Pack

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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Ready 11-06 (Summus Proelium)

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We met up with Skip and Broadway shortly after that, so I promised Pack and That-A-Way that I would talk to them about the whole mall thing later. I was tired, sore, mentally exhausted, and really just wanted to crawl into my bed and sleep for about a million years. But I was also terrified about what was going to happen when I got home. It was late, and my phones completely didn’t work so I had no idea if my parents had noticed me being gone for so long. If they’d been trying to get hold of me, if they’d panicked and called the cops… this could get complicated. And I was so done with everything right then, I was afraid of what I might say. 

The car that Skip showed up in was actually a van. Apparently she’d damaged the Scions’ car enough to leave it undriveable and then abandoned them. Given his immunity to practically anything, there was no way that she could keep Pencil contained long enough to try to call in the authorities. Especially with Cup there and the possibility that they had called in other Scion reinforcements at some point in all of that. The best thing to do was to get out of there while we could. None of us wanted to take the risk of Pencil getting the upper hand again. He’d almost managed it even with all of us there and Skip’s own selective immunities. 

Besides, I was just… again, exhausted. Falling into my seat in the van, I let my head rest against the window while listening to That-A-Way telling Skip what road to take to get out of there, and to Broadway saying something about how she would watch for anyone behind us. 

The next thing I knew, the side door of the van was being slid open and we were in a brightly lit area. I jerked awake, heart thudding its way through a Lars Ulrich drum solo while I looked around wildly, instant panic making me imagine any number of horrible scenarios just then. 

That-A-Way was right there, hand on my arm while she quickly assured me, “It’s okay. It’s alright, Paintball. Hey.” Moving a bit, she gestured to show me that we were just in some kind of illuminated parking garage. “We’re back in Detroit, it’s okay. You’re safe.” Pausing to look at me, the other girl looked for a moment like she was going to say something important. In the end, however, she just carefully asked, “Are you okay? You were… you were shifting around a lot.”

Flinching at the thought of what I could have mumbled, considering the state I was in, I gave a short nod. It took a second to come down off my panic-high, but I finally found my voice. “Y-yeah, I’m good. I’m fine. I mean I’m not fine, but I’ll get over it. You…” Biting my lip, I looked to her. “You guys really saved me. I would’ve been dead without you. I would have died.” Just saying that out loud, even now that I was safe and totally out of that situation, made my heart beat faster while my throat went dry. The memory of Pencil pointing that weapon at me… I shook a bit, shoving the thought down into the basement of my mind before locking the door.

That-A-Way gave me what I knew was a practiced reassuring smile, the kind she used for making civilians feel better about a situation without scaring them. “I’m just glad we were there,” she informed me, before her eyes narrowed. “And as soon as you feel better, I’m hitting you again. Don’t you ever do that, got it? I will not be used as an excuse to let you go off on your own and get yourself killed. If you do, I’ll find a way to bring you back just to kick your ass.” 

Quickly, I held up both hands in surrender. “I know, I know. It was stupid. In my defense, I had no idea that the Scions were involved at all. I wouldn’t have–yeah, I know. It was still stupid. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want anyone else to get hurt because of me. I didn’t want to be–ow.” The last bit was because That-A-Way put her hand out to flick my forehead with one finger. It hurt. 

“Just don’t do it again,” she flatly insisted. “You need help, ask for it. That’s why I gave you my number in the first place.” Pausing briefly, the girl added in a slightly more subdued voice. “Seriously, Paintball, I’m glad you’re okay. I don’t know what…” She shook her head. “Just don’t be that stupid anymore. I really don’t want to find out you got yourself killed after all this. Especially if that thing you were talking about…” Stopping herself, she gestured. “Come on, let’s go.” 

Sliding out of the van after her, I looked around. We were, sure enough, in one of the parking garages downtown. I could see Skip off in the distance, wearing a backpack over one shoulder and talking to what looked like a security guard while Pack and Broadway stood off the other way next to the former’s cage full of lizards. As soon as Pack saw me get out of the van, she approached, leaving her teammate with the cage. “Good,” she started, “you’re awake. So what are we gonna do about everything you said?” Lowering her voice to being barely audible, she added, “Cuz I don’t know about Compass-Power here, but I really wanna know more. Especially if it involves my team.”

“And my team,” That-A-Way agreed, arms folded. “But we can’t really talk about it right now.” 

“Yeah, there’s not time,” I pointed out after stifling a yawn. “My parents are already–” Cutting that off quickly, I blanched before settling on, “I’ll meet both of you later this week, I promise. Just let me recover from all this and we’ll talk about what I know. We’ll figure something out. Especially about that… thing I mentioned with the mall.” Saying those last few words mostly under my breath, I gestured. “But seriously, like I said, don’t tell anyone.” I looked to That-A-Way. “No one on your team, none of the adult heroes. Not even the leaders. Not Caishen, not Brumal, and especially not Silversmith.” 

That-A-Way was squinting at me. “What do you mean, ‘especially not Silversmith?’ He’s not… no.” 

I met her gaze intently. “I’ll explain more later, I swear. Just… just don’t do anything you can’t take back. Telling anyone about this is gonna open a box that none of us can close again. The more people who know about it, the worse it’ll be. Later we can figure out who to trust, but right now, just…. don’t.” 

“And especially not Silversmith,” That-A-Way repeated pointedly, her gaze still locked on me. 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “especially not Silversmith. Like I said, I’ll tell you more later. I just can’t deal with this right now. Don’t talk to anyone about it. Please. This is just a lot to put out there right now.” Looking to Pack, I added, “Check on Eits for me? Make sure he’s still getting better. And I’m sorry about… about everything.” 

Pack promised to do so, before Skip approached. The Ten Towers Touched spoke in that same eerily calm voice of hers that actually helped calm me down, all things considered. “Steven won’t tell anyone we were here. I trust him to be discreet, he has been very helpful before.” Looking to me, she added, “How are your injuries? Will you be able to make it home?” 

Everything hurt, that was for sure. But the fact that I was alive and in one piece right then after everything that happened was honestly such a freaking miracle that it felt like I could’ve danced home. Okay, not really. Ow. Still, I’d get home. I didn’t really have much of a choice, even if the idea of trying to explain to my parents where I’d been was terrifying. “I’ll make it,” I confirmed. 

We said a few more things. I thanked all of them for going the extra however-many-miles to save my stupid life from Pencil. Then I left them. We all separated, and I headed out of the parking garage and out onto the street. Honestly, right then the last thing that I wanted to do was start jumping and running around. But I had to get back home, and first I needed to get to the place I’d stored my clothes on the way over to see Pack and Eits in the first place. 

Despite what I’d said about being okay, I was limping as I left the garage. Fuck. Shit. That hurt. Everything hurt. Getting knocked out by whatever that dart had been was bad enough, but the chase through the woods, getting hit with whatever that gun had been? That was rough. If I hadn’t had my orange paint on when that gun hit me the first time, what kind of shape would I be in now? Would I even be alive? I definitely wouldn’t be walking like this. 

Then again, the only reason I was even still here at all was because of Pack and the others. The four of them had gone out of their way to save my life. The fact that Pack and That-A-Way had put aside any differences they had to save me was enough on its own, but I barely knew Skip. I’d exchanged a few words with her, that was it. And I didn’t know Broadway at all. She was there because of Pack, of course. But still. The four of them had totally saved my ass. Without them, I wouldn’t be alive. I’d be dead. Dead. The thought kept reverberating throughout my mind while I used a bit of red paint to yank myself up to a roof so I could get out of sight. 

Dead. Without them, I would have been dead. Pencil would have killed me. Everything I’d done, and absolutely none of it would have mattered anymore because I’d just be… gone forever. I was only alive because other people had come to save me. People who I still didn’t trust with all my secrets. Or even most of them. 

