Paintball

Hostile Witness 18-09 And Patreon Snippets 21 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

“Wh-what happened?!” Alloy was blurting, clearly in the midst of some level of panic attack. Completely understandable, given the situation she woke up in. “Who–where did–why can’t I–” 

I was on my back still, but now I was staring up at trees, and felt a few rocks poking into my back as I lay in the dirt somewhere outside of the petting zoo. Out. Out. We were out. We were safe and fine. Okay, well, not exactly fine just yet, considering I still couldn’t move. And from the sound of Alloy grunting and Pack cursing, neither could they. Which wasn’t surprising, considering it hadn’t been anywhere near the hour that Cup had said it would take for the effects of the ray to wear off. Assuming she had even been telling the truth. 

“Alloy, it’s okay!” I called over to her. “We’re out, we’re… safeish. Amanda was Cup–is Cup. But we’re out now. All three of us are paralyzed, but she said it would wear off in like an hour.” 

“An hour?!” Somehow, Alloy wasn’t too reassured. “Wait…” Abruptly, I saw her rise to a standing position. But it wasn’t like she stood up, it was more like she floated upward and set herself on her feet. And then abruptly fell down again with a yelp. “Damn it! I’m all… woozy. I think it’s making my marbles woozy too. Can’t focus on staying upright. It’s all dizzy and weird. Like trying to play a video game that keeps inverting the controls.” 

Oh yeah, her armor was made out of her marbles, and they could move. But apparently she was still affected enough that it wasn’t working very well. Which… was that what Cup had been referring to when she said that Alloy being knocked out made sense? 

“It’ll be okay,” I tried to promise. “It’ll wear off.”  

“Right, cuz the psycho supervillain said so,” she retorted, “and why are we taking her word for it?” 

“We don’t have a choice right now.” That was Way, her voice tight. “We still need to get out of here before that bitch calls in reinforcements.” Kneeling between us, she looked over to Raindrop. “Stay here with them. Keep an eye out for anyone, I’m gonna go grab the van.” 

“Hold on!” Pack blurted. “You can’t go back around there by yourself! What the hell do you–” 

“Pack, stop.” Way’s voice was firm. “We don’t have a lot of options right now. This should be far enough away that she can’t find you. But I have to get the van before they do. I’ll be right back.” 

I didn’t like that. I really didn’t like it at all. But it was like she said, we didn’t have much choice. Pack, however, apparently had other ideas. “Get my backpack off and put my hand in it.” 

That-A-Way only hesitated slightly before following her instructions. Lifting Pack up carefully to get the ‘empty’ pack off her, she unzipped it and placed the other girl’s hand inside. “Okay?”

“Twinkletoes, here boy!” Pack called, waiting until she apparently felt the little chameleon against her paralyzed hand. “Okay, boy. You know what to do. You remember, we practiced this. You can do it. Just like back in the parking lot. Okay… now go, get out of the cage!” 

“Uh.” Raindrop started to speak up before hesitating. “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?” 

“He’s transformed,” Pack replied. “And… just get us to the road. He’ll drive the van down it. At least I think he will. We practiced it for awhile just in case of an emergency. He should be able to follow the road, but I’m not exactly sure how good he is at getting out of the way of other drivers, and I know he doesn’t understand road signs or… yeah, we should get back to the road and keep an eye out. This could get a little messy. Or a lot messy.” 

I had seen a lot of weird things since becoming a Touched, but the idea that there was about to be a lizard-gorilla hybrid creature driving a van down the road kind of… reached its way up into the top ten. But again, we didn’t have a lot of options. Pack was clearly desperate to make sure Way didn’t have to go near the petting zoo by herself, and that idea didn’t appeal to me either. 

Now all we had to do was get to the road. Which actually ended up being fairly easy, since Alloy transformed her floating marbles into a couple fancy stretchers for Pack and me. Then she simply used those plus her own armor to make our group float that way. Raindrop and That-A-Way played escorts, keeping their eyes out for any Scion activity, just in case. We had no idea how long it would take Cup to call in reinforcements and whether they’d even go out into the surrounding area searching for us. But it felt better to be safe rather than sorry. We had to get out of there. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t that far to the road. Way could’ve teleported us, but we would’ve been much further north in the process. This was fine. Or at least, I kept telling myself it was. Really, my mind was still spinning wildly from everything we had just found out. Cup. Amanda was Cup. Which meant her brother Nick was Pencil. And something told me he wasn’t actually in Alaska. 

“You know he’s going to be even more pissed at all of us now.” Way practically read my mind while we were moving toward the road. “We know too much about him, and the rest of their group. And we hit his sister again. They’re gonna be targeting us any chance they get.” 

“They’ll move her first,” I pointed out. “They don’t know how long it’ll take us to get reinforcements, so they’ll focus on getting her and all her stuff out of there.” 

“Speaking of which, shouldn’t we be calling in those reinforcements right about now?” Alloy put in. “And who are we calling anyway, the… uhh, ones who call themselves actual heroes or the woman we were supposed to be doing this whole thing for in the first place?” 

It really was a good question. We were supposed to let Deicide know what was going on so she could go after Pencil. And I was damn sure she’d want to know about this. But on the other hand, it was also the biggest lead that anyone in the Star-Touched society could possibly have. We had uncovered the identity of Pencil and Cup. That was huge. The authorities could probably do a lot to try to track those two down from knowing who they really were, though I was sure they both knew how to disappear. It was something, a way of potentially stopping them from killing more people, if they were too busy keeping away from the authorities. 

“Both,” I abruptly answered. “We’ll let Deicide know what we found out, but we’ll contact the Conservators too. Flea. We’ll contact Flea. And Caishen. We’ll let them both know, let them come check this place out with the cavalry. The more people who know the truth about Pencil and Cup, the better chance of someone tracking them down. Maybe they’ll go on the run.” 

If she could have moved, I was sure that Pack would have turned to stare at me with an incredibly dubious look. “You don’t really believe that shit, do you? Seriously, come on.” 

I sighed heavily. “I don’t know. But every little bit helps. Like I said, the more people we have going after them, the better off everyone’s going to be. Someone might get lucky. And yes, I know it’s unlikely. But even the slightest chance that someone could maybe stop them is better than nothing. Plus, if they’re busy staying out of reach from the big guns, that’s less time they have to put into making innocent people suffer. It’s not much, but it’s all we’ve got right now.” 

By that point, our strange little convoy of stretchers and floating armor had reached the road. We stayed low, just on the edge of the treeline in case one of the Scions happened along. Then we waited. 

It wasn’t long before we heard a horn blaring, coming from up the road. Raindrop and Way looked at each other, then leaned out of the trees to stare that way. For about the eighty-seven thousandth time, I wished I could move to see for myself. The sound of the blaring horn got louder, joined by another, then a third. A car that was driving past in the opposite direction joined the chorus a moment later, and I saw it swerve off to the other side of the road. 

“Alloy?” I put in over the sound of the horns. “Could you–” 

She immediately lifted the stretchers and turned them to face the road so we could see. And what a sight it was. The van was heading toward us, swerving in and out of both sides of the street like some sort of incredibly drunk fat man. It wasn’t moving all that fast for a vehicle, barely reaching fifteen miles an hour. But the way it was swerving back and forth, every vehicle from every direction had to get out of the way. Not that there were that many, but still. The few who were there pulled off the road and honked, or just shouted out their windows. 

Raindrop quietly spoke up while she and Way both looked pointedly toward Pack. “I don’t think Twinkletoes should try to get his driver’s license anytime soon.”  

“You kidding?” the La Casa girl shot right back, “He’s doing better than a lot of the useless pieces of shit I’ve seen on the road back in the city. Look, he’s even signaling. Uh, sort of.” 

She was right, particularly about the sort of part. Somehow, Twinkletoes kept flipping the turn signals on and off randomly. It had no connection with which way the car was going, but still. He also kept turning the windshield wipers on and off. I had the feeling he was just randomly hitting things in there. Honestly, we were lucky he had his foot on the pedal and was keeping the van on the road, even if it was taking up the entire road in the process. He was a lizard in a partial gorilla body, so I was going to give the extent of his driving skills a break based on the fact that they existed at all. I had really had no idea that Pack could possibly make her lizards do something like this. It raised even more questions about how smart they were, or how well they could be trained. Questions that were obviously going to have to wait until later. After all, we had slightly more pressing things to deal with right now. 

Pack had Alloy lift her stretcher out into view so the incoming Twinkletoes could see her. He immediately stopped and managed to get his driver’s side door open. Not that we saw much. He was invisible, after all. Yeah, that was another thing throughout all of this. The van had been driving wildly down the road while apparently having no driver. We just saw the door pop open once the van was near enough, and a moment later the gorilla-lizard revealed himself by popping up right in front of Pack while making worried grunting sounds that were kind of adorable and endearing. He kept gesturing to her, then to the van while making those anxious gorilla noises. I honestly wasn’t sure if he was more terrified about what he had just done, or about what was wrong with his owner. Probably some mixture of both, really. 

Oh yeah, and meanwhile, the van was still moving. Yep, the lizard hadn’t actually stopped it at all, let alone put the thing in park. He just opened the door and hopped out. The thing was still heading down the road, already past us and continuing on, coasting entirely off momentum. 

“I’m on it!” Way blurted, her figure turning into a blur as she raced out of my sight. I heard the van door close a second later, and then the thing started backing up toward us once more. She parked it right nearby, then hopped out. She and Raindrop opened the backdoors, letting Alloy guide herself and the stretchers into the rear compartment. As soon as we (including Twinkletoes) were in, Way shut the door, hopped in the front, and started to drive off. No way were we going to sit around here talking about things. We need to get somewhere safe. 

Raindrop, meanwhile, stayed in the back with us. As Way was driving, I asked the younger girl to get my phone out of my pocket and use the number for Deicide that I had recorded in it. The phone was still connected through my Bluetooth, so I heard it ring in my ear a few times before the woman’s voice answered. Rather, that same booming feminine voice that was clearly being projected from the books she had nearby. Yeah, she still wasn’t talking in her own voice, even on the phone. So she was doing this whole thing on speaker? I still wasn’t sure why she talked like that. Was she incapable of speaking the normal way? Like, was she mute or something? 

Either way, the voice came through my earbud. “Do you have something for me, Paintball?” 

“Oh boy, do I ever,” I managed as my eyes reflexively rolled. “First of all, your intelligence is the fucking worst, lady. Also, the fucking best. Both, at the same time. I’m not sure how you pulled that off, but seriously.” Yes, I knew it wasn’t her fault, at all. But I had to say something.  

There was a brief pause at my words before her projected voice replied, “Pardon me?” 

So, I explained the situation. Very succinctly, I told her about Amanda’s real identity, what had almost happened, and what Amanda’s real power was. Yeah, that last one felt like something that some people might’ve kept a secret or only told the authorities. But fuck it. It was just like I had said, the more people who knew the truth, the more chance there was of actually stopping these guys. It was obvious that one of the biggest reasons Cup and Pencil had managed to stay off the trail of the authorities for so long was because they had no idea that Cup herself was the one building a lot of their Touched-Tech toys. Hell, knowing about that, maybe we could actually convince Braintrust to go after her for not doing her part to contribute to them the way they insisted all Tech-Touched do. Or even convince Sherwood to target them in retaliation for Cup building the devices in the first place, since they hated technology so much.  

Yeah, getting Sherwood and Braintrust to actually work together against the same target. Boy, wouldn’t that be pretty wild. But if any people could inspire such incredibly different enemies to be on the same side, it was definitely Pencil and Cup. Those two never played by any rules. Even the Ministry would obviously be fine with shutting them down. I had no doubt that my parents wanted the entire Scions organization taken out. 

By the time I finished explaining what had happened, my fingers were starting to twitch just a little. It wasn’t much, but I could feel them respond ever so slightly to my desperate orders for them to move. The paralyzation was gradually starting to wear off, though I was pretty sure it would still take awhile for me to be able to do more than make the ends of my fingers bend. 

Deicide was quiet for a moment after I finished. Finally, her voice returned. “That is surprising.”

Right, so apparently another of her superpowers was incredible understatements. “Yeah, tell me about it. You asked us to find this Amanda chick and tell you what she knows. We found her and… well, I think you can safely say we told you what she knows. Deal’s done, we’re even.” 

“Yes,” came the response immediately. “Your favor is repaid in full. You have done more than I could have expected.” There was a brief pause before she added, “I am… very sorry for sending you into that danger, Paintball. It was never my intention. If I had had the slightest inkling that you would have run into that sort of trouble, I never would have made that the favor.”  

She obviously didn’t have to apologize. But I appreciated it anyway. Taking a breath while coaxing my fingers to wiggle a little more, I replied, “Thanks. We’re safe enough now, anyway. And umm, and we’re calling the authorities too. They need to know the truth about those two.”

Part of me expected the woman to argue against that. Instead, she replied, “Give me the address. I can be there before the authorities. I’ll do my own examination and leave before they get there. I can…” She hesitated. “I can find out everything I need without moving anything.”   

Part of me felt slightly uncomfortable about that, but on the other hand, it wasn’t like I could object to sending a bad guy there, considering I was going to be doing the same thing when we contacted the Conservators. Okay, okay, I didn’t actually know that any of them beyond my own dad were actually bad. But still, the whole situation was incredibly gray. I might as well let Deicide do her own investigation on top of the one the authorities would do. 

With that in mind, I gave her the exact address about where she could find the petting zoo with Amanda’s apartment. That earned me a look from Raindrop, but she remained silent. 

“Got it,” Deicide replied. “I will be there shortly. You may feel free to contact the authorities. And Paintball… thank you.” 

If I could have shrugged, I would have. “Yeah, well, we might be really different people, but I think we can all agree, ‘fuck those two and their little gang in particular.’”

“Indeed,” she confirmed before adding, “though someday you may find that we are not quite as different as you believe.” There was something important behind those words, but I couldn’t read enough into what it was before she simply finished with, “I will see you another time, Paintball. With any luck, it will not be on the battlefield. I would hate to be faced with you.” 

Well, that was a little surprising. I expected her to say something like she would be sad to have to kill me. Before I could respond to her actual words, she disconnected the call. I was officially done with my favor to Deicide. 

Even better than that, when I finished telling the others that it was done, I was able to close my hand into a fist and then open it again. I could also make my toes twitch. The paralyzation was definitely wearing off. Which, thank God Cup had actually been telling the truth about that. There’d been a small nightmare working in the back of my head about it being either permanent, or needing some kind of exterior cure to turn it off. But, thankfully, it really was temporary. 

“So what now?” Alloy put in. I could barely see enough of her hand from this position to tell that she was doing the same thing as me, closing and opening a fist. “We call in the authorities and tell them where to descend to rain righteous legal hell on that place and look for clues?” 

“How do we explain what we were doing there?” Way put in carefully.  

I had been thinking about that this whole time, and finally exhaled heavily. “I think the best thing we can do is just say that Alloy and me were investigating something independently, and we called you for help, Way. You were out with Raindrop, so you guys came to see what was going on.” 

“Without calling anyone else?” Raindrop put in. “If we were going anywhere near the Scions–” 

“We didn’t know it was actually the Scions,” Alloy pointed out. “None of us did.” 

I agreed quickly. “That’s a good point. It’s the truth. We really didn’t know they were going to be there, only that it was a lead that might not pan out at all. We just tell the truth, as far as that goes. We looked into it and called you guys for help talking to who we thought was just a normal witness just in case she might respond better to someone from the official hero teams.”

Way hesitated slightly before shifting around in the front seat to look back at us through the window while still driving. “Yeah, I think we can deal with that. How’re you guys doing with that whole moving thing?” 

In answer, I slowly moved my head from the left, then to the right. It was almost painfully stiff, but I managed it. “Getting there. Call Flea and get the Conservators there. I’ll get hold of Ten Towers as soon as I can move my hand a little more.” 

“Yeah, I’ll–” Way started, just before the van abruptly jerked violently, almost skidding sideways off the road. All of us in the back were thrown to the floor. 

“Dude, what the hell?!” Pack blurted. 

Way was looking at the side mirror, her voice tight. “Hang on, guys. That was some sort of–” She suddenly spun the wheel, sending the van to the left just as a high pitched whine of something shooting past us on the right filled the air. “It’s Cup! And some others. They’re in a car and–” She spun the wheel back the opposite way to avoid another shot. 

Right, apparently we weren’t quite done with that whole escaping from the Scions thing. But hey, maybe if I was lucky, I’d manage to get myself fully unparalyzed before they killed all of us. 

Patreon Snippets 21

Arleigh

January 16th, two months before the start of the story. 

“Hey!” Arleigh Fosters pushed her way through a crowd that had gathered around the bottom of the long cement staircase in the outside courtyard of Cadillac Preparatory School. “Move, damn it.” There were too many people in the way, making the tall blonde growl under her breath in frustration. She grabbed the nearest guy by the elbow, making him turn to her. “What the hell is going on? Someone said Cassidy Evans was out here.” And god, she better be. If Arleigh had to go back home yet again and tell her dad she hadn’t had any luck getting close to the Evans kid…

The guy shrugged and nodded. “Sure, she’s right over there.” He stepped aside a bit, raising a hand to point over at the top of the long set of cement steps. 

The sound of wheels clacking rapidly across the cracks between concrete squares grew louder, as Arleigh looked that way just in time to see the girl in question. Cassidy Evans, daughter of the richest and most powerful (in more than one way) people in Michigan, reached the top of the stairs on her skateboard before grunting as she jumped the board up and turned so that it landed sideways on the metal railing running down the middle of the steps. With that, arms held high above her head, she rode the board all the way down to the bottom, jumped it before the very end, flipped the board over three hundred and sixty degrees in the air, then landed smoothly on the wheels before rolling to a stop. As the assembled students who had been watching cheered, she stepped off the board and popped it up into her hand before grinning as she took a bow. 

“Thank you, thank you,” the obscenely wealthy girl called out before focusing on one guy in particular, a senior who had been watching with folded arms. She held a hand out. “From the entrance all the way down the walk and off the railing. Isn’t that what you said would prove I wasn’t a poser? Now uhh, I think we bet something, didn’t we? Right, right, for me, it was a hundred bucks. For you, it was… what was it again?”  

“You know what, Evans?” The guy was practically baring his teeth as he snarled, “you’re just lucky you–” 

Taking that as her cue, Arleigh immediately stepped that way, putting one arm around the other girl as if they were BFFs. “Hey now, if you made a bet, you better honor it,” she informed the boy while wagging a finger at him. “You wouldn’t wanna be known as a welcher, would you?” 

The boy looked as though he wanted to argue, but finally just sighed and reached into his pocket before pulling out a pair of tickets, thrusting them out. “Fucking take ’em, whatever.” 

As he stalked off and the crowd started to disperse, Arleigh saw that the tickets Cassidy had taken hold of were for a concert the next night. Pretty good seats too. Perfect. This was perfect. If she went to a concert with the Evans girl, her dad would stop being such an asshole about making friends with her. 

