have a lot of experience with buying stuff.” 

Sierra gave an exaggerated gasp. “Ohh is that why the waitress looked so happy when I handed her two thousand bucks for my meal? The bill probably said twenty dollars, but I just got so confused with the period before the zeroes for the coin amount.” 

“You’re hilarious,” Paige retorted flatly. “But uhh, Sierra, huh?” 

“Sierra Nevada,” the girl confirmed. “First name, last name. If anyone asks, my parents were eccentric. Which, if you ask me, is a step up from the truth.” That time, she pushed off and did a couple slow skating circles before taking another shot. “A pretty fucking huge step up.” 

Rather than respond to that immediately, Paige was quiet for a few seconds. And when she did respond, it wasn’t directly to that. Instead, she asked, “You remember when we… when I was sitting over there, the first time Irelyn brought us to this place?” Her hand gestured over to the bench behind the entrance gate, where people would sit and tie their skates on. 

“She thought you were nervous about being out on the ice,” Sierra murmured, her own gaze moving that way. “She gave that whole pep talk about trying new things and not worrying about being laughed at.” She glanced away with a small frown. “You were only partly listening. Mostly you were worried about looking too good on the ice. You had to hide all that perfect balance, aim, enhanced strength, and everything else that Pittman programmed into us, so you’d actually look like a normal kid skating for the first time. She thought you were afraid of skating and looking bad, but you were really afraid you wouldn’t look bad enough.” 

Paige was quiet once more, her gaze locked onto that bench in the distance as she played that memory out a few times. “You’re right, especially about the part where I wasn’t really paying attention to her. But then, why would I? As far as I knew, she didn’t really care about me being here anyway. I thought she was just going through the motions, doing what was expected of her as the ‘older sister.’ She was already literally disowned, I guess maybe I thought… I dunno, I thought she was just doing that because I might bring her back into the family once her dad was gone or… something.” Saying it out loud like that made her grimace. “Or looking better for her mother. Or for the public. Whatever, I don’t know. I just never considered it as… I never thought she was…”

Sierra’s skate lightly kicked the front of hers, making her look that way. “Never thought she was doing all that stuff because she really wanted to spend time with you? Never thought she really, genuinely wanted to get to know you?” 

“Never occurred to me,” Paige confirmed in a soft voice, wincing inwardly. “I always thought she was playing the role or making an angle for something in the future. And since I never expected to actually have a future in that family, I ignored it. I ignored her. Or, I mean, I ignored the overtures she made. I played the role like I thought she was playing it and… and just assumed she didn’t care beyond that. Back when we were stuck on the couch, when I heard about the Banners disappearing, I thought she might look into that. I thought she might look for them. You know, because they’re important people. And they’re her parents, even if they did disown her. Either way, I thought she might look for them. But me? Why would she look for me?” She turned a bit, her gaze moving from the bench across the way over to where Sierra was quietly watching her. “Why would she look for me?” There was urgency to her repeated question, her voice rising slightly. 

“Because she wasn’t going through the motions,” Sierra informed her flatly. “She wasn’t faking anything, wasn’t pretending. All that stuff she was doing, or trying to do, it wasn’t an attempt to look good, or convince you to bring her back into the family, or anything like that. It was about you. It was about her wanting it to spend time with you. Because she cared about you, dipshit. She was trying to treat you like a real sister. And now she’s looking for you like a real sister.” 

Paige thought about that for a moment, turning away to gaze into the distance without actually seeing anything in front of her. Her focus was directed inward, playing through memories with a different point of view. She thought of everything Irelyn had said to her in the past, everything she’d done, all the times she had invited Paige out to eat, or to an event, or just to spend time together. And she thought of all the times she had used any excuse to get out of it. 

“Fuck,” she finally muttered. 

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sierra agreed. “And now she’s out there in trouble because she wouldn’t stop looking for you. Well, for you and for the parents who disowned her in the first place. Even after we sent her on a wild goose chase, she somehow managed to track something all the way to one of Pittman’s actual labs. Or one of his biolems found her. Or–fuck, I don’t even know. We sent her to Florida, the other side of the fucking country. How the hell did she manage to get anywhere near anything important to Pittman? How’d she manage to end up on Breakwater, for fuck’s sake?” 

Paige took in a breath before letting it out. “I guess we’ll have to ask her, once we get her away from that place. Once we….” She trailed off, words turning into a heavy sigh. 

“Once we actually have a plan for how to do that,” Sierra finished for her. “You know that’s easier said than done, right? This is Breakwater we’re talking about, not just some random prison. The whole point is that it’s supposed to be impossible to get anyone out of there. It–”

“I know!” Paige blurted. “I know it’s going to be hard. Hell, I know it’s going to be practically impossible. But we have to. I mean I have to. I’m not gonna make–I mean–” She blanched, folding her arms as she stood there on her skates. “I’m not gonna force anyone else into anything stupid. But I have to get Irelyn off that island. Her and Trivial too. They were trying to help me. They–she… Irelyn’s there because I sent her on a wild goose chase, and then she actually found real danger. Now she’s a Star-Touched in literally the worst possible place on the planet for her to be. They both are. It’s my fault they’re there, and I have to help them. I have to help her.”

“And then what?” Sierra asked. “I mean, not to completely skip past the impossible part of getting them off that island, but assuming we manage that, what will you do next?”

After a brief pause, Paige admitted, “I don’t know. Honestly, I have no idea. I know I want to talk to her. I want to ask… why. You know, why she actually cared so much, why she tried so hard to find me, and why she wanted to get to know me. I want to ask her why it mattered to her. She was already gone from the family when I was ‘adopted.’ They kicked her out, disowned her, then took me in. I was her replacement. Why wouldn’t she be angry about that? Why wasn’t she angry? Why did she want to know me? Why did… just… why?” She had unfolded her arms by that point, putting her hands up against her forehead. “I don’t understand.” 

With a loud crack, Sierra sent the last puck into the net. “Speaking as someone with a unique perspective, considering I have all those memories but it wasn’t me experiencing them, maybe she was trying to be what she wished she had.” She pushed off and started to skate over to the goal while adding, “I mean, when she was younger. She knows exactly what growing up in that family was like, how demanding her parents are. She went through it and she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe she was trying to be the sister she wished she had. And maybe she kept trying so you’d always know she was there if you needed someone. Even when you barely paid attention, she still–you know, wanted to be in your memory. Just in case you ever opened up.”

Paige didn’t respond to that at first. She ran the words through her head a few times along with her own memories. Memories that she knew the other girl was running through as well. Finally, she repeated her earlier, “Fuck.” That was followed by an enthusiastic, “Damn it, damn it! She gives a shit. She really, genuinely gives a shit. And we just–I’m sorry, I mean I just wrote it off like she was playing a role. Maybe because that’s what I was doing all the time. I don’t know. But like I said, I have to get her out of there. And then tell her the truth. At least about myself. I have to tell her about me, and why all of that happened. She deserves that much. Deserves to know what was really going on, what her parents wanted, what my–yeah. And if she’s repulsed by that, if she wants nothing to do with me once she knows what I really am, then… then fine. But she needs to know.”

“Let’s focus on getting her out of there,” Sierra replied, while giving the pucks one light smack after another with the stick to send them out of the net and back that way. “We can worry about the details about what we’re going to tell her once she’s not trapped on an island full of the worst supervillains who have ever been imprisoned.” 

“We?” Paige echoed, glancing that way curiously. 

Sierra opened her mouth, then hesitated. “I mean, yeah that might get kinda complicated.” She glanced down at herself with a slight grimace. “She knows Cassidy. So this…” Her hand gestured up toward her face. “This might not work. So yeah, maybe you should talk to her yourself. But fuck it, I’m still gonna help get her off that damn island.” 

Paige nodded slowly in agreement. “That’s the part that matters right now. We can figure out the rest of it later.” She bit her lip, a guilty flush crossing the girl’s face. “Maybe you can help me come up with an idea of how to start making up for sending her on the wild goose chase that landed her and Trivial on Breakwater to begin with.” That tone of disbelief that such a thing had actually happened was still apparent in her voice. 

For a few long, silent seconds, the two of them stared at one another. Finally, Sierra broke that silence with a quiet, “She brought you here. She taught you how to skate and play hockey. Or tried to, anyway. She did all that stuff, because she really… she actually cared.” 

“She went looking for me because she cares,” Paige put in, her own voice equally soft. “She turned a total wild goose chase all the way down in Florida into a one-way trip to Breakwater just because she wouldn’t give up trying to find me. And the parents who disowned her. She did all that because she really cares about me. She was trying. She was really, genuinely trying, and I just–” Cutting herself off, the blonde girl sighed heavily once more. “Can I see that?” Raising her hand, she held it out and waited until Sierra had silently passed her the stick. Then she lined up a shot on one of the pucks, staring down at it intently for a long moment of contemplation. “When she’s off that island, I’m gonna bring her back here.” She paused, then looked over. “We. We’ll bring her back here.” 

“We?” Sierra raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that complicated?” 

“We’ll get you a better disguise or something, I dunno.” Paige shrugged. “What I do know is that you have my memories. You’re part of this too. If… if you want to be.” She waited until the other girl gave a slow nod before continuing. “We’ll figure it out. But whatever we have to do, whatever happens, we’re bringing her back to this place.” 

With that, she raised the stick and snapped it down. The puck was sent flying not into the net, but off the left bar. It rebounded backwards through the air, before Paige smacked it with the stick once more, swinging the thing like a bat. The puck was sent forward to bounce off the right bar, coming back toward her. Once again, she smacked it that way, making it rebound off the top bar that time. From there, it flipped up, end over end through the air before coming down neatly on the fat end of the hockey stick that Paige was holding out sideways. 

“And maybe we’ll be the ones teaching her some stuff next time.”

*********

Aftermath Of A Joyride (Continuing the NON-CANON storyline from chapters here, here, and here)

Most of the general public would have been disappointed to see the utter mundanity of the room that the collective leaders and second-in-commands of the various Star-Touched groups of Detroit were meeting in. Most anyone, upon hearing that such an important and powerful people were gathering together to make big decisions, would almost certainly have pictured a grand room with walls of solid steel, high-tech displays along every wall, a massive table in the center of the room projecting a holographic map of the city and surrounded by chairs with each Star-Touched’s name and symbol emblazoned across the back, and possibly even more amazing things. 

In truth, however, they met in an average conference room on the third floor of a local police precinct. The smell of old coffee and stale donuts filled the room, which itself consisted of a heavily-cracked linoleum floor, wooden walls that had seen better days, and a tiled ceiling that probably needed to be replaced soon. It was furnished simply by a couple wooden tables and an assortment of metal folding chairs, as well as an old podium near the front, next to an actual chalkboard.

Silversmith was standing at the front by that podium. Beside him was a plainclothes police detective who was murmuring a bit in his ear, while Flea stood on the opposite side, flipping through messages on her phone. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the room, Brumal and Trivial from the state-sponsored team known as the Spartans, Caishen and Skip from Ten Towers, and Hallowed and Lucent from the Seraphs were scattered and engaged in their own private conversations with one another, or looking through their own phones. 

Finally, Trivial looked up from the file she had been glancing through and cleared her throat until Silversmith looked at her. Once he did, she asked, “So are we going to get this show on the road or what?” Straightening up in her costume consisting of purple scalemail armor, a black hooded cloak, tan pants, and a purple helmet with black visor, she gestured toward the nearby (somewhat stained) window. “You know, before the bad guys out there get the idea that we’re all off the streets and start acting like kids whose parents went out of town for the weekend.” 

Beside her, Brumal (also wearing her own standard costume of blue and white camo, a tactical combat helmet with an interwoven mesh covering the rest of her face, and bright blue lenses over the eyes) gave a short nod. “She’s right. Blunt, but right. If we’re going to discuss the situation, we should get into it.” 

“You mean discuss Joyride,” Flea put in. The futuristic ninja/samurai-clad woman put her phone away while adding, “And what exactly we’re going to do about her.” 

“Ahem, what are we planning on doing?” That was Lucent, perched atop the edge of a lamp on one of the tables. “Thus far, the girl has not overtly harmed anyone. In point of fact, she has aided us by exposing a quite… negative influence within our own Minority team.” 

“Whamline,” Silversmith muttered, giving a nod toward the plainclothes man nearby. “Detective Lanner here was just filling me in on what they’ve found so far. Apparently they have enough evidence to officially charge the boy with a few different murder counts, now that they started digging. More might be coming, we’re not sure yet. I won’t give into the details right here, but I’m having him send the files to each of you.” He paused before continuing. “But of course, we’re not here to talk about Whamline. This is about Joyride herself.” 

Skip, wearing her blue-black bodysuit with a short-sleeved white robe including a hood over her hair and a black cloth mask over the bottom half of her face, spoke up in her typical calm, nearly-emotionless voice. “She exposed the boy as the dangerous psychotic that he is. In our book, that makes her more of an ally than a threat.”

Beside her, the woman in black boots, dark gold pants with black lines running down them, purple scalemail armor covered by a gold leather coat, and a black metal helmet with purple lenses shook her head. She was Caishen, Skip’s own older sister and team leader. “She also decided that Lightning Bug is her archenemy,” she pointed out quietly. Her voice was very slightly strained as she added, “And Bug is very excited about that fact.” 

Silversmith took a breath before gently pointing out, “She doesn’t seem to have any intention of harming your daughter, considering she… summoned you to help the girl rather than leave her alone out there after their… confrontation.” Though his face was sealed behind that metal armor, they could hear the smile in his voice. Everyone in the room had seen the recording of the ‘fight’ between Lightning Bug and Joyride, and how little actual danger either had been in. It was far more of an imaginative play-fight than anything else. 

Hallowed, in his bright golden armor and metallic wings, spoke up while folding his arms across his broad chest. “Can we talk about that whole ‘summoned her’ bit? Because that’s what concerns me. It sounds like this little kid managed to teleport the leader of a Star-Touched team all the way from one side of the city to the other with a snap of her fingers. She didn’t have time to set something special up at the time, so she must have had that in place already. Does that mean she could teleport anyone anywhere? Could she hit a button right now and teleport all of us in this room to Kansas? Or worse if she ever decides to be more violent? So far she hasn’t really hurt anyone, but she obviously could. She has that teleportation tech, and the…” He paused as though unable to believe what he was saying. “The giant robot dinosaur.” 

