Paintball

Private Affairs 9-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

The latest Patreon Snippets for Heretical Edge were posted as an extra chapter on Saturday. If you missed it, you might want to click right here to read them.

Paige didn’t end up saying much else of interest. Mostly it was just things about how she was ‘working on it’ and that the man she was talking to should give her time and stop being impatient. It didn’t really… sound like she was talking to her father, at least not one she respected or even liked that much. But on the other hand, if he was a supervillain on Breakwater, maybe I could understand that much. In any case, there was definitely something about that whole relationship I was missing. For one thing, what the hell was that about him selling her to her ‘parents?’ Because just that all by itself raised a hell of a lot of questions.

Pretty soon she left, heading back to the street and leaving me sitting there lost in thought. My brain was working a million miles an hour in every direction, but I forced it to focus on one thing. The name. The name she’d said, what was it? Tate. Anthony Tate. I knew that name… I knew…

Oh, right. I did know Anthony Tate.  All I had to do was think about it for a bit, then I remembered. He was a boy I’d known while I was back in elementary school. I hadn’t really known him very well, because he was homeschooled, but that at least explained why the name was familiar. Though it didn’t really explain why he was important. From what I could remember, I only saw him once in awhile. But he’d moved away when I was in sixth grade, in my first year of middle school. A couple months later, he died in a car accident. I remembered my dad telling me that one of the kids I used to play with had passed away down in… where was it? Texas or something. I was pretty sure it was Texas. 

Anyway, I didn’t remember that much about the kid back then. I remembered being sad about someone I kind of knew dying, but it didn’t feel that real at the time because I barely remembered him. We weren’t close or anything, he was just a boy I saw sometimes.

But none of that actually answered the question of what was so important about the kid. 

So, perched on the roof of the library, I used my phone to do an internet search. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything about him having a sister who could have been Paige. Both his parents were killed in the accident as well. The three family members were buried together in a cemetery in… yup, I was right, Dallas. Mother, father, and their only son were buried in Dallas, Texas after a drunk driving accident. 

So how did that connect to Paige and this guy she called her father, who happened to be a supervillain imprisoned on Breakwater? How did they know this kid and what did his death in a car accident in Texas have to do with my family here? I was missing something really important, just like the whole thing about the relationship between Paige and her imprisoned father. I had some pieces of this ridiculous puzzle, but not enough to put it together. Not just yet, anyway.  

I was going to have to really look into this Anthony Tate and the rest of his family. Maybe that car accident wasn’t such an accident? At first I’d thought that it might have something to do with the memory that Mr. Jackson had apparently erased, but with the accident happening all the way down in Texas, I wasn’t sure how that could be true. I definitely couldn’t have seen the accident, if it actually was one. And as far as I could tell, it really had happened down there. There were several news reports about it, accident scene photos, everything. So… what then?

Mom had said that Mr. Jackson removed a traumatic memory. A car accident was bad, but for someone I barely knew? I was probably just trying to tie two independent things (my removed memory and this whole thing about Paige’s secrets) together when they weren’t actually related. Which seemed like a good way to end up getting utterly lost and not figure out anything at all. 

Regardless, the point remained that I had to find out more about this accident. That might help me figure out what Paige’s involvement was–wait. What if her dad was the drunk driver that hit Anthony’s family? Or the guy who was blamed for it, if my family was actually involved. But what did that have to do with Paige? Was she related to him in some way? Wait–shit, duh. Friends. What if they were friends? I hadn’t known Anthony very well, but maybe Paige had. Which… didn’t explain why her father was in prison, unless he’d known the family too. Okay, maybe that was it? Maybe Paige and her father knew Anthony’s family, and when they died in that accident, those two found out my family was involved… somehow? Hell, if they had reach all the way over in Britain, I should probably believe they had reach in Texas too. That made some kind of sense. 

Okay, wait. What if this Anthony kid and his parents found out about my family and took off to protect themselves, but my family got to them anyway even down in Texas. Then Paige and her father found out the truth, and my dad, as Silversmith, had her dad locked up on Breakwater? He probably would’ve had to actually have powers to make that work, but maybe he did. Maybe that’s why he’d been so dangerous, because he knew about my family and had powers, so they sent him to Breakwater. But why not just kill him? Maybe he’d been arrested before they could? 

Yeah, I had an awful lot of ‘maybes’ in all this. I was speculating too much. And none of that actually explained how my family wouldn’t know what Paige was doing or who she really was. They were the ones with the memory-altering guy. If she was the daughter of some guy who knew about the family business and who had been sent to the supermax Touched prison, I kind of figured they’d keep track of her. So that didn’t actually make much sense either, unfortunately.

And on top of everything else, I still didn’t know how she was immune to the memory alteration power herself. I had a ten gallon bucket worth of questions and a teaspoon full of possible answers. It wasn’t enough. I had to get more information than I could find out in a simple search.

But to do that, I had a feeling I might need a little help. Even if it was a risk. And there was one person I could think of who had already proven that I could trust him to keep my secrets. 

*******

“If this is a trick to arrest a Fell-Touched and prop up your numbers, I’m going to be simultaneously disappointed in you as a person, and impressed at your long-term strategy.”

The words were from Eits, who spoke up about an hour later as I walked up to the bench in a small, out of the way park where he’d said I could meet him to talk. He’d been sitting there in costume, doing something on one of his phones before jumping up as he saw me approach. 

“Don’t worry,” I replied dryly, “I don’t usually think that far ahead. Also, I’m pretty sure tricking you into coming out here just to arrest you would end up being bad for me in the long run anyway.” Pausing, I tilted my head. “Which, now that I say that out-loud, those first two points kind of counteract each other, don’t they? But uhh, no, seriously, I really do need your help with something. You…” Hesitantly, I asked, “You did come alone? I know I didn’t say much, but–” 

“I’m alone, yeah,” he assured me. “I mean, for the most part. I kind of told Pack I had something to do, so she’s hanging out with Broadway a couple blocks that way.” He gestured to the left. “We were… um, practicing for something when you texted, but we needed a break anyway.” 

Blinking twice, I slowly asked, “Eits, did I interrupt you and your criminal friends doing crime?” 

“Absolutely not,” he insisted firmly, holding that for a moment longer before relenting with, “Practicing for doing crime, maybe. But not actually doing it. So see, you’re totally in the clear.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I’m not sure that’s how that works. But I guess it doesn’t matter. This is… bigger. Maybe. I don’t know. I just–” Stopping as I stared at him, I started to think this might be a bad idea. Involving him in this, even if it was only tangentially related to my family… what if they actually were involved in the Tates’ deaths? What if he found out through his digging, and tried to do something with it? Or what if my parents found out he was digging and went after him? What if I was putting him right in their crosshairs by having him look at this? What if…

“Hey, Paintball, you okay?” Apparently I’d zoned out for a second, as Eits looked worried. Well, as worried as one could look with diagonal bands covering a good part of his face. “You seem pretty freaked out right now. Did umm…” He paused, glancing around for a second before carefully asking in a quieter voice, “Did someone else find out about you being… you know.” 

“No,” I replied. “It’s not that. I just… I’m looking into something and I could use some help. But it could be dangerous, so I want you to be really careful, okay? Don’t let anyone know what you’re doing. I mean it, Eits. Don’t talk to anyone directly, just use computers, and make sure no one knows what you’re looking for. Erase your tracks when you’re done. Don’t write things down. I–” 

Holding up both hands, Eits quickly put in, “Hey, hey, I get it. I’ll be careful. But I could probably do a better job of telling you how careful I can be if you tell me what you actually need to know.” 

Okay, okay, I could do this. I had to do this. I was going in circles by myself. The only way I was going to get anywhere anytime soon was with his help. I had to take this leap. Exhaling slowly to steady myself, I nodded. “The point is, keep it quiet. But I need you to look into this kid. His name was Anthony Tate. He used to live here in Detroit, but he moved to Dallas about… five years ago or so, then died in a car accident a couple months later. He and both his parents.” 

Eits was clearly squinting at me. “Um. Okay, so… far be it from me to ask too many questions about all this, but why do you want to know about some poor kid who died five years ago in an accident a thousand miles away? Did you… did you know him or something? And why now?” 

“I can’t say why now,” I informed him. “And no, I didn’t know him. I just heard someone important say the name and what I just told you is all I could find out by myself. There’s something going on that I’m looking into and the next step is to find out more about that kid. But like I said, it’s really dangerous. I mean super dangerous, Eits. I’m not kidding. I know you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I shouldn’t have even involved you, I just didn’t know what else to…” I sighed, long and heavy. “Please be careful, that’s all I’m saying. Look into it quietly.” 

To his credit, Eits didn’t dismiss my caution. He watched me for a moment, clearly taking the time to think about his response before giving a short nod. “I get it. I’ll keep it quiet. My little friends can run internet searches a lot faster than I can anyway, without actually letting anyone see what they’re doing. And I’ll delete everything about it, even on my own computers. If this is as big of a deal as you seem to be implying it is, I’ll probably have to look into a few restricted databases, but I’ll make sure to grab a huge chunk of info to pour through so if anyone does happen to notice that the files were accessed, they won’t know exactly what I was looking at.” 

I wasn’t sure that would be good enough, but at this point, I was up against a brick wall. I had to find out more, and if my parents were involved in the deaths of the Tates, I wouldn’t be able to find it myself. Hard as it was, I had to let him help. So, I exhaled once more, trying to let out my own hesitation along with the breath while slowly nodding. “Okay. Oh, and while you’re at it, I need you to look into a couple more things. A couple more people. Only–okay, this is hard to explain. First, I need you to look into this girl. Her name is Paige Banners. She’s seventeen and she goes to… hold on, I wrote it down.” Digging into my pocket, I came out with a scrap of paper that I’d prepared ahead of time for this. “Cadillac Preparatory School. I need you to find out if there’s any link between her and this Anthony Tate. And if there’s any link between either of them and any supervillain from either Detroit or Dallas who was sentenced to Breakwater in the past five years and is still alive out there. I know they track that from one of those documentaries, but how?” 

He shrugged at the last part. “I’m pretty sure they use some bracelet or something that’s supposed to keep track of where you are and all your vitals, so they know if you try to escape, and can retrieve your body if you die so it doesn’t just lay there. Which is nice, I guess.”

“There’s a villain on the island called Potluck,” I informed him. “He gets random powers or boosts to powers that he has through eating people who have powers. They don’t want him to get even stronger than he already is. That’s why they retrieve the bodies. Also because eeugh.”   

Blanching as he took that in, Eits muttered something clearly disgusted under his breath before looking back to me. “Right, well, got it. I’ll definitely cross Breakwater off my list of potential vacation spots in that case. But let me see if I have this straight. You need to know about the Tate family and how they died, this Paige Banner girl, and any supervillain from Detroit or Dallas who was sent to Breakwater in the past five years? And any connection between all of them.” 

