Mister Harmful

Exhibition 25-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, assuming my intention had been to piss off a whole group of people who could kill me, then mission highly successful. All of the guys with guns who had been standing guard over the hostages immediately turned their weapons my way and opened fire. At the same time, Juice sent a blast of electricity into the area he clearly thought their gunfire would send me dodging into. But I had been pretty sure that was exactly what would happen. So, instead of throwing myself into that open space, and therefore right into the lightning, I trusted my orange paint to keep me alive. It still wasn’t fun, considering being hit by all those bullets felt like being in a hailstorm. I would definitely have a few bruises. But they didn’t penetrate, and that was the important part.

In the midst of all that gunfire, my hand touched the lamp post I was perched on. All the way down the length of it, the lamp turned pink. They noticed just as Juice’s lightning bolt went flying off a bit to my left. Before they could react, I hopped backwards, quickly activating and disabling the paint at the same moment to turn the lamp post into a springy surface. My hands caught the end of it, yanking it backwards and down with me. The pole bent all the way over, like in the cartoons when they pull a springy tree. And just like in those cartoons, when I released the pole, it snapped all the way back up and over in the opposite direction, slamming down into two of the gunmen before they could react. They were knocked sprawling down into the pit with the hostages, guns cluttering along the cement. Meanwhile, the pole snapped back upright as if nothing had happened.

Janus, by that point, were sending a massive fist the size of a Volkswagen right at the spot where I had landed. From that and the large amount of cursing they were doing, I was starting to think they didn’t like me very much.

I wanted to use yellow paint to slow the fist down, and the rest of them by extension. But I was pretty sure I was running very low on available paint at that moment, after all of it I’d used while quietly taking down those other guys coupled with turning that entire pole pink just now. I had to wait for a few seconds. Instead, I activated another couple spots of green along my legs and ran forward. Just before the fist would’ve collided with me, I activated a couple blue stars on the bottom of my shoes. It launched me upward into a flip before I came down on the men’s enormous arm. They were still reacting to that while I raced along it. “Hey guys, I think I really–” My knee slammed into one of their faces. The Mr. Harmful one, as it happened. “–kneed you!”

My momentum, combined with the fact that I had activated a picture of two crossed purple baseball bats along my arms, were enough to snap their head backwards despite their enhanced strength. I didn’t think it actually did that much damage, but still. Their right arm was still extended and shrinking back down, but the left snapped upward to grab me by the head. Before they could do that, I threw myself backwards, planting both shoes against Harmful’s face to launch away from them. “If I’m too close, I’ll put a couple feet between us!”

Juice had pivoted by that point, taking aim at me once more as I went into the air. However, before he could hit me with his second lightning blast, I pointed with both hands. One shot of red hit his extended wrist, while the other hit Janus in the shoulder. I could tell that would be the last of my paint for now, but it was enough to yank the man’s arm down just as he unleashed that blast. The lightning slammed into Janus, drawing a pained and furious cry from both of them. They stumbled backward and down onto one knee, clearly needing a moment to pull themselves together.

Juice, on the other hand, didn’t need a moment. And he was pretty damn pissed off by that point, as was the one remaining guy with his gun. That guy came charging forward, pulling the weapon up as he shouted something about me being a little son of a bitch. He opened fire, but despite all the stuff that had already happened, the ten seconds of my orange paint protection still wasn’t up yet. Three or four bullets rebounded off my helmet even as I grabbed a piece of broken cement off the ground. It was about the size of a ping-pong ball, and I pushed it against my palm while raising my hand. Before the guy knew what was happening, I activated the blue circle that was already on my glove there. The rock was launched out of my hand and smacked right into the middle of his forehead. He dropped his gun and staggered with a cry.

Meanwhile, Juice had abandoned trying to hit me with electricity. Or maybe he only had so many shots he could use in a limited time. Either way, he was running at me. And that was kind of terrifying, considering his powers didn’t just let him use electricity for lightning blasts. He also used it to make himself stronger and faster. I saw a shower of sparks from the same lamp post I had used before as he sucked the energy out of it and came running right at me like a runaway freight train. He was a huge, muscular black guy all on his own, and now he was empowered to the point that he could probably literally run right through me as if I was a squirrel and he was a truck. And my paint reserves weren’t ready to do anything yet. Fortunately, I had prepared for all this, and still had an assortment of paint scattered across my body. And, as it happened, on things other than my body. 

So, tempting as it was to stay crouched there and stare at the incoming man like a deer in headlights as he reared back his fist, I pulled out those two rocks I had painted green and white earlier. Holding them tightly, I waited as he ran, telling myself to hold off until the last second. Finally, just before he would’ve been on top of me, I activated two more small spots of blue paint on my heels. Thanks to the position my feet were in, I was sent backwards and up slightly, as the man let out a screaming curse and swung at the spot where I had just been. At the same time, I threw both of those rocks up toward his face. The second I activated them, the white paint I had covered them in went off in a quick, incredibly bright flash. 

Wait, what? That was actually a lot stronger than I’d expected, or seen up to that point. Every other time I used the white paint, it just made objects glow. My thought had been to throw white glowing rocks into his eyes to maybe distract him or whatever. The green paint had been to make them fly faster, but… Actually, come to think of it, the rocks didn’t continue to glow afterwards. It was like they had expended the full effect of the paint at once. Had I somehow put the entire ten seconds worth of light into that single flash? Wait, when I put the green in there, the two colors sort of ran together. Did the green imbue its speed into the white to make the effect faster, but more powerful? Was that something it could do?

All those thoughts jumped into my head as I came down back on the ground and rolled along the cement. Juice was bellowing loudly as he reeled and waved his hands in front of his face. Yeah, he had been at least temporarily blinded. Which was better than I had expected this to go. I was really—

A giant hand wrapped around me from behind, hoisting me off the ground while squeezing tight enough to hurt. 

Oh, right, there was still that other problem. 

Janus, who had apparently recovered, were taking themselves off the ground while holding me even tighter. If they squeezed any more, I was pretty sure something would start to break. Uncle Friendly was the one facing me, but he didn’t look all that friendly in that moment. They stepped closer, maintaining their grip while I grunted in pain. His voice came in a low snarl, teeth clenched. “Now, see, you just can’t leave well enough alone, can you? You really think you’re enough to rescue all those people by yourself, you stupid little shit?”

Grunting a little as he kept squeezing, I took a moment to force the words out. “You might be right about me being a… uggnn…. stupid… little shit. Maybe that’s why I’m confused right now. Since you’re, ugggnnn… so much smarter than me, could you maybe answer one little question?” Pausing just a bit, I made the next words come out pointedly, while they leaned a bit closer to hear me better. “Rescue what people?” 

The skating pit was to their left, out of sight of both of them. With a confused noise, Mister Harmful turned their head so he could see it… and realized that the pit was empty, save for the two disarmed and thoroughly pummeled thugs I had knocked into it. Throughout the past few moments, while I was playing distraction, the hostages had all clambered out the opposite side and were running off across the park. 

While they were distracted by that, I activated my secret weapon, the thing I had prepared ahead of time for something just like this (yeah, I was expecting them to grab me at some point). I had painted my entire body under the suit pink. I activated that paint now, and the force of their hand squeezing me instantly made my body squirt down both of their grasp. It was a very weird sensation, to say the least. My head inside the helmet stayed intact, but the rest of me was basically like an old tube of toothpaste. Well, more like my body was the toothpaste itself and my costume was the tube. Either way, I went schlooping down out of Janus’s hand, landing on the ground under the massive fist while deactivating the pink paint. Since I had done so before the ten seconds was up, my body was instantly very bouncy, so I managed to spring backward away from them as they brought that hand slamming down into the spot where I had just been with a loud curse.

Oh yeah, and Juice had recovered from that temporary blindness by that point. So they were all up and pissed at me. Which was… fun? I really hadn’t thought much further than this. Carefully and quietly taking care of all the wandering thugs and then distracting the big guys long enough for the hostages to escape was basically my plan. Except now I was stuck here facing a couple very pissed off and powerful Fell-Touched, who probably wanted to play table tennis with my head. And I was pretty sure I still wasn’t quite ready to start using new paint yet. This uhh, this could be a problem. 

“Hey guys?” I started a little weakly after standing up. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in a lit-aaahh!” That last bit came as the two figures launched themselves at me. I activated the last bit of green paint I had, before launching myself forward in a roll that carried me just underneath their outstretched hands. I was pretty sure the only thing that saved me in that moment was that none of them expected me to move toward them rather than away. Janus had actually been extending their arms, anticipating my retreat. The fact that I moved forward into that diving roll between them caught everyone involved (even me, to an extent considering the terrified screaming some small part of my consciousness was doing) off guard. Before they could recover, I kept going, popping my skates out as I dove down into the pit. My wheels caught the cement ramp partway, and I went rolling halfway up the embankment on the opposite side. 

From the corner of my eyes, I could see Mister Harmful facing me, even as he sent one of their gigantic fists my way, their arm extending a good thirty feet in the process. Just before it would have collided with my very fragile body, I leapt off that side of the concrete embankment, landing sideways on the railing of one of the short bridges people could use to walk over the pit. My skates grinded along that railing while I shouted, “Can we talk about this?!” 

Judging from the lightning blast that Juice sent my way, which I barely managed to dodge by dropping off the railing back into the pit, the answer was no. They really did not want to talk. Though maybe they just wanted me to not be able to talk, or breathe for that matter. 

I, on the other hand, quite enjoyed my ability to do both of those things. So I breathed a sigh of relief at the feeling of my paint returning. The tanks were refilled. And none too soon either, as I was barely able to send a shot of red against the cement half-pipe in the distance to pull myself off that spot just before the Janus jerks crashed down right there. They tried to grab my foot, extending their arm after me, but I twisted around in midair and shot a burst of yellow right into their incoming hand. It slowed them down enough that I was able to land. Or rather, hit the cement and rebound off it. Because I’d put blue paint on my shoes right before impact, so it simply launched me upwards and back the way I’d come. 

A thought occurred in that instant, as I went flying back toward Janus, feet-first. Lifting my head, I quickly extended both arms to point toward them. One fired off a shot of red, while the other hit them with green. Both shots of paint hit the same spot simultaneously. Like before, with the rocks, the two colors sort of melded together in a swirl pattern. At the same time, I made the same green-red swirl pattern on the bottom of my shoes, activating all of it together. 

Okay, holy fuck. The world was suddenly a blur as I was hurled that way. The green paint definitely sped up the pull from the red. I went from being yanked in that direction to being shot like a bullet. It also made the red paint immediately vanish, but still. The momentum was already there. I barely had time to start to scream while activating an orange elephant symbol on my back. 

Uncle Friendly, the one who had been facing me, made the faintest noise of disbelief before both of my feet collided with his face. All that momentum I’d built up, from yanking myself one way with red paint, then rebounding backward and up with blue, and finally speeding myself up with that weird green-red combined pull, every last bit of it went into that impact. Even with the orange protection I had, I could still feel it. And they definitely felt it. Janus hit the ground, blood flying from Friendly’s nose and mouth. Not that I had much of a chance to notice, as I landed in an awkward rolling tumble, falling end over end along the concrete before coming to a sprawled heap. 

Boy was I glad for the orange paint. Not to mention my helmet and knee and elbow pads. That definitely hurt. But hey, I had managed to put Janus down, and they weren’t moving very much. Which gave me a chance to just lay there for a second, eyes wide behind my mask and helmet. Holy shit. Holy shit, that was something new. Green made the other paints work faster but also wore them out immediately. That was–

Oh shit there was still– A large orange hammer appeared on my chest and reactivated my protection just before a blast of electricity slammed into me. It felt like getting a nasty static shock after rubbing my sock-covered feet on the carpet and grabbing a doorknob. Not fun, but definitely not the kind of damage Juice had clearly been going for. Unfortunately, it was still enough to stun me for a moment. Which gave him a chance to grab me off the ground by the throat, still channeling more electricity into me.

Spasming as he held me off the ground and squeezed tighter, I tried to grab his hand to pry his fingers off my throat, to no avail. I was pretty sure that even if I painted my entire body purple, it wouldn’t beat his strength. But maybe if I used the new green-boosted-purple? Unfortunately, with the continued shocks running through me, I couldn’t actually focus enough to paint myself properly. Every time I tried to do so, another shock hit me. It still wasn’t doing nearly as much damage as it should have, but the jolt was enough to stop my concentration. 

This could be really bad. I only had a few more seconds of protection before he’d be able to do some real damage. I had to focus, had to force myself to push past the shocks and get… myself… 

“Hey, jerk!” A voice shouted those two words from the side. As Juice turned his head that way, he was hit in the face by a firehose-like concentrated blast of water. The force, suddenness, and (I was guessing) coldness of it made even him recoil reflexively. His grip on me loosened, just as someone appeared next to me. I felt hands grab my shoulders before I was suddenly a good twenty feet away. Twenty feet north, of course. 

“You okay?” Amber, now dressed as That-A-Way, asked as we both pivoted back in time for me to see Izzy, also in her own costume as Raindrop, facing Juice. He’d recovered from the initial shock from that blast of water, and was trying to hit her with an electrical shock. But she had half a dozen park benches and chairs from the audience floating between herself and him, and whenever the man tried to blast her, it was intercepted by one of those obstacles. 

Oh yeah, and Juice’s situation was further complicated by the fact that he was floating up off the ground. Izzy had reversed his gravity, or removed it, or whatever the term was. He was going up, anyway. 

Shaking off the last of the lingering effects of being repeatedly shocked, I started to nod. But before I could say anything, Amber pivoted so she was facing east, while putting herself in front of me. At that moment, Juice shot off another electrical blast, this one in our direction. But Amber was invulnerable in that position, and blocked me from getting hit. 