“Toto,” Lucent put in. “She called it Toto.” 

“Yes, Toto,” Brumal flatly confirmed, head shaking. “The girl has run circles around everyone who encountered her, stolen anything she wants, and demonstrated the ability to transport other people at will, as well as use a giant robotic dinosaur as a direct threat. If she intended to do real harm, we would be in trouble.” 

“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Trivial put in. “She obviously doesn’t intend to do real harm. She’s been really gentle with everything she’s done, considering what she’s capable of. And she sent Lightning Bug’s mother to pick her up. It’s obvious that she’s intentionally holding back. She wins, but she doesn’t hurt anyone. And like we were just talking about, she exposed a murderer inside the Minority.”

“She would be an incredible asset on our side,” Silversmith pointed out, his tone curious. “If we could somehow convince her to stop stealing things, can you imagine the amount of help she’d bring to the city? Just being able to transport our people anywhere they needed to be instantly, as soon as trouble came up, all by itself, would completely revolutionize our work here in Detroit.” 

Hallowed shook his head. “Except she’s never shown any interest in helping us. Not beyond exposing Whamline or making sure Lightning Bug wasn’t left by herself with those criminals. She’s been pretty clear that her motivation is to steal things.” 

“She steals from the rich, from corporations and wealth-hoarders,” Trivial pointed out. “Should we really give that much of a shit?” 

Coughing, Caishen replied mildly, “Those corporations are a large part of why Detroit has progressed as much as we have in the past twenty years. If they begin to see the city as not safe enough, they will take their business elsewhere. We cannot have her running completely amok and doing whatever she wants.” She paused briefly, before adding, “That said, my daughter likes her. And is very… enthusiastic when it comes to the idea of being her archrival. And I do believe she does not mean to harm anyone.”

Lucent straightened up on his perch. “Thus, what we have before us is the question of what to do about a young girl who is clearly physically capable of much worse harm than she has ever engaged in. She intentionally holds back, while using the bare minimum force necessary for her to achieve her… goal of stealing from what she considers acceptable targets. What do we intend to do about that, precisely? We have proven inadequate at stopping the girl thus far, and I believe that escalating force to the level required to capture and detain her would cause more of a problem than it would solve. I, for one, would prefer to convince her to curtail her criminal efforts in exchange for compensation leading toward mutual benefit.”

“You mean you want to pay her not to steal things,” Brumal put in, giving the TONI bird a long look. “Would she be a salaried employee, or would we simply do it on a contract-basis? Say, find a list of places we would prefer her not to steal from and pay a flat fee for each?” 

“Your sarcasm is noted,” Silversmith informed her. “And yet, with some adjustments, is that such a bad idea? Surely the companies involved would be willing to pay for such… insurance against being directly attacked, and if such funds were pooled, it would be enough to pay this girl under what we could refer to as a mercenary contract for protection. Shift her from a Fell-Touched to a Sell-Touched and pay her for security against threats to these locations. We wouldn’t technically be paying her not to steal from them, we would be paying her a ‘security fee’ to… protect those locations. Including targets she herself might have hit. Those would appear to be our two options. We either escalate force beyond what she herself has demonstrated to reach a level of being able to potentially contain her, or we make an offer to cease her criminal efforts and attempt to eventually negotiate that into actual cooperation.”

“A vote then?” Lucent suggested. “A raised hand–or wing as the case may be, if you prefer escalating force against a newly-emerged juvenile Tech-Touched who has made a clear effort to avoid harming anyone.” He glanced pointedly around the room, waiting until no one had raised any hand. “Ahem, and a raised hand or wing if you prefer attempting the diplomatic approach.” 

Silversmith raised his own hand, then watched as the others all did the same, including Lucent with one of his wings. Then he smiled behind the helmet. “Okay then, now let’s get into specifics. We’ll contact each of the companies who have expressed concern and see what they’re willing to offer.” 

“Ah, how do we pass that offer onto the girl herself?” Trivial asked. “I don’t think she left her number lying around.” 

Caishen spoke flatly. “Something tells me that won’t be a problem. It won’t be long before Joyride makes a spectacle of herself again.

“And personally, I find myself… disturbingly curious to see what happens when she does.” 

*********

During The Ministry Base Incursion 

The short, unassuming man stood just a hair over five foot seven, and would have been considered very slightly underweight. His short brown hair and hazel eyes were incredibly average, and he wore glasses with thin metal frames, as well as a simple suit of moderate worth and fit. Not too expensive, yet not too cheap. His job was to blend in. He was known as Alcazar, the word for a Spanish fortress or castle. One of the top lieutenants within the Ministry, his job was to attend to the security and protection of their various facilities throughout the state of Michigan. 

At that particular moment, Alcazar was sitting at his desk in an office in downtown Detroit. It was very late at night, but that was normal for him. His typical schedule found the man sleeping during the day, as most of his work was done at night. Night was when people tended to attempt to cause problems. He would sleep from roughly eight in the morning until early to mid afternoon, then spend time with his family until seven or so before making his way to one of his offices to start his actual job. It was a little after midnight just then, and he was looking forward to the next day (or later that day, rather), when he would cut his sleep short in order to visit his youngest son’s school to watch the boy perform in a play. Eleven-year-old Karl was incredibly excited about his part, even if it wasn’t a leading role. It was still important, and he had extracted a firm promise from his father (who he believed to be an architect) about being there. 

Alcazar had made arrangements to leave the office a bit early that day, getting home by five or so just to have enough sleep so he could enjoy the play and then take his wife out to lunch. That would be in another few hours, and he needed to get all the work he could done by then. Sitting at his desk, he flipped through a folder while typing an email to one of their contractors, arranging for a new shipment of steel beams for Project Carpenter. Very few people in the Ministry were aware of the colony of Touched Termites that had been brought into the city, but he was one of those few. And he worked directly with their spokesman (spokesbug?) in gathering the proper resources, providing them what they asked for. Which, in this case, was more steel for the termites to melt down with their fog-breath and then convert into a larger amount of the stuff for building purposes. Specifically, for building the structures within the city that the Ministry was contracting them to build. 

In the midst of his work on that, his nearby cell phone, sitting silently on the desk next to a pile of folders, abruptly went off. It rang audibly rather than buzz, which meant that it was coming from one of the few numbers he had programmed into the phone to bypass his normal silent mode. And that would only happen if this was an emergency. 

A slight frown found its way to the man’s face as he reached out to answer the phone with a simple, “What happened?” 

The words he heard made the man immediately stand, almost knocking his chair over in the process. “What? Right now? How many? Lock down. Get everyone there. Alpha level priority. Have you contacted White and Gold? Do it, right now. Interrupt the play.” Even as he spoke, Alcazar was plucking a separate phone from his pocket, rapidly texting one of his contacts. “Are they still in the building? Then lock down the entire area. Get a chopper in the air. Who’s close? Yes, move that one over. Find the spot where they started from and be there to meet them when they evac. Do everything you can to hold them in that building until I get there, but be prepared to track them if they escape.”

Taking the phone away from his ear, he held the second one up to the opposite side and spoke. “Yellowbrick, I need a walkway. Yes, there.” He waited for a moment then before getting the go-ahead. Once that came, the man opened the door of his office. Beyond was what appeared to be a black void and an amber-colored path leading out into nothingness. Without missing a beat, he walked straight out onto the path. As always when doing this, the void itself felt cold, though not to the point of being a problem. It was like a chilly wind that made one hunch in on themselves a bit. Or typically did. In the current situation, he barely noticed. 

Striding quickly along the bridge through that void, the man made it precisely thirty feet. It was always thirty feet, no matter what the actual distance between the two connected doorways happened to be. Whether Yellowbrick was creating a path between two doors in the same building, from one building to another in the same city, or between two different continents, the bridge through the void was always precisely thirty feet. The void itself seemed to go on much further, as did the bridge. It extended off seemingly endlessly. But after walking that thirty feet (and only after walking, it wasn’t visible before), a new doorway appeared in front of the man. It was the door into one of the supply closets within the Ministry’s base under the local mall, and he didn’t break stride at all before reaching out to grab the knob and pull it open as he stepped through. From an outsider’s point of view, it would have looked as though he was simply stepping out of the closet, as they wouldn’t see the void and bridge behind him. Yellowbrick’s paths were only visible and accessible to people she wanted them to be visible and accessible to.

The very instant he was in the base (stepping into one of the secondary labs where an unconscious Ministry security guard lay on the floor next to an overturned chair), Alcazar activated his power. He had no idea whether the intruders were still inside or not, but there wasn’t time to waste finding out. As soon as he focused on his gift, the man could see the effects. The small lab around him shifted, the floor, walls, and ceiling turning somewhat fuzzy and wobbling like jello for a brief moment before completely transforming. The floor became beaten and cracked old wood, while the walls and ceiling were made of intricately carved stone. The door behind him, leading into the closet, became an ancient wooden type with a metal latch. The view through that half-open door revealed not the closet it was supposed to be or Yellowbrick’s void, but a set of stone stairs leading down. 

The stairs would go nowhere. Or, more to the point, they would go everywhere. They would lead to a corridor, or another room, which itself would lead to more corridors and more rooms. That, in essence, was Alcazar’s power. While he was using it, the structure he designated (the Ministry base, in this situation) would physically transform into the interior of a medieval castle or fortress. Not a specific one and never the exact same. More importantly, space itself was twisted and expanded within his affected area. Even if he only used it on a single room, the resulting castle interior would appear to stretch on forever. Every hall would lead to a new room, every new room to a new hall. No matter how far one walked, no matter how many doors they went through, there would be more and more in front of them. Eventually, they would loop back around to where they started. You could walk straight for a solid mile of corridors and rooms, go up six different flights of stairs at six different locations, then pass through a final door and find yourself right back where you had started from, height differences be damned. 

Alcazar and those he designated were the only ones who could properly navigate and leave the affected area. Now, if the intruders were still inside, they would be trapped. There would be no escape. And they would be answering questions very soon. 

The moment his power clicked into place, Alcazar walked through the opposite door, which would have led into the main hall adjacent to the stairs leading out of the base. Now it was about twice as wide as it should have been, which was right. There was also a hole in the wall near the base of the stairs, which was wrong. As soon as he saw that hole, Alcazar strode that way. It had to have been there before his power took effect. The hole wasn’t a normal part of the structure, so his power hadn’t taken it into account. It had built around it. 

Looking into the hole, he saw several of their security people attempting to dig through what had apparently been a cave-in about twenty feet in and upward. Undoubtedly intentional by the intruders to block pursuit. 

“Hold,” he ordered, before sticking his hand through the hole to touch the dirt. This tunnel wasn’t great for him. His power worked best on established buildings. With a bit of extra effort, he could affect something like this, but only within the immediate area he could see. Still, it would help somewhat. As his hand touched the dirt wall, the man released his focus on the rest of the base. Behind him, it reverted back to its normal condition (aside from the hole). Meanwhile, this area of the tunnel became another castle corridor. The area the guards were trying to dig through was transformed into a full-sized room. The dirt and rocks from the cave-in were still there, but the room was large enough for them to simply move around all of it. About ten feet past that room, the effect of his power faded and it became ordinary dirt once more. 

“Go,” he ordered the men. “Catch up with them if you can.” That was all he said, all he needed to say. Before the words had even finished leaving his mouth, the men were off and sprinting. 

Turning away from the hole, Alcazar took one of the phones from his pocket as it buzzed. “Yeah. Bring the chopper in from the east, sweep across the mall lot just in case they popped up there, but I think they started from further back.” He paused briefly, then grimaced. “The construction site across the street, where they’re building the hotel. It’s been shut down for awhile. Focus there. Send the call to get our people over there right now.” 

Without another word, he disconnected the call. At nearly the exact same instant, the phone rang in his hand. Rang, not buzzed. A single word was displayed on the screen. No number, just a name. White. Minister White. She’d gotten the message, apparently. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Alcazar answered. “Yes, I’m here. They’ve already left. The troops are in pursuit, through a tunnel leading to what I believe is the motel construction site. Yes, we have a police helicopter diverting there right now, eta twenty seconds. I have people loading up in a few of our cars to head them off above ground as well. Absolutely. We’ll have a full sitrep for you when you get here. I have no idea what they took, I was about to look into it. Yes, ma’am.” 

That was the end of the call, so he disconnected before looking back the way he had come. Unconscious figures littered the hall, and the rooms around him. Whoever this was, whoever had broken into the Ministry’s base, they had come in here for something. But what? 

More importantly, who the hell were they? This attack came out of nowhere. The Ministry was… well, not quite totally peaceful. But they were secure. Every Fell-Touched gang in the city either worked directly for them, or paid tribute to them and had enough informants within who would rat out anything like this. Well, almost every Fell-Touched gang. There were the Scions, but this wasn’t their style. Leaving everyone alive? They’d never do that. 

So again, who in this city had taken the time and care to secretly tunnel into the Ministry base, steal things while leaving everyone alive, and then leave? Whatever the answer, whoever they were, Alcazar was certain of one thing.

They were just getting started. 

*********

Sterling and Elena 

Standing on the edge of the road where the group who had invaded the Ministry base had gone sliding out of control and into the water beyond, Sterling Evans watched divers attempting to search the submerged wreck for anything useful. Raising his gaze toward the sky, he saw two helicopters combing the banks in either direction, their spotlights scouring for a sign that the intruders had come ashore. More of the Ministry’s people were searching surrounding neighborhoods, talking to potential witnesses, digging through anything and everything they could find. 

There wouldn’t be much. He knew that. This hit was too well-coordinated, too perfect. This wasn’t an amateur outfit. They knew what they were doing, and had the training, equipment, and skill to pull it off without getting caught. How long had they been working in secret, building that tunnel leading straight to the mall? Weeks? Months? They had gone completely undetected, despite the security measures the Ministry had in place. Which meant they had been quiet, somehow digging that entire tunnel without making any more vibrations than cars passing overhead. And that implied powerful Touched-Tech, a surprise considering the Ministry themselves owned the only purely Touched-Tech group in the city, as well as the company responsible for transporting it safely. If such machines had been delivered or ordered here, he would have heard about it. 

This raised… many questions. 

