Pack

Building Connections 16-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Throughout the entire trip to get home, the plan that had popped into my head back at Wren’s was still bouncing around in there. It seemed entirely too simple and obvious on the face of it, yet was that a bad thing? Being simple meant it was harder to fuck up, and it still might actually work. Assuming, well, everything on a long list of ways it could go wrong didn’t happen. 

Still, I didn’t exactly have time to dwell on any of that, considering that by the time I finally made it to the house, it was barely a few minutes before I would’ve been late for family dinner. If that had happened, I probably wouldn’t need to worry about this break-in plan (or any of the other myriad dangers I kept walking into) getting me killed, considering Mom would’ve done it herself. 

Okay, that was an exaggeration. Mom wasn’t going to freak out just because someone was a minute or two late. She had some more chill than that. But still, she did take this stuff seriously. Family dinner was important. And the last thing I wanted was for Mom to start paying more attention to where I was and what I was doing. If I was late, she’d start wondering why I was late. Which felt like a really good (terrible) way to end up having my secrets exposed. No, best to always be where Mom wanted me to be when she wanted me to be there, to avoid questions.

After sneaking back inside and dumping my costume in its hiding place under the floorboards of my closet, I gave myself a quick pat-down. Good, good, I was good. No costume, nothing that could stand out and give me away. Satisfied, I checked the clock on the wall. Fuck, two minutes left. Which meant I’d already missed the warning chimes and flickering lights that were supposed to tell me it was time for dinner. Right, this was cutting it very close. 

Grimacing, I sprinted out, heading down the hall and past a couple of the house staff (who casually stepped out of the way as I passed, one even calling out encouragement for me to hurry), sliding down the main stairway bannister before finally dashing right to the dining room.  

Stopping outside the doors, I took a breath and checked the nearby tall, antique clock. Ten seconds. Exhaling, I made sure it didn’t look like I was panicked, then opened the doors and stepped through barely a moment before that tall clock outside announced the hour. 

Everyone else was already there, of course. Mom, Dad, Izzy, and Simon were waiting at their spots. They all looked up as I came in, but waited until I had come to the table before speaking. 

“Everything okay?” Dad asked in a thankfully casual tone. Wait, was casual bad? Was he being intentionally casual? Did he know something? Was this a trap? Did he–did they know what–God damn it, get a grip, Cassidy. He’s just making conversation because you barely made it. It’s fine. 

“Just fine,” I immediately forced myself to reply. My hand (as I somehow managed to make it stop shaking) picked up the glass of water before taking a sip. “Why, what’s up?” Fuck, was my voice calm enough? Should it be less calm? Did I sound like a robot? Was something else wrong that I should’ve known about and been upset by? Was fine the wrong answer?!

“Whatever.” That was Simon, already changing the subject as he focused on our parents. “I talked to that guy from Montreal today. He said they’ll be ready for the trip next month.” 

“Trip?” I spoke up. This, at least, was something I could express curiosity about without attracting any suspicion. “Are we going to Canada again?” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Mom give a slight nod to Simon and mouth something to him. It looked like ‘good job’, followed by something I didn’t catch. 

Meanwhile, Dad just chuckled, drawing my attention. “Not this time, sorry, kid. This one’s about business, not pleasure. But we’ll make sure to go somewhere fun as soon as school’s out. As for where…” He glanced toward Izzy beside me, considering for a moment before adding, “That’s a decision we can all make when the time comes.” 

By that point, Mom had picked up the little silver bell and gave it a ring, prompting the doors into the kitchen to open. Christiana and Ethan entered, carrying the covered metal trays, with Chef Claudio right behind them to explain and detail everything we were about to eat. 

Okay… fine. It was fine. I was almost late, but no one really seemed to care. Probably because of that almost part. I’d made it in time, Simon was talking about some kind of trip next month, and everyone was focused on how amazing dinner looked. 

Shoving all the uncertainty out of my head, along with the rushing thoughts of my new plan to break into my own family’s secret base, I managed a small smile, thanking Claudio and his assistants before starting to dig into the food. Dinner now. Later, I would tell Izzy about the plan I had come up with. 

And hope she didn’t think it was the stupidest thing she had ever heard. 

*********

“It is pretty crazy,” Izzy was saying later as the two of us sat in the gaming room across the hall from our bedrooms. We had a game up on one of the systems just in case anyone poked their head in, yet neither of us were actually playing. “It’ll take awhile to pull off. There’s a lot of ways you could get caught. But still…” She considered for a moment before nodding. “I like it.” 

Exhaling, I managed a weak smile. “Really? So, it’s crazy but a workable sort of crazy?” 

“Workable sort of crazy,” she confirmed. “You think you can find the right place for it?” 

“I’ll head down there in a bit and look around,” I replied thoughtfully, gazing off toward the window before asking, “What about you? They still putting you back on patrol tonight?” 

With a nod, the other girl confirmed, “Yeah, I’m supposed to go out with your mom in an hour and get dropped off with Carousel and Whamline.” After a moment of hesitation, she added, “They said I didn’t have to do regular patrols for awhile, but I think it’ll be better if things look normal.” 

“Plus it’s an excuse to get out of the house for awhile besides school,” I pointed out. Then, feeling a little awkward, I added, “But umm, just be careful, okay? With that Easy Eight attack, I’m pretty sure the Niners are gonna be in the mood to retaliate. And–wait a second, I didn’t tell you about the new girl!” I’d been so obsessed with explaining the plan I’d come with, I’d forgotten the other part of what happened tonight. 

And wow did that prove my life was too fucking busy or what? 

Still, I quickly explained how that whole thing had gone, and about the armored girl. Izzy had a lot of questions, mostly revolving around what those new powers seemed to be and what sort of things she’d done with them. Which, well… I had no idea. All I knew was that she had some colored object… things she could reshape into various other objects. Like that armor. 

“You think she’ll call and get you to help her figure out how her power works?” Izzy asked, before adding, “And uhh, what’re you gonna tell her about… umm… any of this?” 

“As far as that first part goes, I hope so,” I murmured before exhaling long and hard. “For the rest, fuck, I don’t know. I can’t tell her the truth, right? There’s no way we can trust her. We don’t know anything about the girl. She could be anybody, she could side with you-know-who. She could do anything. I mean, yeah, she helped save those people, but that doesn’t mean she’s the sort of person we can trust for the rest of this. It’s sort of, you know, a lot to throw at anyone even if you do know them. With this girl, we just… don’t.” 

Izzy nodded, biting her lip. “Yeah, you’re right. But if you tell her not to join the Minority, she’ll wanna know why. And so will everyone else, especially if she actually uses her powers to help people. Are you going to start your own team? Take her on as a partner? If you do that–”

“Then we’re right back to whether we can trust her or not,” I agreed with a sigh. “Yeah. Like I said, I dunno. I just… I need to think about it. Any suggestions?” 

“Think really hard?” she offered before wincing. “Sorry. I’ll think too. I mean, there’s gotta be a good solution, right?” 

“Sure, there’s gotta be good solutions to everything going on,” I agreed. 

“I just hope we can actually figure some of them out at some point.”

********* 

“Tell me your plan doesn’t involve trying to intimidate the mall into surrender just by glaring at it.” 

A couple hours had passed, and I was crouched beside the air conditioning unit atop a fast food place across the parking lot from the mall in question. My gaze had been fixed intently on the building itself in the distance. The voice came from That-A-Way, who had just popped up a few feet behind me, deliberately coughing and shuffling her feet a bit to let me know she was there.

“Why,” I quipped without turning around, “you don’t think it’ll work? I’ll have you know, I can have a pretty intimidating stare if I really put my mind to it. That’s what my brother says, anyway.”  

“Oh, you have a brother?” Way remarked, making me curse myself inwardly for that stupid slip. “Cool, Pack was pretty convinced you were an only child. Guess I just won that ten bucks.” 

That was enough to make me turn my head a bit finally, looking toward her so I could incredulously ask, “You guys really bet ten bucks on whether I had any siblings? Seriously?”

Her response was a very slight smirk as she shrugged. “We actually bet a lot of different things when it comes to you, Paintball. Just something you’re going to have to get used to if you don’t want to give people any answers. You’re a mysterious guy. Which, you know, don’t get me wrong, if you were a few years older and also not a guy, I’d be pretty intrigued. I mean, I’m intrigued now, but in a different way. More of a, ‘hey, I just made ten bucks’ sort of way.”  

Damn it, do not say anything, do not say anything. Do not react. Do not show anything in reaction to what she just said about being the older and not a guy. Fuck, it was almost like she was intentionally setting me up. Which she wasn’t, of course. Even my overly-paranoid brain knew that. But still, the dozen different remarks that jumped to my lips the moment I heard that had to practically be physically shoved back down again. I swallowed hard before shaking my head. “I guess that’s my loss. But from what you’re saying, I could make an awful lot of money just by winning those bets myself.” Saying that thoughtfully, I tapped the side of my helmet.

With a snort at the suggestion, Way shook her head. “You’re not eligible, sorry. Just gonna have to make a few bucks some other way. Although,” she continued conspiratorially while leaning a little closer to me, “maybe if you told me some of the answers, I could cut you in for half.” 

The rattling of the nearby ladder drew our attention, as Pack leaned up over the edge to look at us. She had two of her lizards (Riddles and Scatters) on either shoulder. “And here I thought I was supposed to be one who was a disreputable cheater and overall scandalous person. Am I having a bad influence on you, Rose? And if so, is there any way I can speed up the process?” 

Beside me, I actually noticed Way blush a little bit before she cleared her throat and waved that off to very clearly change the subject. “Pack. So, he called you here too, huh?” 

“I wanted both of you to hear the idea,” I confirmed, gesturing for Pack to come closer  before turning back to look at the mall while lowering my voice a bit. “We need a way to get in there without going through their front door and dealing with all the alarms and security that’d call.” 

Moving up to stand beside That-A-Way, Pack replied, “I still say you could use that pink paint and get us right through the door pretty fast, before they could react. We could jump them.” 

“That still involves having a straight-up fight really quickly,”  I pointed out. “And we don’t know what’s in there. We’d still set off all their alarms when they saw us come through. So who knows how much time we’d actually get to look around before we’d have to retreat. Plus–” 

Way finished for me. “Plus, it would involve Paintball using his powers right out in the open, so they’d know who was there, even if he was in disguise. Which we’re trying to avoid, because I, for one, don’t want the Ministry to have any clue that I know anything about them.” 

“They already know that I know some things,” I murmured quietly before exhaling. “But yeah, I’d really prefer if they didn’t realize I was doing anything openly against them. It’s just… yeah, it’d be bad. They have all the power and influence. We can’t use our abilities in there or they’ll know exactly who we are. Which means no lizards,” I pointed out, looking directly at her. “There’s not exactly anyone else in the city who uses them. It’s a dead giveaway. And I do mean dead.” 

“I know, I know.” It sounded like Pack was making a face behind her full-covering mask. “But you’re asking us to go in there with a pretty big handicap if we can’t use any powers at all. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not exactly some kind of super-spy martial arts master. Without my little friends here, I’m basically just a girl with a gun. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a fair equalizer a lot of the time. But I don’t think it’ll be enough in that place. What’re we supposed to do?” 

“I’ve thought about that.” Turning to look at the two of them, I continued, “And I think I can put different paint colors in separate spots underneath like… whatever overcoats we wear. You know, out of sight. Then I can activate the paint separately whenever we need it in the base itself. Just don’t let them realize it’s temporary, and if we do it right, they’ll end up looking for people who are really strong and tough.” 

“Like those biolems, maybe,” Way pointed out. “Maybe they’ll think we’re some of those things. I mean, it’s not like they know there’s no more in the city, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Exactly, yeah. It’s decent cover, anyway. Might send them chasing the wrong direction, but we still have to be careful. And first, we need to get inside without going through their front door. The longer we have to look around without an army of reinforcements descending on us, the better. Even if it’s just an extra couple minutes. Every little bit helps.” 

“And you’ve got a plan for that?” Pack asked curiously, crouching down to set Riddles and Scatters on the roof so they could explore a bit. “Some idea of how to get in there quietly?” 

Nodding, I replied, “It’s all about building connections.” When that was met with blank stares, I coughed before continuing to actually explain. “Not connections like acquaintances, physical connections. It’s about building connections. Making connections. See, you’re right, my pink paint could get through the door if we were standing right in front of it, which would let them know exactly who I was. Or…” Turning a bit, I pointed down at the parking lot and began to run my finger along it. “We could find another place nearby, a building that isn’t protected by their security, and use the pink paint to start tunneling that way. It’d take awhile, but it’d basically be completely silent. We just keep painting it, ripping some out, painting more, ripping it out, and so on. If I’m just using pink paint for that, with the time it takes to actually pull the pieces out, I shouldn’t need too many breaks to recharge. You know, if I pace myself. We just find a place that’s safe to start from and take the time to patiently and quietly tunnel all the way over there. Once we’re close, we start being really careful, just poking little holes in each spot until we find where the edge of that underground base is.” 

“Sure we can keep track of exactly where we are and where we’re going if we’re in a tunnel?” Pack asked pointedly. “Sounds like a good way of getting turned in circles.” 

I, however, tapped my helmet again. “Trevithick’s upgrades, they let me know where I am in the city. Shouldn’t be too hard to keep track of my location well enough to keep going toward the mall.” With that, I shrugged. “I mean, it’s the best idea I’ve come up with. What do you guys think?” 

They, in turn, exchanged looks. There was a brief murmur of conversation before both turned back to me, Way speaking. “We’d need a safe place to start from, and you’re right, it’d take awhile. So it’d have to be a place that wouldn’t be found, and that we could go back to repeatedly.” 

Nodding, I pointed off across the lot. “See that half-built motel over there? It’s been under construction for like a year, and all the contracts are stalled right now. We should be able to find a spot that’s out of the way, and I’m pretty sure they won’t get back to building before we’re done.” 

Again, Way and Pack looked to each other to have some private conversation that was only partially verbal. Then they turned back to me. “It’s a good plan, Paintball,” Way confirmed. “I mean, still totally crazy and all, but it’s the best one we’ve got.” 

Exhaling in relief that at least they didn’t immediately see a dozen impossible problems with it, I murmured, “So I guess we just have to make sure no one ever sees us over there. We need a place to take the chunks we pull out of the tunnel so they don’t know how it was made when they investigate after it’s over. Just–you know, leave it as much of a mystery as possible.” 

“I’ll get a big van or a truck,” Pack put in. “One of us can drive the pieces away every time it’s full. Dump them in the river or something.” 

Way quietly agreed, “Sounds like a plan. Or the start of one, anyway. We can iron out details as we go.” She looked over to me then, adding, “And now that that’s settled, I’ve got a question. 

“What’s this Pack’s been saying about you having minions?”  

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Building Connections 16-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Hold up, wait just a second. Wait, so let me get this straight, you just came right out and asked for someone to help you fix a Touched-Tech robot-android thing on a public forum?” 

The incredulous words were from Pack, who stood in one corner of Wren’s upstairs lab at the shop, staring at me as if I’d just told her I was engaged to marry the Abyssal Typhon. 

It was Tuesday, April 14th, the next day after my interesting dinner with Caishen, Skip, Lightning Bug… and my parents. I’d spent some time after they left just hanging out with Bug, playing with her insect friends (and making them pretty, of course). Eventually, I’d promised to visit again soon and made my exit. Then I’d told Izzy all about what happened while we were safe in my room, which was… yeah. Just being able to tell someone else about the near-panic attack I’d had when I saw my parents there, and all the way through it, was basically a life saver. Or at least a sanity saver. 

Anyway, now it was the next day, shortly after school had let out. Pack and I had arrived at roughly the same time, which made me wonder how far away her school was. Did she even still go to school as a supervillain member of La Casa? Or was there like a… work-study program? 

Coughing while pushing that thought away, I held up both hands quickly, glancing off to the side where Wren was carefully running the new scanner she’d made over every inch of Paige, who lay motionless on a padded table. “Not exactly,” I corrected. “I’m not that stupid. Like I said, Lion told me about that secret code to privately hire Tech-Touched, so I’m just… feeling it out. I’m not giving any details yet. I’m seeing who bites and chatting with them a bit. Just, you know, feeling them out. It’s a potential option.” 

I couldn’t see her face, of course. But from her body language alone, I was pretty sure Pack wasn’t exactly convinced. A side glance toward her cage full of lizards sitting on a nearby equipment table showed that they seemed to be just as doubtful about the situation. Which, honestly, was a really weird impression to be getting from a group of reptiles to begin with.

With a sigh, Pack started to respond. “Look, I know I don’t need to tell you about the dangers of trusting anyone you talk to online and the whole stranger-danger, pedo–” She stopped, choking a bit before giving me what was clearly a sharp look. “I don’t have to tell you about that, right?” 

Squinting at her from behind the mask and helmet for a long, silent moment, I very slowly shook my head while keeping my voice even and flat. “I’ve had the discussion a few times before.” 

“Good, just… good.” Sounding almost insultingly relieved, Pack pushed on. “The point is, just because you think someone might sound trustworthy in a few internet conversations doesn’t mean they are. Don’t do anything crazy that you might regret, okay? It’s not like you’ll get a second chance if whoever you bring in here happens to blab about the whole situation.” 

“I’m not gonna do anything crazy,” I solemnly promised, raising my hand as though taking an oath. “I wouldn’t bring anyone in without seeing what you guys thought anyway. Not with something that important. Just–believe me, I won’t be stupid about it. But we have to do something, and soon.” With that, I glanced over to Wren again, who was still working.

Pack hesitated, watching me for a moment before giving a very short nod. “We will, Paintball. Trust me, I know it’s easy to feel… you know, fucking anxious and shit about all this. But we’ll figure it out. You said yourself there’s no real rush. The girl’s fine over there, just sleeping. And honestly, if we were in a rush, I’d rather trust Eits to get in there and fix the damn orb thing.” She shrugged. “Even if that meant finding a way to get to it. You sure you can’t just pink paint it?” 

Grimacing slightly, I offered a hesitant shrug before admitting, “I dunno. I’ve never really pulled someone’s body, uhh… apart or open like that. It just stretches the body part out like taffy. And I’m afraid–I mean, what if it does actual damage? Like, the part that’s painted is protected, but what if I rip open her stomach or whatever and expose her inner… uhh… organs and that goes wrong? I’m pretty sure they have super sterile operating rooms for a reason. And like, a bajillion years of lessons about how to safely open someone up.” My face twisted a little at my own words. “Plus I’d have to keep reapplying the paint or the whole thing would just, umm, schloop back. And that’s if it works to begin with.” 