“You little fucks!” the man was shouting while still shooting off one blast after another. “You think you’re hot shit?! You think making me float up here is gonna accomplish anything?! You got no clue, you fucking neurodivergents!” 

Except he definitely did not call us neurodivergent. The word he used started with R and should have resulted in whoever his mother was washing his mouth out with about seventeen bars of soap. 

We didn’t have soap. But Izzy had water, and she used it to spray him down thoroughly once more, while he recoiled and spun in the air. Before he could recover from that, she called, “Why do you guys always forget the second half of my name? It’s Rain–

“–drop.” And with that, Izzy must have dramatically increased the amount of gravity on Juice, because he wasn’t floating anymore. He went slamming hard into the cement with enough force to crack it all around him. Even with his enhanced strength, he was out. 

Looking from his unconscious form over to the still-barely moving Janus, I slumped in relief. “Thank God. I am so glad you guys managed to… uh… wait, how did you… you know, change?” I kept my voice low. 

Amber, also whispering, replied, “Wobble brought the costumes. He and the others are on the other side of the park, with the rest of your team. There’s more of these guys and a bunch of their lackeys, looking for that Inessa chick. They’re tearing the place apart.” 

“I am so confused,” I admitted, already starting to move. If the others were still in the middle of a fight, I wanted to be there. “Why the hell are they after some random celebrity skater?!” 

Izzy joined us in running that way, while Amber shook her head and replied, “You know what, dude?

“That’s a really good question!” 

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Exhibition 25-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Thankfully, the curfew had been relaxed somewhat. Now we were able to stay out until nine pm without getting in trouble. I wanted to think that that was because the streets were safer now, but honestly it was probably the product of a lot of people and businesses complaining about losing money by having to shut down so early. There was no way Deicide was going to let this gang war end like that, and between that and this whole Scions business, I had absolutely no doubt that things would get a whole lot worse before they got better. But for now, there was nothing any of us could do about it. Besides, it wasn’t like we didn’t have our own situations to deal with.

And speaking of situations to deal with, Paige and Sierra weren’t done editing those pictures to their satisfaction by the time the evening rolled around. So, after sending them a text to let me know if they wanted to meet up later to look at their work (not that I would’ve been able to contribute anything more than an encouraging thumbs up), I went to the park with Izzy. The two of us left without letting my parents know where we were going, mostly because none of them, Simon included, had been home at all the whole day. They were busy, apparently. Something told me it had to do with the attempted attacks on Fragile as well as Carousel and Syndicate. Which, good, the Ministry ought to do something about that. Or maybe it had something to do with whoever had planted those bombs at the party Amber went to. She’d told me about that too, though it felt like she had been leaving something out. 

Either way, we were here now. I had my board with me, because there was no way I would be able to resist the urge to get some of my own skating in either before or after watching the master. And I definitely wasn’t alone with that. As Izzy and I walked through the park toward the main attraction, I could see at least half the onlookers had boards of their own. 

There was also a stand near the road selling both full boards as well as separate wheels, trucks (the metal t-shaped piece that goes on the bottom to keep the wheels attached), and decks. Most were the usual tourist trap garbage marked up to get suckers. But there were a few good ones in there. We stopped and I looked over the selection to help Izzy find a board that would work for her to start out. I had her take a couple options out to roll along the pavement to see which one felt the most natural. Once she settled on something, I picked up the board to look at it. The deck was pretty cool. The centerpiece was a dark-haired angel, with one of her intricately-detailed feathery wings spread out over the bottom half of the board, while she held a gleaming sword out over the top half. 

Izzy tried to pay for it, but I stopped her. It was my idea for her to try this out, so I gave the guy a couple hundred for the board, plus another hundred for the protective gear, and we started to walk away. Just as we were turning, however, I heard a guy nearby snort, “Stupid chicks, man.” 

Looking that way, I saw a guy about an inch or two under six feet, with a thin blond goatee and long hair. He looked to be maybe two years older than me, and was wearing a black tank top with dark baggy shorts. A couple other guys were around him. 

“What?” I asked, unable to stop myself. 

Looking me up and down, the guy gave a soft, derisive laugh before shaking his head. “Nothing. You go have fun pretending you know anything about real skating. I’m sure your TikTok fans think you’re totally cool.” 

I blinked a couple times. “Dude, what the fuck are you talking about?” 

The guy had started to turn back to say something to his friends, and now seemed annoyed that I had asked any follow-up questions. He gave me a dirty look. “Look, all you babes are the same. You see Inessa getting famous cuz she’s like the one fucking chick in a million who knows which side of the skateboard goes on the ground, and you want in on it. You roll around on a board for a few minutes, do some slick editing to make it look like you’re not total ass, and put it online so all the simps out there can drool all over it and throw donations at you for doing jack squat.” 

Absorbing that for a moment, I retorted, “Well, when it comes to things that are total ass you are probably the expert.”

“Oh fuck off, kid,” he shot back. “What’re you, like thirteen? Mommy bought you a skateboard instead of an Easy Bake Oven and now you think you’re cool? Every little bit of space we guys have, girls think they have to barge in and take over. How’d you like it if we started barging into your spaces?” 

The words blurted out of me before I even thought about it. “If our spaces includes the shower, I think everyone stuck in your immediate vicinity would be A-Okay with you spending some time there.” 

Yeah, the guy didn’t like that. He snapped, “Why don’t you come back and talk again once you figure out if you’re a guy or a girl.” 

That… that made me rock backward on my heels, confusion flooding me. Wait, he didn’t know about–wait. “What?” I managed, feeling Izzy touch my back. 

His hand waved, gesturing to my head. “Long hair on one side, short hair on the other. Are you a girl or a guy? At least in a few years once you grow more than bumps there you won’t be able to pretend anymore.” 

His words, especially as he gestured toward my chest, made his buddies snicker. I was already balling up my fist and starting to move, when Izzy caught my arm somewhat subtly, stepping next to me. “We should go,” she murmured before adding, “Looks like you scared him enough already.” That was added with a not-so-subtle gesture downward. 

“Scared? Who’s sca–what?” The guy looked down, his eyes widening as he saw the large wet spot across the front of his shorts that Izzy had just surreptitiously put there while everyone was distracted. His hands moved to cover it, even as the others around him, including his buddies, started laughing. “That’s not–fuck–shut up, I didn’t piss my–fuck you!” 

Izzy and I both used that opening to leave, even as the guy’s words about me choosing to be male or female played through my head. He was an asshole and a moron, obviously, so I should’ve just ignored him. There were always going to be people like that. It didn’t… it didn’t mean anything.

“Thanks,” I murmured toward Izzy. 

She hesitated, then just squeezed my hand. “He had it coming.”

Thankfully, I was quickly distracted as we slipped through the crowd by the sound of a gasp going up around us. It made my whole body tense as my gaze jerked around to see what was wrong. My brain immediately leapt to all sorts of possibilities. Including the not-so-terrible thought that the guy back there had just spontaneously combusted. 

In this case, however, there was no threat. Instead, I saw Inessa emerge from the crowd. Seeing her, my heart leapt. God, she was so cool. Even now, walking through the crowd full of people staring at her, she was cool. And the way she grinned when she saw me was just… god, what was wrong with me? Was it weird that I just wanted to stand there and giggle like an idiot when she smiled at me like that? 

Well it definitely would’ve been weird if I didn’t say something pretty quick. So, I forced myself to take a step that way while speaking up. “Hey, Inessa. This is Izzy, my sister.” I gestured that way before adding, “We were just getting her a board.” 

“Izzy, hey!” Inessa stepped over to join us. “You mind if I take a look?” 

Wordlessly handing it over, the younger girl looked at me. Her mouth opened like she was going to say something, but then she stopped and just stared. The look she was giving me made me think I had done something weird. Maybe she just noticed how I was acting around Inessa. Stupid fangirl instincts. Yeah, she definitely noticed something. But what was I supposed to do? It was Inessa Sidorov! I couldn’t just ignore that! I couldn’t–I–it was Inessa Sidorov!

Speaking of whom, the woman in question finished looking over the board and then started to talk to Izzy herself about how to take care of it, how she should start learning about riding, and all that stuff. There had to be a couple hundred people standing around, craning to look at her, but Inessa was solely focused on talking to Izzy about learning how to skate properly. It was like Izzy was the only person in the world for her right then. She even convinced the younger girl to give her her phone number so she could call and check in. Then she talked to me for a minute, sharing a couple jokes with both of us (and the crowd) about the first time she started to learn how to skate in her own backyard back in Ukraine and how stupid she had been for not wearing protective gear until she broke her wrist. Then she took it seriously. She made Izzy promise to wear all the right equipment every time she did anything on the board. And got me to double-promise to make sure we both did. 

After that, she made sure we had the tickets to get into the ‘backstage’ tent, then headed off into the crowd once more, talking to someone else she had met. The group moved with her, since the people, thankfully, still didn’t know who I was. I had a lot of problems with what my parents were and what they did, but the fact that I was able to be anonymous in this crowd still meant a lot. Looking at the way everyone followed Inessa around, at how famous she was amongst other skaters and all that, it was just… it made me think about how different my life would’ve been if my parents didn’t make sure I could live my life as normally as possible. 

Finally shaking my head, I turned to ask Izzy if she wanted to get a drink, only to stop as she was still staring at me. Outside of the distraction when Inessa had been talking directly to her, I didn’t think she had stopped staring. But I didn’t understand why. She’d been looking at me weirdly for the past few minutes, basically ever since I introduced her to Inessa. But all I’d said was–

Oh. 

Eyes widening a bit, I blurted, “Uh, right, sister. I said you were my sister. I mean–I’m–that wasn’t–I wasn’t trying to assume you–I mean I know you really aren’t sure if you–I–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted, though she sounded a bit confused. “You weren’t… trying to pressure me or anything, I get it. You just said it. Like you weren’t even thinking about that.” 

My head shook quickly. “Yeah, I definitely wasn’t thinking, you’re right on that one. I just–I don’t wanna push you or anything. I was distracted because it’s Inessa Sidorov and I wanted to introduce you guys and–uhh, yeah.” My face was a bit flushed. “Are you okay?” 

Thankfully, now that she’d had a moment to recover from what had obviously been a surprise, Izzy seemed more amused by my reaction than anything else. She smiled just a little before nodding. “It’s okay, Cassie. You just… I wasn’t… it was new.” 

Part of me thought I shouldn’t push things, but the impulsive part took over and asked, “New, but maybe not terrible?” 

There was the slightest moment of hesitation as Izzy considered that before she smiled once more and agreed, “New, but not terrible.” She leaned closer, lowering her voice. “You really like her, huh?” 

“Inessa?” I felt my blush deepen while shifting on my feet. “She’s been my hero basically forever. I mean, the non-Touched hero.” My face darkened a little. “Let’s hope this one turns out better than my favorite Touched hero did.” I had told her about the whole Silversmith thing and how much I’d liked him before finding out the truth. It was still a bit of a painful thought. Especially when I considered the Silversmith sheets and pillowcases I’d had, and the action figures, and the–yeah. Boy, how had my dad really felt when I’d asked for all that stuff as a kid? 

Izzy seemed to read the expression on my face and changed the subject to talk about the board she had just done. Together, we walked over to one of the open skating areas and I walked her through a little bit of early practice. Before we were done there, Amber joined us. She wasn’t a huge skater herself, but she did know a few things. Together, the three of us messed around by one of the ramps. I showed them a couple simple tricks, they acted like it was a much bigger deal than it actually was and made a show of cheering just to make me blush even more, that sort of thing. It was fun. It was… nice, and it had nothing to do with any Touched stuff. I could almost pretend I was a normal person again for a few minutes. 

Okay, that wasn’t right. I didn’t want to be normal. I had no desire to be average. I loved my powers. I loved the freedom they offered, the… I loved being Paintball. But the stuff about my family, the stress over what they were and what they did, that part wasn’t exactly fun. It was nice to just shove that out of my head for a little while and focus on something normal and dumb. Even with people like that jackass back there, who really deserved a good kick in the–fuck, no, I was pushing that out of my mind and focusing on fun things. 

Of course, that couldn’t last forever. Though in this case, the reminder of my other life wasn’t exactly the worst. It came in the form of Ryder. I caught a glimpse of the boy standing off to the side, next to a much worse reminder of everything, Arleigh. He didn’t exactly look comfortable being there, and hadn’t noticed me yet. Instead, his focus seemed to be on Errol, who had just come into view through the crowd holding a couple corndogs, one of which he offered to the older boy.

Seeing Ryder had reminded me of what happened the night before, and the fact that he now knew who I was. Seeing Errol, on the other hand, reminded me of the whole Scions situation. My family had to know Errol was the one Pencil and Cup were looking for, right? So how many of the people around us were secretly guarding him? 

Aaand so much for not thinking about my family situation. That had been a pleasant few minutes. 

Still, I shook that off as best as I could. There was nothing to be done about it right now, and assuming my family did have people watching him, they might wonder why I was staring that way so intently when I was supposed to be here relaxing and having fun. So, I forced my gaze away and walked with Izzy and Amber toward the tent. Halfway there, we were met by Dani, who emerged from the crowd before stopping as she noticed the girl beside me. “Oh, hey… guys.” 

Clearing her throat, Amber shifted her weight. I could hear the uncertainty in her voice. “Hey, Dani. What’s uhh…” She coughed, again sounding strange. “What’s going on?” 

Yeah, something had definitely happened between the two of them. Maybe they kissed and now it was all awkward? That was the only thing I could think of. It definitely made sense, considering the way they kept flipping between avoiding eye contact, then seeking it out, then avoiding it. Between that and the fact that they’d clearly started to develop a thing for each other since Dani joined the school, it made sense. 