Stepping up beside him, Elena watched the water in silence for a moment. The two of them, to everyone else in the area, would look quite different than they appeared to themselves. Thanks to Elena’s gift, others would see him as a bald man who resembled Principal Strickland from Back To The Future, while Elena had made herself a near dead-ringer for the character of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. 

After standing there with him in contemplative silence as they watched their people work for several moments, Elena quietly spoke. “It was an excellent play, at least.” 

She was right, of course. The play had been excellent. At least, as much as they’d seen of it. The lead had been one he’d kept an eye on from back when he was still barely more than a background player, and Sterling’s early faith that the man had strong potential had not been misplaced. Through his life, even as a near-nameless accountant for the Russo mafia under his now-wife’s father, Sterling had had a way of predicting potential. To him, potential was a combination of natural talent, drive, and a bit of luck. The first two were what he looked for when it came to investments. Luck was something he could manufacture for them. A word in the ear of a basketball recruiter to visit a certain high school to see a student who would have gone unnoticed, leading to a starring role on an NCAA drive to a state championship, a moderate donation to the science lab of a university in order to ensure that a brilliant geneticist had the funding they needed to continue the research that had eventually led to saving many lives. Those and far more examples, many as subtle as bringing the right two people together at the right time, had allowed his life to progress to what it now was. 

Sterling knew he was lucky. He had no doubt about that. His brilliant, beautiful wife, his strong son, amazing daughter, and now potentially a second daughter whom he was coming to care about as much as his own biological children. A life as charmed as his had taken a lot of work and sacrifice to reach this point, but it was all worth it. As close as they had come to losing it several times, particularly when it came to Elena’s father, and yet they had come through on top. 

Whatever it took, he would protect his family. He would continue to build this empire, would continue to strengthen and solidify it. When the time came, he wanted his children, all three if Izzy agreed to be adopted, to have the best possible foundation. He would, at some point, pass the keys to this kingdom to the three of them. And then he would see just how far they could take it. As solid as the Ministry was, as strong as it had become, he had no doubt that his children could take it further. They were who he built all of it for. Together, his family would create a legacy that would shape the state of Michigan, and far beyond, for a long time to come. 

Bah, he was getting ahead of himself. And perhaps swelling too much with pride for his family. It was far too easy to let his thoughts and hopes run away, like a poor child being dragged along by an overly-excited dog on a leash. He sounded arrogant to his own thoughts, which wasn’t his intention. He simply… wanted his family to build something truly lasting, something that could be passed down through their generations. As more and more superpowers emerged, as the world grew into this new era, things would change quickly. 

The truth was, Sterling Evans believed that it would not be long (relatively speaking) before states across the country, and even countries across the world, began to break up into smaller territories. Kingdoms of a sort, smaller areas protected by powerful Touched. The militaries and governments themselves simply could not keep up with so many random citizens gaining often incredibly destructive powers. There was no test they had to take, no money to be paid, no qualification in wealth, race, gender, orientation, or any other thing that had previously been used to prevent one group or another from gaining power. It could happen to anyone anywhere. 

Thus, Sterling believed that the old rules of society, of government power, would gradually break down as more and more people who would previously have been considered ‘nobodies’ or ‘inconsequential’ gained true power. He believed that the government’s power would fail, and far more localized fiefdoms, of a sort, would rise. That was the entire point of the Ministry. That was their endgame, to have this structure in place so that when the inevitable collapse of government came, they would still be there in its place. They would keep Detroit, and Michigan beyond, safe and prosperous. 

And that goal was why he would not allow whoever this group was, whatever their intentions might have been, to escape judgment and punishment. If other groups, other organizations, saw that the Ministry could be hit like that, they would become emboldened. An example had to be made. They would be found, dealt with, and everyone would see that the status quo would be maintained. 

Whoever was behind this attack would find themselves regretting it, Sterling promised himself. Whatever their endgame, whoever they were, wherever they had come from, he would make an example of them. Every gang, every snake now poking their heads out with interest at the news that the Ministry had been attacked, would see what became of such people. 

With a nod to Elena, Sterling took the phone from his pocket, hitting the number to contact Alcazar back in the base itself. “Talk to all of our people in every gang. Find out who knows something about this. Shake the bushes, kick the trash cans, call in favors, make every threat we need to make. Do everything you can until five o’clock, then go home. Yes, Alcazar, I don’t want to hear it. Go home at five, that’s an order. Your son needs you at that play tomorrow. Karl’s been looking forward to you being there too much for you to put it off. Do the work, then go home. We have plenty of people to keep searching while you’re busy. Delegate, it’s the only way to survive in this business. And tell Karl I said hi.” 

He paused then before nodding slightly. “Yes. Yes, I do think our people will find something. There is someone in this city who knows the truth. There is a weak link somewhere, a link connected to the people responsible for this. 

“And when we find that weak link, we’ll snap the chain in half.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But boy, was it tempting. 

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Equal And Opposite 21-05 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your friend?” I echoed, confused. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The newest member of the Detroit Minority.” 

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Winging It 19-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – You can find the newest Summus Proelium non-canon, released over the past weekend, available for ALL readers right here.

Well, so much for an easy training day with my bird-dad. First I had joined up with him and Carousel to stop what was supposed to be a simple bank robbery, only for that to turn out to be far more complicated than it appeared when we had to follow more of the bad guys down a super-efficiently built tunnel underground. And because it obviously wasn’t enough that they would just be a few ambitious thugs with a tunnel-digging gun or something, it turned out that they (or the one who had escaped) had led us straight to Sandon and more of the Ninety-Niners. Who were now completely surrounding the three of us with their weapons raised and ready, because of course they were. This whole situation was just going truly swimmingly.

Even while we were absorbing all that and taking in the situation, one of the men sputtered about how we’d chased them all the way through the tunnel, how he barely escaped, and so on. He kept urging the rest of his gang to shoot us. My eyes centered on him, only to find a figure in brown pants, boots, a long brown jacket over a black shirt, and a brown helmet that left his lower face exposed while thick goggles covered his eyes. Oh yeah, and his hands were encased in heavy gauntlets with long metal claws on them, sort of like badger paws. He kept pointing those claws at us while stammering about how they all needed to do something. 

Yeah, I was getting the sneakiest suspicion that the men had not been using Touched-Tech to dig that tunnel. I had never seen or heard of this guy before, so he was clearly a new player. Or maybe he had come over from somewhere else. Either way, he was Touched himself in some way. Though whether digging was his power, or if he was Tech-Touched and the gauntlets were his invention, I wasn’t sure. There was too much we didn’t know. Which wasn’t great, since everything I had read and seen said going up against Touched whose powers you knew nothing about was a bad idea. 

“Undermine, shut up for a minute,” Sandon snapped, silencing the man instantly without even looking at him. Her gaze was locked on the rest of us as we stood there (well, Carousel and I stood there, while Lucent perched on my helmet). She seemed to be considering for a moment, even as the rest of her men kept their weapons pointed at us. They were clearly just waiting for the order to start firing. But wouldn’t do so without their boss’s direct orders. Lucky us. 

Even more lucky for us, one of the other men to one side tossed some kind of silver ball into the hole behind us. My gaze snapped that way just in time to see the ball give a popping sound before expanding into a concrete plug that completely sealed up the hole, blocking it.

Well, that was just great. So much for any plan involving jumping right back into the tunnel. Damn bad guys and their ability to look ahead and anticipate the most patently obvious things. 

My eyes drifted back from the digger guy (Undermine, apparently, which seemed like an odd name to give a subordinate) to Sandon herself. She looked the same as the last time I had been around her, back during the big fight for the vials. She had a modernized, sort of science fiction-ish suit of armor with a lion’s pelt attached to the back. There was no actual real head connected to it. Instead, Sandon’s helmet/mask was lion-shaped to function as the head of the pelt, with the open mouth surrounding a black-tinted visor. The visor itself even had metal teeth along the edges, to really sell the effect. Beyond that, I couldn’t see any details about what she looked like. I certainly couldn’t see the bones that were attached to the inside of her armor, built into it. Every bone she touched gave her the strength of the person that bone belonged to. And since she made a point of getting pieces of bone from every person with enhanced strength that she could find… yeah. Sandon was literally one of the strongest Touched in… well, the state for sure. And she was pretty up there in the national rankings. 

“You’re very annoying, you know that?” the woman informed us with a flat voice. While speaking, she rubbed at the visor where her forehead would be. “This was supposed to be a simple in-and-out. Make it look like a normal bank robbery on the outside while our new friend Undermine here takes a few men in to grab everything we need out of the vault. Wars are expensive, especially a war against people like Blackjack with his damn near unlimited funding. My people have mouths to feed. Wouldn’t even have hurt anyone, really. But then you three had to go charging in and complicate the whole fucking business.” 

“Ahem, language, please,” Lucent put in, his voice slightly chiding. “Just because we happen to be on opposite sides of this issue is no excuse for creating such a hostile verbal environment for the youth. We should, after all, strive to show them a better example than that.” 

I couldn’t see her expression through the black visor, but from the way Sandon stared in silence at him for a moment, I had the feeling she was trying to decide if he had completely lost his mind. Which was fair, considering I had the same thought. I truly had no idea what he was thinking, or why he thought chastising the woman for her language was a good idea. Then I realized he wasn’t actually that crazy. He was stalling, buying time. Not to mention distracting Sandon and throwing her off. 

“Yeah,” the woman finally muttered darkly while giving a look toward her crew, “I’ll be sure to watch my language while we decide exactly how fu–pardon, screwed the three of you are.”  That, of course, prompted a round of the derisive chuckles from the men, who were still pointing weapons at us, clearly itching to start this fight. They were watching for the moment either their boss gave the signal, or one of us made a move. I had the feeling that if I were to so much as lift my hand, they would instantly start shooting before I could give a thumbs up. 

“Are we though?” That was Carousel, her voice piping up into the silence that had followed those chuckles. She made a point of looking around, like she was searching for the bags that had been left in the tunnel beneath us. “Where’s your dough? This has been quite the show, but your funds are still low.” With an exaggerated shrug, she finished, “Perhaps there is mining equipment you can borrow. Like a dozer, trencher, or backhoe.” 

Before Sandon could respond to that, the Undermine guy blurted, “Fuck your rhymes, the second we’re done with you, I’ll open up the hole again and go right back down there to get the bags and my buddies. You got nothing we can’t deal with.” 

“Undermine,” Sandon half-snarled, “I told you to shut your mouth. Don’t make me say it a third time.” Her gaze snapped that way, the implication clear. She waited until the man gave a short, contrite nod before turning back to us. “Never let it be said that I can’t be reasoned with. I will give the three of you this one chance to walk away. Leave, and allow us to collect our spoils.” 

That prompted a low round of grumbling from the men who were pointing their weapons at us and clearly wanted a fight, but the woman that silenced that with a sharp look. Her words were flat. “Let’s just say I have bigger fish to fry than you. So take the offer. Turn around and walk away. Or fly, whatever you choose. Take the mulligan and try this whole fighting thing another time. Believe me, there will be plenty of chances for it.” Her chin rose as she focused on Lucent. “You know it’s a good offer, bird. You’ve got two kids here with you and I have you surrounded. We have weapons, I’m stronger than any of you, and you don’t know what Undermine is capable of. Walking away and fighting another day is the best offer you’re going to get.” 

Yeah, I couldn’t say that she was exactly wrong about that. I had been spending these tense moments painting the inside of my costume as much as I could. Between that and the paint that had already been there, if a fight started, I would be at least mostly protected for a bit. And Carousel still had some paint I could activate if it came down to it. We weren’t nearly as flat-footed as it might have appeared, even if this wasn’t the best circumstance. If a fight started, we wouldn’t be instantly taken apart. And yet, Sandon made some good points. She was stronger than any of us. My purple paint at its best probably couldn’t do much against her. And she had Undermine, who could–well, who knew what he could do besides dig a tunnel. Which by itself could be pretty nasty, if he could use that to, like, put the holes directly under us while we were standing there or something. Again, we had no idea what he was capable of. Which was all before you even brought in all the extra armed troops she had with her. Troops who were just waiting to open fire. Yeah, this whole situation was pretty… dangerous was a good word. It was pretty dangerous, preparation be damned. We might win a fight, but it wasn’t guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. 

And yet, if we walked away, we’d just be leaving them to take off with everything they’d taken out of that vault, and the other members of their gang we had left down there. It felt wrong to just let them win like that. Walking away without even trying to stop them? Yeah, the thought made my stomach roll a bit. But then, so did the idea of starting a fight right now. There were no good options, and it was clear that Sandon knew that. She wasn’t directing her men to attack or anything. She was waiting, giving the three of us a few seconds to really consider everything. Which itself made me wonder. Was she just as hesitant about being able to easily win a fight too? Or was she really just trying to save effort and resources by giving us a chance to walk away? She was, after all, in the middle of a war against two different Fell-Gangs. And probably had to pay my family for the privilege of conducting it. No wonder she needed more funds. 

Finally, I managed to find my voice. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to be the ones who walked away from this and let us take those stolen things back where they belong?” Looking back and forth between the troops and their leader, I offered a shrug. “No? Just checking.”  

Sandon took a step closer to me. I felt Lucent ready himself on my helmet, a sound of what I interpreted as a warning to the woman escaping him. She stopped, holding up both hands placatingly. “Easy, bird. No one’s starting anything. Not yet, anyway.” She focused on me then, voice lowering a bit dangerously. “You’ve had some success over the past couple of months, kid. Don’t let it go to your head. Hell, you helping expose Pencil and Cup? That’s some good stuff. They’re fu–pardon, freaking psychopaths. No one likes those two, or their sycophants. I enjoyed you pulling the rug out from under them. That’s one of the reasons I’m willing to let you walk away. But don’t push your luck.” Her gaze moved over all three of us as she very pointedly added, “All of you, turn around and walk, before I change my mind. You don’t want to see what happens if I decide you’re being too annoying.”

Carousel’s voice immediately filled the air on the heels of Sandon’s words. “They say the better part of valor is discretion. Leaving may cause some depression. But it is my greatest impression our soundest move is egression.” 