Was I resisting telling anyone the truth about myself and my family to protect them, or to protect myself? Or worse, to protect my family. Was I so against letting anyone know what my family was because I was still keeping their secrets? What I somehow instinctively still siding with my family even as I outwardly sided against them?

Those thoughts bothered me as I walked across the roof. My hand was rubbing my chest where I had been hit. One of my ribs felt really bad, making me flinch and wince when I touched that spot. It did, at least, distract me from all those troubling thoughts about my motivations. 

Taking a breath, I used blue paint to launch myself out toward the next building. And I instantly regretted it. A shooting rush of pain went through my side and leg, and I basically ended up falling in a heap on the next roof, sprawling out gracelessly before curling into a ball with a groan of pain. Owwww.  

Right, this might have been worse than I thought. I really needed to get home, but running and jumping just wasn’t going to cut it. So, instead, I just used red paint to pull myself from roof to roof and orange paint to ensure that I didn’t land too roughly. Even simple landings that I never would have used the orange paint for any other time needed it. I was basically limping from roof to roof just to get to the spot where I had hidden my clothes. That was all I needed. I would change clothes and then call for an Uber. 

Wait. Call. My phones were both busted as far as getting a signal went. Sighing hard when that thought popped into my head as I hit another roof, I stumbled and half bent over. Nausea welled up in me and I had to fight the urge to throw up or pass out. Or both. After catching my breath, I took out both phones to check them again. Sure enough, still no signal. I was in the middle of town and yet there was no signal. Pencil had definitely not been exaggerating about what his little toy had done. 

Okay, still not the end of the world. I would change clothes and then use the phone at a gas station or something. I’d get a ride home and come up with some kind of excuse for how late I was if it came down to it. Considering it was about four in the morning at that point, I was relatively terrified about how my parents would react if they actually knew I wasn’t in bed. 

At least I had a couple people to help me with the mall problem. I’d had no idea how I was going to get into that secret underground place to find anything else out by myself. But with That-A-Way and Pack, maybe we could actually pull it off. And maybe I would actually manage to think of how much I could tell them. I’d already taken several huge risks with all that and they had come through every time. Pack had come to save me even when she was mad about Eits. She risked her life and the lives of her beloved lizards to save me. That-A-Way had willingly worked with villains to come help me. At what point was I just going to trust them with all of this, with the whole story? What was wrong with me? Part of it, of course, was genuinely wanting to protect them from the things my family could do. But by this point, how much of that was just an excuse? And who was I protecting more, them or my family? I was kind of afraid of what the answer to that actually was. 

Finally, I reached my hidden bag and looked around to make sure things looked clear before starting to change. And damn was that just the worst clothes changing experience of my life. Everything hurt so much. Just lifting my leg to put it into the hole of my jeans made me practically whimper. It felt like I was contorting myself into a pretzel simply by pushing my arms through the sleeves of my shirt and jacket. And I had to do it quickly, because the absolute cherry on the top of this shit day would have been someone spotting me standing on the roof in my underwear and bra. 

Hiding the bag with my costume once more, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk taking it home when I didn’t know what the situation there was, I got myself to the ground. After managing that without dying somehow, I did one thing with my personal phone to help sell any story I came up with before walking out to look for a phone to use. Thankfully, the guy in the nearby gas station didn’t raise too much of a fuss, and I was able to call a taxi. Then, while waiting for it, I noticed a guy skating past. An idea popped into my head, so I quickly flagged him down before offering him a hundred bucks for the board and another fifty for his helmet. He took it and, once he was gone, I stepped into the alley and slammed the board against the wall a couple times until I managed to almost snap one set of wheels off. I hit the helmet a few times too. 

Giving the driver instructions to an address a short distance away from my house, I slumped into the seat and exhaled while trying to think of a story I could tell that might actually help. 

Once again, I fell asleep almost immediately. The next thing I knew, the driver in front was clearing his throat and trying to politely wake me up. When my eyes opened, he nodded. “All set.” Pausing then, he added, “You sure you’re okay, kid? You look like someone threw you into a blender.”

Somehow, I managed a slight smile while paying him. “Just need to sleep.”

He gave me a thumbs up while I was getting out. “Well, you get on home and take a nap, son.”

Son. Yeah. Because that was really what I needed right then. Mumbling something but I didn’t even follow myself, I shut the door and shoved my hands into the jacket pockets before walking off. Son. Boy. God dammit. Yes, I had much worse problems than that. That was basically a pebble in my shoe compared to everything else. And yet, it hit me at just the wrong time. I was tired and sore and so much else had happened. Dropping my head as I shuffled along, I forced back the tears. No, they weren’t tears from what he had said. I’d been mistaken for a boy plenty of times. So many people thought I was a rather pretty thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy instead of a sixteen-year-old girl that it should not even have registered anymore.  

No, the tears were mostly about everything. Getting captured, nearly dying, seeing that picture and realizing that the dead boy had obviously been a friend of mine, all of it. Even the fact that I’d clearly missed Bobby by just minutes and now had no idea where else he could be contributed. All of it contributed, until I could barely keep the tears shoved down where they belong. God dammit, I was a girl, but I wasn’t some little baby. I was not going to start sobbing again. Not now. I was going to suck it the fuck up and keep going. 

On the plus side, I was very quickly distracted from any thought of crying. On the negative side, that distraction came because I turned the corner and saw both of my parents standing out on the front walk past the security gate. There was a uniformed police officer and several people in suits standing with them. All of them were in the midst of a really intense conversation.

A brief thought popped into my head that I should try to eavesdrop. But I just stood there, too tired and sore to do anything else by that point aside from dropping the skateboard and helmet off to the side on the grass. Spying could come later. 

Mom was the first to see me. She glanced away from the man she was clearly giving orders to, spotted me, and let out a loud, startled gasp. I saw the men turn, hands going quickly to what were obviously their weapons, while my dad looked up as well.

Then they moved, and just like that, both of my parents were right in front of me. Dad had me wrapped in a tight embrace that he immediately released when I yelped. Mom, who looked as though she was about to pull me to her, came up short at that, her eyes widening. “Cassidy?” As she said my name, her hand went out to gently touch my face with trembling fingers. It was like she was convincing herself I was really there. Dad had one hand on the side of my head, I could see his chin quivering a little before he got himself under control. It was clear that both of them were barely holding themselves in any sort of order. And the only reason they hadn’t already crushed me was that quick yelp when Dad had tried the first time. 

“Cassie,” Dad started then, his voice cracking a bit. Are you okay? What happened? Where have you been? You never came home after dinner, and… and you didn’t answer your phone.”

“Yes, Cassidy,” Mom agreed, looking as though she was torn between hugging me until I couldn’t breathe or choking me to achieve the latter effect immediately.

“What happened to you?”

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Ready 11-05 (Summus Proelium)

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To their credit, Pack and That-A-Way didn’t expect me to start talking immediately. They even waited when I asked them to while I went inside and grabbed those toys that I’d seen before. I wasn’t sure why they gave me such a strong emotional reaction, but I did know that I wanted them. So I put the toys in my pocket, then started out of the cabin before pausing. Turning my eyes away from the broken doorway, through which I could see the others waiting, I looked back over the room. Given everything I’d heard and figured out about Robert–Bobby, I had to assume he wasn’t stupid enough to leave clues about where he could be going when he clearly knew there were some really nasty people after him. When he’d cleared out of this place, even as quick as it had to have been, he wouldn’t have left anything behind that could point to where he was going. Still, just taking off like this without looking closer felt wrong. But we didn’t have a choice. Skip was only going to keep Pencil busy for so long, and if he and his equally psycho sister came back while we were still here, we’d be in the same position we’d been in before. It was time to get the hell out of here. 

So, I headed out, telling the others I was ready to go. Broadway was already gone, apparently making her way through the woods first to give us a little privacy and also to make sure their rendezvous point was clear of any problems. If she ran into trouble, she’d make enough noise to let us know. 

