Luciano Munoz

Kith And Kin 20-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – If you don’t read Heretical Edge and thus missed this note, the first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Damn it, why did my brother have to show up now? I already had enough to deal with. Why did it have to turn out that my family was protecting the guy who had killed Murphy’s brother? Seriously, this guy? They had to protect this guy? Fuck. Now this whole situation had suddenly become a lot more complicated. And it came just when we had the guy dead to rights. Because of course it had. We couldn’t just finish this thing just by chasing Luciano down and sending him to prison that easily. Something like this had to happen. 

That rush of annoyed and worried thoughts flooded through my head even as I pivoted that way. I saw my brother, of course. He was standing there in a pair of designer jeans, with a gleaming silver shirt, red leather jacket, and thin red leather gloves. Though I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be what the other two saw. He was almost certainly using one of those illusion devices, or whatever they were. The point was, I highly doubted he was actually standing here in the open looking just like himself. 

Murphy was already snapping her shotgun back and forth between the man who had killed her brother, and the new arrival. She was clearly right on the edge of losing it entirely. “Who the hell are you? Back off! Just get the fuck away, this doesn’t have anything to do with you.” 

With his hands raised, Simon gave a slow shake of his head. “Two things. One, I’m afraid this does concern me. See that guy there has paid an awful lot of money to make it concern me. Not saying I’m his biggest fan, but money is money, and we have a reputation to keep. And two, I really don’t like people pointing guns at me. Especially jumpy people with their finger way too close to the trigger.” 

Even as he said that, Simon made a grasping motion with his right hand. A sudden silvery glowing rope or cable (actually not too dissimilar from Silversmith’s power) extended from that leather glove, catching hold of the shotgun barrel. With a sudden yank, he tore the weapon from her hands as Murphy yelped, tossing it over to the side about twenty feet away, where it clattered to the ground.

She made a motion as though to go after it, but abruptly Simon’s other hand snapped out and a pistol suddenly appeared in it, jumping out of the sleeve of his jacket. “Uh uh,” he called out. “Just stay there. Trust me, I know why you’re so pissed, and I don’t blame you. I really don’t. He’s a piece of shit. But just stay there.” His eyes moved to me then, squinting as though trying to figure out why I had remained rooted to the ground. “If you’re planning something, kid, it’s a bad idea.” 

Planning something? No, not really. At that very moment I was still mostly reeling from having my brother this close. It cut through a lot of the confidence I’d built up over these past weeks. All I could think about at that moment was how nervous I was about keeping my identity from him. I’d managed it back when I was first starting out, of course. But I wasn’t sure how much of that was luck. And I hadn’t really stayed and talked to him. Actually standing here and interacting with him? Even with my changed voice, I was terrified that he would immediately figure out who I really was. This whole situation had become a lot more dangerous. 

And yet, what was I supposed to do? I could not and would not let the guy who had killed Murphy’s brother just walk away, no matter how worried I was about my brother and my secret identity. That wouldn’t happen. It was wrong, and she’d never forgive me, no matter how much I explained. I had to do something about it, but I still had no idea what. Could I actually fight my brother? I’d seen how easily he dismantled that guy back at the mall. Yes, I had powers, but could I actually deal with him when he had his skill, the pistol, and those clearly Touched-Tech gloves? A small voice in the back of my head was insisting that I had faced much worse threats. And yet, I couldn’t stop telling myself that he was my big brother and I didn’t stand a chance. 

“Paintball?” Murphy spoke up in a confused, worried, helpless tone. And it was hearing that, the obvious pain and loss in the voice of a girl I cared about, which snapped me out of my moment of being completely paralyzed by indecision and panic. 

“Sorry,” I found myself blurting without thinking about it, “I was just trying to figure out what makes you think you’re going to walk in here and stop this worthless fuck from going to prison where he belongs. He’s a murderer. You really wanna walk in here and defend a murderer?” I tried to keep my voice more casual than it wanted to be. I did not want Simon wondering why Paintball would be emotionally upset about that. I didn’t want him wondering anything about me at all, if I could help it. God, this whole thing was so dangerous. In more ways than one. 

“Fuck you, cocksucker!” Luciano snapped. “You think you can judge me just cuz I capped a few assholes? You’re just a–” 

He was interrupted by Murphy making a noise of outrage in the back of her throat, starting to throw herself at him. Which made Simon snap his gun that way to warn her. But I moved first, before he could speak. Besides being frozen by indecision, I had spent the past few moments painting designs across the back of my costume. I activated green, orange, and purple spots while lunging that way. Speed, toughness, and strength boosts, all at once. 

It wasn’t enough. Even moving a little under twice as fast as I would have normally, Simon still had quicker reflexes. He pivoted aside smoothly, snatching the outstretched pistol away from my grasping fingers as his other hand snapped out to catch hold of my wrist. In an instant, his foot collided with my ankle while he gave my arm a yank. The next thing I knew, I was tumbling head over heels and landing on my back on the cement. It didn’t hurt, but the sudden rush of being knocked around like that was enough to leave me briefly disoriented. 

Simon was standing over me, starting it to point his gun down to tell me not to move. But before he could get more than a single word of it out, I managed to lash out and up with one foot. A foot that had a blue spot on the bottom of my shoe. Just as my foot made contact with his pistol, I activated the paint. Between the purple strength that was still running through me, and the added boost from the blue push, the gun was sent flying away from him. 

Instantly, I lashed out again in a kick toward his stomach. But Simon caught my ankle under his arm and twisted so that the force I was trying to use to kick him was instead spent in spinning myself sideways along the ground. 

In the process of that, I caught a glimpse of Murphy. She wasn’t having much more luck. She had jumped on Luciano’s back, but he yanked her off and was about to throw her bodily to the ground. My hand snapped out in the midst of being yanked around by my ankle, shooting orange paint, then a quick burst of purple that way. Both hit, a pair of orange and purple splotches across the side of her shirt, activating just before she was slammed to the cement. 

