Almost the same moment that I set foot on the Ten Towers property, the sound of approaching footsteps drew my attention ahead and to the right. A man was approaching me with a purposeful, though not intimidating, stride. He looked like someone threw the idea of casual and formal-wear into the blender and put on what came out. Basically, that amounted to wearing white suit pants and a matching open suit jacket over a Hawaiian shirt (black with red and pink flowers), with comfortable tennis shoes and a pair of Aviator sunglasses tinted dark pink.
Stopping as he approached, I looked from the man’s loud shirt up to his matching shaded sunglasses, cocking my head a bit. “So you would be the official team fashion consultant then?”
He laughed, extending a hand. “Sadly, our organization doesn’t seem to share my taste. More’s the pity.” As I accepted his hand, he shook it while adding, “Richard Mornes. As I understand, you call yourself Paintball, yes?” He released my hand after a moment. “Here for the papers.”
I nodded quickly. “Uh, yeah, Caishen said I could get some of those detention application things and maybe some advice about how to fill them out properly? I’m, um, still really new to all this.”
With an easy smile, Richard turned to gesture back the way he’d come. “Of course. She’s asked me to give you all the help you need. I’m also supposed to tell you that we’re all more glad than we can say that the Blackjack situation has been resolved relatively peacefully without undue damage to property or person. Which is corporate-speak for ‘thanks for saving the day before our profits were heavily affected.’ We probably should’ve gotten you a cake or something.”
Shrugging, I headed the way he had indicated, toward the eastern tower. “I definitely would’ve eaten cake. But I think I can live without, as long as this whole Ashton thing doesn’t blow up.”
Walking alongside me, the man shook his head. “Shouldn’t be a problem. We know how this whole thing works, and the judges in this city are usually fairly lenient on the whole ‘locking up bad guys before they can do more bad things’ situation. In your case, keeping that guy off the streets did a hell of a lot more good than harm, given how many Fell-Gangs were looking for him. Long as you didn’t rough him up too bad or starve him or anything, I don’t see a problem.”
“That’s what Caishen said,” I murmured. By that point, we were passing the small open-air market area. They were selling tee-shirts, hats, and other Ten Towers-branded merchandise, and I saw a few probable tourists look up as we approached. Before I could say anything, a couple of them ran right over in a rush, asking to take pictures and whether I was about to sign up with the team. Taken aback, all I could do for that moment was stand and gape while dozens of questions were hurled rapidfire at me, along with a few shirts that were thrust up with requests for autographs. Autographs? For what? I hadn’t even been doing this whole Star-Touched thing for an entire month yet, so how did these people even know about me?
“Uhhh…” Taken aback as I was, it took me a second to collect myself. Finally, just as Richard looked like he was going to say something on my behalf, I managed to blurt, “Whoa, hey, sorry. There you guys are. Guess I just went blind for a second cuz of my friend’s shirt over there.” With a thumb, I gestured toward Richard and his loud apparel, who playfully scoffed at that while the group (several more had approached to join the first few in that time) snickered.
“Anyway,” I went on before my brain could finish telling me how nervous I was supposed to be, “sorry to disappoint, but Ten Towers has definitely not lowered their incredible standards enough for me to weasel my way in. Not yet, anyway. But maybe while I’m here, I can pick up some juicy secrets so they’ll make an exception and let me pal around with them at some point.”
Hoping that was diplomatic enough and didn’t make it look like I was dissing the team by not joining up with them, I added, “But hey, you guys still want autographs from Independent Kid?” As one person nodded and started to eagerly extend up a shirt with a pen, I waved it off. “Nah dude, let’s see just the shirt.” He shrugged, keeping the pen as I took the shirt.
Avoiding the Ten Towers logo (a ten-pointed star with the city skyline inside), I found an empty part of the shirt and pressed my hand against it. All it took was a moment of focus. Then I held the thing up for him. I’d put a black oval over a blank part of the shirt, written ‘Paintball’ in white cursive letters like a signature, then added spots of every other color (orange, blue, green, purple, yellow, and pink) in a rainbow-like spray from one side to the other.