“Sure,” Sandon agreed with a small, humorless chuckle. “However the poet girl wants to put it. But any minute now one of your do-gooder friends is going to show up. Then everything gets complicated again. So let’s say you have ten–five seconds to make up your minds. Four, three-” 

“Ahem,” Lucent put in, “Your point is made. Come, little ones, we shall find our way out of this place and leave our friends here to… conduct their business. There will be other moments, other confrontations.” He was clearly staring at Sandon, who gave him a simple nod. I wondered how much history there was between them, because it seemed like there was at least something. Especially given the tone she used whenever she called him ‘bird.’ She clearly didn’t like him. And yet, she was still willing to let him, and the rest of us, walk away from this. 

That was exactly what we did. We left, walking backward to keep the troops in sight for as long as possible, just in case one of them decided to try something after all. But though it was clear that they were pretty unhappy about it, none of them made a move. Not with Sandon right there. They were obviously far too afraid of her to risk doing something stupid right then. 

As for the three of us, we didn’t say anything until we had stepped backward into an alley on the far side of the parking lot, getting out of their sight. Immediately, I pivoted toward Carousel, while Lucent flew off my head and toward the nearby roof. Reaching out, I took the other girl’s hand and launched us upward with a mix of blue and red paint. We reached the top of the building, and I released Carousel while blurting, “Are you sure we can’t take them? They’re right there, we can still–” 

“Easy, lad,” Lucent cautioned while landing on a nearby bit of machinery sticking out of the roof. “There is nothing embarrassing about walking away to fight another day. There will be other moments, better moments. You need more training before you’re ready to go up against someone like Sandon in a straight fight. As it is, she would demolish you in such a confrontation. Don’t forget, she is capable of holding her own in a fight against Cuélebre, and your success against that man hinged on running away from him.” 

Remembering what it had been like to catch just a portion of the lightning bolt he had summoned, and how terrifying it had been to run away from him to begin with, I gave a reluctant nod. “Yeah, I know. But… but they’re over there and they’re going to get that money back. Or whatever they stole from the vault. They’ll get the people we left down there, all of it. We might as well not have even been there if they just get away with all of it.” It was probably childish, but still. I didn’t like the idea of just letting them walk away with everything they stole. 

“Perhaps this is the best lesson you could have learned today,” Lucent considered, his gaze on me. “Oft times it is better to take the hit to your pride or sense of justice, if it means avoiding needless conflict that can only result in more problems. Twas nothing to be truly gained by engaging with Sandon and her people right then. What they have stolen may be recovered in other ways, at other times. And if it is not, all that has been lost is material goods. But if we were to fight that woman directly and lose… such could be disastrous in many ways.” 

Exhaling, I gave a slow, reluctant nod. “Yeah, okay, you’re right. But still, we could stop them if we had more help. Where is everybody? What’s taking them so long to show up? I mean, you told them what was going on, right? You’ve got that tracker thing on you, so they should’ve made it here by now.” I wasn’t trying to be judgy or anything, but seriously, we should’ve had help back there. We’d kept Sandon talking long enough for other members of the Seraphs or Minority/Conservators to show up. But there had been nothing. What was up with that? 

“Unfortunately,” Lucent replied, “It seems that all active patrols from various teams were too far away from the situation to step in. And they were… otherwise engaged in their own problems at the time. A case of poor luck and timing. Or generous luck, on the Ninety-Niners’ parts, one may suppose.” 

Right, generous luck called, ‘they probably paid off my parents to keep anyone who could stop them away.’ Because that was a thing the Ministry did. It was one of the main reasons they existed. Criminals paid them extra fees to push patrols away from what they were targeting. I knew that from that bit I’d overheard between my brother and that guy just outside the mall base. Obviously that was what had actually happened here. Not that I could explain it to the other two. Even if the idea of just blurting out the whole thing did jump into my head. 

While I was pushing that thought out of my head, Carousel spoke up. “I’ve sent a message of my own. Though she may show up alone, Way will be among us soon. Best she not come to high noon.” 

Right, yeah, Amber was on her way and it was probably a good thing that she wouldn’t be walking into a full-on duel. Especially if she was by herself. My mouth opened to agree with that, only to stop as I hesitated and blinked at the other girl. “Come to think of it, if there wasn’t any patrols nearby, how did you happen to show up?” I knew that wasn’t the sort of oversight my family would have made. If they had been paid to move patrols away from the bank, Carousel really shouldn’t have been anywhere near the place. At least, not officially. 

Sure enough, she shrugged. “I was not on any sort of patrol. In truth, I was out for a stroll. I saw you passing overhead, and though it could have been misread, it seemed you needed aid. Thus from my path, I strayed.” 

“Someday,” I retorted while pointing at her, “I’m going to find a way to make you say something that doesn’t rhyme. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but your poetry reckoning is coming.” 

I could feel the smile on her face as she casually replied, “You are not the first to make such a claim. Truly, I enjoy that sort of game. Yet I must disclaim, lest annoyance grow aflame, that it is not truly a fair fight. After all, with words I am quite erudite.” 

Opening and shutting my mouth a couple times, I leaned closer to Lucent and murmured, “I think I’m in over my head.” 

The exchange prompted a chuckle from the raven TONI, before he cleared his throat. “In any case, neither of you should feel poorly about what transpired. As I said, it is always better to walk away and find a better avenue for attack, than to let stubbornness force you into an uneven conflict. We walked into that without knowing who was on the other end of the tunnel. Facing one as powerful and dangerous as Sandon without any plan, while surrounded by her people and with an unknown Touched in play on her side? There was no shame in backing out of that conflict. That is what you should truly take away from this. Never be afraid to admit you are not prepared for something. Better to leave and try again another time, from a better direction, than insist on fighting right at the moment.”

He definitely had a point, as much as it has made my stomach twist itself to just walk away from that after everything we had done to try to stop them from getting away. Which made another thought come to me, as I looked at Carousel. “What about those cuffs? Are you gonna get in trouble for uhh, losing them?” I had no doubt that Sandon had a way to break them. Even if it only amounted to literally doing so. Those particular cuffs weren’t the ones rated for that level of enhanced strength. They would keep a certain amount down, but she was far beyond that. 

“When I present the whole story,” the other girl informed me, “of how they left my inventory, I’m sure they’ll understand why I have fewer cuffs on hand.” 

I was about to say something to that, when there was a whistle from nearby. The three of us turned, in time to see That-A-Way on the opposite roof. She was clearly warning us before just showing up, just in case we were still a bit tense (which was fair). As soon as we looked that way, she vanished from that roof and appeared next to us. 

“So,” the girl started while looking around. 

“What’d I miss?” 

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Winging It 19-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Two things happened right after I said the thing about the rotten egg. First, Lucent totally snaked any chance I had of beating him by simply dropping straight through the hole, wings tucked tight to his sides as he dove before catching himself in the air within the vault itself, calling up that the coast was clear. And second, I looked at the girl next to me and realized, “Oh yeah, you’d probably like some help getting down there, huh?” 

“Thanks so much, but no,” came her melodic reply, “I’ll see you below.” With that, three nearby desk chairs came flying over to her, shrinking down before entering a tight orbit around the girl in miniature form. Then she simply hopped down through the hole, shooting one chair at a time downward, allowing it to grow to its normal size just long enough to step on before bringing it back into her orbit in mini-form. She slowed her fall repeatedly that way. The chair would be falling downward, but when she used her power to pull it back up into her orbit, there was a brief instant where it was still full-sized and traveling upward. That gave Carousel a chance to repeatedly land on chairs that were coming upward rather than falling downward, slowing her fall enough to drop through the hole in the vault ceiling and land smoothly within. 

“Okily dokily,” I managed, shaking my head before painting my legs orange as I dropped through the hole. “I guess I’m the rotten egg then.” 

I fell through the hole into the vault, and caught myself right on the edge of the hole at the bottom, which led deeper underground. Perched there and looking down, I could see the way it immediately curved into a tunnel leading out from the bank. The tunnel was tall and wide enough, once it went down and leveled out, for a full grown man of slightly over average size to walk through it. 

Meanwhile, a quick glance around showed that the vault had been ransacked. There were dozens of metal doors leading to separate boxes within the vault. Most of them had been broken open. Whatever contents had been inside them was gone. 

Carousel spoke up, voice curious. “Those responsible here were quite creative, though I doubt their friends are appreciative.” 

I nodded, already moving to peer down into the tunnel. “Yeah, I’m gonna guess they used those guys as a distraction. Probably hired them or something.” Looking up then, I added, “So, are we going after them, or what?” Even as I said that, my hand moved up to activate the lights on the side of my helmet. Yeah, I had literal headlights thanks to Wren’s forethought. I needed to thank that kid, yet again. 

The answer, of course, was that we were going after them. Especially since I had demonstrated that I had light. The three of us dropped into the hole. Lucent perched on top of my helmet so he wouldn’t have to keep trying to fly in the narrow, enclosed tunnel. 

I was in the lead ahead of Carousel, thanks to those headlights. Together, with my bird-dad on my helmet, we trotted down the tunnel. I wanted to run faster, but Lucent insisted we be more careful. We didn’t know what was going to be ahead of us, so we took it one step at a time. 

“Won’t they know they have to hurry?” Carousel pressed in a whisper. “With that hole, they’d need to worry.”

“They won’t know that it has been found so soon,” Lucent informed us, his voice equally quiet. “Before he was rendered unconscious, one of the uncouth men back there said something about covering the hole. I believe they intended to seal up the tunnel behind them in some way. Thus, I believe once they are a short distance away, the gentlemen will slow their retreat.”

I nodded before adding, “Besides, they’re carrying all the crap they got out of the vault back there. That’s got to slow them down a bit, right?”

We all silently hoped I was correct about that while picking up the pace a little bit. Not outright running, but still moving faster. I dimmed the lights on my helmet down to just barely enough to see where we were going, not wanting to give the guys ahead of us too much warning. 

I had to say this much, whatever (or whoever) these guys were using to carve out their tunnel, it was really effective. This place was solid, and really long. I had been expecting it to take us barely outside of the bank property, but the tunnel just kept going. We had to have traveled at least a couple city blocks by this point. Was it just their attempt to get out of range of any police search above ground? 

At least we had oxygen. Every once in awhile, we would find a narrow hole leading upward at an angle. They were just wide enough to allow air into the tunnel, and probably looked like snake holes or something from the surface. So apparently these guys didn’t want to suffocate either.  

Either way, we kept going. I was getting to the point of wondering if they were going to go all the way out of town or something, when we all abruptly heard voices ahead. Instantly, I turned off the headlights entirely, as we stopped to listen intently. It sounded like they were arguing about which way to go. A couple of the voices were saying that it was time to turn right, going by some sort of device they were using. They insisted that the thing, whatever it was, wanted them to make the turn. Meanwhile, several other voices argued that the thing was wrong and they still needed to go another hundred yards or so. The argument was getting pretty heated. Knowing how narrow the tunnel was, I could picture the five (or more) men in a line somewhere ahead of us. This was going to be complicated. After all, they probably had guns. And, come to think of it, they had something that could casually dig out hundreds of feet of dirt and rock. I didn’t want to think about what something like that could do to a person it was turned onto. And I wasn’t sure if my paint would protect against that. Not to mention, there wasn’t much down here for Carousel to work with, beyond the three desk chairs she’d pulled with us and whatever the men themselves had. 

Lucent’s voice was a barely audible whisper, hopefully not carrying far enough for the arguing group further down the tunnel to hear anything. “Allow me to proceed first and set several of my stationery companions in the place. While I am gone, Paintball, you should prepare yourself and Carousel with as many applications of paint enhancements as you can. If you have anything you may use to prepare flash effects with your white paint, that would be advisable as well.” 

He paused very briefly then before adding, “I understand that this likely feels unnecessary, given we are almost certainly only facing a handful of what you would call Prevs, men without powers. But I assure you, even the most mundane of people can get a lucky shot with a gun, particularly when potential Touched-Tech is added into the equation. It is always best to proceed with more care and planning rather than less. Prepare for a fight and force your opponents to operate on your terms, not theirs. Better to be too ready rather than not ready enough.” 

With that, he hopped off my helmet and glided ahead. At least, I assumed he did. With the light off, I couldn’t actually see, well, anything. It was completely pitch-black down here. Which was another reason I was pretty sure we weren’t close enough for the arguing men to hear us, considering we couldn’t see any light source they were using. They were just talking really loud. And why not? As far as they knew, they had no reason to be quiet. Which was a mistake we were hopefully going to make them choke on. 

Before I could wonder how I was going to paint Carousel when I couldn’t see her, the girl put a hand on my shoulder. Apparently she had had the same thought and already solved it. And, judging from the sensation of something spinning past above my head, she’d raised the orbit of the miniaturized chairs so they wouldn’t crash into me. 

I spent the next few moments carefully painting orange, purple, and green spots over both of our costumes, covering every bit of space that I could. All of which went fine except for when I got to her jester’s mask. When I went to touch that, she caught my wrist. Her grip wasn’t painful, but it was firm. Dark as it was, I imagined I could almost actually see the mask itself as she stared at me. Then, with a grunt, she released my wrist and quietly murmured, “Sorry, I guess I dislike being grabbed. Though it’s not as bad as being stabbed.”

I had a weird feeling there was more to it than that, but I couldn’t exactly ask her right then. Hell, I didn’t know how I would ever actually ask. But for the moment at least, we had to focus. 

So, I set that bit of strangeness aside and went back to putting on the paint. The whole time, I kept my ears open just in case the guys out there noticed Lucent setting up his statues. But their arguing continued unabated. Apparently a few of them didn’t exactly believe the device they were using was infallible, while the other two trusted it implicitly. I wondered why they weren’t just outvoted, but apparently this group didn’t work off democracy rules. Or maybe there was someone else on their side we weren’t hearing? Hell, maybe they were just better-armed. Whatever the reason, the arguing went on. Which was fine, because it gave us time to set things up. I finished putting the paint on both of us before Carousel made each chair grow and set it in front of me so I could add a bit of white to them. They could be our flash bombs.

By that point, the arguing seemed to have finally come to a conclusion. They were going to turn right. Apparently those two had been more persuasive. Or just more stubborn. Whatever the reason, they were already starting to work on that. We could both hear a faint humming sound, accompanied by what sort of sounded like steam hissing. It was clearly whatever they had been using to make this tunnel, because the sound gradually started to get further away. They were moving on.