Hoping that that would be enough to help her get out of that, I slapped my own hand against the cement and painted the palm blue. The sudden force from that, as my hand rebounded away from the sidewalk, shoved my foot out of Simon’s grasp and up, kicking his stomach. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I was trying for, given the way he twisted aside at the last second, but it was still enough to make him stumble backward while reflexively releasing my leg. 

I was able to spring back to my feet by that point, before he could recover. A quick glance to the side showed that Murphy had taken advantage of the paint I gave her. She grabbed Luciano’s foot with both hands and yanked it out from under him, sending the man to the ground with a blurted curse. 

Meanwhile Simon was already lunging at me, giving a muttered curse of his own about me being a stupid asshole or something to that effect. Quickly, I activated another picture across my costume, this one of an orange demon face with a wide grinning face of purple teeth and green eyes. 

Again, purple strength, green speed, and orange toughness. Sure, it wasn’t a huge picture, I was still trying to conserve paint as much as I could. But still, it made me about as strong as an adult man, about half again as fast as I should have been, and tough enough to tank a bullet. 

And it still wasn’t enough. Not really. My brother was too fast, too skilled. He had been doing this for a long time, that much was patently obvious. Despite having no powers, and not even using those gloves of his, he evaded every single punch I threw at him over those few seconds. He wasn’t even actually trying to hit me back or anything, aside from a few light taps as though he was testing me. Or maybe taunting me. Whichever the case, what mattered was that I couldn’t actually hit him. I needed more speed. But that would mean using more paint. 

I had to. I could either conserve paint and keep being too slow to actually hit him until I ran out of everything anyway, or I could expend it and maybe manage something useful in the process. It was the only real shot I had with this. Especially with Murphy struggling against Luciano right behind me. I needed to change things up and take a risk. I needed to end this fight right now. But I also had to make it count. I needed to create an opening that I could take advantage of. 

With that in mind, I lunged backward away from Simon to create a little distance between us. Thankfully, the fact that Simon was busy showing off meant that he didn’t press me too much. He clearly thought that there was nothing I could do. And now I was (hopefully) going to make him choke on that assumption. That’s what I told myself, anyway. This whole thing reminded me of all the times I had wrestled with my brother. I hadn’t won any of those either. At least, not without cheating. 

So, cheating it was. With a blurted curse, I threw myself that way, letting loose with a completely wild punch that Simon easily evaded before pivoting back around to grab my arm so he could casually throw me to the ground. 

At least… that was what he attempted to do. But just as his hands closed on my arm, I painted it pink. The force of his grip made my arm completely collapse under his hands, squeezing out both sides of his tightened fists. It didn’t hurt, of course. But boy was it weird. Luckily, I had been ready for it. Simon, on the other hand, wasn’t. As my arm, bone and all, collapsed as though he had squeezed a large tube of toothpaste or frosting too hard, Simon made a noise of confusion. 

He had just enough time for his gaze to snap down to see what happened to my arm before I dismissed the paint early. Instantly, my arm snapped back to the way it should be, with enough force that Simon’s hands were snapped back away from me. And in that very instant, I painted almost my entire body green, save for purple on my fists. I thought about going with a bit of orange protection, but no, I needed every bit of speed I could get. I spent all the paint I had left in that moment to make myself as fast as possible. Then I lashed out with a punch. Even with that speed, Simon nearly avoided it. Not because he was anywhere near as fast as I was, not really. But because he was such a good fighter that he actually anticipated what was about to happen and was already moving almost before I did. His head twisted, but my fist was just a hair faster. Fast enough, in this case, to nail him right in the chin. It made his head snap back. My fist hurt after that, but I couldn’t think about it. I had to follow up. I only had seconds of speed. Eight now. Then I would be completely out, at least for a few seconds.

Simon still hadn’t recovered entirely from the force of his hands being thrust away from my arm. He was reeling backward thanks to a combination of that, and being punched in the chin. And I was already moving to follow up. With a grunt and lunge, I buried both fists into his stomach. The force staggered him, even as he dropped his hands to grab onto my shoulders. But again, I was still faster. Before he could finish grabbing me, I ducked and pivoted to get out from under his left arm. At the same time, I caught his extended wrist with my own left hand, and held it out to full extension while simultaneously lashing out with one foot to kick the back of his knee. As that buckled under the force of the blow thanks to my still slightly enhanced strength, I brought my right hand up to collide hard with the middle of his back. With his hand captured in my grip and his knee kicked out from under him, Simon couldn’t stop himself from falling face-first to the ground. 

The instant he was on the ground, before he could recover, I grabbed a set of handcuffs from my jumpsuit pocket, latching one side around the wrist I was still holding and the other around a nearby pipe that extended out from the building. They weren’t the special stay-down type, but at least they would hold him for a minute. 

A quick glance up showed that Murphy had managed to get Simon’s gun, the one I had kicked out of his hand, and was pointing it at Luciano while he lay on the ground. She was shaking a bit, staring intently down at him while keeping the pistol pointed that way. Immediately, I stumbled that way, the paint already wearing off. “Get him up, let’s go, let’s go!” I blurted. We had to hurry. I did not want to think about what would happen when Simon got out of that–

Something hit me in the back, colliding with enough force that I was sent sprawling to the ground. Nearby, I saw Murphy hit the pavement as well. And I also saw what had hit her. It was one of those silver cable things that Simon’s gloves could make. They were sort of like a mix between one of Silversmith’s constructs, and Whamline’s… lines. Either way, we had each been hit by one of them hard enough to knock us down. A second later, both lines grabbed onto the prone Luciano’s arms, yanking him up and away from us. 

With a blurted curse, I managed to jerk myself over onto my side and look that way. Sure enough, in those brief couple of seconds, Simon had already managed to free himself from the handcuffs. He was back on his feet and had used those cable things to knock both of us down and then yank Luciano over to him. He wrapped one cable tightly around the man and then extended his hand. Even as I shouted out for him to stop, my own voice lost in the furious scream from Murphy, Simon sent the other cable out toward the roof of a nearby building and let it yank him that way. Luciano was pulled after him. 