Seeing what I’d done, the man suddenly grinned, holding the shirt up for everyone to see. Which just made them start thrusting out more things for me to ‘sign’. I took everything they handed over, adding that little logo wherever I could fit it while the crowd just seemed to grow. It took about ten minutes of just standing there talking to people and adding my little Paintball image thing to whatever they wanted (taking occasional breaks to just chat to avoid running out of paint). I tried to answer as many questions as I could without sounding totally dismissive but also without giving away secrets (several people flat out asked how old I was or even what my real name was, which seemed weird, but I was pretty sure they weren’t actually serious).
Finally, Richard stepped in and let them know that we had an important meeting soon and that he didn’t want to keep me for any longer than they had to. I ‘signed’ the last few things that people were holding out, then followed the man while giving one last wave to the group.
While walking away with my escort toward the building once more, I quietly remarked under my breath, “Boy, am I gonna feel pretty stupid if that paint does eventually disappear after all.”
Richard turned my way, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t actually know if it fades on its own?”
“It disappears once I activate it,” I replied thoughtfully. “But I’ve never seen it disappear otherwise. I mean, I painted my costume all white to have a base to work from and that didn’t really disappear. But maybe if it’s far enough away from me for too long? Or… I dunno. Guess we’ll find out if a bunch of people start complaining about disappearing autographs, huh?”
“Well, yes, I guess we will,” he agreed, casting a thoughtful glance back that way.
“So, just out of curiosity,” I put in casually while he was still looking that way, “was that whole thing back there staged to make me feel good? You know, a way to boost me up while I’m here.”
He laughed lightly, head shaking. “Not a bad idea if we wanted to recruit someone, I’ve gotta admit. But no, hand to the heavens, that wasn’t a set-up or anything. Guess there’s some videos floating around out there from last night of you and Cuélebre. Couple people edited in footage of your first run through the city with him awhile back, threw in music, and they went viral. You should check it out next chance you get, there’s one that’s pretty damn funny with Yakety Sax. Totally worth it, especially when you literally yoink that thing out of his hand.”
“Videos of–” Cutting myself off, I swallowed. “Oh. I um, he’s not gonna be happy about that.”
“Hey, you caught onto that pretty quick,” Richard congratulated me with a nod. “Yeah, well, I was gonna tell you to be careful out there if you didn’t get that already. But seriously, you know that whack-a-mole game? Right now, you are the biggest mole sticking your head out and Cuélebre has the hammer. Just watch it, okay? If he wants to make his name back, he’ll come after you.”
“Thanks for the advice,” I murmured, trying not to think about having to deal with a pissed off Cuélebre hunting me down. As if I didn’t already have enough problems with my family thing.
We made it into the office building, and Richard led me straight past the receptionist/security desk, through the metal detectors (they went off when we went through, but he just waved off the guard there), and to one of the elevators. There, we rode all the way up to the third floor from the top. Apparently the second-from-the-top floor of each building was reserved for Touched team member stuff, and the top floor was where the CEO’s and such stayed and worked when they were around.
Leading me through a quiet, well-decorated hallway while greeting a few people, my escort eventually stopped in front of a door that read ‘Richard Mornes, Vice President – Outreach.’ Beneath that was the Ten Towers logo with the ten-pointed star surrounding the Detroit skyline. From what I knew, Ten Towers chapters in other places used the skyline of that particular city in their logo.
“Outreach?” I asked while squinting at the name on the door, a bit curious about that title.
“Yup,” he confirmed. “It means that some of my jobs are to coordinate things like our work with local law enforcement, sending Touched to schools to give talks, looking into the Minority program to see who we might want to recruit, keeping the team popular, that kind of thing.”
“And to help a local doofus Touched write up a report to a judge about why she shouldn’t–” Shit, I said she. Abort ‘she shouldn’t be arrested’, change it, change it! The judge can be a she! “–have him arrested?” The correction came so quickly that I didn’t even have to cough to cover it.