“Banners,” I corrected. “But yeah, that about sums it up. I know it’s a lot to look into, especially when I’m telling you to keep it quiet and not telling you why I need to know. But I swear, it’s important. And I wouldn’t come to you with it if there was anyone else I could, but, I mean…” 

“It’s okay, Paintball,” he put in. “You don’t have to explain. We’re good. I’ll look into it and let you know what I find out, and I’ll be careful doing it. But…” He trailed off, biting his lip as he stared at the ground before looking back up to me. “But if it’s really this dangerous, then you should be careful too, okay? I don’t know what you’ve gotten into, but it sounds like it could be pretty bad. Especially if you’re investigating some Breakwater villain. Don’t go getting yourself in trouble.” 

Managing a slight smile that he couldn’t see anyway, I tried to put him at ease by casually replying, “You’re probably just afraid that if I go away, you might have to deal with a hero who’s more competent and doesn’t make these kind of deals with big, bad supervillains like you.” 

“Yeah, that’s totally it,” he agreed with a snort before sobering. “Watch yourself out there, okay? I’ll contact you when I find out anything. Or even if I can’t. But it’ll probably take a few days.” 

“That’s okay, take your time,” I assured him. “Be careful and thorough. I’d rather get the info in a week instead of two days if it means you cover your tracks better. Or however long it takes.” 

I thought about telling him about what happened with Hallowed and the Seraphs. But in the end, I decided to keep it to myself. It wasn’t Eits’ fault, after all. Not really. At least until I found out what they wanted me to do at that meeting on Wednesday. Then I’d just… go from there, I supposed. 

So, after making him promise one more time to be careful, I left Eits to go back to his business (while hoping that said business wouldn’t end up being too bad) and made my way home. I changed out of my costume well away from the house, of course, keeping it in my backpack as I snuck past the cameras and up to my window. 

Climbing inside carefully, I switched on the light and immediately saw something wrong. There was someone in my bed. Thinking it might be Izzy, I leaned closer. But the figure wasn’t quite right. Actually, there was… Frowning, I reached out, tugging the blanket down. Pillows. There were two pillows set up under my blanket to look like a figure, and one of my larger dolls that had hair sort of like mine. 

As I was staring at that, there was a quiet knock on the door. My gaze snapped that way in time to see Izzy peek inside. Her voice was very soft. “I wanted to make sure your mom and dad would think you were there if they looked.” 

My mouth opened and shut. I dropped the bag and gestured. “Come in, Izzy. What… what do you mean?” My throat felt dry. 

She entered hesitantly, closing the door after her. She almost looked ashamed. “I didn’t want you to get in trouble for sneaking out. So I made up your bed like that. Then I thought you might really get in trouble out there, so I stayed up to make sure you got home. I was… I’m sorry.” 

“Izzy, you don’t have to be sorry,” I quickly assured her. “I just… you… you had a nightmare and I wasn’t here.” Staring as the girl gave a hesitant nod, I closed my eyes and felt a rush of shame. “C’mere.” 

She came, and I reached out to embrace the younger (yet not really that much smaller) girl tightly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here, Izzy. You–you couldn’t find me and you still covered for me.” 

“I think that’s what friends are supposed to do, right?” she asked, blinking up at me with those wide, emotional eyes. 

“They’re also supposed to be there when you need them, and I wasn’t here for you,” I admitted. “I just…” I couldn’t tell her the truth. “I have to stretch my legs sometimes. I have to get out and just… I mean–never mind. I’m gonna give you my number so you can call or text me any time, even if I’m not here.” 

“I don’t have a phone,” she pointed out quietly, still not letting go of me. 

“Well, then we’ll have to take care of that tomorrow, won’t we?” I replied. “And hey, you can even afford it.

“After all, you do have a pretty good allowance right now.” 

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

Private Affairs 9-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                         Next Chapter

Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on That-A-Way and Pack posted yesterday. If you have not seen that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find anyone else that I could hit that night. I did run across a couple… situations, but by the time I got there, they were already well in hand by one Star group or another. I mostly watched while a few of the Conservators or Ten Towers people mopped up some bad guys here and there. In a way, it was bad for the fact that I didn’t get to hit anyone else (and I was really in the mood to hit things). But it was also cool to watch other Touched from a good vantage point when I didn’t have to worry about life and death problems. 

Okay, correction, I was worrying about life and death problems. But not immediate ones. 

Anyway, it was also a good thing because less crime meant less people being hurt. As much as I wanted to work some of my stress off, that much was undoubtedly true. And just what the hell was wrong with me anyway? What had changed so much in such a short time that I felt at least a little bad that I couldn’t find more violent bad guys to punch? Was that really the best way to deal with all the stress I was feeling because of the whole… every bit of my current situation?  

No, probably not. Undoubtedly not. Ideally, I should talk to someone about it and just vent to a live person. But who the hell was I going to talk to? Who could I tell… half this stuff to, let alone all of it? Telling anyone about who my parents were was just… it was either too dangerous or unfair. I couldn’t dump it onto Wren. I wouldn’t dump it onto Wren. She was a kid. A pretty great kid with an incredibly useful power, who was fun to talk to and all that. I trusted her. I liked her. That was why I wouldn’t tell her about all this bullshit. She didn’t deserve that kind of stress. 

In the end, I found a less violent way of working off my aggression. Specifically, I spent an hour or so skate-painting my way across the city. Jumping from building to building, running along walls, popping the wheels out to race down the side before hitting a blue patch that sent me rocketing back up to a nearby billboard, and so on. It was my own insane extreme sport and I actually noticed a few people here and there taking pictures and video recording. I might’ve hammed it up a bit for them just because it was a way of putting everything else out of my mind. 

So, while I couldn’t hit anyone, I did manage to… exercise a lot of my aggression out. At least enough that when I finally made myself go home… home to a house full of bad guys save for Izzy, I actually fell asleep very quickly. And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t have any bad dreams. Or any dreams at all. I was able to sleep through the whole rest of the night, and because it was Saturday, I didn’t even wake up until midway through the next morning. It was almost eleven when I finally dragged myself up. Apparently I’d really needed that extra sleep. Go figure.  

Yup, I was well-rested. Which was probably a good thing, considering tonight was supposed to be Amber’s big birthday party. And I was pretty sure she would hunt me down if I didn’t show because I was too tired. If I was afraid of nightmares now, the thought of Amber kicking my door in while I was napping through her party was even worse. Yeah, I was definitely going. 

And so was Izzy. I had no doubt we wouldn’t be going anywhere without the entourage that had ‘secretly’ followed us around when we went to the mall to pick up treats for that movie night. Which meant I was going to have to be super careful not to do anything that might give away my own secrets. Because I was positive that there were going to be a lot of eyes, my family’s organization watching to make sure that… whatever threat they were protecting Izzy from didn’t touch her. Or making sure that she stayed put and didn’t run away. Or making sure she didn’t–

Okay, so I still had absolutely no idea what that was about. Was my family protecting her? Were they keeping her prisoner, even if she didn’t know she was a prisoner? Some combination of both? Part of me wanted to drag the girl into a closet and get answers out of her about all that once and for all, but that… that would probably be a bad idea. A very bad idea. 

In any case, I spent those few hours I had before the party taking a trip out to see Wren. Making my way to the other girl’s hidden shop, I found her and Fred hard at work in the basement once the door buzzed to let me in. The two appeared to be converting the room where we had been keeping Ashton into some kind of metal workshop. Which probably made sense, given the fact it was already apparently soundproofed. Actually, Wren had said something about setting up that room for ‘little explosions and stuff’, which… come to think of it, should that kind of worry me?

Nah. I was sure Wren knew what she was doing. And if she didn’t, I certainly couldn’t be any help. 

“If you install a swivel chair that can turn around slowly,” I informed her while leaning against the doorway to watch her work, “I think I might know someone who can get you a fluffy white cat.” 

“Hi, Paintball!” she blurted, popping to her feet and pushing the welding mask she’d been wearing up away from her face. Her hands were covered in what looked like black soot. “I like fluffy white cats, but it’s not an evil lair. It’s a room for me to build things that could, um…” 

“Things that could damage the rest of the building if they aren’t contained,” Fred finished for her. He was just setting a heavy H-shaped metal beam thing down against a spot on the wall that had been marked out with tape to show where it should go. As he spoke, the man picked up an electric screwdriver sitting nearby and proceeded to start driving in screws through slots in the metal thing. Clearly, he was doing the heavy lifting part of this after Wren detailed what to do.  

“Well, it’s a good thing you have this room to contain anything like that, huh?” Stepping into the room, I asked, “Is there anything I can do to help? Even just grunt work. I need to take my mind off… things.” Why did I say that? Why did I even bring it up? Now Wren was going to– 

“What’s wrong?” Sure enough, the little girl immediately piped up with that question. 

My head shook quickly. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, really. It’s okay, if I need help, I’ll definitely ask.” Giving her a thumbs up in the hope that it would stop her from worrying about me, I gestured. “Like I said, I need a distraction right now. So, how can I help out around here, huh?”  

I spent the next couple hours just helping them fix up that room. There was a lot to do to get it ready for all the stuff Wren wanted to build and experiment with, And the more she talked about all of that, the more excited she was. Not that I really followed what she was saying that well, but her eagerness was infectious. It really did help me take my mind off all my stuff, thankfully.

When we were done, at least for the moment, Wren beckoned for me to follow her into the main room. She moved to a box and produced what look like the same shoes I was wearing. “Ta da!” 

Grinning behind the helmet, I teased, “Hey, they look just my size too. If this whole Tech-Touched genius thing doesn’t pan out in the end, you could probably make a killing as a cobbler. Mmmm, cobbler. Now I want pie. Do you think shoe cobblers want pie a lot? I bet someone at some point heard ‘shoe cobbler’ and got very confused about people’s tastes.” 

“You’re weird,” Wren informed me with a giggle before tossing the shoes to me. “Try them on! Come on, come on, I wanna see!” She was bouncing up and down with obvious excitement. 

Chuckling despite myself, I moved to sit down on the nearby couch. While Wren (And Fred, who stood in the doorway and looked pretty curious himself) watched, I took off my own pace-skates and pulled the new shoes on. As expected, they fit just fine. Perfectly, really. Lacing them up, I stood and walked back and forth across the room a couple times. “Yup, they feel great.” 

Literally bouncing up and down eagerly, Wren urged, “Say, ‘Wheels-Out’.” 

Readying myself, I did so. Of course, the wheels popped out. The phrase ‘Wheels-In’ brought them in. According to Wren, the skates would only respond to the code being spoken by the person wearing them, which was nice. It meant I could make them work even if I wasn’t using my voice changer thing, without asking her to program my real voice into it. Part of me wondered just how much of a coincidence that actually was. Did she, like Blackjack, know I was using a voice changer and simply wasn’t pushing to find out why? 