And with that, we started moving quickly through the forest. Pack’s lizard animals were all around us for potential protection and warning, Riddles keeping an eye on things from up above just in case. It was dark enough that the other two were using flashlights they had apparently brought with them.

After a few minutes of walking, Pack was the first to break the silence, her voice pointed and clearly angry. “So, now that you’re safe and all that, which I’m really glad about, for the record, I’m going to go ahead and call you a stupid fucking jackass, okay? And if you ever pull something stupid like that again, I swear I’ll kick your ass myself. You and me, we’ll throw down and I’ll beat your ass cuz I fight dirty. Never, ever fucking do anything like that again, you got it?” 

I cringed through her words. Because she had every right to be angry. Going off by myself had probably been stupid. But what other choice did I really have? I couldn’t tell them everything. I just couldn’t. My family was… it was too complicated, and involving them that directly would just be dangerous. They didn’t deserve to have the weight of all this on their shoulders. At least until I knew more about how my family’s business worked, until I had some idea of how to stop them, I couldn’t offload that responsibility onto other people. And I definitely couldn’t tell them the whole story. That would involve letting them know who I really was, and that… was a bad idea.

But maybe I could tell them some of it. They deserved to know some, at the very least. Hell, they deserved to know all of it, the whole thing. But I just… couldn’t. That was a box I would never be able to close again once I opened it, a Pandora’s Box that was full of all sorts of dangerous evils that would escape if I wasn’t careful to keep the thing shut absolutely tight. 

Some of it, however… I could explain some of it, the bits that might lead them in the right direction. Exhaling, I started with, “I–thank you. Thanks, guys. Both of you, and Broadway. And Skip too. I don’t know how she got involved, but if it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead. I–I’d be dead. No question. You saved my life. I owe you guys. I owe you–” The words stopped as I choked a little before getting myself under control. “I owe you everything. Definitely more than I can give you right now.

“But… but I can tell you something. First, I want… I need you to trust me. I need you guys to promise to keep this all secret. All of it. You can’t tell your teammates.” I looked to Pack, then That-A-Way. “You can’t tell Blackjack, and you can’t tell the heroes you work with. No one. You can’t tell anyone. Not a single person.” 

I saw the way both of them exchanged looks, That-A-Way speaking first. “Excuse me? Okay, I know doing this job can make anyone really paranoid, but seriously? Why wouldn’t you want me to tell the Star-Touched about any of this? I mean, sure, Pack works for bad guys. I can see that, but–” Cutting herself off, she looked over to see the girl in question clearly squinting at her through her featureless black mask. “Oh, stop, you know what I mean. You work with a lot of bad people. Sure, Blackjack has his reputation for keeping his word or whatever, but that doesn’t make him a good person.” 

“Yeah,” Pack retorted, “and a lot of psychopathic jackasses who get off on legally stomping on people who can’t fight back join up with law enforcement to get their kicks. Having a badge, or whatever equivalent you people get doesn’t automatically make you a moral paragon.” 

“It’s not about any of that!” I blurted, trying to stop this whole thing from being totally derailed. “I just–it’s personal and I’m hoping you’ll be able to know the whole thing soon enough. But for now, just promise me you’ll keep everything about this secret, please.” I tried to stress just how important it was both in my voice (as much as the changer still attached to my ear would convey it) and my stare.  

Again, the two of them exchanged looks. I couldn’t tell what either of them were thinking, or what they were communicating to each other in those looks. But whatever it was, they both seemed to come to the same decision, turning to me with the lights aimed roughly toward one another so I could see them better. 

“Okay,” Pack started. “I won’t talk to Blackjack or the others about it. Unless it turns into something I have to talk about. If this starts affecting my people, I’m not gonna lie to them.” 

That-A-Way nodded. “I don’t like it, but if it means helping you when you’ve got someone like Pencil pissed off at you? Yeah, fine. Unless it turns into something that we need help with, or like… people are going to die if we don’t call in the big guns, I’ll keep it between us.” Her voice softened then. “Come on, Paintball, you almost died back there. You need help. Stop being so stubborn and stupid about this.” 

“Ah, little tip, superhero?” Pack put in. “People rarely react well to being called stupid.” 

“It’s okay,” I quickly interrupted. “I know what she meant. And she’s right, running off on my own like that after I… well, implied to you that I was going to ask for help was really stupid. I didn’t know the Scions were involved, but it was still stupid.” 

“And that’s another thing,” That-A-Way pointed out. “If the Scions are involved, do you really think we can keep this quiet? More to the point, do you really think it’s not just as stupid to keep it quiet? If they kill more people just because we didn’t say anything…” 

“You can definitely tell people then,” I immediately agreed. “The second we see Pencil or the other Scions again and they get involved, you can absolutely call in all the help you guys have to stop them. No question. Just… I…” 

Pack stopped walking then. Stepping in front of me, she turned the flashlight so that it was aimed up between us. “What?” the girl demanded. “Damn it, Paintball, you ask Eits for some kind of favor that makes some guys beat the living shit out of him. Those guys turn out to be working for Pencil. Then you lie to me–and don’t you fucking hedge about what you specifically said, you lied and you know it. You lied to me about getting help from Minority-girl over there just so I’d let you run off on your own, got yourself captured and nearly killed by that fucking psycho, and you’re still fucking holding off on us? If we’d caught up with you a minute later, a minute fucking later, you’d be dead! You would be dead, Paintball. So knock it off. Yeah, if we can keep this secret, we will. If it’s the best way. But you need to start talking. You need to explain what the hell is going on, what that cabin was, why the Scions are involved, what that fucking address was supposed to be for, and everything else you can possibly fucking explain about this situation. Because I, for one, am tired of being left in the dark about all this.” 

“What she said,” That-A-Way put in immediately, “only pretend I said it a little more eloquently and nicely. Right now I’m too mad at you for nearly getting yourself killed to think that straight.” 

“I know you guys are upset. You deserve to be,” I admitted a bit weakly. “I just… this is harder than you know. I can’t…” Biting my lip under the mask, I thought about it briefly. “I’ll tell you some of it. I can’t… tell you all of it. I just can’t. Not yet. But I’ll tell you as much as I can.” 

“I still can’t believe you want to keep secrets after…” Trailing off as she clearly realized just how little headway she was going to make, That-A-Way settled on simply waving a hand vaguely. “Yeah, yeah. If it’s so important that you can’t talk about everything even after all that… I guess we’ll have to take your word for it. So what can you tell us? How did you get involved in something that involved the Scions, exactly? Can you explain enough about that, at least?” 

“I’ll try,” I muttered. The truth. They deserved at least as much of the truth as I could manage, as much as I could give them. To that end, I slowly announced, “It started the night I got my powers. When it happened, I was… I saw these guys… execute a couple people in a motel.” 

Both of the other girls (and Holiday, who was pacing around us) gave a short doubletake. “I’m sorry,” That-A-Way started in disbelief, “you saw what happen? Are you… you’re serious now.”

“Super serious,” I confirmed before gesturing. “Come on, we should keep walking. Anyway, the guys saw me, sort of. They didn’t get a good look before I ran away. While I was hiding from them, I got my powers. Then I was… hiding while I heard them talking. I found out they worked for something called the Ministry.” I was mixing around the details of when I found out what to leave out my family’s direct connection. I had to do that, for now at least. As I said the name, my gaze snapped from one girl to the other, looking for a hint of recognition in either of them. I saw none. Neither That-A-Way nor Pack seemed to have the slightest clue what that was.

“What, like some kind of cult thing?” the lizard girl demanded while her hand went out to rub along Twinkletoes’s side. The lizard-gorilla seemed fine now after shrinking down and then being returned to his large size once more. The same went for Mars Bar. Something about Pack using her power on them again healed the damage that had been done. Which was a relief. 