“Paintball, stop them! Stop him!” Murphy screamed at me, already scrambling to her feet. 

I tried, lunging up and extending my hand. Red paint. Just a little bit of red paint. Just enough to yank that guy away from my brother. It wouldn’t take much, right? I just needed a bit. But nothing came. It hadn’t been long enough yet, and I was still out of paint. 

Cursing, I shook my head. “Fuck, fuck, I can’t, I don’t have paint! I’m out!” 

An inarticulate bellow of rage escaped the other girl as she grabbed the pistol she had dropped and pointed it that way. She was about to start blindly firing after them when I grabbed her arm. “Stop!” 

“Get off me!” Murphy shoved me away, making me almost stumble and fall. “He’s not getting away!” She turned back, gun raised. But they were gone. Simon and Luciano had disappeared off the opposite side of the roof. Murphy, in turn, screamed out and pivoted to drop the gun. Her fist punched the wall, then she hit it again, and again. She was cursing and crying all at once, punching the wall repeatedly as she ranted about hating everyone and everything. With a choked sob, she collapsed to her knees and clutched her stomach. One hand yanked the mask off and dropped it before she doubled over and threw up. 

I stood there, staring, as Murphy fell onto her side, curling up in the fetal position while her entire body shook. She was crying so hard she couldn’t breathe, while a jumble of words that didn’t make a lot of sense escaped her. I can only catch some of it. She was saying something about McDonald’s, a bus, and a rehab center. She kept saying rehab over and over again, and clothes. No, close. She kept repeating ‘close, so close,’ and that she just wanted him to eat. She brought him food, she wanted him to eat. She wanted him to sit down. Something about laying on the couch. If he’d been laying on the couch, he wouldn’t have been hit. And that she was sorry. She was so sorry. All of that mixed into cursing about everyone she hated. At that moment, I was pretty sure I was on that list. Not that I blamed her. 

Looking around briefly, I took a seat next to her and was silent for the moment. I had no idea what to do, but I wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone right then, even if I wasn’t the person she wanted to be with her. Swallowing hard, I reached out to touch her shoulder very gently. Immediately, she jerked away with a blurted curse. But I kept my hand there, shifting a bit closer. She stopped, slumping a bit more against the ground. All the energy seemed to have left her body. She was exhausted, having been running on fumes for a long time. Her rage was a fire that lit the fuel of her grief. And now the rage had run out. There was no more target for her to attack, so the anger had fallen away for the moment. The fire of rage was gone, leaving only the fuel of the grief. And the fumes of that were choking her. 

Scooting closer, I put my back to the wall and slipped an arm around the other girl, pulling her into an embrace. She didn’t fight it. Instead, the girl just leaned against me, shaking uncontrollably. 

“Gone,” Murphy finally murmured in a broken voice, once we had sat there like that for a couple minutes. “He’s gone. He’s gone.” 

I knew she wasn’t talking about Luciano. It was Tyson. Her brother was gone. He had been murdered in cold blood, and the man responsible had just gotten away. 

For now. 

“We’ll find the piece of shit,” I quietly assured her. “I promise. I swear, Murphy. We’ll find him. He won’t get away. We’ll find him.” 

Her head shook a little, as she made a noise deep in her throat that sounded like a cross between confusion and anger. Finally, she pulled back, staring at me. Without the mask, I could see the tears that ran freely down her face. “Who the fuck was that?! Who–what the fuck did that–what did he mean about paying a lot of money to make it his concern? W-was that a Sell-Touched? What was he–I never–who–” Her words were all jumbled together into a nearly incoherent ramble. But I understood. I knew what she was asking. She wanted to know who Simon was, where he had come from, and what that whole situation with Luciano ‘paying for protection’ was about. 

“Murphy,” I spoke quietly, my voice just the right tone to make her look at me, staring through the tears that had half-blinded her as I continued. “I think… I think we need to talk. 

“I need to tell you the truth about what happens in this city.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-02 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – If you missed it, the Heretical Edge noncanon chapter was posted over the weekend right here. There will be two Summus Proelium noncanon chapters posted over the next week.

This obviously wasn’t the best position to be in, crouched behind a car with my very Prev min–employee, while a bunch of guys with guns on the other side of the car rapidly approached to surround it. And yet, on the other hand, at least none of these guys were Touched. As far as I was aware, anyway. Not that that completely eliminated the potential danger the guns themselves presented if we weren’t careful, but at least I knew what we were dealing with. 

After taking a few precious seconds for preparation and explanation, I peeked through the window of the vehicle. Five guys were approaching, three moving toward the front of the car and two moving toward the back. There were more standing up by the laundromat, and what looked like a couple lingering in the doorway of the bar with their own weapons ready. This whole shopping center was obviously their hangout. 

“Count of three,” I whispered to the girl next to me. “Remember what I told you about the gun.” Once she gave a short, reluctant nod, I counted off. “One… two… three.” On that last number, I abruptly activated the blue paint I had sprayed beneath both of the tires on this side of the car, front and back. Instantly, the vehicle flipped up on its side before tipping over to its roof. As it fell that way, I heard a few yelps and curses from the guys there who had just been reaching the front and back. They dove out of the way, landing hard on their stomachs to avoid the vehicle as it fell all the way over onto its roof.  

At the same time, Murphy aimed high with the shotgun, firing a blast that took out the neon sign above the laundromat. The terrifying crash of the car falling onto its roof, accompanied by the even more terrifying boom of the shotgun and shattering glass from the neon sign being blown apart made the guys right in front of the place recoil, a couple of them literally falling on their backsides or crashing into each other in their reflexive urge to escape. 