The next thing we knew, Lucent was giving a very soft throat-clearing to announce himself before flap-hopping up to land on my helmet once more. His voice was quiet. “Now is the time, I believe. Carousel, draw them into following you by stealing what they have stolen. There is a short tunnel beyond their new turn, where they began to move on before coming back to that spot. Paintball and I shall move there and prepare to engage them from behind when they reenter this part of the tunnel. Draw them into a chase, then Paintball should use the blinding bombs he has hopefully created?”

I nodded. “She’s got the chairs painted with it.” To Carousel, I added, “As soon as you’re ready to toss them once the guys are in the main tunnel, just shout something about bats. As soon as I hear that, I’ll activate the paint and everyone should close their eyes for a second.” Even while saying that, I kept listening to the sound of the men and their humming-hissing tunneling device. They were moving pretty quickly, as far as tunneling went. Still close enough to hear, but we had to do this right now. 

Still not wanting to give away our presence with a light, I reached out to grab the other girl by the hand, whispering for her to come with me. Then I began to move completely blindly down the tunnel. It kept winding seemingly randomly back and forth, like whoever had made the tunnel had been drunk or something. But I moved just as quickly through the pitch-black tunnel as I had through the forest the other day. Soon, I was practically outright sprinting after activating a bit of black paint I had already put on both my feet and Carousel’s so the men ahead of us wouldn’t hear anything. For her part, the other girl seemed briefly surprised as I immediately began to move so quickly through the pitch-black tunnel while pulling her by the hand. But she didn’t resist, and soon the two of us were catching up to where the men were, our approach completely silent. 

They certainly weren’t being silent, though. With each step, the sound of the thieves bitching at each other (or just friendly ribbing, it was hard to tell) got louder, and soon we could see their lights in the distance. The glow illuminated where they had turned, playing off the corner of that new tunnel. Between their own voices and that of whatever they were using to tunnel, they probably would have had a hard time hearing me moving closer to begin with. Add in the black paint silencing our footsteps and they didn’t have the slightest chance. 

Stopping on one side of the second tunnel entrance, I listened briefly before peeking. They were about sixty feet down. I could see all five men huddled up close in a narrow, single-file line. It was impossible to see what they were using to make the actual tunnel, but it looked like the person at the head of the line was holding something up, which was sending off… vibrations or something. That was the source of the humming sound. The dirt and rock ahead of him was gradually disintegrating. That was the source of the steam-like hissing sound. The other four men were carrying very large duffle bags over their shoulders and clearly full backpacks. The spoils of their vault-heist, clearly. 

The main point was that none of them were looking this way. So I turned back to Carousel, squeezing her hand before leaning in very close to whisper, “I’ll make my headlights flash very dimly as soon as we’re in position. That’s when you go. As soon as I see you move, I’ll give you some orange protection and green speed, just in case.” 

Even with the very dim light from the nearby men, I couldn’t really see her face very well. Not that I would’ve been able to see it anyway, given the mask (and that still somehow creeped me out a little bit). But she squeezed my hand in what I assumed was agreement. So I released her, renewed the black paint on myself, and gave one last peek to make sure no one was looking back toward the tunnel entrance before dashing silently across it to the other side. There was no cry of alarm, or reaction at all, so they hadn’t noticed. 

Lucent was right, of course. There was a short tunnel continuing onward this way that went back maybe fifteen feet. Just enough for me to get fully out of sight. Apparently the men had started to continue on before the two who wanted to turn had gone back a bit. 

“You are very good at operating in darkness,” Lucent whispered to me from his perch on my head. “Does your helmet afford you special vision?” He was probably confused as to why I would have both visible lights and some form of dark vision in my helmet. 

Hesitating slightly, I shook my head. Now wasn’t the right time to get into talking about my weird, secondary navigation power. It was more subtle here than in the forest, since there weren’t a bunch of trees and boulders to run into. But I had still felt its influence helping me avoid tripping while dashing through the tunnel. Not to mention somehow knowing where every curve in the winding tunnel was. Maybe I should ask him sometime, given how much he probably knew about testing powers and such. Later though, we were kind of occupied at the moment. 

Crouching down here, I felt something by my foot. My hand reached out and I found one of Lucent’s statues. Clearly, he had made it over here before and set up his little friends already.  I wasn’t sure where the rest were, but I had no doubt they were lined up perfectly to hit these guys once they were in position. 

Here went nothing. Reaching up, I turned the lights on my helmet up just barely enough to be visible, an incredibly faint glow that hopefully wouldn’t give the men in the other tunnel any warning. Then I turned it back off after a brief second and scrunched myself even tighter into the rear wall of the tunnel, willing myself to be as invisible as possible. 

Just as I was self-consciously wondering if I should use the light again just in case the other girl had not seen it, Carousel made her move. I caught a glimpse of her form moving before she entered the other tunnel. In that moment, I activated two spots of orange stars I had left on her shoulders. 

Abruptly, the girl’s sing-song voice called out loudly. “I don’t think you should have those! Stealing is wrong, as every kid knows.” 

Her words were accompanied by several gasps and curses. Those same curses returned even louder as several of the bags the men had been carrying went flying back to where Carousel was, just before she dashed back into the other tunnel, out of their sight. 

“Fucking–what’re you waiting for, get her!” One of the men shouted. “Get that shit back, god damn it!” That was accompanied by confused words from the others about how she had followed them, whether there were others, and so on. But they didn’t take the time to really think about that, being too intent on getting their stolen stuff back. Instead, they fell for the trap, running right out to chase after Carousel without even glancing in the direction of where Lucent and I were. Oh, and they definitely had guns, already raising them up as they came into view. 

Just as they entered the tunnel and turned, Carousel shouted, “A hearty congrats, you’re blind as bats!” 

In the illumination from the men’s lights (they had them attached to their heads), I could see two different white-painted chairs go flying at them. Immediately, I activated the paint, sending out a blinding flash that made the men stagger backward while crying out in surprise. They fired off a few shots, but Carousel was still protected by the last couple seconds of the orange paint, even if they had gotten lucky enough to hit her. And the guns were mostly-silenced, so none of us were deafened in this narrow tunnel. Which was definitely a plus. 

With the men staggering and half-blind, Lucent made all of his statues (there were a half-dozen of them) spread throughout this section of tunnel open up with concussive blasts. Then I activated the purple, green, and orange paint on both myself and Carousel before the two of us really went to work. 

These guys? Yeah, they really didn’t stand a chance. Hit from both sides, blinded, struck repeatedly by concussive blasts from little bird statues they couldn’t even see, and so on? They collapsed like one of those cheap tents I had seen in the movies. 

Within what seemed like seconds, we had all the men on their stomachs, their weapons taken away while their wrists were either secured by a couple more stay-down cuffs that Carousel had left, or simply tied with strips torn from the straps of the backpacks and duffle bags they themselves had carried. They weren’t going anywhere. 

Unfortunately, that was when the three of us collectively realized that we didn’t have all of them.  There had been five men in that tunnel. But we only had four of them. With my headlights on, I looked toward Lucent and Carousel, all of us clearly having the same thought. Then we spun and raced to that side tunnel. It wasn’t any deeper, and for a second I was afraid the man had somehow gotten around us and disappeared back the way we came. Then Carousel pointed upward, and I saw the hole in the corner of the ceiling. The guy didn’t go further in, he went up with the tunneling machine, making a shaft upward. Which raised the question of how he actually climbed it, but we were going to ask him once we caught up. 

“What do we do about those guys?” I asked, quickly looking back toward where we had left the other four trussed up. The two with stay-down cuffs wouldn’t be going anywhere, of course. But the other two were simply tied at the wrists and ankles with straps. 

“We shall return for them,” Lucent declared. “For the time being, best to see where our remaining quarry has gone.” Belatedly, he added, “I shall leave two of my statues present, to… warn them should they attempt to flee. And should all else fail, the tracker I carry will bring allies to this place.” 

Okay, yeah, that worked. Looking toward Carousel, I quickly announced, “I’ll get up there, then yank you up with me as soon as I’m high enough. Here, raise your arms, hands upward, palms out.” As she did that, I painted both her hands red. “Be ready to be yanked,” I warned.  

With that, I painted blue under my feet and activated it to send myself flying upward into the chimney-like shaft. The gravity-boots kicked, sticking me against the wall of the shaft before I started crawling upward, staring ahead. In the distance, I could see what looked like sunlight, and crawled faster. Just a bit more, just a little bit further…

There. The end of the shaft was right in view. Focusing downward, I slapped red paint against the wall just under my feet, before triggering both that and the paint I had left on Carousel’s hands. Instantly, she was yanked upward, flying up the tunnel before catching herself against the walls of the shaft. Lucent was perched on her shoulder, curled in close to avoid being squished. 

“Okay guys,” I murmured, “here goes nothing.” 

With that, I flung myself up out of the shaft, activating a bit of orange paint once more, just in case. Carousel and Lucent were right behind me, as we landed in…  the middle of a parking lot? 

Oh yeah, and there was both good news and bad news. The good news was that we’d found the guy we were after. 

The bad news was that he wasn’t alone, and we were surrounded by what appeared to be over a dozen armed troops, all pointing their weapons at us. 

“Well now,” a voice announced as a figure came to the head of the group. It was Sandon, leader of the Ninety-Niners. And these were her people. 

“Ain’t this a kick in the pants.” 

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Winging It 19-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so there was some sort of bank robbery going on, and I was supposed to help stop it alongside Lucent and Carousel. Talk about an eclectic group, huh? One independent Star-Touched alongside one of the Minority, and a TONI from the Seraphs. The three of us were going to go in there and stop this bank robbery. It sounded like the setup for a weird joke. 

I said as much to the other two while we were quickly planning what to do, and Carousel immediately replied, “As we give them a poke, they’ll think it’s a joke. But they’ll see their mistake, when in jail they awake. I don’t have my team, but this…” She gestured around in a circle to indicate the three of us. “Helps my esteem.”

“I could not have said it better myself,” Lucent announced. “At least, not without a thesaurus or a rhyming dictionary. Bravo, my dear. But for now, I believe our best way forward is to carefully prepare the field out here. Paintball, would you mind quietly laying several spots of your wonderful yellow paint onto the vehicle down there without alerting anyone within? In case they flee, it would be good to be able to slow them down. Meanwhile, I shall fly closer and get a look at what is happening within, before preparing to hasten their retreat. Carousel, position yourself there, on the narrow section of roof just above the exit where they are sure to pass under you. Be ready to remove their weapons as they come within range, to prevent any unfortunate incidents as they endeavor to make their escape. And perhaps a… bouncy section of sorts on the way to the car?” He looked at me then. “As well as anything else you can think of to slow them down or disrupt their escape. Once everything is in place, I shall see about driving them out toward the two of you, safely away from any civilians within the bank.”

“A sign of when to commence,” Carousel noted, “would make a good sort of sense.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” I agreed. “Should we give you a signal or something when we’re ready?” 

Lucent gave a short, sharp nod, before looking at the spot of the roof next to me. A moment later, a statue copy of the raven appeared there, perched right on the edge. “I shall watch through my friend here,” the TONI announced. “Once you are both prepared for the men inside to be driven toward you, raise both hands in the, ahh, I believe it is referred to as the touchdown position. But be sure you are ready.”

“Right, prepping the battlefield,” I agreed. “Or, you know, hopefully not an actual battle. A small, simple skirmishfield.” Squinting then, I turned to Lucent before remembering that he couldn’t see my expression. So I painted a squinting emoticon-face across my helmet. “Just answer me one thing. Is this bank owned by La Casa? Because the last time someone robbed a La Casa bank, it set something off, and I’d really rather not go through that again.”

I could hear the faint amusement in the bird’s voice as he replied, “I assure you, as far as I am aware, the bank is not owned or operated by any Fell-Touched.” 

“The other sort of knaves,” Carousel murmured, “who turn poor to slaves from birth to graves.” 

“Someday,” I informed her, “I’m going to figure out why you do that.” It obviously wasn’t a priority right that second with the actual bank robbery going on, but seriously. I had no idea how she pulled out those rhymes so easily and quickly. Or why she did so in the first place. She stuck to it very firmly. I didn’t recall ever hearing the girl talk without rhyming. In most cases, I’d say that would be a detriment for team communication, but it didn’t seem to slow her down at all. 

Carousel, in turn, simply stared at me with that broadly smiling jester’s mask. I had no idea if the girl behind it was actually smiling or not, but I had the feeling she was. 

“A mystery to be pondered another time, I fear,” Lucent reminded us. “Be swift in your preparations, I shall endeavor to drive the foes your way once you raise the sign.” With that, he took off, flying around to the front of the building. 

Okay, yeah, time to focus. We needed to get down there and set things up before those guys came out on their own. Trying to play catch-up with them already outside would be a huge pain.

Looking over to the Minority girl, I offered, “Want a lift? It’ll probably be a bit quicker and more subtle. Not that your way isn’t super cool, believe me.” She had been making the bench and other things revolve around her in miniature form (they were about the size of matchbooks) the whole time we were standing there. Which I supposed meant she didn’t have to focus on them at all once they were in place. Again, pretty cool. But I had a feeling the guys waiting in the car below might notice her unique way of getting across the gap to the other building. This whole plan of ours wouldn’t work nearly as well if they had advance warning. It could devolve into a real clusterfuck pretty quick if we weren’t careful. The best advantage we had here (well, besides our powers) was the element of surprise. It’d be pretty dumb to throw that away before the fight even started. 

She agreed, so I painted my arm purple and put it around her. She held onto me a bit awkwardly given our height discrepancy, and I silently hoped she didn’t notice anything she shouldn’t. Not that I had much for her to notice, but still. After checking to see what her orbiting items did (they expanded their revolution to encircle both of us), I used a blue puddle to launch high into the air to get above the field of view for the guys below, then red painted us over to the other roof. On the way down, I shot a black owl symbol at the bricks and tiles just before we landed there, our arrival completely silent. There was even a pigeon perched nearby that didn’t react to our landing. Though it did happen to turn its head a second later and launch itself into the air as soon as it saw us so close. I think we gave the poor thing a little pigeon heart attack.