Shaking my head, I kept walking in silence for a few seconds before forcing the next words out. This was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do, just getting myself to say what I needed to say. Pack and That-A-Way may have both been on opposite sides of the law, but they’d put that aside to come and save me. They deserved to know about this. “Look, I know you’re both going to think I’m crazy. I know. But I need you to listen. What I’ve heard about this Ministry, it’s… they’ve got their fingers in both sides. Star-Touched and Fell-Touched. It’s like they work behind the scenes. They’ve got people working for villain groups and people on the heroes’ side too.” 

Pack looked at me like she was about to say something, but That-A-Way spoke first, blurting a quick and very baffled, “Bad guys working for the heroes? How hard did Pencil hit you, again?”  

“Oh, yeah,” Pack put in, “that’s bound to make the poor guy want to keep talking about something that he was clearly reluctant to even start on in the first place. Act like he’s crazy.” 

“That’s not what I–” That-A-Way snapped defensively before catching herself. “Damn it, I wasn’t…” She trailed off, sighing. “Sorry. I guess we should at least hear you out.” Even as she said it, however, the girl still sounded reluctant and defensive. Which I couldn’t blame her for. 

“I know, I get it,” I quickly assured both of them. “It’s a lot to throw on you guys and expect you to believe any of it instead of just thinking I’m a raving lunatic. Why do you think I didn’t want to actually tell you? Because I know it sounds like crazy bullshit. But seriously. The way they were talking, and other things I’ve heard since then… that’s why I didn’t want to join the Minority.” 

“Because you thought we worked for these… Ministry people?” That-A-Way was staring at me, almost walking into a tree before Pack reached out, caught her arm, and tugged her away from it. She gave the other girl a quick look, a nod of thanks, then stared at me once more. “Really?” 

“I didn’t know any of you,” I pointed out. “And I still don’t know most of you. I mean, look at it this way. Pretend the Ministry is real and you don’t have any doubts. Just for sake of argument. Pretend there really is this secret organization that has agents on all sides, people who report to them. Do you really think they’d put people on the heroes’ side who couldn’t blend in well?” 

That-A-Way briefly looked like she wanted to argue with that, but stopped herself. Instead, she was quiet for a minute, walking through the woods with us like she was lost in thought. Finally, I saw her head give a tiny nod. “Okay, I’ll… pretend and go with that, I guess. If this Ministry thing worked like you said, they’d be good at putting people in under cover. Maybe even people who really thought they were doing the right thing by reporting stuff to this secret group. Hell, they might not even know that this Ministry works for both sides. Maybe they think they’re reporting to a secret group of Star-Touched people, you know? Like Internal Affairs or something.” 

“You mean an even more secret group of heroes inside the group of heroes.” Pack snorted. “Yeah, that sounds about right. If a group like Paintball’s talking about existed, they could totally make some do-gooders think they were part of the super-special secret club like that.” 

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, that’s kinda what I mean. Anyway, like I said, this Ministry has people on both sides. From what I can tell, they run some kind of protection racket or something. You know, letting bad guys operate in the city in exchange for part of the money they take in from jobs. I heard them talking about getting the patrol routes for different Star-Touched teams for a higher percentage take, and direct intervention, whatever that entails, in exchange for even more. I’m pretty sure they have at least one person on every hero team to give out patrol routes, hero’s schedules, other things like that. And more on the police force, the court system, all those things. They’ve been around for a long time, you guys. Like I said, they’ve got their fingers in everything. They run things behind the scenes, and they’re really not happy that I know anything about them at all. Except they’re not sure how much I know, if anything.”

“So if what you’re saying–” Pack corrected herself, “If you’re right about what you think, then Blackjack’s gotta know about this, right?” 

“Sure, it sounds like all the big Fell-Touched players in the city know about it,” I confirmed. “They work within the system the Ministry created. I’d be fall down shocked if Blackjack wasn’t totally aware of the whole thing. But he’s not gonna tell a brand new member of his group that kind of secret.” 

“I’m still not sure about this,” That-A-Way admitted. “But I’ll keep going along the hypothetical ‘this is all true’ route for now. That said, what does that have to do with Pencil and the Scions? Or that cabin?” 

This was the big one. Even bigger than getting them to believe the bit about the Ministry. I had to be careful how I explained this. “I followed some of those Ministry guys the other day when they kidnapped a girl and tried to kill her. Apparently she had some kind of secret information or proof about the Ministry or something. Anyway, I saved her and she ran away. Then I found her later and listened to her talking to… umm… someone on the phone. She called him her dad, but…” I shook that off. “Anyway, the point is, there was something about the girl and her dad wanting revenge against the Ministry for someone named Anthony Tate. I looked into it. He’s a kid who used to live here, then moved to Texas and died in a car crash. Supposedly.” Ohhh this was getting so close to secrets I really shouldn’t talk about. The thought made me cringe inwardly. 

That-A-Way spoke up into the brief silence. “Okay, wait, wait. Who’s this girl? And that Anthony Tate, who’s that?” 

“LIke I said, a kid who used to live here before he supposedly died in a car crash with his parents in Texas.” I offered a shrug. “I don’t know how he was connected to that girl… umm, Paige Banners.” 

That-A-Way dropped her flashlight and tripped over a rock, cursing as she almost fell. It took her a moment to scramble across the ground to find the light. “What–who?” 

“Paige Banners,” I repeated. “She’s the girl I saved, I found out her name later. That’s one of the names I had Eits look into,” I admitted to Pack. “I thought her dad lived here, but apparently she’s like… adopted or something? I don’t know. Point is, she was on the phone with someone she called her father, and they were talking about getting revenge for that kid dying or… something. Anyway, Eits looked into it, found out this guy Robert Parson was a bodyguard or something. He was in the car with the Tates too, but he survived. So we were looking for his address. That’s the address you got from him, the one those assholes wanted. I guess Pencil and his people got the address from Eits’ phone, cuz they got to that place too.” 

“But what did they want with this guy?” That-A-Way demanded. She sounded like she really needed to sit down. Which was another thing I could definitely sympathize with. 

“I guess he pissed Pencil off somehow,” I replied, shrugging once more. “I really don’t know the details. All I know is Pencil wants this guy dead, so he’s in hiding. Which means I can’t get answers out of him about this Ministry, or Anthony Tate, or this Paige girl.” 

That-A-Way was silent for a few long seconds, staring ahead as though deep in thought. Finally, she exhaled long and loud. “This is a lot to take in, dude. I don’t–” She cut herself off from whatever she had been about to say, correcting it to, “I’m not sure what to… say, you know? If I’ve got this right, you’re claiming that there’s a secret underground group that manipulates heroes and villains everywhere in the city, and that this random schoolgirl, whatever her name–” 

“Paige Banners,” I reminded her. 

“Right, Paige Banners,” she nodded. “This Paige Banners and her dad, who isn’t the dad who lives here in town with her because she’s adopted or something, are coming up with some secret plan to attack and hurt the Ministry as payback for this Anthony Tate dying. You looked into Anthony Tate, found this Robert Parson guy, went to his address, and got jumped by Pencil, who is also after him?” 

“And the Scions also beat the shit out of Eits to get that address,” Pack quickly put in. 

“Yeah, and Eits got hurt,” That-A-Way acknowledged, turning to shine her light at me. “Is that about it?” Her voice was a bit dull from the shock of taking all of this in. 

“Ummm…” I winced. “Did I mention that it sounded like that girl’s real dad is in Breakwater?” 

“Breakwater,” That-A-Way echoed. “The inescapable supervillain prison. He’s just… calling out of that.” She stopped walking, putting one hand against her face with a long, heavy sigh. 

“This is kinda why I didn’t want to dump all this on you guys,” I managed a bit weakly. 