Before any of them could recover, I activated the green and purple paint I had put on myself and Murphy. Then I was right there in front of the three guys who had been near the front of the car. My foot lashed out to kick one in the face hard enough that he collapsed fully, while I reached down to grab the weapons from their hands and threw them as far as I could off into the distance. As I leapt over their sprawled forms, my fist hit another guy in the side of the head so he wouldn’t get any bright ideas, foot snapping backward to hit the last guy just in case he felt left out. All three were left disarmed and groaning in pain. And all of it happened too quickly for them to react. 

Meanwhile, a quick glance to one side showed that Murphy had done her part. Both guys that had been at the back of the car were curled up on their stomachs, clutching themselves in pain while she hurled their guns far off to the opposite side of the lot. 

Just like that, these five were dealt with. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to sit back and congratulate myself, considering how many other guys were waiting for us. To that end, I focused on the group up by the shop, as well as the ones by the bar. Thanks to the green paint, all of that had happened so quickly, they were still recoiling from the shotgun blast. But they were recovering quickly, so I threw myself that way in a sprint. They saw me coming and tried to snap their weapons up in time. But I activated blue paint just under my shoes, launching myself upward to hit the wall just above the doorway, where the neon sign had been. My gravity-shoes kept me there, looking down at the men below me. 

They, of course, started to look up and adjust their aim. But I gave a sharp whistle and pointed back the way I had come with one hand, and toward their feet with the other. The guys looked that way reflexively, immediately noticing two things. First, the blob of red paint that I had put against the side of the overturned car while dashing toward them. And second, the identical bit of red on the cement right in front of them. 

Yeah, they processed what was about to happen very quickly, all of them screaming as they dove back through with the broken windows and doorway of the laundromat. At the same time, I activated the paint to yank the car over. It slammed into the spot where they had just been, crashing partway into the laundromat with a loud, thunderous bang. 

Okay, I did feel bad about the person this car actually belonged to before Murphy had stolen it. I was going to have to make sure they had good insurance, and maybe send an anonymous donation to help. 

But for the moment, I had to focus. A glance toward the bar showed that the two guys there had started to lean their way out and take aim. But I sent a quick shot of blue paint at their feet, launching them into the top of the doorway hard enough that they immediately collapsed once they hit the ground once more. 

In the meantime, Murphy was already sprinting toward the far end of the hair salon on the opposite side of the laundromat than the bar. There was a narrow alley-like area there to reach the back of the buildings. As she neared it, I quickly activated another blotch of green paint I had given her, speeding the girl up once more. Then I did the same for myself, and used red paint to reach the roof, sprinting my way straight across the top of the laundromat to reach the back as well.

Murphy beat me there by about two seconds, and the gang guys themselves by one. Just as I skidded to a halt on the edge of the roof, I heard her voice snap, “Drop it!” Looking down, I saw one guy who had started to push his way out the rear exit of the laundromat. He had a pistol in one hand. But Murphy was there on one side of the door, shotgun pointed at his head. 

The guy clearly considered his options for a moment, before Murphy snapped, “I reloaded before I got back here. Which means I’ve got five shells in this thing. It’ll only take one to put you down, then I’ve got four more for your friends back there behind you. And you’re all lined up like a nice turkey shoot. So I’ll tell you one more time. Drop. It.” 

While she was saying that, I had already taken a few steps back and sprayed pink along the roof. I made a large enough circle for myself to fit through. Then I listened until the clatter of the pistol hitting the ground announced the man’s choice. 

That prompted a wave of curses and shouts from the people behind him who thought he was being a chickenshit. Which was my cue. Activating a line of purple stars along both of my legs, as well as an orange moon on my back, I jumped up and then stomped down as hard as I could on the pink circle. Instantly, I broke through, crashing down through the ceiling to land right in the middle of the gathered group. Before they could react, I snapped my hand toward the floor behind me, where several guys were, and shot blue paint to launch them into the ceiling. At the same time, I grabbed the guy in front of me by the arm, hurling him into the wall with my purple-strength with enough force that he rebounded off it and collapsed, in no mood to do anything else.  

The guy at the door had started to turn to see what the hell was going on with the rest of his buddies, just as Murphy slammed the butt of the shotgun into the back of his head, knocking him stumbling into the next guy. Which was the one I had just reached, grabbing him by his shoulders as he stumbled from the other guy crashing into him so I could yank him down closer to my level, headbutting him hard with my helmet. 

That last guy, the one who had tossed his pistol at Murphy’s order, immediately dropped to his knees as soon as he saw the situation behind him. And just like that, they were all down. It worked. The plan that Murphy and I had come up with in just those few seconds had been very simple. We stop the guys right by the car, then use the car to block the front of the laundromat so they would have no choice but to flee toward the back. Then Murphy would catch them at the door there, where they could only come out one at a time, and while she had them distracted, I would break in through the ceiling to take them by surprise as they were all bunched up like that. Again, a very simple plan. But it had worked. Thank God, it actually worked. 

Well, sort of. Unfortunately, Murphy looked around frantically, a curse escaping her. “Fuck! He’s not here! Fuck, fuck, where is he?!” Her foot lashed out to kick the nearest guy really hard, enough to make me wince a bit for him. “Where the fuck is Luciano?! Where’d he go, motherfucker?!” Only then did she remember that she had the shotgun in one hand, and quickly pointed it, tracking the barrel across all the guys while still demanding that they tell her where their boss had disappeared to. 

It didn’t take much threatening for several of the guys to point back through the main room toward the manager’s office, insisting that their boss went that way. The two of us glanced at one another, then I quickly sprayed red along the guys before activating it. They were all yanked together and would be stuck like that for ten seconds. It gave us a head start. Which we used, sprinting toward the manager’s office even as I activated a bit more orange on both of us, just in case the guy we were running for decided to start shooting. I was still trying to figure out why he would have gone for his office rather than trying to get out like the rest of his men. Even as I had that thought, however, a realization of the probable explanation struck me, and I muttered a curse, hoping I was wrong. 