“But I didn’t just reinvent the same pace-skates,” Wren excitedly informed me. “That’d be boring. They’ve done that already. These are special! Check it out, when the shoes or the skate wheels are against something like a wall or a ceiling, they’ll stay there unless you pull them away yourself.”

“But the wheels still roll and everything?” I asked, certain she knew better than I did how to make something like that work, but still curious about the specifics. 

Sure enough, her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, uh huh. See, they don’t… ummm… they don’t really stick like your red paint does. It’s more of a… a gravity thing.” 

Blinking, I asked, “Gravity thing?” 

So she explained. “See, whenever the shoes or the wheels are pressed against something, they project a sort of… umm, okay well the simple version is that they change your personal gravity depending on the orientation of the thing they’re pressed against. If you’re walking on the ground, your gravity is normal. If you put them against the wall, it’ll change your personal gravity so that it’s coming at you from the side instead of above, see? And if you’re upside down with the shoes against the ceiling, it’ll reverse gravity so it’s coming at you from below to keep you up there. No matter which way you’re facing, the shoes will make the gravity bubble around you act like you’re standing right-side up on solid ground!” As she finished explaining that much, the kid was (understandably) beaming. 

“Holy shit, Wren,” I muttered in amazement. “You do good work on short notice.” 

She shrugged at that. “Not really short notice. I was working on the gravity thing for my own stuff, and started sketching ideas for your thing right after we met. Getting your size was the last part and that was just to buy shoes to put the equipment into. It–” She hesitated, biting her lip with obvious apprehension and uncertainty. “You really like it? I thought it’d help if you could get around like you do without using as much paint.” 

“Like it?” I echoed, stepping over to hug her tightly despite myself. She gave an eep of surprise and then returned it with a giggle. “It’s amazing, Wren. I mean damn. This is ridiculous. Come on, let’s see…” 

Letting her go, I stepped over, lifting my foot to press it against the nearby wall. Then I lifted the other foot and put it against the wall too. Sure enough, I just sort of… stood there, sideways, with my feet against the wall. It was kind of disorienting, but not hard at all. There was a brief twisting sensation in my stomach as my own personal gravity reoriented, but nothing too bad. After that, it was just like Wren said, I felt as though I was standing upright on the ground.

Standing like that for a few seconds, I started walking up the wall. Whistling casually, I walked all the way to the ceiling, put my foot up to that, took a breath, and then put my other foot up. That twisting sensation came back as my stomach briefly protested gravity adjusting the way it did, before I was suddenly crouching against the ceiling. Crouching against the ceiling with no paint. Holy shit. Holy shit. This was…

From below, Wren called, “You can jump to get down, but be careful!” 

Taking her advice, I pushed off with both feet. Gravity swung up and around into the proper position again, and I felt a rush while flipping over. I didn’t exactly land completely smoothly, stumbling a bit to the side. But still, it was pretty good. 

Popping back upright, I grinned. “See, I knew partnering with you was gonna be awesome. I just didn’t know it was gonna be this awesome this quick.” I was smiling broadly like a goofy idiot. She was right, I’d be able to move around as Paintball a lot more easily like this, traveling the way I liked to without using up red paint to stick to walls. That would free up paint for a lot more things. 

“I’m gonna make more!” Wren promised quickly. “More fun things that’ll be even better for you, I swear. I’ve got lots of ideas, and I think you’ll really like them. But they take time and work and stuff. But I–” 

Stepping that way, I embraced the girl. “It’s okay, Wren. These are amazing. Seriously, thanks. Every bit of paint I save from not having to use it to stick to walls will be paint I can use other ways, to help people. I can move faster like this. You’re amazing, and so are these.” 

“Superkid’s right,” Fred put in. “You did good work. But you know the rules, what we said.” 

She nodded, glancing to me, “Gotta do homework, not just fun work.” 

Chuckling, I rubbed the top of her head. “Good. I’ve got things to do too. But I’ll put these things through their paces, I’ll tell you that much. Thanks for making these so fast, Wren. 

“Something tells me they’re gonna come in handy real soon.” 

*****

Of course, hopefully that real soon wouldn’t apply to tonight. Because it was time to go to Amber’s party. I changed into my street clothes before stopping by the mall on the way back to look for a present that she might like. In the end, I grabbed her some new AirPods and an iPad that I thought she’d like, along with a box of chocolate candy, and had them all wrapped there. 

Yeah, part of me still felt bad about using what was obviously dirty money from my parents to buy gifts for some girl at school. But the truth was that that money was already there. Whatever had been done to get it was over. It wasn’t like ignoring it would make whatever bad things that happened to get it just… disappear. Making my parents contribute to some random girl’s birthday was a hell of a lot better than a lot of other ways the money could be spent. 

Besides, if I didn’t spend money to buy Amber a present, it would look awfully strange at this point. Mom and Dad knew we were going to a party, knew Amber was a close enough friend that we’d brought her home to see that movie, and so on. If they noticed me not buying her something nice, it’d attract attention.

All of which were things I told myself repeatedly while picking out those gifts. It didn’t help entirely erase the guilt about that whole situation, but it was something.

Catching an Uber ride home, I found Izzy and the two of us headed out to where Jefferson, the driver, was waiting. He led us to Henlein (Jefferson’s favorite black BMW, named after the guy who invented the watch), and we were off. 

On the way, I glanced to the girl beside me. “Here.” I offered her the package with the AirPods. “Those can be from you.” 

Blinking in surprise, she looked at me with a frown. “But I didn’t help–I mean I never–I didn’t even… what?” 

“Don’t worry about it,” I assured her. “Just help me with something now and then and we’re totally even. I mean, technically my parents bought the gifts, so you might as well get as much credit as I do for one of them.” With a wink, I glanced out the window to watch as we passed other cars on the road, adding, “Oh, that reminds me, Dad said I should give you your allowance card. He said as long as you’re living with us, you should get the same benefits Simon and me do.”

“Um. Allowance card?” The other girl was clearly baffled. “What’s an allowance card?” 

Digging into my pocket, I came out with the thing, handing it over. It was a debit card with her name on it. “Dad said he’s starting you out with a thousand a week, but if you end up needing–”  

“A thauuuuuwhat?!” Izzy blurted, jerking in her seat as she dropped the card as if it had burned her. “What? A what–he’s giving a–what?” 

Reaching down, I plucked up the card, holding it out to her again. She eyed it like it might be a snake. “A thousand a week. You should be able to get whatever you need with that, but like I said, if you need more, Dad’s usually good with fudging it and adding extra to the account.”

Now she was staring at me like I’d grown three extra heads. “Why would I need more than a thousand a week? What–how do you–what bills do you even have?!” 

First I giggled reflexively at her reaction, ignoring the pit in my stomach. How bad was it to get Izzy involved in this whole thing by handing her dirty money? But as with the whole gift thing, Mom and Dad would really notice if I didn’t give her the debit card and tell her about the allowance. Then I’d have a lot more questions to answer. I had to act like the money didn’t bother me. 

Again of course, giving it to Izzy was another way of putting at least a little bit of that dirty money to better use. Even if it was just like bailing water out of a sinking boat with a teaspoon. 

“Just have fun with it tonight,” I urged. “Play whatever games you want. Buy games for other people too. It’ll be great.” 

Izzy was still staring at me open-mouthed, as I put the card back in her hand. “I guess so… all this stuff is… you know how weird this is, right? That’s a lot of money for most people.”

“Yeah, I know.” Looking back to her, I replied, “I mean, not personally, but I kinda get it. But seriously, it’s okay. If this freaks you out, you should see where Dad wants to take us for vacation next time.” 

Flatly, the other girl replied, “Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was Mars.” 

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted with a grin. 

“Like he’d take us to the same place two years in a row.”  

Previous Chapter                                         Next Chapter

Private Affairs 9-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                           Next Chapter

“Oh, don’t you even think about it! Don’t you think about going after that star. That star is mine!” 

Even as I blurted those words, my fingers worked frantically over the controller. I shot a quick glance toward Izzy, who sat beside me in the game room (the one that was directly across the hall from our bedrooms, not the main one with the billiards tables and all that). “All I need is one more and this game is over! You’re going down, Little Missy Izzy!” I declared confidently. 

That confidence took a pretty big hit a second later as I sent my character around the corner in the virtual maze only for them to trip over a wire that had been strung up. My yelp in real life almost matched the sound of the star that popped out of the character’s flashing body from the impact. 

“Thanks!” Izzy called, as her avatar popped out of hiding and grabbed the star. She hadn’t been going after the one I thought she had been after all. She’d simply made me think she was and laid a trap. A trap that I had blundered right into, instantly losing my advantage. Now she had two stars and only needed to find one more. Then she’d be the one who ended the match. 

Quickly hitting the buttons to get my character back on her feet, I glanced toward the other girl once more. We were both wearing a pair of special glasses. They had come with the game. One pair was red, the other blue. The gimmick was that what the red glasses let you see on the screen was different from what the blue glasses let you see. The screen itself was divided into two halves and when I looked at the half that was Izzy’s side, all I saw was a static image of her character that showed her current amount of life, how many stars she had, and a few other details. When she looked at my side of the screen, she’d see the same for me. It let us play a split-screen game without either of us being able to cheat by watching what the other person was doing.

Unsurprisingly, I hadn’t really gotten that far with either of my goals earlier. Tomas said something about how his dad was apparently going to be holed up in meetings inside his home office for the next few days with a bunch of other people. Snooping around that place in the best of times wasn’t going to be easy. If his father had other probable bad guys around? Yeah, forget about it. He was probably dealing with the aftermath of letting Paige get away alive and intact with the information she stole. 

Either way, going over there wasn’t going to work right now. And as far as Paige herself went, I hadn’t had any luck on that end either. She’d disappeared shortly after the last class, and I hadn’t been able to track her down as myself or as Paintball. She might’ve been at her house, but the place was almost as big as ours and just as protected (and I didn’t know where all the cameras were there like I did here). I’d waited around a bit, but never saw her. I was going to have to try again another day. And didn’t the idea of spending multiple days actively trying to spend time with Paige Banners just fill me with absolute joy and giddiness? No. No, it did not. 

Anyway, the point was that I couldn’t do anything with either of those at the moment. And I’d needed a break. More importantly, Izzy needed someone to spend time with her. I already felt bad about leaving her alone in the house for so long. Not alone. Worse, leaving her in a house that I knew for a fact was full of evil, evil people who were fine with killing innocent teenagers. 

Yes, despite our many issues, I was still counting Paige as innocent. I didn’t know everything that was going on there, but I had no reason to think she was actually evil. A mean bitch who went out of her way to mock and insult me, sure. Someone I would gladly punch in the face? Undoubtedly. But not someone who deserved to be shot in the head. There were levels of bad.