“I get that,” she murmured, finally moving her hand to look at me. “Look, I don’t know how much of this is true–okay, hold on. What I mean is, I believe you believe what you’re saying, but I don’t know how much power this Ministry actually has. But, I’ll keep quiet about it for now. I want to… investigate it for myself, okay? I’ll do it quietly, I swear. I won’t bring up the actual name or anything. I just want to find out more.” 

“Same,” Pack agreed. “I’m morbidly curious about these people. Especially if part of my money is going to them.” 

After a moment of hesitation, I slowly offered, “Well, if you guys really want to find out more about this group for yourselves…

“I know a pretty interesting secret about the mall.” 

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Ready 11-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Laying on the floor of Bobby’s cabin, still paralyzed by whatever that thing was that Pencil hit me with, all I could do was watch helplessly as the man looked at That-A-Way, standing over me, and Pack at the door with Mars Bar towering behind her. Holiday the panther-lizard was there too, somewhat between all of us with the paralyzing gun held in her teeth as she snarled angrily. 

No, no, no. What was going to happen now? Why were they here? How did they find us? I knew I should have been grateful to see them, and a big part of me was. Okay, most of me was. But another part was terrified that something bad would happen to the two of them. Paralyzed as I was, I was helpless to do anything to help, which was beyond terrifying. And it wasn’t like Pencil was just some bad guy. He was one of the nastiest Fell-Touched I’d ever heard of. He was immune to basically anything anyone could do. What the hell was going to happen here? How would they actually stop him, considering that entire experienced hero teams had set out to do that and failed, some dying in the attempt?   

That was what scared me the most. It wasn’t suffering and dying right here with Pencil enacting his revenge for hurting his sister. It was being forced to see him do that exact same thing to Pack and That-A-Way. Because they were only here to help me. If they died, it would be because of me. Because I couldn’t handle my own problems. Because I was weak. 

For his part, Pencil didn’t exactly look all that concerned. His gaze took in the panther-lizard  who had stolen his weapon, before moving to look at the others. I could practically see the thoughtful expression on the face behind the mask. When he spoke, his voice was curious. “Now, what exactly could have made the three of you such close friends that you’d come all the way out here like this?” He raised a fist to his chin, contemplating. “Oh, was it really that bit at the hospital? Was it? I’m really gonna blush if it turns out I’ve inspired the brand new besties bond you’ve all got.” After a second, the man added in a conspiratorial tone, “Really, don’t tell me you two see your pal here as a little brother. Because trust me, we all know where that goes. Him in love with both of you and you not seeing him that way because you’re just such good friends. And no one wants to live through that kind of cliche. It’s 2020, let’s try to move past triangles, people.” 

As Pencil said those words, the rage that had been clear in his voice when he had come after me a moment earlier for hurting Cup had been replaced by what sounded like genuine amusement at this new situation. It was like being hit with something this unexpected, instead of pissing him off, actually intrigued him. Apparently he just enjoyed being surprised that much. So much that he forgot about that whole being pissed at me for Cup thing. In any case, whatever was going through his mind right then, I was pretty sure that none of us wanted to know about it. 

“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” Pack informed him. Her words were punctuated by matching growls from Mars Bar and Holiday. “I’m going to step out of the way to that side of the door. My big buddy here is gonna step the other way.  Then you are going to walk out of this building and get the hell out of here before this gets any worse. Everyone walks away to fight another day.” 

“Or,” That-A-Way put in, “you can push it and see if being immune to damage helps you very much when it comes to a giant grizzly-lizard sitting on your psychotic fucking ass until the authorities get here. After all,” she added, shifting her weight a little, “We don’t actually have to hurt you. We just have to stop you from leaving. I’m pretty sure you don’t have super-strength.”  

For a moment, the monster in the mask said nothing. He simply glanced back and forth at all of us, adopting a thoughtful posture before eventually speaking up. “That is a very fine point you raise, young lady. A very fine point indeed. You’re probably right, I’d be… hard-pressed to budge your personal Yogi over there, if push came to shove.” He gave a tip of an imaginary hat toward Mars Bar. “And yet, I find myself with one very important question. While your bear is sitting on in this hypothetical scenario, what… precisely would your invisible gorilla-lizard be doing?” Even as he said that, the man was abruptly pivoting on one foot with a snapped, “Let’s ask him.” 

With those words, Pencil’s hand snapped out. A knife leapt from his sleeve before being driven into what looked like thin air. Thin air that drew a thick line of blood and a squeal of pain. 

“Twinkletoes!” Blurting that name, Pack threw herself that way while the formerly invisible figure appeared, a deep gash through his side as he collapsed to the floor, moaning. How had Pencil known he was there? Was it just a guess? How had he known exactly where to aim the knife? 

As Pack lunged to the fallen Twinkletoes’ side, Mars Bar and Holiday leapt to the defense of their partner. With a cabin-shaking roar, the bear went after Pencil like a runaway freight train, while Holiday tossed the gun aside and added her own roar while lunging from the other side.  

Far from being intimidated however, Pencil simply pivoted once more. His foot lashed out in what looked like an awkward, gangly kick. Seriously, I thought he was about to fall over. It was like a clown kicking someone, all wild flailing and no coordination. But despite that, there must have been decent force and skill hidden behind the deceptive appearance, because Holiday was immediately sent crashing to the floor with a yelp from the impact against her nose. 

At the same time, his hand, with the already-bloodied knife held tightly, lashed out and backward. It cut through part of Mars Bar’s descending arm and drew even more blood than the first swipe had drawn from Twinkletoes. Wherever he had hit the lizard-bear must have been important, because the roar turned to a pained squeal and that massive arm fell uselessly against the power-mutated animal’s side, as if the limb was as paralyzed as I actually was. 

The bear’s arm being out of the way gave Pencil room to duck and twist, throwing himself behind the suddenly-stumbling creature. His every motion looked goofy and awkward. It looked like he should fall flat on his face any moment. But I was already certain all of it was an act. He was like a clown or something, his motions purposefully intended to look goofy and uncoordinated while actually being very precise. He clearly had an incredible amount of athletic and combat skill. He was just hiding it behind what looked like bumbling actions. 

Just as that thought came to me, That-A-Way sprang to the aid of the others. Or, she tried to. Suddenly teleporting almost directly behind him and to one side, she produced her stun baton and swung it. Pencil, however, was not taken by surprise. He doubled over backward, almost like he was going through an extreme limbo contest. Laughter, mocking and derisive, erupted from the man as the baton passed just over his head. At the same time, he pressed some kind of hidden button on the knife. Instantly, a cloud of dark red gas shot from a hole at the edge of the knife hilt, right next to the blade itself. The gas went straight into That-A-Way’s face, and she stumbled, squealing and coughing while the baton fell from her grip. Pencil, still bent over backward, caught the falling baton in his free hand, hurling it with what looked like contemptuous ease toward Pack, who was just looking up from Twinkletoes. She took the baton to her chest, yelping and collapsing on top of her gorilla-lizard from the burst of electricity. 

No, no, no! This was exactly what I’d been terrified of. Everything was going wrong. Pack was twitching and yelping on top of the already-injured Twinkletoes. Mars Bar was stumbling, one arm useless. Holiday was still picking herself off the floor. That-A-Way was down, coughing and sputtering while flailing blindly from whatever that gas had done. Everything was going wrong and it was all my fault. They were here because of me, here to help me, and I was too paralyzed to actually do anything to help them. Move, I ordered myself. Move right fucking now!

It didn’t help. Straining as hard as I could, I still couldn’t push past the effect of that stupid weapon. They were going to die, they were going to die and it would be my fault. Damn it, damn it! 

Then, just as my panic and terror hit the breaking point, something totally unexpected happened. The sudden blaring of a car horn from outside filled the air, stopping Pencil in mid-step. At the same time, bright headlights abruptly flared to life, shining in through the window.  