“Too bad you don’t have another biolem body to practice with,” Pack noted thoughtfully. 

Before either of us could pursue the thought any further, Wren called out, “Got it, I got it!” 

“You sure, kid?” Pack asked while immediately stepping over that way with me just behind her. 

Wren, who was perched on a stool with the scanner against Paige’s back as the other girl’s motionless body lay on her stomach, gave both of us a hurried nod of excitement. “Uh huh. I mean, unless she’s got some other metal orb thing in her body that’s connected to all her nerves and muscles and all for a completely unrelated reason.” Pausing as though considering that, she quickly shook her head, pointing to a point about midway down Paige’s back before hurriedly insisting. “It’s here. Right in there. Basically right between her lungs. You know, protected by the ribs.” 

Exchanging a look with Pack, I slowly nodded. “I mean, that makes sense. Her dad would want it to be safe. He put the others inside the skulls, but maybe he thought avoiding obvious headshot damage would be easier?” Shrugging, I added, “Anyway, great job, Wren. At least we know where it is now. And if it’s in her chest instead of her head, maybe it’ll be easier to get someone else involved without exposing her identity. I mean, we can mask her up pretty well, right? If it comes down to it, we can just hide her identity that way. They’d know there was a really good biological android… person, but not who she actually is.” 

It was Wren and Pack’s turn to exchange looks, before the latter shrugged. “Sure, it’s an idea.” 

For a moment, it looked like she was going to say something else, but a sudden chirp from my phone interrupted. Holding up a hand, I glanced at the phone. “Oh, hey, it’s time for me to go pick up my uhh…” 

“Your minions?” From the tone of her voice, Pack was incredibly amused by the whole situation. With a wave of both hands, she teased, “Time for the noble and incredibly valiant Star-Touched hero to go meet up with the older teenagers he press-ganged into being his loyal minions.” 

Boy was I glad the helmet meant she couldn’t see my blush. It really would’ve wrecked my rep. Or something. “They are not minions!” I blurted, my voice rising in an embarrassing squeak that Pack did an absolutely awful job of pretending not to laugh at. Hurried, I pushed on. “I mean they’re not–I’m not–they’re just… you know, helping out in exchange for not getting in trouble and then we’ll give them money if they keep helping and keeping everything we’re doing secret and oh my God they really are minions.” 

“Hey, it’s okay!” Wren piped up. “I’m sure you’ll treat your minions really good, right?” She started to say something else, then paused while looking at Pack. Something on her face made me glance that way too, before realizing what it was. The other girl was standing basically directly beside the painted banner on the wall that read, ‘We Never Work For Bad Guys.’

Pack, who turned a bit to see where we were looking, pivoted back and offered an exaggerated shrug. “Hey, I consider this more me working for you.” 

Wren, however, simply shook her head. “It just says we don’t work for bad guys. You’re not a bad guy. There’s bad guys and then there’s bad guys.” 

Coughing, the lizard-tamer gently pointed out, “Far be it from me to argue, kid, but I literally rob places. I mean, sure it’s fun to do some good stuff now and then, especially with you guys. And I’ve got my limits. Still, I ain’t gonna stop stealing shit. Most people would consider that being a bad guy. Pretty sure taking what doesn’t belong to you is part of the definition, actually.” 

“Uh huh.” Sounding entirely unconvinced, Wren pivoted to look at me. “Uncle Fred’s picking up a pizza! And some breadsticks and stuff! So you should bring them back so it’s still hot when they get here. Oh, and make sure they’re not lactose intolerant or gluten-free or anything,” she added sagely. 

“Speaking of which, have you told those guys about ahh… who they’ll be working for in this place?” Pack asked, making a vague token effort at keeping the amusement out of her voice. As she spoke, her hand fell on Wren’s shoulder, squeezing it. 

“Not yet,” I replied, already starting to head to the nearby window so I could head out. “I mean, I could’ve. 

“But why spoil the surprise?” 

*******

Reaching the roof above where I was supposed to meet Murphy and Roald, a few blocks from Wren’s shop, I was greeted with the sound of a basketball being dribbled, then bouncing off a rim. Peering over the edge, I saw the two in question playing on a nearby court attached to the small apartment complex this building was a part of. Yeah, it was definitely them. Roald the skinny, pale blond boy and Murphy (seriously, was that her first name?) the biracial girl with very short brown hair and a temper that was even shorter. 

Neither seemed to be particularly good at the game they were playing from the few moments I watched, but they were clearly having fun. And who was I to judge someone else’s basketball skills? I wasn’t exactly… uhhh insert good basketball player. Simon would know.

In any case, they missed a lot more baskets than they made, but neither of them seemed to care. Crouching there, staring at the two, I saw the way they just goofed off and acted like they were both hotshot stars, playing up for an imaginary crowd and trash-talking each other.

God, what was I doing here? Why was I involving them at all in any of this? I should just disappear, leave a message to let the two of them know everything was fine and they didn’t owe anything, and let them live in peace. Even if I wasn’t planning on involving them in any of the actual… bad stuff, just having any connection to me could put them in danger. They didn’t have any powers or anything. They were total civilian Prevs with their whole lives to deal with. 

Right, their whole lives. That was the problem. I’d promised the two of them jobs, a way to get out of the holes that were their lives if they put some effort into it. Sure, they were going to have to work off the cost of the damage they’d done before, but after that, working for a Tech-Touched could seriously change everything for them. If I snatched that away now, after saying I was going to give them a chance, I doubted they’d listen to ‘but it’s for your own good.’ I’d just be another asshole who didn’t give them a chance. 

Besides, I could still keep them out of the worst of it. Working with Wren wasn’t exactly being around me. And Wren had all those defenses she’d been working on, right? Right. Yeah, I just had to keep convincing myself that this wasn’t an awful, terrible, horrible idea that I was going to regret. 

Pushing on past all that, I straightened, took aim, and fired a shot of red paint at the ball while it was in midair. Holding out my own red glove, I activated the paint, summoning the ball to me just as it bounced off the edge of the big wooden board thing the rim was attached to. 

Murphy and Roald both pivoted, their eyes following the ball as it flew all the way up to the roof of the three story building I was on. While they watched, I overhand chucked it back the other way, hurling the ball as hard as I could in the vague direction of the basket. It sailed… nowhere near going in. But while the ball was still falling, I hit both it and the inner part of the rim with red paint, activating them with a thought. That sent the ball on a complete course correction, falling neatly through the net. 

“Whooo!” Leaping from the roof, I painted my feet orange to land comfortably on the pavement. “How many points is that? Like seven?” 

The other two exchanged looks, before Roald jogged over to get the ball. As he was doing that, Murphy approached. She still had the mark on her face from the sealant that the ambulance guys used, since it hadn’t been a week yet. 

Oh my God, it hadn’t been a week yet? What the fuck? Was it really only Tuesday when Paige’s birthday party had been Saturday? It felt like it had been a couple months at least. What the hell was happening to my life? 

While I was busy reeling from the shock of how time worked, Murphy gestured toward the ball that her friend was picking up and remarked, “How’d you do that?” 

“Uhh, you do know I used my power, right?” I was confused. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t that sneaky.” 

While the girl rolled her eyes so hard I thought she might pass out, Roald approached and spoke up. “She means the paint part. You hit the ball in midair twice from all the way up on the roof. And you hit the inner part of the rim. Those are like… really good shots.” 

“Oh.” Blinking at the thought, I finally shrugged. “I dunno. Guess I’ve had practice aiming my paint lately. And if you think that’s impressive, you should see me navigate a forest in the middle of the night.” 

Right, I should probably try to figure out what was up with that at some point, huh? 

Poor Roald and Murphy, meanwhile, were just staring at each other in silence for a few seconds before both turned back to me. “Dude,” Murphy managed, “if you try to get us to follow you into a dark forest, I’m gonna have to peace out. I don’t do nature walks. Also, I’m pretty sure that’s how like half of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales start. You know, the original really psycho ones.”

“I promise to wait awhile before taking you to the Gingerbread House,” I solemnly replied before gesturing. “Anyway, you guys ready?”

“Sure, do we need these?” From her pocket, Murphy pulled out a ski mask. Probably the same one she’d been wearing that night when they tried to steal from the convenience shop.

“We weren’t sure how much you wanted us to hide,” Roald put in. 

“Depends,” I replied, “do you want to wear those the whole time you’re working for your new boss? I mean, it’s totally up to you and I’m pretty sure she could help you with more comfortable ones if you wanna keep your identities secret and all that. But you don’t have to. Like I said, up to you.” 

After a moment of thought and whispered conversation, Murphy shoved the mask away again and shrugged. “Whatever. I mean, you said we’re working for this chick, right? This shit is legit?” From the sound of her voice, she was at least half-expecting me to laugh in their faces and take off. Between that and the whole thing with her drug-addict brother giving her that cut on her face, I was getting the vague impression that Murphy didn’t have a lot of dependable people in her life. 

“As legit as we can make it,” I assured her. Briefly thinking about how both of them were going to react to finding out their boss was technically still young enough to get into the theater using kid prices, I smiled faintly. “I mean yeah. It’ll be real work and, as soon as you catch up with what you owe for your little escapade, you’ll make real money. From there, well, we’ll see what happens.” 

“Okay, sure, whatever. But how do we get there?” Murphy gave me a doubtful look. “And please don’t say we have to let you carry us or something. That’s just gonna be embarrassing for everyone involved.” 

Snorting at that, I shook my head and gave them the address and directions. “It’s just a couple blocks that way. You head there and wait by the backdoor. I’ll let you in and we’ll meet your new–” 

In mid-sentence, I cut myself off. Something had drifted past the corner of my eye, over by the building. My gaze snapped that way, and I thought I saw it right next to one of the bushes there. I could’ve sworn that it looked like one of those Summus Proelium orbs, but it was gone the instant I focused, so it must’ve just been my imagination. A trick of the light or something.

Either way, facing that direction meant I saw the trucks that went past. Several of them, in fact, all decked out with Easy Eight decals, men with weapons standing in the backs. I even caught a glimpse of Juice himself in one of the passenger seats. He was looking away from me, his attention on wherever they were going. But it was definitely him. 

A bunch of Easy Eight people heading down the street into what I was fairly certain was considered Ninety-Niner territory? Fuck. This wasn’t gonna end well. Or start and proceed well, come to think of it. It was gonna be bad all around. 

“Paintball?” That was Roald, drawing my attention. “What’s–” 

“Go to the address,” I blurted, already starting to move after the line of trucks. “Hit the bell on the back door, tell them who you are, and that I’ll be there soon. Just let them know that I’m going after some Easy Eights heading into Ninety-Niner territory.

“Looks like there’s not gonna be a ceasefire in the gangwar today after all.”

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Patreon Snippets 18B (Summus Proelium)

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Eits

With a polite ding, the elevator doors opened, and Ryder Towling (the name the boy publicly known as Eits had taken for himself after his transition) stepped out onto the third floor of the apartment building. Or rather, staggered out, considering how full his arms were. The brown-haired boy had several grocery bags hooked over each of his somewhat gangly limbs, and was clutching a few of what looked like long cardboard tubes with caps on either end to his chest. The keys to the building that he’d used to get in were clutched between his teeth.

Unlike when he appeared in his La Casa costume, the civilian Ryder didn’t dress to wow people. Or to attract attention at all. At the moment, he wore simple faded gray jeans, tennis shoes, a burgundy tee shirt, and a brown leather jacket. Between that and his habit of watching the ground or his phone while walking, and his unremarkable drab brown hair that was a couple weeks late for a trim to tame it back to some working order, he blended right into most crowds.

Shuffling awkwardly down the hall while doing his level best not to drop anything, Ryder nodded politely to old Mrs. Jansen when she came trundling out of her own apartment. He shook his head when she asked if he needed help. Not that it wouldn’t have been nice given how overloaded he was (but who wanted to make more than one trip all the way back to the car?), but there really wasn’t much the nice elderly lady could do. She used a walker to get around as it was.

Waiting until Mrs. Jansen had made it to the elevator and stepped on, the boy turned back to the door of his own apartment. A thought summoned one of his mites, which jumped into the security keypad there and a moment later there was a confirming beep as the door clicked open just far enough for Ryder to push it the rest of the way with his foot and step through.

Finally, he was inside, and nudged the door shut with his heel. Once it clicked and he heard the affirming beep of the lock, the boy dismissed the mite in the control panel before heading through the narrow entranceway. To the left was his bathroom, his bedroom was straight ahead, and the living room and kitchen were to the right. That last was the way he went, yet just before he would have made it to the dining table in the living room and been safe, his feet seemed to tangle up in themselves. With a startled yelp, the boy pitched forward, falling to the floor while sending his groceries and the long tubes he was carrying scattering everywhere. 

“Well,” Ryder mumbled while squinting at the mess from where he lay, “that’s just typical.” 

Groaning, he picked himself up and began picking up the keys that had fallen from his mouth before moving on to the food items. Over the next few minutes, the boy restocked his fridge and put things away. As he did so, moving from spot to spot to pick up everything, he thought about how much easier Paintball would’ve had it. He could just stand in front of the fridge and shoot red paint at anything he needed to pull to himself. 

No, not himself. Herself. She. Yeah. Ryder had trained himself not to think or say anything about Paintball actually being a girl in front of anyone else. He’d promised, after all. He’d sworn to Paintball that he’d keep her secret, and that was a promise he wouldn’t break. Especially not by being a complete idiot and blurting out the wrong pronoun at the wrong time. It was safer for the whole situation if he just made himself think of Paintball as a boy as much as possible. 

But she wasn’t. She was a girl. And more than that, she was actually older than everyone thought. All those people who thought Paintball was like a thirteen-year-old boy, when she was actually, as the girl herself had put it ‘closer to college than middle school.’ She’d had a sixteenth birthday, at least. She’d mentioned that much, about how her family had celebrated that she’d finally made it to five feet in height that day.

Paintball was a girl around Ryder’s age. Maybe a bit younger. Either way, that was a hell of a lot different than anyone else thought. Which had to help keep her secret identity. Yet it was more than that. The desperation he’d heard and seen in the girl when she thought he might blow her secret, it was… there was… something big. A lot bigger than just keeping her superheroing secret from her parents or whatever. She had been scared, terrified. 

But why? What had her so upset? Was she afraid of a specific person? Was she hiding from something bad she’d done in the past? What if people in some other city knew the kind of powers she used but didn’t realize it was her because she was pretending to be a boy now? 

Yeah, that was a rabbit hole of paranoia that Ryder had gone down a few times. He’d had to talk himself out of actively looking up people who might have similar powers to what Paintball had, telling himself that it would be violating her trust. Digging into what could be her past, trying to figure out what her big secret was… it was tempting. The whole situation was so confusing. But it was a bad idea. It would be a betrayal of someone who deserved better. 

And yet, he couldn’t help but think what she might need was help. And would she ever ask for it? Whatever was wrong, whatever or whoever had her so terrified about even her sex being discovered, was clearly bad enough that she needed more help than she was getting. 

That was the situation he was stuck in. He knew Paintball was in some kind of trouble or had some secret traumatic backstory, but he couldn’t actually help her. Because digging into her past or trying to uncover her identity would be betraying her, and just a real shit thing to do in general. Yet just leaving it alone and hoping she got the help she needed when the time came? Was that the right thing to do? What was the right thing to do, damn it? 

He had no idea. Hell, he’d even briefly considered checking with that Squire guy. Simon. He’d gone by Ryder first, which was where the new Ryder had taken his name from. Oh, and Squire. He was known by that moniker too. But his real name was Simon, and Simon had given Ryder a card he could use to potentially call if he got in trouble. After saving him from trouble the first time.

If anyone could help Paintball with whatever problem she had, it was Simon and the people he worked for. Ryder didn’t know a lot about that whole situation, only that they were really important. And powerful, given Simon had apparently hidden his real appearance behind an illusion. They were connected, and Simon himself had already saved Ryder once. 

But no. That would definitely be violating Paintball’s trust. Maybe he could bring it up to her, mention a guy called Squire who might be able to help with any… problems she had? Would that be the best approach? 

Ryder’s thoughts were interrupted by a ringing phone, and he quickly grabbed it from his pocket, answering with a, “It’s Ryder.” 

“Hey, kid.” It was Grace. Or rather, Cardsharp. Her voice was all business. “You get those hotel blueprints yet? We’ve gotta get a move on if we’re gonna pull this off.”

“Oh, oh!” Shifting his thoughts away from Paintball for the time being (not like he could do anything about that whole situation now anyway), Ryder quickly moved to grab the long tubes from the floor. Uncapping one, he spread the large rolled up blueprint out over his table, weighing down the corners with a couple books. “Yeah, I’ve got them right here.” 

“Good,” came the response. “I’m on my way to your place. You want me to pick up some Chinese or something? This is probably gonna be a long night. We need to make sure this whole operation goes off without a hitch.” 

“Sure, sure, yeah, that sounds good. You know what I like. See you soon. We’ll figure it out.” After exchanging last pleasantries, Ryder disconnected, staring at the blueprints in front of him. Yet his mind wasn’t quite focused the way it was supposed to be. Despite his attempt to push Paintball out of his mind, the girl and her situation was still stubbornly there, right at the corner of his thoughts. 

What the hell was going on with her? Who was she, really? And why was it so hard for him to push the girl out of his thoughts? 

*******

Pack and That-A-Way While Paintball Was In The Warehouse With Paige

The sound of gunfire filled the air as That-A-Way ran along the six-foot-high concrete wall that surrounded the car lot where members of La Casa and the Ninety-Niners had started brawling. Moving to the east as she was, the very few bullets that hit her (these Ninety-Niner chumps weren’t the greatest shots to begin with, let alone in the dark) simply bounced off. All three men kept shooting, none getting the point that it wasn’t working. Which was good, considering the entire reason Way had shown herself like that was to present a tempting, distracting target. 

Finally, at the very end of the wall before one of the lot entrances, That-A-Way pivoted to her right, facing the men. Which meant she was now facing south. Her intangibility kicked in, making the bullets simply pass through her while she blew the men a kiss, right before Whamline, who had taken that time to get into position, grabbed the trio with his energy cords and hurled them away to crash into the side of an SUV with ‘shockingly low price’ stickers all over it. 