Of course, I also knew about the other complication to this situation. Pack. Pack obviously had a thing for That-A-Way. She’d made that abundantly clear. So no wonder Amber was confused about the whole thing. She probably felt guilty about having a thing for Dani too. Dani was the safe option, since she wasn’t an active criminal. But having feelings for Dani made Amber feel guilty about having feelings for Pack, and vice versa. That had to be hard to sort out. 

Boy, wasn’t it good that I didn’t have any problems like that? I might’ve had every other possible complication on the planet, but my love life was just completely nonexistent. Go me. 

It turned out that Dani had a backstage pass too, so the four of us made our way into the tent. There were refreshments, coffee, iced tea, and other stuff laid out along a table, as well as comfortable chairs to sit in facing the skating area where Inessa would be giving her show. And if that wasn’t enough, there were huge television monitors to either side providing footage from people on the sidelines, and a couple drones. So you could see the whole show from multiple angles instead of just what was right in front of you. 

Inessa was back here too, joking around with one of the event organizers. She was making a point of talking up all the dangerous tricks she was going to do, including a lot of hand gestures to show off spins and flips. I could almost see the terror in his face as he thought about what would happen if Inessa Sidorov got hurt during an event he had helped put together. Then they were joined by, of all people, Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who had given me the tour. Which, I supposed made sense. They probably had a good bit invested in this event, now that I thought about it.

Mornes was clearly easing the event guy’s nerves, while also joking back and forth with Inessa. He was good at his job, that much was obvious. He was wearing a different Hawaiian shirt than I’d seen him in before. This one was purple with yellow suns and black palm trees. 

Turning away from that whole thing, I joined the others in finding our seats, putting my skateboard on the floor so I could rest my feet on it to stop the thing from rolling away. Then I turned to Izzy, Dani, and Amber and started to regale them with one of my earliest memories of watching Inessa’s videos back when I was seven years old. It basically involved scrolling through YouTube on my tablet while laying inside a blanket fort on the outside patio, looking for something fun to watch. 

“It was funny,” I was saying, “cuz when I first saw the video list, I wasn’t even gonna click on it, but then…” I trailed off, my voice going silent. But my brain wasn’t. I knew what I was about to say. The words that had been on the tip of my tongue. ‘But then he told me to look at them.’ 

He. Anthony. The name wasn’t there, not inside that particular memory anyway. It wasn’t that specific. But I knew it had to be him. I had a fuzzy memory of a boy who had been laying with me inside that blanket fort reaching out to poke at the screen, insisting I should check out the video I had been about to scroll past. I saw his hand, heard his voice. I heard myself joke that he just didn’t want me to look at another rollercoaster video. My head, in my own memory, turned to say something else to him. I saw his face starting to come into view. 

Suddenly, I was doubled over in real life. A sharp, shocking rush of pain was filling my head as I groaned aloud and clutched it. Izzy and Amber were both saying something, but I couldn’t hear them. All I could focus on was the blinding pain that left me almost whimpering. 

It was gone as soon as it arrived. I found myself blinking a few times before looking up. Izzy and Amber were there, the latter kneeling on the ground right in front of me. Dani was looking over from her own seat, seeming just as concerned, and there were a few other people paying attention. 

“I–I’m fine, sorry.” Shaking my head, I swallowed. “I just need to get some air. Maybe some water. You want some water?” Even as they asked questions, I pushed myself up, waving off the concern. “Just a little migraine, it’s gone now. I’ll get some water and be right back.” To demonstrate that I was fine, I did a quick little spin with my arms out. None of them looked all that convinced, but I waved them off again and headed out of the tent. What was I supposed to say, that every time I started to get memories of Anthony back, my head felt like it was going to explode? 

Well, I could’ve told Amber and Izzy, but Dani was right there and she wasn’t involved in any of this. Plus someone else might’ve overheard. So that would have to wait. Instead, I took a short walk, passing the regular refreshments table inside the VIP tent to instead walk out to one of the vendor trailers near the parking lot. There, I stood in line, got a tray with a few bottled waters and a large plate of nachos for all of us to share, then started to head back. No way did I wanna be late for the actual show, headache or no headache. 

Unfortunately, I was only about halfway back to the VIP tent, making my way through the crowd, when a frantic shout from the sidelines made my gaze whip that way. I was just in time to see an enormous pair of hands, each bigger than the semi-trailer they were covering, lift that trailer into the air and hurl the thing toward a group of assembled onlookers. The people scattered in every direction while the trailer slammed into the ground there and went tumbling side-over-side. 

“We didn’t get our invitation!” the Uncle Friendly side of Janus shouted as their massive arms went back to normal size. The literal two-faced man (men?) stood there, accompanied by the large black man I was going to guess was Juice, given the electricity he was projecting into a ball between his hands. He was wearing a different costume than I was used to. This one was mostly black armor, with several gold lightning bolt-like designs randomly across it, and a metal bullet-shaped helmet with gold lenses over his eyes. 

“Yeah,” Juice was saying, even as a couple dozen other guys with a mix of guns, chains, and knives spread out from behind them. “But don’t worry about entertaining us. 

“We know how to make our own fun.” 

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New Deals 13-07 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t a mistake, apparently. My name was written out and everything. Paige was inviting me to her birthday party. Or her (adopted) parents were making her. Or this was some kind of elaborate trap. Actually, the fact that I genuinely wasn’t sure if it was a standard mean girl school teenage bullshit trap or something more nefarious involving her supervillain father (not that I had any room to judge as far as that went) kind of said something about how my life was. 

So which was it? Assuming this whole thing was intentional, was Paige playing her bitchy shtick again, waiting for me to either come so she could pull something or not come so she could tell everyone what a snob I was? Or was it something worse she and her father had cooked up?

Complicating everything, of course, was the fact that I’d found out we used to be friends. Which was still something that I couldn’t wrap my head around, no matter how many times I thought about it. Paige Banners and I were friends at some point? The same girl who had been… who had made so much of my school life… who had… how were we friends? Why was she apparently so different now? It couldn’t just be memory loss, right? What was going on? 

In any case, two days (really a day and a half) after getting the invitation, I still didn’t know exactly what that was all about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a choice about going. Apparently Paige’s family (or the people who had apparently adopted her?) had also sent the invitation to my parents, making it an official sort of thing, and my mother had said that I needed to put in an appearance to avoid upsetting the Banners. It was a rich people thing. My family was rich, the Banners were rich, we had to play nice in some respects. I didn’t have to stay for long, but I had to at least show up. 

In any case, now it was Friday, which meant two things. First, we were supposed to have dinner with that reporter guy who was up from Los Angeles. And second, I was going out that night to meet with those two from before, Murphy and Roald. I actually had a plan for that bit, at least. I’d talked with Wren and she said she could use their help putting some stuff together. Extra hands and all that. 

So, that at least was something I could start them on. Honestly, I was just glad I’d come up with an answer to one of the questions I’d been thinking about the past couple days, even if it was the simplest one. As for the whole birthday thing and the wider Paige situation… yeah, I had nothing. My brain kept saying that at least I could use this chance to find out more. It was the best opportunity I’d been offered to get close to Paige (a thought that would have made me dry heave not long ago) without it being obvious that I was investigating her. She’d invited me, after all, whatever the reason. I could use that, maybe. 

To distract myself from all those confusing thoughts (as well as the fact that I had every reason to be suspicious about this party), I was taking a trip through the city as Paintball about an hour after school. Not really looking for anything in particular, just running and skating through the rooftops and across buildings to clear my head. I was going to have to head home for dinner eventually, but that wouldn’t be for another couple hours. We weren’t eating until seven, which gave me plenty of time to take a good run and hopefully get my brain on straight before it twisted itself into knots. 

Yeah, clearing my mind was obviously going super-well, given how much I was still thinking about that whole thing. Urgh. Giving my head a hard shake, I focused on where I actually was. The answer, in that case, was ‘skating along the very edge of a roof, using green paint for speed as I raced toward the far end.’ The building was a good twenty stories high, leaving the view immediately to my left fairly… precarious, to say the least. I ignored that, staring straight ahead as the wheels of my skates glided easily along the roof. The green paint meant I was ‘gliding’ at about forty miles an hour, so the far end was coming up pretty fast. That steep drop loomed. 

Spraying blue paint at the very edge of the roof just in time, I activated it, crouching at the last second before I was launched up and forward with a loud scream of adrenaline. Fuck, fuck! Say whatever about the stress of my whole situation, but I loved this part of my powers. It was so incredibly freeing. I literally hurled myself out into open air twenty stories up. If I fell, if I fucked up, if my powers dropped for whatever reason, if I made any real mistake, the consequences would have been catastrophic. It was terrifying but also so… so amazing. I loved it. I loved my powers, and how I could use them. 

Flipping over high in the air, I twisted my body until my feet were pointed sideways toward the side of the building I was flying at. The momentum from my launch carried me clear across the street that was so far below, until I hit that wall. Instantly, the pace-skates that Wren had put together shifted gravity so that being sideways against that building was the same as being right-side up for me. I didn’t even slow down, ‘landing’ hard against the wall before immediately continuing to skate, that time along the wall. My skates made clickety-clack sounds as they passed through the grooves of the bricks, almost calming in a way. Especially if you didn’t think about how high up you were. It helped. All of this was helping me feel better. 

Before reaching the edge of that wall, I retracted my skates with a quick command and simply ran the last few steps while focusing on the purple stars I’d previously set up along my legs. Activating them for the strength boost, I threw myself sideways off the wall. At the same time, I turned my entire arm and hand bright pink and heaved it out as hard as I could while activating that paint as well. My arm, suddenly rubberized, actually stretched a good ten feet out to catch hold of the ledge of another building. Between the purple and pink paint, I was able to grab the ledge and swing myself over that way, letting out another loud whoop of joy at the rush. 

Releasing the ledge as I managed to swing myself over, I cancelled the pink paint so my arm snapped back to normal. Now I was diving through the air feet-first, at an angle toward the side of a much lower building, only a few stories tall. 

Pointing my hands that way, I shot a spray of pink paint, activating both that and the orange sun image I already had on my back. The instant before I would have hit the pink paint, I deactivated it, shifting the pink to its secondary effect of making the target very springy for those brief few seconds. Which was all the time I needed before my feet collided with the wall, visibly denting it inward a bit before it snapped back to the way it had been to launch me back up and toward the opposite side of the street. 

Flipping over through that, I hit the wall of another building a couple stories up and glanced down to see a few people taking pictures from below, or even waving. A few called, asking for autographs, or even for a ‘ride’ through the city.   

I waved back, crouching a bit to slap my hand against the wall. The logo I’d made up for ‘signing’ things back at the Ten Towers headquarters appeared. Black oval with ‘Paintball’ written in white cursive letters, along with a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other. I made the logo large enough to see before throwing myself back into a run once more. I’d let the people down there have some time to take pictures of the logo before dismissing it so some poor guy didn’t have to scrub it clean. 

Yeah, that stuff seemed pretty silly and even arrogant if I thought about it too much, but I’d heard about how important it was to keep a good public image. I really didn’t have it in me to drop down there and talk to people while I was still trying to clear my head. But I could, at least, give them that little logo thing to show I wasn’t ignoring them. Besides, playing things up like that was fun. And I had to admit, the cheers as I ran along the wall before using blue paint to launch myself up and away were pretty amazing to hear. 

Just as I landed on the edge of another roof, the Touched-business phone buzzed in my pocket. Glancing down to see the people gathering up under the logo I’d painted to take pictures, I pulled the phone out and glanced down. It was the number That-A-Way had given me. 

“Hey, you busy?!” she immediately blurted the second that I answered. It sounded like she was out of breath. “Cuz we could use a little help over here!” 

Well, that got my attention. Quickly straightening, I asked, “Help over where, with what?” Tempting as it was to add a snarky comment about how she better not be asking me to help her move, I restrained the impulse. This sounded serious. She was definitely in the middle of something big, given the shouts and other sounds I could vaguely hear in the background. 

There was a brief pause while That-A-Way clearly dealt with something else, before she responded. “Fox Theatre on Woodward! Near downtown. You know where–what the fuck am I saying–the baseball stadium! We’re at the baseball stadium! There’s some big fight going on between the–Rain, get down! Some big fight going on between the Niners and the Eights. They’ve got the big guns a couple blocks north, but we’re catching the edge of it and could use a little–” There was a sudden loud pair of gunshots that cut off her words, and my heart leapt into my stomach until her voice came back midway through a sentence, “–of shit! Paintball?” 

“I’m on my way!” I blurted quickly, wanting the other girl to focus on what she was doing. “I’ll be right there, I’m just–I’m coming, just a few minutes out!” With that, I dismissed the logo on the building nearby before running to the edge of the roof I was on, launching myself upward. Fox Theatre on Woodward. That was the same street where the library that I’d eavesdropped on Paige’s conversation with her father was on, but a couple miles further south. And That-A-Way was right, it was also directly next to Whitaker-Trammell Field, the massive domed baseball stadium (for the Detroit Tigers) my father had helped fund the creation of to replace the former Comerica Park about ten years earlier.

In any case, I really was only a few minutes away. At least the way I traveled. Staying atop the buildings, I raced toward the theater as quickly as possible. My skates seemed to barely touch down before I launched myself again, urging myself to fucking move already. It didn’t matter how fast I was going. It didn’t matter that I was hurtling myself recklessly through the air while barely paying attention to my surroundings. It felt too slow. Go, go, I had to get there. If something happened to That-A-Way, or any of the others, because I was too slow to help… I couldn’t let that happen. I had to get there right god damn now. 