“Oh hey, if you’re going to that concert, I could–” 

Cassidy, however, was already slipping out from under the arm that Arleigh had slung over her shoulders. “Nah,” she dismissively replied, holding the tickets out to some other girl, a sophomore. “Val’s the one who won them, Greg just convinced her he’d date her if she went to the concert with him.” 

The girl in question gave a relieved nod as she clutched the tickets to her chest. “But as soon as I let him hold them ‘for safe keeping’, he broke up with me and pretended he didn’t know anything about it. When I pushed it, he said they were payment for… looking at my ugly face.” She cringed. “I couldn’t tell my dad, he’d think I was just so stupid.” 

Arleigh’s mouth opened to tell the girl she was stupid for falling for something like that. But Val spoke again, addressing Cassidy. “Hey, maybe we could go together, since I don’t have anyone else to use this ticket for?” 

Stupid or not, the girl had just given her the opening she needed, and Arleigh immediately took it. “Yeah, I can get a ticket too and we could all go together. I could drive, so you don’t have to arrange anything. We could even go to dinner first.” Perfect, this whole thing was pe–

“No thanks,” Cassidy infuriatingly replied with a shrug. “Hey, you two should go together. Have fun.” She turned without another word, heading off with the skateboard tucked under one arm. 

God damn it! Arleigh fumed, watching the girl leave. Beside her, Val started to say something about arranging a place to meet tomorrow, but the older girl simply turned to stalk away without another word. Then she pivoted back, grabbed one of the tickets, and replied, “Five o’clock, front of the school right over there. Don’t be late.” 

Then she stalked off, ticket in hand. What the fuck was wrong with Evans? She was friendly enough, she stuck up for people she could have been much more popular than she was, even before you counted the whole rich thing. And she was… popular enough as far as school went. Some people liked her, some didn’t. She just… she had school ‘friends.’ As far as Arleigh had been able to figure out in the past several months since her father had started on this whole ‘make friends with the Evans girl’ kick, Cassidy didn’t have anyone from school who was actually close to her. She hung out in groups, she went to games and movies and stuff with other people, but there was no one she actually confided in or spent time with alone. 

“What the fuck is her problem?” Arleigh muttered to herself while mentally rehearsing what she was going to say to her father. 

Needless to say… she was going to be glad to get out of the house tomorrow night. 

*********

Plan Z

Jania Estrada, the sixty-six-year-old Panamanian woman who had worked as a maid in the Evans household for eighteen years, was humming to herself while running the vacuum back and forth across the carpet in one of the dens downstairs. More accurately, she was humming along with music playing through a single earbud. The music, humming, and vacuuming all stopped when a single buzz from the phone in her pocket informed the woman that she had a message. She turned off the vacuum and checked what had been sent to her, reading the message twice before leaving the vacuum where it was, pivoting to walk out of the room. Exchanging greetings with a couple other staff members, she made her way to the kitchen, where Chef Claudio and his two assistants were preparing lunch for the employees.

The moment she stepped into the room, the three of them looked up. Claudio started to say something about when their food would be ready, but Jania pointed to one of his assistants. “Christiana,” she announced while holding up her phone. “Mrs. Evans would like to have a few things picked up from the grocery store.” 

Christiana Diaz, a quite thin, young Latina woman with dark hair that was cut very short on the sides with a mop of curls on top, set down the knife she had been chopping with and politely excused herself before heading to the door. The two of them stepped away together, leaving the sounds of Claudio and Ethan picking up the pace in chopping vegetables. 

“Aunt Jania,” Christiana started once they were alone in the corridor. “What is it?” 

Seeing the two walk side-by-side, it was easy to notice the family resemblance in their faces, specifically their eyes and around their always-smiling mouths. Christiana was smaller than her aunt, standing only an inch over five feet. That, combined with her general youthful looks and hairstyle, made her appear to be closer to the end of her teens, rather than the twenty-seven she actually was. Or the twenty-two the rest of the household believed her to be, in her job as Claudio’s assistant.  

Not that that was her only job within the Evans household. 

In response to the question, Jania held up the phone for her to see. Indeed, it was a message from Elena Evans, asking her to send Christiana to the store to pick up a list of items. Anyone who glanced at the message would see nothing untoward about it. Certainly, they wouldn’t see the code buried in the list. Christiana, however, read the code as well as she read plain English. Or Spanish, for that matter. Her finger traced over a few key points, making certain she had translated it correctly. Then she took her aunt’s phone and sent back an answering response. To an outside observer, it would appear to be simply querying what prices were acceptable and if specific substitutes were okay, just in case. In actuality, the response included a separate code, which essentially repeated the gist of the assignment so that Elena could inform her if she had translated incorrectly or misunderstood anything. 

But no, as usual, she was spot on. The confirmation came back a moment later, and Christiana nodded to her aunt, passing the phone back to her. “Tell Claudio I’ll be back as soon as I run the errand,” she remarked, before turning on her heel, heading for the side door that led to the small employee parking lot, hidden out of sight from the front of the house for aesthetics.

Fifteen minutes later, Christiana parked a car in the underground lot of an office building. It wasn’t her car, but rather one she had borrowed from a grocery store several blocks away. No one would see her own car anywhere near this building. Rather than step out immediately, she took out her own phone, texting a totally different number from the one that Elena had used to contact Aunt Jania. Mrs. Evans’ rules. They divided these instructions and responses between multiple phones to make it even harder for anything to be traced back or decoded. The message she sent simply read, ‘You awake?’ After a few seconds, Elena sent back an emoji of a man in a business suit. Which was the last confirmation. Unless Elena sent a message to stop her, it was time to go. 

Tucking the phone away, Christiana focused for a moment. Her body shifted, transforming into a dark, mist-like shadow. Looking straight at her in this form, people would see only a pitch-black humanoid shape with a simplified face that would be impossible to recognize as anyone specific. She was clearly female, yet that was the only specific feature that could be determined. 

Stepping out of the car without opening the door, simply passing through the solid material, Christiana looked up while focusing once more. Her humanoid form shifted slightly, becoming even more of a shadow than a person, a human-sized bit of darkness. A moment later her shadow-form flew through the ceiling and into the building proper. She was in a corner of the main lobby, yet no one noticed. Anyone who looked that way would only see a notably darker section of the room, as if something nearby was casting a dark shadow there. And these people were too busy rushing back and forth to the elevators or the street to notice something like that. 

After making certain she hadn’t been noticed, Christiana moved even closer to the far corner of the lobby and continued her way upward. Floating higher, she passed through the ceiling and into what turned out to be a restroom on the second floor. Yet she didn’t stop there. One by one, she passed floor after floor, counting them to herself as she went. Finally, on the eleventh floor, she stopped. This too was a restroom, and she made her way forward through it, a barely visible shadow fog heading for the door. It opened just as she reached it, her dark figure hidden behind the door itself as a man walked right past on his way to the urinal. 

Christiana walked through the door as it closed, looking both ways in the corridor. People rushed every which way, calling out requests or questions from their cubicles while phones rang and managers worked to keep it all organized. They paid no attention to the dark shadow moving through the room. She was intangible, practically invisible, and they were distracted. 

On her way, however, she heard one man in particular snarling some very untoward things toward his clearly junior, female employee. The poor girl sat huddled in her seat, drawn in on herself while the man hissed hateful things about how terrible she was at her job as well as how useless she was in plenty of other aspects of life. He also made sure to mention at least three times that he was about to have a very important meeting with a couple of the vice presidents and if this girl knew what was good for her, she’d get him those files right now. Listening to him for only a few seconds, Christiana could tell exactly what he was. She knew his type far too well. Lording his power and authority over others, he knew the girl he was attacking here had self-confidence issues and reveled in his ability to make her miserable. 

Her job could wait for a moment. Turning to face the man, a simple shadow against the wall of the cubicle, she reared back before giving him a hard shove as hard as she could. 

He gave no reaction, of course, as her intangible hands passed through him. That was, he gave no reaction yet. Turning, Christiana stepped out of direct sight, waiting for the man to lead her back to his own small office along one side of the room. While he stopped in the doorway to say something to another middle manager, Christiana found the mug of coffee on his desk and gave it a simple push with one finger near the top. Again, there was no physical response, as her finger simply passed through. Then she swept her arm across the desk, through all the little knick knacks, before shoving both hands into the computer monitor. Finally, she turned and kicked the trash can next to the desk as hard as she could, aiming for the doorway. As always, none of these actions had any effect.  

By that point, the man had moved into the office and took a seat at his desk, clearly antsy as he waited for that important meeting. He kept glancing up at the doorway, leg bouncing anxiously. 

Standing in the corner of the room where her shadow shape would be all-but entirely invisible, Christiana watched as well. She saw the way the man’s eyes lit up when two older guys in much nicer suits began to approach. This was it, his meeting. He reached down, taking up his mug for one last sip. 

And that was when Christiana set to work. Focusing on the mug, she triggered the action she had used on it. When she had shoved her finger against the brim, nothing had happened. Now the mug reacted to that previous action, tipping over while he was sipping in order to spill all across the front of his shirt. 

While the man yelped and cursed at that, she triggered the response to her arm sweeping across the desk. All those little bits and pieces, the mug of pens, the stapler, the pristine and polished nameplate, everything went flying off to the side. A second later, she triggered the action on the computer monitor, sending that off to slam into the wall with a crash. 

By that point, the man had bolted upright, his eyes wide. “What the fuck?!” He shouted those words just as the two higher-ups came into the doorway. And in that moment, Christiana triggered both the shove into the man’s back and the kick against the trash can. Simultaneously, the man staggered forward while the can itself was sent flying over, literally smacking into one of their heads. 

And then it was done. The man was left standing there beside his desk where he had stumbled, monitor broken against the nearby wall, random junk from his desk scattered across the floor, while his trash can had just hit one of his bosses in the face. From the fresh stain on his shirt, it would appear to those men as though he had spilled his own coffee and violently overreacted. Even the stumble forward from being pushed combined with the flying trash can looked like he had lunged that way to kick it.

With a small smirk, Christiana stepped backward through the wall into another office, leaving the man to explain that whole situation while the yelling started. 

Satisfied with her own moment of justice, she moved through several more offices, finding the one she was looking for. A heavyset, very tall man sat at the desk there, reading through a few files. Christiana took the time to ensure that this was the right man, before holding one hand out as she stood behind him. A thought made a knife appear, while she solidified herself into a more humanoid form. Then she gave a low whistle. 

The man jolted, turning to face her. As soon as he did, Christiana stabbed the knife into his throat. He yelped, jerking backward before falling to the floor. But, of course, the knife had done nothing. Not yet, anyway. 

“Do you know who I am?” she asked, standing there over the suddenly terrified man while he clutched his perfectly-fine throat. 

“Y-you… you work for them. Z. They call you Z,” he stammered. 

“Plan Z, to be completely accurate,” she informed him. “Then you know how this works. They’ve asked you for the files twice. This is the third time. The last time. You have one hour. Deliver the files, then they will call me and tell me to call it off. If I don’t get that call by that point, I will trigger the effect. Your throat will be slit. If you go to the cops, I will trigger the effect. If you tell anyone, I will trigger the effect. No one else can save you, no one else can stop it. Nobody. If I trigger that knife I just put in your throat, you will die. Deliver the files and you’ll be fine. You have fifty-eight minutes now. Do you understand?” 

He tried to plead with her, and she simply repeated, “Do you understand? Fifty-seven minutes and forty seconds. If I was you, I would hurry.” 

That was all it took. The man lunged to his feet, blubbering a bit as he bolted for the door while saying something about getting the files out of storage. Christiana watched him go, then simply turned and stepped through the nearby wall, floating down along the outside of the building before reaching the street. There, she made her way back to her own car where it was parked several blocks away, resumed her normal form, and took out a different phone out of the glove box to text to yet a third phone number, ‘Got the tickets, you still wanna go to the game?’ 

‘Let me check with the old lady’ came the response. 

And there it was. Christiana only had to wait now. If the response came back affirmative, that the supposed person at the other end of the line was allowed to go to the game, it meant their target had delivered the files as instructed and she could cancel the knife attack. But if it came back negative, that the ‘old lady’ had denied them, it meant he had not followed instructions. In which case… he wouldn’t be making any other decisions again. 

Reaching out, Christiana turned on the car to listen to music. 

And then she waited. 

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Hostile Witness 18-08 (Summus Proelium)

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I couldn’t move. Whatever we had just been hit with, it paralyzed us. All I could do was lay there.

Okay, to take stock, this… could have been going better. I had spent so much time focusing on being afraid that talking to this Amanda girl would somehow attract Pencil’s attention, from him seeing her as a potential loose end, that it hadn’t even occurred to me to ever think that she could be an actual threat. And I sure as hell had never expected anything like this. 

Amanda was Cup. The girl we had come to talk to, the one who had been a potential lead to a way of stopping Pencil, was his sister–wait. That meant the guy who was supposed to be in Alaska, Nick, he was… he was… oh. God damn it, why did I never even think about that? 

Well, obviously, because there was a video of Pencil himself with the young Amanda and Nick tied up while he manipulated their parents into killing each other. Deicide had shown it to Alloy and me, though she stopped it just before the gunshots. What–how would that even–what? 

A giggle interrupted my racing thoughts. My attention was dragged right back to Aman–Cup herself, as she straightened while still standing over me. “Isn’t this fun? You came back! And you brought friends this time.” Her gaze moved to look over toward Pack and Alloy, before pausing. “Hold up.” Moving that way a few steps, she leaned closer to my new partner for a moment before audibly sighing while straightening back up, her voice full of annoyance. “Great, it knocked that one unconscious. I thought it was supposed to just paralyze!” She paused, then gave a little giggle. “Ohhh right, yeah that makes sense. Never mind, we’re all good. I mean, I’m good. You’re all still kinda fucked.”  

Alloy was unconscious? I supposed that explained why her marbles weren’t going psycho attacking Cup right now. But damn it! I was supposed to keep her safe. I’d–this was first thing we were doing together  in the real world, and it had all been fucked up this badly. She was unconscious and paralyzed in the home of one of the leaders of the fucking Scions of Typhon, for fucks sake. I screwed up. I screwed up badly, and if we couldn’t get out of here, Alloy would… no. Don’t think about that. I couldn’t think about that. If I did, I’d spiral into a hopeless nightmare. I had to think.

After her little giggle fit, Cup shrugged. “Oh well, two out of three staying conscious ain’t bad. And we can still play.” 

“You wanna play, cunt?” the La Casa girl countered in a growl while still laying motionless. “How about Connect Four? I’ll shove every single one of those plastic discs up your–” 

“Not on the first date, silly!” Cup interrupted, tutting while giving Pack a light, almost playful kick with her foot. “Besides, I have much more fun plans in mind than a dumb board game. I’ll just have to do most of the physical stuff myself, since that paralyzing ray won’t wear off for awhile. And, you know, that new best friend of yours is still asleep. Gotta do something about that…”

Through the bluetooth in my helmet, I heard That-A-Way. “Paintball, we’re on our way in!” 

Right, right, because we hadn’t actually been completely stupid about this whole thing. We had backup. Backup that would come in and help deal with Cup before she had time to call Pencil or any of the other Scions. She was too busy gloating in front of us to even think about moving fast. And why not? As far as she knew, she had all of us trapped here. We’d even told her that no one else knew we were there when we came in. She was in no rush. She wasn’t even…

“No!” I suddenly blurted out loud as a thought jumped to mind. “Don’t… don’t come any closer.”  

Tilting her head, Cup stared down at me. “Aww,” she all-but-purred, “is the little hero boy scared now that he’s back here?” She squatted down close to me, tapping the visor of my helmet. “Don’t you worry one little bit. Auntie Cup’s gonna take excellent care of you, yes she is.” 

“Paintball,” That-A-Way’s voice came through the earbud again, “if you were trying to tell us to wait, say something that ends with the word ‘Scion.’ And you better have a damn good reason.” 

I did. At least, I hoped I did. Taking a breath, I stared up at Cup’s eager face. At least, the part I could still see with that white mask covering the lower half. God, how had I completely failed to realize that the girl we had been talking to was her? Seriously, now it was obvious while looking at her eyes. Sure, she was pretty good at pretending to have all her marbles, but I should’ve recognized her. I should’ve paid more attention. I should’ve been more on top of things.  

Forcing those thoughts away, I quickly spoke up. “So you’re really part of the Scions.” 

“God damn it,” Way snapped, clearly upset about the whole situation. Which, fair. “This better be a real plan. If you’re just trying to play noble sacrifice or something, I’m going to kill you. We’ll wait for a minute, but you need to make it clear what the hell you’re doing or we’re coming in. And when you do want us to come in, end a sentence with the word nuts.”   

Cup, meanwhile, chuckled a little while shaking her head. “Still catching up with that, huh?” She gave me a kick that wasn’t nearly as gentle as the one she had given Pack. “Poor boy. You know, I haven’t forgotten about that whole nasty business at the cabin. You and your…” She turned, giving Pack herself a second kick, this one as hard as mine. “… friends hurt me! Threatened me, made poor Pencil all mad too. Oh, but he’s gonna be really happy when I bring you to him. Think I’ll find a big red bow and stick it right on your head. Won’t that be great? And wait til I tell him how you came strolling right in. Ain’t that the funniest shit?” 

Okay, okay, I had to be careful with this if the plan that had jumped into my head was going to work. This was incredibly dangerous, and maybe stupid. But it was the best chance we had to actually get somewhere with the whole Scions thing. Yeah, there was still a chance of doing some real damage to them, and not just from knowing Cup’s identity. Given how many stolen Touched-Tech toys Pencil had, and the fact that Cup had already demonstrated having this place wired with stolen tech that was able to paralyze us? I had no doubt that she had a way to teleport out of this place to safety the second Raindrop and Way got here. She certainly had methods of escaping, so we couldn’t even count on catching her with help from those two. Especially not while Pack and I were paralyzed and Alloy was unconscious. No, if those two burst in, at best they’d just be able to make her flee. Then we’d be back to square one. Which, to be fair, was a hell of a lot better than being at square ‘captured by the Scions,’ but still. 

To that end, I took a moment to collect my thoughts before speaking again. “That was some pretty good acting back there. I really felt sorry for you.” I was careful to keep my tone a mix between forced lightness and fearful. I wanted Cup to see me as terrified but trying to hide it. Shockingly, that wasn’t a hard thing to pull off, given the actual situation we were in.

“Paintball,” Pack snapped in my direction, “I really don’t ask for that much, but could you pretty please refrain from complimenting the evil fucking psychopath who wants to torture and kill us?”  

“Aww, you really liked that, huh?” Cup was ignoring Pack, her gaze focused on me. “And see, I didn’t even expect to see you today. Pulled that whole performance out of nowhere, just like that. Can you believe I lost the lead in the school play to Bethany Dane? Not that she had much of a chance to enjoy it.” Her tone with those words sent a terrible shiver down my spine. 