But no, I was very right. Even as we got to the office and shoved our way in, we could both see a hole in the floor. A trapdoor. There was a trapdoor there, and no sign of the man in question. He had sent those other guys to the back door as a distraction, while he went out through his secret exit. Apparently he had been in too much of a rush to even bother closing the door, which was a boon for us not having to look for it, but still.  

“Fuck,” I muttered while skidding to a stop just above the hole and looking down. “Another tunnel. I’m really starting to hate these things.” 

“Paintball,” Murphy snapped at me, her voice high and stressed, “if he escapes again…” Her tone made it clear just how unacceptable that was, as did the way she was tightly gripping the gun. She gave me a sharp look, expression hidden behind the mask. But I didn’t need to see her face to know just how angry she was at the whole situation. Before I could respond, she started to lean down to jump into the escape tunnel herself, intent on not allowing the man who had just murdered her brother to get away. 

Quickly, I caught her arm. “Wait, let me go first.” Making sure I still had orange active on me, just in case the bastard was hiding right there, I activated the headlamps on my helmet before dropping down through the hole. Once I was sure there was no guy there with a gun waiting for us, I waved for the other girl to join me. She did, dropping down. But unlike Luciano, she took the time to yank the trap door shut. I, in turn, used a quick, small shot of pink paint to bend part of the trapdoor out and over the ceiling it was snug against. That way, if anyone tried to open it from above, they wouldn’t be able to. We had enough problems right now without ending up with bad guys coming up behind us in this narrow tunnel. So that was one potential problem out of the way. 

That done, I was able to look around a bit more. Unlike the one I had been in a couple days earlier, this tunnel had clearly been professionally made. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of cement rather than dirt, making it clear this had been set up a long time ago. Probably for a situation similar to this, or if the cops made an appearance. Whatever problem showed up on his doorstep, Luciano wanted a way to escape. And unless we moved quickly, he was going to do just that. Who knew where this tunnel came out, or how impossible it would be to find him again if we didn’t get there before he vanished. I didn’t even want to think about how Murphy would react then, or what she would be going through. We had to find this guy right now. 

To that end, I started sprinting down the tunnel, reaching back to grab Murphy’s hand so I could yank her after me. Then I actually flipped off the headlamps to avoid giving away our presence any further, simply trusting my mysterious navigation power. If the other girl objected to moving through the darkness, she didn’t say anything. She might’ve been too enraged to even think about it, honestly. Together, the two of us sprinted blindly down the tunnel as fast as we could. 

The tunnel was fairly straight, but there were a couple turns involved. Turns that I just… somehow knew were there. With no visible warning and no idea how I would know about them, I instinctively turned us to the right just before we would have crashed headlong into the wall. A fact that was confirmed as I reached out with my free hand to feel it there. Without missing a step, I kept running, turning left just as unexpectedly a few moments later. I didn’t know how this navigation power worked, but I sure as hell was not going to argue with the results. 

On the way, I used green paint to speed us up, hoping to counter the head start our quarry had. I also used a bit of black so he wouldn’t hear us charging down the tunnel like a herd of elephants. Please, please let us get there in time. This son of a bitch just killed Murphy’s brother. Whatever problems the guy had, he didn’t deserve to die. And Murphy didn’t deserve to lose him. This shitface was going to pay for what he did. We just had to catch up with him. 

There. After one more sharp right turn, we could see a bright shaft of light ahead. There was an exit, and we could both see the man in question starting to climb a ladder right there. At least, I assumed it was him. It was hard to make out details, and I didn’t really know what he looked like anyway. 

Murphy did, however. And she immediately confirmed my assumptions by shoving past me, sprinting full-tilt that way. As she passed, I sent two shots of paint into her back. One was green, the other orange. She was a quick little missile, still silenced for the next couple seconds by the black paint that was already on her hand. 

Still, silent or not, she was a shape rapidly approaching through the darkness. The climbing man noticed her, looking over. But it was too late, as she slammed into him with enough force, despite their size differences, to knock the man off the ladder, where he fell hard onto the tunnel floor with a yelp. 

He recovered quickly, firing a shot from that pistol of his. But the orange paint meant it only stunned Murphy a little bit, making her recoil. That, however, was enough for him to lash out with his foot. Again, it didn’t hurt her, but the force knocked the girl off him as he fired twice more. Luckily, the gun was silenced, or we all would have been completely deafened from the sound echoing through this tight space. Doubly-luckily, the paint was still holding strong, so Murphy wasn’t hurt. From personal experience, I knew it would sting, and she would have bruises. But that was a hell of a lot better than being shot several times and bleeding out. 

By that point, I was already there. Before he could fire again, I painted part of my arm purple, snapping a hand out to take the gun away from him while simultaneously kicking the man in the leg, making him stagger while yelping in pain. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. I saw the man’s hand grab something and hold it out. The next thing I knew, a blast of light and concussive force slammed into me. I was sent staggering to the floor next to Murphy, who had fallen as well. It was some sort of Touched-Tech flashbang or whatever, strong enough to put me on the ground. 

It didn’t keep me there for long, thankfully. Still, it cost us precious seconds. Even as I pushed myself up and looked around, I could see the man already disappearing up the ladder. My hand snapped out to shoot red paint at him, but it was too late. He pushed himself up and out of the hole just as my paint splattered against the ladder rung where his foot had been an instant earlier.

No, no. Fuck no. I wasn’t going to let this happen. Shoving myself up just as Murphy did the same, I grabbed her arm and yanked her close to me while putting blue paint underneath us right at the bottom of the ladder. Looking up, I activated the paint, sending both of us flying upward. We didn’t bother with the ladder at all, instead launching straight toward the hole above us. On the way, I made sure we both had a bit more orange paint, just in case this asshole was waiting to shoot us rather than running. 

But no, he wasn’t sticking around, apparently. We shot out of the hole and landed in a small parking lot across the street from the shopping center itself. At first, there was no sign of the man we were chasing. Then I saw him disappearing around the corner of the nearest building. He was running like his ass was on fire. Which, to be honest, sounded like a really good idea right then. 