Actually, I really wasn’t paying that much actual attention to my surroundings. I was running along the side of buildings, jumping across billboards, popping my skates out to glide across the very edge of roofs, all while going way too fast to be judging all of this manually. It was like when I was navigating through those trees in the middle of the night. I just… knew where to go. 

Not something to worry about right then. Another example of my weird extra sense or whatever, but I didn’t have time to focus on it. The Minority. That-A-Way. I had to get there to help. Any other weirdness could wait until later. 

On the plus side, it didn’t actually take that long for me to get where I was going. And it took an even shorter amount of time for me to hear some of what was going on. There was gunfire, blaring horns and squealing tires from cars still trying to get away from being in the middle of it, screaming, and more. So much more. I was heading straight into a storm of chaos and violence. And, from the sound of what That-A-Way had said, this was just the edge of things. Just how bad was it further north, where the so-called ‘big guns’ were fighting? 

Pretty bad, clearly. But I had to focus on helping these guys. First, however, I had to see what was going on. My eyes scanned the street below frantically as I came to a stop at the edge of an office building across the street from the theater itself. Below me was the spot where the smaller Columbia street crossed Woodward. Columbia led straight through a couple large parking lots directly in front of the stadium. 

But baseball wasn’t the point. The real point were those two parking lots and the theater across Columbia street. There were people down there, spread all through the street, partially in the theater itself from the look of things, and in those parking lots. It was a mix of police, Prev gang members, Touched gang members, and the Minority. Not to mention a handful of civilians who were cowering on the ground, unable to get out of the line of fire. 

Judging from my quick look, what Way had said made sense. There were definitely two different gangs down there, a mix of Ninety-Niners and Easy Eights. It looked like some kind of massive fight had broken out, the cops intervened and were quickly outgunned, and now the Minority were trying to help. But they too were outnumbered. Luckily, the two gangs seemed more interested in fighting each other than in actually causing damage to the Star-Touched or police.

There. Janus (Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful) were standing at the edge of the nearest parking lot. They’d made their hands and arms massive, and were currently using them to lash out at the nearby Whamline. But the Minority guy kept launching energy coils that exploded to knock the incoming hands out of the way. He couldn’t do more than that, fighting a defensive battle, because there were two civilians huddled on the ground right behind him. Whamline was covering them, repeatedly knocking Janus’ hands out of the way. But with every grasp, the conjoined men kept getting closer to getting hold of him. They were using the fact that Whamline had to protect the prone civilians against him, almost like they were playing a game. Like a cat with a mouse. They were wearing him down. 

Using one shot of blue paint to launch myself that way, then another on top of the traffic light in the middle of the intersection, I flipped over in the air before shooting a spray of pink toward the tall lamp post about ten feet away from Janus, coating it as much as possible. Just before crashing into that same post (activating a bit of orange on one arm to avoid knocking the wind out of myself), I cancelled the pink paint while blurting, “I know you’re into this villain thing, but–” My full body hit the post, bending it all the way over in half before I threw myself off it to the side. “–I really think you should see the light!” As I said those last words, the lamp post snapped all the way upright and then continued over in the opposite direction, like flicking one of those springy doorstop things. The top of the lamp literally slammed into the top of their joined heads. “Up close and personal-like,” I finished from my crouched position, watching the men reel backward. Or forward, in Uncle Friendly’s case. Not that he looked all that friendly right then. They both seemed fairly annoyed with me, even as the lamp post snapped back to its normal position. But hey, at least I had their attention. 

Green paint, green paint, green paint! Activating the wide emerald wings I’d put on my back, I used the enhanced speed to barely avoid the truck-sized fist that Janus basically launched at me. Hurling myself upward and over, I landed on his extended wrist as that hand shot by right under me, shooting yellow down at that to slow them just a little. At the same time, I threw myself in a sideways flip, hitting the underside of their other arm, which was raised slightly higher, running along that with my gravity-defying boots.  

A few steps in and Janus clearly knew where I was, as the arm lifted up before abruptly slamming toward the ground. They were trying to squish me like a fly. And they might’ve managed it, if I hadn’t used that shot of yellow to slow them slightly. As it was, I barely managed to toss myself at the ground and away from the descending arm, tucking into a forward roll that carried me just out of the way as it slammed into the ground so hard I nearly lost my balance. 

Fortunately, the fact that I’d managed to get their attention so well wasn’t all bad news. It also meant that Whamline was able to regroup. Mister Harmful shouted a cursed warning, but it was too late, as the Minority Touched sent out four quick energy coils, which wrapped around Janus by all four limbs before quickly hurling him out of the way and across to the far side of the lot. 

“Go help Way and Rain!” he blurted at me, pointing to the theater across the street. “They’re inside, with hostages! I’ve got these guys!” 

My head snapped that way. I could see where the doors of the theater had been broken down entirely. That-A-Way and Raindrop were in there with bad guys and innocent civilians, apparently. Without pausing to think at all, I threw myself into a sprint that way, ignoring the screamed threat from Mister Harmful. He didn’t matter. Neither did his conjoined partner. The only thing that mattered was getting to That-A-Way and Raindrop. 

And hoping I wasn’t too late. 

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Alliances 6-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Something flicked hard against my helmet, snapping me awake with a gasp. I tried to sit up to take stock, but a hand was holding me down. A very big hand. 

My eyes opened, only to see the smiling face of Uncle Friendly staring down at me. He had enlarged his hand to take up most of my torso, easily holding me in place. “There we are,” the man announced. “You’re awake now.” 

“Good!” The snarled word came from the back of his head, where Mister Harmful’s face was. “If he’s awake, let’s get on to the fun part. We owe this little bastard.”

Oh… okay, this was bad. This was really bad. I couldn’t even tell where I was, aside from the fact that it was some room somewhere. I’d been knocked out long enough that we were no longer out on the street. We could have been anywhere. I… what was I supposed to do now? 

Besides be afraid, because I was acing that part. 

I started to shift a bit, but Uncle Friendly tightened his grip painfully, drawing a gasp from me. His voice was still polite and calm. “I see one bit of paint and I’m afraid I’ll just have to snap every rib you have. Then I’ll take those ribs and start jamming them through random bits of your body. And we really don’t want that, do we?”

“We don’t?” his other self retorted. “I thought that was Plan A.”

Uncle Friendly gave a soft chuckle. “Forgive my eager counterpart. He finds it difficult to forgive and forget. I’m afraid you very much annoyed him, and he’s quite looking forward to hurting you. Let’s try not to let it come to that. You and I, we can work this out peacefully, I believe.”

For a moment, I was silent, mind swimming as I thought to think of anything. That, and I needed a few seconds to collect myself so my voice would do more than whimper. Finally, all I could do was manage a weak, “So, is talking allowed?”

That smile of his brightened. “Of course it is! We can talk about a lot of things. But there’s one thing I’d rather focus on first. I think you know.”

Despite everything, a dozen potential smartass retorts popped into my head. But honestly, I… I was afraid. Yeah, maybe it was stupid and a real hero would’ve been cool and collected. But me? I was just scared, even if I didn’t want to show it. Could I put blue paint on myself to knock the man away from me? Probably. But could I do it fast enough that he couldn’t do a hell of a lot of damage to me first? I didn’t know. And this really wasn’t the best time to test it. I wasn’t even sure I could activate orange paint quickly enough to protect me from his retaliation. Except maybe I could put it on my back. If I put it on my back, I could hide it from him and—

“Now, now.” Friendly wagged a finger in front of my face. “You’re thinking. This isn’t something you need to think about. You know exactly what we need from you, don’t you?”

Face hidden behind my helmet and mask, I hesitated for just a second before replying, “You think I can tell you where Ashton Austin is.”

“You see?” Friendly gave a cheerful laugh. “We’re doing so well. You’re great at this. Except for one thing. We know you can tell us where the guy is. And the inventor girl. Both of them. You can tell us where they are, and we’ll all be civilized about this.”

They wanted Wren too? That made me focus more than anything else had. Slowly, I nodded. “Yeah. I guess. There’s just one problem. See, you keep insinuating about all the bad things you’re going to do to me if I don’t do what you want. Which could be a great motivator, don’t get me wrong. But like you said, there’s a little girl involved. Two, actually. And if I tell you what I know, I’ll be sentencing one to death, and the other to whatever painful things you already have in mind for me. If you think I’d be okay with that, that I’d help kill one girl and condemn another to being your slave so you can torture her into building you weapons to kill even more people… then you’re even dumber than that two-headed freak show act makes you look.”

A sudden pain filled my chest, as the man clamped down. It only lasted for a second, before he released me to spin his torso around so I was facing Mister Harmful. There was a sadistic grin on the second man’s face, and he raised his free hand while clamping down once more with the other. “Oh, I am so glad you said that. You’re mine now, you little cocksucker. I’ll show you just what a mistake you made.”

This was it. I had to get out of here right now, while I still had the—

“Stop.” The simple, yet commanding voice came from someone beyond Janus. Harmful sighed, making a face at me, while Friendly spoke. “At ease, Cav. We’re just getting a few answers. As long as the boy cooperates, he won’t suffer any permanent damage. But I’m afraid he needs to be convinced of the seriousness of the situation and our… enthusiasm.”

The voice, which I now recognized as female, spoke again. “Your boss wants to see him now. You know, upright and walking? As opposed to whatever condition he’d be in when you two finished up.”

Keeping their hand on my chest warningly, the conjoined pair slowly moved out of the way so I could see who they were speaking to. It was a rather voluptuous woman a couple inches under six feet. She wore a dark red bodysuit with black swirly lines randomly patterned across it, with black gloves and boots. Her face was covered by a large, oversized set of red goggles with some kind of breathing apparatus attached over her mouth and nose, like a gas mask. 

The woman saw me looking and chuckled briefly. “Good morning, little boy. Like what you see?”

With that, she was suddenly kneeling in front of me. Along with about five other versions of herself all lined up behind her all the way back to where she had started. A couple seconds later, all of them aside from the one kneeling in front of me disappeared, starting with the one furthest back and quickly making its way all the way up to her as they each in turn popped out of existence. 

I knew her. Or of her. This was Cavalcade. Her power was essentially a mixture of superspeed and duplication. Basically, she moved really fast in any direction by creating a duplicate of herself, then that version created another duplicate, and so on. She did this so quickly that it seemed to be super speed. Each duplicate only lasted a couple seconds before disappearing, so when she was running around, you’d see a trail of about twenty or thirty versions of her. I’d seen videos of her using it to surround a target and attack them from all sides at once. It was… pretty cool. 

And she also wasn’t a member of the Easy Eights. At least, not the last I’d heard. Cavalcade was a Sell-Touched, a mercenary, sometimes working for the bad guys, sometimes for the good guys. She went where the money was, like Lastword and Two-Step. 

Apparently the Easy Eights were currently paying her, because here she was, patting my arm reassuringly. “Don’t you worry. I’ll take you away from the big bad freakshow. But first…” She held up something I knew quite well. It was a pair of the stay-down cuffs. Which I really shouldn’t have been surprised that they had access to, yet made me wince inwardly nonetheless. 

She chuckled softly. “Yeah, he knows what they are. Come, turn over, let’s get you ready to see the lady throwing buckets of cash at me.”

The woman who was paying her. Deicide. She wanted to take me to see Deicide. Oh, this was bad. This was really bad. What was I supposed to do? I had to get out of here, but how? I still didn’t know where I was, aside from the fact that I could now see we were in a cement room that was probably intended to be a holding cell of some kind. That’s what they were using it for, anyway. A large metal door was over in the direction she had come from. But how could I get past Janus and Cavalcade? And even if I did manage that, I had no idea where that door led. Nor did I know how many threats might lay beyond it. I could maybe take them by surprise and get out to the hall, but then what? There could be anyone there. And this woman had super speed, of a sort. What in the living hell was I supposed to do now?

My musings were interrupted by a growl from Harmful. “She told you to do something, you little brat. Don’t make me—”

The woman held up a hand to stop him. “It’s okay, he’s just making sure there’s not an easy way to escape.” Her attention turned back to me then, tone curious. “So, are you satisfied or do we have to do this the hard way?” She didn’t sound threatening at all, more genuinely interested in what I was going to do. And totally casual, of course. It’s not like she really saw me as a threat given the situation. 

It almost would’ve been worth it to punch her, just to see how she reacted. But on the other hand, I really didn’t want to be left here with Janus. Plus, even with the cuffs on, if I got out of here, I could see what lay beyond this cell. There could be an opening. 

So, with an inward sigh, I turned over to present my wrists behind my back. Boy, did this ever suck. I was definitely not going to talk about this in any potential memoirs. 

Did people still write memoirs? 

The cuffs secured my hands behind my back, and the woman stood up with a gesture. “Come on, let’s go. You know how these things work, so stay right with me. You try to run off and you’ll regret it, I promise. And not just because of the cuffs.”

Friendly gave me a little wave, promising that we’d see each other soon. Then the woman led me out of the door. Beyond lay a slightly larger room that looked pretty similar. There were a couple armed thugs there, sitting at a table playing cards. They looked up as we came in, one of them coming to some form of attention. The other leaned back to get a better look at Cavalcade’s backside as we passed through. She ignored them entirely, taking me to the opposite door. There, we were met by a guy who at first glance looked like any other gangbanger. Really, he had baggy jeans with a chain hanging from them, a couple layers of shirts, and a leather jacket, all with nasty sayings on them. The only thing that gave him away as being Touched was the green helmet he wore. It was a full head and face covering thing, made of some kind of metal with clasps on either side. The front of the helmet was an engraved face of a laughing man, and the eyes were covered by sunglasses. 