Distraction successfully accomplished, the (currently blonde thanks to her Touched-Tech mask) girl threw herself backward off the wall, dropping to the other side just as a crossbow bolt struck the part where she had been standing. The moment the bolt hit where her feet had been, a six-foot-wide section of the wall simply burst apart. It didn’t explode in the typical sense. Rather, the wall broke apart into hundreds if not thousands of tiny inch or two inch wide chunks, expanding into a large debris cloud that was perfectly orb-shaped. The pieces of wall held there for a few seconds, then all fell to the ground.

Scatterking. That was the work of Scatterking, one of the Ninety-Niners. Way could see him even as the six-foot-wide section of wall was destroyed. He was a younger Touched from the look of him, her own age or even younger. He wore a black bodysuit with a green trenchcoat over it and a silver metal helmet-mask thing with a crown shape on top to go with the ‘king’ motif. The lower half of his face was exposed while the top half was hidden under a white visor attached to the helmet crown. He carried a pistol-crossbow and a rapier, either of which he could channel his power into. It was a power that allowed him to charge inanimate objects so that, if they struck something, the other thing would blow apart into little chunks and hover there in an orb-cloud the way she’d just seen. 

If the thing he affected that way was a non-living object, he could choose to either put it back together as if nothing had happened, or let the whole thing fall apart and remain destroyed, as he had with the wall. If the thing he affected was a living object, he couldn’t leave it broken. The person or animal would return to their normal, uninjured shape after a few seconds. But, from what That-A-Way had read and heard, the experience was horrifically painful and traumatic. Not fun at all. Definitely not anything she wanted to experience. Especially considering his power apparently even worked on intangible and invulnerable things. 

She could see the smile curving his lips as the boy paused before sprinting toward her. He loosed another shot from his crossbow before drawing the rapier. That time, however, the bolt didn’t get anywhere near her. It wasn’t intended to. Halfway to the girl, it suddenly exploded in a burst of bright light that made Way reel with a yelp. The bolt was a flash-bomb, a distraction, so the boy himself could close the distance with his rapier.

Not being able to see didn’t mean she couldn’t use her powers, of course. Yet even before Way could focus on that, she heard a roar, followed by a squeal and a thud. She had already thrown herself to the side by the time her vision cleared, allowing her to see Scatterking lying on his side with a certain reptilian cat-like figure perched on his back, still growling at the boy. 

“Holiday!” she blurted unthinkingly. It was her, the panther-lizard pinning the Ninety-Niner Touched to the ground. But if she was there, that had to mean–

“Hey there, babe!” Pack was there, but off to the side. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of one of the pick-up trucks that were part of the sale lot, dangling keys from her fingers. The rest of her lizards were all in the back. “If you don’t quit playing with the mean boy, I might think you don’t want to arrest me anymore.” With that, she started the truck and, with a roar of the engine, pulled away. Holiday abandoned Scatterking with one last swat to the back of his head, then ran to catch up, jumping into the back with her companions. 

Immediately, Way popped back to her feet. She took one last look toward Scatterking, but two of the Syndicates were already there, one waving for her to go after the truck. 

So, she did. Pivoting back, the girl saw the truck off in the distance. It was still traveling north and within sight, despite having every opportunity to turn down a different street. Which meant she could teleport straight to it, and she did so without a moment’s hesitation, landing just inside the front cab in the passenger seat. 

“Took you long enough,” Pack remarked casually. “I was starting to think I’d have to circle the block and come back.” 

“What–what are you doing?!” Amber blurted, turning in the seat to stare that way. Not that it helped, considering the other girl’s face was completely covered by a full, featureless black mask with no holes. “I thought we were gonna lay low while we look into this–” She hissed the word, “–Ministry thing. And now you’re part of a fucking gang war in the middle of the streets?” 

Pack didn’t answer at first. Instead, she pulled the truck off the road and into a parking garage, taking the little receipt that popped out marking what time she’d arrived before driving to an empty spot in the back. Only then did she turn to face the Minority girl. 

Even when she’d snapped the demand a moment earlier, Amber had expected Pack to make some sort of dismissive, casual retort. She still expected it. But those words didn’t come. Instead, the other girl spoke quietly. “My boss is at war with the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro. I can’t exactly refuse to participate. He found out they were making a move against one of the car lots he owns through shell companies, we had to retaliate.” 

“Wha–you mean…” Amber turned, looking in the back of the truck where Holiday and the other transformed lizards were eagerly watching her. “He owns it. Blackjack owns that car lot.” 

“Distantly, sure,” Pack confirmed, gesturing. “Don’t worry, I’m not taking the truck anywhere else. You can tell them you chased me off away from here, so they can recover it, take the truck back to the lot, sell it, and Blackjack can earn even more totally legitimate money.” 

“Oh, my God.” With a groan, Amber put her face in her hands. “I can’t believe this shit. And I can’t even tell anyone, because how would I know? Plus, even if I could explain how I knew, it wouldn’t matter, because your boss and the Ministry are peas in a pod anyway, so it wouldn’t go anywhere. Silversmith would just erase any evidence, dismiss anything I said, or worse.” 

Pack started to say something, then glanced into the back and made a sound that was half-curse and half-growl. “Down!” She was talking to both Amber and her lizards, as a handful of Ninety-Niner thugs had apparently followed them to the garage and were rapidly approaching, firing shots at the truck. 

As both girls ducked, Pack looked over to That-A-Way. “Wanna help me deal with these guys, Rose?” 

There was a brief pause before Amber reached out to grab the other girl’s arm. “Yeah,” she muttered darkly. 

“I’d love to hit someone right now.” 

*******

A short time later, the two of them were finally alone again. Well, alone aside from Pack’s collection of friends. This time on the roof of the parking garage, with the lizards spread out behind them. 

“Well!” Pack declared as she shook her hand out. There was blood on her glove from where she had punched one of the men in there who dared threaten Tuesday. “That was exhilarating. Guess we’re done now. Unless…” Her tone turned a bit mischievous and pointed. “You think you and me should wrestle.” 

“You and I,” Amber immediately corrected without thinking.

“Well, if you insist,” Pack teased, stepping that way before catching both of Amber’s hands as the other girl raised them, palms out as though to stop her. Interlacing their fingers, the black-masked girl seemed to stare intently at Amber from only a foot away, their hands locked. “Don’t worry,” she murmured in a low voice, “we’ll only wrestle when you ask for it.” 

“I… I…” Feeling her face turn red and knowing that most of hers was visible (though altered a bit) beneath the domino mask, Amber finally extracted her hands and turned away to take her phone out to look at it. “I have to check with my team and–fuck!” 

Head cocking to the side, Pack remarked, “Either I was really wrong about how boring being part of the Minority would be, or–” 

“Paintball,” Amber blurted, pivoting back. “He sent a bunch of messages about needing help while we were busy.” 

“What?” Pack produced her own phone to look at. “… Fuck.” 

“I’ve gotta go, I can’t–if the team wonders where–” 

“Go,” Pack gave her a push. “If they ask, just tell them you chased me that far. Get there. I’ll make sure things are cool and come after. Hurry.” 

Amber hesitated only for another second, then cursed again and pivoted, sprinting away before immediately teleporting. The actual destination was more to the west than north, so she’d have to use superspeed to get most of the way there. 

Watching the other girl disappear, Pack glanced to her lizards, who sat there expectantly, then started to run. “Well guys, we better get over there. 

“And see what kind of trouble Paintball’s managed to get himself into this time.” 

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Project Owl 14-09 (Summus Proelium)

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I was going to have to tell Pack something. Some of the truth, that was. She’d earned it. More than earned it. She and That-A-Way both had been there for me time after time. They knew about the Ministry and were still helping me. I owed them more than I was giving them. And at the very least, I owed them some explanation about what had happened tonight. 

But I also owed Paige. She trusted me. Trusted me to keep her safe and to find a way to fix her so she could wake up again. Wren was my best… my only idea of who might be able to deal with what had happened to her, but even that seemed like a long shot. Wren didn’t deal with… with whatever Paige was. What was I supposed to do? Who was I supposed to talk to? 

“Paintball? Earth to Paintball.” Pack’s voice interrupted my panicked and confused musings. “I said, what the fuck is going on? Who is this girl? Why’s she unconscious? What was she–” 

“Paige,” I interrupted, forcing myself to focus. “Paige Banners. And as to what’s going on, I… I can explain it, sort of. But wait until Way gets here. She deserves to hear it too, after what she…” I swallowed. “She saved my life. Our lives.” My hand gestured to the motionless blonde. “Once she gets here, after she’s done covering for us, I’ll explain everything that I can.” Everything I could, as opposed to everything. Because even now, I had to keep things to myself. 

Pack didn’t seem happy about waiting, but she didn’t push the issue too much. All she did was look past me to Paige for a moment before asking, “Doesn’t she need a doctor right now?”

“She needs a lot of things,” I murmured under my breath with a glance over my shoulder. Then my head shook. “But I don’t think any doctor can help. Trust me, it’s a long story, but there’s nothing we can do for her right this second. I… I don’t think she’ll get any worse, anyway.” 

“Any worse than… that.” Pack pointedly stared at the completely motionless girl who looked like she was sleeping. “Right. Look, I-I’m sorry I didn’t show up sooner.” There was guilt in her voice. “I was–fuck. I was busy with other things. Kind of in the middle of something and couldn’t get away. Couldn’t even check my phone. By the time things were clear enough for me to have some breathing room, you were already… shit. Just, I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.” 

“It’s not your fault,” I insisted, turning back to look at her. “I know you’ve got your own things. I’m just glad Way showed up when she did. I don’t… I don’t think we would’ve made it out if she wasn’t there.” 

“Yeah, she’s got some good timing,” the other girl agreed before glancing away. I couldn’t see her face through that full black mask that covered even her eyes and mouth, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t thinking about me or this situation just then.  

Her silence gave me a chance to look at Paige again. God damn it, what was I going to do? I’d promised I would find someone who could help her. Again, Wren seemed the best choice, yet even she probably wouldn’t know what she was doing with something this advanced. She didn’t work with… with cyborgs or… fuck, what was the right term? Biolem? Was Paige still a biolem like the others we’d faced, even though she was so much more advanced? 

“New look?” Pack finally asked after that moment of silence, nodding to my makeshift costume. “Going for something even cheaper-looking? Blackjack was already thinking of bribing you with a nice, cool new suit with all sorts of bells and whistles, you know. Go around like that and he may just give it to you out of pity.” 

Coughing, I gestured helplessly. “I didn’t have time to get back to my real costume. I had to make do with what I could scavenge real quick. And I don’t need a handout from Blackjack.” 

“Yeah, I told him you’ve got Trevithick to handle any costume upgrades,” she informed me with a very light chuckle. She had Tuesday on one shoulder and was lightly scratching him with her other hand. “I’m not sure that actually dissuaded him that much. He likes you, Paintball. I mean, that’s the impression I get anyway. Pretty sure he’d accept you in a heartbeat if you decided to switch sides.” 

“Does he like me?” I shot back. “Or did the Ministry tell him to put out feelers to find out if I could be pulled to that side? How much of what he does is him and how much is what he’s told to do? I already know he’s really connected to them. How much, I’m not sure. But still.” 

Yeah, I was probably still a little amped up after everything that had happened. Being ‘killed,’ however temporarily, waking up to find that video from Paige explaining all that and then saying she was going to kill herself. Racing across the city, fighting through the building, finding Paige, getting a few answers about what the hell she was and what her father was up to, fighting to keep her safe, fleeing with her through the building, and finally almost being blown up before That-A-Way saved us at basically the last second? 

It had been a bit of a day, to say the least.

Before too long, my phone buzzed. It was a message from That-A-Way, wanting to know where we were. So I gave her directions, and she showed up a few minutes later, skidding to a stop after super-speeding her way up to the parking lot. “Paintball, there’s bodies in that building!” she snapped abruptly. “What the hell was–” 

“They’re not real,” I quickly informed her. “I mean, they’re not–um, they’re not real people.” 

Yeah, Pack and Way exchanged obvious looks at that before turning back to me. Pack found her voice first. “Not real people? Come on, Paintball, I think you better explain now.” 

They were right. I needed to explain some of it, as much as I could. There was no way I was going to be able to help Paige without help. Besides, they’d more than earned an explanation. So, I carefully started to tell them what happened, starting with a… well, not quite a lie, but a very deliberately presented version of the truth. I told them that Paige had left me a message telling me that she was probably going to die because she was going after her father, who was the real threat. I told them about tracking her down, finding her in that building, and the whole biolem thing. I explained the part about her dad being a Tech-Touched and his plan, or what I understood of it. And about how Paige herself was apparently an incredibly advanced prototype version, who had to obey her father’s specific commands until she managed to turn on him. 

“But what does this have to do with–” Whatever Way had been about to say, she cut herself off, shaking her head. “I mean… are you sure she’s a umm…” Hesitating, the girl stepped over to where Paige’s motionless form was. “Are you sure she’s a r-robot? Or whatever she is.” It sounded like she was freaking out a bit. Which was pretty much completely fair. I was still freaking out too. 

“That’s what she said,” I murmured, “and I believe her at this point. After everything I saw in there… yeah. Paige Banners is–well, not a robot. She’s a biolem. Somewhere inside she’s got one of those little orb things with all her memories, personality, and everything else.” 

Way muttered a curse under her breath, staring in what looked like dull shock at the figure in the van. “Oh my God. But if she… if she was… and if…” Finally, the girl seemed to shake that off, focusing a bit to ask, “What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she waking up?”

Exhaling, I explained what Paige had said, that her father’s last-second countermeasures had forced her to shut herself down and that I needed to find a tech genius who could actually help fix her. 

“A tech genius like Trevithick?” Pack put in before reconsidering. “Except this might be over the kid’s head.” 

That-A-Way gave a brief glance her way at that. I could tell she had a laundry list of her own questions, but saved them aside from one. “Can she do something about this?” 

“I don’t know. I hope so.” Sighing, I gestured to both of them. “I thought Paige Banners was some kind of threat, but she was just a victim. We have to help her, have to find someone who can fix whatever her father did. We’ll start with Trevithick, at least see what she can figure out. If she can’t do anything, I… I’ll go from there.”

“This is a lot, Paintball,” Way muttered at me while still staring at the (essentially) unconscious Paige. “Seriously, are you sure about all this? Because I don’t–I mean…” She gestured helplessly, clearly fighting for the right words before being reduced to repeating, “It’s a lot.”

“Believe me, I know.” Grimacing with that reply, I hesitated before adding, “If we can help this girl and wake her up, we can get more answers. She said that all the biolems her father had would be drawn to that building, but she could’ve been wrong. So we have to be careful. Between that and the way the Ministry is gonna look into the whole thing, especially once they find the remains of the equipment in there and realize the bodies aren’t normal people…” 

Pack spoke up then. “Right, getting this chick restarted is a pretty big priority. You said she knows a bunch of stuff about this Ministry thing anyway, so add another tally into reasons to wake her up. But can I just point out, if she’s a robot–err, okay, not a robot. If her brain and personality is all… tied into a computer, one that her father built, what’re the odds of him just being able to control her and make the girl into a killing machine with just a few words? One pointed at us. I mean, don’t programmers usually leave in backdoors and stuff like that?” 

“I know what you mean,” I confirmed quietly, heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I know. But Paige already turned against her father once. She–” I was about to say that she had rules-lawyered her way around leaving me dead, but caught myself. “She went after his entire organization here. Look what she did to the plant where he was manufacturing all these things. She’s not on his side and she’s already figured out ways to sabotage him. Now we have to help her. We find someone who can get into her programming and remove her father’s control so we can wake her up. I don’t know if that’ll be Trevithick or not, but someone. Not just because she can help with the Ministry, but because we owe it to her. I owe it to her.” 

Despite saying all that, I still realized that my feelings for Paige were complicated. I felt resentment, even anger about the past few years. Some bitter part of me wanted to know why she hadn’t found a way to violate her orders at least enough not to hit me in quite such an emotionally damaging place. If she was my friend, she should’ve known that making fun of my… of how I looked was one of the worst things she could’ve done, shouldn’t she? Had her father’s orders really made her hit me that personally when the entire point had simply been to establish conflict to make her eventually snapping and killing me believable? Did she really need to say the things she’d said? 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t logical. But I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Paige, even after all these revelations. However, I did know that I owed her, and that if I was ever going to work my way through those feelings, it was going to have to be with Paige herself to get answers from. Besides, if I voiced any of my doubts about Paige’s personality, it would just lead to questions I couldn’t answer without revealing a lot more about myself. Too much about myself. 

“Right, so we take her to Trevithick,” Pack announced. “And try to figure out who else might help. You know what the obvious problem with that is, right?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, basically every Tech-Touched in the area reports to Braintrust, who report to the Ministry. So we’re kind of screwed that way. There has to be someone else, someone… I don’t know. I can’t think.” I sighed again, shaking my head. “It’s… been a long day.” 

“Tell me about it.” That-A-Way’s voice sounded almost as tired as I felt. “I have to get back to give reports before someone notices how long I’ve been gone. But I want to be kept in the loop about what’s going on with this, you two.” 

We both agreed to that, and she took off. Which left Pack and me looking at each other. “To Wren’s?” I offered. 

“To Wren’s,” she agreed, gesturing. “Let’s go. I’ll drive, since you look too wiped to get there your usual way.” 

“Yeah, I might leap into the side of a building,” I muttered before moving to climb in the van. “Let’s go see how much Wren can do with this.” 

*******

“Ummmmm, I can’t do anything with this.” The words came from Wren herself some time later, once Pack and I had brought Paige into her lab in the upstairs area of the old store. We’d set the seemingly sleeping blonde girl on a convenient couch. Then, to an increasingly shocked audience of two, had explained–well we’d explained some of it anyway, the parts about Paige being a biolem whose father wanted to do bad things while leaving details about the Ministry out of it.

 “I know it’s a lot,” I quickly assured the young Tech-Touched. “Believe me, but it’s just–” 

“No, I mean I can’t.” Her head was shaking, eyes wide. “That’s blood and flesh and a person! I don’t know anything about–I mean she’s–I make things go fast, things teleport, things fly. I can’t dig into a human living person! I’m not a doctor! It’s not–I don’t get a–I mean I’m not–”

Fred, who had been staring at both Pack and me like we’d sprouted new heads throughout this entire conversation, spoke up. “Even if the kid had any chance of working on the actual mechanical part, this orb thing you said is in that girl, getting to it without killing her… ahh, the biological part of her is still a big fu–freaking problem. You need a doctor for that. A really good one. You need someone who can work the tech side of things and someone to work the biology part. Probably at least two techs. Maybe Wren can help with some of it, but come on, this is too much to put on her.”