Murphy started to sprint after him, but I caught her hand and pulled her with me. Instead of running after the guy, I used blue and red paint to get us to the roof of the building he was running around. Together, we sprinted across it to the far side, before I gave us both orange paint to soften the landing as we jumped off, falling straight to the ground below. 

The shortcut worked. We landed together right in front of the man, giving me my first decent look at him. He was a fairly big Latino guy, both in height and girth (fitting through the trapdoor must have been a tight squeeze), with long dreadlocks that had been dyed bright blond. He wore a long, oversized (even for him) Pistons jersey and loose sweatpants, and gripped a pistol in one hand. Yeah, that I used red paint to rip away from him.  

As that gun disappeared from his grip, Luciano staggered backward in shock. Well, that and the fact that Murphy and I had basically just dropped out of the sky right in front of him. That was probably pretty surprising too. He started to blurt something, then stopped. His eyes moved past us as he snapped, “Well, it’s about fucking time. What the hell am I paying you assholes for if you can’t get these shits off my back?”

Yeah, my instinct was to say it was a trick. But the specific thing he said put a sinking sensation into my stomach. Which only got worse as a voice spoke up behind us. A very familiar voice. 

“Oh, don’t you worry. You do pay pretty well. And we’re going to take care of this right now.”

Well, I may not have been sure whether my parents were actually in town at this point or not. 

But at least I knew exactly where my brother was. 

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Kith And Kin 20-01 (Summus Proelium)

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I was sound asleep in my bed when the buzzing and vibrating phone under my pillow dragged me into something resembling a conscious state. I was pretty sure it had been going off for a while by the time I managed to wake up enough to recognize that it wasn’t just a buzzing in my dreams. Which was confirmed when I blearily dragged the phone out and stared at the screen for the few seconds it took to notice about forty-three text messages and half as many calls. They were from a mix of both Roald and Murphy, all over the past hour and a half. A quick scan of the texts showed that they had some sort of emergency going on. There were a lot of pleas for me to answer and call them back, that they were at the hospital and ‘he’ was really hurt. But in my barely awake state, I couldn’t figure out who they were talking about. I just flipped through messages randomly while shoving myself up and off the bed. 

It was very late Mond–no, it was early Tuesday morning, a glance toward my wall of clocks told me. After Sunday’s whole thing at the bank, yesterday had been pretty quiet, all things considered. Since there seemed to be nothing going on aside from watching Wren and Lion work on things for the second day in a row, I had come home and gone to bed to catch up on the sleep I knew I would need with my parents getting back tomorrow/today. 

And now, here I was, stumbling my way through the room to the closet while telling the lights to turn on. Painting my arms purple, I pushed the big mirror out of the way before grabbing the bag with my costume out of the hidden spot below the floor. While doing that, I managed to shove the bluetooth thing in my ear before hitting the button on my phone to call Murphy. It rang through about ten times before going to voicemail, while I was stripping out of my pajamas and getting regular clothes on. By that point, I had finally woken up for the most part and hit the button to call Roald instead.  

Thankfully, he answered on about the second ring. “Paintball? Paintball, you have to get down here. You have to hurry, she’s–she’s really upset and you have to–” 

“What? Who? What’s going on?” I managed while heading for my balcony. I had to pause a moment, watching the lights from a couple guards walking by below. Muting the phone, I ordered the lights to dim while very carefully opening the sliding door. The patrol moved on, as I heard the two men on the ground casually talking to one another about some baseball game. 

“It’s Murphy,” Roald was frantically saying. “We’re at the hospital and she’s–her brother—” 

My eyes narrowed, voice going cold as a wave of terrible thoughts rushed through me. “What did her brother do to her?” I was already thinking about how I should have insisted on doing something about that guy when I had found out that he cut her face because she wouldn’t carry drugs around. Why had I just let her say that she would deal with it? I should have insisted. I–

Roald interrupted my snowballing thoughts. “No, no! Not him, not–it’s him. He’s been shot. Please, you have to get down here. We’ll explain it then. But please, come quick. Her brother’s been shot, and it’s really bad. He–they don’t think he…” The boy trailed off, audibly swallowing. “Please, you have to hurry. I don’t know what she’s going to do if anything… if he… please, hurry.” His voice cracked through that, showing just how afraid and upset he really was.  

By that point, the patrol had moved on, so I asked what hospital they were at. Upon getting an answer, I promised to be right there and told him to stay with Murphy. Then I disconnected, shoved the phone away, and started to step out before pausing. I thought about waking Izzy up to let her know what was going on, but that didn’t seem fair. She deserved to sleep. I was pretty sure she hadn’t gotten back from her own patrol with Wobble until after ten, and we did have school in the morning. Yeah, let her sleep. Shaking that thought off, I instead scribbled a quick note for the girl that said I had gone out for a walk because I’d had ‘the dream about those cartoon Minions ending up in the hospital.’ I figured she could work things out from there. I left the note under my pillow, where we had promised we would leave such things if need be, then grabbed the bag with my costume and headed for the sliding door once more. After a quick glance around to assure myself that  the coast was clear, I quickly made my way out and off of the grounds. The whole while, a mess of conflicting thoughts were running through my head. Murphy’s brother had been shot? How? Why? What happened? Was she okay? Had she been there when– when whatever had happened was–yeah, I had to get to the hospital and find out what was going on. My brain was just spinning out wildly. 

Once I was far enough away from home, I used my phone to order a ride. When it showed up, I told the driver to head for the hospital, then got in and sat back. The place was too far away for me to get there easily under my own power, but I still felt anxious and helpless, just sitting there. It was all I could do not to rock back and forth in a silent attempt to force the car to move faster. 

Thankfully, the fact that I had asked him to go to the hospital in the middle of the night seemed to make the driver realize something was wrong. He set out immediately, pushing the speed limit right from the start. Only once did he ask if I wanted to talk about what was going on, and when I said no, he dropped it. Still, I did belatedly tell him that I had a friend who was there, and that my parents were both working overnight. He seemed to accept that, and promised we’d be there as soon as possible. Then he suited action to words by accelerating around the corner. 