“Pretty much.” With that, Richard opened the door, gesturing for me to go on in. It actually led to his secretary’s office, with his actual office beyond that. There was no one at the outer desk, and as we passed it, he informed me that she was on vacation.
In any case, we went into his (quite large) office, and the man picked up a stack of papers. “Alright, let’s go over this. But first, I’ve really gotta ask… were you serious out there when you said your paint lasts forever as long as you don’t… whatever, trigger the powers on it?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Nodding easily, I replied, “Actually, I’ve experimented and it can be scrubbed off with paint remover and that sort of thing. Or soap, water, and a lot of elbow grease, really.”
“So it’s basically instant paint that could disappear instantly if you wanted it to, or be scrubbed off and removed without you?” Richard asked. When I nodded, he looked at the stack of papers in his hand, muttering, “Excuse me for this.” Then he used the papers to swat my helmet.
“Ow,” I blurted reflexively. “I mean, not really ow, because those are just paper and this is a pretty good helmet right here. But still, it’s the thought that counts. What was that for?”
“What the hell are you doing the superhero thing for, man?” Richard demanded, though it was clear from his tone that he was only being half-serious. “Do you have any idea what people would pay you to put up billboards for them? Or just to paint houses. You could start an entire paint empire. Do you know what it costs to paint a house? The cost of painting the outside of the average two-story house is seven to eight thousand dollars. About three to four thousand for a one-story house. Now work in the fact that you don’t have to pay employees or buy actual paint, let alone equipment. Factor in how many houses you could paint in a day like that and you could be a millionaire before you’re eighteen. Why in the world are you slumming it as a superhero?”
Blinking a couple times at that, I offered him a shrug and a probably lame, “I… have my reasons. But thanks, I’ll keep the paint thing in mind if I need a summer job or something.”
With that, he sat me down at his desk and talked me through filling out the forms. He let me know which boxes to check, how to phrase things, what sort of words I shouldn’t use, and more. It was incredibly helpful, and I thanked him several times throughout. As we were leaving his office about twenty minutes later (I had the filled-out form as well as a stack of extras for later under my arm), I made sure to thank him again. “Seriously, I know you guys are doing this because of the whole ‘maybe recruit him later if we decide we want to’ thing, but thanks.”
I was pretty sure Richard said something else to that as I opened the outer office door, but I was too distracted by the little kid riding the giant bug past the doorway. Yeah, seriously.
It wasn’t just any little kid, of course. I knew that instantly. The girl looked like she was about four or five years old, and she was one of the obvious Touched, with dark red skin, white hair, and insect-like wings. Her eyes were bright blue and compound, like a fly. They were also about twice as large as regular eyes, taking up more of her face.
Meanwhile, the bug she was riding on was some kind of bright, almost neon green hardshell beetle. Except I didn’t know about many beetles that were the size of a small pony. Yeah, the hallway was big enough to drive a small car through, but the giant beetle was still pretty noticeable. The sight of them stopped me in my tracks.
I’d seen the girl in the news, of course. They called her Lightning Bug. Caishen was her mother, and she did her best to keep her daughter from being a spectacle, but the fact that a little girl had become Touched (and a very obvious Touched at that) at such a young age, made that pretty hard. I wasn’t sure how long she’d been Touched, but it was over a year ago that she’d been in the news. So… really young. From what parts of the interview with her mother that I remembered, Lightning Bug (I couldn’t remember her real name, if they’d even given one) basically shot electricity from her fingers that healed people she liked, hurt people she didn’t like, and made bugs grow into giant size forms like the one she was now riding.
As soon as she saw me, the girl made a cute, panicked little squeaking sound, falling sideways off the bug before hiding behind it. She peeked a bit, just the tips of her large compound eyes appearing over the bug’s shell.
“Oh, hey there, LB,” Richard casually remarked while standing just behind me. “It’s okay, this is Paintball.”
A tiny, nervous voice hesitantly spoke from behind the safety of the beetle. “Hi, Miss Ball. Are… you helping Uncle Rick?”
With a chuckle, Richard shook his head. “Actually, he’s here to get some help with his own situation. But hopefully he’ll be willing to help us later, right?”