“Actually,” I made myself reply, “I wasn’t talking about today. I mean, really, kudos there too. No, I was talking about the video. The one of you and… what was his name, again? Your brother. I mean, his real name. Nick? Right, Nick. I was talking about the video where you and Nick were all terrified because your parents were about to be killed. Err, sorry, were about to kill each other. You two seriously looked scared. I really thought you were innocent victims. That’s the performance that really should’ve gotten you the lead over that Bethany Dane chick.” 

There was a brief pause while the girl seemed to be considering my words. I held my breath, waiting to see if she bought into it. Then, she chuckled lightly. “It should’ve, huh? That was the role of a lifetime. I mean seriously, how many people get to pretend they’re sad that their parents just had to shoot each other because they thought they were saving them?”

“You’re completely fucked up,” Pack put in from where she was still lying on the floor. “And honestly, I’m not sure if I mean you or the idiot over there trying to butter you up!”   

She sounded completely pissed, but I knew Pack fairly well by now. I was pretty sure she’d already figured out that I actually had a real reason for all this. She knew I had a plan, and was backing me up on it by being openly antagonistic. The bad cop to my good cop, so to speak. 

Casually, Cup remarked, “Oh, don’t worry. I know exactly what he’s doing.” My stomach clenched, before she went on. “He’s hoping if I talk long enough, that paralyzing ray will wear off and you can all escape. But it doesn’t really matter. See, it’ll take another… oh, hour or so? Unless I use the counter ray. But you know, I really don’t see myself doing that anytime soon.” 

Oh man, she’d figured out my cunning plan to trick her into talking long enough for the paralyzing beam to wear off so we could escape. What was I going to do now? Woe is m–oh right, that wasn’t my actual plan. But cool for her for thinking she’d caught on. 

Still, I made myself hesitate a little as though her words actually had an effect before pushing on. “But seriously, how? I mean, did your brother just kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” 

There, that ought to do it. 

“Kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” Cup’s voice radiated annoyance. Yup, my words had done the job. “Are you that fucking stupid? Of course we didn’t–I mean… kid, he is the real Pencil. The one and only truly original. That guy was just a stupid patsy, he was dead before he ever left the house, like five minutes after the camera stopped rolling.” 

“W-wait.” Again, it wasn’t hard to inject fear into my voice. I had the subtlest impression that she got off on scaring people, so she’d react better to that than fake awe or respect. Trying to play up to her ego wouldn’t work, but pretending everything she said scared the crap out of me? Well, I wasn’t really pretending so much, but either way, that was how I could make her talk. “You mean you guys didn’t just… wa-wait, I thought you were just… just so broken after what he did that you turned bad then. Like, he made you bad?” Yeah, saying it like that sounded ridiculously childish, but again, that seemed like the best way to get the crazy bitch talking. 

“Made us bad?” Cup’s taunting laugh was enough to make my teeth grind a bit. “Oh, you sweet, sweet little boy. No, no, no. We pulled him in, hired him. He was an actor, little puppy. Just a dumb wannabe like so many others. A poser. He played his role just the way we scripted it.” 

“Oh come on,” Pack put in, clearly getting all the way into her role as the bad cop of this whole thing. “You expect us to believe a couple teenagers did all that? Who was your boss? Who’s the one who really put all of it together and recruited you? I wanna know who the real power is.” 

From the corner of my eye, I could barely make out Cup’s form as she moved to stand over Pack. Her voice was dangerous. “Is that right, lizard girl? You want to know who the real power is? I think we can accommodate that. Give me five minutes, you’ll know who has the power.” 

Okay maybe that was a little too far. Cup was clearly right on the edge. We didn’t want her to immediately call Pencil or the others, but if she started… getting involved like she clearly wanted to do with Pack right now, that would be bad too. Quickly, I blurted, “It was the powers, right?” Feeling Cup’s gaze on me, I continued. “Some people think they can make you evil. That must’ve been what happened to you guys. We can get you help, there’s some doctors who think they can reverse the psychological effect of the sphere and make you normal ag–” 

That did the trick. A little too well, actually, as there was an abrupt rush of movement before her foot collided with my stomach. Thankfully, I’d painted a bit of orange on the inside of my costume, so I barely felt it. Still, I gave her the yelp of pain she was clearly itching for. 

“Now you listen to me, you little fuck,” Cup snapped. “Nothing changed us. Nothing made Nick and me what we are. We’re in control. We did all that before we even had powers. That’s right, we didn’t get powers until right after that happened. Those little spheres showed up and gave us these gifts because they were so impressed. They knew we deserved them after what we managed to do. Just think about that for a second.” Her foot came down on my stomach, not hard but just sort of resting there with a little force. “We talked our own parents into killing each other, and we did it through a fucking proxy. We talked a moron sucker into playing the big bad role on camera so everyone would think he was responsible and feel sorry for us, got him to talk our parents into killing each other, and then killed him ourselves. Myself. I did it. Now everyone thinks Pencil is the guy who did all that. You know who’s not a suspect and will never be? His first poor, innocent victims. That’s what we pulled off. That’s why the orbs came and gave us our rewards. Because they wanted to see what else we could do. They were proud of us.” 

Oh boy, was there an awful lot I wanted to say to that. But I stuck to my original plan and simply replied (in a voice that was still shaky from the terror I wanted her to hear), “Th-the orbs gave you power as a reward? I–I don’t… Is that why they gave Pencil such a bigger reward than they gave you? Because all that stuff was his idea and he’s the one in charge?”  

There was a very slight pause before Cup crouched over me. Her gaze seemed to bore through the visor and straight into my eyes as she very dangerously murmured, “Excuse me?”

Right, I had to be careful about this. Hesitating slightly, I offered her a confused, “I mean, because he’s invincible. He’s like, completely invincible to everything and you… uhh, you make people freeze for a couple seconds?” Yes, I was deliberately downplaying it. I figured with any luck, I could maybe get her to tell us any weaknesses Pencil might have just to counter my claim that he was completely invincible. Measured against her own power, complete invincibility to everything seemed wildly unfair, and I figured that would twist her buttons a little. Maybe just enough to get the girl to retort that Pencil wasn’t actually totally invincible. Sure, it was a longshot, but it was the best chance we had of getting real information while we were here. 

Cup gave a low chuckle of amusement while roughly tapping my visor a few times. “You think that’s all I do? Boy, you really are as stupid as the others, aren’t you?”  

“What?” Pack put in, “you gonna try to say that making someone stop to think about whatever ridiculous nonsense question you make up is better than literal invulnerability? Face it, babe, you’re a far distant second behind the kind of power your brother has. Hell, not even that. You guys recruit some good powers. Maybe you’re like… third or fourth? Seriously, it’s not even close. With his power, it’s like he’s Superman, and you’re… just that bad guy with the stilts.” 

There was a low growl from the crazy girl before she retorted, “First of all, you’re mixing comic universes. Superman’s DC and Stiltman is Marvel. Get it right. And second…” She trailed off, tapping my visor a couple times indecisively before straightening. “I’ve got some news for you.”

Wait, was this actually about to work? Was she about to tell us something secret about Pencil’s power? The whole thing had been such a crazy reach, and yet, it sure sounded like that. 

But no. The next words out of the girl’s mouth weren’t some big secret about Pencil. Actually, it wasn’t about him at all. Instead, she picked up that remote she had been using earlier, the one that triggered the paralyzing ray. “You think my power just makes your brain freeze up? It lets me borrow your brain, stupid.” She tapped the remote pointedly against my visor. “I ask you a stupid, nonsensical question and while you’re stuck trying to figure it out, I get these ideas. Ideas like this thing.” She waved the remote in my face. “I know how to build things, anything I want. But I only get inspired when I get to borrow other people’s brains for it. I use my power, their brains lock up, and I get ideas for my inventions. Different people give ideas of different… flavors. That’s what’s so fun about this. The paralyzing ray? You gave me that idea. I used my power on you back at the hospital and it made me think about a big colorful beam that could make things stop moving. That’s what Pencil used on you at the cabin. Then I built an upgraded version here in my home sweet home that lasts longer and hits everyone I want instead of just one person. Once I mix the portable version and the more effective one together, it’s gonna be useful as hell.”  

Okay, that was unexpected. I’d set this whole thing up to find out a secret about Pencil’s power, and ended up getting a secret about Cup’s. What the fuck? Her power was–wait a second. 

“That’s how you guys have all those Touched-Tech things,” I blurted in surprise. “Everyone thinks you just steal them from others all over the place, but you build them yourself?” 

She offered a smirk my way. “Well, some of them. We steal enough that those Techie geeks whine about it, which makes everyone assume that all the toys we have come from that.” 

Before I had time to even start processing that, there was a soft groan from nearby. Alloy. “What–” she started before giving a yelp. “I can’t move! What the–why–hey!” 

“Oh, sorry, babe.” Cup teasingly called over that way. “Pencil only really cares about punishing these two. We don’t actually need an extra.” Her hand moved to push something on the remote. In that second, a gold marble flew out of nowhere, transforming into a baseball bat before slamming into the girl. She was sent colliding into the wall. But not before she managed to hit the button. It wasn’t another paralyzing ray. Instead, three different very lethal-looking gun turret things dropped into view from the ceiling. 

“You’re nuts!” I screamed, just as the guns sighted in on Alloy. They made loud humming sounds as they began to charge up to fire some sort of beam that way. 

But That-A-Way was faster. She appeared along with Raindrop right in the middle of the room. While Cup was jolting to her feet and spinning to face the new arrivals, Rain hit her with a massive wave of water powerful enough to send the evil bitch right back into the floor with a squeal of surprise. More importantly, the tidal wave washed across the ceiling, and with a grunt, the younger girl made the entire roof of the building tear itself off. Yes, the entire roof. It ripped its way upward with a scream of protesting metal and a shower of sparks and bits of debris before flying off through the air, taking the turrets with it just as they opened fire. 

By that point, two more turrets had popped out of the floor and were swiveling around to take aim. Fortunately, Way had used that time to throw herself down across the three of us. Her foot touched my waist, she was laying over Pack, and had stretched out her hand just enough for her fingers to brush Alloy’s arm. Raindrop fell backwards on top of her, and I heard Cup scream something in a blind rage. 

Then Way activated her power once more, and we were gone.

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Hostile Witness 18-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude posted for Heretical Edge over the weekend. If you read that story and have not seen the chapter, you can see it right here

A sense of relief washed over me once Amanda agreed to let us come inside. I had really expected that to be harder, after everything she’d been through. I figured she’d be pretty paranoid about anyone unexpected showing up, let alone a few Touched. Then again, maybe she’d had enough good experiences with Star-Touched helping her since that horrible night that she was okay with us. I wasn’t sure, but either way, at least she actually let us into her place.

On the other hand, she definitely wasn’t interested in anyone else getting inside. That much was made clear when Amanda immediately shut the door as soon as we were through, and took the time to set the lock and alarm once more. Which… made me feel a little funny in my stomach. I couldn’t explain it, but the moment that girl locked and keyed the alarm, I felt a little jittery. It was probably just because of the whole situation. Anything that had to do with Pencil and the Scions made me antsy, for obvious reasons. Especially considering how pissed off he would be if he found out we were trying to find out about any weaknesses or vulnerabilities he might have. 

“Nice uhh, crowded place you’ve got here,” Pack noted after a moment of looking around the room, stuffed as it was with boxes, stacks of magazines and books, scissors, glue, clocks, and more. “You ever think about renting a storage unit for some of this stuff?” She added that bit while turning back to the girl in question. “I mean, just so you have more room around here.” 

“I like it this way,” Amanda informed us in a quiet, uncertain voice. “I know where everything is.”  She squirmed a bit uncomfortably before adding, “And I don’t trust storage places. People can break into those. Here, I–at least I’ll know if someone breaks in. They don’t let you put alarms or extra security on storage units. And it’s super-easy to get through one of their dumb padlocks.” 

Pack, clearly grinning behind that mask, gave her a pair of thumbs up. “Yeah, that’s probably safer. My people and me, we break into those places all the time. You’re right, security sucks unless you go with something really high end. Even then, really. This one time, my buddy Eits, he–” 

“That’s okay,” I quickly put in, before this whole conversation could devolve into even more of an ongoing list of things I really didn’t want to hear about. “I think we all get the point. Besides, we’re not really here to talk about where, uh, Miss Sanvers decides to keep her belongings.” 

“But why are you guys here together?” Amanda slowly asked, looking back and forth between Pack and me, her attention flicking toward Alloy for a brief moment, but mainly staying on the two of us. “I mean, you’re a good guy, and you’re a bad guy. Uh, bad girl, whatever. You’re a villain.” Her tone wasn’t accusatory at all, more curious about the situation than anything else.  

Alloy was being silent, probably an attack of nerves given how new to all this she was. And Pack was probably the wrong person to defend herself. So I spoke up. “Yeah, she’s a villain. But more of a jolly thief sort of villain instead of the…” Suddenly, I didn’t want to finish that sentence. Not after what I knew this girl had been through. It felt too much like I was making light of it. 

Amanda finished it instead, her tone flat. “Not the kill everyone you know and laugh about it sort, like him.” She didn’t have to be any more specific than that. We all knew who she meant.  

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath before shaking off the deeply uncomfortable feeling that had tried to creep over me yet again. “More than one kind of villain, and her kind is nothing like his. Let’s just say we’re all interested in getting rid of that piece of shit before he hurts any more people. If we can, we’ll make sure they stick him in a deep, dark hole in the middle of Breakwater, where he can’t ever get out. He can rot there forever like the rabid worm he is.” 

For a brief second, there was a strange look on the older girl’s face. I couldn’t really describe it, nor did I understand what it meant. It was sort of an almost feral expression, and my best guess was that she was thinking about all the terrible things she wanted to happen to the guy who had hurt her family so much, who had torn them apart and destroyed their lives. Thinking about it that way, the expression made sense. Of course she wanted to rip his heart out. That was what that look had put in my head, the feeling that this girl was desperate to tear someone apart. 

Thinking about what she had been through and had to be feeling was making me really uncomfortable. So, I cleared my throat before pushing on. Uncertain as I was about this whole situation, it was important. Far too important to let a little thing like a heavy feeling in my stomach stop me. “Sorry, maybe we should start from the beginning. You already know who we are, but still. I’m Paintball. That’s Alloy and Pack. And yeah, we’re here to find out anything you know about Pencil, anything you might not have shared with the authorities already.” 

“The word is you might be holding something back,” Alloy put in, stepping over to put herself behind me and slightly to the side. “Either because you’re afraid of what he’ll do if he finds out you umm, you actually do know anything important and tell anyone about it, or…” 

“Or that you don’t want the official by-the-book hero types to know because you’re afraid they’ll screw it up,” Pack finished for her. “Which, yeah, totally fair. I mean, have you seen some of those guys? Anyway, that’s where I come in, to let you know this definitely isn’t by-the-book.” 

Amanda started to say something, before stopping herself. She seemed to consider briefly, then turned to walk through the nearby doorway. “Come on, the kitchen’s a little less crowded than this place. You can sit down, while we talk about what a suicidally stupid idea this is.”   

So, the three of us looked at each other and offered a collection of shrugs before following. I’d known from the start that this was going to be awkward, but even this was more than I’d expected. It was going… well, in some ways it was going better than I’d imagined. She wasn’t yelling at us, or refusing to talk, or breaking down because we’d brought up those tragic memories. On the surface, it was going okay. And yet, there was still something. I felt strange, uncomfortable, even… not quite afraid, really. Tense. I still felt tense, and it wasn’t going away.

Well duh, of course I felt tense. Who wouldn’t in a situation like this? We were asking a girl who had been horrifically traumatized to throw herself into the lion’s den again and paint a target on her back by telling us secrets that she didn’t even feel comfortable telling the Conservators. 

The kitchen was slightly less crowded, if only because everything was piled on the counters rather than the floor or table. There were a bunch of boxes in there too, all of them labeled things like ‘dishes’ or ‘towels.’ One big one in the corner of the room had ‘microwaves’ written on it. There was barely space on the counter to cook anything. Even the stove was covered. 

But the table was clear (completely empty, actually), and surrounded by four chairs. We all sat down, the three of us on one side of the table and Amanda on the other. 

“So,” I started once everyone was settled, “you were going to tell us how stupid we were?” 

Before she could respond to that, Alloy spoke up. “I know you. I’ve seen you before. I knew I had, but it was–you were at my school. You and… your brother?”

Amanda offered a very faint smile. “Yeah, we visit the schools sometimes to give motivational… talks or whatever.” She shrugged listlessly. “He’s more into it than me. You know, when he’s in town. I don’t really…. do much by myself.” A slight frown touched her face before the girl sighed, folding her arms protectively against her stomach. “You always think it’ll go away, you know? It’s been years. It should’ve gone away by now. It should feel better.” She swallowed hard. “But it doesn’t. It doesn’t get any better. You just learn to live with it.” 

There was a moment of silence before she gave us a very shaky smile. “Sorry. I’m really sorry. I’m usually better in the schools about telling kids how they can move on, seriously. I just–I wasn’t expecting to talk to anyone today. Let alone, you know, people like you. And I definitely wasn’t expecting to talk about…” She took in a long breath before letting it out. “Him.”  

Yeah, now I definitely felt bad about being here. As if I hadn’t already. Looking down at the table, I heaved a long sigh before raising my gaze to hers. She was staring at me with an expression I couldn’t interpret. When our eyes met, she offered me a small, clearly humorless smile. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” Her voice was emotionless. “You’ve talked to him. I can tell.” 

“Yeah,” I confirmed while doing my best not to think about what being around Pencil and Cup had been like. I still woke up in a cold sweat sometimes from dreaming about being taken by the two of them for their revenge. Even closing my eyes right now, I could picture that psycho staring at me from behind that cloth sack mask. It made a thick lump form in my throat while a cold chill washed over me. I had to swallow hard before pushing myself to my feet. It felt too uncomfortable to sit anymore. Like I was trapped. I felt trapped in here, which was crazy. 

“We know your history with him,” Pack spoke up, taking heat off of me for a moment so I could pull myself together. “You and your family were some of his first victims, before anyone even knew he was Touched. Hell, you guys might’ve even been the first, before he knew what he was capable of. Before he had a solid lock on how his power works, or how it doesn’t work.”

“That’s why we’re here,” I finally managed, folding my arms as I stood behind Pack’s chair. “Because we think you might have seen something that night. Something he didn’t know he should be careful about because he was so new to the whole thing. And… and we’re really sorry to bring up those memories. What happened to your family, it was…” I fought the urge to shudder at the thought, meeting her intense gaze as she seemed to stare right through me. “It was awful. And he’s hurt so many more people since then, killed so many more people.” 