From this position, on the narrow section of roof just above the door, we could see the car a bit better. Sure enough, there were two guys sitting in it. The driver had one hand on the wheel while his other was resting out the open window with a cigarette in it. The other guy was in the front passenger seat, tapping a pistol against the roof rhythmically with the music they were listening to. They both had ski masks on, but other than that they seemed pretty casual about the whole thing. Well, beyond the fact that they were looking around a lot. They just weren’t looking up. Which seemed like a pretty big oversight in a city like this. Or really any city, these days. Not that I was going to complain about their mistake.  

Either way, the point was, they weren’t paying enough attention to notice our arrival. Carousel and I took a moment to make sure of that, peeking over the edge and watching them carefully until it was clear they had no clue we were there. Then the two of us exchanged nods before I got to work. With Carousel watching my back, I leaned out and pointed, sending a shot of paint toward the car. But it wasn’t yellow. Not that first shot. Instead, I hit the car with a bit of black. I figured it would be better to make only one audible shot, activate the silencing effect, and then hit the car with as many spots of yellow as I could. Not that my paint was exactly loud to begin with, especially considering the music they were listening to. But still, better safe than sorry. 

I lined the roof of the car with yellow circles and triangles, as well as a bit on the tires. Then I rethought things a little and put some red on the tires as well, before adding a couple matching spots against the wall nearby. Finally, I put down the blue bit on the sidewalk right below the exit door, painting that whole square. It was a toss-up whether they’d even notice in what would probably be a rush to get out, but at that point it wouldn’t really matter. 

“If you had to,” I whispered, “could you pick up that car?” 

“Not with it occupied,” she whispered right back. “It’s something I’ve tried. But when it comes to something alive, my gift just does not thrive.” 

“Right, can’t use your power on the car when they’re inside it, but if they get out, you could take it away from them.” Keeping that in mind, I gave the area one more quick once-over before looking to her. “I think we’re ready.” When she gave me a thumbs up, I focused on the bird statue I could see staring down at us, raising both arms in the touch-down sign. After a moment of that, the bird turned its head to focus on the car. Which I supposed meant he’d seen me. 

Sure enough, within a few seconds, we started hearing sounds from within the bank. It started with a surprised shouted curse, then a single gunshot. As soon as I heard it, my heart jumped into my throat. But I trusted Lucent to know what he was doing, particularly in a situation like this. After all, he’d been doing the whole Star-Touched thing a lot longer than me. And longer than Carousel, come to think of it. Still, the two of us exchanged glances, and while I couldn’t see the other girl’s face through that jaunty, garishly painted jester’s mask, I had the feeling that she was worried too. But we stayed put, just as planned. 

Meanwhile, the guys in the car were cursing as well. I heard one of them ask what ‘those dumbasses’ were doing, and that they weren’t supposed to use the guns. That prompted a brief argument about whether one of them should go inside to check, but neither wanted to be the one to get out of the car, just in case the other took off without them. From that brief exchange, I had the feeling these guys neither knew nor trusted each other very much. Which begged the question of why they were robbing a bank together, unless they were hired by a third party?  There wasn’t time to think much about that. Nor was there time for the guys in the car to stop arguing, before the door directly below Carousel and me burst open, and three guys came running out. The one in the lead was shouting something about ‘that fucking bird’ in between screaming for the driver to get them out of there. Meanwhile, the two behind were pivoting to shoot back into the bank with their own guns. All three carried large black garbage sacks that had been stuffed full with what seemed to be cash. 

Immediately, Carousel and I went to work. I activated the blue paint, launching the three men into the air with a collection of screams. On their way up, the girl beside me used her own power, yanking the bags of money and guns out of their hands before bringing them, miniaturized, into her orbit alongside the bench, chair, and trash can. The air around her was getting a bit crowded. 

Just as I had that thought, it became slightly less crowded as she sent the trash can flying into one of the men in midair, nailing him while he was falling. He landed on the ground with a groan, lying under the can before shoving it off. 

Meanwhile, the other two had sprawled out on the ground. Both scrambled up to run for the car, but it was already starting to take off. With a squeal of tires, the driver started to peel out. Which, of course, was when I activated several spots of the yellow paint, slowing the thing down. The timing worked out just right so that the guys outside, scrambling in a rush to jump at the car, ended up bouncing right off it as its speed abruptly and unexpectedly halved. They both collided with the trunk and rolled off it to either side with a pair of curse-yelps. 

Taking a quick step forward, I launched myself with a bit of blue on my shoes. Flipping over in the air, I landed in front of the car and waved before scolding, “Now did you walk out of there without even listening to the spiel about special interest rates for one of their credit cards? You know how hard they work on those things.” 

The driver and his companion looked at each other, then floored the gas once more. Which might’ve been bad, considering even slowed by half, being hit by a car would’ve hurt. But at that exact same instant, I activated the red paint I’d put on the front left and rear left wheels, sending the whole vehicle sliding sideways to slam against the wall of the bank. 

By that point, the three guys on the ground had picked themselves up. But one of them immediately went down again as a concussive energy blast from one of the bird statue’s eyes slammed into him from way up on the other roof. The other two whirled toward me while yanking what looked like knives (really?) from their belts, only to be hit from the side by a full-sized park bench shot at them by Carousel. They all went down hard, groaning in pain as the bench tumbled away to land on its side. At the same time, the knives they had pulled were yanked away, shrinking to join the spinning objects surrounding the girl as she advanced toward them. 

Meanwhile, I caught a glimpse of the guy in the passenger side of the wrecked car shoving his way out with his own gun raised. Instantly, I activated blue paint I had reapplied to my shoes and sent myself up and backwards, flipping over in the air before landing on the roof of the vehicle. “Hey!” I blurted, falling onto my side and lashing out with one foot while activating an intricately detailed purple fist across my left shoulder. “This is a no-items brawl!” The kick collided with the gun, knocking it out of the man’s hand and sending it flying away. “Tournament rules! Three stock, no items, stage hazards and smash meter off!” 

The man shouted an emphatic curse that also included the words ‘shoot him’, so I flipped up and over once more, landing in front of him in time to see the other guy (in the driver’s seat) pointing his gun upward where I had just been. “Okay,” I acquiesced, “maybe one Smash.” With that, still empowered by the purple paint for another second or two, I slammed both palms into the passenger’s chest to knock him back into the car and against the other guy. As he rocked forward once more, I reared back and kicked the door to slam it shut on him. “Or two!” 

Then I dropped and rolled under the car, as both men bellowed in rage before shoving the door open once more and throwing themselves out after me, very intent on making me pay. They turned and looked down to see my head sticking out from under the car, staring up at them. I painted a broad smiling face on my helmet. “That thing I said about no stage hazards? I might’ve lied about that too.” The smiley face turned into a red arrow, pointing behind them. They reflexively turned their heads to look, just before Carousel’s trash can slammed into them, knocking both men forward against the car with a pair of screamed curses. Potty mouths, honestly.  

By then, I had pushed myself out from under the car, pivoting on one foot to shoot a bit of pink paint against the side of the vehicle from either hand before the two men could push themselves away from it. Then I reached out, shoved both hands into the pink paint, and used that to tear the metal outward, bending it over from both sides to wrap around the men. By the time they started to push away from the car, the men were thoroughly trapped, with half the passenger side of the car wrapped around them. 

With that done, I spun back toward the rest of the scene. But it was already over. Carousel had finished up with cuffing the last of those guys, with a little help from the Lucent statue to keep them from fighting back too much. She straightened up from them and brushed her glove hands off before looking toward me. “The foes are detained, their bounty regained.” As she said that last part, the girl indicated the trash bags sitting nearby, full of cash. “But where is our mentor? Still through that door.” Her gaze was clearly on the rear entrance of the bank. 

“Hey, that’s right, he never came out.” Frowning, I looked briefly toward the bird statue in the distance. I really had my doubts that he would have simply left us to wrap things up here with only a little help from that thing if he’d had any choice. And the fact that he had only meant one thing. 

“There’s something going on inside,” I blurted, before abruptly rushing that way. The guys out here could wait. The two at the car were securely trapped against it by the metal of the vehicle itself, and the rest of them were held by those stay-down cuffs. They weren’t going anywhere. 

Carousel was right behind me after giving her own brief look around, as though to assure herself the bad guys were contained. The two of us paused right at the open exit door rather than barging straight in. I was really tempted to keep rushing through, but that would have been stupid. Worried as I was about Lucent at that moment, getting ourselves in trouble by bursting into a potentially bad situation wasn’t going to help anything. 

So, we stopped on either side of the doorway, peering in. There was a short, very utilitarian-looking hallway beyond. This obviously wasn’t in the customer area of the bank. The floor was simple linoleum that had been very thoroughly scrubbed with lemon-scented cleaner, with wooden doors along the right side of the corridor with names and positions stenciled onto black bars across the middle, interrupted by two doors labeled for male and female restrooms. Straight ahead at the end of the hall was another door that had ‘Customer Zone – Remember Our P’s And Q’s – Polite, Personable, Quiet, Qourteous’ written on a sign. Which was–wow. 

Shaking off my reaction to that, I gave the other girl a thumbs up before heading in. The two of us moved quickly, but quietly.  Whatever had stopped Lucent from joining us, we didn’t want it to know we were coming. 

In the end, however, all our precautions turned out to be pointless. We peeked through with the door there to find Lucent simply perched on top of a desk in the middle of the main lobby, staring at something. His head turned as we stepped in, and he called out, “Ah, there you are. Apologies, there were a few more in the lobby here that had to be dealt with, and by then you were finished with those who fled. My kingdom for duplicates that could actually move closer to you. Alas, tis not to be.” He heaved a sigh before turning back to stare at something behind the desk. “Come, look here.” 

Carousel and I exchanged brief, silent looks before heading that way. We walked around the big desk to see what he was looking at. On the way, I noticed a couple more unconscious figures with the same ski masks, still lying where Lucent had obviously hit them. 

“It’s a hole,” Carousel announced once we saw what was behind the desk, “but the men took a stroll.”  

Sure enough, there was a wide hole right there in the middle of the tile floor. It cut straight down into what turned out to be a vault room in the basement (including going through the thick walls surrounding that), then even further through the floor in that

“Indeed,” Lucent confirmed. “Though what the men you captured took seems to be a paltry sum compared to what was contained within that vault. I believe what we are witnessing is two robberies in one. The first, those men, were a distraction, allowing our tunnelers time to bore straight through, take what they wanted and escape.” 

“Do you think they’ve already gotten away?” I asked. 

“Only one way to find out,” he informed me, head cocking to the side briefly before turning back to focus on the hole. “Their hostages are in the conference room down that hall. With the authorities on their way, they should be safe. 

“Which leaves us to pursue our quarry,” Carousel noted, “and discover the truth of this story.”   

“Well what are we waiting for?” I quickly put in. 

“Last one in the hole’s a rotten egg.” 

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Winging It 19-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Apologies for the mix-up and technically doubling up on chapters here. I did post a commissioned interlude over the weekend for Heretical Edge (which can be found right here), and in doing so managed to confuse myself about which story needed the regular update, so this chapter was sent to early patrons yesterday. To make up for that and ensure everything stays fair and even, this chapter will be out today, and then there will be a Heretical Edge chapter on Wednesday and Friday. I do hope you all enjoy this regardless.

So, I left Lion with Wren and the others so the Tech-Touched could compare notes, or whatever they were going to do. Part of me wished that I could stay there and hear all the things they were going to talk about, but I was sure most of it, if not all, would fly right over my head. Touched-Tech was fun, but man was it complicated. I had no idea how Wren kept herself focused long enough to do that stuff. Better if I sated my curiosity by asking for a summary later.

Besides, it wasn’t as though I was going to be bored. I had my own incredibly cool thing to do today. Namely, spend more time with Lucent. Which, jokes about my parentage aside, I really did think he was awesome. Seriously, the guy was a talking raven superhero. Silversmith might’ve been my favorite Star-Touched before I knew the truth about my dad, but Lucent had always been pretty high up on the list as well. He was just really cool, and offering to give me pointers and just generally being willing to spend time with me was… yeah, it meant a lot. Enough that I kept ignoring the repeated insistent whispering warnings in the back of my head about how wary I should be and that I should stay away from people like that. Yes, it was very unlikely that he was secretly linked to my parents, but still. It wasn’t impossible, and they could be using him to poke at ‘Paintball’ and get information. I had to be very careful about all this. 

All of that was fresh in my mind, having a duel with the part of me that just thought this whole thing was awesome, as I landed lightly on the roof of the grocery store where we had arranged to meet. Looking around, I didn’t see him, but figured he would be around shortly since I had already sent a text message that I was on my way. Being a bird, of course, he couldn’t carry a phone around with him. But I had been assured that any messages sent to that number would be relayed to him, and messages sent back were at the very least dictated by him. 

Sitting with my back to the nearby air conditioning unit, I took out my phone to see a few messages. The first was from Lucent himself, letting me know that he would be there soon. Meanwhile, the other two were from Peyton and Amber. First, my new partner said she had to help her mother with some stuff at the store and other errands before heading over to Wren’s. And also that if I let Lion leave before she could meet her, she would punch me very hard. 

The message from Amber (well technically from That-A-Way since she sent it from her Touched phone to mine), on the other hand, was all about how she had something she wanted to talk to me about. Apparently that wasn’t an emergency or anything, but she thought it was important to share whenever I had a chance. With an added bit about how she was supposed to go on patrol with Syndicate this evening, and she’d let me know how that went. I had the sneakiest suspicion that it was really hard for her to hold in talking about all the stuff that had been dumped on her. She needed someone to talk to about it, someone to unload on. 

“Jae! Jae, come on!”  

Speaking of people that Amber should have been able to talk to, the voice calling from below snapped me out of my drifting thoughts by calling that name. Carefully, I slid over and peeked down below. A woman was standing in front of the store entrance, looking back impatiently into the shop. “We don’t have all day for this, not if we want to welcome your father back properly.” 

It had to be a different Jae, right? That wasn’t–but no, even as I had that thought, the girl in question emerged into view. It was her. She was wearing a light raincoat with the hood up, and what I was pretty sure were sunglasses from the very slight bit I managed to see. All to protect herself from the bright, glaring rays of the warm sun. Oh, and she was carrying several heavy grocery bags full of what sort of looked like party supplies and treats. 