This, I knew, was Sockinit. Yeah. Unlike my escort, he was one of the official Easy Eight Touched, one of their eight lieutenants, like Skadi and Janus. His power allowed him to dampen or cancel any number of things. He could mute voices or other sounds, stop chemical reactions from occurring, disable electricity, even slow or stop someone’s powers from functioning properly for awhile if he focused long enough on them. 

“Yo, Cav,” Sockinit drawled as we approached the door, “I was thinking–” 

“Don’t,” the woman interrupted. “Because every time you think, you say something stupid that makes me kick your ass, and it turns into a whole thing.” 

She brushed past him, pulling me with her while the man was still reacting to her words. We exited into what was obviously a warehouse. There were people moving crates around, a forklift nearby being loaded up, and a supervisor with a tablet, directing everyone about where to go. I could see the boxes were labeled with both serial numbers and the names of the eight lieutenants in the gang, including the guy we had just passed. 

My escort led me through the maze of shelves and crates. I glanced up as subtly as possible a couple times, looking for a skylight or something. But it was just a blank metal ceiling. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. What was I thinking? 

I was thinking that I desperately needed to get out of here, before the situation got even worse than it already had. Unfortunately, I seriously had no idea how to do that. It wasn’t like I could do anything useful like teleport.

Unless the pink paint did that. But I wasn’t going to count myself as that lucky. Plus it hadn’t done anything like that before, so why would it start now? 

Cavalcade led me to a back office. A couple guards there looked up as we approached. These were more alert than the other ones had been, and one turned to open the door behind them while the other gave a nod of greeting. 

“Go on then,” my escort prompted while giving me a little push. “She wants to see you, and the cuffs are keyed to her too. And don’t embarrass me, kid, I kinda like this job. Pays pretty well.”

Right, okay. This is it. Did I have any ideas about how to get out of here without seeing the Easy Eight leader? Did I have a way to escape without walking into that room, with these guards in front of me, Cavalcade behind, and a warehouse full of enemies, while wearing these handcuffs that would slam me to the ground as soon as I tried to leave?

No. No, I did not. So I had no choice. Closing my eyes briefly, I exhaled before walking through the door. 

Entering the office, I saw Deicide immediately. As usual, she looked like a tall, paper-covered female knight. Or like a statue made of paper. Either way, she stood in the corner of the room, near a large wall-mounted television that was currently dark. As I came in, her head turned toward me, and a handful of books floated off the nearby desk. One of them opened up, pages turning rapidly until it stopped, as a disembodied voice read a word on the page. “Hello—” A second book had already been flipping through its pages, stopping at another point to add, “Paintball.”

Yeah, that was really freaky. And, speaking objectively, pretty cool. As far as I knew, no one understood why she didn’t just speak for herself. There were rumors that she was actually mute, or that she just did it for intimidation. Either way, this was how she communicated. 

We faced each other for a moment before I nodded. “I’d wave, but…” I shrugged my shoulders pointedly to indicate the handcuffs. “Of course, you could always take them off. Then I’ll do all the waving you like.”

The floating books flipped through pages rapidly, words coming basically as quickly as a single person talking normally. “On your way out the door, I suppose? You’re fun, kid. I hope nobody has to hurt you too much.”

It was a reminder that made me swallow a little, lifting my chin. “Like I told your pit bull in the other room, I’m not sentencing one kid to being tortured by you people until she builds whatever you want, and another one to die from some disease just so you can take her medicine and—”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as the figure in front of me held up a small, familiar object. The books flipped through pages before announcing, “This medicine?”

That was it. It was a vial, just like the one  I had gotten from Ashton. They were basically identical. My mouth fell open, and I just stared for a moment. “You… you have the—”

“Just one,” the floating books informed me while Deicide tucked the vial away somewhere on herself while continuing to speak through her books. “Let’s just say, Cuélebre’s men found it. As I understand, the Ashton boy hid it somewhere in the inventor girl’s shop. They turned the place upside down, but this was the only one. And I ensured that it made its way here.”

There was a brief pause then, while I continued to stare in shock, before she mused, “He didn’t tell you about that yet, did he? So he’s still being cagey about where the rest of them are.”

I started to say something, but she held up a hand, her books continuing. “Let’s settle a few things right now. First, if I wanted to take the location of your friend, I could. Along with any other secret you might have.” 

Before I could object, she made a gesture toward the corner of the room, where someone I hadn’t noticed before was sitting. As my gaze moved that way, the man stood up, coming more into view. He wore a sleek red suit over a black silk shirt, with red leather boots and a full face-covering devil mask that was a mix of black and gold. 

“Hi there,” he spoke in a silky-smooth voice. “Would you mind telling me what you had for dinner last night?” 

Oh. Well, I could do that. Dinner? That didn’t give anything away. “Lamb chops with garlic-rosemary sauce and roasted potatoes.” 

“Oooh, must’ve been a special occasion,” the devil-faced man replied. “How about telling me the first letter of the name of the street your house is on, then walk over to that table over there, pick up that knife, and cut off your left index finger?” 

Hey, that was totally reasonable. He wasn’t asking about Wren or Ashton. “N,” I promptly answered, while moving to the table. Putting my back to it, I fumbled a bit before finding the knife, then somewhat awkwardly tried to line it up with my other hand.

“Okay, stop right there,” the man ordered. “That’s enough.” 

I stopped, wondering what I’d done wrong. Did he want me to take off a different finger? I’d heard him right, hadn’t I? It was–

Fuck! Jerking backward, I dropped the knife. It clattered to the table, then to the floor while I stumbled and cursed in shock. What–how was–that guy had…

“You see?” Deicide announced through her books after giving a dismissive wave of her hand for the man to leave, which he did with a salute toward me. “He may dislike direct confrontation, but Devil’s Due is still quite useful. It would be a very simple matter for me to extract all the information you’re trying to hide, if I really wanted to. Given five minutes, I would know all of your secrets. And that’s not counting the… less easy methods a few of my people would like to use.” 

She let that sink in for a moment, before continuing. “Despite what you may think of me, I don’t want Blackjack’s daughter to die. Nor do I want to torture your little friend. Oddly enough, hurting a genius inventor and then depending on her to build something I would subsequently use feels like a bad idea. 

“So no, I don’t want to hurt either girl. Nor do I want to hurt you. I want favors. Three, actually. One from you, for ensuring you get out of this place without further… damage. One from that girl for letting her brand new friend go. And one from Blackjack, in exchange for the vial that I have. Three favors, three wishes. Think of yourselves as a three-headed Genie.”

I hesitated for a second before asking, “How do you know we’ll actually do anything for you after this?

There was a slight chuckle from the actual figure rather than from any book, but it sounded kind of weird. Almost more high-pitched than it should? Before I could dwell on that too much, her books replied, “Blackjack is a man of his word, to a fault. If he swears he will do something for me, within reason, he will. As for you and the girl, well, let’s just say I doubt this will be the last time that the two of us are face-to-face. And I assume you would rather not be on my very bad side. After all, even enemies can be cordial and owe one another. That’s the way the world works.”

“I won’t hurt anyone,” I informed her. “That would kind of defeat the purpose of this deal.”

Her head bowed a bit. “Of course it would. And if I wanted people hurt, I have no shortage of people willing to do that. You’re impressive, kid, but I have enough leg-breakers. No, I promise you any favor I ask will not knowingly kill anyone at all, nor will it hurt anyone who doesn’t have it coming by your own moral standard, and within the bounds of the same. There, are you happy now?”

I hesitated again, thinking quickly. “I can’t speak for Wren. I’m not in charge of her.”

“Just ensure that she knows exactly why you were freed,” came the response. “And make it clear that the same deal applies. Whatever I ask her to build will not directly kill anyone. I am asking for favors, not trying to convert either of you to the dark side of the Force.”

“I can’t make any promises except for myself,” I replied, “but on my part, you have a deal.” What else could I do? By some miracle, maybe I could get out of here. But I doubted it. And I certainly couldn’t get that vial off of her first. No, despite myself, this was the best solution. Owing a favor to any bad guy seemed really wrong. But then, I was already working to save the daughter of one. So this situation was weird to begin with. And she had promised that it wouldn’t be killing anyone or anything like that. I still felt like I was going to regret this somehow, but didn’t have another choice. 

“Excellent,” the books replied for her. “Then I will have Cavalcade take you somewhere, remove the cuffs, and drop you off. She’ll also exchange phone numbers with you. When that number calls, answer. Give it to the others as well. And tell Blackjack the sooner he calls me, the sooner we can work out a deal for him getting this vial back. Which, as I understand, will give him another full month with his daughter. 

“It’s been nice talking to you, Paintball. I hope this is the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

“Or at the very least, that I don’t have to have you killed the next time we meet.”

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Collectors 5-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Stopping next to the door leading into the band room after school was over, I listened for a moment. Sure enough, the sound of the guitar portion of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ came from within. Smiling a little to myself, I took a breath before giving the door a little push as I stepped in. 

He was there. Tomas Jackson. He looked… basically like I remembered, though a couple inches taller. He had naturally pale skin that had always made him look almost like a vampire or something, coupled with eyes that were a piercing dark green, and dark blonde, almost brown hair that was worn down to his shoulders. His build was fairly slender, though his arms had filled out somewhat since I’d seen him last. As always (whenever he could get away with it by not being specifically in class), he wore a leather jacket with the name of some British punk band on it instead of his actual school uniform jacket. 

Mostly faced away from me, his attention seemingly focused entirely on the guitar he was strumming, Tomas nonetheless stopped once I had fully entered. He turned to glance over his shoulder, giving me an easy smile as my name slipped from his lips. “Cassidy Evans.” 

“Hi, Tomas,” I managed. My heart was beating hard, despite the fact that our relationship was supposed to be over. But we’d broken up out of necessity. He’d had to leave. Being boyfriend and girlfriend from across an ocean might’ve seemed romantic in some respects, but we’d both known it was a bad idea. So we broke up. I’d… well, I hadn’t exactly moved on, considering I didn’t have another boyfriend after him. But we’d definitely gone our separate ways. 

But he was here now. And seeing him brought back all those old feelings. Stupid as it might’ve been, part of me just wanted to go kiss him right then. I remembered kissing him, what it was like. I remembered the feeling of Tomas actually finding me attractive, and how much it helped me deal with the people who kept calling me a boy. I remembered that feeling. I missed it. 

And yet, I also didn’t want to look like a desperate idiot. Shoving those thoughts and feelings down, I did my best to look and sound as casual as possible. “Someone told me you were back. Figured you’d come check this place out again. You ahh, you spent a lot of time here before.” 

“We both did,” he reminded me, giving a brief strum to the guitar before setting it aside as he moved to sit down on the nearby carpeted step that led onto the small stage. “You ahh, you wanna sit down? I was hoping you’d show up. Missed you in class this morning.” 

“I had a doctor’s appointment,” I murmured under my breath before moving to join him on the stair, perching myself at the opposite side of it (so maybe four feet away). Part of me wondered if I should sit closer, then I rethought. Unfortunately, once I finally did sit down, I suddenly reconsidered. Would he take it as an insult that I didn’t sit closer? Was he hoping I would? Was I hoping that he hoped I would? Did I–was I–what in the hell was I even thinking right then? 

Of course, Tomas didn’t look like he even noticed. He just gave me a brief look and smile as he pulled out his phone. “You remember what I said I’d do?” Holding up the phone, he showed me a picture of himself standing in front of the London Eye, holding a green balloon with a face drawn on it. Under the face was a name. Cassidy. 

“Oh, my God! You total dick!” Shoving him with a laugh, I blurted, “I told you not to use a balloon for that because of the whole ‘airhead’ thing, remember!?” 

Grinning back at me, he replied, “Yeah, see, that just made me want to use a balloon even more.” Ignoring my sputtering, he started flipping through more pictures, showing me how he had taken the Cassidy balloon to every conceivable British tourist trap. “And here’s the airhead at Big Ben. Here we are at the Tower Bridge, at Buckingham. I wasn’t gonna do that one, but you know, balloon you insisted. Then we have the London Dungeon. Almost left you there.” 

Flushing deeply, I kicked his ankle with my foot. “You’re a jerk, Tomas. I can’t believe you even took all these pictures. What, just in case you came back someday?”

“Okay, actually, I did this like… the day we left to come here,” he confessed with a snicker. “Once I knew we were coming back.” 

“So how long are you back for, anyway?” I asked, trying not to sound too much like I was prying. “And wait, you only found out you were coming here right before you came? Was your dad keeping it a secret, or…” 

“Apparently it was a last second thing,” Tomas informed me. “Something about the guy who took his place when we left having some kind of conflict. As for how long we’re saying, the assignment’s supposed to keep him here at least until next Christmas. So… most of a year, I guess? Not sure what’s coming after that. But hey,” he added with a shrug, “it means I get to be here for  awhile, so I’m dead chuffed, you know?” 

Winking at me, Tomas flicked through a couple more pictures on his phone before asking, “So what’ve you been up to, Miss Cassidy Evans? Jumped off any tall buildings lately?” 

The words made me do a quick double-take despite myself as I blurted, “Wh-what?” 

Raising an eyebrow, the boy clarified. “Remember, we were watching the video of those pillocks jumping off those buildings with the parachutes and wingsuits? I said it was stupid as fuck and you said you wanted to do it someday. So, you still think it’s something you want to do?” 

It was stupid, but I almost told him the truth. Seriously, next to my family, Tomas had been basically one of my favorite people for a long time. I’d confessed a lot of things to him that I hadn’t told anyone else, not even my family. Add other things we’d done and… well, experimented with… yeah, I really trusted him. It was so easy to fall into this natural rhythm. It felt like he’d never left. If I could actually talk to someone I knew as well as Tomas about this… maybe it would help. 