As the sound of the horn was fading, a familiar figure in a black-blue bodysuit with an attached short-sleeved white robe and hood appeared in the doorway. Skip. She stood there, regarding the whole situation seemingly impassively for a moment before addressing Pencil flatly. “By all reports, you are protective of the one called Cup. If so, there is a situation outside that you will be interested in resolving. Unless those reports are wrong, in which case…” Trailing off, she looked to us, then to Pencil before simply turning her back to him to walk out of the doorway and away from the cabin. 

In that moment, I was pretty sure Pencil completely forgot the rest of us even existed. He went through the door an instant after Skip disappeared, fairly sprinting that way. Because Skip was right. For all his murderous psychotic evil bullshit, he actually genuinely cared about Cup. His sister… his lover… whatever she was, he cared about her. I knew that first-hand. 

I also knew that if he had the chance, he would skin every single one of us alive and watch us spend hours screaming for even insinuating that she could be in danger. This could blow up in all of our faces really easily. 

Pack was back on her feet, hand already outstretched to grab That-A-Way and pull her up. She had Twinkletoes and Mars Bar (newly returned to their normal, uninjured lizard forms) on either shoulder, while Holiday stood guard at the door. Both of the girls were looking at me with obvious worry written through their body language. 

And then, then my constant attempts to start moving finally paid off. My fingers twitched, and a sharp gasp of air escaped me as I jerked upright with a suddenly violent cough. The paralyzing effect was gone. I could move again. 

Just in time for That-A-Way to kick me none-too-gently in the leg with a muttered, “Idiot.” Then she turned to run for the broken doorway. 

Pack, meanwhile, grabbed my hand to haul me up. “What she said. But I’ll wait and kick you after we get out of this.” 

Quickly, I joined them and the three of us ran out to the porch in time to see Pencil standing about thirty feet away. The man was brightly illuminated by the headlights of a car. Standing next to the car was a figure in dark purple body armor with speakers along the sides and a helmet with a wide V-shaped visor that had multi-colored lines flickering across it. 

Broadway. It was Broadway, another one of Pack and Eits’ teammates.

Just as we made it to the porch, the headlights turned off and the light inside the car flipped on. That revealed Skip, sitting in the driver’s seat. More important was the figure sitting next to her in the passenger seat, bound and gagged. Cup. 

As soon as he saw her, Pencil took a step that way. But he stopped at a sudden blaring of the car horn when Skip used her free hand to hit it while simultaneously extending a hand through the open window with some kind of large container. She gave it a toss, and it came tumbling across the dirt to land near Pencil. Immediately, I recognized both the look and the smell. Gasoline. It was a mostly-empty gasoline can. 

Broadway gave a kick then, sending another can tumbling over to join the first. “Heya, Fuckface. You see Cup there? The eeeentire inside of that car is totally drenched in that gasoline. You give her any reason to, any reason at all, and Skip is gonna use that lighter she’s got to flame on. Then she’ll drive away. Cuz, you know, the fire won’t affect her. But it’ll sure as hell affect Cup. So she’ll light her on fire and then she’ll drive away. We’ll see how far she gets down the road before the car explodes. Are you a fast runner? Maybe you can get to her before she suffers too much. Maybe you could even do something about the flames. But here’s the thing. Even if you do save her, your lady friend there still gets to suffer horrifically first. Maybe she dies, maybe she doesn’t. But she definitely suffers. And the longer it takes you to get to her, the longer she suffers, the more likely she dies.” 

She bent, picking up the end of a rope that was lying there before tossing it over to the man. “So here’s what’s gonna happen. The other end of that rope is tied to the back of the car. Skip’s gonna pull out and start driving slowly down the road. You’re gonna hold the rope and follow until you’re all past the gate. Then she’ll teleport back up here and you can get the lady out of the car. You try to come after any of us first, Cup goes fwoom. You try to get closer to the car than the length of that rope, Cup goes fwoom. You pull anything, Cup goes fwoom. And maybe you can take all of us down. You are magically immune to everything, after all. Maybe we can’t take you. But what you’ve gotta ask yourself is, just how much would Cup suffer in the meantime? Would she even survive? What kinda shape would she be in? Take the rope, follow the car all the way down to the gate. Or push things right now and see how the girl there likes being a superhero for once. Specifically, the Human Torch.”

For a moment, Pencil didn’t say anything or move. He seemed to be studying Broadway as though gauging how serious she was, how likely it was that she and Skip would actually follow through on that threat. I was staring at them too. Jesus Christ, that was hardcore. Not that it was exactly surprising, given the kind of people Pencil and Cup were. If you were going to threaten them, you had to go for the gold. And I was pretty sure the threat being specifically against Cup was the only thing that made the man take it at all seriously. He cared about her. She might be the only thing in the world he did care about. But still. I had to ask myself if they’d really do it. Which, I supposed, was the exact same thing Pencil was asking himself at that point. 

Finally, he turned to look straight at me. His hand rose, giving what looked like a casual wave. But I knew there was far more behind it. He would never let this go, not for any of us. I’d directly pissed him off more than once now. I’d hurt his sister. And now the others had threatened her life, had threatened to kill her in a gruesome, horrific way. All of us had made this personal to him, and he was not going to forget or forgive that. This might be put on pause now, but it wasn’t over. 

“So long, kid,” Pencil announced while the eyes behind that mask practically bore a hole straight through me. “I’ll catch you later.” And boy did those words have a hell of a lot more meaning behind them than that phrase normally did. 

With that, the man stooped, grabbing the rope. Immediately, the car started up and Skip pulled it around slowly to point it back toward the road before heading out just high enough speed that Pencil had to lightly jog to keep up. While we all watched in silence, the car and attached psychopath both gradually vanished down the road out of sight. 

Finally, once the car and Pencil were gone, Broadway exhaled audibly and slumped over. “Hoooly shit, dude. Tell you one thing, I am super-fucking glad that didn’t go wrong. I mean, yeah, it still could. But I think we might actually pull this off. Thanks for playing distraction in there while we set things up.” She turned to me then, waving. “Hey there, nice to finally meet you, Paintball.” 

“I–” I started to say something, before blanching. Pivoting away from them, I sprinted several feet before collapsing to my knees by some bushes. My hand pried up the mask enough to let me throw up. It all came out in a rush, while Broadway made disconcerted sounds in the background. To their credit, the others all stayed away while my mask was up. All they saw was my back. 

Finally, it was done. My whole body was sore and I was still a bit woozy. Plus my throat hurt from hurling. But there was nothing left for me in my stomach. Awkwardly, I tugged the mask down with one hand, making sure the hidden mic was still in place before pushing myself up and turning. 

That-A-Way and Pack were standing there, arms folded as they looked at me. Broadway was on the other side of the clearing, watching the road. 

“Are you okay?” That-A-Way asked a bit pensively. “Seriously, are you…” 

“I’m okay,” I managed, biting my lip. “I mean, I… they didn’t do anything that bad. He was saving it for later.” 

“Good,” Pack put in, sounding relieved, like a sudden weight had lifted from her shoulders. Then she added, “I’d say a lot more, but it’s time to get out of here. We’re supposed to meet Skip on a little service road down the other side of the forest, that way.” She pointed off behind the cabin. “There’s another car parked there waiting for us.” 

“It’s a bit of a hike,” That-A-Way noted. “But it shouldn’t be hard. 

“And on the way, you can explain just what the hell is going on.” 

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Ready 11-03 (Summus Proelium)

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I was in trouble. Yeah, that was a fucking understatement. I was on the far side of a fence, not even out of earshot from a pissed-off Pencil and two of his psychotic Prev minions. At my feet was a dazed, barely conscious Cup, and all around me was a nearly pitch-black forest. To top it all off, my hands were cuffed behind my back, making this whole thing even more complicated than it already was. And if Pencil caught me again, I was pretty sure him just straight up killing me was the best I could hope for. More likely, he’d make me scream for a few hours first. 