He really did get us there pretty damn quickly and smoothly, so I wrote in a thirty dollar tip for the guy in the app before also tossing him three twenties from my pocket without thinking about it. Then I was out and heading across the lot. I was almost to the doors into the emergency room before realizing the problem. Looking down at my distinctly uncostumed self, I grimaced before cutting to the left. Heading around the far side of the hospital, I found my way to a grassy area that led up to some apartments. After looking around to make sure no one was looking, I red-painted my way to the roof of one of those buildings, where I quickly changed clothes and stowed my bag in a hidden spot under one of the bits of machinery up there. Then I sat down and sent a text to Roald, telling him to meet me near the dumpsters behind the east-most exit. 

It took about five minutes before I saw that side-door open as the boy came jogging out. He looked around before heading for the dumpsters in question. I made sure he wasn’t being followed before zipping my way down there to land on the edge of the short brick wall that surrounded the trash area. “Hey,” I spoke up, dropping down off that to land beside him. “What’s going on? What happened?” 

Jumping a bit at my arrival, the boy focused on me. “Paintball! I–she–” He took a breath and then told me what was going on. Apparently he and Murphy had run into some guy on the bus who wanted money from her brother. They got away from him and made it home. But shortly after Murphy had been in the apartment with her brother, there was some sort of drive-by and the guy from before had fired several times through the window, hitting Murphy’s brother repeatedly while shouting that he should have paid up. Roald had heard the shots and came running, before being the one to call 911. Now the guy–Tyson– was in emergency surgery while Murphy herself sat outside waiting with Roald’s older and younger sisters. The former was the one who had driven them down here. All in all, it wasn’t looking good. 

“She wants to go after him,” Roald informed me, his voice cracking a bit. “Paintball, she wants to go and find the guy who shot Ty. I’m pretty sure the only reason she’s still here is because she wants to hear about–I mean because she wants to be here if–I mean…” He trailed off, swallowing hard. “I think she might do something really bad if she goes off by herself.” 

My head shook. “Could she even find this guy? How would she know where to look?” 

Roald hesitated before explaining that the man, whose name was Luciano, had apparently been pretty busy that night. Murphy’s brother wasn’t the only guy he hit up for money. He had, according to what other people in the hospital and the cops themselves were saying, been calling in debts all over the city and shot up a couple other places while he was at it. They were putting three different drive-bys just tonight on the guy. Something had lit a fire under his ass and made him desperate to call in every bit of cash that anyone owed to him, or just kill a few of them to make others pay up. 

Apparently Murphy and Roald had been just around the corner from a few prostitutes who had been in the hospital recovering from one of those shootouts. The women were talking about what they’d told the cops who interrogated them, and made it clear none had squealed about the fact that Luciano spent a lot of time hanging out at some all-night laundromat owned by his cousin or something. That was where he did his deals. But they weren’t telling the cops that because they were more afraid of him and his gang than they were of lying to the police. 

Speaking of the cops, obviously they were involved here. But apparently Murphy didn’t exactly have a lot of confidence in them either. Which, given that the way she had grown up, I guess I couldn’t really blame her for that. I had been super privileged in basically every possible way. I was a rich white girl whose parents basically owned law enforcement. To say nothing of our own private security. And that was before I found out about the Ministry thing. Murphy, on the other hand, had seen a much worse side of things. She was mixed-race, which was close enough to black for the people who would give her shit about it, and had grown up poor. Her parents were already in prison, apparently for something that had to do with selling antidepressants and such on the street. So really, it was no wonder she wouldn’t have the best opinion of letting the police take care of the situation.  

Yeah, it sure sounded like she was planning on running out to try to deal with this guy herself. I had to do something about him first, before Murphy ran out and got herself… before she got hurt. Or worse. This guy had already almost killed her at least once tonight, if not twice depending on what he would have done if he had caught them when they ran off the bus. He wasn’t going to be nice. 

Taking a deep breath, I focused on the boy in front of me. “Tell Murphy to come out here. She’s not answering her phone. I’ll tell her that I’m going to go get the guy so she can focus on being here for Tyson. Just–tell her to come talk to me and I’ll make sure she knows this guy’s going down. I promise, he won’t get away with this. He’s going to prison tonight. But I need to talk to her first. I need her to know I’m taking care of it.” 

Roald gave a short nod before pivoting to run back inside. I kept an eye out, but there wasn’t much going on here by the side exit. All the action was around the emergency room. So, I was just left standing there tapping my foot while asking myself what I was actually going to do about this guy. Get to him, catch him, turn him in to the cops and let Murphy and Roald testify against him? If they would. Tyson too, assuming he–

The side door slammed open once more, and my gaze snapped up to see Roald running out full-tilt. “She’s gone!” he blurted, eyes wide as he got up to me. “She–he–he’s not… he’s gone. He’s gone. He didn’t make it. Ty didn’t make it through the surgery, and they said she–she ran out. Murphy took off, I think she went after him. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t with her and she took off! Some nurse was talking about someone stealing her car in there, I think she took it.” 

“Stay here,” I snapped. “What was the address of that laundromat again?” 

He gave it to me, and I spun around, using red paint to yank myself up toward the roof of the hospital. Before landing there, I popped my wheels out and skated that way. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I had to get there. I had to get to that laundromat before Murphy got herself killed by rushing inside. She just lost her brother, and with her parents being in prison, there wasn’t… she wasn’t… yeah. This was bad. It was really bad. I had to get there before it got even worse. 

The laundromat was a fair distance from the hospital, but too close for me to take the time to call for another ride. I had to hope that going across rooftops and such would make up Murphy’s headstart and the fact that she was in a car. I just–I had to hurry. That was all there was to it. I had to get there in time. I pushed myself to go even faster, painting green across my legs while using my pace-skates to pick up even more speed. The next couple of minutes were a total blur of racing from roof to roof, leaping, yanking, landing, running, gliding, rolling, and skidding my way as fast as possible, all in a desperate attempt to get to that laundromat in time. 