“I-if I mess up,” Wren tentatively pointed out, voice cracking as she stared at Paige. “I could… I could…” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know. I just–you’re right. We just don’t know who else to take her to. But I’ll find someone. I’ll find some people who can help. Can she… uhh…” 

“She can stay.” Wren’s voice was firm as she gave a quick nod. “I mean, umm, maybe I can look at her? I could maybe make a scanner or something to try to find where the orb is, exactly, so we can find out more about it. But I won’t cut into her. I won’t go that far. I can’t.” 

Pack spoke up then. “Don’t worry, kid, it’s okay. No one blames you for not wanting to risk something like that. It’s not your job, not your… power.” She shrugged. “You keep the girl here for now, Paintball and I can both reach out in our own way to find someone who might help.” She glanced to me, clearly reading my apprehension. “There’s gotta be Tech-Touched mercenaries from somewhere outside the city who might be able to do something. Though it’d probably cost a pretty penny.”

“We’ll worry about cost later,” I insisted. “Focus on being careful. No drawing attention. Don’t give details. And don’t–” 

She interrupted. “Don’t ask Blackjack about it, I know. I’m not an idiot. I’ll be subtle, Paintball, trust me.”

We talked a bit more, all four of us. It was obvious that Wren felt incredibly guilty about her immediate and firm refusal, but I tried to assure her that neither of us blamed her and that it was okay. Better she have a solid grasp of what she couldn’t do, than go for it and end up doing irreparable damage, or even killing Paige for good. 

In the end, we settled on coming back to figure out more later. Paige would be staying here at the lab for the time being, where Wren would do what little she could while we found someone who knew what they were doing. 

All of which left me heading back home after changing out of the temporary costume and into a pair of jeans and tee-shirt that I bought from the very surprised clerk in a small tourist-trap shop. Exhausted as I was, getting new clothes and making it home took about all I had. The only thing I wanted to do was take a long, hot shower and then sleep for about a week. 

Naturally, I had to go in and apologize for taking off early from Paige’s party and abandoning Izzy. Except she wasn’t there for some reason. Neither was Dad, but he at least I understood. According to my mother, Simon had taken Izzy out for ice cream and a few things. She made it clear I wasn’t in trouble, that they knew my going to Paige’s had been hard and they appreciated the effort I put in. But she also made sure I knew that leaving Izzy with other people like that without clearing it with them first wasn’t acceptable. And that I needed to make sure Izzy was okay with a situation like that. 

I promised to be careful in the future. And it was pretty obvious that Mom didn’t know how connected Paige was to the situation at the warehouse, because she was entirely too casual about the whole thing. 

In the end, I made my way upstairs, took that shower, and fell asleep while wondering what was taking Izzy so long to get back from ice cream. 

Unfortunately, despite my thoughts about sleeping for a week, I barely managed a few hours before my racing mind woke me up. It was the middle of the night, and I just… my brain was too active. All that stuff about Paige, everything I’d learned, it was just… too much. I couldn’t relax. 

It also felt like I couldn’t breathe in here. I needed some air. Making my way to my balcony after pulling on some shorts to go with my long tee shirt, I glanced around to watch the cameras before turning to point at the roof above me. A quick shot of red paint hauled me up there, where I would lay back and watch the stars. 

At least, that was the idea. But that idea shattered like glass as I landed on the roof, after being pulled that way by my red paint, as a voice from above me blurted, “Cassidy?” 

Spinning, I stared upward at a visibly damp Izzy, who floated there, hovering in mid-air. Both of us stared at the other for a long few seconds before blurting out loud, our words matching each other’s. 

“It’s you!”

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Project Owl 14-08 (Summus Proelium)

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There was so much I wanted to ask Paige about, so many questions I had and things I wanted to say about what had happened over the past few years between us. Being given just ten minutes to hold the other girl down and demand answers to all that would have made me happy. But we didn’t have ten minutes to spare, or even five. We didn’t have any time at all. If we didn’t get out of this place right now, Paige’s father was going to blow us up with the building. 

“He’d do that?” I blurted, probably stupidly given everything I knew. “He’d kill you just like that?” 

Yeah, the look the other girl gave me pretty much confirmed the whole ‘stupid question’ thing. “He can collect the–my… think of it as a black box from an airplane,” she informed me quickly. “It’s in my orb, where all my memories and… and brain are stored. He’ll just collect that and rebuild me, only with different–he’ll make me more in line with what he wants. He’ll erase me and make another. Now come on!” With that, she grabbed my arm, yanking me with her toward the steel door that had slammed down to lock us in this L-shaped hallway. “Do your pink thing!” 

She had a point. There wasn’t time for any of this. Quickly, I pointed my hand at part of the steel door, spraying out a circle of pink. Together, the two of us started tearing through it. But it was slow-going. Too slow. This door had to be like two feet thick, at least. “How long do we have?!” I blurted hurriedly while ripping another handful of pink-painted steel stuff out of the way. 

“Seven minutes now,” she replied curtly before driving her fist hard into the pink steel, punching all the way through that time to reveal the room on the far side once she drew her hand back. Hurriedly, we both started ripping more out of the pink stuff to create a large enough hole for us to crawl through. “And lots of big heavy doors between us and not blowing up!” 

Instead of replying to that, I painted some green over myself, then grabbed her arm and did the same to her. But I didn’t activate it yet. First, I dove forward through the hole, turning to help Paige through. Then I activated the paint, speeding the two of us up as we raced through the room of computer servers. I could’ve used more green for more speed, but I had a feeling I was going to need to save as much of my paint for pink as I could. Seven minutes. Probably six by now. Fuck, fuck, fuck, time to get the hell out of here! I had decided that I really didn’t like this place.

“What about saying fuck hallways and just going through the outside walls?!” I blurted on the way. 

“We’re in the middle of the building, this is the fastest way to an outside wall,” she informed me a bit tersely. 

Unfortunately, there were apparently still biolems in the building. Biolems who (of course) didn’t seem to care at all about escaping and were instead focused on making sure we didn’t escape either. Two of those obstacles presented themselves just as we reached the end of the server room, stepping away from the steel door before bringing their guns to bear on us. 

Paige shoved me to one side, taking a shot right in the shoulder before she lunged at the two. By the time I rolled to my feet, it was over. The two guys (sort of) were dead on the ground and Paige had both of their guns. She was also bleeding from that wound, but didn’t seem to care. 

“Get us through!” she shouted when I glanced at the injury. “It’ll keep, I’ll be fine! Five minutes!” 

Five minutes before the building would blow up, whether we were still here or not. Could we get all the way through this place and out in five minutes, with all these doors blocking our way? Time to find out. 

I was already working on this particular steel door, spraying just wide enough of a pink circle for us to squirm through. I had to save as much of my paint as I could, had to be careful with it. If I ran out and we had to wait around for it to refill… yeah, that would be pretty bad. 

Together, Paige and I made our way through the building as fast as we could. More doors, more biolems, more everything was in our way. Anything her evil fucking psychopath of a father could throw at us, apparently. He couldn’t be there himself, and couldn’t shut off the self-destruct, but he could do everything in his goddamn power to make sure it killed Paige and me in the process. It seemed like every step we took, more of those biolems showed up. Thankfully, these ones were… worse than the others. Dumber. According to a blurted word from Paige, they weren’t ‘finished.’ Her father was scraping the bottom of the barrel, sending what amounted to uncompleted, barely functional bodies after us. The others hadn’t exactly been talkative and creative or anything, but these were barely capable of putting themselves in our way, pointing guns, and pulling the trigger. They were like zombies. Armed zombies, but still zombies. 

Come to think of it, zombies armed with guns could be pretty terrifying. 

Either way, the two of us tore through them, and the doors that were blocking our path, as quickly as possible. Nothing mattered except getting the hell out of this place before it was too late. We got closer and closer to escaping, following the path Paige was giving me, while she counted off the minutes as they passed. Four left before the whole place would blow up. Then three, then two. 

Two minutes. Two minutes before I wouldn’t have to worry about my parents’ evil plans, or about the gang war that was going on, or Wren, or what was happening with Izzy, or anything. I wouldn’t be worrying, or thinking, about anything at all. 

“This one, this one!” Paige suddenly blurted, grabbing my arm to stop me from running onward to the next door. Instead, she turned me toward the nearby wall. “This way, it leads out!” 

I definitely wasn’t going to take the time to argue with her. Instead, I pointed my hands, spraying what I was pretty sure would be the last of my paint for awhile. As the pink circle appeared, the two of us threw ourselves at it, punching and grabbing to pull chunks of the wall away. Bit by bit, we managed it, until I felt the cool evening air and saw light from a distant streetlamp. We were through. We were through! It was a small hole at first, but we made it wider quickly. 

“One minute!” Paige announced, just as we managed to get the hole big enough to get through. 

“One minute!” I echoed, my voice sounding somewhat delirious even to my own ears. “We can work with one minute, we’re out! Go!” Giving the other girl a quick push that way, I glanced around hurriedly just in case there was anyone left to stop us, any more of those nasty biolems. Nothing. No one. There wasn’t a threat in sight. We were out of here, we’d made it with time to spare. Not much time, sure, but time! We were about to get the hell out of here! 

Which, of course, was the cue for Paige to abruptly announce, “We can’t get out.” Her voice was flat, sounding empty as she stared through the hole. 

“What–” Looking that way quickly while counting down from a minute in my head, I stared. Her hand was flat against the air. Or rather, flat against a shimmering, glowing spot of energy. 

“Forcefield,” she informed me quietly. “My father’s using a forcefield to keep us in. Thirty seconds.” 

Thirty seconds?! We had thirty seconds to find another way out of here?! How the hell were we supposed to find another way to get out of this place, or break through some insane forcefield in thirty seconds?! This wasn’t fair! We did everything right, we made it, we were out, we were supposed to be free and safe now! I couldn’t–we couldn’t do anything in thirty seconds. There wasn’t time for–for anything. There wasn’t time! No, no, please, no, we had to run, we had to–

“Hey!” a voice shouted from outside, carrying through the hole. “You two okay?!” 

That-A-Way. It was That-A-Way. She was there. She’d made it. She got my message and showed up. 

“Bomb!” I shouted back at her, smacking my hand off the forcefield to illustrate. “Fifteen seconds!” 

“Ten!” Paige corrected immediately. “Nine, eight!” 

That was enough. That was all it took. Instantly, That-A-Way vanished from where she was, reappearing in the room. She didn’t ask any more questions, instead snapping both hands out to grab hold of us. “Grab on!” 

The second we did so, she teleported again, taking the two of us with her. We appeared on the far side of the parking lot, stumbling a bit. Paige was shouting, “Down, get down!” Her hands caught That-A-Way and me both at the back, shoving both of us and herself down to the asphalt. 

And then it happened. With a terrifying, cacophonous booooooooooom that sent a shockwave through the air strong enough to hit the back of my head and smack my face (thankfully protected by the helmet) down into the pavement, the building behind us exploded. 

There was a distinct ringing in my ears as I lifted my head, looking around an unknown amount of time later. The remains of the warehouse were on fire. It looked like half the building had gone up with that single explosion, and the rest would be gone very soon. There wouldn’t be enough of the place left to pull anything useful out of it. Which, I supposed was a good thing. 

The ringing didn’t stop. Instead, it morphed into loud sirens. Cops. Firetrucks. They were coming. By the time that realization came, That-A-Way was already on her feet. She turned back to Paige and me, saying something that I only caught the last half of. “–they see you!” Clearly realizing I hadn’t heard her as my head cocked to the side, she repeated, “They’re gonna have a lot of questions if they see you!” Her hand gestured to Paige. “Is this–is she?” 

Right, I realized what she was asking. “It’s Paige Banners,” I managed. “She’s connected to the Ministry.” 

As I said that last word, Paige’s head snapped up. She stared at That-A-Way, then at me. “You… you know–she knows about…” 

“Get out of here.” That-A-Way quickly blurted. “If the Ministry’s as connected as you say, they’ll jump on the chance to shut her up. I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s not time, just go. Go!” She grabbed my arm, hauling me to my feet before doing the same with Paige. 

“What’s going on?” That was Pack, who had just come jogging up with several of her lizards spread out around her in full battle formation. “What the hell happened here? Those sirens–” 

“Go, go! Get them out of here!” That-A-Way was saying, giving Paige and me a push toward Pack. “Too many questions, too many problems. Just go, I’ll cover here, I’ll say I showed up and found the warehouse like this. Just get them out.” 

She had a point. And it was really quick thinking, considering the circumstances. That-A-Way had next to no idea what was actually going on, yet had picked up on what a bad idea us being found here would be. If we stuck around, my parents’ organization would absolutely take the chance to put Paige in custody so they could pick her brain. Which… yeah. Grimacing behind the helmet, I quickly started moving. “Right, come on, hurry.” Everything hurt. I felt so sore and tired. All I wanted to do was lay down and take a little nap. Wait, scratch that. I wanted a nice hot bath first. Urgh, what I wouldn’t give for a hot bath and my bed. 

But I couldn’t have that. Not yet. We had to get the hell out of here first. And the sound of approaching sirens were getting closer. Not to mention other Star-Touched. They’d be here any second too. We had to go. We had to get out of here right fucking now. 

Paige was stumbling. It seemed like being thrown down by that explosion had taken a lot out of her. She limped, and in some ways still seemed dazed. But there wasn’t time to worry about that. There wasn’t time for anything other than leaving. 

Thankfully, Pack had a van nearby. It looked nondescript, just an old gray and black minivan that didn’t stand out at all. Which, I assumed, was the point. Quickly, she yanked the sliding door open, before she and I both helped Paige up and into a seat. Mars Bar, Holiday, and Twinkletoes shrank down back to their normal forms to join the other lizards in their cage, before she quickly gestured for me to get in the front seat while shutting the door. “Come on then, I really don’t feel like having a chat with a bunch of goodie-two-supershoes about why I’m fleeing the scene of a fucking unscheduled building demolition!” 

Jumping in the passenger seat, I slammed the door shut just as Pack started the car. With a quick squeal of tires, we pulled out of the lot and took off down a side road. She slowed down pretty quickly, as soon as we were out of the immediate sight of the warehouse. A couple cop cars went screaming past us, followed by a firetruck. All of their sirens were piercingly loud, the flashing lights making me jump as they basically flew by. But they didn’t slow down or seem to pay any attention to the van, focused as they were on getting to the scene of the explosion. 

My father would be there. I had no doubt of that. Of course Silversmith would head to the scene of a massive explosion like that. Especially considering I was pretty sure the Ministry didn’t know anything about what that place was actually used for. My parents would be clueless about what was going on or what caused the explosion, so Dad would be right on the front lines trying to figure it out. Which was another reason to get Paige out of there before she was seen. 

Speaking of Paige, I turned a bit in the seat to look that way. “Are you okay back there?” 

No, she wasn’t. She didn’t respond at first, slumped a bit in the seat. Finally, just as I was getting even more worried than I already was, the girl murmured, “Pull over. Pull the car over.” She sounded out of it, like she was barely conscious and struggling to remain even that much. 

Pack didn’t. Not at first anyway. Insisting that we had to get further away, she drove another couple blocks before pulling into a car wash parking lot. “What’s going on with her? Also, who the hell is she? And why are you wearing such a shit costume? It looks like ten dollar cosplay. And–”

“Later,” I replied flatly. “Just… just later for the rest of that. And for what’s wrong… I don’t know.” Shaking my head, I opened the door and hopped out before shoving the sliding door open. “Paige? What’s going on? Are you alright? What–” 

“Virus,” she informed me, hand snapping out to catch my arm. “Some kind of failsafe. Last little surprise from Daddy-dearest. Trying to shut me down until he can find and reprogram me.” 

In the front seat, I heard Pack echoing those words with a note of utter bafflement. But I ignored that, focusing on the girl in front of me. “What do we do? How do we stop it?” 

“Don’t… just… need…” Paige’s responses were slow. It was clearly taking a huge effort for her to focus and try to answer. I had no idea what was going on in there, but it was pretty bad. Her hand suddenly fumbled for mine, squeezing tightly once she managed to find it. “Help. Need tech. Good with computers. Good with machines. Trust. Only trust. Must trust. Please.” Her head turned to look at me, and I saw… fear. I saw the fear in her eyes, the panic. She couldn’t control herself. Something was happening to her and she couldn’t change it, couldn’t fix it. She was afraid, because she knew she had to trust me to help her, had to trust me to find someone who could fix her. 

“Can… slow down… can shut it down,” her voice murmured. “But have to shut me down. Have to shut it all down until it’s fixed. Find someone. Find tech. Find fixer. Trust. Must trust. Only trust. Fix it. Please. Please fix… me. Please. Need fixed. Need fixer.” 

“I will, I will, I’ll find someone,” I promised. “Someone we can trust, I swear. I’ll get someone, okay?” There was no response. Paige’s eyes fixed on me, and I saw the fear again. I saw the clear and abject terror in her gaze. She was shutting down. Her mouth opened as though to say something, but no words came out, at least not yet. She shuddered, and then her eyes drifted shut. She couldn’t keep them open anymore. 

Only once her eyes were closed and her body had slumped a bit did she whisper, sounding as though it was taking literally everything she had to even say that much, “Trust… you.” 

Then she was still and silent. Whatever her father had done, whatever last second measure he’d taken, Paige had shut her entire body down trying to deal with it, to stop it from getting even worse. And now she was trusting me to find someone who could help her, a tech who could handle something as sophisticated as her. Wren? Could Wren do that? 

“Okay…” Pack was saying, having gotten out of the van to move around behind me. 

“Exactly what the fuck is going on?”

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New Deals 13-06 (Summus Proelium)

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For a few long seconds, I just sat there, frozen from confusion. Pack saw two guys standing there talking to Blackjack. But I saw my parents. Was I being affected by some kind of power that made me see things differently? No. That didn’t make sense, did it? No one in here knew enough about me to make me see my family members over there. Plus, if it was some kind of ‘see people you know’ power or something, Pack wouldn’t just be seeing two random guys. 