So I was here, playing a game with Izzy. And currently getting my butt kicked as I was unable to catch up with her before she managed to grab the last star. As I groaned and fell onto my back, she dropped the controller and cheered while pumping her hands into the air a few times. On the screen, we could finally see each other’s sides, as my own character slumped and shook her head, while hers jumped up and down with the three stars spinning around her triumphantly.

“Sounds like someone’s having fun in here.” That was my father’s voice as he stepped into the room and smiled down at the two of us. “How’re we doing, girls?” he asked, giving a brief glance toward the screen. “Ooh, this one. You should see the next game, it looks pretty good.”  

Izzy’s head shook. “The next one isn’t gonna be out for another few months, Mr. Evans.” 

With a wink, Dad replied, “You’d be surprised what’s ‘out’ when you invested in their start-up ten years ago. But you’re right, it’s not ready for the public. Too many glitches. Just saying, you’re definitely gonna love it.” He let those words trail off teasingly while reaching down to rub the top of my head affectionately, his fingers gently stroking through the side that had long hair.  

A memory flashed through my mind, the memory of hearing Mr. Jackson on the phone telling my father that he would handle the situation with Paige by shooting her in the head. While I haven’t heard Dad’s side of the conversation, he obviously hadn’t objected. Plus, I’d heard him talk with Simon about killing ‘me.’ Or rather, the person who had witnessed those murders. 

It took everything I had not to freeze up or show much visible reaction as the wave of revulsion swept through me. It was joined by a rush of confused feelings. How could my awesome dad be like that? How could he be okay with killing people?  How could he be a supervillain? All of which was combined with my feelings about the fact that the man who had been my favorite superhero for so long was both my father and actually a villain, an evil psychopath. Damn it, why? Why?! That was the single word I wanted to scream at him in that moment. I wanted to demand that he explain himself and it took everything in me to stay outwardly calm. 

Swallowing back that reaction, I took a breath before turning to look up at him. Somehow, I managed to keep my voice from shaking or cracking too much as I slowly held up the controller. “You want a chance to try to beat the champion over there? Maybe you’ll have more luck.” 

“Oooh, wish I could,” Dad lamented with a shake of his head. “But I’ve got too much to do right now. Got a meeting to run to. Just wanted to make sure you guys were okay up here. All good?” 

A meeting? What kind of meeting? Was he going out to see Mr. Jackson?  Was this related to the fact that Tomas had said his dad was going to be busy for the next few days? Or was my father going out as Silversmith? Hell, I wouldn’t even be able to tell for sure if I saw that Silversmith had been out later, considering Dad clearly had a way of having someone else appear in his place. And how did he do that, anyway? How was he able to appear on the roof at that party that Pencil had interrupted both in his civilian guise and as Silversmith? Was the fake Silversmith just a body double who didn’t actually have any of his powers, or had some kind of tech to fake it, or did Dad somehow share his powers with the other person, or… or… what? 

Yeah, I had no idea. Somehow, I managed to tell my father good luck and he dismissed himself a moment later, heading out of the room with an added promise that he would be back at some point to beat both of us at the game. He said he’d take both of us on, so we should practice. 

After he was gone, Izzy looked at me with a slight frown. She’d taken the glasses off and there was concern in her eyes. “Cassie?” she started slowly. “Are you okay? You seem a little weird.” 

Shit, right. My father hadn’t been able to see my face from his position behind me, but she had, and had clearly picked up something in the split second before I had gotten control of myself. Thankfully, I didn’t think she’d noticed too much. I’d kept it together for the most part. 

“Sorry,” I replied, forcing myself to smile just a bit. “Maybe I’m just hungry. You wanna go grab a snack real quick? Then we’ll get right back up here and play another game. But I warn you, it might get pretty violent up in here, so you better be ready. Suddenly, I feel like I really–” 

*****

“–need to punch something in the face!” 

It was a few hours later, and I was out as Paintball. The words that blurted out of my mouth were accompanied by my actual fist slamming into the side of a man’s mouth as I threw myself away from the wall where I had been clinging, watching him and his partner corner some poor girl in the alley. They had just shoved her to the ground when I made my presence known. 

Yeah, I couldn’t do anything about the Jacksons or Paige just yet. But I could still do some good for random people. Hopefully, that would take my mind off of… everything else. That was the idea, at least. And right now, it was working. Hitting a couple thugs who were trying to rob (and maybe do worse things to) some innocent woman? Yeah, I could definitely handle that. 

Thanks to the purple paint boosting my strength, the guy I punched was knocked to the ground with a yelp. His buddy quickly raised the pistol in his hand that he had been threatening their victim with, but I used a shot of red paint to yank it from his hand and tossed it down the alley. He let out a cry and lunged my way with a wild swing. As he did so, I used green paint to speed myself up, ducking under his arm and stepping behind him, pivoting before using the last of the purple strength to lash out with a kick into his back that knocked him down on top of his friend. 

Still sped up by the green paint, I moved quickly while the men were tangled up with each other. Producing a pair of normal handcuffs I’d picked up, I clicked one shut around the wrist of the man I had kicked to the ground, and the other around part of the nearby dumpster to trap him. 

The first guy was scrambling on his hands and knees towards the gun that I had tossed away. With a sigh, I used blue paint to throw myself into a leap, turning over in the air to land on the ground between the man and the gun, facing him. “Tell you what, dude. Let’s play red light, green light. Red light!” With that, I shot two bits of red to his shoulders, yanking him off the ground and toward me. As he was pulled my way, I blurted, “Green light!” Then I dismissed the red paint while simultaneously speeding myself up once more with green paint so I could quickly dodge out of the way just before the man slammed face first into the wall behind me. 

Before he could recover, I used another pair of handcuffs on him. This was a set of stay-down cuffs, so he definitely wouldn’t be going anywhere. He lay on the ground groaning and cursing.

“Hey,” I informed him, “just be glad our red light-green light game didn’t involve an actual car.” 

Turning away from them both, I stepped over to where the girl was. She looked to be a few years older than me, probably in college. Her eyes were wide, her breath coming in deep, rapid gasps as she stared up at me while working her mouth repeatedly. No sound was coming out.

“It’s okay,” I promised, extending a hand to her. “Trust me, those guys aren’t going to hurt you.”

Tentatively, she took my offered hand, letting me help her to her feet. Still, it took her another moment to find her voice. “I–you…they…” The girl finally managed before giving a violent shudder. Then she was suddenly hugging me tightly. “Thanks. Thank you so much. Oh, my God. They were going to–they were–and you were–but they–” Her voice cracked again, and she was hugging me even tighter than before. “Oh God, if you weren’t here, y–you’re amazing!”  

A deep blush spread out over my face and I hesitantly returned the hug. What else was I supposed to do? Even as a brief flash of guilt about the fact that I still couldn’t do anything about my evil family washed over me, I pushed it away firmly. This girl didn’t care about any of that stuff. All that mattered right now, in this moment, was that she was safe. That was enough.  

Once the girl was calmed down as much as I could manage, I used the doephone app to let the authorities know where to pick these guys up and what had happened. Then I waited with her for another few minutes until the patrol car showed up. As soon as the cop stepped out and the girl (her name was Macy, apparently) ran up to him, I excused myself, using a shot of red paint to yank myself all the way up to the roof of the building we were next to. 

Clambering up onto the roof, I spoke immediately. “So, how did I do? Good enough to pass?” 

A guy in a military camouflage suit (black and brown), along with a ski mask and heavy-looking gauntlets stood a few feet away. It was the Minority guy, Whamline. He tilted his head a little at my words, before curiously asking, “So you knew I was up here watching the whole time?”  

My head shook as I admitted, “Not the whole time. I saw you looking down back when I jumped over that guy partway through.” Idly gesturing over my shoulder, I added, “Figured you were getting ready to hand out my score. So, like I said, how’d I do? Did the Russian judge screw me over on points again? I swear he never gives out anything higher than a five, the stingy jerk.”  

Snorting a bit at that, the Minority Touched replied, “Looked pretty good from up here. You definitely saved that girl. I’m just still a little confused about the whole good guy or bad guy thing. Like I said the other day, you’re all buddy buddy with a few villains, but you’re also helping people. Most Star-Touched aren’t palling around with the people who are hurting the city.” 

Oh boy, would he ever have been surprised. Or maybe he wouldn’t be. Honestly, for all I knew, he was working with my father and trying to sniff out what I actually knew. There was just no way to tell right now. I definitely couldn’t trust him. I couldn’t trust anybody. Look at what happened with the whole Tomas situation. I had thought that his family was at least somewhat safe considering they’d been out of the city for so long, and it turned out that his father was one of my family’s top enforcers or agents or whatever. So yeah, confiding in Whamline (or anyone else) right now just wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t worth the risk. 

So, I just shrugged at the boy. “I help people who need help,” I informed him. “Blackjack’s daughter needed help. That girl back there needed help. I wasn’t going to say that Blackjack’s kid could rot in hell just because of who her father is. There’ll be other chances to bring him in.”

“Yeah, that’s fair,” Whamline agreed. “But you’re still a little confusing. I don’t know what it is, I just feel like there’s a lot more to this whole situation that you’re not talking about. And something tells me that something is gonna end up exploding in a lot of our faces. Not saying I don’t like you, or that you’re bad… just… something’s dangerous about you. About all of this.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? He wasn’t exactly wrong. There was a good chance that, even if he wasn’t knowingly working with my evil father, the whole situation would still end up going bad. It was just… too fragile. Someone was going to get hurt at some point. 

In the end, all I could do was reply, “I have my reasons, my own issues. But those are my issues. The point is, I really do want to help people. That’s important, right?” 

He nodded once. “Yeah, it’s definitely important. And that’s what bugs me. Because you’re just… you’re helping people. But every time I look at you, I just get this… feeling that–” Cutting himself off, he sighed out loud. “I’m sorry. Look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m just paranoid. I’m glad you’re out here helping people. I’m glad you helped Blackjack’s daughter, no matter who her father is. I’ve seen a bit of what Rot-Bone can do, and it’s not–no one should go through it. So, good job, seriously. And thanks for helping Way before, at the hospital.” 

I assured him that it wasn’t a big deal, but he disagreed. Thanking me again, while still being clear in his body language is that he thought there was more to me, the boy held his hand out. A glowing energy coil shot from it to a nearby billboard and he used it to swing himself over to the next building. From there, a second energy coil lashed out to catch the taller building beyond so the boy could swing himself out and around it. Then he was gone. 

For a moment, I continued to stand there, watching after his departing form. A long, slow sigh escaped me, as my head shook. Right. As much as I might’ve wanted to explain everything to someone, I couldn’t. Certainly not him. I had to keep all this under control.  And, for the moment, I had to distract myself. 

Maybe I could find another bad guy who needed to be punched.

Previous Chapter                                           Next Chapter

Interlude 8 – Paige (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                        Next Chapter

Leaving Paintball waiting outside, the girl known as Paige Banners walked into the internet cafe. The distracted clerk idly muttered what the cost per hour was, and Paige produced a folded twenty dollar bill on her way past, leaving it on the counter while the clerk took it and told her which computer to use. All without looking up from the phone she was busy texting on. 