That wasn’t just speculation either. It was, in general, the gist of the threats I could hear coming from the fence area in between Pencil ordering his man to finish disabling the electricity and alarm. That was why he didn’t just ignore the shock himself, given that it wouldn’t actually hurt him, I realized. He didn’t want to set off the alarm, because… because he didn’t want to alert Robert that we were here? Was he really actually afraid of what Rob–never mind. Seconds. I had seconds before those three would be right on top of me. 

Using one finger, I turned slightly to shoot a bit of black paint at Cup, just in case. The last thing I needed right then was her managing to orient herself enough to use her power on me. If she did that, I was basically dead. I wouldn’t snap out of it before Pencil managed to catch up. 

There was no time to do anything else. I couldn’t even try to get my hands in front of myself. It would have taken too many of the precious seconds I didn’t actually have. Pencil was already vaulting the fence. I could hear it rattling. Quickly, I turned, activating another small portion of purple paint on me before lashing out with a kick to Cup’s face. She stopped her silent groaning and fell flat. Unconscious, for the moment at least. Stooping, I grabbed her hands and gripped them tightly. Casting a quick look over my shoulder, I saw Pencil dropping off the fence and turning to sprint our way. He probably couldn’t really see us from there, not with the shadows of the trees added to what was already a pretty dark night. Still, he was coming straight for us, with the two minions right behind. I had to move, now!  

Silencing myself as well, I took off running while dragging the unconscious Cup behind me on her stomach. With the purple paint, I barely felt her weight. And as long as she was with me, conscious or not, the cuffs wouldn’t force me to the ground. I could do this. It was awkward as hell, running while literally dragging a full grown woman behind me with my hands cuffed like that. But what else was I going to do, let Pencil catch up and do any of the horrific things he had in mind? Running blind through the dark forest while dragging Cup was the only option I had. 

Except it wasn’t… really like running blind, was it? Because just like my last time traveling through the woods at night, I wasn’t stumbling nearly as much as I should have been. Sure, it was a bit unwieldy, running with Cup like this. But it definitely wasn’t as bad as I would’ve thought it would be. I instinctively knew when to duck from branches I couldn’t actually see. I gave a little hop now and then, passing right over thick roots or low bushes that would have sent me sprawling. Most people running through a nearly pitch-black forest in the middle of the night with their hands cuffed behind their backs probably would have eaten dirt within a few seconds. But I just… didn’t. I knew where and how to move to avoid hitting anything, even though there was no way I could have seen any of it in time. Particularly given I was running flat out, with a good portion of my attention centered on listening to the sound of pursuit. It was just… instinct of some kind? 

Whatever, I wasn’t going to question it. I didn’t have time to question it. All I knew was that I had to keep moving. The sound of Pencil’s pursuit faded somewhat as I gained ground on him, but I could still hear the psycho and his two minions not too far behind. All three had flashlights they were shining around, the beams flickering wildly back and forth as they searched for me. 

Briefly, I worried about one of them opening fire before realizing that they wouldn’t risk hitting Cup. They still hadn’t been able to get a good look at me and were simply following the trail I left in my wild flight. So maybe it was time to do something to make following me a bit harder. 

First, I renewed my own purple paint once more before using my grip on Cup’s hands to put a bit more black paint on her. Keeping her silent was just as important as anything else right now, and I didn’t trust her not to wake up at some point in this and immediately use her power to put an end to my escape. As long as I could stop her from talking, she’d be a hell of a lot more manageable. I just wished I’d had the time and materials to actually tie her up, or do… anything other than dragging her along by the hands. 

Fortunately, for now, she was still knocked out. But I kept the black paint going just in case. Then, keeping my grip on her hands, I moved one finger to point at a tree we were passing and shot a spray of white paint at it. While continuing to run, I put a whole line of white paint down, trying to judge when I only had a small amount of paint left. Then I stopped spraying, but kept running. Behind me, the sound of the three thoroughly pissed off pursuers grew louder from my hesitation. They were close. Too damn close. If I waited any longer, they’d be right on top of me. Then I’d either be dead, or just wish very badly that I was. 

But the worst thing about all of this? I missed running through the dark forest with Paige. At least she hadn’t been dead weight who would also have tried to kill me if she was awake. That was how far I’d fallen. I missed Paige Banners. What in the seventeen hells was my life? 

At least I didn’t panic. I focused on the sound of the men running. I judged where they were, all while also sprinting through the dark woods. How? How could I run like this, drag this unconscious girl behind me, navigate a totally unfamiliar forest in the middle of the night while also listening to my pursuers and accurately judging exactly where they were in those same unfamiliar woods? How? 

It was ridiculous. I shouldn’t have been able to. But I did. I knew, without question, exactly when the men reached the spot where I had left that line of white paint. Which meant I knew exactly when to trigger it. 

I’d left enough paint right there that, as it activated, that whole area of the forest briefly lit up. It was incredibly bright. Knowing it was coming, I had closed my eyes just in case and was faced away. But I still saw a bit of the flash. Being right on top of it would have been utterly blinding.  Which, given the sudden new litany of screaming curses coming from back there, it really was. And it was more than a flash, actually. The light continued on for a full ten seconds, making it even harder for my pursuers to see where they were going. 

But that was just step one of plan ‘lose these assholes.’ The second the flash triggered, I also painted the boots on my feet bright blue and triggered the last of the purple paint that I had prepared on the inside of my costume. With the added strength, I leapt as hard as I could, triggering the blue paint on my way down. The impact from the jump against that blue paint rocketed me up and forward. With Cup held tightly, I went flying through the trees, breaking through a handful of branches on the way. Coming down, my feet landed for an instant. But the blue paint on my boots was still active, so I was launched upward again and kept flying. 

For the next ten seconds, I kept essentially bouncing my way through the forest. Each blue-and-purple-paint assisted leap carried me a huge distance, while my weird and unexplained subconscious knowledge of where all the trees and such were meant I could safely make those leaps without slamming headfirst into an obstacle. In the brief time that my pursuers would have been blinded, I put as much distance between us as possible. It would be a lot harder for them to track me accurately with so much space between landings. They couldn’t easily track my footprints when those footprints were at least sixty feet apart. 

Finally, I had to stop. Partly because I felt Cup starting to shift in my grip. She was waking up. So I dropped both of us down, releasing the bitch before hitting her with more black paint. Then I pivoted to face her. 

Yeah, she was awake. She wasn’t happy or fully coherent, but she was awake. Her eyes blinked at me blearily, barely visible through the moonlight that cut through the trees. Even with the white mask covering the bottom of her face, I could tell she was trying to speak, only to freeze when no sound came out. Even as dark as it was, I could see the hatred and anger in her sudden glare. Yup, she was becoming more coherent by the second, and was definitely pissed off. 

But guess what, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about this whole situation either. Given the choice, I would’ve left her there. But the cuffs meant that I didn’t have that choice. Instead, I had to keep dragging her around with me. 

Or did I? Wait a second. Thinking quickly, I pivoted and used my cuffed hands to shoot a bunch of red paint over the other girl. She flailed, and was already shoving herself to her feet when I pivoted back the other way, shooting one bit of red toward the nearby tree. As Cup made it up, hand grabbing for something in her costume, I triggered the paint while diving out of the way. With a silent yelp, she was hauled through the air, slamming face-first into the tree. Oops not oops. 

Of course, the thing Cup had been grabbing was a gun. It fell to the ground as she was yanked through the air. I heard the thump of it landing and saw the outline of it right at my feet. Quickly, I kicked it off out of sight before moving to the psycho currently held tight against the tree. She was struggling, and I heard her voice start to cut in just in time for me to hit her with a quick shot of black paint. 