Or maybe it would just get him in trouble. What if he tried to tell his father the truth about my parents, thinking that his dad’s diplomatic connections could do something? What if something bad happened, either to him or his father. Or… my family. How did I feel about either of those? 

“Cassidy?” Tomas asked gently, a slight frown touching his forehead as he watched me with obvious concern. “Sorry, I–are you alright? You… you look kind of–” 

Quickly, I nodded. “I’m fine. I–I just wasn’t expecting to see you today. It’s kinda surprising.” 

Pushing on from that, I told him a bit of the… innocent stuff that I could say. I kept it casual, still uncertain of how much I should confide in him. I’d trusted him for a long time. But then, I trusted my family too, and look where that ended up. If I couldn’t trust my mom and dad, was there anyone I actually could? 

“Oh, and I started doing this.” Reaching into my bag, I took out my notebook. I’d been experimenting ever since lunch, drawing everything that popped into my head. I had sketch after sketch of monsters, people skateboarding, a ninja with a sword running along the top of a fighter jet that itself was shooting at some kind of giant flying squid… yeah. And they all looked good. Like, really good. I just pictured the image in my head and my hand automatically transferred it to the paper, like I was xeroxing it straight from my brain to the page. 

“Good holy shite, Cassidy,” Tomas blurted, taking the notebook as I extended it. His eyes were wide. “When did you start drawing? This… this is really you? No fooling?” 

“No fooling,” I replied, already blushing despite myself. “I uhh, I just started messing around with it and… and I guess I’m pretty good?” 

“Pretty good?” he echoed, using the notebook to swat me lightly. “This is professional stuff, you daft girl. You taking art classes? Cuz you should be.” 

“I, umm… not yet.” How could I explain that I’d only just found out I could draw like that this morning? Or that it was probably some kind of side effect that came from the superpower involving paint. That was… a whole other deep conversation. “I haven’t really put too much thought into it as more than a hobby.” Mostly because it had only even been that for a couple hours by this point. 

“You need to do more with this,” Tomas urged me, gesturing to the artwork. “Really. Hell, maybe I’ll contract you to do the art for my band when–.” 

“You have a–” I started. 

“–when I actually get a new band,” he finished with a self-depreciating snort. 

We smiled at each other for a moment. I was about to say something else, when my eyes happened to glance down toward the phone in his hand. There was a really hot guy on his lock screen. It wasn’t Tomas. This one had short black hair and blue eyes. Seeing him there, I asked curiously, “Hey, who’s that guy?” 

“Hmm? Oh, I meant to change that.” Tomas shrugged. “That’s Charlie. He’s uhh, he was my boyfriend for awhile.” 

That made me do a double-take, my eyes snapping from the phone (though I couldn’t see the picture anymore) up to him. “I’m sorry, your what?” 

He wasn’t looking at me. His attention was on the phone screen, a fond look in his eyes. “Yeah, I ahhh…” Blinking up at me, Tomas winced. “No, sorry. I know what you’re thinking, Cassidy, but I’m not gay. I’m bi. Kinda figured it out like… six months ago. I like girls and boys. And believe me, I like you for all kinds of girl-related reasons.” 

“The people here literally teased you about being gay for dating me,” I pointed out. “Just like they did Peter Fauning the year before that. And now you’re saying that you actually are into guys? I mean, that’s not–it’s not a problem or… or it’s just not a… it’s not any of my… I mean…” My stammering cut off as I sighed. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m being stupid.” 

“Cassidy, you are not being stupid,” Tomas assured me. “I don’t–ahh, I don’t blame you for having feelings about it. You’re right, those morons did say a lot of stupid shite. I don’t pay it any more mind now than I did then. I like you cuz I like you. Boy, girl, it doesn’t rightly matter. But ahhh, that said, I know that you’ll need time. It’s easy for me to say it doesn’t matter to me, but you’re different. It matters to you, and that part of it matters to me.”

Wincing a little, I managed a weak, “Damn it, Tomas, you’re making it really hard to be a drama queen about this.” 

He gave me one of his patented perfect smiles then, shrugging one shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, we can pretend I said something stupid so you get to storm off. I’ll even do the dramatic, ‘Cassidy, wait, I’m sorry!’ and you can slam the door right in my face.” 

“Right in your face?” I echoed, pretending to consider it. 

“Boom, right there,” he agreed, pantomiming with his hand. “So what do you say? Shall we put on our dramatic faces?” 

“I think I’m good without the drama,” I informed him with a little shudder. Despite our little banter right then, however, I still hesitated. “But… I do need a little time to think about everything.” 

He nodded once. “I thought you might. Just know that whatever people say, I like you for you, Cassidy Evans. You think through everything you need to. My number’s the same. Give me a ring when you feel like it.” 

I couldn’t help it. Leaning in, I gave him a hug, holding on for just a moment before pushing myself up. “I… I’ll talk to you later, Tomas. I’m glad you’re back and that you’re… doing okay.” Feeling suddenly even more awkward, confused, and out of my depth, I fumbled my way to the door and slipped out. 

I felt like an idiot. An overly emotional idiot. Yes, being with Tomas last year had done wonders for my confidence, the fact that he found me attractive and didn’t think of me as a prepubescent boy had been huge. So finding out that he was attracted to both boys and girls was… it was… 

It should have been nothing. I shouldn’t care. He still liked me for me, so why did I have to make a big deal out of it? 

Emotions were stupid. I needed some kind of distraction. 

*******

“He’s ours, you son of a bitch!” a guy in a red jacket with a black claw mark design across the back of it blurted. Arrayed around him, other guys (and a few girls) dressed similarly echoed the sentiment. All of them backed up the words by pointedly brandishing the guns and knives they were holding.

An equal number of people faced them, holding weapons of their own and looking not the least bit intimidated by their opponents. One of those snarled, “He came into our turf, cocksuckers. You come into our turf, you’re ours. Just like him.” 

The two opposing groups were Fell-gang members, of course, though none were Touched, as far as I could tell. The first, led by the guy in the red jacket at the front, were members of the Easy Eights. These ones in particular were under one of the other lieutenants, not my old friend(s) Janus. Easy Eights, eight gangs, eight lieutenants. Going by the claw mark designs on their clothing, their particular leader was the woman known as Skadi, a Fell-Touched focused on hunting and wild animals. The group facing them, meanwhile, were more members of the Ninety-Niners. Between them, the object of their argument, was some random guy cowering on the ground with his arms over his head. 

“We fucking chased him out here,” one of the Skadi-gang members snapped. “We found him, we chased him, he’s ours. That reward is ours. You get in the way, we’ll put you down like dogs.” 

This was getting out of hand really fast. Any second now, these idiots were going to start shooting at each other. From my perch on the edge of the building where I had been watching this, I carefully aimed both hands before shooting off a spray of red paint from each. Quickly, I adjusted my aim so that the paint went over all of their guns. I tried to get any knives too, but mostly it was the guns. 

As the red paint sprayed over their weapons, the gang members all blurted out curses of surprise and confusion. Their gazes were already snapping my way for the source of the paint, even as I activated all of it, yanking all of the guns out of their hands and toward each other to collide before crashing into one big pile. 

By that point, even as a couple of the guys tried to lunge for the weapons, I had already hopped down to land on the sidewalk in front of them. “Hey, don’t do that.” The two who were scrambling that way each got hit with a spot of blue paint at their feet to send them flying. “No guns until after you eat all your vegetables and clean up your bedrooms.” 

“Hey, it’s that Paintball shit!” One of the guys blurted, pointing his knife at me. “The hell you want? This guy right here, he’s our fucking bounty. Blackjack wants him and we’re gonna fleece that motherfucker dry.” 

“Ahh, good luck with that,” I replied with as casual a shrug as I could manage given the situation, “cuz that’s not Ashton Austin. Hey, you. Your name Ashton Austin?” 

“N-no!” the man squeaked out, clearly terrified. “My name’s Tony Bastmer, these guys just started yelling and chasing me, so I ran away!” Now that he was looking up at me, I could see where they might make the mistake. He and Ashton were similar enough that they might have been related. 

“Course he’s gonna say that!” one of the Ninety-Niners snapped. “He’d be an idiot to admit who he is. Look at him. That’s the guy.” 

“You got some kind of ID?” I pressed, watching all of them looking back and forth between me and the guy on the ground. 

“Oh like that fucking matters,” another guy retorted even as the one on the ground gave a frantic nod. “Of course he’ll have a fake ID. How stupid do you think we–” 

“What’s going on here?” A new voice spoke up then, as a female figure emerged from the alley nearby. She gave me a passing glance, and I recognized her immediately. Skadi, the Easy Eight lieutenant over the group with the red jackets. She was a lithe woman with white tiger-print pants that tightly hugged her legs, black combat boots, a black leather jacket with the emblem of a tiger’s face on the front of it and that familiar claw mark on the back (both in red), and a hard metal mask over the front of her face with holes in it for her eyes and mouth. The mask itself was silver, with a tiger’s face emblazoned on it in red. Well, tiger for now. I happened to know that the woman could change the image on the mask at any point, between various predatory animals. 

Changing her mask image wasn’t her power. That was just some kind of tech thing. Skadi’s actual power had something to do with anticipating the actions, choices, and whatnot of anyone whose blood she… well… tasted. Yeah. She also had some other things like metal claws and maybe some kind of strength, speed, and other general enhancements. But mostly it was that whole ‘taste someone’s blood and then be able to predict what they do and just generally know things about them’ thing. 

Seeing one of their enemy’s Touched arrive made the handful of Ninety-Niners even less eager to pursue this. Several of them were already taking off, a couple more trying to seem strong but clearly ready to join their companions at any second. 

“We got that Ashton guy,” one of the Easy Eight guys claimed, gesturing to the whimpering man. “Then this asshole shows up and says it’s not him.” 

Without saying anything, Skadi glanced to me, then stepped over to the man. I tensed as she held up a hand, producing a metal claw from the dark glove she wore. But the woman wasn’t attacking anyone. She poked the man in the arm, watching me the whole time as she took a bit of his blood and touched it to her lips for a taste. 

“He’s right,” the woman murmured while still staring at me. “It’s not him. Let the man go.” 

There was a collection of mutters of disbelief and annoyance, but they did. The Ninety-Niners didn’t pursue him either, as the man took off running. 

“Right,” I started, “now that we’ve resolved that peacefully–” 

“You, on the other hand…” Skadi interrupted, “you clearly know more than you should. I wouldn’t be surprised if you know exactly where our missing man is right now. And even if you don’t, there are others who would like a conversation with you.” 

Too late, I realized that the woman had been glancing somewhat past me at the last bit of that. I tried turning, but something grabbed me first. Something… huge. A hand as big as I was. Suddenly, I was yanked around, given a brief glimpse of Mister Harmful’s face as he snarled at me, before his giant hand abruptly slammed me face first into the wall of the building. 

Everything went dark. 

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Becoming 2-09 (Summus Proelium)

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The array of armed men seemed to hesitate slightly when the three Minority people showed up. Apparently they were okay with chasing down one Touched (particularly when they didn’t know anything about them), but having three more of the known variety appear gave them pause.

Or, more likely, they didn’t know shit about me and had no reason to really be nervous or afraid. But they did know these guys. Kids or not, the Minority knew how to deal with armed thugs.

With a sing-song, melodic voice, Carousel was the first to break the silence, her jester mask facing me. “Whoever you are, you’ve set a high bar. These guys are no joke. They’re such dangerous folk. We’ll help and give you a hand, then see about joining the band.”

Joining the band? Was she talking about– my thoughts were interrupted then, as one guy (or two, rather) who didn’t hesitate at all was Janus. With his Mister Harmful side facing us, the man cracked his neck before lashing out with both hands. His fists each grew to the size of a small car, while his arms stretched clear across the parking lot. In an instant, those massive fists were coming straight for us.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Whamline catch hold of Carousel before three glowing metal coil things shoved down against the ground to throw the two of them to the right. At the same time, an arm wrapped around my waist and the world briefly blurred around me, my stomach lurching.

It was That-A-Way. She’d grabbed me and supersped both of us out of the way just as those giant fists passed through the space where we had been. Now she let me go, before suddenly disappearing, only to reappear a few feet away from Janus. Her hand produced a small, handheld device of some kind, and she took a step that way.

But the rest of those armed thugs had snapped out of their brief indecision by then. Several of them snapped their guns up and started shooting, even as I blurted out a warning.

It wasn’t needed. That-A-Way was moving east. She was invulnerable. The bullets ricocheted off of her, just before several of the men were caught by metal coils that Whamline sent at them. The coils exploded a second later, the concussive force knocking the men to the ground, their weapons flying.

Carousel, meanwhile, used her own power to yank those guns into her orbit. They shrank down, spinning around the girl rapidly before she released them to fly one by one at other thugs, using them as projectiles. Except somehow she made the magazines stay behind, sending the guns back without ammo.  

By that point, That-A-Way had reached Janus. His Uncle Friendly side was facing her, apologizing politely even as he caught hold of her with hands that were as big as she was. The device she’d been holding was shoved up against his hand and she triggered some kind of electric shock. Taser. She was holding a taser. And a pretty powerful one, apparently, since as tough as he was, Janus still staggered a bit and released her. Only for a second though, before his hand caught her side once more and he sent her flying, hurling the girl toward the nearby building. In mid-air, she teleported further ahead, landing on the roof of the building.

Wait a second, why the hell was I just standing here?! I was supposed to be helping! I wasn’t supposed to be some random rubbernecking civilian, damn it, I could actually contribute! I just had to get my thumb out of my butt and actually do something.

Snapping myself out of that bit of open-mouthed gawking, I quickly spoke the code to make my skates pop out. Then I painted my legs green to boost my speed and launched myself forward.