Okay, so it wasn’t that. My flash of panic that someone in here knew about my identity and my family and was fucking with me only lasted a brief moment before I got it under control. There was another explanation, one that didn’t involve all my secrets suddenly being out, thank God.

“Dude.” Pack sounded confused and maybe a little exasperated. “Are you okay over there?” 

Was I okay? Hah. Not really, considering the way my heart had just been trying to claw its way out of my chest so it could escape. “Sorry,” I quickly muttered, resisting the urge to stare at Blackjack and the people who were either my parents or looked exactly like them. “It’s been a long day.” And from the looks of it, getting longer by the minute. Wait, all days got longer by the minute. Fuck, I knew what I meant. “You were talking about those… guys.”

Guys, she saw guys. It had to be a power of some kind, right? My parents–wait, was that how they hid their identities? By appearing as different people to others–but why would I see them for who they were? Was I immune to the power or something? Why would I be–hold on…

“Like I said,” Pack was in the middle of replying in a low voice, “they came in to talk to Blackjack. I didn’t hear a lot before they went into the other room, but I heard a name. Tate.” 

That made me do a double-take, looking at her while seeing my mother and father still in the middle of what seemed to be an intense conversation. “Tate? You definitely heard that?” 

“Yeah, as in the name of that kid you were talking to Way about,” she confirmed. “What was it–Andy? Tate, that was right, wasn’t it?” For a brief moment, she sounded uncertain. 

“Anthony,” I corrected in a much lower voice. I still wasn’t comfortable here like this. “Anthony Tate, yeah. So those two came in and talked to your boss, and they said something about Tate.”

“I told you,” she reiterated, “I didn’t hear much. They went into the other room pretty quick. I heard something about Tate, and then something about someone’s father being dead.”

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “Someone’s father being dead? Whose?” 

Snorting, Pack retorted, “The fuck should I know? I wasn’t exactly in a position to ask for clarification, dude. They said something about someone’s father being dead–oh, I kind of got the impression this wasn’t something new. The way they said it, he’s been dead for awhile.” 

Someone’s father had been dead for awhile. Biting my lip, I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Which one of them said it? What’d they say, exactly? I mean, as much as you can remember.”   

The other girl took a moment, clearly focused on recalling as best as she could. “The guy with the red hair said, ‘The Tate situation was supposed to be over and done with. We put it behind us.’ Then Blackjack said, ‘At least the father’s dead.’ Wait. Wait, did he say ‘the father’ or ‘your father?’ Shit. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. He either said ‘At least the father’s dead’ or ‘At least your father’s dead.’ Then they went into the other room.” 

Sinking back in my seat, I thought about that for a few seconds. The Tate situation, my parents were annoyed because something about it was coming back to bother them after they thought it was handled. But what? Was it something about Paige? Paige had been erased from my memory around the same time that Anthony was, and I’d heard her talking about how whatever she was doing had something to do with him. She’d specifically said that my mom and dad had no idea where she came from or why she was doing… whatever she was doing because they hadn’t thought about the name Anthony Tate in years. So of course they were connected, but how much of that did my parents know? Was this whole conversation about the Tate situation not being over because of Paige, or because of something else? What prompted that? 

“You sure you’re okay?” Pack was asking, her voice clearly uncertain as she absently scratched one of her lizards. “Do you know those guys over there or something?” 

Boy, talk about being simultaneously very wrong and very right. For a moment, brief as it was, I almost considered telling her about how I wasn’t seeing those two the way she was. But that would’ve led to her asking who I was actually seeing. And even if I just described them instead of saying they were my parents, she’d definitely start looking into those details. And if that led her to who they really were… well, was that really bad? Did I think it was bad because it would put her in danger, or because it would put my family in danger? Which one was I really bothered more by? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Finally, after shaking myself, I nodded. “I’ll be fine. And no, I’ve never seen those two guys.” Hell, those words were the literal truth, I had most certainly never seen the two guys she was talking about, not even when I looked right at the two who were supposed to be them. 

And yet it was still a lie. A lie that made me feel like shit after saying it. Pack was a villain, but she’d also been my friend. She’d helped me, had gone out of her way to come save me from Pencil. She had put her lizards in danger to help me, and how was I paying her back? 

Fuck. This whole thing was just so complicated. Too god damn complicated. I had no idea how to make it better. I couldn’t tell her the truth. Not… not yet, right? But no matter how many times I said ‘not yet,’ it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was going to have to make that kind of leap at some point. Once I did, it would be a leap I couldn’t take back. And it felt like the longer I waited, the harder the fall after that leap was going to be. 

I couldn’t see her face, of course, but I had the feeling that Pack was squinting at me uncertainly. After a moment of that, she shook her head. “Well, keep an eye out for them. Sounds like they’re connected to this Anthony Tate thing you’ve been looking into. And…” She hesitated before offering a shrug. “And that other thing you were talking about.” Apparently even Pack didn’t actually want to mention the Ministry out loud right here in the casino. 

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I promised, before adding, “Thanks, Pack. Seriously, I know this whole thing is hard for you after everything La Casa’s done.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m not doing anything against La Casa,” she insisted firmly. “Just looking out for my own interests on top of that. I wanna get to the bottom of this whole thing. I–” In mid-sentence, she glanced over before squinting. “And there they go.” 

Sure enough, my parents and Blackjack were walking away together, heading for one of the exits. Not the one I had come through, of course. 

After we both watched the trio head off, Pack turned back to me. “Right, so, about this whole Trevithick thing. You want help getting Braintrust to play nice.” 

“I want to make sure they know that pushing any harder is going to end up being more of a pain than it’s worth,” I confirmed. “I know we can’t get away with telling them to fuck off completely. Not like that. But giving them something so they feel like they’re walking away the winners, while making sure they know they can’t get anything more than that without a bigger fight? That sounds doable. I mean, with help, yeah.” 

Pack was quiet for another few seconds, before she gave a short nod. “I like the kid. Not just gonna sit around and let her be exploited. So yeah, I’ve got your back. Just tell me when and where so we can make an impression.” 

Thanking her, I added, “Speaking of making an impression, you’ve gotta tell me. What does the new lizard turn into?” 

“Scatters?” There was sly amusement to the girl’s voice. “Oh, I’m not telling you yet. 

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

*****

I couldn’t just leave Wren out of the situation entirely, much as I might’ve liked to. That wasn’t fair to her, given the fact that the whole thing was about Braintrust wanting to use her talents in one way or another. She deserved to know what was going on and be included in this situation.

So, Pack and I went there next. Actually, we called to arrange a meeting the next day, but Fred said the kid tended to work through the night and sleep in the mornings (being home-schooled through the afternoon). So, we headed over right then. To keep things subtle and avoid drawing attention to the girl, we used her car (or at least, a car that La Casa allowed her to use), with heavily tinted windows, heading for Wren’s shop. 

The girl herself met us on the main shop floor, literally (with the help of her little winged jetpack thing) throwing herself clear from the elevator to the entrance to half-crash into the girl beside me for a tight hug while squealing, “Pack! You’re okay! Hi! Are the lizards okay?! Can I see ‘em? Are they sleeping? Can I pet ‘em? Are they hungry? Can I feed ‘em? Did you really get a new one? Is it a boy or a girl? Did you bring her? Wait, did you eat already? Are you hungry? We could get pizza. For us, not for the lizards. But I have crickets and worms and stuff for them just in case! Hey, maybe they could put those on a pizza!” 

The words all came in a rush, blurted out as soon as Wren thought of them, without any pause to allow Pack to actually respond. And through it all, she clung tightly to the other girl as if she was a long-lost best friend who had only just returned. It reminded me of the fact that these two had bonded for days while Pack stayed around Wren when the whole situation with the vials was going on. Pack wasn’t some criminal to Wren. She was a friend. 

Then again, she wasn’t some criminal to me either. It was a lot more complicated than that. More complicated than even she knew, really. I didn’t exactly have that much right to judge her given who my family was and the fact that I still hadn’t told anyone about it. Yeah, it was dangerous, but it was also… fuck. It was complicated. All of it was just so complicated. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I watched as Pack introduced Scatters to Wren, who basically lost her mind over the adorable little neon gecko. Pack pulled the rest of her lizards out of their cage and carried them to the nearby table, where they ate from the assortment of reptile-appropriate food that the Tech-Touched girl had provided. Wren, of course, asked the same thing I had, about what Scatters turned into. Again, Pack deferred for the moment, promising to show both of us after we talked to the girl about what we had to talk about. 

And then we did just that. Well, after asking for Fred (he’d been up in the apartment area) to come down so we could talk to both of them together. I laid out everything that happened with Braintrust, how they had approached me, their offer/request/demand, and why I thought it was for the best to appease them at the moment to avoid any problems. I promised that I was going to look into dealing with their group for good, but that that was a long ways off and I didn’t want Wren or Fred to become targets in the meantime. 

“I’m not making anything for them,” the nine-year-old blonde insisted flatly, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest while setting her chin. “They’ll hurt people with it. And I’m not helping them fix their own stuff.” 

“Yeah,” I replied with a glance toward Fred. “That’s kinda what I assumed. Which leaves the option of paying taxes to them for operating in the city. Pack and me are gonna go over there, find them, and let them know that they’ll get a small bit out of whatever you sell, and that’s it.” 

“But you can’t just beat them up and arrest them?” Wren sounded confused, staring at me with those wide sea-green eyes. “They’re bad guys, they do really bad… err…” She trailed off, glancing toward Pack as though only just realizing that the other girl was technically a villain.

Pack, for her part, sounded a little amused as she casually drawled, “Everyone’s got their reasons for doing stuff. And everyone’s got friends that do bad things sometimes. These guys aren’t your friends, and they’re demanding you give them money or toys to hurt people with.” 

“Yeah, what she said.” I agreed, before adding, “And I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to take on a whole gang of Touched-Tech-Enhanced supercriminals yet.” My fingers tapped the side of my helmet. “Not that I haven’t pissed off plenty of them already, but it feels like I should pace myself.” I did not point out that I didn’t want Wren and Fred to be targets. It felt like the younger girl wouldn’t take that very well. I wasn’t sure if she’d insist she could take care of herself, or be upset that I wasn’t fighting the bad guys just to protect her, or what. But I was pretty sure framing it as me having too much to take on right then without adding yet another gang of pissed off supervillains would play better with her.

From the way Fred looked at me, he understood the rest of what I wasn’t saying. The man offered me what was obviously a thankful nod, but let his niece do most of the talking. 

It worked. Wren still clearly didn’t like the idea of appeasing the bad guys, for sure. But she accepted that it wasn’t a fight we needed right now and that the best way to handle it was to hand money to them so they’d go away. At least until we were ready. She did, however, insist that she was going to work on ideas to deal with Braintrust while also reiterating that she was never going to build anything for them, no matter what. That was her firm line in the sand. 

After that was settled, Pack took Scatters and transformed the tiny, colorful lizard into her alternate form. Which, as it turned out, was an equally colorful large reindeer. Seriously, this thing was metallic blue along most of the body, its legs were darker blue, it had a black stripe running down the sides to offset the two blues, and its head and antlers were bright green. 

Wren lost her mind all over again, grabbing onto and hugging the incredibly beautiful reindeer-lizard while cooing about how adorable she was. 

Pack informed us that they were working on a saddle for Scatters, after helping Fred pick Wren up and set her on the animal’s back. The young inventor held on tight, squealing happily as Scatters took her for a short, slow trot around the inside of the shop. She was having the time of her life. Which made me wonder how much she’d love it if the lizard-deer could go out on the street and let loose. 

Someday, I told myself, I’m gonna show that kid how to have a really good time, without a bunch of stupid supervillain bullshit getting in the way.

Pack interrupted my thoughts about that by raising her voice to ask, “Hey, Wren, you think my new friend is cool, has Paintball over there shown you his new paint thing yet?” 

“New paint thing?” Wren, still perched atop the neon lizard-deer, echoed curiously while looking over at me. Fred, standing a bit out of the way, also looked interested. 

So, I showed them how the pink paint worked. That was as much of a hit as Scatters was, especially once I showed Wren how she could stretch her limbs out while they were pink. She thought that was the funniest thing in the world, and kept having Fred hold her hand in place while she ran the other way to pull her arm as far out as she could. 

Watching the kid goofing off like that while occasionally redoing the pink paint again, or shooting some random object she pointed out with it, I found my thoughts shifting back to what I’d seen at the casino. My parents except not my parents. They had been at the casino in some kind of… power-enhanced disguise? Except whose power? Maybe it was a Tech-Touched device. Right, that made sense. Some kind of… umm…illusion-generator that somehow didn’t work on our own family? Maybe so that they could keep track of each other and still see each other for who they–wait. 

Was that why I’d seen Simon out without any kind of mask or anything on? Was that why he’d been going around apparently without anything to protect his identity, because he was using one of those illusion devices? That made sense too. I’d wondered before about just why my brother could go around without a mask or anything to hide his face. If he was using that illusion tech, it would explain a lot. Even if it didn’t explain exactly where those illusion devices came from. At the very least, it made sense that my family would have access to them. 

Which might also explain how my father could be in two places at once, come to think of it. It could help explain how he could operate as Silversmith and appear as himself at the same function, if they used that illusion tech on someone else to look like him. That was probably part of it. 

“Hey, kid.” That was Fred, watching me curiously from nearby while Pack and Wren whispered about something over by Scatters. “You okay? Seemed kinda… lost there for a minute.” 

Forcing all those thoughts away for the time being, I made myself nod. “Oh, yeah. I’m good. I just found a couple pieces to a puzzle I’ve been working on for a long time.” 

Of course, this illusion thing meant it would be even harder for me to prove my family were the bad guys even if I found someone I could safely point that out to. What was I supposed to do, point at someone who, to everyone else looked like some random guy, and insist he was my mother? Somehow, I didn’t think that would go very well. To say nothing of all the other illusion-tricks they could pull. 

It was something, at least. As I’d told Fred, it was a couple more pieces to this puzzle. It didn’t solve the entire problem, but at least it answered a couple questions for me. True, none of those answers were to the question of what I was supposed to do with everything I knew. But hey, at least I was making progress. 

While lost in those thoughts, my normal phone buzzed in my pocket. Knowing that I had to check in case it was my parents so they didn’t send out a search party, I made sure no one was paying attention before tugging it out. It was an e-mail, and I almost put it away again before doing a double-take. The e-mail was an invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, just a few days away. That wasn’t that odd, considering how many birthdays and other things I got invited to regularly. The odd part was that it was for Paige. 

Now why the hell would Paige Banners invite me to her birthday party? 

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New Deals 13-05 (Summus Proelium)

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In case you missed it, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on a certain very special termite colony posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

I’d seen casinos in person before. Not that I’d actually stepped inside them, of course. But my family and I had stayed at hotels where casinos were, and I’d seen the rooms themselves from a distance. This one, though, was far different from those glimpses I’d had of the public versions. Emerging from the elevator, I didn’t see a massive, wide-open area full of bright, colorful slot machines loudly clanging and chiming everywhere. I didn’t see neon lights, scantily-clad women walking around with trays of snacks and drinks, or… anything I typically associated with an idea of what a casino floor looked like from my own experiences and movies. 

Instead, I mostly saw an enormous circular room, big enough to hold a full-size basketball game in. Directly in the middle of that circular room was an equally circular bar that took up maybe one-fourth of the space. There were a bunch of people sitting at the bar, and others serving them from behind it. Or within, rather, given the fact it was a circle. Either way, most of them, employees and guests alike, were wearing masks of various kinds. It wasn’t one hundred percent or anything. I did see a couple people’s faces. And some of the masks were clearly more elaborate or expensive than others. But elaborate or cheap, most people wore something that in some way obscured their identities, just as Paige had said. 

The bar itself seemed to be made entirely of glass in a way that was clearly deliberately meant to resemble ice. It was ‘frosted over’ in places, had actual buckets of ice sitting out with bottles resting in them, and so on. As if the whole thing had been carved out of a frozen block.  

The floor under my feet resembled ice-like glass as well. It was like stepping onto a skating rink, except not slippery at all. Actually, there was a tiny bit of bounce to the floor, making it soft to walk on despite its appearance. And it wasn’t just the floor that maintained that appearance. The walls, the decorations, the soft blue lighting that filled the room, it was all winter themed. 

Meanwhile, in the area immediately surrounding the bar, there were tables where people were quietly playing cards. On the far side of the room, opposite where I had come in, there were the games like roulette and craps. You had to go up a very short flight of about three steps to a vaguely raised area to reach those tables, and there was some kind of guard or bouncer posted next to the steps. What he was there for, I wasn’t exactly sure. But he was definitely a big guy, and it looked like he had a visible gun attached to his hip. So they weren’t screwing around. Like the rest of the people in here, the bouncer over there wore a mask. His was shaped like a bull’s head, with actual horns. He looked like a modern minotaur armed with a Glock or something.

Finally, there were doors scattered around the entire outside edge of the large room, even some up on the raised area where the roulette and craps tables were. Most of the doors had keypads next to them, as well as some kind of intercom. Some were labeled with numbers and names I didn’t know the meaning of, like ‘Starfall’ or ‘Viridescent.’ It was that latter door that I saw Paige pass through, giving me one last look and wave before it closed after her. 

Other doors were more simply named with obvious meanings like, ‘Slots Room 1’ or ‘Karaoke Room 3.’ I didn’t really need to think much about those ones, obviously. 

Curious, I checked the maps and GPS thing that Wren had included in my helmet display. As expected, they were offline. People like me weren’t allowed to know where this place was. 

Just as I managed to take all of that in, a voice from one side drew my attention. “Ahh, Mr. Paintball.” It was a man in a well-tailored suit, wearing a white, form-fitting mask against his face with only his mouth exposed. Even his eyes seemed to be covered, though he could clearly see through it. He was approaching me briskly, his voice quick, yet polite. “Such a pleasure to have you take a look at our establishment. I trust you have been informed of the rules here.” 

“No fighting, no trying to unmask people, no acting like you know them if they haven’t introduced themselves to you, mind your own business, basically?” I offered with a shrug. “I got the rundown, yeah.” And unless I missed my guess, this guy had probably already heard everything that had happened outside from Tell. 