Ten seconds. I had ten seconds before the red paint would release her. Which meant I couldn’t exactly be gentle or careful about this. Instead, I shoved my back right up against hers, pinning her even more fully against the wood. My cuffed hands frantically felt up her pants for pockets while I found myself muttering, “Sorry, sorry, I know you’re a fucking psycho, but sorry.” One by one, I shoved my hands into her pockets, searching them as quickly as I could while trying to ignore the unfortunate… positioning and circumstances. 

Gum, a notebook, a pen, a switchblade, no key, no key! Damn it, please don’t say it fucking fell out while she was being dragged back there. If it was lying somewhere in the woods, I was screwed. 

Finally, shoving one hand inside her back pocket (and really trying to ignore how awkward that was), I found it. The key. It was there. My fingers closed around it, and I jerked away from her, half-stumbling before pivoting back to face her. Unlocking the cuffs behind my own back wasn’t exactly easy, but I had a trick. Namely, I brushed my finger over the cuffs until I found the keyhole. Then I shot a tiny dot of red paint into that keyhole. With my other hand, I found the tip of the key, painting that red as well. 

With that done, I just activated the tiny dots of red paint on both, and the key was immediately yanked straight into the hole. I pivoted, grasping for it with my fingers. Just as I got hold of it, Cup fell backward off the tree. The red paint had worn off, which meant the black had definitely–

“How many–” 

That was as far as I let her get. Still holding the key with two fingers, I lashed out as hard as I could, kicking Cup in the back. It was enough to stop her from talking, knocking her forward into the tree with a yelp. Using the bare couple of seconds that gained me, I twisted the key. The cuffs popped open, and I let them fall to the ground with a clatter before quickly shooting black paint at Cup once more. That shut her up again, just as she was trying to talk. 

The black paint did not, however, stop her from turning and diving at me. I went down hard with the older, bigger girl on top of me, landing on my back while her fist slammed into my chin. Her eyes were wild in the moonlight, her fist colliding with my face so hard I almost saw more stars in front of me than were visible in the sky through the trees. Fuck, I missed my helmet.

Then she hit me a third time, and ended up regretting it. Because I didn’t have my helmet, but I did have orange paint. That time, her fist didn’t hurt me at all, while she made a flinching motion. Adding purple paint, I shoved her off me, lashing out with a kick into her stomach that doubled the crazy bitch over. Before she could recover, I quickly kicked out again to knock her legs out from under her. It was Cup’s turn to fall on her back. 

It was also her turn to wear those handcuffs. Before she could recover, I grabbed the cuffs from the ground, linking them around her wrists. They clicked into place, just as a flashlight beam swept nearby. My gaze snapped over that way, and I saw them. My pursuers were coming fast. I didn’t have time to do anything else. But hopefully dealing with Cup would slow them down. 

“Later,” I whispered, patting her on the back before tucking the key in my pocket. Then I painted the outside of my costume completely black, activated the silencing power, and took off running. A bit of green on my shoes lent a bit of speed, letting me haul ass away from that spot. 

Go, go! My hands were free and I didn’t have to lug Cup around anymore. Plus, they wouldn’t be able to get her out of there very easily without the key that I was carrying. This was my chance to get to the cabin ahead of them and warn Robert. I just had to keep fucking moving!

So, I did. With my hands freed, I was able to move much faster, using a mixture of blue and red paint to bounce and yank myself from tree to tree, with added green for speed. Ignoring the darkness entirely, I practically flew through the unfamiliar woods. Cabin. I needed to find that cabin, but how? The road. Look for the road. But even that didn’t help too much. The road could be anywhere, considering how I’d blindly fled through the forest with Cup earlier. I had no idea where I was now in relation to that road even before adding in how much it could have wound its way through the forest. 

In the end, I realized I was being stupid. Height. I needed height. At the next tree, I yanked myself to the top, dropped blue paint on the final sturdy branch, and launched upward over the canopy to get a better view of things. 

There. Lights. There were very clear house lights off in the distance. That had to be it. Dark as the forest was, those lights stood out like a beacon. Instantly, I yanked myself to the next tree over and full-on raced that way. I had to get there ahead of the Scions. No matter what happened, no matter what it took, I had to warn Bobby! 

The cabin really was isolated in the middle of nowhere. It was a two-story affair that looked like it had come straight out of some storybook, with a perfectly cut and stacked woodpile on the porch beside the front door, a path leading down to the nearby stream, a cozy little handmade swing, the works. The road went right up to the lot, and I could see fresh tire tracks, but no vehicle. 

Hurriedly, I red-painted myself all the way across the clearing to the front door, knocking on it rapidly while calling, “Mr. Parson! Mr. Parson!” Looking over my shoulder, I muttered a curse and then used purple paint to shove the door in. “I’m on your side! You’re in danger, you–” 

Then I stepped in, and saw no one there. The interior of the cabin was pretty simple, and open enough that it was clear no one was there. There was the main room with a bed in one corner to the left and a living area to the right, with a television, computer on a desk, and an attached kitchenette. Across from the entrance was the bathroom, the door open to reveal that it was as devoid of occupants as the rest of the place. 

He wasn’t here. No one was here. But the lights were on. And there were fresh tire tracks. Quickly, I turned to leave. Then I saw it. A shelf on the wall next to the door, where you might drop your keys, wallet, or whatever was in your pockets. There were no keys on the shelf. Instead, I saw three small objects. Two were toy planes, one an air force jet fighter while the other had started out its life that way but had been painted bright pink with little purple lightning bolts on the wings, and an additional pair of wings that were glued to the bottom of the first. Beside both toy planes was a small action figure. 

I stopped breathing when I saw the toys. My hand covered my mouth and I felt like throwing up. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t… understand why. What was wrong with me? What was wrong with me?! Staring at those toys, my breathing grew louder, more labored. It felt like something was sitting on my chest, like… like I couldn’t breathe. It felt like… I was… cold. I was so cold. I was scared. Why? Why was I so scared? I was even more afraid, in that moment of looking at those toys, than I had been out in those woods. It was a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t–couldn’t–

The sound of someone at the door snapped my attention that way. I saw the sackcloth mask. I saw the raised gun. I covered the chest part of my costume in orange paint. 

It didn’t help that much. Whatever that weapon was, it hit me with some kind of invisible force that launched me off the ground. It felt like being kicked in the chest by a horse, even with my orange paint. I was sent flying, crashing hard into the wall before falling to the ground. 

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t–my hands wouldn’t–

Pencil kicked me hard in the side, then again to knock me onto my back. He was standing over me, his powerful weapon (it looked like a futuristic shotgun with a spiral-shaped barrel) pointed down at me. “Hurts, doesn’t it?” His words were taunting. “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to move again in a couple minutes.” 

I saw the way his eyes narrowed. “Course, you hurt Cup. So you won’t live long enough for that to matter. And this time, kid, no tricks. No games. You hurt my little sister. You hurt my Cup. No one does that.” 

That was all he said. That was all he was going to say. He was through playing games, through hamming things up. Through playing, in general. He was just going to pull the trigger… and end me, while I lay completely paralyzed at his feet. After everything I did to escape, after everything I’d done… period, I was helpless. I was trapped. I was alone. 

I was going to d–

And then the window just above my head exploded. A dark shape went flying over me with a terrifying roar, colliding with the weapon in Pencil’s hands before tearing it from his grip. The shape continued on past, sliding across the cabin before whirling back to face us while snarling. 

Holiday. It was the lizard-panther, Holiday. 

In the next second, an explosion of debris was accompanied by a deafening roar, as Mars Bar announced his presence by slamming his way through the front door. 

Just as suddenly, a figure appeared over me. “Hey, asshole!” That-A-Way snapped. 

Pack, next to the towering lizard-bear at the front door, finished with, “Get the fuck away from our friend.”

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