It was Amanda’s turn to pop up from the table, the chair falling to the floor behind her as she stared at me with a mixture of anger and frustration on her face. “And you think that’s my fault? You think I wouldn’t’ve stopped him if I could? You think I know something I haven’t told the cops already? That this piece of shit killed my fucking pare–no, made my parents kill each other, but I’m holding back some super-secret special weakness of his just because–what, because I don’t want him to get caught? Oh, maybe you think I’m laughing at it, is that it? Do you think that I think all those people getting hurt and dying is funny?! Is that what you’re getting at? You think I’m laughing about them dying?!” Her voice had risen to the point of near-hysteria by that point, eyes wild as she practically shouted her way through the whole retort.    

“No!” That was Alloy, who quickly stood up to put herself next to me as if ready to jump in for protection. “That’s not what he’s saying, just–just hold on. No one’s saying that, Miss Sanvers.”

“She’s right,” I carefully managed, holding both hands up. Obviously, this was a very touchy subject. Not that I could blame Amanda for feeling reflexively defensive about the whole thing. If it was me and I had been through that with my brother and parents? I… yeah, I definitely would’ve been pretty upset if someone came up to me and seemed to be implying that I didn’t do everything I possibly could to bring their murderer to justice. No wonder she was angry. 

With all that running through my head, I kept my hands raised and didn’t break eye contact with Amanda. “I know us being here and bringing this stuff up again isn’t easy. I know the– I know it’s fucked up for us even to bring up this possibility at all. It’s not that we think you wouldn’t have helped the cops already if you could. It’s more that… that you might’ve been afraid to tell them something that would make Pencil come after you again. Which, trust me, everyone understands. Maybe even something that you thought of later. The people we talked to, they think you might know something that you’ve been waiting for the right time to share. That’s why we’re here. Because we’re not the cops. We’re not the Conservators or the Minority. We want him stopped, whatever it takes. Even working with Fell-Touched.” I gestured toward Pack demonstrably. “But I promise, no one thinks you don’t want him arrested, Miss Sanvers.” 

“Amanda,” she corrected, seeming to visibly deflate with a heavy sigh. Folding her arms protectively against herself, the older girl slumped against the nearby counter. “Just call me Amanda, all of you. And I know. I know that’s not what you were saying. I didn’t mean t–I just…” Her eyes closed tightly and I saw a single tear slowly leak down one side of her face. “Every time someone brings up what happened back then, I can’t think straight. I want–I hate him. I hate him so much. It scares me sometimes, how much I want him to suffer after what he did. He took my mom and dad away. He made them–he was going to-” She cut herself off with a shudder before opening her eyes to look at us, her gaze sweeping over Pack, Alloy, and me. “If we’d stopped him that night, if Nick and me actually could’ve remembered something back then that helped the cops catch him, all those other people would still be alive.” 

She looked away from us staring through the nearby window in silence for a few long seconds. Then the girl swallowed, setting her shoulders as though preparing to say something very difficult. “And we did.” She turned back to us with a nervous expression, making it very clear that she was afraid to even be saying what was about to come out. “We did see something. I mean we found something. Later, after the cops and everyone all left, we found a… a wallet just sort of laying under a chair. We… we realized it was his. It had a bunch of different IDs in it and everything, but it was a lead. It had his face. I didn’t really look at it very much, I was… I was scared to, after everything. But Nick did. He looked at that monster’s face for hours.”   

“You know what he looks like?” Pack’s voice was flat. “You and your brother know what Pencil really looks like? Why didn’t you tell anyone about that, so they could identify him? If your brother stared at it for so long, he really could’ve helped catch the guy a long time ago.”  

“Was it because you were afraid of what might happen if Pencil found out you identified him?” I asked very quietly, afraid that all of this would set the girl off again. “If he even thinks you might be able to tell the authorities what he really looks like…” A shiver ran through me as I thought about how the psycho undoubtedly would have reacted to a threat like that. 

“That’s why he hasn’t come after you,” Alloy realized with a soft gasp. “Because he thinks if you did find his wallet and all those IDs with his picture, you would’ve told the cops already. But you didn’t, so he thinks you never found it. Or maybe he thinks he dropped it somewhere else.” 

“Is that it?” I carefully asked, watching Amanda’s reaction. “You guys found his wallet and didn’t tell anyone because you were afraid of what he’d do if he found out you identified him?” I tried to keep all judgment out of my voice, because I had no idea how I would’ve acted in that situation. Part of me was angry that she and her brother hadn’t done more to stop this, but I knew firsthand how terrifying Pencil could be. Actually, they knew a lot better than I did. I didn’t have nearly as bad of an experience as Amanda and her brother had. But just from what I’d read and seen for myself, I could understand the two of them being too afraid to paint a target on their backs, no matter how much they wanted Pencil to go down. It was a horrific situation all the way through. Being afraid of making that piece of shit angry was completely reasonable. 

Amanda, however, corrected me. “We did tell, once. We told… someone who was investigating it. We told him exactly what you guys are asking. But he just–he told us it wasn’t his job to get involved with something that dangerous, and if we knew what was good for us, we’d back off. And he… he took the wallet. He kept it himself, as like… insurance or something. If you want to know what Pencil looks like, you have to find that guy.” 

“Who was he?” I asked, glancing briefly toward the others. Yeah, this wasn’t all that surprising. Pencil was dangerous, whoever took the wallet from them might’ve, in some way, thought he was saving Amanda and her brother. Or maybe he was just a dick. He could’ve sold the wallet back to Pencil himself. Hell, I knew for a fact that the authorities weren’t always trustworthy. 

Either way, tracking him down and finding out what he did with it would be–

“Parson,” Amanda promptly informed us. “His name is Robert Parson.” 

The other two reacted immediately, though quite differently. Pack looked over at me, while Alloy promptly echoed the name. “Robert Parson. So I guess we just have to find this guy, and–” 

“No.” The word escaped me before I even knew I was talking. My head was shaking suddenly. “No, that’s not right.” I had no idea exactly how I was so certain at that moment. I did remember the guy enough to know that I had liked him as a kid. Even before you added in the whole saving my life part that Paige had informed me of. I had liked him back then, yet even that didn’t fully explain why I was so dead certain that he never would’ve done what she was saying. But I was. Which could only mean one thing, which I blurted unthinkingly. “You’re lying. He didn’t do that, he didn’t take the wallet. You’re lying about that. You’re… you’re lying.” 

“Huh?” That was Alloy, blinking over at me in obvious confusion. “What do you mean? Aren’t we–” 

She was interrupted, however, by Amanda, who offered a casual little shrug. Her expression had turned to a sly, cocky smile. “Oh well,” she all-but purred, “it was worth a shot.” 

Yeah, I didn’t have a danger sense (clearly), but if I did have one, it would’ve been screaming its head off. Alloy and Pack obviously both realized something was wrong too. Unfortunately, before any of us could do anything, Amanda held up her hand. There was a remote in it, and she pushed the button. Instantly, the three of us were blinded by a bright flash that seemed to come from every corner of the room. At the same time, I felt a wave of nausea that made me fall to my knees, then onto my side. Nearby, I heard thumps from the other two. I tried to fight my way through it, but the whole room was spinning. There was a dull ringing in my ears, and it felt like I was going to throw up in my helmet. 

My vision was swimming, going in and out for a moment even as I caught a glimpse of Amanda standing over me. She was staring at me with an intensely creepy, soulless smile while producing a deceptively simple-looking white cloth mask. She touched it to her face, and the thing automatically attached itself and stayed there. 

“Now,” Cup informed us. 

“I guess it’s safe to say I have a few questions of my own.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“A petting zoo, seriously? Couldn’t this chick live somewhere that stinks less, like an outhouse?” 

The complaint came from Pack just over three hours later, after we had followed all the leads that we could. Kayla Dugan’s list had had a few that crosswe ed over with the list we had gotten from Deicide, so we checked on those first. But in the end, it had taken every single hint we got from the original list as well as what Kayla and a few other people had been able to give us. 

Not everyone was willing to talk to us, of course. Some slammed the door in our faces, or just claimed they didn’t know anything. Others we weren’t able to track down at all. But a few talked, and a few of those few had actual information. A lot of it was the same as others, but helpful nonetheless. For those few hours, we trekked back and forth across the city, tracking down every lead we could. It involved a lot of waiting, a lot of duplicated names, and a lot of talking.

But, in the end, we had what was supposed to be the address that Amanda Sanvers was currently living at. And yes, it was at a petting zoo. Or, to be precise, an apartment above a petting zoo. According to the information we’d managed to collect, she had been living there for about seven months or so. Honestly, as we sat in the van with the windows open, I couldn’t imagine how she’d lasted more than a week. The smell of the goats, sheep, ponies, pigs, rabbits, and more was just awful. They even had cows and a couple regular sized horses. Seriously, this girl must either have no sense of smell at all, or the apartment was really good at filtering out the scent. 

Just as before, the rest of us were in the back of the van while Pack sat in the front, talking to us through the little window thing. When she made that comment, I replied, “I just hope she doesn’t think seeing all the cute little animals would make Pencil change his mind about doing terrible things. He really doesn’t strike me as the type to stop and coo over the cute little lamb.” 

With a snort from her seat next to That-A-Way, Raindrop darkly pointed out, “Maybe she thinks he’ll be so distracted hurting and killing all the adorable animals, it’ll give her time to escape.” 

“Ew,” Way managed, shaking her head. “Let’s not think about that right now, okay? Whatever her reasoning is, you guys just need to go in there and talk to this girl. Try to get her to open up, convince her to tell you what she knows. Rain and I will be listening the whole time, right?” 

“Right,” I agreed, waving my Touched-business phone in one hand. “I’ll have this thing on and connected to your phone. You guys will be able to hear everything we do. You know, just in case something goes wrong. Which is clearly a ridiculously unlikely scenario.” 

My words were greeted by a unified doubtful, ‘Uhhhh huh’ from literally everyone in the van. Even Alloy. If the lizards in their cage in the front seat had been capable of it, I was pretty sure they would have added to the chorus. I’m sure they were in spirit, anyway. 

“Anyway,” Pack put in, “The three of us go in together. These two stay outside for backup. We get every bit of info this chick’s got, tell her she should probably lay low somewhere else until Pencil’s dealt with just in case he hears about us looking for her, and get out of there. Then we send that info to Deicide and let her handle it. And somewhere in there we find a way to cope with whatever extra problems pop up.” Her gaze turned to me, staring intently through the mask she had put back on. “You know, as ‘unlikely’ as those problems are.” 

“Sounds like a plan,” I confirmed with a slightly exaggerated thumbs up before looking over at my new partner. “Ready to go see what this girl knows?” 

“I’d feel a lot more comfortable if she was connected to one of the other bad guys in town instead of this one,” she informed me, squirming a bit with clear unease. Then she took a visible breath to steady herself, focusing on me. “But yeah. Yeah, I’m ready, I guess.” 

“I’m ready, I guess,” I echoed with a firm nod. “Sounds like as good of a rallying cry as we’re gonna get for this. So let’s head over there.” Looking over to Way and Raindrop, I added, “Just be ready to jump in the second it sounds like something’s wrong, okay?” I may not have been accustomed to having actual backup from people who knew what was going on, but I was definitely going to take advantage when it was right here. 

They agreed, and I took a moment to call Way’s phone. We made sure there was a good connection and that those two could hear everything. Then it was time to stop stalling and go talk to this girl. No matter how crappy I felt at the thought of making her relive what that fucker had done to her family. God, seriously, how shitty was it going to be for us to show up at this girl’s doorstep asking her to risk her whole life just to tell us everything she knew about the psychopath who had tormented and tortured her family, and made her parents kill each other? I just… yeah. No wonder none of us were exactly eager to get down to business. 

But, in the end, this was what we had agreed to do. And it was clearly the right thing. Pencil had to be stopped before he destroyed any more lives. At least this way we weren’t actually facing the man himself. So, Alloy and I slid out the back together before looking around. The petting zoo wasn’t actually in town. Instead, it was off a section of road about ten miles west, and fairly isolated. Probably because nobody wanted to be their neighbors. 

The van was parked in a small area behind a few trees just a couple hundred yards from the fence that surrounded the place in question. And yes, the smell was bad from here. I was seriously considering asking Wren to add a scent filter into the helmet she had made. 

Actually, come to think of it, having some kind of gas filter built into this thing was probably a good idea, smell or no smell. But Wren had a lot to deal with already, and after the lengths she’d already pushed herself to just so she could get that VR machine ready for helping Paige, I was going to back off a bit and let her work on other things for the time being. Still, it was something to keep in mind. 

Pack joined us, and I immediately noticed that she was wearing a small green and black backpack just like one you’d take to school, which was in no way big enough to carry her lizards, or the cage that had been holding them back on the front seat of the van.

“Oh, you like it?” she asked, making a show of modeling for us by spinning in a circle. “Newest gift from the boss. The bag and that cage in there are linked. I reach in here, and I can grab one of my buddies from there. Makes it easier to run around and still have everybody I need.”

After exchanging a brief glance with Alloy, I replied, “Well, good to know he’s got spiffy rewards for you.”

“Employment benefits,” she slyly informed us. “Which, both of you could totally get if–” 

She was abruptly interrupted by a knock on the back of the van from the inside. Then the door popped open and Way called through the crack, “Would you please stop trying to recruit heroes for your villain gang and get on with it!” 

“Don’t worry, babe!” Pack called that way, “No need to be jealous, your offer is still the best one! I made sure to really talk you up when Blackjack went over all the different welcoming packets we could hand out.” 

Snorting despite myself at that and Way’s sputtering reaction, I started to move. “Come on, both of you should probably focus a bit. This is supposed to be important.” 

Through the bluetooth thing in my ear, I heard Way mutter a retort of, “Oh I’m focused, I’m totally focused. Just make her focus.” There was a brief pause before she added a little more quietly, “And be careful. Make sure you’re all careful.” 

“We will,” I murmured, before turning to look at the other two. “Okay guys, I know this mission really stinks, but let’s try to get through it. Just remember, the worst isn’t the pigs and horses, it’s the goats and cows. You might say we’re walking into some real dairy air.” 

I was met with two staring figures, Pack demanding, “Have you got all that out of your system now?” 

Painting a broad smiley face across my helmet, I retorted, “Probably not, but I’ll be good for now.” Yeah, soon, when I got nervous I made jokes. It helped me focus. And right now, I was definitely very nervous. This whole situation was making me incredibly antsy. But I tried to shove all those feelings down, focusing on moving through the wooded area up toward the fence around the petting zoo. Neither the smell, nor my nerves, improved along the way. 

Before long, we reached the fence and could see through it. Where we had come up (quite intentionally) was right near the actual main building, visible through cracks between the tall wooden boards. To the right a bit was a chicken coop, which was doing nothing to help the scent we were all dealing with. And further beyond that was the pen for the goats, and that was clearly giving the chicken coop a run for its money. Yeah, this whole place was farm animal central, and the pens were close enough to the main three-story house that my earlier assessment had to be right. Either the people who lived there really did have no sense of smell, or the building was set up with very good filters. No way could they sleep at night like this. 

There were also a few people scattered around, a couple obvious employees helping take care of the animals, and what looked like two or three different families of tourists wandering around to see and pet anything they could. Not to mention getting pictures with them. 

“Let’s try to get inside the house without being seen,” I murmured quietly. “If we’re really doing our best to make sure Pencil doesn’t find out about this, waltzing right in past a bunch of tourists with cameras seems like it might be a little bit counterproductive to that.”  

“Yeah,” Pack snorted, “maybe just a little. So how exactly do you want to get in there if we’re not attracting attention?” There was a brief pause then before she amended, “You know, that sounded like I was being dismissive of the idea, and I’m definitely not. Not attracting attention that ends up getting all the way to the Scions is a very good thing in general. But still, how?” 

Before I could respond, Alloy pointed a bit to our left. “Over there,” she whispered. “There’s a little gate hidden between some bushes. I think it leads down to a well or something near the stream. It’s next to the toolshed on the inside. The gate’s locked, but we can hop over.”

“Wow,” I remarked, “good eyes. How’d you see all th–wait, did you get actual information from your little marble buddies? Can they scout for you now? See, this is why this whole thing isn’t fair. You get marble buddies and she gets lizard buddies. Where’re my paint buddies?”  

Clearly blushing a bit beneath the Sentai-like helmet she wore, Alloy shook her head. “No, I uhhh, I sort of came here with my mom a few months ago. She was on this kick about spending time together, and that’s cool and all, but I was trying to figure out if this girl liked me or not so I brought her with us. Then Mom was being all weird, so we snuck away to find a place to hide so we could talk. We found that gate and climbed over it. I sorta ripped my pants a little bit.” Waving off that memory, the girl added, “Anyway, we can probably get in right there. It’s hidden enough that if we watch until nobody’s looking, we can go right to the house.” 

Exchanging a glance with Pack, I shrugged. “Good enough for me. Better plan than I could have come up with, that’s for sure. Come on, let’s get over there. Maybe it won’t smell as bad.” 

“It’s like thirty feet away, Paintball,” Pack hissed as we started to move quietly and stealthily along the edge of the fence. “There’s being optimistic and then there’s just being delusional.” 

Through my bluetooth earpiece, I heard Way murmur, “Told you we should’ve stopped long enough to get those scented lip balms to rub under your nose before we came all the way out here. See what happens when you’re in a rush?” 

“You might’ve been right,” I whispered, waving a hand dismissively at the other two when they looked at me curiously. “Feel free to rub that in my face when we’re done with this. But while you’re at it, could you also rub a bouquet of flowers or something in my face too?” 

By that point, we’d reached the little gate that Alloy had mentioned. Sure enough, it was easy to climb over. I used a quick shot of black paint to silence the gate so that it wouldn’t rattle as we did just that. Quickly, the three of us dropped into a crouch in the bushes next to the tool shed. To the right off in the distance, we could see people still walking around with the animals. But this area seemed to be for employees, and none of them were over here. At the moment, it was clear. Well, mostly clear. There was one young couple, maybe in their very early twenties, who were having a conversation and could have seen us if we darted across the space to the house.

Hoping that more people wouldn’t wander over, we crouched there and silently urged the two to hurry up and move on. But they just kept standing there. Finally, I whispered an idea to Alloy, and she nodded before sending her bronze marble flying low to the ground that way, keeping the thing out of sight. It went past the couple, into the nearby pig pen, and sort of… firmly poked one of the pigs there. It was enough to make the pig jerk around and oink loudly, which made the couple turn to see what was going on.  

We immediately took advantage of that, darting quickly across the space to the house. There was a door there, but we didn’t use it. Instead, I shot red paint up toward the balcony of the third floor, where we knew Amanda’s apartment was supposed to be, and let it yank me that way. Behind me, Alloy turned two of her marbles into a flying platform to lift herself and Pack. We got all the way up, dropping down onto the balcony itself before anyone saw us. At least, I hoped we did. At the very least, nobody seemed to react, and a glance down showed everyone acting normal. We’d made it. We were here, right outside the girl’s apartment, without attracting attention. So far, so good. Now if only our luck would actually continue. 