Pulling the seat out, the girl perched on the edge of it, hands finding the keyboard and mouse. She clicked a couple times to bring up the cafe’s internet services, fingers dancing across the keys as she disabled their site limitations and the monitoring service that would allow them to track what she was doing. Logging in as an administrator after a couple of attempts, she brought up the control screen for the cameras in the cafe and set them to erase everything from five minutes before she arrived to roughly ten minutes from the current time. That would be enough to ensure that the Ministry couldn’t get anything useful from watching what she did. 

And it was incredibly important that they not see the things she was doing. As far as the Ministry was concerned, Paige Banners was an ordinary teenage girl who happened to have tripped over information she shouldn’t have. It was important that they keep believing that. 

Once she was convinced that the cameras were taken care of, the girl navigated to a private and incredibly secure cloud server that had been set up much earlier. Then Paige paused. Casually, she turned slightly to let her gaze pass over the room. The cameras were no longer a problem, but the need for being careful was practically hard-wired into her by that point. She took that moment to make sure no one was paying attention, eyes scanning the room while she produced the small USB drive from its hiding place and inserted it into the computer. 

The files were there. Taking only a second to assure herself that everything seemed to be intact, Paige set them to copy onto the cloud server. From there, the service itself would automatically copy them onto a dozen other servers, some equally private and some known to the public. The services all had their own redundancies and security, which included checking on the status of their companion clouds every few minutes. If anything went wrong with one service, Paige would be alerted. From there, several possible events could happen depending on what she did, what exactly was wrong with the suspect cloud server, and whether or not she responded. 

Paintball was busy dealing with people who wanted autographs. Watching that for a moment while the files uploaded, Paige waited for the confirmation beep. Then she tugged the USB out, returned it to its hiding place, and quickly typed up a note for the Star-Touched waiting outside. At the last moment, she used her administrator access into the building’s security to disable the alarm on the back door, quit out of everything save for the note she’d left, and pushed up from the chair. With one last glance to make sure Paintball wasn’t looking, Paige moved through the room, passing a few other people on the way. No one looked up, assuming, if they noticed her at all, that she was going to the restroom. But she moved straight past, heading quietly through the back door into the alley. It was dark, and she immediately pivoted to the right, heading to the exit and onto another street before turning left to move away from the building. 

She didn’t go far, at least right away. First, Paige had to make sure Paintball wouldn’t easily find her if he chose to try. He was awesome, and even if he hadn’t exactly saved her life (maybe… probably), he had made it so that Paige didn’t have to expose more of her secrets. And that was important. The Ministry could not find out what was really going on with her. That was beyond vital. They couldn’t even suspect she might be more than they thought, or find the link back to…

The point was, the more clueless they were, the better. And to make sure they stayed as clueless as possible, Paige was going to make them think that all she wanted was to be left alone. They wouldn’t totally abandon their efforts to silence her, she knew. Being caught in the first place had been a mistake that she was going to have to scramble to make up for. But if she could make them believe that she wouldn’t go to the authorities unless they forced her hand, they would at least turn to more subtle routes of getting what they wanted. That would give her time, and time was important right then. Part of that whole ‘making them think she wasn’t going to push further on this’ involved keeping Paintball out of anything else. Having a superhero hanging around wasn’t exactly conducive to making a bunch of supervillains think you were going to leave them alone. 

So, instead of continuing down the street where the boy could possibly spot her, she turned almost immediately to step into a nearby Chinese restaurant. Smiling politely at the nice woman by the front, Paige asked, “Xǐ shǒu jiān zài nar?” In response to the question of where the toilet was, the restaurant host turned to point toward the back of the restaurant, and Paige quickly thanked her with a nod before walking on through. 

Moving through the room full of people, she kept her eyes out before finally spotting something useful about three-quarters of the way. Slowing by a table with a group of teenage boys, she put on a bright, somewhat embarrassed smile before speaking up. “Um, sorry, excuse me?” 

She was attractive enough that none of the boys minded the interruption. Paige waited for them to give her the brief once-over that every interested person did before pushing on. “Hi, sorry, again. This is kinda dumb, but umm… I’m sort of on a scavenger hunt with my idiot… idiot friends right now, and the next thing on my list is a used jacket for any sports team that is not in Michigan. Like that.” She pointed to the New York Jets coat draped over one boy’s chair. “And I know, this is stupid and everything. But I swear, I really have to beat Tina this time. So if I could just get that jacket, you can have this.” With one hand, she held up two hundred dollar bills. “That should cover getting a new one, shipping, everything.” 

Thankfully, the jacket apparently wasn’t some important keepsake, because the boy readily agreed to trading it for the two hundred dollars she’d offered. And two minutes later, Paige emerged from the restaurant, flipping the hood of the jacket up over her head before continuing down the street. She saw no sign of Paintball, or anyone else watching her. But the jacket wasn’t just for staying out of the Star-Touched hero’s sight. There was more than one reason to want a disguise right now. The Ministry wouldn’t give up that easily, until they knew it was too late. She had to contact them. But she would do it on her terms, not theirs.

Three blocks later, Paige made one more stop inside a convenience store to pick up a disposable phone and added minutes to it. On the way out, she used the phone to connect to a different cell phone on the other side of the city. The second cell would forward the call, making it impossible for the people she was contacting to trace where her signal was actually coming from. 

That done, Paige dialed a number from memory, turning to continue walking along the sidewalk as it rang. Her eyes scanned the road ahead of her, taking in everyone in the area. No one was paying attention. There were no familiar faces. She turned right, crossed the street, and moved down an alley. By that point, the other end of the line was finally picked up, as a voice spoke with a simple, “How may I direct your call?” 

Taking a breath before letting it out, Paige turned to slump against the nearby wall. She let fear, uncertainty, and confusion enter her voice. “I… I got this number. I think… I think I need to talk to… to one of the Ministers? I–that’s what the files that I–” Cutting herself off, she forced a soft, barely audible choked sound out of her throat to make it sound as though she was barely holding herself together. Then she gave it a three-count of silence before continuing with, “One of the Ministers. Please. I need to talk to them. This is Pa–I mean… I don’t think I should say.”  

There was a pause from the other end of the line, before the simple voice replied, “Please hold.” The line was then filled with soft, pleasant piano music. Just like any ordinary company. But Paige knew they would still be listening and recording. So she made herself breathe rapidly, exhaling in repeated shudders. Once, she murmured a very soft, “Please, God.” Not too much. She didn’t want to overdo it and make them suspicious. But she did want them to believe that she was right on the edge and terrified. That way they would think they were still in control. 

Eventually (and long after he had actually begun listening to her, Paige assumed), a male voice answered. “Hello, Miss Banners. This is Minister Gray. You don’t seem to be with your rescuer.” 

He was making a guess based on what he’d heard through the phone, she knew. The Ministry was good, but not good enough to track her down just like that. Not given the measures she had taken to redirect her call. Certainly not in a way that would let them see her without her seeing them. And if they had seen the girl who had given them so much trouble, they would have tried to grab her by that point. So he was absolutely bluffing. 

Still, she couldn’t react as though she knew that. So Paige adopted an even more fearful voice. “Wh-what–how do you…” Holding that to let the man on the phone think that she was looking around while terrified, she instead drew a P in the dirt on the ground beside herself before deciding that was long enough. “Pl-please, just… just… listen, you can’t… I have the files I found. I have the files.” Don’t push it. Don’t be too eager or competent. Not straight off. 

“Yes,” Minister Gray replied smoothly, sounding far more in control than Paige did. Good. He was calm and collected, already dismissing her as a real threat. “You have the files, and we want the files. I’m sure we can all come to an understanding and no one else has to get hurt.” 

“Y-you people tried to shoot me in the head!” Paige squeaked indignantly, making a show of her voice rising to a high pitch before shushing herself. “Yo-you tried to kill me. You–your people, you were–y-you were going to–you can’t just–I–you–I don’t want t–you were going to… you–” She made herself babble completely incoherently, as though she was barely holding on. The whole time, she idly checked the dirt on her nails from tracing her finger on the ground and made a face. Gross. Would this guy interrupt her already? 

Finally, he did. “Now, Miss Banners, calm yourself. I’m sure we can come to a suitable arrangement. After all, you still have our files, don’t you?” A dangerous, yet still calm, note entered his voice. “I do hope you haven’t shared them with the boy who saved you.” 

“N-no, sir.” Paige included the honorific, waited a second as though just then realizing what she had said to a villain, then amended, “I mean… no… no. He’s gone. He’s gone, he’s not i-involved anymore. I have the files.” 

“Good, good,” Minister Gray praised. “That’s very good. So we can still work this out. How about you bring the files to a neutral location, let us take them off your hands, and then we can all go back to living our lives without this terrible complication?” 

Afraid, innocent, but not stupid, Paige reminded herself. The character she was playing might have been a normal, though snoopy, teenage girl. But she was not stupid. No one that wasn’t a complete idiot would fall for that. And given how far she had gotten to get their files, they’d never believe she was a complete idiot. Playing this as someone with a mixture of luck and intelligence who was still in way over her head was the way to go. 

And it wasn’t that far from the truth. She was in over her head, in many ways. If only her father wasn’t–

Okay, that was a long enough pause. Stopping the silent count in her head, Paige hesitantly answered the man. “I… I’m not doing that. I’m not going to give you back the files. If I do that, you’ll just… you’ll just kill me.” 

There was a brief pause before Minister Gray carefully replied, “We can’t let you keep them, Miss Banners.” 

“Yes, you can,” she said quickly, injecting her voice with a note of urgency. “Because I won’t go to the cops. You know what’ll happen if I do. By the time anyone believes me, one of your people’ll be able to get to me. And you’ll have no reason not to kill me. Not if I’ve already blown your secret. L-look, I know how this works. I’ve seen the… the files, remember? If I try to tell anyone, no one will believe me in time. You people will kill me and–and it won’t accomplish anything. Even if it does, I’ll be dead. And I don’t wanna die.” 

“You may find this hard to believe, Miss Banners,” the man informed her, “but we would prefer not to kill you. Still, it seems we are at an impasse.” 

“I’m not going to the cops,” Paige reiterated. “Or anyone else. All Paintball knows is that he saved me from some dressed up thugs. I’m not–” She exhaled, again making herself shudder to inject the fear and sense that she was barely keeping it together into her voice. “I’m not stupid. It’s called Mutually Assured Destruction. If I tell anyone, you’ll find out and kill me. But I uploaded those files and if I don’t check in and give a password to all the servers I uploaded them to at the right times, they’ll be sent to every news station in the country. Even you can’t lock that down. You kill me, your secrets get out. I put your secrets out, you kill me. Mutually Assured Destruction.” 