Finally, I reached the building across the street from the strip mall where the laundromat was supposed to be. Dropping to my stomach so I wouldn’t stand out, I lay on the edge of the roof and stared that way, eyes hunting for the place in question. There. It was in the exact middle of the shopping center, sandwiched between a bar and some sort of hair salon. There were people gathered out in front of the bar and the laundromat, and a few people inside the latter. It didn’t look like the ones in the store were doing any laundry. More like they were standing around and drinking just like the ones outside. It was definitely a gang hangout of some sort, but I couldn’t see anyone who fit the description of this Luciano guy. Not yet, anyway. Maybe he was in the back. 

Nor could I see any sign of Murphy. Which, considering the guys out front looked perfectly casual, I hoped meant she hadn’t made it here yet. But now that I was here and she apparently wasn’t, what was I supposed to do? Should I go down there and tell them to send Luciano out, or wait for Murphy? If I already had him detained, would she calm down? I wasn’t–I didn’t think–

And then that the decision was taken out of my hands, as a car came squealing around the corner. My gaze snapped that way just in time to see Murphy behind the wheel. Oh, she was wearing a ski mask, but I knew it was her. I’d certainly seen her wearing that mask often enough by now. She was right there, car squealing its way across the road before hopping the curb straight into the lot. Right, so she wasn’t in the mood for subtlety, then. She was grieving and lost. Her brother had just been killed, and she was going to do something about it. 

The question of what exactly she was going to do was answered a moment later when she brought the car to a squealing halt right in front of the laundromat. The group there between the store and the bar looked that way, just as Murphy hopped out of the car with–with a shotgun. She had a shotgun in her hands. I had no idea where she got that, but she was pointing it at those people. I could hear her high, strained voice scream for them to get Luciano, along with something about how if he thought he was going to get away with ‘putting her people back at the Twenty-Seven Club in the hospital, he had another thing coming.’ 

The Twenty-Seven Club. That was one of the places Luciano had shot up. So even now, even in this condition, Murphy was covering her identity by pretending she was here as a member of one of those groups to get payback for that shooting. 

When the guys hesitated, she pointed the shotgun at one of the nearby cars and pulled the trigger to blow out the tire, then pointed it at them again and repeated the order. Yeah, this was bad. Especially since I could see several of the men start to semi-subtly shift to spread out around her. But Murphy was in too much grief to notice what they were doing. If I didn’t get down there and do something, they would surround her. And then… and then nothing, because I wasn’t going to let that happen. 

Getting up, I backed away a few steps for a running start. Then I gave myself some more paint before sprinting that way. A shot of blue at the edge of the roof launched me into the air, and I flipped over before using red against a distant traffic light for momentum. Flying that way, I pointed with both hands, sending a wide spray of red at the group before activating that, along with a bit of orange on my boots. 

Landing beside Murphy just as the assortment of guys were all yanked together to crash into a heap, I caught the shotgun before she could reflexively point it at me. “Now, guys!” I called out. “I’m pretty sure the lady here wanted you to all stay in one spot, not spread out. Don’t screw up your choreography, you know how much the director hates that.” 

For a moment, the guys on the ground froze when they saw me there. Then, blurting out something about getting ‘the shit’ out of the back, they all scrambled up and took off. They split up, spreading out to run in all different directions. Some of them ran into the laundromat, a few back into the bar, and the rest scattered across the parking lot. None of them stuck around to fight. Which I definitely wasn’t going to argue with, but Luciano would definitely know we were here now. If the shotgun blast hadn’t already given it away. 

Speaking of which, I spun on my heel to find Murphy staring at me. I could see the tears in her eyes through the holes in the mask. “P-Paintball,” she managed quietly, voice breaking, “Ty–Ty didn’t–he–” 

“I know,” I quickly assured her. “Stay here. I’m going to go get that guy. He’s not getting away, I promise.”

Her head shook frantically. “No, no, I have to get him. I have to get him for Ty.” She was already moving to go around me, shotgun in one hand as she stumbled toward the door of the laundromat. Just as quickly, she spun back to me, lunging to tackle me to the ground. An instant later, after the other girl landed on top of me, I heard an explosive series of gunshots as someone inside the building opened up. Quickly, Murphy and I crawled around behind the car before they could adjust their aim. 

“Dunno how you walked out of that club without a bullet, bitch!” came a voice through the shattered window once the gunfire had stopped. “But I’ll be glad to make up for it. You and that fucking wannabe hero kid!” 

“Luciano,” Murphy snarled. Her hand grabbed the shotgun from the ground, and she started to push herself up before I caught hold of her arm to stop her. “Paintball!” she blurted, looking toward me. “It’s him, he can’t–” 

“He won’t get away with it,” I promised, grip tightening. “He is not going to get away. I won’t let that happen. But I’m not gonna let you get yourself killed either. Your brother wouldn’t want that.” 

For a moment, it looked like she was going to scream at me for that. And honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed her. But the girl caught herself, eyes closing tightly before focusing on me once more. “He’s mine,” she insisted in a voice that shook. “I have to help take him down, Paintball. I have to.” 

Pausing briefly, I glanced over my shoulder, listening to the sound of the man in question ordering his buddies to come flush us out. “Okay,” I murmured. “You can help take him down. But you listen to me, okay? We do this the smart way, not just by charging in. And we take him down for the cops. We arrest him and turn him in.” 

From the look in her eyes, I knew the girl wanted to argue with that. But she stopped herself, giving a short nod. It was clear that she was listening to the sound of the bad guys arguing about who had to come closer. They were clearly spooked, and none wanted to be the ones who came within shotgun or paint distance. But we were still running out of time. “Okay,” she murmured. “As long as he doesn’t get away.” 

“He won’t,” I assured her. 

“So here’s what we’re going to do.”

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Interlude 19A – Murphy and Roald (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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