As soon as the three of us were convinced nobody had seen us get up there, we turned our attention to the sliding door. Or, more accurately, through the door. I was ready to quickly try to reassure Amanda that we weren’t a threat if the woman was standing right there, but there was no sign of her. We were looking into a small, cluttered living room that looked like it hadn’t been picked up in months. There were no food containers or anything gross like that, it was just… cluttered. There were blankets and pillows everywhere, a TV tray stand with a bunch of toys scattered across it, random flashlights and other electronics, books, and a few bottles of various types of glue, a bunch of boxes with who-knew-what in them (I could see a stack of magazines practically spilling out of one), and more. It was a mess, with a narrow path leading to the very comfortable-looking armchair seated in front of a fairly decent television. 

“This chick definitely doesn’t care about keeping her place tidy,” Pack murmured. She leaned forward and looked down before coughing. “But she does care about her security.” 

Following her gaze, I saw what she was talking about. There was a very elaborate and advanced-looking alarm attached to the door. If we slid it open, it would go off. And since that was there, I was pretty sure the glass itself was probably alarmed too. To say nothing of the windows and every other entrance. This was going to be complicated. Not that I could blame her at all. If I had gone through what she did, I’d make sure every inch of my home was protected from invasion too. Honestly, I’d be surprised if she didn’t have some Touched-Tech that she’d bought added into the mix. Not to mention guns. Or even Touched-Tech guns. Good ones were expensive as hell, especially to have someone come out and maintain them, but something told me this Amanda girl would see having the extra protection as worth it. 

“What if she’s not home?” Alloy whispered, reminding me of an option we really hadn’t put too much consideration to, somehow. “How long do we sit here waiting for her? Because I’m pretty sure those guys will eventually look up. And the three of us? We don’t really blend in.”

Yeah, she had a point. Grimacing to myself for a moment while thinking intently, I finally shrugged. “I guess the best we can do is knock and see if she responds,” I whispered back. 

So, that was what we did. While the other two kept an eye below just in case, I reached up and gave a light knock against the sliding door. When that prompted no response, I knocked a little louder. Again, there was nothing. So, I knocked one more time, even louder, though hopefully not enough to attract attention from below. It was a hard balance to strike. We wanted the woman inside (if she was there) to hear, but not the people below. 

I was about to suggest that we think of somewhere safer to wait for the woman, such as the roof, when movement from inside caught my attention. I looked that way in time to see the girl in question standing in the doorway between the living room and some other place, staring at us. She was just like the pictures I’d seen in a few of the houses of the people we’d visited, a girl around eighteen or nineteen, with long dark hair and features that most probably would have called gorgeous. Brilliant blue eyes with a sort-of smoldering look, a figure that would’ve made any guy turn his head, all that sort of thing. All the stuff I wasn’t. 

But then again, I hadn’t had my entire family destroyed and torn apart by a psychotic monster. 

I could see the surprise on the girl’s face. She looked visibly taken aback, standing there with her mouth open. So, I reached out to touch the glass and made words appear there, reversed on our side so she could read them. 

‘It’s okay, we’re not here to hurt you. Please, can we come in? It’s safe, we promise.’ 

See her lips move as she read those words. For a moment, her head tilted, as though considering them. There was a momentary strange expression on her face. It almost looked like amusement before she shook it off. Probably just didn’t know how to react to something like three Touched showing up on her balcony asking to come in. 

Finally, the woman moved over by the door. She opened a little pad there and hit a few buttons, before unlocking the door and sliding it open. She looked at us crouched there, quietly asking, “This is about that psycho, isn’t it? You’re here about… him.” The girl shuddered visibly, her gaze a bit haunted. 

I nodded quickly. “We’re really sorry to bother you. We just… we have to ask you a few things. We were careful, we made sure no one saw us come in.” 

“You’re sure?” she pressed. “You’re absolutely positive that nobody else knows you’re here?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah. It’s safe.” 

“Safe…” she echoed the word, biting her lip before stepping back. “Okay then. 

“Come on in.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-05 (Summus Proelium)

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So now we were, sort of and tentatively, on the same page. Sort of. Okay, we were at least in the same book, which was something. Sure, Pack and Alloy didn’t know the whole story, but we’d made it clear that we were holding some stuff back. We didn’t lie to them about that. As for what would come later or how much they’d end up knowing before all this was done… I’d take that as it came. For now, at least they knew enough for us to all work together. Not only for finding a way to get into that secret base under the mall, but for checking out this Amanda chick too.  

And yet, as much as I told myself that having more help was a good thing, a not-insubstantial part of me kept screaming that involving other people was a horrible idea. Not because I didn’t trust them, exactly, but because I didn’t trust what might happen. Ignoring the whole situation with my own family for the moment (as if I ever really could), we were trying to get answers that could potentially hurt Pencil.who Yes, I wanted that to happen (oh boy did I ever want it to happen), but if he found out what we were doing, things could get really bad. If that fucking psycho decided he needed to focus on stopping us and really put his mind to it, I had no idea what could happen. 

Yes, I knew I needed help with this. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, and that having others with me wasn’t a bad thing. I knew it was their choice to be involved. But knowing that and being able to accept it and push away all emotions were two entirely different things. If anything happened to these guys because I brought them along, if Pencil or any of the other Scions got hold of them, I wouldn’t… I didn’t know what I’d do. The very thought of it was enough to make me freeze up. Oh, and practically dry heave from the way my stomach flipped itself over. 

But I had to push all that aside, all those doubts and worries, everything that was turning my stomach in knots. I had to shove it away and focus, because Izzy, Amber, Alloy, and Pack were involved. They were going to help, so what I had to do was focus on making sure we all got through this without giving me anything to feel guilty over. That meant we all had to keep our eyes open and be ready for any problem. If the Scions happened to be keeping an eye on Amanda for whatever reason and saw us talk to her, things could get nasty pretty fast. 

Which, of course, meant that step one of the plan had to be finding a way to sneak into the woman’s home without being seen by anyone. If we were going to avoid attracting the very wrong kind of attention, we had to talk to her without anyone else having any idea we were there. Either any of the Scions themselves, or any of her neighbors who might feel like reporting to him. Yes, we had no real evidence that they did that sort of thing, and no real reason to think he was spying on her to begin with, but as far as Pencil went, we weren’t taking anything for granted. A lot of people died when they did that. So, we were going with the sneaking in thing. 

Or rather, Alloy, Pack, and I were going to be sneaking in. Raindrop and That-A-Way would wait in a safe place, ready to jump in to help if everything went utterly sideways. Our hope (and it was really the best we had) was that if the Scions did show up after all, they wouldn’t expect those two to be back-up. And if it came right down to it, Way would simply use her teleport power to get us all out of there. Hopefully we wouldn’t have to go to that, but it was best to have the option. Better than getting into that situation and ending up trapped, anyway. 

Of course, before we could sneak into Amanda Sanvers’ place, we needed to find out exactly where that place was. Deicide hadn’t actually given us her address. All she had was a list of potential locations and people we could talk to who might know where Amanda was living. So, before we could stealthily talk to the girl herself, we had to stealthily talk to a bunch of others. Yeah, this whole thing could get unbelievably complicated and dangerous really fast. Even more so than it already was. We were going to try to try to get the information for Deicide without sticking our heads into a Scion hornets nest, but I had a lot of twisted feelings in my stomach about how it would actually play out when things really got going. That was okay, though, since my twisted, nervous feelings about this specific situation would probably fit in pretty well with my twisted, nervous feelings about my entire life in general. 

All of which was what had brought us to the back of Pack’s van, staying out of sight while the girl herself drove up front. It was one of those vans with a divider between the front and back, so she could drive with her mask off and we wouldn’t see her face. We could, however, peek out through heavily tinted windows in the back to watch the houses passing by as the other girl drove toward the first house on the list. It was apparently a home in the same neighborhood where Amanda and her brother had lived when their family had been attacked by Pencil toward the very start of his career, long before he’d built the Scions as a group. No one even knew if Cup was around back then. Apparently he broke into this normal family’s house and made the mother and father kill each other to save Amanda and her brother. It was all on video. 

So yeah, it was pretty doubtful that the girl would be living anywhere near the house where all that had happened. But according to the information we’d gotten from Deicide, a woman who had been their babysitter when they were younger lived at this place, and had been in contact with Amanda before for sentimental reasons. We were hoping she still had an address. And, well, that she’d give that address to us, of course. That was another reason we were starting with this address. The woman here knew Amanda and her brother when they were little, so it was doubtful she was some kind of secret contact and spy for Pencil or the Scions. 

“At the risk of sounding like an incredibly impatient ten-year-old on a road trip,” Way spoke up from where she was sitting in the corner while texting intently on her phone, “are we there yet?” 

“Wouldn’t that just be a ten-year-old in general?” I pointed out while glancing that way. “I mean, come on, impatient ten-year-old? You might as well say, ‘wet rain’ or ‘buff football player.’” 

“Or boring football game,” Alloy put in, before holding up both hands defensively when everyone looked at her. “What? It’s true and you know it.” Belatedly, she added in a mumble under her breath, “Soccer’s better anyway. Real football. Talk about running around all the time, not stopping every four freaking seconds to grope each other and make faces.” 

Exchanging a glance with Way and Raindrop, I shrugged at them exaggeratedly. “Don’t look at me, I didn’t know mentioning football was gonna make her go off. I’ll make a note of it though.” That said, I looked back out the window as the van turned. “But yeah, I think we’re pretty close.” 

Sure enough, we’d only gone another block before Pack slid open the little window that divided the front from the back. She’d stuck a piece of cardboard or something in the way to block our view of the space where she was sitting, but there was enough of a crack on the right-hand side to see the passenger seat where the cage full of lizards was sitting, and we could hear as the girl called, “Okay, this is the street! If your friendly neighborhood gang boss isn’t full of shit, it should be right up here on the left. Figured out what you’re doing yet? Because something tells me it’d probably be a bad idea if my friends and me went up and knocked on this lady’s door.” 

Yeah, she probably had a point. If we wanted to convince this lady to tell us what she knew about Amanda, sending a known member of La Casa up there wasn’t the right way to go about it. Granted, they weren’t nearly as bad as the Scions. Not even remotely. But Fell-Touched were Fell-Touched as far as a lot of the general public were concerned. They were the bad guys. I knew that was the way I had thought for most of my life. Obviously, things were a bit more complicated than that. This lady hadn’t had the same kind of experiences though. We needed to put her mind at ease, not make her too paranoid to give us the info we needed. 

“I’ll go in with Alloy,” I announced. “It looked like there was an alley just behind the house. Pull through there, let us out, and we’ll go in the back where the big cedar fence is. Better if it’s the two of us. If you guys,” I nodded toward That-A-Way and Raindrop, “come in with us and she does happen to rat us out to Pencil, he’ll know you’re involved.” With a shrug, I added, “I know, slim chances, but still. No reason to risk anything. Or, in this case, everything.” 

The two Minority Touched didn’t exactly look incredibly happy with that, for obvious reasons. But they also couldn’t really argue against it. After giving each other a brief glance, they nodded. Way pointed at me. “Okay, but just be, you know, subtle? I mean, as subtle as you can be when dressed like that, with your reputation, going to talk to some lady about a girl she used to babysit who might have secret information about the leader of the Scio–look, just be careful.” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded while giving her a thumbs up. “We’ll keep that in mind.” Then my gaze turned toward my new partner. “You ready to go talk to a lady about a girl?” Pausing as those words worked their way through my own mind, I grimaced. “Yeah, that was supposed to sound all chill and reassuring, but I think I drifted all the way over into totally vague.” 

Alloy, in turn, gave a slight snicker before choking on it. She was obviously (and understandably) nervous about this whole thing, and I had the feeling she was afraid that if she laughed at anything surrounding it, the universe would retaliate by making everything go to hell. I was very well-accustomed with that fear, because I kept pushing it down myself. 

By that point, Pack had found the alley. She told us to text when we needed a pick-up and that they would be close, but not too close. On her word as the van came to a stop, That-A-Way slid the side door open, letting Alloy and me hop out together. The second we were out, the van pulled away smoothly and continued down what turned out to be a slightly narrower alley than I’d expected. It was just wide enough for the van on one side and the two of us beside it with a few inches of clearance before we would run into the wooden fence that surrounded the backyard of the house in question.

Actually, all the houses here had tall fences surrounding the yards. It was one of the reasons I’d felt safe being let out here. People in this neighborhood valued their privacy. Also, I could hear at least three different lawnmowers from distant houses, plus a chainsaw somewhere. 

It always felt strange to me to see houses that were so close together. Yes, I absolutely knew that was normal, the real way ninety-nine percent of people lived. Well, that and apartments of course. Which meant they were stacked even closer together. I was spoiled and given a completely abnormal childhood, growing up the way I had. Still, sometimes (like right now, standing here) I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to live in a place like this. What if my parents were just… middle to upper-middle class? What if we had a house like this, with a regular-sized backyard, neighbors on either side so close we could throw a ball into their property, a garage with two cars, and Dad did his own yardwork? What would that be like? 

“Uh, Paintball?” Alloy spoke up, breaking me out of being lost in my own thoughts. “You okay? Are we going in there, or what?” She sounded equal parts confused and nervous, glancing around quickly. The marbles surrounding her head were also bouncing anxiously, looking like they were trying to see over fences to check for anyone who might’ve been spying on us. 

Quickly, I shook off all those feelings and gave a quick nod. “Yeah, sorry. I was just–never mind.” It wasn’t like I could explain what I’d been thinking or why. So I just gestured to the fence. “Let’s get in there, and try not to scare the hell out of an innocent lady in the process.” 

The gate was secured with a padlock, and we didn’t want to break anything. So Alloy just made one of her marbles form a small platform to slide under our feet and fly us up and over. On the way, I glanced around. There were people working in their yards, but no one was looking directly at us. Quickly, we hopped down into the backyard. 

The woman we were heading in to see was named Kayla Dugan. According to what we’d been able to find out, she wasn’t married or anything, and lived alone here in the house she’d inherited from her deceased parents. Hopefully she wouldn’t have any guests today, or this could be even more awkward than it was already going to be. 

After taking a second to make sure no one was crying out or drawing attention, Alloy and I jogged across the incredibly tiny backyard (seriously, you could barely play catch back here, let alone an actual ballgame), hopping over a small flower garden to reach the wooden patio. There, I gestured for the other girl to wait and stand back in plain sight before reaching out to knock on the sliding glass door. I could see a kitchen (also tiny) through the glass and hear a television from somewhere else in the house. I tried to knock loud enough to be heard, but without being intimidating or sounding like I was trying to break the door down. It was a pretty fine line to walk. 

It must’ve been loud enough, considering a woman who matched the picture we’d seen poked her head around the side of the doorway. She was in her late twenties and had dark hair with just a hint of a red streak through it. Now, she was peering into the kitchen with a look of confusion. That expression turned to one of shock when she saw me standing there, and she jerked back reflexively. Then she poked her head back, this time with a phone in her hand as she stared, clearly ready to call 911. 

Trying to look nonthreatening, I waved and called out, hoping to be heard through the door. “Hi! Sorry to bother you, can we talk for a minute? Everything’s okay, I promise!” 

There was a moment of understandable hesitation as the woman clearly internally debated. She was holding her phone tightly. Finally, she called out, “Prove you’re really him!” 

Yeah, that was fair. Holding my hand up so she could see, I put my palm against the door and created an instant image there. There was a lawn of green paint, a black mailbox with a red flag thing, a house made of yellow and white, with as many details on the siding and door as I could manage, a black roof with a red chimney (including tiny bits of white lines to outline the bricks), and a giant green dragon with red eyes perched on top of that roof. With a thought, I made the red and orange fire emerge from the dragon’s mouth, before making that disappear, then the dragon itself disappeared, replaced by a man standing where it had been, wearing a green suit. Then I made the man jump down from the roof in a very crude stop-motion thing where I kept making his image disappear, reappear an inch or so away, then repeated that until he was down on the white sidewalk in front of the house. Three more stop-motion bits made the man wave, before he turned to the door of the house and disappeared. 

Finally, I made the whole image vanish. And that was clearly good enough to convince Kayla, because she quickly moved across the kitchen, setting the phone down. She was wearing an aerobics outfit, and between that and the fact that there was visible muscle to her stature, I was reminded that her day job apparently involved being a fitness instructor. Also, she had a towel around her neck. It looked like we had interrupted morning exercise. 

There was a momentary hesitation as she started to reach for the door, before she seemed to give herself a short nod of encouragement. Then she flipped the lock and pulled the sliding door open, stepping back. “Uhh, you–you’re Paintball. You–uhm, what?” Seeing Alloy, her eyes widened even more. “Oh my God.” 

“Oh sure,” I quipped, “I just get ‘oh, you’re Paintball’ and my new buddy here gets ‘oh my God?’” Painting a winking face on the front of my helmet, I gestured. “This is Alloy. Say hi, Alloy.” 

“Hi,” came the response before the other girl stepped up beside me to add, “We’re really sorry to bother you, ma’am.” 

Kayla shook her head, seemingly reflexively. “No, it’s okay. I mean, I think it’s okay. I mean, is it okay? What’s going on? Why–what–huh?” Belatedly, she stepped back. “Come in, come in. Wait, you’re not like, being chased by that big demon guy again, are you?”  

“Trust me, he’s not polite enough to wait to see if you let us in,” I assured her before stepping through the door. “I promise, no one is after us. I mean, obviously there’s some bad guys out there that aren’t too happy, but they’re not here or anywhere close, as far as I know. I’m just gonna shut up about that and move on now.” 

“This is going super-well,” Alloy noted, giving me a double-thumbs up before focusing on the woman. “Don’t worry, Miss Dugan. What he’s trying to say is that we’re not here about anything bad happening right now. It’s more about someone you used to know.” 

“Someone I used to know?” It took Kayla a moment before her eyes widened. “Wait, you don’t mean–” 

Sending silent thanks that way for the assist, I nodded. “Yeah, sorry. It’s about Amanda Sanvers. And technically her brother, though we heard he’s working in Alaska. So mostly it’s about Amanda.” 

“You’re here about–” Kayla abruptly lowered her voice to a whisper, clearly instinctively avoiding saying the name loudly, “–Pencil. You’re here about that sick fuck, aren’t you?” As soon as she realized that, the woman shook her head. “You need to leave that alone. You both need to go stop a car thief or a murderer or something. Stay away from that monster.” 

“Don’t worry,” I tried to reassure her, “We’re not here to go after him ourselves. We’re just collecting information for people who are a lot better qualified.” Sure, I was leaving out that we were collecting it for another villain, but we didn’t really need to get into those details. 

So, I simply tried to carefully explain what we’re doing without mentioning that much. I told her that we needed to find Amanda so she could give us information that might help other people deal with him. 

When I was done, Kayla exhaled, slumping back against the counter. “That–what happened back then, it messed Amanda up. Both her and her brother. Neither of them were the same after that. It was just–they never recovered.” 