It was hard to hear her response from here, given how quietly the other girl spoke. But it must have been an apology, because the woman beside her (a very artificially bleached-blonde woman with what seemed like more plastic surgeries than sense) smiled and squeezed her shoulder (her own arms, I noticed, were almost empty aside from a couple bags in her other hand). “I know, I know, I’m sorry. I’m just overly-excited about your father coming home. We have to make it special for him, you know? He goes to so many exotic places, we have to make him enjoy being home too. You don’t want him to find more excuses to stay away, do you?”

I had always known that Jae was adopted. Her and all her siblings had been taken in from different families and situations, by a semi-famous television actress and a successful director-producer. But eventually, the woman who had actually taken Jae and the others in had passed away, and their father had remarried. To this lady, apparently. Plus, I was pretty sure her adopted siblings had all moved out by now. Did that mean that Jae spent most of her time living alone in that house with only this woman? Eesh, no wonder she spent time with Amber. 

Speaking of which, too bad the person Amber talked to about all her feelings couldn’t be Jae. They seemed like pretty good friends when we were at school. Then again, I knew a fair bit about having school friends without letting them actually get close to me. Hell, I wasn’t even sure the other girl actually knew about Amber being Touched in the first place, let alone all this extra stuff. That was one of those personal questions I didn’t feel comfortable asking about. No matter how curious I was, it just wasn’t fair to put Amber in that position.

In any case, Jae’s stepmother (adopted stepmother?) didn’t seem like the best person to spend time with. Especially considering she seemed to be treating the girl more like a pack mule than a daughter. She was barely carrying any bags, while Jae was loaded down with them. And she wondered why the other girl was moving slower. It wasn’t actually wicked stepmother vibes, but more like… thoughtless. That was the impression I got while watching the two interact below me. She wasn’t actively, intentionally bad. She was just… she wasn’t a mother, that was for sure. As I watched the two head out toward a car, it felt more like the woman saw Jae and herself as peers, as if they were both students and she was the rich, popular girl who could get the unpopular, smart girl Jae to do her work for her by being ‘nice.’ I wasn’t sure why that was the analogy that jumped into my head, but once I had the thought, it solidified pretty quickly. 

I was about to turn back to watch for Lucent, when something at the corner of my eye caught my attention. A car was coming around the corner of the parking lot aisle close to where Jae and her stepmother were walking, turning in their direction. The driver and passenger were turned around in their seats, focusing on something in the back of the car while coming smoothly around the corner without even looking. The car wasn’t exactly speeding, but it was still going too fast for the two down there to get out of the way in time. In a second, they would both be hit by it. Unless…

Activating two purple stars that I had already put on my ankles, I launched myself outward, twisting in the air while pointing down to shoot yellow paint at the car from one hand and red paint at Jae and her stepmother with the other. The yellow paint I activated immediately, slowing it down. The two women were just reacting to being hit by the red paint, as I twisted slightly more in mid-leap, sending another shot of red to hit a parked car nearby. Instantly, I activated both red bits, yanking the two of them off their feet and sending them flying over several yards before they hit the parked car, stumbling against it just as the yellow-slowed vehicle went through the spot where they had just been walking. The car slowed (this time naturally rather than from paint), the driver seeming to realize belatedly what had almost happened, then suddenly accelerated as he panicked and took off. 

Landing on the top of a nearby light pole by that point, I stared after the car briefly before focusing on the people below me as I called down, “Boy, Sunday drivers, huh? You guys okay?” 

“Oh my God, oh my God.” The woman was patting herself down, looking at Jae. “Are you okay? Did it hit you, are you–” She was still checking herself over with one hand while reaching out to pat the other girl down as well. Which, for all I could say about her not treating Jae like a daughter, at least she expressed concern for her after something like that.

Jae had been staring at me, but shook it off and quietly informed the woman that she was fine. Then she turned to look at the pavement behind them, where their bags of groceries had been dropped, scattered, and run over. 

Seeing that, I grimaced and hopped down, landing smoothly nearby. “Sorry about that, I couldn’t really figure out how to get you and the bags out of the way easily.” 

“Sorry?” the woman shook her head. “Don’t you apologize young man. You saved our lives!” Her voice squeaked a bit, the shock still clearly high in her system. “That–that–if you hadn’t–thank you. We can buy more stuff, we can buy more of it. But you–if you weren’t here… may I hug you?” She was trembling a little. 

“Uhh…” That was as much as I managed to get out before she did just that, embracing me tightly while repeatedly stammering her gratitude. Behind her, Jae stood awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot while giving me a hesitant nod. 

“Oh! Oh, how stupid of me.” Quickly releasing me from the embrace, the woman stepped back. “Ahem, I’m Kella Song. Yes, that Kella Song, from Seven’s Company. I can sign anything you like. And this is Jae Baek, my ahhh… stepdaughter.” Clearly, the word daughter had stuck in her throat. She could barely get it out, sounding like she was saying a dirty word. Not because she had anything against the girl herself, I realized. But because she was still clinging to the one bit of success she’d had in her career while acting. Yeah, I remembered Seven’s Company. Not that I’d seen more than a couple episodes, but I did know enough to realize the woman in front of me had been in her mid-teens at the time, and had barely been out of high school when it went off the air. That was her big claim to success, a show that had been done with for what had to be fifteen or sixteen years by now. She desperately wanted to hold on to what she had been back then, and acknowledging the fact that she was taking care of a daughter, even a stepdaughter, who was the same age she had been back when her career had seemed ready to skyrocket… yeah, that had to be hard, especially for someone like her.  

All those realizations had flashed through my mind while Jae awkwardly thanked me for being there. My mouth opened to tell both of them that it was no big deal, when we were interrupted by the sound of a voice calling out from the doorway. “My God, are you alright?!”

It was the manager of the store. He came rushing out, apologizing repeatedly for what had happened in his parking lot despite the fact that it definitely wasn’t his fault. The man was tall and stocky, with salt and pepper hair and a ruddy complexion. He introduced himself as Carl, thanking me over and over for being there, and offering to call the cops for Jae and Kella. 

Maybe it was bad, but I sort of expected Jae’s stepmother to lambaste the man or try to take advantage of the situation in some way. Instead, she told him they were fine and that he shouldn’t worry about it. Still, the man insisted on replacing the groceries that had been broken and scattered when the bags fell everywhere. He and Kella started inside to deal with that, apparently having forgotten that Jae was still standing there amidst the mess. 

“Uh, here, I’ll help you pick those up,” I announced, starting to collect the stuff out of the street. A few of the things had already been completely smashed from cars pulling through, though most of the vehicles pulled around. 

“Oh, you… don’t have to…” Trailing off, Jae hesitated before stooping to pick the stuff up too. One of the cart collector employees jogged over, and soon we’d picked up everything that had fallen. Most of it went in a nearby trash can, while a few things were able to be taken back inside. As the guy thanked us for the help and headed in with that, I looked to the girl beside me. Belatedly, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t supposed to know her, and cleared my throat. “Ahh, you okay then… Miss?” 

Her head bobbed quickly, voice soft. “Thank you.” Visibly hesitating, she finally added, even more quietly, “What were you doing here? Is… there a bad guy around?”

“Huh? Oh, no.” I shook my head while wondering yet again how much she knew about Amber. If she knew that her friend was That-A-Way, did she think that the other girl might be around here somewhere? “I was just, uh, you know, hanging out. You uhh…” I hesitated, stuck on thinking about what she might know already. 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted my musing to gently inform me, “you can ask.” 

Wait, what? Did she know what I was thinking somehow? Could she–how did… “Ask?” I blankly echoed, just to have actually said something while she was staring at me. 

“I’m albino,” came the response as she gestured to her own pale complexion and very light hair. “Albino Asian. I know it’s weird.” Her voice was a flat mutter, making it clear that she was just repeating what she heard all the time. I knew she heard it all the time, because I had been there many of those times. 

Oh. Oh crap, while I was trying to decide if she knew about Amber, she thought I was staring at her because of the–oh. Damn it. Quickly, I shook my head. “No, no, I mean, that’s not what I was–I mean I wasn’t–that’s not–it’s not weird. It’s different. It’s not–it’s no big deal.” Great, Cassidy, fantastic. Totally and completely smooth. You’re not biffing this interaction at all. 

The other girl raised an eyebrow, her dubious expression clear, though she seemed grateful that I wasn’t being completely hostile. Probably just figured I was more accidentally rude rather than outright antagonistic. 

Before either of us could say anything else, however, a crowd of people started to approach. They had been gradually gathering by the doors of the store, apparently trying to figure out if I was the real thing or just some normal person cosplaying. Which, for the record, was an option that still blew my mind. There were much better people than me to dress up as. 

Either way, they approached and started to ask for autographs, when a dark shadow flew down out of the sky and landed on the nearby metal bar along the side of the shopping cart corral. It was Lucent, and his presence only made people gather around us faster. They might have thought I was cool, but he was on a completely different level. Which was fair, considering he was a talking raven with superpowers. I couldn’t really compete with that. 

Unfortunately, he wasn’t there for a social call. Or even just to see what I was doing rather than waiting for him on the roof. Instead, the bird looked straight to me. “Pardon the interruption, fine people! Paintball, might I request your assistance? The car that narrowly avoided such a terrible calamity moments ago appears to be part of a… situation down the street.” 

“A situ–yeah. Sorry, guys, we’ll see you another time!” Waving to the crowd before looking at Jae, I added, “I’m glad you’re okay. And hey, good luck at your dad’s welcome home party.” With that, I used blue paint to launch myself upward, Lucent flying after me. The crowd called out an assortment of things, holding up their phones to take pictures and video. But I was mostly focused on my new companion. “What’s going on?” I managed while landing on the roof of the store with my wheels out to glide along it, not wanting to give up any momentum. 

“There is a bank at the end of the street,” Lucent informed me while gliding just overhead. “I had intended to give the driver of that vehicle a good scolding. But it appears they are waiting in the back for companions within who are engaged in, shall we say, an illicit withdrawal. Others have been alerted, yet are too far away or occupied with other situations. Tis not exactly the training I had intended for today, yet if you are amenable to a… I believe the correct term is ‘team-up?’” 

Well, that was a surprise. The car that had almost run over Jae and Kella was involved in a bank robbery? No wonder the driver was distracted and didn’t bother to stop. Though actually, come to think of it, shouldn’t that make them drive a lot more carefully so they wouldn’t attract attention? Maybe this was a bad getaway driver. 

Either way, we reached the end of the building and I used red paint on the one next door to yank myself that way. I could see the bank in question on the corner while flying through the air. There didn’t seem to be anything hinky going on from the outside. Not yet, anyway. But I trusted Lucent to know what he was talking about. He could probably see through the windows better than I could. The building itself was a three-story red brick thing, with a narrow one lane drive-through connected to the alley, and a small parking lot that wrapped around the opposite side and into the back. And sure enough, as I launched myself through the air to land on the roof of the building directly next to the bank, I could see the car from before idling right by the marked employee exit, pointed toward the next street over. They were clearly ready to bolt out of there. 

Crouching down on the edge of the roof and peering that way, I hesitated before asking, “Okay, so how do you want to play this?” Lucent had a lot more experience and seniority in the whole Star-Touched situation. I was going to follow his lead. Especially when it came to something like an actual ongoing bank robbery. 

He, in turn, landed next to me and cocked his head a bit, looking between the car and the bank. “‘Twould be best to have some measure of what is happening inside before leaping to actions that may endanger civilians. Perhaps–ah, assistance.” 

He was looking back the way we had come, and I turned to see a familiar figure. Carousel, from the Minority. She wore the same full gold, silver, and purple robe and hood, with a matching jester’s mask. Oh, and she was crossing the street in the air from the other roof, like I had. But rather than having paint pull her, she was using her own power. In this case, she had what appeared to be a park bench, a chair, and a garbage can. They were pulled in by her power, miniaturized to spin around her in orbit. She would jump, make one of the objects resume its normal size just long enough to land on it, jump off it while shrinking it back down and making the thing spin around her again, return the next object to its normal size, land on that before jumping off it, and repeat. She did that all the way through the air from the other roof to this one, crossing high above the street before landing smoothly. 

“Dude,” I managed, “you would be amazing at playing the floor is lava.” 

“I heard you were stopping a robbery,” she replied, “Not one to engage in snobbery, I thought an alliance was due. To turn a pair into few.” 

“Excellent,” Lucent agreed. “I had thought it would be only the two of us. Yes, we would quite welcome your assistance, Carousel. Your aid is as welcome as your delightful balladry. Now come…

“Let us discuss how to safely detain these scoundrels.” 

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Winging It 19-02 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cuz we’re about to have some fun.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winging It 19-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Do you think Peyton’s okay?” Izzy asked the next morning while the two of us were sitting up on the roof overlooking the grounds. We both had our knees drawn to our chests while we ate a couple bowls of cereal and enjoyed the fact that we weren’t in immediate life-threatening danger. And, even though it had been most of a day since all that happened, I enjoyed the whole actually being able to move thing. Yeah, being paralyzed really wasn’t fun. 

After letting Flea know about everything yesterday (or at least as much as we could say), we had contacted Caishen too so she knew what was going on and what we had found out. Then the rest of us simply let the adult teams do their thing. We’d done quite enough by that point. And quite frankly, we all needed a break. That-A-Way and Raindrop had to go back to the Minority base to give a full, official report. And Peyton had definitely wanted to go home, shower, and recover from all that. I took a run with her across the city first, both of us stretching our legs and just making sure we could move properly, before I let her head home. Then I did the same thing, which had led to like an hour-long hot bath that I had fallen asleep in, followed by an actual nap in my bed. Then dinner, a rush of getting weekend homework done, some goofing off with Izzy once she showed up, and more sleeping. Yeah, I was exhausted, right down to my bones. 

Now I’d slept enough. God, I’d needed that though. More than I’d even known. 

It was Sunday, so most of the first staff had the day off. There were still a few weekend workers around, including one of Claudio’s peers, since he and his two assistants (Ethan and Christiana) would be gone all day. And honestly, it had practically been a fight between my parents and Claudio to get the chef to let someone else work the kitchen so he could have the day off. He had a thing against people, as he put it, bumbling around his space, fondling his instruments (that’s what he called it), and making a mess. If he’d had his way, he would’ve worked every single day. But Mom and Dad insisted he have a day off. Granted, that day off changed frequently, but he was keeping to the letter of the rule if he took one day off per week.  