The guys who were still armed reacted quickly to my sudden movement, snapping their weapons my way. But my hands were already raised as I skated past them, sending a spray of blue paint at them. The paint covered their arms, guns, chests, even some of their legs, and the men were sent hurtling away from each other, their weapons flying. The blue paint even sent some of them into the air as it struck the ground by their feet.

As I skidded to a stop somewhere to the side of Janus, I was able to take a quick look at what else was going on. The guys I had painted were all still picking themselves up from the ground, while Carousel caught all their guns in her power, disarming them. Meanwhile, Whamline had moved to help That-A-Way try to deal with Janus. He was facing Mister Harmful while the girl was on the opposite side, handling Uncle Friendly. The two-faced man had each arm extended in opposite directions, fighting off two Minority Touched with fists as large as his torso.

Okay, okay, I had to help. But should I keep dealing with all the random mooks with Carousel, or help Whamline and That-A-Way? The guys had already been disarmed, and were still picking themselves up. But even without their guns, they could still be a threat. Meanwhile, Whamline and That-A-Way had Janus outnumbered (in number of arms and legs involved, at least, even if there was an asterisk), but he was still the bigger threat.

Standing there, briefly frozen, my thoughts were interrupted by Carousel. “Go help them!” she blurted while catching two of the tiny floating guns that were revolving around her, using them to point at the recovering thugs. “This tide I’ll stem!”

Right, she had this. Pushing off with my skates, I focused on Janus. They were in the midst of trying to backhand That-A-Way, but apparently she was moving… whichever direction it was that let her turn intangible, because the massive hand went right through her. At the same time, Whamline had wrapped several of his cords around the men’s other arm, only for that to grow so large it snapped the cords. Before the boy could recover, that same massive fist collided with him, sending Whamline to the ground.

Skating full-on straight at the men’s exposed side while they were each focused on their respective opponents, I covered myself in purple paint and powered it up before launching myself at him.

For guys who had literal eyes in the back of their head, being taken by surprise probably didn’t happen much. They certainly weren’t expecting it as I slammed into their side with enough force to knock the bastard(s) flying. They went back a good dozen or so feet before crashing to the ground, bouncing twice along the pavement as they ended up sprawled head over heels.

“Holy shit, dude!” That was That-A-Way, staring at me. “Just how strong are you?” Something about her voice struck me as… familiar, but that was probably just my paranoid imagination after everything I’d found out about my family.

“Uh,” I so eloquently started, before being interrupted as a foot bigger than my entire body nearly slammed into me. That-A-Way grabbed my arm, and we teleported closer to the building. North. She could only teleport north. Unfortunately, that took us further away from Janus, who had turned their full attention to Whamline. The guy was in trouble.

Quickly looking to That-A-Way, I blurted, “I can make you really fast, really strong, and really tough for about ten seconds at a time.”

I saw her eyes widen behind the mask. “Wait, that’s what the different colors you’re doing mea–and it works on othe-duuuude! I’d kiss you, but it’d get weird.” With that, the girl grinned. “Can you get me back over there?”

Nodding, I spun that way, extending both arms to spray her down with green, purple, and orange. Then I added a blue circle onto the ground. “Trampoline!”

To her credit, she understood immediately. Maybe she’d seen what happened when I sprayed those other guys with it. Either way, the girl lunged onto the blue paint, even as I activated all of that paint.

She hit it, bouncing off it and forward to propel herself through the air with a loud whoop. Between the blue paint bouncing her and the purple strength-boost, she went fast enough to collide with Janus before they could even think about reacting. They stumbled sideways, falling to one knee when the girl drove her knee into Uncle Friendly’s stomach, then onto his back (Mister Harmful’s front) when she swung both arms hard into his face.

By that point, Whamline had recovered enough to send several metal coils to latch onto the fallen man’s arms, holding him down. It would only last for a second. But a second was long enough, given the speed boost I’d given her, for That-A-Way to produce that taser thing in her hand again. Without hesitation, she jammed it into Uncle Friendly’s chest and triggered it while both he and Mister Harmful (the latter muffled by being against the pavement) bellowed out loud and spasmed violently.

Unfortunately, while that was enough to hurt them, it wasn’t enough to take them down. Their arms snapped out of the coils that Whamline was using, before they planted their palms against the ground and extended their arms to shove themselves upright. That-A-Way was dumped onto the ground just before one of those massive hands caught hold of her and threw the girl straight at Whamline. He caught her with a couple of his coils, stumbling backward a step.

Mister Harmful was glaring at me. Just as I realized that, my gaze meeting his, they twisted their legs around so that their feet were facing my way. Then they were running at me. Those long, enormous arms were incoming, and they extended their legs with each step to cover a lot more ground than they should have. Suddenly I had two giant hands, bigger than I was, about to slam into me from either side. It was like a guy clapping his hands around a fly.

With what was probably a pretty undignified yelp, I covered my entire costume from head to toe in blue and orange stripes, then put my arms over my head. I would’ve prayed, but there wasn’t time. Those giant hands clapped against me from either side, slamming into my body with enough force that I felt it even with the orange paint. Without it, I probably would’ve ended up with at least a half-dozen broken bones. As it was, it just hurt enough for me to collapse to one knee.

But Janus paid for it too. Because that blue paint I’d also covered myself with made their giant hands instantly snap backward away from me. Suddenly, their arms were flailing back behind themselves just as their charge brought them right in front of me.

Mister Harmful’s face was right there. His shared arms had no chance of getting back in to block anything. One of their legs was extended (quite a ways in fact) behind him, while the other had just come down. They would recover quickly, but for that one single instant, the conjoined-man was completely open.

So I did what any rational, totally normal person would do in that moment. I painted my entire costume purple and hurled myself into the hardest leaping uppercut I could manage, right into the man’s chin. While, of course, screaming, “Shoryuken!

The blow was right on target, knocking Mister Harmful’s head back, his eyes briefly crossing. They stumbled, almost falling. Teeth and blood went flying, and his jaw looked wrong, like it was broken. When his head snapped back upright, his eyes were closed. They stayed that way, and I realized that he had actually fallen unconscious.

Unfortunately, apparently knocking out one of Janus’s halves didn’t knock them both out. I wasn’t… sure how that worked. But then again, I wasn’t sure how any of their stuff worked. Either way, Uncle Friendly was still awake. His head snapped around to look at me, pausing very briefly. But Whamline and That-A-Way were already coming, and it looked like the troops that Carousel had been dealing with had all made a break for it. They were scattering, leaving Uncle Friendly as only one half of Janus left to deal with the rest of us.

He clearly didn’t like those odds, because the man suddenly lunged past me. His legs extended up like stilts, allowing him to quickly reach the roof of the motel. From there he jumped, extending both his legs and his arms to grab the roof of another building before hauling himself up there as well. Then he was gone.

“Okay,” Whamline finally spoke while looking my way. “I’d say we should go after him, but maybe finding out what’s going on is–”

Eyes widening behind my mask and helmet, I remembered the entire reason I’d done any of this. My mouth started to blurt out Adrian’s name. But then I realized that saying his name would probably be a bad idea as far as keeping my identity secret. Every little clue helped, after all. So, I managed to keep myself to a simple, “They had a hostage!” Then I was running back to the strip club. Behind me, I heard a few muttered words before the sound of the other three following.

Making my way quickly back to the room in question, I found Adrian still there. Which made sense, considering he was chained against that wall. Where else was he going to go?

He was also very confused about what was going on, visibly jumping as I came through the door. His eyes widened, and he blurted, “You won?!”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I muttered before added, “I had help.”

The three Minority members made it then, all of them doing a brief double-take at what they saw. Carousel was the first to find her voice. “This thing we’re observing… is somewhat unnerving.”

“Okay, no idea what’s going on here,” That-A-Way announced, “but I’m pretty sure we should get this guy out of those chains.”

Whamline did just that, by creating two of his own coils, wrapping them tightly around the chains, and making a contained explosion that broke the chains off the wall. They were still attached to the man’s wrists, but at least he could move.

“No, no, no! Not me!” Adrian was suddenly stammering, his eyes wild. “My family, they’ve got my little brothers back at the apartment! They’ll hurt them! They’ll–”

“They’re safe,” I quickly interrupted. “They’re staying with a neighbor. I sent them there before coming this way. I promise, I already made sure they were okay and, um, dealt with the bad guys there. That’s why they couldn’t call back.”

“You… you saved my…” That was as far as Adrian got before he was just grabbing me off the ground. His arms wrapped around me tightly and I was hauled up to be crushed against his chest. “Oh God. Thank you. Thank you, thank you. What–who the hell… who… how did you…”

Wanting to head off any of that line of questioning, I quickly squirmed free and dropped to the floor, looking over to the Minority people, who looked utterly baffled. “That bank robbery the other day, the one at the La Casa place. One of the guys who worked there, Ashton Austin, set the whole thing up. He tricked those Ninety-Niner guys into robbing the place as a distraction so he could take something out of a safe deposit box. Now he’s on the run and everyone’s after him to get whatever it was. There’s a million dollar bounty on him. Some other guys were after his brother, Josh, and this guy gave Josh a ride out of town. That’s why these guys took him, because they think he knows where Josh is, and they think Josh knows where his brother is.”

Wow, spelling it all out like that, this was a really complicated situation. And that was before you added in any of my personal stuff. But apparently I did a good enough job of explaining, because Whamline immediately nodded after giving the other two a quick look. “Okay, come on. We’ll get you back to your apartment, make sure your siblings are okay, then get your family into protective custody. It’ll be okay.”

Letting those guys take over, I slipped back. That was enough. I could leave now. I had to get back to school anyway, before I ended up getting in trouble. Taking a deep breath, I allowed myself to smile a little at the look of intense relief and joy on Adrian’s face as the fact that he and his family were safe sank in. Then I turned, slipping out of the room as quietly as possible.

I made it just out of the building before That-A-Way caught up. “Hey, hold on!” she blurted, catching my attention. As I pivoted, she stopped, both of us standing there in the parking lot. “Um, what do you call yourself?”

Hesitating just for a second, I swallowed before replying, “Um, Paintball?”

“Paintball,” the other girl echoed, head tilting a little. “That’s cool, man. And hey, you did really good back there. I mean, really good for someone that’s new to all this. You… are new to it, right? When we saw you running across the city back there, you looked awesome. Whammy thought you just moved here from somewhere else. But I think you’re new.”

Resisting the urge to keep silent or be more secretive, I gave a tiny nod. “I’m… new.” That was safe enough to say, right? They couldn’t get anything about who I really was from that.

“Well, you look really cool,” That-A-Way informed me. “So if you ever want to… you know… join…”

She said something else after that, but all I could think about was how much I really hated the fact that my dad was both a bad guy and Silversmith. Because there was basically nothing I wanted more than to say yes. Working with the Minority? How cool would that be?! Seriously. I wanted to. But I couldn’t. It was too risky. The Minority worked under the authority of the adult heroes of the Spartans and the Conservators. And Silversmith, my evil dad, was leader of the Conservators. There was way too big of a chance that he would find out who I was, no matter how careful I might’ve been.

Something in my body language must’ve given me away, because That-A-Way stopped talking. She paused, biting her lip before adding, “But if you don’t want to do that, you should still take this.” She was holding something out to me. It was a simple white business card, entirely blank aside from a single phone number. “If you change your mind, or you need help with something, or you just want to train, or… or whatever. Call that. One of us will answer. We can help, I promise. You know, with… whatever you need.” It looked like she wanted to say something else, but left it at that.

Help with whatever I needed. God, I wished that was true. I wished I could just tell her everything I knew about Silversmith, about all of it. But that was too risky. I didn’t know if she would believe me, or if she was part of Dad’s whole corrupt crew, or if anyone she would talk to was. I just… didn’t know. And that made it too risky.  

Swallowing hard, I took the offered card while trying not to react too much. “Thanks,” I murmured, not knowing what else to say.

For another few seconds, the two of us stood there, staring at each other. Then I popped my skates out, pivoted, and took off with the business card clutched tight in one hand.

Maybe I couldn’t tell the Minority everything just yet. But things were still pretty good. I’d helped save Adrian, after rescuing his little brothers. I’d made a few possible new friends from the Minority, people who might actually be able to help at some point.

But, I realized upon remembering the look in Uncle Friendly’s face after I’d knocked out Mister Harmful, I’d also made enemies. Powerful ones.

And on top of everything else, I was late for sixth period, and I never got any lunch.

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Becoming 2-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Three’s Paradise, the motel and strip club. That’s where I needed to go. Somehow, even just putting that name in my phone to look for directions made me feel dirty. I kind of wanted to wipe down my phone screen with cleanser.

But at least I got the address. The place was only about six blocks away, which I just had to hope was close enough for me to get there before they realized something was wrong with those guys back at the apartment and ended up doing something horrible.

Thankfully, I now had a little edge in that regard. My little trip through the city earlier had already taught me how to use my power to get around faster using the rooftops and walls of the buildings. And I used that now, throwing myself off the apartment with a blue puddle that sent me flying into the air before yanking myself toward a high billboard with some red paint, running along the side of it, then leaping off to land on the roof of the next building over. Dropping into a roll before popping back to my feet while blurting the command to bring out the wheels of my skates, I took off again. Six blocks. I could get there in time. I would get there in time.

At least it wasn’t hard to find the place. Skidding to a stop on the roof of the last building, I looked straight at the billboard ahead of me. Given the risque image of two women fawning over a shirtless guy, I was going to guess it wasn’t advertising McDonalds.