“Pencil has that effect on people,” I muttered before looking to her. “That’s why we’re gonna send people who can stop him, Miss Dugan. I promise. We just need to find Amanda. We heard she’s been in contact with you a few times.” 

“I don’t… know exactly where she is,” the woman tentatively replied. “But umm… but maybe I can give you some ideas to check up on that could help. Just… promise you won’t let that son of a bitch anywhere near her again.” 

“Absolutely,” I confirmed as firmly as possible. “You have our word. 

“We’re going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure Amanda never even sees Pencil again.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-04 (Summus Proelium)

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The non-canon chapters are out right now! You can find the Summus Proelium noncanon right here and the Heretical Edge noncanon right here

Talking to Paige about the Irelyn thing was going to have to wait for the time being. I wasn’t ready to go asking the girl why she hadn’t mentioned having an older sister who would start sniffing around. That was all just… complicated. I needed to deal with something else first.  

The next morning, we finally got an official update about Simon and my parents. Supposedly, they would be back in the city by Tuesday. It was now Saturday, so apparently whatever they were so busy with was going to keep them occupied for another three days. Part of me wondered if they were in that secret mall base at that very moment, and I almost wanted to go there and pink-paint my way straight through the door to ask them what was going on. That would have been unfathomably dumb, of course. And it would have accomplished basically nothing. But I still had the impulse, as much as I pushed it aside. 

In any case, worrying about what my parents were up to could wait, as we had more immediate things to focus on today. Namely, the fact that we were going to check out that Amanda girl, and hopefully come out with some information that would actually help stop Pencil and the Scions. 

Also important was the fact that this would be the first time all of us worked together in the real world, rather than in virtual reality. Much as that had seemed realistic, this was still a big step. To say nothing of the fact that it was my first time working with Alloy after telling her (most of) the truth about the Ministry, and the first time I’d be doing anything with That-A-Way after both of us had found out each other’s identities. Oh, and we were going to be letting them know that Raindrop knew what was going on and would provide back-up alongside Way if needed. Which was also bound to change things one way or another. Really, the only relationship that hadn’t changed in some way was the one with Pack. And even that wasn’t quite true, considering Way now had to hide the fact that she knew my identity from the girl she obviously liked (and that entire situation was already complicated enough as it had been). 

As far as the household staff knew, Izzy and I were going to spend the day shopping and hanging out in town. The two of us made a big deal about talking up how cool it was going to be, with Izzy making sure to ask me if I knew Simon’s shoe size so she could buy him something for his rapidly approaching birthday. Which was apparently something she really did want to do. She had some idea about buying him running shoes to go with a private joke between the two of us (oh, and Amber now too) about how he should get used to running away because we were going to stop them. Yeah, it was silly, but hey. Whatever helped her (and the rest of us) amuse ourselves a little bit sounded good to me. 

We accepted a ride from Jefferson and let him drop us off at one of the other malls. Thanking the man, the two of us made a point of walking inside together so the man could see it happen before he left. I didn’t think any of the staff were suspicious at all about what we were doing, but still. Best to be on the safe side. Besides, we actually were going to meet Amber here. 

But we were also going to be safe about the whole thing. To that end, the two of us walked through the mall and pretended to shop for about twenty minutes. Well, I pretended. Izzy actually did buy a pair of those shoes she had been talking about and carried them with us as we made our way to the arcade. Amber was already waiting there at the Skee-Ball game, but there was a younger boy actually playing on the next lane over, so we moved to the other side of the room, where the pinball machines were. Those were empty, and the three of us had a brief, whispered conversation. Even then, we didn’t say anything completely obvious. We used a lot of insinuation and talking around the actual specifics while making sure all of us were ready to head out and meet up with Alloy and Pack. 

Once outside, the three of us cut across the parking lot and found our way to the back of an old liquor store that was closed at the moment. The street was a hundred feet away, and there was no one anywhere in sight. Finally, we could actually talk.

“You doing okay?” Amber asked Izzy, while putting both hands on the younger girl’s shoulders. “You and me, we’re going to take it easy today and make the other guys do the legwork, right?” 

With a small smile, Izzy nodded. Her voice was a murmur. “I’m okay. I–I’m more than okay. I get to help. I mean, if something goes wrong I get to help.” She shot me a quick, apologetic look. “I don’t think it’s going to go wrong.” 

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Trust me, I’m just glad we have both of you sitting in the background waiting to jump in. I mean, yeah, I hope this goes fine and we just get the information from her. But if something blows up, I feel a lot better knowing you two have our backs. Makes the whole idea of going in there a lot less terrifying.”  

“And I feel better knowing I’ve got Izzy next to me,” Amber put in. “Helps when we can split the weight between our shoulders.” With a wink to the other girl, she added, “That reminds me, I told Syndicate you and I would do the north-east patrol tonight so all of him could cover Whamline’s route down south, if that’s cool?” 

With a quick nod of agreement, Izzy curiously asked, “What’s Whamline doing?” 

Amber, in turn, shrugged. “I dunno. Something about another commitment that came up in his civvy life. He said he’d make it up later, but I don’t think anyone’s really worried about it except him. From what Syndicate said, he wouldn’t stop apologizing about flaking on a patrol.”  

While they talked a little more about that, I excused myself and stepped to the hidden alcove where the back door leading into the liquor store was. Sliding the backpack off my shoulders, I took a minute to change into my costume. Hell, on top of all the other advantages, it turned out that having someone (or in this case someones) who knew my identity made it convenient to have them play lookout while I changed. Which had always been a fairly nerve-wracking prospect to do by myself. 

In this case, however, I was able to change without worrying. Then I stepped out next to Amber and gave Izzy a chance to change as well, while the other girl and I watched for any interruptions. 

And there she was. It certainly was far from my first time seeing Izzy as Raindrop in general, and I’d even been around her a few times in person. Most notably when I’d run into that theater to help her and Amber/Way deal with Suckshot and Landlock. But I hadn’t really known who she was. I’d had no idea that the little girl I’d been spending so much time with at home and had already started to care about, and the badass water-gravity manipulator I fought beside, were the same person. This was really my first time being face to face with Izzy as Raindrop while knowing exactly who she was. 

For a moment, I just stared at her, looking the other girl up and down. She looked the same as Raindrop always did, in her dark blue bodysuit that had those gleaming silver armor panels, and the white cloak with a hood. Her face was hidden behind a helmet with a mirrored faceplate that just showed me my own reflection staring back at me. She was Raindrop. But she was also Izzy. And that was a weird feeling for me to try to cope with. Which made me wonder just how she felt about the situation from her point of view. She was seeing me up close as Paintball too. 

“You two okay?” Amber asked, looking back and forth between us. “You’ve been staring.” 

Both of us shook off our internal thoughts and confirmed that we were fine. So, Amber muttered something about how weird all this was before taking her turn to change while we kept watch. 

And then we were all dressed. For like the first time, the three of us were heading out together while we were all on exactly the same page. These two, they… they knew the truth. They knew about my family, the Ministry, all of it. And they had my back. Boy, was this a really different feeling or what? Seriously, I was accustomed to stuff being shoved onto my shoulders, not taken off it. This was weird. 

At least it was going to be a long time before I ever had to worry about the weight on my shoulders entirely disappearing. As evidenced by what we were about to do once we met up with the others. Going out of our way to seek information that would piss Pencil off immensely if he even had an inkling that we were trying to get it. As if he wasn’t annoyed with all of us enough as it was. And now I was dragging Izzy into the situation, when she hadn’t been on his radar before? Oh, right, there was that weight again. Like an old friend settling right back into place. This one just happened to be named guilt rather than responsibility. 

Yes, I knew it was dumb to think that way. Logically, I knew Izzy deserved to make her own choices, and that I was only a few years older than her anyway. I also knew I would be dead in the water (and maybe dead literally) without help from people like her and Amber. But no amount of firmly telling myself that would entirely erase the pit in my stomach that got bigger every time I thought about getting people I cared about anywhere near any situation involving that psychotic fucking piece of shit. He made me nervous, I couldn’t help it. 

At least the three of us could move pretty openly together whenever we were out like this. If anyone asked, Amber and Izzy would just say that they had run into me and we decided to do a little patrol together. They could even play it up as if they were trying to convince me to join. So, we would be covered there. As far as today went, meeting up with Pack would be when things got a little more complicated.

But at least for now, we were fine. And we made fast progress, considering we had deliberately set our changing point south of where we were meeting the other two. It meant Amber could grab both of us and teleport from roof to roof basically the whole way. It was even faster than my typical way of traveling, even if she could only do it in one compass direction.  

“You know,” I started while Amber was taking a breath when we were almost to the meeting point, “I could get used to this sort of traveling. Maybe bring along a lawn chair and a book so I can kick my feet up and catch up on some reading.”  

Rolling her eyes, Amb–Way. I had to think of her as That-A-Way while we were all in costume, or I was going to screw something up badly. Way rolled her eyes and retorted, “The only book I’ll let you get away with reading is our European History textbook for the next project for Mr. Dorn. And since we don’t have one of those yet, I guess you’re just going to have to suck it up and stand while I teleport with you.” 

Snickering, Izz–Raindrop spoke up. “You guys should probably get all that ‘talking about things that give away your secret identities’ stuff out of the way now, before we go any closer.” After that little bit of teasing, she sobered visibly before somewhat nervously adding, “Are you sure about the umm, about what we’re gonna tell them for, you know, me?” 

Way and I exchanged brief looks before the other girl nodded to Izzy. Her voice was gentle. “Yeah, Rain, it’ll work. Trust me, they won’t question it too much. Okay, Pack will probably give you a little crap, but most of that is just going to be screwing with you. She likes to do that just to get a reaction for the hell of it. And part of it will be a test, just in case you were a spy or something. A very young spy.” She paused briefly to consider before frowning. “Also, she might try to recruit you. Possibly repeatedly. Just uhh, laugh it off.” A thought abruptly seemed to strike her, considering the way her eyes widened. “Oh. If–listen, if she does make a crack about that, don’t take it seriously, okay? I know–I mean, that whole thing with…” She trailed off, clearly uncomfortable as the thought of how the younger girl might react to someone teasing her about joining a villain gang after what her own mother had done clearly came to mind. 

Raindrop, for her part, was quiet for a moment before giving a slight nod, her voice as firm as I had heard it. “It’s okay,” she insisted. “I… know the difference between a joke and what… and what happened before. Even a ‘haha, totally joking unless…’ sort of joke, you know? I don’t know her, but you guys do, and if Pack was like that, I don’t think you’d have anything to do with her. She’s not like that, and I don’t think that Blackjack guy is either.” From her voice, it sounded like she was giving us some approximation of a smile from behind that mirrored faceplate. “I guess there’s bad bad guys, good good guys, good bad guys, bad good guys, and like… every level of every kind. I just—I’m okay. I’m not gonna freak out just cuz she makes a joke about joining her team.” 

I may not have known much about Izzy’s mother, but I did know one thing. She had truly, royally screwed up for not recognizing just how awesome her kid was. What a bitch. 

From the look that Way gave me, I had the feeling she was thinking basically the same thing. But we didn’t say it. Instead both of us nodded to the other girl. No one said anything. Raindrop and I just joined hands with Way once more, and we all made that last teleport jump. Instead of landing on another roof, this final teleport took us inside an old gas station garage that had been directly across the street. The place had closed down a few months earlier and no one had bought the property yet. Apparently there had been some kind of meth gang trying to set up shop here, but the Minority chased them out only a few days earlier, which was how Way and Raindrop knew about it. This was where we were going to meet the others. Being in the garage would keep us safely out of sight so we could talk about everything in complete privacy. 

The others weren’t there yet, probably because we made sure to get there about half an hour early just so we could already be waiting when Pack and Alloy showed up. Then the three of us killed time by once more going over exactly what we were going to say about Raindrop being involved in the situation now. 

Pack was the first to arrive out of the other two. We heard a van pull up behind the building, and That-A-Way stepped over to push the button that made the rolling door go up so the La Casa Touched could back the vehicle  into the garage. The door was lowered once more while she got out, hopping down to the cement and brushing her hands off. “You people really need to–” 

Only then did she look up, seeing Raindrop standing a bit behind Way and me. Cutting herself off, Pack tilted her head and stared. Her expression was, of course, hidden behind that blank black mask. “Sorry, I didn’t know we were bringing friends. Maybe I should’ve brought one of my own? Eits and Broadway both looked pretty bored this morning.”

Coughing once, I shook my head. “Sorry, this was–uh, yeah. Pack, this is Raindrop. Raindrop, Pack.” 

“We’ve met a couple times,” Pack replied dryly. “You know, at work.” The way she said that made it clear that two of them had fought on opposite sides. But, she did at least follow that up with a shrug. “It was fun. Hope Twinkletoes didn’t toss you too hard. I told him to be gentle.” 

Clearly flushing a little behind her own mask, Raindrop murmured something under her breath before more audibly adding, “It’s okay. I hope the umm, bear wasn’t too scared about floating.” 

“Mars Bar,” Pack informed her. “And he doesn’t do great with heights, but he’s fine. And now that all those pleasantries are out of the way…” She looked to Way and me. “What’s she doing here?” To Raindrop, she added, “No offense. Just… what?” 

Checking the text that had just come in on my phone, I replied, “Alloy’ll be here in a minute, we should hold off and explain it together so we don’t have to do it twice. But uhh, the short version is she knows about the Ministry and she’s gonna help.” 

“She knows about the Ministry, huh?” Pack’s voice made it clear that she didn’t think it was impossible that even someone as young as Raindrop could be some kind of spy. “Interesting.” 

Yeah, we definitely needed to explain what was going on. At least, as much as we could. If we were going to work together, Pack couldn’t be focused on being suspicious about Raindrop. Especially if we were going to do anything that even remotely involved the Scions. That was too dangerous to screw around with. 

As promised, Alloy arrived just a minute or so later, coming up to knock on the side door. As I let her in (wearing the purple-silver Sentai armor version of her costume), she was already talking while panting heavily. “Sorry… Mom… wanted some help… groceries… had to…” She trailed off, having spotted Raindrop. “Uhhh…” 

“Yeah,” Pack put in, “that’s basically what I said.” 

So, without wasting any more time, Way, Raindrop, and I launched into our explanation of what had happened. Obviously, we didn’t want to outright lie too much to these two people we were supposed to be working with. To that end, the very first thing we said was that we were going to be a little vague and twist things a bit to protect certain identities, but that this was the overall gist of the situation. We were right up front about the fact that it wasn’t one hundred percent of the truth, sort of like when a news report or true crime show said that certain details were changed to protect people. And we admitted that some details were twisted more than others. 

In any case, the story we told was that Raindrop’s family had attempted to sell her to Oscuro through that Handler guy. She escaped that situation but was almost captured again before Silversmith stepped in and rescued her. From there, she was sent to live at a safe house. 

All of that, of course, was one hundred percent true, if lacking in a couple key details. 

From there, we basically just said ‘and then stuff happened that we can’t get into because there are a lot of secrets involved, but Raindrop found out about the Ministry existing and got worried that the whole thing with her parents and Handler might’ve had something to do with them, so we had to tell her more details before she snooped around on her own and ended up getting in trouble.’ 

Yeah, there was a good bit of skipping over or outright avoiding details. We yada yada’d Raindrop finding out about the Ministry in the first place with the explanation that saying how she found out would risk revealing secrets we couldn’t reveal. That-A-Way implied that it had to do with her own identity, to protect me. Without actually saying that, of course. It made enough sense, given they were on the same team. Yeah, that skirted the line of outright lying, but it was the best we could do to avoid exposing who I was to the other two, and I just… wasn’t ready for that. Good as it felt to have Way and Raindrop know the truth, I barely knew Alloy (and was already trusting her with a lot as it was), and Pack was still technically a Fell-Touched. I wasn’t ready to go as far as sharing my identity with them just yet. 

“And you’re sure she’s not a plant?” Pack flatly demanded, before looking at Raindrop. “Again, no offense. But seriously, come on, guys. How do you know she’s not a mole?” 

“She’s not,” I replied. “I just… I know it’s hard to take something like that on faith, believe me, I know. And I can’t really explain it. But just… trust me. If she was a mole, we’d all be locked up right now. She knows everything. There’s nothing for her to be a mole about anymore. If she was really just spying for the Ministry, she could’ve had all of us taken in already. I mean come on, it’s not like they have to catch us in the act of anything. If she was reporting to them, we’d already be in the black van with the hoods, or whatever they do.” 

Shifting her weight back and forth a few times as though considering that, Pack was clearly staring intently at the girl in question. Finally, she reached into her pocket and produced Holiday the skink. “What do you think?” She held the lizard out that way, allowing Holiday to almost touch Raindrop’s reflective faceplate. When the skink put a foot against it, Pack gave a nod of satisfaction. “Good enough for me.” 

Exhaling, I looked at Alloy. “You okay?” 

She, in turn, shrugged. “Dude, I’m brand new to all this too. If you say she’s okay, who am I to say you’re wrong? But… that story about what happened, I know you said some of it’s twisted a little for identity protection, but the bit about… about her family…” She looked at Raindrop directly. “Was that true?” 

Raindrop, in turn, gave a very short nod. Her voice was quiet. “It’s true.” 

“Fuck.” Clearly swallowing hard, Alloy added, “Sorry. I mean… sorry.” 

“Yeah, that sums it up,” I agreed. “The point is, she’s involved, but we have to be really careful about using her so the Ministry doesn’t find out she knows anything.”

“Right…” Thinking about that for a moment, Pack finally shrugged and looked at Way. “Guess you’ve got someone to talk to while you wait around to see if we need backup, huh?”

“That’s the plan,” Way agreed. “And speaking of plan, we should probably get into ours. 

“Cuz boy I just can’t wait to go poke the Scions with a stick. This is gonna be nifty.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-03 (Summus Proelium)

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So yeah, apparently I was supposed to be attending a party where my dad was going to be giving a speech. Attending a party as Paintball, that was. I’d attended plenty of events where my dad was speaking when I was just myself, of course. But now I was supposed to sit there, play nice, and pretend I was totally oblivious while he went on some long spiel in front of a whole crowd. I couldn’t show any reaction to the things he would be saying. Worse, what if they asked me questions about it? What if they wanted to ask how the new young Star-Touched in Detroit felt about all the wonderful things the city’s richest family was doing to improve everyone’s lives?

I also couldn’t back out now. It would probably look a little suspicious if I had been okay with going to this thing right up until they mentioned my father’s name. Even if they didn’t have any connection to the Ministry, that would probably make them curious enough to poke around. And the last thing I wanted was anyone ‘poking around’ when it came to my family. Besides, just because they might not have a connection to the Ministry didn’t mean that anyone they asked about my reaction wouldn’t. Yeah, that whole thing could get really complicated, really fast. 