Another pause came, one that lasted almost thirty seconds before Ministry Gray spoke again. “Your suggestion then, Miss Banners, is that we agree to leave one another alone?” 

Making a point of exhaling hard with a choked sob that must have sounded like relief, Paige hurriedly agreed. “Yes, yes. I saw the–the files, I know what you can do. I know–just… just leave me and my family alone. And Paintball. He doesn’t know anything. I didn’t tell him about any of this. Leave us alone, your secrets stay secret, and… and we can all just… just…” 

“Just be happy,” the Minister finished for her, sounding thoughtful. “Agreed, for the moment. You can rest easy, Miss Banners. You have proven yourself quite capable, despite your lack of powers or resources. We will monitor the situation. As you say, should you attempt to contact any authorities, we will execute a scorched Earth policy. Keep what you know to yourself, and you will live a long and quite happy life.” 

“Just leave me alone,” Paige replied, using a voice of mixed terror and relief before she disconnected the call. Taking the phone in both hands, she snapped it in half, tossing both halves to either side of the alley before straightening up. That was done. Now to get out of here. 

Unfortunately, she’d barely dusted herself off and turned before finding herself facing six men. Not Ministry people. These were random thugs. Ninety-Niner people, from the look of them. Not even that high up either, just street toughs, lowest of the low. In more than one way. 

“See, boys?” The clear leader of the group announced slyly while strolling closer. “I told you there was some hot bitch hanging out back here. Is it our lucky day or what?” To Paige, he added, “Lemme guess, you got separated from the tour group. But that’s okay, cuz we have got a fun tour for you.” 

Shaking her head as her shoulders hunched, Paige fearfully replied, “I d-don’t want any trouble. I was just–I just had to make a phone call. I’ll leave you alone now.” 

A switchblade appeared in front of her face, clicking into position as the man (a tall, pale figure with a thin build and one of those gross porn mustaches) sneered. “I sure hope you didn’t tell whoever you called that you’d be home soon. Cuz we play rough with our toys.” 

Paige went still. Her eyes rose to meet the man’s, and every ounce of fear and hesitation in her gaze vanished, as she replied flatly, “So do I.” 

There was a flash of confusion in the face of the man she was facing, before her foot collided hard with his knee. It was a sharp enough blow that he stumbled forward. In the same motion, Paige stripped the knife from his grip, driving it up through his throat in a long vertical slice that sent blood spraying everywhere. Blood that missed her face entirely as her head snapped to the side while pulling the knife free. 

The man fell forward as she pivoted on one foot to let it pass. Behind him, his five friends were in the initial second of realizing something was wrong. Before even that much could fully settle on them, her hand snapped out, hurling the knife end over end until it embedded itself in the forehead of a second man. 

Four left, all of whom were caught between reacting to their leader’s prone form on the ground in front of them, and the other man’s falling body right beside them. All had been caught entirely flat-footed. Two managed to start pulling pistols from their pants, one producing a baseball bat, and the fourth just started bull-rushing toward Paige with a scream. 

She juked right, then leapt to the left as the charging man fell for that. In the same motion, she stripped off the jacket she had bought, throwing it into the face of the man who managed to get his pistol out first, making him flail and curse. By that point, the one who was charging swept right past her, grasping fingers missing the girl by inches. 

Paige continued her pivot, the motion carrying her to the opposite wall of the alley just as the second man had managed to get his gun out. Her hand caught hold of a trash can lid and she flung it, frisbee-like, into his face as he was trying to aim. His head snapped backward, gun firing twice into the ground by reflex. It was silenced, of course. With all the prevalence of Touched-Tech, you could practically get silencers in cereal boxes by that point. 

The metal trash can lid rebounded backward, and Paige was there, catching it with one hand before swinging it hard enough into the face of the man a second time to put a dent in the thing (and probably one in his forehead). Now she was standing between the two men with guns. In front of her was the man she had just hit twice. Behind her was the one still flailing with the coat over his face. To her left was the entrance of the alley, where the man with the bat was. To her right was the one who had charged at her, who was already turning around. 

Flipping the lid sideways, Paige slammed it hard enough into the throat of the man in front of her, who had already been hit twice, that he instantly collapsed to the ground while making frantic, desperate choking sounds. His pistol dropped from his hand, but Paige caught it in mid-fall with her left hand, snapping it down and backwards. At the same time, she flung the badly mangled lid toward the ground to her right. 

The charging man was on his way back, just as the sliding lid caught his descending foot and took it out from under him. He hit the ground hard. 

Meanwhile, the man with the jacket over his face had just managed to fling it off. But by that point, Paige felt the barrel of the pistol she had liberated contact his leg, and she pulled the trigger. A scream erupted from him as he took the bullet into his upper thigh. Still, the man brought his gun up, intending to blow her head off. At the same time, the one with the bat lunged in, swinging for the fences. 

Paige ducked and turned, pivoting so that the man with the gun fired a shot that went right over her head. Both of her hands went up, one with the gun and one without. With her free hand, she gave the first gunman’s extended arm a hard shove. With the pistol, she fired a shot into the knee of the man with the bat. 

The bat collided with the extended (and adjusted) arm of the gunman with a sickening crunch. That pistol went flying while the man screamed. His scream was joined by one from the guy with the bat as the bullet from Paige’s liberated pistol went through his knee. 

Free hand snapping out, Paige caught the second pistol in mid-air, before snapping both up in near-opposite directions. She fired a shot into the face of either man, then watched as their bodies fell. With barely a glance, she put the dying man whose throat she had collapsed out of his misery by shooting him in the head as well. 

Straightening, Paige pointed one of the pistols back the way she had come, firing a single shot that killed the man who had slipped on the trash can lid and had just been picking himself up. 

The alley was quiet. From the moment she had kicked the first man to make him trip until the flurry of violence was ended, less than fifteen seconds had passed. Stooping, Paige took the coat back from the ground and grabbed the knife she had touched, prying it from the forehead of the man it had killed. She put both pistols and the knife in the pockets while slipping it onto her shoulders. 

Then she walked away, her small form quickly swallowed up by the darkness of the city streets, leaving the dead gangsters behind without a second glance.

Previous Chapter                                        Next Chapter

Friends and Enemies 8-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                Next Chapter

Okay, so this was a nightmare. Great, just great. After everything, all the things we had gone through to keep this a secret, it turned out that the Seraphs actually knew that we had taken their device.

Whose bright idea was it to put competent people in these organizations? It was pretty annoying when it worked against me, I could say that much. 

For a few long seconds, I said nothing. What could I say? I just sort of stood there staring at the man while my brain ran the television test pattern. I think I may have even made a strange humming sound out loud to go with it. 

Hallowed, meanwhile, didn’t say anything either. He seemed content to simply watch me for the moment. My brain did run through a quick thought of what he was capable of if it happened to come down to it. From what I knew, he basically infused objects he held or touched with power that made them stronger, tougher, sharper, that kind of thing. 

Additionally, his very presence gradually empowered an area around him that made him stronger, faster, more all-around capable the longer he spent in it. The effect extended to a lesser degree to his allies and gradually hindered his enemies. In areas he spent a lot of time in, the effect lingered even when he wasn’t there. It would fade gradually if he didn’t return, but from what I understood, in the Seraph base here in Detroit the effect was strong enough that he was basically invincible there. 

So if we ended up having to fight, the solution was to get the hell away from him. Real good, Cassidy. You had to stretch far for that plan. Run away. Excellent. Five stars. Panicky stars running in circles. 

Finally, I managed a weak, “I suppose saying I don’t know what you’re talking about would be a bad idea.”

I heard a slight chuckle in the man’s voice as he replied, “Well, it probably wouldn’t get you very far. But the thing you should notice is that I’m talking to you right now, not doing anything more drastic.”

Despite myself, I gave him an actual thumbs up. “And don’t think I don’t appreciate that talking bit. That’s much better than attacking. I’ve had enough fighting lately to last me for a while.”

His head cocked to the side a little in what looked like curiosity, but he let that pass with a quiet, “Hmm.” Then he picked up his sword and sheathed it on his back. “Like I said, we need to have a chat, but that’s it, a chat. I want to talk to you about what happened and why you did what you did. I’ve got my own suspicions, and most of them are why we’re talking instead of anything more drastic. From what I’ve seen and heard, you seem to be a pretty good kid. So let’s talk about it.”

Considering my options for a fraction of a second, I ended up nodding. “Do you mind going up onto the roof where we have more privacy? I’m just more comfortable on roofs these days.”

“I can imagine,” the man replied before glancing up to the nearby roof. Nodding, he crouched a bit before leaping a good fifteen feet straight up. His foot caught the edge of one wall and he kicked off toward the opposite one, kicking up from there to reach nearly the top of the roof before one more jump got him there.

Briefly, I wondered if him going straight up there was his way of saying that he trusted me to follow, or that he knew I wouldn’t get away if I tried. Maybe both.

Either way, I extended a hand and used red paint to yank myself up after him. Once we were both on the roof, I glanced around before sighing. “So, how long did you know about it for?”

His response was a simple, “Basically from the beginning. At least, if you define the beginning as when you broke into the Taurus facility. Let’s just say one of our security people happened to notice something getting a maintenance check that didn’t need it yet. So we had a guy watching the facility and he saw you go in with your partner in… crime, sort of? Let’s just say he was a little confused when he saw you with one of Blackjack’s people. Asked if he should make an appearance, but I told him to hold off until we had more info. Because the last time I checked, you weren’t part of that group.” 

“I’m not,” I replied. “It was–” 

“A complicated situation,” he cut in. “I kind of guessed that. Which is why we waited a bit to see what happened. I’ve got to tell you, it was pretty close for a while. Our group was going back and forth on whether we should confront you or not, but every time you appeared in public, you were doing good things. Hell, we saw you going around buying sandwiches and stuff for homeless people. Made us wonder if that was all an act, but none of what you were doing had anything to do with that thing you stole. And La Casa didn’t seem to be using it either. Then one of our people went through the system for a seventh or eighth time and found out that your little friend left a backdoor, and even had a delivery notice set up to send the equipment back to our facility. The only thing missing was a date. Which meant that you were planning on returning it. That’s what made us decide to give you more time. Part of that was curiosity. We wanted to see what you were using it for. Some of our people had their own ideas, but we were all curious. Curious enough to wait and see. Lo and behold, we eventually heard what happened with that guy who stole from Blackjack. We also heard that something seemed to be controlling his movements. As you might imagine, the pieces fell into place fairly quickly then.” 

Biting my lip behind the helmet and mask, I slowly asked, “So you worked all that out just from watching and hearing about things? You guys are really good at your jobs, you know?” 

There was a smile in the man’s voice as he replied, “That’s why we have the job. Also, because we know when to back off and see what happens instead of jumping to a confrontation. That helps too. Which is what brings you and I here right now.” 