In the end, he’d only even agreed to that much when they allowed him to choose his substitute. Which had amounted to going around every five-star restaurant within the entire state and making them audition for him until he found someone he was satisfied could handle coming in one day per week to work the kitchen without totally destroying it. And yes, he still wasn’t all that happy about the idea. He cursed and made threats every time someone brought up the idea of his taking two days off. Cooking was Claudio’s life. It was what made him happy. For him, it wasn’t a job, it was what he loved. 

Chewing and swallowing the cereal in my mouth, I offered a shrug. “Peyton? Yeah, I think she’s okay. I hope so. I just… I wish we could have eased her into things a little better instead of making her deal with… all that.” A grimace found its way to my face. Yeah, that definitely hadn’t been easy. But we got out of it. “We would’ve been in a lot more trouble without her.” 

“She knows that, right?” Izzy shifted a bit to look at me. “I mean, she should already, but you told her how helpful she was? You know, so she doesn’t umm, start thinking she didn’t help.” 

My head nodded vigorously. “Oh, believe me, I spent like the entire run across the city after we left you guys making sure she knew just how grateful I was that she came with us. Seriously. I think I embarrassed her a little bit.” A snort of amusement escaped me at the memory of Peyton stammering that it was no big deal, before it turned into a lump in my throat. “Still, I wish she didn’t have to be involved in all that. She’s been doing this like, what, a week and she’s already been involved with going into Paige’s brain to deal with that, plus now she’s made personal enemies out of Cup and Pencil? She’s not even getting the chance to build up at all. We just sort of picked her up and threw her in the deep end.” 

Izzy shook her head, taking another bite of cereal and swallowing before she spoke. “You didn’t throw her into anything. You didn’t throw me into anything either. Or Way, or… or Pack. We make our own decisions, and we decided to help. It’s not your responsibility to keep everyone out of danger, Cassie.” After a brief moment, she added, “Besides, it’s not like you had the chance to wade around the shallow end for a long time either. Like, your very first thing with any of this was finding out… you know.” She gestured around us. “Where all this comes from.” 

The reminder made me blanch, swallowing hard before giving a very short nod. “Right, well I don’t have to like it happening to other people too. But yeah, I umm, I think she’ll be okay. I told her to take a couple days off and recover before we do anything else stressful.” 

“You think she will?” Izzy asked, sounding curious as she tapped her spoon thoughtfully against the side of her bowl before taking another bite.   

I shrugged. “I mean, she said something about going to Wren’s to help Murphy and Roald clean up. It’s not a total ‘day off’, but at least it’s not something horribly dangerous. I guess maybe I’ll go over there a bit later too, just to check on Paige and all that. Heh, maybe she’d like to hear about what sort of things I can get up to while she’s not around.” 

“You just want to tell her what you did while she’s still paralyzed and can’t choke you,” Izzy retorted while giving me a pointed look.

Flushing a little, I admitted, “That might be part of it.” A frown found its way to my face then. “God, it’s weird to talk about Paige at all without like… thinking about needing holy water and maybe a priest to make her stay away from me.” It really did do weird things to my stomach. There was so much history there between us. Hell, no wonder her being so… so awful to me for so long had actually affected me as much as it had. If I subconsciously somehow still remembered the fact that we were supposed to be friends, it would have hurt so much more than coming from a stranger. 

Seeming to know exactly where my mind had gone, Izzy reached out to squeeze my arm. “She couldn’t control it,” the girl reminded me. “She didn’t have a choice about any of it.”  

With a sigh, I started to say that I knew she was right, but my Touched-stuff phone buzzed first. Holding the bowl in one hand, I tugged out the phone to look at it. It was not, as I had immediately feared, a message about something terrible happening. Instead, the message was a news alert about Cup and Pencil. I had set this phone to monitor that sort of thing instead of my normal one, just to keep everything in my life as separate as possible. And just in case, I really didn’t want to explain to my parents why I’d set up a news alert for Scion-related stuff. Not that I really expected them to look, nor was it really impossible for me to explain wanting to know what those psychopaths were up to after the whole attack at the hotel and hospital. But still, just… best to keep all that separate so my parents had absolutely no reason to look at me at all. 

“What is it?” Izzy asked, shifting around a bit to be closer. “Is something wrong? Did–” 

“It’s a story about Cup and Pencil,” I replied, turning the phone a bit so she could see the headline while summarizing for her. “They did it. The authorities, I mean. They put out the whole story about who they are. Their real names, their pictures, their backstory and how they faked that whole thing with their murdered parents and the ‘original Pencil.’ All of it. It’s all here. Everything we told the adults. They really put all of it out there.” 

“Oh wow.” Izzy rocked backward a bit, swallowing. “I mean, I know we expected them to, but… but still.” She hesitated before looking at me seriously. “Those guys are gonna be so pissed off.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “They sure are. But at least now they can’t operate as easily as they did before, you know? They’ll have eyes on them everywhere they go under their normal faces. They can’t… can’t… wait…” I had scrolled down by that point, my thumb moving along the screen to find the image of Pencil and Cup’s real faces. Someone had put up an image of the two of them at a school function. I knew Amanda, of course. But this was my first time seeing Nick himself. 

Except it wasn’t my first time seeing him. 

“Cass?” Izzy stared at me, clearly seeing the look on my face. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” 

With a shaking finger, I pointed at the image on the screen. “I know him. I’ve seen him. I mean obviously I know Pencil. But him. He was… he was…” A shudder ran through me. “Back when I was looking for the vials for Ashton, I umm… I went out one night and saw the umm… the aftermath of one of the Scions’ sick little games at this gas station. A bunch of people died in there, thanks to… thanks to Pencil. I was standing there, and this guy came up in a jogging suit and demanded to know why no one ever stopped Pencil. He was… he was angry because we weren’t doing enough to save people.” 

Izzy’s gaze moved from my own eyes down to the image on the screen, then back again. “Him? It… it was him?” 

My head gave a quick, jerky nod. “Definitely. It was him. He was fucking with us. He was right there, demanding to know why no one ever caught Pencil, and it was him the whole time. It was him and–and we didn’t even–I didn’t even.” My eyes squeezed shut as I resisted the urge to hurl the phone as far away as I could. He had been right there talking to me. How did I just let him walk away after all that? How could I completely fail to see anything wrong with him? He walked right up to me, right up and just started talking. Was I stupid and clueless? I should have noticed that something was wrong. I should have paid more attention to him. There had to have been some sort of giveaway. If I’d just looked at him straight on, thought more about it, done–

“Cassie,” Izzy quietly insisted while setting her bowl down so she could lean over and put her arms around me. “It’s not your fault. Nobody recognized him. How could you? People don’t recognize you in your costume and all that either. That’s like… the point of a costume, you know? It’s the whole point of wearing a disguise. You had no reason to suspect that guy. Come on, you can’t blame yourself for that too.” 

“I know,” I admitted, still shuddering. “But I just–if I had–if we had. I can’t…” Exhaling long and low, I nodded. “I get it. Believe me. I just–he was right there. He was talking to me. It makes my skin crawl.” Belatedly, I added, “My dad was right there too, as Silversmith, I mean. He was there and talked to him too.” How was he feeling right now? Did he even remember that guy showing up and talking to us, or had it just faded into the background for him? How much did he even care about that? 

Okay, that really wasn’t fair. I knew he hated the Scions, especially after what they did at the hospital. Pencil and his gang weren’t under any sort of Ministry control, so he and Mom obviously wanted them taken out as much as anyone else did. I just couldn’t help those instinctive feelings. 

“If he knew, he would have stopped the guy too.” Izzy’s voice was firm. “Your dad might be… umm, not good. But he would have stopped that.” 

With a sigh, I nodded. “You’re right. I know. I know you’re right. Dad’s a lot of things, but he’s not… he’s not like that. They have rules and stuff, we already know that much. I just…” Taking in a long, deep breath before slowly letting it out, I murmured, “I really hope someone stops them now. I don’t care who it is, which side of the law they’re on. I don’t care about any of that as long as they stop those psychopaths.” 

The other girl nodded firmly, and the two of us sat in silence for a few seconds. Then, clearly distracting me from obsessing over that, Izzy asked, “You’ve got that other thing today too, right? Before you can help at Wren’s place.” 

The reminder made me smile just a bit despite myself. “Right, yeah. The other thing. 

“I get to go hang out with Bird-Dad.” 

*******

After leaving the house and making damn sure I was nowhere near it, I made the call to the Seraph’s headquarters and had them transfer me to Lucent so we could set up the exact time to meet. Apparently he wasn’t too busy, because he said he could meet within the hour, and asked if I was still okay with him bringing his friend. I said that was fine (I was curious about who this ‘friend’ of his was and why he thought we should meet), and arranged to be at the front gates as soon as possible.  

Heading over there, I kept my eyes open just in case. I wasn’t really expecting a huge problem, considering how many people had their eyes open for Pencil and Cup. They were probably pretty busy dealing with the fallout from that, but better safe than sorry. We were going to have to be careful, because as soon as those fucks decided to turn from survival and escape to revenge, all of us were going to be right at the top of their list. Which was just peachy. 

Eventually, I made it up there and landed in front of the gate. Matthew Orens was there, and I started to ask if he had the cover for the book, but the man interrupted. “Never mind that right now. You okay, kid? I ahhh, well, everybody heard about what happened. At least, what’s semi-public. And I’ve been around long enough to know that ain’t the whole story. You got those assholes’ real identities, and that can’t have been easy.” 

Blinking a couple times, I replied, “Uh, me being involved wasn’t in the official story.” That was intentional, we didn’t want quite that much attention. The Scions were going to be pissed off enough at us without throwing more fuel on the fire. As far as the regular media was concerned, their real identities had been discovered through the work of police and the Conservators. 

Orens gave me an easy nod. “Yeah, that’s why I said semi-official. Believe me, when you work around this many Touched, things have a way of getting around.” His voice softened a bit as he added, “But seriously, that had to be pretty rough. Glad you got out of it. Everyone okay?”  

“Yeah, we’re okay,” I confirmed, painting a smiley face on the front of my helmet. “I’m just glad they’ve got those guys on the run now. It won’t be as easy for them to walk around on the street. I mean, it won’t solve every problem. And things will probably get worse before they get better. And–damn it, this was supposed to be a positive thing. I should really stop talking.”

With a very light, almost humorless chuckle, the man assured me. “It’s definitely positive, that’s for sure. Still, you be careful out there. Not just for the Scions themselves. They’ve also got fans and wannabes. If they figure out what your involvement was, they’ll try to make a name for themselves by coming after you. You know, impress their heroes to get a spot on the team.” 

Blanching at the thought that there were people who actually wanted to impress those psychopaths, I gave a short nod. “Thanks, we’ll keep our eyes open. But hey, let’s get that book done. You said Josh’s birthday was Wednesday, right? We better finish that up.” 

He already had the pages I’d given him bound properly into a cover, and I took the time to make a cool picture on the front. Then I put a brief description on the back and added the finishing touch to the inside cover, a bit that read, ‘For Josh, from Dad, Paintball, and the rest of Avant-Guard. Happy birthday.’

Reading that bit, Orens raised an eyebrow. “Avant-Guard? You know it’s spelled–”

“Yup,” I quickly assured him. “We ahhh, we’re testing out a new name. What do you think?”

Reading it over again, the man considered. “Oh, it’s definitely unique. Shouldn’t have to worry about it being taken. You know how to sign up to register your team name and membership so the authorities know who they’re dealing with?” 

I didn’t, of course, and the man gave me the name of a website to go to that would walk me through it. Of course, it wouldn’t give any real authority or anything. Nothing more than what being accepted as a Star-Touched already gave. But it was a way of giving the authorities an easy way to check team membership and know who they were working with. 

After I thanked him, the man shook his head and smiled broadly while waving the book. “No, thank you, kid. This is perfect. It’s gonna be great, he’ll love it. And I meant what I said before. You really should look into taking some extra grammar and writing classes so you can do this sort of thing for an extra living. Pretty sure it’d give you all the free time you need so you can set your own hours. Give it a thought, you’ve got a few years.” 

As my face flushed a little bit under the helmet, I thanked him profusely and promised to check in later to see how his son ended up liking his gift. With that, I turned to the gate just in time to hear a voice pipe up from just above me. 

“Sir Orens is correct, my boy. You should be thinking of the future. One never truly understands just how fast time moves until far too much of it has already passed us by.”

Blinking up that way, I brought the big smiley face back and waved. “Hey, Papa! Fancy meeting you here.” 

Hopping down from the fence to land on top of a nearby trash can, Lucent gave me what I swore was a proud bird look. “I’ve heard all about how busy you’ve been, lad. I hope you take Sir Orens’ advice. Not merely his words about planning for the future, but about being careful as well. He is very correct. The fiends will see you and yours as fine targets now. And did I hear you and your allies have settled upon a group identity?” 

So, I told him about the whole Avant-Guard thing. He thought it was amazing, and said so. He even gave some ideas for logos and such, and we spent about five minutes or so just going back and forth on those thoughts before a voice spoke up from near the ground. “Excuse me?” 

Blinking that way, I found myself looking at a familiar, very tiny figure perched there on the ground. My eyes widened a bit and I immediately blurted, “Lion!” Yeah, it was the mouse TONI (TOuched Nonhuman Individual). Pretty hard to mistake a talking mouse in golden armor for anyone else. “Hey, how’re you doing? I didn’t know you were still in town. You–” Blinking from her over to Lucent, I managed, “This is your friend?” 

“That’s right.” Lucent flew down to land next to her. “She wanted to talk to you again. Or rather, she wanted to talk to your friend.” 

“My friend?” I echoed. 

Lion hesitantly took over. “The umm, the person who has been supplying you. We… umm… we think you have a Tech-Touched helping and ahhh, umm, if it isn’t too much of an imposition, I would like to umm… talk to… them? While you and ahh, Lucent here are busy.” 

For a second, I let the thought of that work its way through my brain. Lion and Wren having a conversation, those two collaborating and… and…

A smile found its way to my face, as I translated it into an even broader one painted across my helmet. “You know what? Yeah. 

“I think that sounds like a great idea.”  

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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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