And there was more than that, of course. I wouldn’t be the only one there. So would Alloy,  assuming she agreed to go. For a brief second, I had actually considered just not sharing the invitation with her, to avoid that entire situation. But honestly, I’d seen way too many TV shows where someone had tried something like that and it backfired in their face the moment someone else asked the person why they’d refused the invitation they didn’t even know existed. Just because I couldn’t think of anyone right now who would say anything like that to her didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen. And the last thing I wanted to do was create some sort of trust problem between the two of us just because of a stupid mistake on my part. I had enough issues already. Enough things I wasn’t sharing. So yeah, I was going to have to tell the other girl about the invitation and probably deal with her being there too.  

Speaking of Peyton, it was finally time for me to go meet up with her, after catching a quick bit of dinner at a nearby Chinese place. I changed back into my civilian clothes to do that, of course. Fun as it might have been to be recognized and continue that whole ‘building public opinion of Paintball so my parents couldn’t easily tear it down’ thing, I needed a quiet place to think about what I was going to say to the girl who had thrown herself so thoroughly into being my partner. 

The restaurant had been just what I needed, at least as far as privacy went. I’d managed to get myself seated in a rear, quiet corner by saying I really needed to read for a school project while slipping the hostess a twenty dollar bill. From there, I ate some really good food and spent the next forty-five minutes trying to settle on exactly what I would tell Peyton when we met up.

Unfortunately, while the food was incredible, my brain wouldn’t cooperate. Even now, as I started to leave the restaurant and move toward the alley where I could change, I honestly had no idea what I was going to say, or how far I would go with my explanation. All I could do was play it by ear. At the very least, I would tell her about the Ministry, and in general terms how I had found out about them. But I kept going back and forth on whether I should reveal my identity to her. We were supposed to be friends and partners. Plus, some of that Band-Aid had already been torn off by the fact that Amber and Izzy knew about me. It felt somewhat easier to trust someone else with that. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still barely knew Peyton. I wasn’t sure how she would react to this whole thing, so maybe it was better to just give her the general information about the Ministry and see how that went before telling her anything else? 

I was so involved with my own thoughts about that whole thing that I almost walked right into someone as I came out of the restaurant while they were starting to walk in. Only the fact that they blurted my name snapped me back to the real world in time to come up short. 

It was Arleigh Fosters. If Paige hadn’t existed, Arleigh would’ve been our school’s resident rich, hot blonde cheerleader type. Even though she wasn’t actually a cheerleader, she still had that same look and all. And the same stereotypical meanness. Not to mention racist, given the things I’d heard the girl say at school. All in all, Arleigh was not a pleasant person to be with. 

And yet, there was a pretty major difference between her and Paige in that she’d always been nice to me. She never insulted me, and always acted like we were… if not friends, at least friendly. Which kind of made me feel gross, to be honest. She tried to slide herself into my life whenever the chance arose, and basically laughed off any retort I made as though I was kidding. As horrible as she was to Jae (after deciding that the other girl had been trying to steal her now ex-boyfriend just because said boyfriend commented on Jae being cute), she was overly pleasant to me, because of who my family was. It was sickening. 

Actually, now that I knew more about the Paige situation, she and Arleigh really were opposites. Paige was a bitch to my face, but had been secretly trying to help because she cared about me while being incapable of showing it. Meanwhile, Arleigh was nice to my face because she wanted to have that connection to me–or rather, to my family. But she was obviously a nasty snake who didn’t give a shit about me or anyone who wasn’t herself. 

Sure enough, as soon as she saw me recognize her, the girl put on a bright smile. “I knew it was you. Hey there, Cassidy. I don’t think you’ve met my brothers, have you?” 

That made me notice the two guys on either side of the girl. The guy to her right was clearly older, probably around Simon’s age. He was also blond like Simon. But taller. He was several inches over six feet and very well-built. Almost distractingly so, damn. He looked movie-star nice. 

Meanwhile, the boy on the other side of Arleigh was… very different. About the only similarity connecting him to his siblings was the fact that he was blond. But, unlike their perfectly cared for thousand dollar haircuts, the mop atop this kid’s (he looked like he was twelve or thirteen) head was stringy and unkempt, sticking out every which way. He was skinny enough to almost look unhealthy, and wore glasses. Yeah, if he hadn’t been standing right there, and possibly if I hadn’t outright been told about their relation, I wouldn’t have connected this kid to Arleigh Fosters. 

The girl herself was gesturing back and forth between first the older guy, then the younger boy. “This is Micah and Errol. Guys, this is Cassidy Evans. She’s cool.” 

Oh boy was I ever so thrilled that someone like Arleigh thought I was cool. Or rather, claimed to think I was cool. I was going to rush right home and write in my diary about how the two of us could be best friends and go to college together and then have families living right next to each other. Because gee golly willickers, I definitely believed that she actually liked me.  

And yes, it took basically everything I had not to say that out loud. Not because I was worried about what the girl thought about me, but it was probably a bad idea to draw attention to myself. With everything that was going on, I didn’t want to give Arleigh any reason to focus on me any more than she already did. I just did not have the time or energy to deal with her when I had so many actual problems that mattered.

So, rather than allow myself the moment of catharsis that telling this girl exactly what I thought of her would give, I simply replied as flatly as possible, “Great to meet you guys, you’ve got good taste in restaurants, have a good time.” The words were mechanical, coming automatically just as they had any time my parents had dragged me to one of their special fundraisers or other functions where I had to play nice and be polite to people I really couldn’t care less about or be more bored by. Then, as now, I just wanted to say as little as possible before getting out of there. To that end, I attempted to simply slip past them and keep going. 

Unfortunately, Arleigh’s older brother, Micah, put a hand on my arm. His voice was casual, though his grip was tight in a way that made it clear that he wasn’t accustomed to being gentle. “Hey, your brother’s Simon, right? Where’s he been lately? We were supposed to have a game the other night with a bunch of guys, and he just sent some lame excuse about business or something. I was on a hot streak too, could’ve taken some of the weight out of his wallet.”  

Managing to pull my arm free from his grip, I shrugged. “Yeah, he and our parents went to New York for some kind of business thing. I don’t know anything else about it.” Glancing away to stare across the parking lot briefly before looking back, I added, “They don’t exactly keep me in the loop about all that stuff. All I know is they had to go. I think Dad’s involving Simon in business more so he can take an official position or something.” I was trying to keep everything I said as casual and uncaring as it would have been if I didn’t know the truth. I had to sound like a teenage girl who didn’t really care what her parents and brother were up to. 

Not that Micah really seemed to be paying attention to my tone. A snort escaped him at the explanation. “Yeah, sure, it doesn’t have anything to do with him wussing out of the game.” 

“Dude,” Arleigh retorted before I could respond, “the guy probably makes like a hundred k a month allowance or some shit. You really think he’s afraid of losing a few thousand to you in a card game?” She focused on me then, eyes rolling as though we were actually sharing some kind of moment in being annoyed by her brother. “He’s just pissy because Dad’s making him save up for a better car on his own. And his idea of ‘get a job’ is fleecing guys at poker.” 

“Hey, don’t mess with what works,” Micah shot back before giving his sister a ‘light’ shove that made her yelp a bit and stumble. Then he actually winked at me. “Speaking of which, how much do you know about cards? Actually, doesn’t really matter, I could totally teach you. You get an allowance from Mommy and Daddy Moneybags too, right? Could be a lot of fun.” He was practically waggling his eyebrows in a way that made me instinctively want to punch him. 

“Uh, no thanks.” I shook my head, starting to move around them once more. “I already said I’d meet somebody else. But good luck on your whole gambling thing, hope that works out for you.” 

“Hey, you girls.” Before I could leave, another voice called out. And good lord, what was with this restaurant doorway attracting people who knew me? 

When I looked toward the source of the voice, however, I realized that she might have known me, but I definitely didn’t know her. At least, I didn’t think I did. She was fairly tall, at just a couple inches under six feet, with light brown hair pulled into a loose ponytail. Definitely pretty in a tomboy sort of way, and I was gonna guess she was in her late twenties. She also moved very… smoothly, like a dancer gliding across the pavement. 

“Oh my God, dude,” Arleigh groaned as the woman approached, “I told you, I don’t know where she is.” 

“Don’t know where who is?” I asked, looking back and forth between them. 

“Just checking to make sure you didn’t hear from her,” the woman calmly informed Arleigh, though there was a slight edge to that calmness that told me it could vanish in an instant. Then she turned her attention to me. “Sorry, I’ve got you at a disadvantage. You’re Cassidy Evans. I’m Irelyn. Irelyn Banners. And I’m looking for my sister, Paige.” 

Okay, that made me abruptly choke, my eyes widening despite myself. “Wha-what? Paige doesn’t have a sister.” Wait, was this a trap? Was this that son of a bitch launching a secret attack? Was–

“You might call me the black sheep of the family,” Irelyn replied with a wince. “And from that reaction, I’d say everything I’ve heard about how you and Paige get along was accurate. Sorry, I really don’t know what her deal is. I just–” She exhaled. “I don’t exactly spend a lot of time with her. Never have, since our parents adopted her after I ahhh… left. But I tried to take her out for her birthday and she never picked up the phone. Never responded to texts or e-mails. And she’s not home. The school says our parents took her on a trip, but no one knows where exactly, and there’s no one… actually at the house.” She squinted at me, as though wondering if I had answers. “It’s like they all just disappeared. And no one is answering any calls. The last time anyone saw her, or our parents, for sure was her birthday party.”

Ooookay, this I really didn’t expect. Mentally reeling while trying to hide it, I blinked a few times at all that as if it was new information. “Uhh, really? Maybe it was a uhh, you know, surprise trip to one of those remote places.” 

“Dad doesn’t go offline,” the woman flatly informed me. 

“Yeah, well, we don’t know where she is, dude.” That was Arleigh, putting a hand on my shoulder. “If we did, we’d tell you, okay? Why don’t you go tell the cops or one of the Touched teams about your missing sister? I’m sure they’ll get right on it.” 

Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I managed, “Do you have a phone number? I mean, can I have your phone number. If I hear anything…” Boy was I going to let Paige have it for not mentioning that she might have a secret big sister poking around wondering where she was. 

Irelyn gave me the number, and I made a note of it before promising to let her know if I heard anything at all about Paige. Meanwhile, Arleigh started to say something else about school, but I was already starting across the sidewalk to the parking lot. On the way, once I was almost to the asphalt, I glanced back to see that Irelyn had gone into the restaurant already. Which left Arleigh and her older brother having a quiet, yet intense-looking whispered conversation in the doorway. Meanwhile, the younger boy was looking at me, just as silent as he had been throughout all that. What was his name? Errol? Yeah, that was it. Like Errol Flynn. But boy did he not seem anything like what I’d heard about that old actor guy. This Errol had been completely quiet through the entire interaction, essentially a fly on the wall while his siblings bulldozed over the whole conversation. Briefly, I wondered how often they completely forgot he was there. 

Right, it didn’t really matter. I had nothing to do with their family dynamics. So, I mentally shrugged that off and kept going. The next time I glanced back, they were gone. Presumably, they’d finally stepped into the restaurant. So, I pushed those thoughts aside and jogged away. Paige had an older sister. How had I never known that? How did she just fail to bring it up? What kind of trouble was this going to be? 

Shoving those thoughts away, I moved over to the alley to change back to my costume, keeping an eye out for anyone paying too much attention to the young teenager slipping off the main street. It was all clear, so I found my hidden spot and changed, sliding my regular, everyday clothes into my backpack. 

From there, I took a running start and red-painted myself up to the roof of another building, giving a loud whoop on the way. Of course, out here, my aim was perfect. I hit the exact part of the roof I’d been trying for. Yeah, there was definitely an aspect of my power that I didn’t understand. Maybe more than one. I had that really good aim, but I was also able to navigate through that dark forest perfectly. And, now that I thought about it, the whole navigation thing affected more than the dark. Could a normal, regular person instinctively find and land on the exact parts of a building, billboard, or even telephone or light pole as easily as I did while racing my way across the city? I hadn’t really focused on that too much before, but seriously. I did this stuff instinctively, as though I’d done it for years. I just reflexively knew how to twist my body to land where I wanted to. Not completely perfectly, of course. But still. It had to be more than simple luck. Especially now that I’d seen how things worked in the virtual reality world. I definitely had some sort of extra mental power that was helping me out with all that. I really needed to test that, see what its limits were and what else I could do with it. 

And hey, now that both Izzy and Amber were on board with this whole thing and knew my secrets, they could help with all that. Especially Amber, come to think of it. She had her own extra navigation mental power, after all. She always knew what compass direction she was facing. So, maybe she could help me figure out how my whole thing worked. Huh, it turned out there were benefits to actually sharing important information with people, who knew? 

In any case, I eventually made it to the parking lot behind a clothing store that was being renovated. This was where I was supposed to meet Peyton, and sure enough, there she was. I landed on the edge of a roof nearby and took a look around first to make sure no one was spying on her. Once I was assured that the coast was clear, I jumped off the roof and used orange paint on my boots to land smoothly a few feet away. 

“Hey, Paintball!” Pivoting my way as I landed, Peyton waved. She was wearing the marble-costume I’d seen that first night, the more knight-like gold and black armor with a white helmet, while the remaining three marbles lazily orbited around her head. “Didja trip over any more huge life-threatening dramatic problems on your way over here?” 

Flushing a little behind the helmet, I waved that off. “Haha, you’re hilarious. And you better hope I didn’t, because me not being super-busy for two seconds is your best chance to actually get some answers about what’s going on.” Sobering slightly then, I mentioned in slightly vague terms about how I’d heard that Paige apparently had a sister no one knew about, who was looking for her.

“Dude, a secret sister–wait, is she part robot too?” Peyton demanded. 

“Not as far as I know,” I murmured thoughtfully before waving it off. “No, no I don’t think so. Anyway, the point is, it’s something else to deal with. But what about you? Are you okay? Everything’s cool between you and your mom?” Her mother was obviously pretty protective, and the last thing I wanted to do was get the other girl in trouble just for helping with my stuff.

Peyton, in turn, shrugged. “It’s okay. But don’t change the subject. You promised you would tell me what’s actually going on around here. I mean, I know it’s gotta be something big just from what I picked up so far, but I need you to fill in the blanks so I can kick my imagination out of the driver’s seat. Cuz quite frankly, it’s trying to take the car off a cliff right now.” 

Yeah, she was definitely nervous about this whole thing. For a brief moment, I wondered if telling her all of this stuff was actually the right thing to do. She was already anxious, and knowing the truth probably wouldn’t fix that. But then, she deserved to know. She’d earned that, and it wasn’t my place to keep her in the dark just because I thought it was for her own good. Much as I often lamented knowing what I did about my family, I wouldn’t want to go back to being in the dark. Not really. And I certainly wouldn’t want someone else to make the decision for me. 

So, taking a breath, I looked around before noticing some cement steps nearby that led up to the back of the store. Beckoning for her to follow, I walked that way and sat down. Once Peyton dropped beside me, I looked out at the lot and began to tell her at least some of the truth. I kept details about my family and my identity out of it for the time being, but gave her a basic rundown of how I’d first encountered the Ministry, what they were and how they worked as far as I could tell. Instead of saying that I’d seen my brother at the mall and followed him in to hear him talk about that whole thing with criminals paying for the right to operate in the city, I just told her I recognized the man from that first night. 

I did feel bad about not telling her the full truth and basically lying by omission, but this was a lot to dump on her already as it was. Once I knew how she would react to this whole thing, I’d get into more details. Assuming this actually worked out, of course. 

“There’s more,” I told her flatly once that was done. “I mean, I’ve sort of skirted around some details. I won’t lie to you about that. There’s a few specifics, even important specifics, that I didn’t mention. It’s just… it’s a lot. I don’t want to lie to you or anything. There’s things I’m not going to tell you yet. Sorry, I really am. I just… I can’t get into that stuff right now. But everything I have told you is the truth. That’s what the Ministry is, and they’re why I’m not joining any teams. They have their fingers in everything, every team on both sides. They control the city.” 

Peyton was silent for a minute, clearly digesting all that. She rocked back and forth there on the step while the three extra marbles went still and motionless around her head, as if they too were thinking about that whole thing. Finally, the girl looked over to me. “So, they do good things and bad things. I mean, yeah, they let a lot of crime happen. But crime’s gonna happen everywhere, no matter what. And look at how much better Detroit’s doing than it was before Touched came along. I had to do a history report about this place in the 90’s, and it wasn’t pretty, Paintball. My mom even showed me some pictures from back then, and the city was… you know, pretty bad. When powers came, this place could’ve turned into a complete warzone. I’ve seen like, journalist people pointing out how easily things could’ve gotten worse instead of better. If this Ministry had anything to do with directing things this long, they can’t be all totally bad, you know?” 

Meeting her gaze, I replied, “Yeah. It’s complicated, I know. They’ve done some good things, and probably even stopped a lot of much worse stuff from happening. But they also kill people. They do bad things too. I just–you know, I have to find out just how much power they have and what they’ve done to consolidate it. They’re the most powerful group in town, and even if they have some good intentions, there’s no one to stop them from going too far.” 

After considering that briefly, Peyton nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. And either way, I’m with you. Seriously, Paintball, you saved me, more than once. And I like working with you. That whole thing in that VR place, that was crazy, but it was also like… the best?” She exhaled. “I know it’s dangerous and terrifying and all that. All of this is. And my mom would kill me if she knew I was anywhere near this stuff. But I wanna be here. I want to help. Just–maybe think about the good stuff these Ministry people have done too. I swear, I’m not ignoring the murder stuff. I’m not. But maybe they can be… you know, fixed?” She added the last bit with a helpless shrug. 

“I dunno,” I murmured. “But at the very least, we’re gonna find out more about them when we break into that secret mall base.” 

“You actually have a plan for that?” the other girl pressed. 

Offering a smile that she wouldn’t be able to see, I cheerfully replied, “Sure do. 

“How do you feel about tunnels?”

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Hostile Witness 18-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Going to classes with Amber that day was weird, after everything I knew now. But then, it was obviously weird for her too. I kept seeing her glance over at me, catching me looking at her. Not that we actually said that much to each other all day long. And when we did talk, it was while Jae was around at lunch. So we didn’t exactly get into anything important. Which was just as well. Talking about secret stuff at school was probably a bad idea anyway. We had to be careful. 

We did, at least, take a couple of minutes out in the yard behind the school between classes to have a quick conversation about what was going on. Apparently she had already talked to Pack, and we were going to deal with that whole Amanda situation tomorrow. I wanted to hope it would be a simple in and out thing where we got her to tell us what she knew, but I wasn’t counting on it. We were going to have a plan just in case everything went sideways. After all, when it came to anything involving Pencil and the Scions, it was almost certainly best just to assume that things were going to end with screaming, terror, and probably a lot of fire. And that was probably if things were going relatively well. 