“Very good, sir,” the white-masked man politely replied with a slight nod. “We take such rules quite seriously here, I assure you. That is how we remain in business. I am called Chips. Was there anyone you wished to meet, a game you might like to try? Rest assured, we also have rooms full of the finest and most advanced… ahhh… ‘video games’ if you would like to rent time by the hour.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Pack approached from around one of the nearby tables with a quick, “I’ve got it, Chips. Thanks. Paintball just needed to settle a little bet we made while all that was going on with the boss’s kid.” She had Riddles perched on one shoulder (in lizard form), but her other pets weren’t in view.   

“Very good, Miss Pack,” came the crisp response. “Please do let someone know if you require anything further. It would be our pleasure to provide for someone who was so instrumental in the protection of our princess.” 

He pivoted on one heel then, striding away. Watching him go, I lowered my voice. “So what did you want to show me? Please tell me it’s not the sick game room you rented out.” 

Instead of answering right away, Pack glanced around before turning. “This way, walk with me.” Turning, she headed around the edge of the room, counter-clockwise. Riddles, on her shoulder, turned a bit as though making sure I was following. 

So, I did. Picking up the pace to catch up with her, I spoke up. “Look at all the people around here. You wouldn’t know it was… wait, what time is it? I’ve lost track. It’s been a busy night.”

On the way, I saw some people look up from their games or drinks. They didn’t pay too much attention, given that was apparently against the rules. But my appearance obviously made them curious. Yeah, I had no idea what they were making of the fact that I was here. How well known was the fact that I had helped Blackjack with his daughter?

“It’s about one in the morning,” came the response, before Pack gestured to a table in a darker area far from any of the games. Her lizards were all spread out over the surface, happily crawling over one another as well as eating and drinking from bowls that had been laid out for them. Except… 

“Hey,” I spoke up, pointing to a tiny (seriously, it was about the length of her finger) lizard with a neon blue body and bright green head. “That one’s new.” 

Pack pulled out a chair, sitting down before kicking the leg of another for me to join her. She put her hand down close to the lizard in question, letting it run up her fingers. Then she lifted her opposite hand, watching as the beautiful thing jumped almost a foot to reach it. “This is Scatters. She’s new, yeah.” 

Taking the offered seat, I smiled behind my helmet, leaning a bit closer. “She’s really pretty.” 

“Believe me, she knows,” Pack drawled, setting the lizard back on the table near a bowl of water. “She’s a daredevil and a show-off.” Shaking her head, she focused on me, her voice low. “Okay, so my thing I can’t really show you yet. People came to talk to Blackjack.” 

“Wait.” I quickly put in. “Should we be saying anything? I mean with–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted. “No surveillance allowed in the casino. And trust me, I know how fucking weird that is. They have ways of checking for cheaters, but they don’t allow cameras, bugs, or any kind of recording devices. It’s the only way this place attracts the clientele it does, and they have lots of people come in to make sure it stays that way. No one wants to have any chance that things they say in here, or even just the fact that they were here, could get out. See those things up near the ceiling?” She gestured to what looked like loudspeakers positioned throughout the room. “They stop your phone from working, any GPS you have, cameras, audio recording equipment, whatever. None of that stuff works in here, even for us. And I had Eits check, just to be completely sure. If it ever got out that La Casa did keep any kind of surveillance here, this place would be completely dead. And everyone else in the city would probably unite to attack us.” 

“What about people with eavesdropping powers?” I pointed out quickly. “Enhanced hearing, that kind of thing.” Even if they couldn’t record what we were saying, I really didn’t want to take the chance of anyone even hearing it. There was too much at stake, too many ways someone having the slightest idea of what we were doing could totally fuck all of us over, evidence or no.

“Stand up,” Pack urged, gesturing for me to move. “Take a step over there and look at me.” 

Uncertain, I did so, rising from the chair and taking a few steps away. Again, I could see a few people glance over, some clearly more interested than they actually wanted to show. I was a young boy (as far as they knew) Star-Touched sitting in this secret casino. Obviously, they were a bit curious. Which, again, made me wonder just what they thought was really happening here.

Either way, I took those few steps away before looking at Pack. She pointedly reached up, lifting the black, featureless mask enough (revealing dark skin) that I could see her mouth open as she started to speak. And I heard… nothing. Her mouth was moving, but no sound was coming out. Or– she beckoned for me to come closer. So I did, and she held up a hand to stop me, reaching up to take my arm. Mouth still moving, she pulled me forward and down to be within a foot of her. Instantly, I heard her reciting some monologue speech. It sounded like it was from a play or a movie or something. Whatever it was, she was reciting it carefully. After another word, she gave me a push backward by the arm. The second my head was a few inches further away, the sound disappeared. Her mouth kept moving, but I heard absolutely nothing. 

Pack repeated that a couple times, pulling me forward to hear, then pushing me back to demonstrate that the sound disappeared. Finally, she gestured for me to sit down, tugging her mask back down over her mouth as she explained, “Touched-Tech attached to the tables. Makes it impossible to hear things if you’re not invited to the meeting. No eavesdropping allowed. Again, that’s how this place can function as a place for secret meetings, dude. You think we’re the only ones who would be in deep shit if our secrets got out? This whole world revolves around secrets. Nobody would trust La Casa’s casino as a place to have their meetings at if there was any chance, any chance those secrets might get out. Like I said, they have independents and people from other gangs show up to inspect the place. Blackjack isn’t gonna risk giving up the money all these people bring in just to catch a random secret or two before people figure things out and we all become public enemy number one.” 

She had a point. I knew that. Everything she said made complete logical sense. Still, I didn’t like it. It was too risky. Which maybe made me too paranoid. All the stuff Pack told me about how protected everyone’s privacy was in this place, and I still didn’t trust it. Because the real problem was, the second I trusted something like that and was wrong was the second everything fell apart. I couldn’t take that kind of risk, not with something like that. The thought of any of these bad guys, even Blackjack, finding out who my parents were was just… bad. Very bad. 

So, I wasn’t going to say anything too dangerous, just in case. But I supposed the bit about Wren wasn’t the worst possible thing for anyone to overhear if the privacy measures failed or whatever. With that in mind, I explained everything that had happened with Cavalcade and Glitch, how Braintrust wanted Wren to start paying her way in one form or another. Though I still used the kid’s chosen Touched name instead of her real one. I also made a point of not outright talking about how this was obviously related to the Ministry tax thing, but the implications between my words were obvious enough that I could tell the other girl picked up on it. 

When I was done, Pack gave a long series of muttered curses. “Those guys are pretty arrogant fucks, huh? I don’t suppose just going in there and beating their asses is an option.” 

“I don’t think I’m quite ready to challenge a gang like that, even if you helped,” I murmured dryly. “Kinda got a lot going on as it is. Besides, they’d be after Trevithick, not me. And I can’t be there to help her twenty-four seven. I don’t wanna put her under that kind of pressure.” 

Shrugging then, I added, “I mean, sure, working on getting rid of Braintrust is a noble goal and all. Probably more noble than you care about. But that’s a long term thing. Short term, keeping them happy and away from Trevithick is the best way to go.” 

“She’s not gonna make stuff for them,” Pack observed quietly, leaning back in her seat as she watched me for a moment. “All the time I spent with that kid during that whole thing… yeah, she’ll never go for that part. She is not gonna make toys for the evil, terrible supervillains.” I had a feeling her eyes were rolling a bit as she over-stressed those last few words pointedly. 

“You’re right,” I agreed. “She won’t make stuff for them and she won’t consult on any of their projects. That’s just… that’s not her. I–well, maybe she would. If she thought it would help us, if she thought her uncle or one of us was in danger, she might do what they said just to protect them. But it would… it would hurt her. She’d hate it. She’d–I don’t want to do that to her.”

“So what are you gonna do?” Pack asked curiously, fingers idly brushing the head of Mars Bar.

“I think the best thing to do is to tell her about the tax part, about paying them out of money that she makes selling her stuff,” I carefully answered. “I can help a bit.” I could help more than a bit, but I didn’t want to be too cavalier about the money I had access to. It felt like that might be a bit risky as far as maintaining my secret identity went. “But the point is, it’ll take time to set all that up. Meaning I need to make sure the Braintrust people understand they’re only getting a little bit and that it’ll be awhile before they start seeing any of it. And that if they start playing hardball, it won’t go well for them.”

“You want backup for that,” Pack realized. “You want someone to help you make sure Glitch and her people know if they pick a fight with the kid over this whole thing, they’ll be biting off a bigger piece than they think.” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. They’re playing relatively nice now, but the… implications were pretty obvious. I want them to know there’s a bigger fight than they might think if they try to push too hard, too fast. They’ll get something out of it, but they have to back off until Trevithick’s damn good and ready.” Even as I said that, a sigh escaped me. “I’m a shitty Star-Touched, huh? Look where I am. Look what I’m doing. I’m talking about getting some innocent–I’m talking about getting Trevithick to pay taxes to a fucking supervillain gang instead of just fighting them.”

“You’re talking about not throwing her under the bus to satisfy your ego,” came Pack’s retort. “You already said taking them down or whatever is a long term goal. Which is pretty damn ambitious on its own, for the record. But keeping them off Trevithick’s back for now, that’s not a bad thing. Like you said, you can’t be there twenty-four se–wait, here we go.” 

Before I could ask what that last bit meant, she urged, “Don’t look up too fast or too obviously. Use your helmet to cover it, just turn your eyes as much as you can. Like I said before, some people came to talk to Blackjack. They were in one of the private rooms over there. Very carefully, just turn your eyes to look a bit to the left, that way.” 

Uncertain, I did so. And immediately almost fell out of my chair. Because she was right, Blackjack was there. And he was standing with my parents. They were just… there. No masks or anything. Standing right in the open. 

I was so shocked in that moment, that they would be so brazen, that I didn’t say anything for a second. And with my helmet, that meant Pack couldn’t see my reaction. Which turned out to be a good thing, as she noted, “I just wish I knew who they were.” 

Wait. Wished she knew who they were? My parents were… kind of famous, especially around Detroit. It was possible she might not recognize them, but… “You don’t know who they are?” I asked carefully, trying to keep my voice even instead of letting it shake. My gaze was locked onto my parents, who were deep in conversation with Blackjack. 

“Nah,” came the response. “Do you? They seemed important when they showed up, but I’ve never seen them before.” She chuckled then. “Too bad we can’t take a picture and put it out there like, ‘Does anyone recognize these two guys?’” 

My head started to nod, then I stopped. “Two guys?” 

“Uhh, yeah, dude.” Pack sounded slightly confused. “Those two men standing right over there with Blackjack. The tall guy with the black crewcut and the red-haired guy next to him.” 

Was… was she blind? Neither of my parents had red hair, and my mother certainly wasn’t a guy. Unlike me, she could never have been mistaken for a boy. She had long black hair, while my father’s hair was dark blond with just a bit of distinguishing gray to it. They… they didn’t look a single bit like what she was describing. And yet, they were very clearly the only people standing there talking to Blackjack. 

So why the fuck was I seeing my parents talking to him, while Pack saw two entirely different people?

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Pink 12-09 (Summus Proelium)

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The three of us talked a bit more, getting a fairly rough plan of what we might do to get into that secret base. We had ideas, though there were a few blank spots we’d have to fill in later. It was something, at least. And thankfully, having these two onboard meant that I had people to bounce thoughts off of other than myself, people who could point out flaws in any idea I had, and who could come up with their own. Not coming up with the entire plan entirely by myself was a real treat. Almost as much of one as not carrying out the entire plan alone would be. 

And yet, I was still alone, wasn’t I? On the big stuff. There were still things I wasn’t telling them about, things I couldn’t tell them about. They had no idea who I was, that my own parents ran the secret criminal conspiracy I’d clued them in on, that… that… a lot. There was a lot they didn’t know, and that I couldn’t share. Not yet. Maybe someday? Maybe–fuck. Or maybe I was just keeping it to myself out of habit or paranoia or something. Should I tell them who I really was? Should I tell them everything? They knew enough to really get in trouble now, so what exactly was the point of holding back on those few very key details? Was there a real reason? 

Yes. Because once I told them all of my secrets, there was no going back. There wasn’t really any going back now, of course. But telling them about the Ministry was a different kind of vulnerable than telling them about me. Showing them who I was, who my family was… that would be something I could never actually walk back, a box I could never close. It would leave me personally vulnerable in a way I wasn’t just by telling them about the Ministry existing. 

Did that mean I was a coward, because I didn’t want to expose myself like that? Was I just a scared little girl, was I protecting my family, was I… was I… what? What was I? Was my refusal to tell them the truth about everything good or bad? What was the right decision? When was the right time to tell them about who I was? How far did this have to go before I told the full truth? How much did they have to do to prove they were on my side? What did I want from them, exactly? How many times was I going to run these questions through my head. 

Fuck! I didn’t know. I just didn’t know, and I was terrified of making the wrong choice. Which was actually a big reason why I didn’t tell them about me. Because that would be making the choice to do so. A choice I could never change. So I just… didn’t. Somehow, in my head, not telling them spared me from making that choice. At least for the moment. But it was coming. I knew that much. At some point, I was going to have to reveal who I really was and how much I was really connected to this Ministry. 

How would they react to that? I… I didn’t know. I was afraid to think about it. 

Either way, I wouldn’t have to deal with it right now. At the moment, Pack and I were standing alone just outside the storage place, in a dark alley untouched by any of the distant streetlights. That-A-Way had just excused herself, saying she had to get back to her patrol before any of the people on her side noticed anything wrong. She’d paused before leaving, looking at Pack and me for a few long seconds. It seemed like she had been about to say something. But, in the end, she just muttered something about meeting us later to ‘deal with all this’ before teleporting away. 

For a moment, Pack was quiet. The only sound in the alley came from the lizards in the cage crawling around. Finally, she spoke up. “If you don’t have any damsels in distress to save, Eits wants to talk to you too.” 

“What?” I blinked, turning that way. “How’s umm… how is he–” 

“He’s doing better,” she informed me. “Not perfect. We’ve got our own access to special healers, but it’s not an immediate thing. He should be back to normal in another day or two. But he’s up and around. And, like I said, he wants to talk to you. In private. If you’re up to it.”

My head bobbed hurriedly, as I blurted, “Sure, yeah! I mean, of course. If he’s up to it. I just–I didn’t want to push him, or you, or… or the whole situation. I just–I wanna tell him how–” 

Pack interrupted with a raised hand. “Not me,” she said simply. “Whatever you wanna say to him, you can say to him. Just uhh, let’s keep this Ministry stuff to ourselves for now, huh? He’s already gotten pretty hurt once recently. Plus, he umm… he owes Blackjack a lot for helping him transition and all that. I’d rather not make him choose between loyalties right this second. Maybe later, but right now it’s just a bad idea. Let him recover, at the very least.” 

I swallowed hard, thinking about how much trouble Eits might’ve gotten into if my parents thought he was onto them. “Yeah.” My voice was quiet. “I don’t want him to get hurt again either.” She was right, the last thing Eits needed at this moment was to get in trouble again. Even if using his help to break through the security in the mall base would–no. No. The Scions already hurt him really bad once. If something happened to him and it was because of my parents, I’d… I’d… I didn’t know what I’d do. But I wasn’t taking that chance. Not right now. 

With that much agreed between us, Pack and I left the alley. She had a car parked nearby that the two of us slipped into. From there, it was a short drive to some old, beat-up parking lot behind a self-serve car wash. She’d texted while we were on the way, but Eits hadn’t arrived yet. 

Instead, the two of us sat in the car, watching the mostly-empty road as we listened to the lizards in their cage once more. That time, I was the one who found my voice first. “This whole situation is pretty screwed up, huh?” 

Gazing sidelong at me, Pack was quiet before slowly replying, “Something tells me I don’t know the half of how screwed up it is from your point of view.” She shrugged elaborately. “You’re holding stuff back. I get that. There’s parts of this you’re not ready to share. And from what you have shared, there’s probably a good reason for that. Just…” Hesitating, Pack obviously took the time to consider her words. “Just try not to let it bite all of us in the ass, huh?” 

“I’ll do my best,” I promised. What else could I say? I wasn’t going to deny that I still had secrets, or that they could be dangerous, or anything like that. She and I both knew how stupid that would be. But I meant what I said. I would do my best not to let things get even worse. 

Before the other girl could respond, headlights drew our attention to the entrance of the lot, where a gray sedan pulled in. The lights flickered twice, then once before the car pulled up alongside us. I saw Eits sitting in the driver’s seat, though he didn’t seem to be actively holding the wheel or anything. Must’ve been using one of his mites. 

“Go ahead,” Pack urged with a gesture. “He said he wanted to talk in private. And Paintball…” She paused briefly, looking toward me in silence as though she couldn’t decide exactly what to say. Finally, she settled on, “Thanks for trusting me with this. I know I gave you shit about what happened to him, but… but I know you were doing the best you could. It wasn’t your fault.” 

Awkwardly thanking her, and promising that we would get to the bottom of the whole thing, I stepped out of her car and moved to get in the passenger side of the other. Closing the door after myself, I hesitated before looking over to the boy in the driver’s seat. My voice was quiet, and obviously a little strained. “Hey.” 

Eits shifted in his seat to look my way. There was the slightest grunt of discomfort. Soft as it was, I still cringed at the thought that even moving that much hurt at all. “Hey yourself,” he replied. Belatedly, the boy added, “Pack wasn’t giving you too much shit, was she?” 

“I’d deserve it if she did,” I insisted. “I never should’ve asked you to get involved in something that–” 

His hand rose to stop me. “Paintball, stop. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t have asked. Hell, if it wasn’t important, those assholes wouldn’t have jumped me. And they wouldn’t have abducted you. I just–fuck, Paints, they’re the Scions. Of course they’re into some really bad shit. But you…” He raised his gaze to mine, staring at me. The diagonal black and gold bands that ran across his face to serve as his mask did nothing to hide the intensity in his eyes. “You didn’t know the Scions were involved before.” 

Quickly, I shook my head. “No. No, of course not. I swear, I didn’t know they were involved. I didn’t know it’d be that dangerous. I mean, I knew it was important or I wouldn’t’ve asked. But if I knew the Scions had anything to do with it, I swear I would’ve warned you. If I asked you at all. I would’ve made sure you had backup, and… and, you know. I would’ve done more.” 

“I know you would’ve,” Eits assured me. He hesitated before adding, “Did you find what you needed at the cabin? Pack said you went back in for a minute after all that.”