For a moment, I just looked at him. Then I exhaled and spoke carefully. “Right, you definitely figured out why we had to borrow it, and didn’t drop the hammer. I guess this is where I say thanks for not busting us? And sorry for taking your thing, even if it was only for a little while.”

“I am curious about why you didn’t just ask for it,” the man noted, “but I suppose you have your reasons. You had help from La Casa because you were doing all that for Blackjack’s kid. I get that, sort of. But does that mean you and them are partners now or something?” 

My head shook quickly. “Not partners. We were just… it’s complicated. But… mostly I just wanted to stop the war before it got a lot of innocent people hurt. All the gangs were going to rip the city apart looking for those vials, no matter who got in the way. And whatever kind of bad guy Blackjack is, his daughter didn’t deserve to die. I was helping him for her, not him.”

Listening as I said all of that, Hallowed gave a thoughtful nod before speaking. “Yes, that’s essentially the same reasoning we came up with, particularly considering your age. I mean, no offense, it’s just easier to believe that a…  someone young would compromise like that.”

“It’s just doing the best thing in a bad situation,” I muttered before folding my arms a bit uncomfortably. “So, what now? I mean, you already decided to let us borrow the thing and now you have it back. Or you will as soon as it gets delivered. So, what are we doing? I don’t think you showed up like this just to be like, ‘neener neener, we knew you had it all along, so there.’  Something tells me you’re not the type. So, like I said, what are we doing right now?”

“Right now?” he echoed casually. “Right now, we’re having a little chat while I decide what kind of person you are. Then, we’re going to talk about how you pay for borrowing our equipment.”  

I raised an eyebrow despite myself, not that he could see it. “I thought you just said you knew why we needed it, and you let it happen. You even have it back now. We returned it.” 

Hallowed’s head bobbed once. “Right on all counts. We did decide to let you keep it without throwing you to the wolves. And we do know why it was important. And it’s pretty much back in our custody. Which is a good thing, let me tell you. But this world runs on trade and negotiation. Especially between people like you and me. Things can’t always be free, or the whole system completely falls apart. You did a very good thing, but you also did something bad in order to achieve it. We’re not turning you in. We’re definitely not going to charge you what that thing is worth, even for a short rental period. You couldn’t afford it. What we are going to do is ask for a favor.” 

Slowly, I replied, “What is it with Touched and favors? The favor thing keeps coming up.” 

He actually chuckled a little bit. “True, you’ll have that happen a lot. Turns out that a lot of people with powers end up needing specific acts or bits of help here and there more than they need money. Even the Sell-Touched, a lot of the time. See, we can get money from plenty of places. But powers are a limited resource, not to mention the skill to use them. So, being Touched,  you’re going to find that most people want you to do something for them, not give them money. You’re also going to find that when the opportunity comes to secure such a favor, most won’t let it go. Not even if they’re definitely not holding a grudge and completely understand why you did what you did.” 

Considering that for a moment, I shrugged. “So, what you’re saying is that this is basically really gentle blackmail. You know something bad I did and you’re going to want something in exchange for letting that go.” 

“I’m saying some people will flat out blackmail you,” the man replied. “But I’m also saying that I don’t think we need to go that far. I think you’re a good kid who did the best he could. And I think you already want to make up for that. I think you already felt a little guilty about what happened. So, I’m going to give you the chance to make everything even. Hell, you might even get something out of it. Contacts if nothing else. We need your help with something, and if you work with us, you’ll never hear about the… borrowed equipment again. Call it a fair exchange.” 

A few things immediately leapt to mind that I wanted to say, but the truth was that he had a point. They didn’t have to let me get away with what amounted to temporarily stealing their very expensive item, no matter what my intentions had been. I’d done it for a good reason, but in an underhanded way. It was a very slippery slope, and he was giving me a chance to pay for borrowing it without making anything worse. Whether you called it a fair exchange or gentle blackmail, the result was the same. I could pay them back for the… rental, and have a clear conscience.

While I was working through all that in my head, the man waited patiently. He didn’t seem to be in any kind of rush, simply standing there watching me with an air of curiosity. Finally, I straightened and gave a short nod. “I won’t say I’ll do anything you ask, but I think it’s fair that we work something out.”

“Excellent,” Hallowed replied. He sounded genuine. “We have some ideas in mind, but why don’t you come in next week and we’ll see what we can set up. Let’s call it…  next Wednesday evening, around this time?”

“Come in?” I echoed. “As in come to the Seraph base?”

He nodded. “No need to try to be sneaky about it. The guard at the front will let you in. Unless, of course, you want to try your hand at getting past our security. That might be fun. And it could give our guards a little exercise to keep them on their toes.”

I coughed. “You know, I think I’ll probably just use the front gate.”

With a vague and wave of agreement, the man replied, “Well, if you change your mind, it could be interesting. Either way, show up Wednesday night. Or, if you run into something that keeps you busy, call this number.” His hand produced a card that he extended toward me. “Let whoever answers know who you are and that you’ll be delayed, or whatever. Sound good?”

I agreed, of course. What else was I going to do? Taking the card, I tucked it away. After that, there didn’t seem to be much else to say. So, I thanked the man for not being drastic about things before turning to hop off the roof, using a shot of paint to pull myself to the next one. A lot of thoughts were running through my head. 

Boy, I sure hope Hallowed and Deicide don’t call in their favors at the same time for opposite reasons.

That could get awkward. 

********

Needless to say, I went home after that, before anything else could happen. I needed a break. And I needed time to think about everything that had just happened. Was I going to tell Eits about it? He should probably know that the Seraphs were able to find the stuff he did to the computers, just in case. But I also didn’t want him to worry too much about it.

Either way, I made my way close to home, changed out of my costume in the nearby park restroom, then took a short walk (about fifteen minutes or so) to get back to the house. I didn’t use my powers or anything. The walk gave me a chance to think. 

Eventually, I made it to the fence and waited there for the security camera to point another direction. Just as I was about to hop onto the grounds, the gate nearby opened. Quickly ducking back into the bushes on the other side, I watched as one of my mother’s cars started to pull through. She was driving, and there was a man in the passenger seat. It was Mr. Jackson. The car stopped there partway through the gate and I could see them talking.

Great, I had paint that could silence people. Why didn’t I have paint that could let me hear what they were saying from far away. That would be super useful right now. 

Looking around to make sure the coast was clear, I glanced to the top of the fence and used a bit of blue to launch myself up and over, landing silently on the grass right below another camera. Then I painted myself black, all of my clothes, my face, everything. Waiting for the camera to turn again, I quickly and silently moved along the fence until I reached the corner of the gate near the car. There were bushes there that would cover me from the cameras. This was all a big risk, but I needed to hear what they were saying. I had to know if they were talking about me, or about Paige. 

As I pressed my back to the fence and stayed low, the sound of my mother’s voice reached me. “Leave her alone for now. It’s too much of a risk. Until we have our experts ensure no more copies of her files exist, we can’t move on the Banners girl.”

Right, okay, good. So Paige’s plan was actually working. Whenever evidence she had over my family’s organization, it was too much for them to risk it getting out. I still had no idea what it was or what the other girl knew, unfortunately. That was going to take a lot to get out of her. But I could at least relax a little bit with the assurance that they weren’t going to be jumping her any time soon. It gave me a little breathing room that I desperately needed. Especially if I was supposed to somehow make Paige confide in me. 

Mr. Jackson was talking. “I’m sorry, Elena. Everything was under control until the boy showed up.”

“Yes,” my mother agreed slowly, “this… Paintball has complicated things now and then. He is a bit of a concern, but we don’t believe he knows that much. It’s very possible the Banners girl reached out to him for help and he noticed your men abducting her. Which may mean that he knows more about you than he should. Keep your eyes open, and if the opportunity arises to find out exactly how much he knows…”

“I’ll take it,” Mr. Jackson confirmed. “Thank you for understanding, Elena.”

My mother gave a soft chuckle. “Of course, Kent. There’s far too much history between us for one problem to drive a wedge through our relationship. We will handle it, as we always do.”

The car started to pull out then, their conversation apparently over for the moment. The last thing I heard was one last sentence from my mother, as the vehicle pulled away. 

“After you erased such a traumatic memory from Cassidy’s mind, the least we can do is forgive the occasional misstep.”

Previous Chapter                                Next Chapter

Friends and Enemies 8-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                  Next Chapter

“You want me to break her legs?”

Jolting a bit at the question, I looked across the lunch room table at the girl who had asked it. Amber. It was the next day after my whole… complicated evening at Tomas’s, and she and I were eating lunch as we waited for Jae, who was finishing up some kind of extra credit work in the science lab. I still wasn’t exactly sure what for, but whatever, she did a lot of extra credit stuff. Either she just liked doing it, or she was pushing to get into a really good university and wanted to pad out her application. Which was fair.

Seeing my surprised expression, Amber nodded across the room. “Paige. You keep staring at her. And you’re holding that fork so tight, I’m afraid you might snap it in half.”

Yeah, Paige was here. She must have been really confident in whatever leverage she had, because she had just shown up to school as if nothing had happened. Looking at her today, you never would have guessed that she’d had a gun pointed to her head the night before. You would never know she came so close to being killed. She was effortlessly smooth and interacted with people as if she didn’t have a care in the world. 

And she definitely wasn’t any nicer to me. If anything, she was even more caustic than usual. Which, I supposed made a certain sort of sense if she knew it was my family who had nearly had her killed. That had to be why she hated me so much, didn’t it? She knew something about my family, something that made them want her dead. That had to be connected to why she’d been so intent on attacking me every chance she got. Because Tomas had been right, last night when she didn’t know who I was, she was a lot more tolerable. So that had to be related. 

Except she’d very clearly hated me for years. And I was pretty sure my family hadn’t wanted her dead for that long. So what happened? Did she just get the proof she needed? How? What was it? And how did she know about my family in the first place? Hell, was her hating me even directly connected to that? It seemed like it had to be, but what could she have found out all the way back in middle school? Also, how was she immune to Mr. Jackson’s power? 

And while we were on that subject, had he ever used it on me? The fact that my parents had someone who could erase people’s memories made it somewhat easier to understand how they got away with as much as they did. But how many of my memories had been erased or changed? Had I found out the truth about them before and they just erased it? The thought had led me to throwing up in the bathroom the night before. 

Clearly, making sure they didn’t find out that I knew the truth was even more important than I’d thought before. I couldn’t give them any reason to think they needed to fix my memory. Not until I had a better handle on this whole thing. Not until I was ready to make a much bigger move. 

The point was, I had a hell of a lot of questions, many of them revolving around Paige Freaking Banners. So yeah, I had probably been staring at her more than I should. 

Flushing a little under Amber’s stare, I shook my head. “No leg breaking.”

Raising an eyebrow at me, the dark-haired girl asked, “You sure? I’d do it pro bono. I mean, I do still owe you for that awesome movie night. And for being a pretty good project partner, I suppose.” Adding that part thoughtfully, Amber tossed a tater tot in the air, tilted her head back, and caught it in her mouth. 