Sure enough, peeking over the edge of the roof and looking down, I saw the building in question. It was far below me, almost eight stories down. There were three buildings arranged in a rough triangular formation, with a pool in the middle. One of those buildings had a bunch of neon signs on it, which probably made it the strip club. The other was longer than the other two, which made it the motel. The last one I was going to guess was the office, laundry, and whatever. The parking lot for the whole place stretched around all three buildings and looked almost completely empty aside from a half dozen cars.

Right. This was definitely the place. But what building were they holding Adrian in? I could see a couple guys standing around outside, probably keeping watch. Nothing, however, gave me any idea of where the rest of the guys were. I was leaning toward the main office, but they might be holding him in the strip club too. And it was broad daylight. I couldn’t exactly sneak around there very easily without being seen. Especially with those guards outside. Hell, I couldn’t even get down there to look. Unless…

Waiting until the view of both guys was blocked by one of the buildings as they patrolled, I took a few steps back, breathed out, and then ran forward while shooting a bit of blue paint down. I turned my legs purple to get more force while jumping straight onto the blue blob. It sent me careening into the sky and out over the lot, as I barely restrained myself from crying out. Windmilling my arms through the air, I looked down, waiting until my arc took me over the nearest building. Then I pointed down, shooting a bit of red while also painting my gloves and boots to match. Abruptly, as the red paint struck the roof, I was yanked straight down into a directed fall. On the way, I sent a shot of black paint down as well.

Just before I landing, I painted my legs orange to absorb the impact and put a black silhouette of a hand holding up two fingers in a peace sign on my chest. Between the black on my suit and the black that I’d shot onto the roof, my landing was completely silent. It wasn’t exactly the best looking, since I crashed and rolled halfway across the roof, yelping along the way before finally sprawling out in a heap. But hey, at least I didn’t make any actual noise. I got points for that, right?

Grunting silently as I rolled over onto my back. I breathed for a moment before pushing myself up to my hands and knees. Listening for a moment just in case one of the men had spotted me, I heard nothing. So I cautiously crawled to the edge of the roof and peeked over.

I was on top of the motel building. It was a small place, only two stories high, with doors that opened right into the lot. The two guards were walking together on the far side of the next building over, the strip club part of this whole glorious place. I saw them pass just into view for a moment, ducking back to hide in case they glanced my way.

Okay, I was down. Bully for me. Now what, exactly? I still couldn’t just wander randomly through the buildings, or just ask one of those guys where they were keeping their prisoner.

I could, however, make the guys inside show me where they were. To that end, I looked over the edge of the roof for the parking lot where a couple of the cars were. Whispering an apology if they actually didn’t belong to bad guys, I shot two bursts of red paint, one at either car. Then I activated it, sending both vehicles colliding violently into one another. With a spray of glass, the parking lot was suddenly filled with the sound of two horribly blaring car alarms.

Yup, it got their attention. Both guys outside went running that way. They were joined by several others that came rushing very quickly out of the strip joint part. All of them were very obviously armed, as they rushed to where the cars were, shouting and looking around.

Right, so the strip club was where I needed to be. Thanks for answering that, guys. You’re super-helpful.

Now I just had to get in there without being seen by them. Which meant it was time for another distraction. Looking down to the lot again at the guys who were all milling around the smashed-together cars as they tried to figure out what the hell just happened, I smiled to myself behind the helmet and mask. Then I looked to the other side of the lot, at a lone sedan parked there. Carefully, making sure no one was looking close enough to see my paint flying through the air, I shot a bit of red at top of the car. Then I shot another bit further off into the lot.

“Okay, boys,” I whispered under my breath. “Go fetch.”

With that, I powered up the paint. The sedan was yanked over onto its hood and went skidding that way. Shouts and curses went up from all the guys, as they sprinted after the car. That was the opening I needed. Painting myself green for the speed boost, with a little black to silence any sound I might’ve made, I leapt from the roof of this building. A shot of red paint to the roof of the opposite one yanked me over to it, allowing me to land on the roof of the strip club.

From there, I made my way along the roof quickly and quietly, moving away from the front where the guys were. On the way, I was leaning over the edge and looking down, watching for a window.

There. I spotted a window about halfway down the building. Crouching there, I counted to ten, trying to calm myself down. I had to pace myself, had to make sure I had paint to deal with whatever was inside. That meant slowing down a bit and being careful. With that in mind, I waited another moment before painting my hands and knees red. With a bit of red on the wall, I crawled down along it until I was just above the window. Then I leaned very carefully to peek through.

It was an office of some kind. An empty office, which was good for me. Trying the window, I found it unlocked. Another bonus. Before my paint could run out, I opened it, reached in to get a handhold, and hauled myself down inside, dropping into a crouch on the floor.

Kneeling there, in the office, I looked around. There was a simple, mostly bare wooden desk with a nearby leather chair, a couple filing cabinets in the corner, two metal folding chairs in front of the desk, and an incredibly explicit calendar on the wall. Seriously, the bare gazungas on the blonde bombshell on that picture looked like they came straight off of the Hindenburg.

Shaking myself away from that distraction, I focused on listening carefully. Voices. There were voices coming from somewhat nearby. Slowly, I crept closer to the door before listening again.

Yup, definite voices. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but from the sound of it, they weren’t very happy. Carefully, I opened the door, cracking it just a little at first. The voices still weren’t clear, but I could tell that they were coming from a room nearby. Taking a breath, I peeked out, looking both ways down the short corridor. To the left was a hallway with a couple closed doors. At the end was an emergency exit that was labeled as being alarmed. To the right was another hall that seemed to open up at the end into a much larger room. Probably the dance floor. There were a couple other doors as well. And through one of those I heard the voices. One was raised, letting me hear a few angry curses, while the other was more muted.

Before the guys outside could give up and come back in, I silently hurried to that door. Crouching there, I pressed my ear to it and listened.

“I’ll tell you what you need,” the louder voice all-but shouted. “You need to answer the goddamn question! What else did he say? Where was he going?!” The words were punctuated by a loud slam, as if the man had kicked something over.

That was followed by a quieter voice. “I apologize for him. You must understand, my brother gets a little… emotional when he feels like people are lying to him. Are you lying?”

“No.” I knew that voice. It was Adrian. He sounded weak, his voice cracking a little. “I’m not… lying. I don’t know… I don’t know where he went. I told you, I just… dropped him off.”

“Oh, I hope you’re right,” the softer voice murmured. “I really wouldn’t want to find out that–”

“You’re lying!” the violent, furious voice cut in. There was the sound of a hard slap or punch or something, and Adrian cried out. The angry voice continued. “I’m done. You’ve had enough chances. You’ve got four little brothers? Well maybe it’s time you lose one of them.”

As Adrian protested, he was cut off, his words dropping into a pained wheeze as he was apparently punched hard in the stomach.

“Maybe we’ll just cut something off right here, hmm?” the angry voice snarled. “Lose something off your body for every sibling you lose? Let’s make it an arm for each of the older kids and a leg for each of the younger ones. Right at the elbows and knees. That’s fitting, isn’t it? You don’t tell us the truth, and you’ll come out of here without any brothers and without any limbs. They can call you Stubby. Stubby the only-child. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Let’s see… older or younger, older or younger… let’s go with… left arm.”

There was a panicked shout from Adrian, and I couldn’t wait any longer. Putting the purple outline of an arm showing off a bicep on my chest, I used the strength to kick the door as hard as I could, while calling out, “Hey, assholes!”

My entrance definitely got everyone’s attention. As I shoved my way into the room, my eyes quickly scanned to look for where all three men were. I saw two right away. Adrian was chained up against the wall opposite the door, almost straight across from me. Another figure was standing right next to him. But that was it. I could only see two guys. Two. Where was the third?

And then I focused on the figure next to Adrian, and understood. Fuck me, I understood.

The figure wore a blue suit, with a red shirt and blue tie. His entire head was covered by a silver metal helmet. On the front of that was a glowing smiley face made out of soft blue lights, its grin wide and distorted.

His hands were covered in gloves that were white on the first three fingers and black on the last three. Yeah, each hand had six fingers. Two of those were thumbs, one on each side.

But having two thumbs on each hand was far from the creepiest thing about this guy. Because even as I stood there, staring, the figure turned around. Or rather… his torso did. His legs stayed firmly planted, while the man’s torso pivoted one hundred and eighty degrees to face me.

I wasn’t looking at the man’s back. I was looking at his other front. His suit had a frontside here too. Instead of blue like the… other front, this side was red, with a blue shirt and red tie. His side of the silver metal helmet showed a frowning, angry face made out of glowing red lights.

Janus. That’s what this… guy… these two… whatever. That’s what he–they called themselves. He… or they… or… however it worked was actually two men fused into one. Like conjoined twins or whatever. Apparently they’d been two different people before both had touched the same Summus Proelium orb. And now, they were one joined being that didn’t have a back. They had two fronts fused together, each facing the opposite direction. Their head had two faces on it, one on either side. Their bottom half rotated independently of the top half, while each leg could twist a full three-hundred and sixty degrees. The same went for their arms, which seemed to have no limit to their rotation, able to function forward or… their other forward as needed, while each hand had six fingers with a thumb on each side.

They called themselves Janus together, but each was also separate. The smiling half was known as Uncle Friendly, while the angry half was called Mister Harmful. Mister Harmful and Uncle Friendly, Janus. Together (as they always were), the conjoined pair were one (two?) of the leaders of the Easy Eights. Not the leader. That honor went to the woman who called herself Deicide. Rather, Janus was/were one of the leaders of the eight individual gangs that had joined up together to form the Easy Eights in order to combat Oscuro. Now he/they were considered lieutenants or captains or whatever. I didn’t really know much about Fell-Touched politics.

But I did know, in that second, that I was in trouble. Caught flat-footed, I stared for a second while Mister Harmful glared at me with that glowing light angry face of his.

Then his arm snapped up and extended. Extended all the way across the room, that was. Even though I was standing about nine feet away, the man’s (Men’s? This was confusing) arm grew and stretched all the way to reach me. At the same time, the hand itself grew to several times its normal size, until it was as large as my torso. It slammed into my chest, knocking me hard against the wall.

Yeah, because just having two bodies fused together with incredibly fucking creepy range of motion wasn’t bad enough. Janus could also grow and extend any of their limbs to absurd lengths and sizes. I’d seen news footage of the guy(s) stretching their arm the length of a city block, their fist blown up as large as the SUV that they were punching. Because of course they had super strength too. They were incredibly strong and tough in addition to everything else.

Basically, I was in a little bit of trouble. Oops.

Mind racing as I grunted painfully from the force of being shoved hard against the wall, I found myself completely at a loss. I was basically panicking, as Mister Harmful stepped toward me. Their torso rotated all the way around, hand briefly leaving me before they spun far enough for the opposite one to catch on and shove me even harder back. Then I was looking at Uncle Friendly.

“Why, hello,” the man almost cheerfully announced, his smiling-light face focused on me. “I don’t think we know you, do we?” He looked me up and down briefly. “And what do you call yourself?”

His hand jerked back as his torso rotated to make me face Mister Harmful once more. “Who cares what the hell he calls himself? He’s a trespasser. He’s–” He spun back, showing me Uncle Friendly briefly while he looked at Adrian. “He’s with him. He came to rescue him.”

“Is that right?” Uncle Friendly asked, his voice sympathetic and gentle. “Did you come to save this poor guy?”

“F-forget me!” Adrian blurted. “My brothers! Just go, they’re at–” He was silenced then, as Mister Harmful shoved a hand across the length of the room to cover his mouth.

“Nuh uh,” the angry man snarled. “We didn’t ask you to talk yet. Don’t interrupt.”

The worst part of this whole thing was that I couldn’t even take advantage of his distraction as he focused on Adrian. Because his other half was looking right at me. The man literally had eyes (and a nose, and mouth, and everything else) in the back of his head.  

Then I remembered a very important point. I had powers too. In the shock of the moment, I had actually forgotten that. Oops.

“My name?” I finally spoke up, finding my voice after those few seconds of blind panic. “It’s Paintball. And you know what? I don’t like you touching me.”

With that, I covered my torso in blue paint. It activated, sending the enormous hand that was holding me against the wall reeling backward with enough force to make the conjoined men stumble.

Before they could recover, I sent a spray of yellow onto Uncle Friendly’s chest, slowing him down. At the same time, I painted myself green to move even faster. Dropping from the wall to my feet, I threw myself into a forward roll that took me under their oh-so-slowly moving arms, before popping up behind Friendly and in front of the already-bellowing Harmful. Spinning that way, pivoting on one foot, I painted my arm purple while slamming my fist as hard as I could into his chest.

They went flying, crashing into the same wall that I’d been shoved against. Which gave me a second to focus on Adrian.

He was chained. How the hell was I supposed to–

An enormous hand, almost as big as my entire body, closed around me. With a cry, I was yanked back, then thrown to the side. I put orange dots across my body just in time to collide with the window that I was hurled at. With a loud crash of shattering glass, I went flying through that window, hit the asphalt of the parking lot beyond, and rolled with a series of yelps.

Lifting my head a second later, I saw Janus lifting themselves through that same window. Mister Harmful was facing me, his glowing expression seeming even more furious than normal. Worse, there were guards already running to surround me, guns raised and pointed my way.

This… this was bad.

“Hey!” That unexpected voice came from just behind me, as a figure abruptly appeared. I caught a glimpse of a skintight purple costume, with white arrows drawn in every direction all over it.

That-A-Way. One of the members of the Minority, the youth hero team. And she wasn’t alone. Even as Janus and the rest of their troops reacted to her sudden appearance, she was joined by the jester-like Carousel and Whamline, a guy in a black and brown army suit and ski mask with big metal gauntlets. More Minority team members. They were here. I didn’t have to face these guys by myself.

Was it weird that in that moment, with everything else that was going on, I still kind of wanted to ask for their autographs?

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