Oh God. How much should I say? For a moment, I sat there, frozen by indecision. But… look at what he’d already gone through. I’d already promised Pack we wouldn’t involve him in the rest of this just yet. But I could at least talk about what I’d found a little bit, right? He deserved that, after what he’d been through to get me as far as I was. 

“I found a few toys,” I carefully answered. “They had a code on them that glowed in the dark. The code was to a folder in Seraph HQ, and when I looked at that, I found a bit… more about what I’ve been looking for.” 

That made Eits give a quick doubletake. “Err, how exactly did you look at a folder in Seraph headquarters? You been making friends in high places over there too?” 

Oh, wait, shit. Fuck. He didn’t know about that whole thing. Freezing, I stared at him guiltily from behind my mask and helmet. “Um.” Wow, good thing he couldn’t see my expression. “It umm, I guess it sort of…” Squirming there in the seat, I managed a weak, slow, “They sort of… found out about the program you put on the computer in that shipping company and Hallowed was waiting after I returned the item, so we made a deal for me to do a little work for them in exchange for ‘borrowing’ their equipment?” 

For a moment, Eits just stared at me. His uncovered mouth fell open, a slow, quiet sound of disbelief escaping him. Finally, he managed, “And you didn’t tell me?! I–Paintball, that was my fault! I should’ve–that–I didn’t put everything I could’ve to–I figured a trucking company wouldn’t have–that–you should’ve told me! I was involved in that too.” 

“I know! They know, I mean–” Flushing deeply, I insisted, “It’s okay. I mean–yes, yes I should’ve told you. But it’s over. I’m working it off and they were pretty understanding about the whole thing.” 

Still, Eits shook his head. “Damn it, Paints, if I’d known they were onto that, I would’ve helped you another…” Exhaling, he pointed to me. “You’ve gotta stop trying to do all of this by yourself. I don’t know the half of what you’re up to, but I know it’s big. I know it’s important, and that you’re keeping a hell of a lot to yourself. I’m also pretty sure you’ve told Pack part of it too, a different part than you’ve told me. And I know you’re doing all of it like that because you’re afraid of something even worse happening than me getting a little beat up. But for fuck’s sake, if it’s that big of a deal, you can’t do it alone.” 

I froze, not saying anything. What could I say? I didn’t want to lie to him, but I couldn’t tell him anything more than I already had. Not right then. It was a bad idea even if I hadn’t promised Pack that I wouldn’t get him deeper involved until he fully recovered. 

For a long few seconds, the two of us just stared at each other like that. Eventually, Eits sighed, slumping back a little. “Paintball, we both know you’ve got secrets. Big ones. And you’re obviously keeping them for a reason. Just… just don’t try to do everything all by yourself. Find someone you can trust, even if it’s just to talk to. Even if it’s not me or Pack or anyone, find someone you can unload with. Does anyone beyond me even know that you’re… you know.” 

“A girl?” My head shook, voice quiet as I glanced out the window. “No. You’re literally the only person besides me who even knows that much.” Quickly, I snapped my gaze to him once more, blurting, “And you can’t–” 

“I’m not telling anyone,” Eits insisted firmly. “I already promised I wouldn’t. Your secret is safe with me, I swear, Paintball. That wasn’t my point. Just… you just need someone to talk to. Someone you can trust to just… just vent about all this to. Believe me, as someone who had a hell of a lot of my own venting to do about my situation, it really helps. And bottling it up, trying to handle all of it just by yourself? That’s gonna make things worse. Please. Find someone you can unload this stuff on before it boils up too much, okay? Just try.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? I couldn’t tell him why I didn’t trust anyone with the stuff I knew, or why I didn’t want to burden the people I did at least mostly trust with the whole story. I couldn’t tell him that I still wasn’t sure whether I was protecting other people or my family by keeping it to myself, or what any of that meant to me. It was just too much for me to ‘unload’ like he was saying. 

But I couldn’t refuse either. So, throat dry, I nodded. “I’ll work on it.” That was all I could manage. 

Belatedly, I changed the subject. “Hey, we figured out what my pink paint does!” Yeah, it was an obvious attempt to talk about something less uncomfortable, but still. I really did want to share it. 

From the sound of his voice, Eits was just as aware of what I was doing, but he was curious too. “You did?” 

“Yeah, with a bit of help,” I confirmed. “Uhh, watch.” Carefully, I pointed to the steering wheel and covered about four inches of the top right side with pink. As Eits watched, I reached out, activating the paint before grabbing hold and stretching it up and back to myself. That part of the steering wheel stretched like chewing gum, while the boy beside me made a noise of surprise. 

Letting it go, I watched as it stayed perfectly in place, stretched out like that. It was easily stretched and molded, yet when I released it, the painted thing remained solidly where it was. 

I showed Eits a few more things with it while he watched, obviously enthralled. And while doing so, I realized something else. When I had a nonliving object painted and let the paint run out on its own, it would simply stay where it was, like that bit with the steering wheel. 

But, if I disabled the paint ahead of time, if I focused on turning it off, the object didn’t immediately go back to its normal state. Instead, for just a few extra seconds, it turned sort of… loose-rubbery, for lack of a better word. Like a rubber band. I could pull it out, let go, and it would snap back to where it was when I first turned the paint off. It was only for like three seconds or so. But the point was, I could paint something, disable the paint, yank it out, then it would snap back to the position it was in when I disabled the paint once I stopped holding it back. Again, like a rubberband. 

“Wait, wait, wait.” Quickly, I scrambled out of the car. Pack was still sitting over in hers, apparently involved with her lizards. She looked up and over as I climbed up on Eits’ sedan, even as the boy himself asked what I was doing. 

“Check this out!” I blurted, before spraying the pavement with pink. Instantly, I dismissed the paint and then jumped. As my feet hit the ground, it literally bent under the force of my impact, then snapped back to where it was, launching me several feet into the air. Trampoline. It was like a trampoline. It wasn’t quite the same kind of launch I got from blue paint, but still. It was cool. It was really fucking cool. 

Pack came over to see what the hell I was doing. When I explained, she brought the lizards. Then we let them play, bouncing off the ground and into the air. They seemed to enjoy it, especially when Eits stepped out of the car and stood in a third spot as we all bounced them back and forth. I kept reapplying and dismissing the paint whenever needed, and the three of us played bounce the lizards off the trampoline ground. Pack, of course, made sure her little friends weren’t scared or anything. They seemed to understand what was going on. Which made me feel even more confused about how exactly her power worked and what it did to them. 

Either way, the three of us were laughing throughout all of that. For a few minutes, I forgot everything else. I stopped worrying about that whole stupid situation and just had goofy fun with the two Fell-Touched. I even forgot they were technically villains. We just goofed off with Pack’s lizards, finding things to bounce them off of. I used orange paint to keep them safe from being hurt, and we just… forgot everything else. 

Eventually, the other two had to leave. I thanked them both again, promising Eits that I would think about what he’d said. As I was walking away, however, he called out before coming over to join me. He was moving slower than normal, and wincing a little, but at least he was moving. 

Once the two of us were a bit away from Pack, who studiously paid attention to getting her lizards back in the car, Eits lowered his voice. “I meant to say something before, about that Paige Banners girl.” 

“You said you couldn’t get any more info about her without physical access to the adoption records,” I replied, shaking my head. “I don’t want you doing anything like that. I’ll deal with it myself.” I hadn’t even told him about finding out that Paige was found by those Ten Tower people, or the dead bodies that had been around her. 

“Well, too late,” he retorted. “I already got something for you. It’s not much, but… here.” With that, Eits produced a piece of paper with a name written on it. “Turns out that Paige girl has some kind of history with Ten Towers. Not sure what it was, but one of the Ten Towers Prev troops who was involved in all that sort of went rogue a couple years ago. He’s working as grunt muscle for the Ninety-Niners now. Maybe you can get something out of him about what he saw back then?” He shrugged helplessly. “Sorry, it’s the best I could do.” 

“That’s–” Swallowing, I took the note. “Thanks. But just… just get better, okay?” 

As soon as he promised he would take it easy, I took a running start, spraying blue at the ground in front of me. As my feet hit it, I was launched up and forward. In mid-flight, I sprayed a pink circle into the middle of the billboard I had launched myself toward. Twisting in the air, I activated and immediately disabled the pink, just before my feet hit it. That spot of the billboard bent inward dramatically, bowing in like a trampoline being pushed to its limit. Then it snapped back to normal, hurling me even higher into the air and over the roof of a building. 

Yeah, I had a lot to deal with. But Pack and That-A-Way were going to help. They knew some of it. I had… something approaching friends, even if none of them knew the whole story. And, just as importantly, I knew how to use the pink paint now. I knew how to use all of my powers, I had allies who were ready to help with the whole Ministry thing, and I had a new lead for figuring out Paige’s whole deal.  

Maybe, just maybe, I was finally going to get somewhere with all this. 

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Pink 12-08 (Summus Proelium)

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So, the other two told me about the ‘theory’ online. A joke theory that the real reason I wore a helmet in addition to a mask was because I was hiding a beak. Because my real dad was actually Lucent the raven. 

Once that much was explained, I stared at the two of them open-mouthed. I knew I should say something, but what exactly was I supposed to say? It was so absurd, I just wanted to laugh. So I did. I snorted first, then shook my head as the snort turned into a giggle fit. My hands pressed against the visor as I doubled over, unable to muffle the outright laugh that came next. A bird. People thought, or were pretending to think, that I was part bird. Somehow, in the midst of every bad thing I had to deal with, all the stress that came with figuring out how to investigate my own family’s underground crime ring, finding out more about this secret history with Anthony Tate and Paige that had been erased from my brain, the entire Pencil situation, all of it… all of it was just too much. And this stupid, ridiculous little theory made me start laughing until I couldn’t stop. I was laughing so much I was almost crying. And then I was crying. Only belatedly did I realize that the snickers and laughter had turned into tears. 

The fuck was wrong with me? I couldn’t even laugh properly without crying. God damn it. 

“Um.” Pack exchanged an obviously confused look with That-A-Way before asking, “You okay?”

Forcing down all of those feelings, I nodded quickly. “Right, yeah, sorry. We’re good. I’m good. We just–um, no beak here.” 

“Yeah, we’ve seen you without the helmet,” That-A-Way pointed out dryly. “Otherwise, totally would’ve bought that theory.” She was obviously trying to tease me a little bit, offering a slight smile of encouragement. “So, you wanna figure out this pink paint thing or what?” 

My mouth opened to agree, then I paused for just a second. Something about That-A-Way’s smile, it made me… feel like it was familiar somehow. But that was dumb. Of course it was familiar. I’d seen Way smile before, after all. God, my brain was weird sometimes. 

Shaking that off, I nodded. “Yeah, sure. Hope we have more luck with you guys.” 

“What’ve you tried so far?” Pack asked, setting Riddles on her shoulder to let the bearded dragon look around curiously. 

I shrugged at that. “I’ve kinda been distracted, so I haven’t tested it as much as I should’ve. Mostly I just put it against things, activated it, then tried touching them. Nothing happened. It doesn’t give mind-reading powers or anything, or disguise powers, or flight. I tried putting paint on my shirt and jumping up and down, tried walking through walls with paint on the wall or on myself… It feels kinda funny when you touch it but I can’t figure out what that means.” Flushing a little, I admitted, “I keep getting distracted by other things every time I try to focus on just the paint.” 

“You, getting involved in too much stuff?” That-A-Way made an exaggerated sound of disbelief and a dismissive gesture with one hand. “I don’t believe it.” 

It was a good thing I had a helmet on, because letting those two see me stick my tongue out at her probably wouldn’t have done a lot of good for my whole pretending to be a boy situation. Still, it made me feel better. As did kicking her in the leg to make the girl yelp. 

In any case, we really did need to figure this out. Because having my entire arsenal of paint was important if we were going to pull this off. So, the three of us moved up to the circle I’d painted on the wall, and Pack put her hand against it. “Turn it on? Or whatever you call it.” 

Shrugging, I did so, focusing on activating the paint. “You’ve got ten seconds.” 

“Well it’s not electrified,” Pack pointed out after running her hand over it. She tugged her glove off, revealing dark skin as she pressed her fingers back to the paint. “Check this out, Rosey.”

“Rosey?” I echoed blankly. 

She pointed to That-A-Way without looking. “Compass Rose.”  

“Wha–never mind.” Shaking her head, the blonde girl stepped closer, reaching out to feel the pink circle. “Huh, it–” Then the circle disappeared. “Shit. It definitely didn’t feel like the rest of the cement around it.” 

Pack nodded. “It’s not hot or cold. It didn’t turn anything invisible. I didn’t feel any different when I touched it. It wasn’t… hmm. I didn’t feel different, but that spot definitely felt weird. Not like the rest of it.” 

Way was staring at the spot where it had been, sounding thoughtful. “It felt more like… umm… softer? Yeah, it felt softer. Hey, try it again.” 

Spraying another circle, I watched as the two examined it once more. That-A-Way finally reared back her fist and punched the wall. When she pulled her hand back, there was a noticeable dent in the pink circle, a fist-shaped impression deep in the actual cement. 

“Um.” Frowning, I stepped over there and leaned in, just as the pink disappeared. The wall was definitely dented. The actual concrete had pushed inward, like it was made out of playdough or something. “I’m no expert, but I don’t think cement is supposed to do that.” 

That-A-Way put her hand out, running it along the fist-shaped indentation. “Holy crap, dude. What the hell did that stuff do, make the wall… soft? Your paint makes things soft?” 

Pack stooped, grabbing the wooden broom before holding it up. “Hey, paint this thing.” 

So, I did. Carefully spraying pink over the handle, I activated it and gave her a nod. 

Pack, in turn, gripped the broom handle from both ends and bent it in half. It didn’t break. It didn’t snap. The handle itself bent easily, as Pack basically tied it into a knot. “It’s… it’s like it’s made of rubber,” she announced, as the pink paint vanished, leaving a normal wood broom handle that was stretched out to be thinner than it used to be and wrapped around itself several times.  

“Are you telling me that paint makes things… what, rubber?” That-A-Way asked, taking the tied-up broom to examine it. “Some kind of soft rubber that you can bend and twist around?” 

“Hold on…” Curiously, I held up my own arm, focusing on painting not only my costume, but also my actual arm inside pink. Activating both, I took hold of the middle of my arm with my other hand and very carefully twisted, ready to stop if I needed to. 

It bent. My actual forearm bent. Not like, at the elbow or the wrist, but midway in between. It bent in half as if I had a whole other elbow there. Before even thinking about what I was doing, I grabbed tight and pulled at my arm. It stretched out like it was made of taffy. I twisted it around a few times and yanked it out in two different directions. It was silly putty. My arm was like silly putty. And it didn’t hurt at all. It looked really fucked up, for sure. but it didn’t actually hurt. Actually, it barely felt like anything at all except for maybe a little tingly. 

“Oh, my God!” I blurted out loud while staring at my pretzel-like arm. “That’s what the pink does. You have no idea how long I’ve been trying to figure that out.” 

“Goodie,” Pack muttered. “Excuse me while I go barf in the corner.” 

Of course, the real question was what would happen if my arm, or any body part, was bent and twisted like taffy when the pink wore out. Which was a thought that occurred to me about half a second before that very thing happened. The pink paint wore off, and my arm instantly snapped back to being the way it was supposed to be. It unbent and sort of… schlooped back in on itself just like normal. It was all really quick, almost before I could even think about how bad it might be. 

“Oh fuck!” That-A-Way blurted. “Did that hurt, are you okay?!” 

“Nope,” I replied. “Didn’t hurt. Felt a little weird, but it didn’t hurt. I uhh… guess I’m lucky the power works like that on biological things, huh? Might’ve been bad if it just… snapped or something.” Even as I said that part aloud, my face paled. God, that really would’ve sucked. I probably would’ve been on the ground screaming my fucking head off if my power didn’t put my arm back properly.  

“You guess you’re lucky it works like–” Pack started to echo before cutting herself off with an exasperated sound. “Rose, are you sure about this whole thing? Cuz I think we just got ourselves involved with a lunatic.” 

“Lunatic or not,” the Minority Touched insisted, “he knows more about the truth of what’s going on in this city than anyone.” She gave me a brief look, “And definitely more than he’s said so far. So I don’t think we have much choice right now.” Belatedly, That-A-Way added, “What else do you think that paint can do?” 

“Well,” I offered with a shrug, “let’s find out. I mean, if you guys want to help me some more.”

The other two looked at each other briefly, before Pack replied with a flat, “Duh. Playing with new powers is like… one of the best things in the world. Helping someone else play with new powers? That’s a pretty close second. So yeah, come on, let’s see what else you can do with it.”

Considering what to do for a moment, I held my hand up, painting it pink. “Hey, Way. Pull my f–” 

“If you finish that sentence,” she interrupted sharply, “I swear I will lock you in this shed.” Squinting at me pointedly, the girl carefully reached out to take hold of three fingers at once. “Just… tell me if it hurts,” she advised before gingerly starting to pull as I activated the paint. As expected, my fingers stretched out. Again, it was like pulling taffy. Or gum. I wasn’t sure what was going on with my bones inside, but it probably looked pretty gross. Hell, it looked gross just like this, as That-A-Way pulled those three fingers out until they were a good two feet long.

“Okay, hold up,” Pack quickly put in. “Where’s the extra material coming from? Cuz yeah, your fingers are a bit thinner than they would be, but not that much. That’s two extra feet of skin and… and…” Flailing a bit helplessly, she blurted, “How’s it stretching out that far?!” 

I started to say something, but in the next moment, the paint wore off. Instantly, the pink color vanished and my fingers were snapped out of That-A-Way’s hand with a schlooping noise before they shot back to my hand and into place, practically vibrating from the force of it. 

“Fuck!” That-A-Way jumped, head jerking my way as she looked at my now-normal fingers. “Are you okay?! Did that–are you–” Her gaze was riveted to my hand, voice quiet. “What the fuck?” 

“Nope,” I assured her, as well as Pack, who was also staring intently at me. “I swear, it didn’t hurt at all. Felt a bit tingly or whatever, and sure sounded weird. But it definitely didn’t hurt. I think the effect turns off pain receptors in it or something?” Belatedly, I thought about how useful that by itself could be. If painting something pink turned off physical pain… yeah, that could help a lot. Hell, I’d had that exact thought before, that being able to shut off pain would be great.