“Something tells me that breaking Paige’s legs would probably complicate more things than it solves,” I replied dryly. “And I told you before, you don’t owe me anything. It was just a fun night.”

From the grin that abruptly blossomed on the other girl’s face, I realized that I had just walked into some form of trap. “Well, then I suppose the best way for me to pay you back is to give you a fun night, isn’t it?”

As I stared at her, wondering what I had just opened myself up to, she pointed at me. “It’s my seventeenth birthday party this weekend. And you’re going.”

Oh, right. Amber‘s birthday. She, like most other people in our grade, was almost a year older than me, since I’d skipped first grade. It was another thing that contributed to me always being smaller than everyone else. Not the main thing. I was small regardless. I could probably come to this school in my twenties and still look like a freshman at best. But still. 

Amber was explaining. “My mom and uncle are renting out that place on Lynnwood with the arcade and the batting cages and all that. Saturday night from six until whenever we’re done, we’ve got the whole place to ourselves. There’s gonna be dinner and games and lots of other shit. And plenty of people, including you.”

Declining at this point felt like a bad idea. Besides, I liked Amber. I liked Jae too. With everything that was going on, would it really kill me to take a night off just to help celebrate the girl’s seventeenth birthday? 

While I was working my way through that, Amber continued. “You should bring that girl that’s staying with you, too. Izzy? Arcade games, batting cages, miniature golf, there’s gotta be something she’ll like. Although now that I say it, you probably have all of those things in your house, but still. Maybe she’ll like the fresh air?”

Izzy. Getting her out of the house and letting her have fun did seem like a good idea. And I could tell from the look on Amber’s face that she knew she’d hit the mark. So, I heaved a long, put upon sigh before waving a hand vaguely. “Okay, okay, I get it. I suppose I will just suffer through an entire evening of fun and games if that’ll make you feel better, birthday girl. And I’ll see if Izzy can come.”

Grinning at me, Amber held up another tater tot between two fingers and flicked it my way. After I caught it in my mouth, she glanced past me. “Everything good?”

She was talking to Jae, who took the open seat beside me while nodding once. “Done,” she replied quietly, setting her tray of food down. Sticking a fork in her salad, the pale girl added, “Did you ask?”

Amber shrugged. “I just got through the inviting her part. Haven’t gotten to the posters part just yet. I wanted to make sure she wanted to come first.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Posters part?”

She nodded. “See, my mom wants to do this charity thing. She had the idea to have an artist at the party taking pictures. Then everyone who donates to that children’s hospital that got attacked could get a drawing of themselves with a certain theme. You know, like pirate or ninja or anything like that. The size or the detail of the picture and all that would depend on how much they donate. They can fill out a form saying what they like to see along with a receipt of their donation. She had a guy lined up to do it, but he had to back out at the last minute. I said I knew someone who was a really good artist at school. She can find someone else if you want, but I just thought I’d ask if you’re interested. We can pay you for it, then mail the pictures ourselves once they’re done. “

Staring at her, I blinked a few times. “Drawing… oh. Oh, umm… I… yeah. Yeah, I can do that. I mean, I hope I can do that. Sure.”

Grinning widely at my agreement, Amber looked to Jae. “See, told you this was gonna be the best party ever.”

Jae, for her part, simply looked over at me, her voice soft. “Is your friend coming?”

“Friend? Oh, you mean Izzy,” I realized. “I’ll ask if she wants to. Thanks for inviting her, you guys. I know you barely know her.”

Amber shrugged. “She seemed pretty cool. 

“And this party needs all the cool people.”

******

By the time school let out, I still had no idea what I was going to do about the whole Paige situation. And I had other things to worry about for the evening. Two things in particular, each on opposite sides of the legal line. First, I needed to take those papers down to the courthouse and turn them in before the judge got too antsy. I’d been told that I would generally have a week or two, as the law didn’t exactly move fast anyway, and they knew that a lot of us were busy. But still. 

The other thing I had to do was get that device we’d… borrowed back to the maintenance place so it could be returned to the Seraph hospital before they noticed anything wrong. Wren had apparently finished extracting it and making sure the thing was okay, so I would get it where it needed to be tonight. 

That was for later, of course. Once things all closed down, I would worry about that. For the moment, the courthouse was the number one priority. 

Well, the number one priority after I visited Wren, at least. But that was related to the court house anyway. I had to take some of those papers over to her, as the person who was responsible for Ashton being confined inside her base. There were parts she had to sign and fill in under her chosen moniker of Trevithick. 

That didn’t take too long, and I promised to come back and see her again shortly before heading out again. Eventually, I was waiting in costume in front of the back door of an unlabeled, unremarkable building a block or so away from the courthouse. I’d texted That-A-Way for advice and she let me know that this was the way most Star-Touched got into the courthouse without being mobbed or anything by going in the front door. Apparently, there was a tunnel leading to the court from this building that helped keep all that stuff out of public sight. 

A second after I knocked, there was a soft whirring sound  and I saw a small camera in the upper left corner turn a little to focus on me. There was a brief pause, then the sound of a couple electric locks disengaging before the door opened to reveal a man in a police uniform. “Paintball, I assume?” 

“In the flesh,” I confirmed. Waving the papers in my hand, I added, “I was just hoping to drop off these detention things.”

The cop nodded. “Yeah, they said you’d probably be coming by. Just in case though, could you show me your power so I know I’m not letting in a stranger with your costume?”

Obligingly, I turned and held my hand out, shooting a bit of red paint to a stick on the ground before yanking it back to myself. “Good enough?”

“Yup,” the man confirmed before stepping back and gesturing for me to enter. “I’m Officer Metts. Good to meet you, kid. Pretty sure this won’t be the only time. I get stationed out here a lot.”

Stepping in, I took another look at the man. He was black, and looked to be in his thirties, very well built, with dark hair cut short and hazel eyes. His nose was maybe just a little too big for his face and had been broken at least once, but he was still pretty handsome. 

“Well,” I replied, “I’m glad the guy at the door isn’t someone who hates Touched.”

Chuckling, the man nodded. “Don’t worry, they figured out a long time ago that having someone who can’t get along with the masked types is a bad idea. Just makes things worse for everybody. Come on, I’ll take you down to the tunnel and let ‘em know you’re coming.”

We were in what looked like a simple apartment lobby area with stairs leading up, a couple apartment doors to the left, and an unlabeled door to the right. He went to the right and opened the unlabeled door, revealing another room with another set of stairs, these ones leading down, and a couple elevators. We took the stairs, heading, as promised, into the tunnel. It clearly went on a long distance, but the man simply pointed. “There’ll be a guy meeting you at the entrance to the courthouse. Just head that way and you can’t miss him. Unfortunately, I’m not gonna be here when you get off. You’ll have to be let out by one of my coworkers. But don’t worry, none of us bite.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “Maybe I’ll see you next time when I have to come in for those deposition things.”

“Maybe you will,” Officer Metts agreed. “Good luck for now, though. And hey, watch your back out there. 

“I hear Cuélebre’s really pissed off at you.”

*******

So, I turned in those papers before waiting to have a short chat with the judge. I had to sit around for about half an hour, but that wasn’t a big deal. And it was definitely understandable, considering I didn’t have any kind of appointment. Eventually, the judge had called me up out of the basement room where I had been waiting, and I had a talk with him about what happened with Ashton. He was thorough, but not too prying. He got the information he needed and said he’d make an official ruling after consulting some books, but that I shouldn’t worry. 

Eventually, that was over and I had gone home to have dinner and be visible for a little while. Not to mention hang out with Izzy. I brought up the party thing and both she and my parents were pretty accepting. I had no doubt we’d have escorts we didn’t even know about, but Mom still seemed pretty happy with the idea regardless. 

Izzy, meanwhile, seemed okay with it too. She clearly wanted to get out of the house, big as it was. And I couldn’t blame her for that. So we would definitely be going to the party. 

Of course, for that to happen, it would probably help if I wasn’t a fugitive from the Seraphs. To that end, it was time to return their device. So, I’d let Eits know to add it back into the schedule using the back door he’d built into their system, and he told me what packing label to put on it once I was in there.

And there I was, crouched on the roof of the building across the street from the Taurus repair facility. It was late enough by now that there was almost no one there. All I had to do was sneak in and drop this off. Eits was standing by to loop their cameras as soon as I gave him the signal, and he’d unloop them once I was out.

So, here went nothing. Holding the box under one hand, I sent the text his way, waiting for the acknowledgment before shoving the phone in my pocket and taking a running start. Like the last time, I used the nearby billboard and dropped in on top of the smaller building in the middle of the compound. From there, I waited for the guard to pass, then hopped down and made my way to the place we picked this thing up from it to begin with. 

Unfortunately, I had to duck back and wait there, because there were a couple guys in work overalls having a discussion about the Pistons (as in the basketball team) right in the doorway. There was some good-natured arguing back-and-forth, as one of the man apparently was more into some other team. Or maybe it was a completely different sport. Honestly, I had no idea. 

Either way, I anxiously waited, knowing the cameras couldn’t be looped for too long. But, finally, the two men left the building, walking together towards the much larger one. Watching them go from my hiding spot, I slipped around the building and in through the door. 

Once inside, I called Eits and had him talk me through printing out the right label with the number on it. It took a couple tries to get right, but finally, I stuck the label on and thanked the boy for his help. “Seriously, no way could I have pulled this off without you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” came the response. “The boss’s kid needed it. And now she’s safe, thanks to you. So we’re good. Maybe we can find another reason to hang out at some point before you have to try to arrest me.”

Snorting, I replied, “Arresting is sort of like hanging out. But we’ll figure it out later. Thanks again, I’ll put this back and then get out of here.”

Disconnecting from the call, I found the spot on the shelves where the box would wait for pick-up in the morning. Satisfied that they would find it, I quickly checked the yard to make sure it was clear before making my way out. 

Great, that was one more thing off my mind. The hospital would get its device back and no one had to be hurt or anything. Now I could focus on the important things, like finding out just what the hell was going on with Paige, how to deal with the fact that my ex-boyfriend’s father worked for my supervillain parents, what Izzy’s whole deal was… yeah, I had plenty to occupy my mind, that was for sure. 

Which, of course, was why I had barely taken two steps after landing in the alley outside of the repair facility when a voice spoke up. 

“I guess a thanks is in order.”

Spinning that way, my gaze found a man in gleaming golden armor, with metal wings and an enormous sword bigger than he was resting against the ground with his hand set casually on the pommel. 

It was Hallowed, one of the local Seraph leadership and also one of the most powerful Touched in the city. 

“After all, you returned our item without us having to go track it down ourselves,” the tall man continued casually. 

“Though I do think it’s time that the two of us had a little chat about borrowing things that don’t belong to you.”

Previous Chapter                                  Next Chapter