I nodded, watching the kid’s eyes take me in. “Sure, I don’t see why not.” I did see several conflicts of interest that might pop up, but I was hardly going to get into it right then. I’d take it as it came.
“Sorry, Mr. Ball,” the tiny voice came again. There was a pause before she slowly stood up and moved out from behind the beetle. She shifted from foot to foot, looking uncomfortable, as if she was afraid I was going to tease her for looking the way she did.
Instead, I looked over to the beetle. “That’s a really pretty bug. I like the green. What’s his name?”
The answer came hesitantly. “Snugglebug.”
“Well, hey there, Snugglebug.” Smiling, though it wouldn’t show behind the mask and helmet, I asked, “Do you mind if I give him a little color?” Again, there was a little pause before she nodded with obvious hesitation and nervousness, moving to put both hands on the beetle protectively.
With exaggerated care and gentleness, I put my hand on the bug, moving it around a bit to leave several purple, orange, and white stars around the sides of the shell. Then I made a large yellow crescent moon before using my red, blue, white, and black paint to make a pretty good depiction of Lightning Bug herself perched on the moon, fishing out in the stars.
Seeing it, the girl’s eyes lit up, and she blurted, “Snuggle, you’re pretty!” Looking over to me, she solemnly added, “Thank you, Mr. Ball. Can Simminin be pretty too?”
“Oh, sure,” I agreed. “But who–” While speaking, I turned a little, only to come face-to-face with another giant bug that made me yelp and almost fall over.
It was a praying mantis that was even bigger than Snugglebug. Seriously, this thing was freaking gigantic. It was even taller than I was, standing there with its enormous bladed arms held up defensively in front of itself.
“Her name’s supposed to be Cinnamon,” Richard explained. “As in Cinnamon Toast Crunch. That’s her full name. Pretty sure the kid was hungry when she named her.”
“That’s her name,” Lightning Bug herself insisted. “Simminin. And… and…” She could barely make herself look at me, half-hiding behind both her beetle and one of the outstretched claws of the praying mantis. “And she wants tah be pretty.”
Forcing back my own nervousness, I looked up at the gigantic insect. “Well then, Miss Simminin, let’s see what we can do about making you the prettiest mantis in the world.”
Eventually, it was time to head home. I’d made the bugs pretty enough for the kid, making it clear that the images would wash off but promising that I’d make more another time.
Now, it was getting fairly close to time for dinner, and I definitely couldn’t miss that. Not if I wanted to live.
So, I took another trip around the city to stretch my legs before changing clothes and summoning another Uber to take me home. By the time I got there, I had just enough time to take a nice long shower and clean up a bit before changing into clean clothes. When I got out, still brushing out the long side of my hair, Izzy was waiting in the hall. She looked uncertain. “What’s… um… one of your… um, maids said something about dinner being late or something?”
I nodded. “Yeah, my dad had some kind of long meeting, so we’re having family dinner late. Right about now, actually.”
“Oh, sorry.” She started to step back. “I’ll stay out of the way.”
“You better not,” I retorted. “Mom gets a bit tyrannical about family dinner. If she thinks you’re not there, she might go on the warpath.” I was kidding. Mostly. Sort of.
Izzy’s head shook. “But you said it’s a family dinner.”
“Yup,” I confirmed. “Family and guests. And right now, you’re living two doors down from me. That kind of makes you closer than my own brother. So you get to come.”
Before she could object, I started to take her hand. Just as I touched her, however, she jerked the hand back with a gasp. Seriously, it was like I’d burned her. Blushing deeply as she realized what she had done, the girl hung her head a bit before nodding. “Sorry, I… yeah, I’ll come.” She said it quietly, not looking at me as she started down the hall. My eyes followed her and I frowned a little to myself. Finding out what my family did to this girl and her family was suddenly a really big priority. Even if I was terrified of what the answer might end up being. For the moment, however, I followed after her. Time for another family dinner.
But hey, at least this time I knew there were two people at the table who weren’t evil.