Opening and shutting my hand a couple times before pointedly wiggling my fingers, I looked to the others. “See? It’s all good. No problems.” That said, I tilted my head curiously. “You know, my paint affects other people too.” It was too bad I had a mask and helmet on, because it meant they couldn’t see the way my eyebrows were waggling. But I was pretty sure they could guess. 

There wasn’t exactly a rush to be the first to volunteer. Finally, Pack sighed and stepped over, gingerly extending a hand to me. “If this actually does hurt and you’ve been fucking with us,” she informed me, “I swear I will find a way to pay you back.” 

“Trust me,” I assured the girl, “I don’t have that good of a poker face. If that actually hurt even a fraction of what it seems like it should, I would’ve been crying and screaming. I swear, you don’t really feel anything at all. Cross my heart. Which, come to think of it, I might be able to do with this power, if I could twist my chest around the–never mind.” Realizing they were really staring at me by that point, I waved it off. “Here, the point is, it’s definitely not gonna hurt. And even if it somehow acts differently with you than me, we’ll go really slow and careful at first, I swear.” 

Suiting action to words, I painted her index finger pink. Then I very gingerly took hold of the end and watched her face while starting to pull. I heard her sharp intake of breath and saw a visible flinch when the finger started to stretch, and stopped short. But after a moment, she gave me the nod to continue. It had just surprised her. So, I tugged a little more, stretching the finger further. It was now about a foot long and, judging from the lack of screaming, didn’t hurt after all.

“Holy shit!” Pack blurted, head shaking. “Look at that. My finger’s just like–you’re right, it doesn’t hurt. Feels funky, but not really…”  She trailed off, sounding like she felt a bit sick. “Oh man, that’s fucking gross. Totally fucking g–” At that point, the paint wore off and the tip of her finger was snapped out of my hand to sloorp right back into its normal position and length. The suddenness of it made Pack yelp, stumbling backward while grabbing her hand. Then she stopped, staring at it, then up at me. “God damn, dude. You’re right, it just feels really weird.”  

We tested that a little bit more, with That-A-Way’s help too. Very carefully, I let both of them tie two of my fingers into a knot, just to see what would happen. I was ready to instantly paint them again if something went wrong, but wanted to see how my power dealt with that. Better in a semi-controlled environment like this than the middle of a fight, after all. 

As it turned out, there wasn’t a problem. When the paint wore off, my fingers sort of… schlurped in their still-boneless and stretchy forms to release one another before zipping back to their normal positions. The feeling and structure and all that didn’t return until they were back the way they were supposed to be. And no matter how much we tried to tie them up, they were able to go right back to normal. Which made me wonder what would happen if it was somehow physically impossible for a stretched-out body part to get back to the way it was supposed to be. But that kind of extensive (and dangerous) testing would have to come later. Right now, I was still getting the hang of the basics of this stuff. 

We did try a few other things. I stretched my fully-pink arm out and watched as That-A-Way hit it with that metal pipe. She started softly, working her way up to full on, two-handed slamming it into my pink arm. Each time, I didn’t feel anything and the arm just bent inward under the force of the hits. Again, it looked gross and awful, but didn’t actually hurt at all. And each time, once the power wore off, my arm returned to normal with no apparent ill-effect. I tried it with my leg too, with the same result. Everything I used the paint on turned rubbery and could be pulled, stretched, or twisted into new shapes as long as the paint was active. If the thing was biological (or close attached to something biological, like my clothes, I supposed), it went right back to normal after the paint wore off. If it was some random object like the wall or the broom, it stayed the way it had been twisted. 

That, of course, made me wonder how the paint knew which was which. I could see biological things going back to their normal shape as some kind of safety measure, but how did it know to put clothes back to the way they’d been? How did that work? 

Eventually, I even moved on to testing the paint on my lower torso. Painting the costume and my skin pink (Front and back, all the way around, of course), I let Pack take a turn with the pipe. She shoved it into my stomach end-first, and it just kept pushing that in and back. Looking over my shoulder, I watched as a pipe-shaped bit of my pink-painted costume torso started pushing back that way. 

“Oh gross, gross! Nope, I’m done, I’m done.” Pack quickly yanked the pipe away, a moment before my stretched-out insides snapped back to the way they should be. 

“Paintball,” That-A-Way piped up, gesturing to the wall, a blank section near the one that had the fist-shaped impression in it. “Try it over here again, on this part.” 

So, I did. Extending a hand, I shot a circle of pink about a foot across at the wall. As soon as I activated it, That-A-Way shoved both her hands into the wall hard. She was able to, with some effort, grab two handfuls of the rubberized wall and pull them out, yanking the playdough-like cement out, then pushed and molded it until there was a hole in the wall leading into the storage unit next door. 

“Holy shit, dude,” Pack blurted, “do you have any idea how easily you could use this to break into places and…” She trailed off, blinking over toward That-A-Way, who was squinting at her. “Umm… save… puppies and orphans and… something. Whatever.” 

Snorting, I shook my head. “You’re right about one thing. This will make it easier to break into places…

“Like, say… that secret base under the mall.” 

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Pink 12-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Owww, owwww! My head. Fuck, god damn it! Yeah, the next few minutes after I saw those words weren’t fun. I held my head, grimacing and whimpering through the pain, as flashes of… of something worked their way through my mind repeatedly. Flashes of a van? A van. Why was I seeing a van? 

Find Cassidy. Cassidy will help me. 

What in the living fuck was that supposed to mean? Why would Paige Banners say that once, let alone repeatedly? How did she… what… why would… Why? Just why? Once I’d recovered from the rush of pain in my head, that single question and variants of it echoed through my mind for hours, as I worked in a daze to clean up more of that room. I couldn’t just take off the moment I found that file, naturally. That would’ve looked just a bit suspicious (not to mention being wrong considering I was supposed to be working on this to make up for temporarily stealing from them). Still, I couldn’t actually focus on anything I was doing and just went about the work barely noticing the specifics of it. I felt even more lost.

Spending those hours dully and mechanically moving files around and scrubbing things while obsessively thinking about the Paige situation didn’t really help all that much. I still had no idea why she would have asked for me or what she thought I could’ve done. Or why she acted like such a… bitch to me the moment we supposedly met in middle school. Because this had definitely been before that. Paige Banners knew me before I supposedly met her in school. 

Finally, I figured I’d been there long enough and stopped working. By the time I got out to the front area, Tricia was there. The elderly woman greeted me happily, said she’d heard I had the chance to meet Lucent, and offered me a couple cookies from a tupperware behind her desk. I thanked her and said a few more words, but honestly I really wasn’t paying much attention. As soon as possible without being overtly rude, I excused myself and got out of there quickly. 

Once I was out of the Seraph place, I made my way to the roof of a building and just sat down, took my helmet off, and put my still-masked face against my hands. Fuck. Fuck. What did all this mean? What did all of it mean? Why was Paige asking for me? Why did she think I could help her? Why did she suddenly hate me after we met at school? What did all of that have to do with that Anthony Tate kid? Why did Bobby have a secret code on those toys that led to a file all about Paige Banners being found in an alley in some kind of catatonic state or something, next to three dead bodies? How did all of it fit into my lost memory? What picture was this puzzle? 

Right, okay, I could work out some of it if I just stopped freaking out so much. Take the whole thing one step at a time, right? I’d been focused on the shocking revelation that Paige Banners asked for my help, that she’d basically pleaded and begged for them to contact me. Because there was no way that was just some other Cassidy. That would be too much of a coincidence. 

The point was, I’d been reeling from that and stopped really focusing properly. I just had to take this whole thing from the top. First, Paige clearly knew me before I remembered us meeting. The only two possibilities for that I could think of were A: she knew about me enough to ask for me but we’d never met, just as I’d always thought. Or B: I knew her before I remembered knowing her, but that memory had been erased from my mind just like Anthony had been. 

It had to be B. Honestly, that was really the only option that actually made sense given everything I knew. A was technically an option, but I only included it in my thoughts to be thorough. But I shoved it aside for the time being to focus entirely on option B. And then I just sort of let the realization of B’s implications wash over me for a few silent moments, still keeping my face against my hands while sitting alone on that roof in the early evening sunlight. 

I knew Paige before, just like I’d known Anthony. That was the only real answer. I knew her. And not only did I know her, she knew me well enough to tell the authorities that I could help her when they found her catatonic surrounded by several dead bodies in an alley. She’d wanted my help. She’d begged them to have me help her. We had been… we had to have been… friends? 

Fuck. That was the part that made all of this so hard for me to accept. Friends? Paige and I had been friends? Close enough friends for her to beg for the authorities to find me back then. But how? How could I have been friends with Paige fucking Banners when we were children?

Obviously, my friendship with Paige (I just had to accept that it was a thing and move on) had been erased, just like my friendship with Anthony had been. For whatever reason, everything I knew about both Anthony Tate and Paige Banners was erased. To figure this out, to really understand and get anywhere, I was going to have to accept that fact. I had been friends with Paige at some point and my memory of being friends with her had been taken away from me. 

Okay, with that accepted at least tentatively, what next? Paige. This whole thing had happened five years earlier. Both her being found and asking for me and the death of Anthony and his parents happened five years ago. That wasn’t a coincidence either, and it almost certainly meant those two memories, of Anthony and of Paige, were erased for the same reason, right?

I didn’t think that was a stretch. Both incidents being five years earlier and my memories of both being erased… yeah. I’d ‘met’ Paige shortly after that, in the seventh grade. That I remembered. I definitely remembered how much she’d obviously hated me from the very start, how she’d made fun of me for looking like a little boy. Not helped by the fact that I had been skipped forward past the first grade. So in seventh grade, I should have been in sixth. And I would’ve been small for a sixth grader. Which meant… yeah. Paige had basically been the ringleader of kids who taunted me about all that from the very first day we (supposedly) met. 

But why had she acted like we didn’t know each other? Why had her attitude about me changed so thoroughly between the time that she begged for the authorities to find me just months earlier, and when we ‘met’ in the seventh grade, after she had apparently been adopted by the Banners? Was it for the same reason that I didn’t remember her? Did her memory get erased too? Or did she think that I was suddenly ignoring her? Had she spent all this time not knowing that my memory was erased and I had no idea who she was? Was she pissed off because I didn’t help her when she’d needed it, because I hadn’t been there when she asked for me? 

No. No, that didn’t make sense, right? Either her memory was erased or she knew that mine was, otherwise she would’ve approached me. She would have asked me why I wasn’t there for her, why I’d ignored her or whatever she might’ve thought happened. She would have brought it up. If she remembered me and thought I abandoned her or whatever, she would have used that as part of her reasons for why I sucked. And it wasn’t like she would’ve had a hard time convincing people of it. I was a little rich girl. She easily could have used me supposedly ignoring her when she needed help to turn people against me, even if she didn’t give specifics. 

But it never came up. She never even implied that we’d known each other before, as far as I could remember. Not that my memory was exactly the best witness in this whole situation, but still. She didn’t make a thing out of it. Which didn’t make sense unless she either lost her memory too, or knew that I had and deliberately chose not to remind me of it. 

The problem was, I had no idea which of those was right. Why would she not talk to me about any of what happened if we used to be close enough friends for her to ask the authorities to find me. And not just ask, but repeatedly ask. According to that file, asking for my help was basically the only thing young Paige would do. 

I’d used my phone to scan the papers in the file, so I could look through it later. But honestly, I didn’t know what else I could get out of it. Not without knowing more. Maybe the names of the Ten Towers people who had found Paige to begin with could be useful? But even if I tracked them down, what was I supposed to say to them? What was I supposed to ask? That was a whole conversation that I had no idea how to even start. 

So yeah, I was still really confused. And I had to get home, because I didn’t want my parents to start to worry about me. I was going to have to play this easy and safe over the next few days. Especially considering I was planning on seeing if That-A-Way and Pack could meet the next evening to talk about… all that stuff. 

Right. Time to go home for now. I could figure all this out later. Hopefully. 

********

“Okay then!” The two words were accompanied by the sound of a heavy rolling door being shoved upward along its track. That-A-Way, gripping the handle as she held the door up just above head level, gestured. “You wanted privacy, so here’s some privacy.” 

It was the next evening, after Tuesday family dinner with my parents, Simon, and Izzy. I’d managed to contact both Pack and That-A-Way, arranging to meet here at this old storage yard away from prying eyes and ears. Apparently That-A-Way knew the owner and that the cameras in this back area hadn’t worked in months. He didn’t have enough customers to fill up these sheds, so he hadn’t bothered to fix the security for them. As long as we stayed back here away from the management office, we’d be safe. Especially inside one of the storage units. 

Maybe it was a little bit of overkill, but for the things I needed to talk to these two about, I was totally cool with being too paranoid. If there even was such a thing in this kind of situation. 

Standing a bit to the side with her cage full of lizards at her feet, Pack gestured for me to go ahead. “This is your show, Paintboy. So you first. I’m not exactly jumping for joy about sneaking around behind the backs of the people who’re supposed to be part of my team. But if you’re right about some mysterious secret society skimming money off the top, I wanna know about it.” 

Taking a breath, I nodded before stepping into the storage unit. Pack and That-A-Way followed me in, before the latter pulled the door shut. We were in darkness for a moment, then Way found the light switch and flipped it on. Now we were alone in this almost empty unit. There was a broom, a random metal pipe, and a few other bits of trash lying scattered along the floor in this place. But it was about as close to completely alone and safe as we were likely to get. 

Turning to the other two, I told them about the mall base again. I explained about how I’d noticed someone I recognized from the night I’d gotten my powers (leaving out that the person in question was my brother) and followed him to that door. I mentioned distracting the guy guarding it, and how I’d gotten into the hallway, seen the security pad on the inner door, then hid before listening as the guy I’d recognized had the spat with that other guy about being paid. I explained the details about the whole ‘Ministry tax’ as far as I understood it. 

“He said they pay ten percent of the take from any job done in the city,” I informed the other two. “Just for permission to operate in the city. Then it’s another twenty percent for the patrol schedules of heroes in the city for the day of the job. Apparently it’s more than that if the Ministry directly intervenes. The Ministry guy said that they knew exactly how much whatever these biker dudes took was worth, and that thirty percent was forty-six thousand.”

“Wait, a biker dude?” That-A-Way frowned. “Was he like this big, heavy guy with all these tattoos on his arms. One of them was like a… umm, like an eagle with a headband.” 

“Eagle with a headband!” I quickly blurted, nodding while pointing at her. “Yeah, he definitely had that. It was up on his bicep here.” Gesturing to my own arm, I added, “You know that guy?” 

“We’ve met,” the other girl informed me dryly, rubbing her own fist. “I know what that job was too. They stole a couple classic cars. We weren’t supposed to be in the area, but there was this kid with a bike that–never mind. The point is, they got away with a couple vehicles from that museum on Piquette.”

“Piquette–you mean the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant?!” I blurted, my voice rising a bit. “They stole cars from that place? Which ones, did they hurt any of th–” Belatedly, I realized the other two were staring at me, and stopped myself, flushing. “I mean, I didn’t hear about that.” 

Squinting at me, That-A-Way murmured, “Uh huh. Car guy, got it. Anyway, the point is, I had a thing with that guy. He’s lucky he got away.” Pausing then, she frowned intently. “Or maybe not lucky. We were going to chase them, but got called off by Silversmith. He said we were supposed to cut them off on this other route, but they never even went that way.” Her voice was troubled, to say the least. After saying that much, she looked up to me. “You said not to trust anyone on the Conservators, not even Silversmith.” 

Meeting her gaze, I nodded. “I know what I said. We have no idea who they’re working with on the Star-Touched side. But if they have all this power and information, if they can actually influence patrol routes? That’s gotta be pretty big, right. So yeah, don’t trust anyone else. Not now. Not until we know more. Like I said before, this isn’t something you can just put back in the box once it’s open.”

“And part of knowing more is getting into that mall base you were talking about,” Pack pointed out. She’d taken one of her lizards (I was pretty sure it was Tuesday) out of the cage and was rubbing his neck. “So how do we do that without immediately broadcasting who we are? Cuz if both our leaders are in on this,” she gestured between herself and That-A-Way, “they’re gonna know who we are.” 

“I was thinking about that,” I confirmed. “You guys can’t go there in your normal costumes. You’ll need alternate disguises. And you can’t use your obvious powers.” 

“Us?” That-A-Way pointed out. “What about you? If these guys are as big as you say…” 

I shrugged. “They already know I’m investigating them. I mean, they saw me save that Paige girl. What they don’t know is how much I know. But still, we have to be careful. I’d rather avoid having any confrontation if we can help it. So we go in the middle of the night, hopefully after everyone’s gone.”

“And how do we get past that locked door you were talking about?” Pack demanded. “Cuz you know it’s alarmed. Not to mention all the other security measures they’ll have.”

“That’s why we have to find a guy who works in there, wait for him to leave, then…” I hesitated before pushing on. “Then grab him and use his pass key to get in once everything’s locked down.” 

They were staring at me again. That-A-Way managed, “You want to abduct a guy who works in that secret basement and use his passkey to get in?” 

“That’s about the size of it, yeah,” I confirmed. “I can’t think of any other way to do it, can you? We need proof about what they’re doing down there. The whole reason they’re leaving Paige Banners alone is because she has mutually assured destruction material. We need our own. We need to know more. Which means we need to get in that basement, get pictures, video, whatever. I’ve just been flailing around in the dark here. If I’m gonna get anywhere, I have to take some chances.”

“We,” That-A-Way corrected gently. “We have to take some chances. But you’re right. And you’re also right that Pack and I need to hide who we really are. At least until we know more.”

“And speaking of knowing more,” Pack put in, “how about you explain everything your paint is capable of so we know what we can all do? And by paint, I mean the pink one. Because there is a whole thing on Sphere about what paints do what and no one can figure out what pink is. Unless it really does hide the beak.”

That made me do a double-take. “Hide the what?”    

I could’ve sworn she was smirking at me from behind that full face-concealing black mask. “Never mind. But you might want to check out your thread in that place. It’s… right, yeah, never mind. The pink?” 

That made me shrug helplessly. “I dunno. I haven’t figured it out. Here.” I pointed at the nearby wall and sprayed a pink circle onto it. “When I activate it, nothing happens.” 

“Well, good thing you’ve got help now,” That-A-Way informed me. “Trust me, it took awhile for me to figure out how my direction powers worked. Between the three of us, we should be able to crack this little mystery.” 

“Yeah,” Pack agreed. “And if all else fails, we could always ask Paintball’s bird-daddy.” 

“My what?!” 

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