I also exchanged a few texts on my second phone with Peyton herself, setting up a time to meet up and talk. She couldn’t do anything immediately after school, thanks to some sort of plans with her mother that she couldn’t get out of. Not that I would have wanted her to try anyway. She needed to make things seem as normal as possible for the clearly very protective woman. 

So, we were going to meet up around eight in the evening instead. The next day was Saturday, so there wouldn’t be as much of a push for her to be home early. We could find a private place and… and talk. Yeah, I wasn’t going to give her my full identity just yet. But she deserved to know the truth about the Ministry, and about why I couldn’t let myself join up with any of the established teams. She deserved to know what we were dealing with, and to decide if she wanted to back off entirely. She still had that choice. Peyton could just walk away from this whole thing without too much trouble. 

Yet, I found myself hoping she didn’t. Yeah, it was selfish, but I couldn’t help it. Just the fact that she had been right there watching my back inside that whole computer simulation thing had helped a lot. Yeah, Pack and That-A-Way had been there too, and that was even more helpful. But Peyton was… Peyton was a partner. I barely knew her, yet what I did know was that she was really brave, not to mention competent. It was… it was good to have her around. 

Still, if finding out the full truth, or at least as much as I could tell her, about the Ministry made her want to jump out of the pool and walk away, I wasn’t going to stop her. I wouldn’t try to talk her out of it. Mostly because if I had been in her situation, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t want to walk away from the whole thing. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. This was my family, my problem. I had to be involved. She didn’t. She could be safe. So if she wanted out, she deserved that much. 

Either way, I would deal with all that later, after actually telling the girl what was going on. For the moment, it was the end of the school day and I had something else to deal with. Namely, going over to the Seraph place so I could actually finish up my chores there. After all, it was probably a good idea for me to get that done before they decided I was trying to skip out on the work. I wasn’t sure what they’d do if they had to chase me down and get more stern about it, but it was a situation I wanted to avoid in general. 

Still, I didn’t go straight over there. Instead, I took the ride home with Jefferson and Izzy, spending about an hour there to make things look as normal as possible. Also, homework. Yeah, I still had that to deal with too. I was pretty sure my parents would have a few questions if I started getting straight F’s in all my classes. It wouldn’t do much to help me keep my extracurricular activities secret. So I spent an hour doing as much of that as I could, setting a little bit aside to cram on later that night before bed. Then I called my mother as Jefferson had said she wanted, having a conversation with her about how school went, what I was planning to do that night (at least, the version I was willing to tell her), and about what they were doing (at least, the version she was willing to tell me). Yeah, we were a completely normal family, alright. 

Once that little charade was over with, I took the time to have a little snack in the dining room with Izzy, the two of us chatting about utterly meaningless stuff to give the impression we had nothing better to worry about. Yeah, another charade. If I’d had any spare time, I might’ve signed up for the drama club, because I was getting to be a pretty good little actress. 

Finally, I made a point of telling Izzy, within earshot of a couple housecleaners passing by, that I was going out with a few friends and would be back in a few hours. We made a show of making sure she would text me if she needed anything, before I headed out. Of course Izzy knew what I was really doing, but we had to cover our bases in case (okay, when) my parents asked the staff what the two of us had been up to while they were gone.

Taking an Uber to a small strip mall that was about a mile from the Seraph headquarters,  I stopped in a nearby alley behind one of the shops and changed into my costume. From there, I painted my way across the remaining distance, taking the time to wave at a few people who called out when I was passing by. I even left the logo I’d made up while at Ten Towers (the black oval with Paintball written in white intricate cursive letters and a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other) in a couple places for them to take pictures of. They seemed to like that a lot, especially if they could get photos of me moving in front of the logo.

At some point, I had asked myself why I did this sort of thing. I mean, obviously it was kind of fun to be liked and cheered on, and it helped me push negative thoughts away. But there was another, more important reason I did it. If worse came to worst and my parents started to use the Ministry against ‘Paintball’, they might try to shift public opinion and make me look bad. I wanted to get ahead of that by making sure as many people as possible actually liked me.  

Was that selfish or… or wrong? Was it manipulative? Yeah, maybe. Probably. But I only had so many ways of protecting myself against the sort of things the Ministry could do to make me look bad. I had to stay ahead of that sort of thing. Besides, I wasn’t exactly… lying or whatever. I really did enjoy having fun by showing off for these people. Actually, that was probably the biggest thing connecting Cassidy Evans to Paintball. I had always loved to show off for an audience while doing my tricks on my board or blades, when I’d done gymnastics, or even that brief, single semester of cheerleading back in junior high. 

The point was, I liked attention and I liked showing off. But I did have a valid, strategic reason for wanting to make people like having Paintball around. Anything to make it harder for the Ministry to cast me as a bad guy or a threat. Not that I expected to be completely immune if they decided to really come after me, but every little thing helped. 

In any case, I made it to the front gate of the headquarters and found Matthew Orens on duty. After greeting the man, I slipped off my backpack and dug inside until I found the (already laminated) papers on which I had drawn the pictures and text for his son’s storybook. The two of us had worked out what the general story should be and how to insert Josh (his son) into it. The man had a few specific details he had wanted to be included that would make his kid feel like he was really the person in the book. Phrases he liked to say, a pet turtle that needed to be seen, that sort of thing. Basically, I had made a thirty page story about Josh and his turtle (named Kiwi) going on an adventure through time using a magical skateboard that took them to various parts of history. 

After reading through it and examining all the pictures I’d made, Orens looked up to me. “Two things. First, I’ve got a guy who can bind these pages into a real book cover. Think you could stop by in a couple days to put a picture on that? Josh’s birthday is next Wednesday.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course. I’ll come back before then and help finish it up. Uh, is it okay though? What was the second thing?” 

“The second thing,” Orens informed me, “is that this is good. Really good. A kid with his turtle time traveling with a skateboard? You should think about working on your writing to make it a little better. Take some extra classes or something when you get into high school. I mean, it’s good, the basic story is great. You just need a little technical help. Anyway, the point is, having a job that’s easy to make your own hours for is good for people like you once you get older and can’t rely on your parents anymore. And being a writer, from what I hear, that’s a pretty good choice. Practice for a while and you could probably make a living with stuff like this.” He waved the papers demonstrably. “Kids’ll probably love it. Just keep it in mind. Hell, if you published as Paintball, you’d get a lot of readers just from the novelty of reading a book drawn and written by a Star-Touched. And they have a whole system set up for keeping your identity secret in those cases.” 

Flushing just a little, I nodded. “Uh, thanks. Really, thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” With that, I started to move around him to head for the gate. 

“Hey, don’t you want to get paid?” the man asked, reaching for his wallet. 

“Uh, nah, why don’t you wait til we finish up,” I replied quickly. “Once I put the pictures and stuff on the cover, then you can pay me.” Part of me wanted to say that he didn’t need to pay anything at all, but I had a feeling he was too proud for that. Besides, it probably wouldn’t do great things for my secret identity to act like I didn’t need money like that. And I could always hand the cash over to Wren for building the business we were trying to get off the ground. After all, he was right about one specific thing. I couldn’t just rely on my parents forever. 

Making my way back to the building where I’d been working, I took a moment to talk to Tricia Peppernickle, the elderly lady I’d met before, who was back behind the desk. Of course, she insisted I take another handful of hard candy from the bowl on her desk, and talked about a couple of her grandkids for a minute before sending me on through. 

From there, I headed past the security lasers using the pass code I’d been given, back to the room where I’d already been working. It looked like someone else had come through and done a little work on it as well while I was gone. But there was still plenty to do, so I got back to it. I had to move broken furniture out to the freight elevator, then go down with it and leave the stuff in a pile on the loading dock at the bottom. I did, of course, have a few reflexive questions about why there was a loading dock several levels below ground level. But I’d heard rumors about a large, truck-sized tunnel leading away from the Seraph HQ. Looking at the enormous rolling metal door at one end of the loading dock, I figured the rumor must be right. They had an underground tunnel leading somewhere that a truck could drive through. That made me wonder where it came out and which vehicles used it.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t really ask. Mostly because I was pretty sure they wouldn’t answer that sort of question, and it might look a little suspicious to be asking where their secret tunnel went. Especially considering I was here in the first place because I’d helped steal from them. Yes, it was for a good cause, and they knew that. But still. Trying to get details about that sort of thing almost certainly wouldn’t go over that well. 

So, I just relegated that to a bit of curiosity that wouldn’t pay off anytime soon and kept working. I had to finish up with the last of the debris, then stack the remaining folders in the filing cabinets I had already put back into place in the other room. When that much was done, I headed out to the hall to find the phone Patchwork had pointed out the other day and dialed zero before asking the woman who answered on the other end to send Bernard out for help patching the holes in the walls.

Bernard, as it turned out, was a middle-aged black guy with a cybernetic eye that was a bit distracting. He was pretty cool about it though, popping the little metal orb out and showing me what it looked like. There were tiny wires that attached themselves to the eye socket when it was inserted, in order to send the visual input to his brain. He claimed that taking it in and out didn’t hurt at all, but I was still a little creeped out by the idea. Still, it was really cool for him. Apparently one of the Seraph Tech-Touched in another state had made it in exchange for some sort of special work Bernard had done for them. 

He brought the stuff to start patching the holes, and the two of us spent forty-five minutes or so to get that all done. He even told me some stories about being a support member of the Seraphs  while we were doing that. Apparently, his wife had been one of the early Touched members of a Seraph squad over in Chicago (where he’d gotten the cybernetic eye), before being killed while helping to deal with a Collision Point. I expressed sympathy, and he looked sad for a moment before assuring me that it had been over twenty years by this point. Which actually just made things worse, because it made me think about how young of a couple they must have been when she was killed. Yeah, Abyssals were pretty awful. 

Eventually, we had the holes patched, and I used my power to paint the walls the way he said they should be. Meanwhile, Bernard stood by with his arms folded and gave a low whistle. “Boy,” he remarked as I finished with one wall, “you make this a hell of a lot easier than doing it the old-fashioned way. You say this stuff won’t disappear or whatever? It’s permanent?” 

My head bobbed a bit. “As far as I know, it should stay as long as I don’t activate it for my power. And I don’t really see any scenario where I’d need to activate the paint inside this specific room. Or you can scrub it off with paint remover, or, you know, whatever.” I shrugged a little. “Point is, it should stay like normal paint on the wall as long as you want it there.” 

Giving me a thumbs up, the man slowly looked around the room with a smile. “You did good work here, kid. If this hero thing doesn’t work out, maybe you could get a job as a contractor.” 

Snorting, I casually replied, “That’s the second suggestion of a mundane job I’ve gotten in the past couple hours. Should I take that as a hint that my hero stuff is slacking?” 

He laughed out loud at that, shaking his head. “Not a chance. From what I’ve seen on the news and the YouTube, you’re pretty damn effective for a kid. Hell, even for an adult. Anyway, like I said, good work. I think you can consider your debt repaid.” Abruptly, he snapped his fingers. “Oh, shit, except there was one more thing Patches and Hallowed wanted you for once this was done. You should probably head up and ask Tricia at the desk to ring them up for you. And hey, thanks for this, kid. I know you sorta had to do it but still. You really saved me and my squad a lot of work.” 

Flushing a little behind the mask and helmet, I assured him that it was no big deal, then headed out to follow his suggestion. Tricia promptly made the call, speaking with whoever was on the other end for a minute before disconnecting. “Okay, sweetie,” she addressed me, “have a seat over there for a minute and they’ll be right with you.” 

So, I did. For about ten minutes, I sat idly, checking out magazines from the table nearby and alternately chatting with the woman herself. She had a lot of stories about what it was like to do her job, and loved to tell them. It was pretty sweet, honestly. 

In the end, it was Hallowed himself who showed up. He still looked incredibly intimidating, with his glowing golden armor, expansive metal wings, and an enormous sword attached to his back. Enormous even then, but I knew it could get even bigger (larger than the man himself even) when he deployed it. 

Thankfully, he seemed to be in a good mood. Not that I could really see his face through the helmet, but there was a smile in his voice as he greeted me. “Paintball, good to see you again. Glad to hear you finished up. Bernard tells me you did a good job.” 

Okay, part of me reflexively wanted to ask when he had spoken to Bernard, given I’d needed to have Tricia call to tell him I was ready. But that was clearly at least part of what that ten minute wait had been about. He’d probably just called the man up to find out how I did and to make sure I was really done.

So, shaking that off, I simply nodded. “Oh, uh, well thank him for me. I couldn’t’ve finished up without his help. Paint I can do, but I’ve never really patched holes before.” Abruptly, a grin found its way to my face. “And I didn’t even have Patchwork to help.” 

Hallowed gave a soft chuckle, and I heard Tricia snicker behind me. Before he could say anything else, the door slid open behind him and a small black form came flying through to land on the man’s shoulder. “Have I missed the opportunity to extend the invitation myself?” 

“Invitation?” I echoed before catching myself. Quickly, I waved. “Hi, Dad!” 

That, of course, prompted another round of chuckles, especially when Lucent greeted me in kind. “I pray you are endeavoring to make your family proud, my boy.” 

Thinking briefly about what would really make my family proud, I grimaced and pushed those thoughts aside before forcing a casual, “Oh, you know, I’m doing my best, Pops. You’ve really got to take me out one of these days and show me how to be a real hero.” 

The dark-eyed raven gave me an intense, clearly curious look before he spoke up. “Yes, I do believe that would be quite an interesting and rewarding excursion. If you truly wish such a thing.” 

“Oh, uhh…” I’d been kidding, of course, but now I nodded. “Sure, I mean, at some point. It’d be cool to get some real tips from someone like you.” 

“Excellent,” came the cheerful response. “And I shall introduce you to a friend of mine along the way while she is in town. Shall we say… Sunday? You may call to let us know what a good specific time would be.”

Really fast, but I was pretty curious to know what it would be like to go around the city with him. To say nothing of how fun it would be to fuel those rumors about our relationship. Besides, I also wanted to know who this friend of his was. So, I nodded in agreement. “Sure, do I just call the main desk and ask for you or something?” 

He confirmed that, before Hallowed cleared his throat. “That sounds like a good idea. And speaking of invitations…” 

“What–oh, right.” I flushed a little. “Sorry, sir, you had one more thing you wanted me to do to make up for that whole… yeah, that thing?” 

His head shook. “I would say your debt is paid by now. This is more about an invitation, as I said. You see, we’re having a bit of a party next weekend with a lot of important guests visiting. There’s a dinner and a whole round of speeches. We would like you to attend as one of our guests. I promise, you won’t have to give a speech and we always protect everyone’s identities. But it would be very nice to have you here, perhaps answering a few questions. And your new partner, of course. Does she have a name?” 

“Alloy,” I informed him, my mind spinning already. “And uhh, yeah, I think we can come. I’ll make sure she’s okay with it. But you really want us to come to your fancy party? I don’t think I have a tuxedo version of my costume. Oooh, but maybe I could paint it to look right.” 

Chuckling, the man assured me, “I think you’ll be just fine as you are. When you come over on Sunday, we’ll arrange the details. Just find out if this… Alloy is going to come with you. It’s next Saturday, around eight pm. The food will be worth it, even if you have to sit through some boring speeches to get to that. And hopefully, not all of them will be boring.

“After all, Sterling Evans is supposed to be making one of them. And I hear he’s pretty good at keeping things interesting.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-11 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The monthly non-canon chapters were posted over the weekend! You can find the chapter for this story, Summus Proelium, right here and the one for Heretical Edge right here

I had definitely experienced bigger shocks in my recent history. Certainly much worse ones. Everything that had to do with my family and what they really were totally beat out this moment, no question about it. And yet, standing there right then, staring at the girl across from me, still ranked pretty high up there. The sudden revelation that the Minority-Touched I had been working with so much, and the girl I spent time at school with were the same person sent me reeling, both physically and mentally. A series of noises escaped me, but they weren’t coherent or even vaguely decipherable as words. They were only sounds, filling the air meaninglessly. Somewhere in the middle of that, I plucked my helmet off and held it loosely in one hand (I hadn’t put the actual mask back on) so I could stare bare face to bare face with the other girl. I just… I had to see her straight on, with nothing between us. Not that I was entirely sure how it would help, but still. 

“Now you know how I felt back at… your house,” Amber informed me dryly while arching an eyebrow pointedly. “And I had to jump right to it and keep trying to fight that son of a bitch. At least you’ve got downtime to process.” 

After a very momentary pause, she visibly winced at the words that were about to come out of her mouth before asking, “I mean, it is you, right? That wasn’t actually some trick you and the kid programmed in to distract that guy if anything like that happened, just in case?” It was clear that she didn’t think that was in any way possible, but still wanted to cover her bases just in case. And really, who could blame her? This entire situation was pretty fucked up. 

Before I could answer, Raige, whom I had forgotten was standing there with the shock of this whole revelation, spoke up almost cheerfully. “Oh no, it’s really her. And it’s a pretty good disguise, if you think about it. I mean, who’s ever going to think that Cassidy Evans is willingly posing as a little boy? Especially after everything my doppelganger over there put her through.” 

“Shut up,” Paige muttered, her face slightly flushed. She was looking at me the whole time, voice softening slightly. “I didn’t have a choice. My–” She glanced at the identical girl nearby before belatedly amending her words. “Our father set the rules about that very clearly.”

A brief start of realization, Amber looked back and forth between us. “Oh my God, your dad has some huge grudge against the Evans, so he made you treat her like an enemy all this time? What the hell did that accomplish?” she demanded, sounding exasperated with the whole thing.

“She was supposed to do more than just antagonize me for years,” I informed her without taking my gaze away from Paige herself. “Back at her birthday party, she was supposed to kill me.” 

While Amber gave a double-take at that, Paige and I took turns explaining, with a little ‘help’ from Raige, exactly what was supposed to happen that day, along with what had actually happened. We filled in the blanks about that whole situation so that Amber knew the full story. At least as far as that went. There was a hell of a lot more story to fill in for everything else. 

Which was made perfectly clear when Amber let out a breath. “Okay, I guess I understand that day and all that, but what about everything else? How did you get powers? Why did you start going out as a boy in the first place? What do you know about these Ministry people, and how? What does any of that have to do with Paige’s father? Why does he have some big grudge against your parents, and what–” Abruptly, she trailed off. Her eyes widened dramatically with realization as she snapped her gaze to me. “Oh my God! It’s them, isn’t it? The Ministry. Your parents are connected to the Ministry. That’s how you found out about them, and…” She slumped back on her heels, head shaking. “That’s why you’re so obsessed with hiding your identity. It’s why you won’t join the–” Once again, she interrupted herself as a different realization jumped to mind, making her blurt a sudden, “Oh God, Izzy! I mean–”  She cut herself off, blanching as though she had said too much already.

“It’s okay, I know,” I assured her. “And I’m pretty sure those two know everything about the Minority.” I said that while looking toward the twins. “They’re pretty well-informed, after all.” 

Sounding pretty cheerful and amused by the entire situation, Raige nodded easily. “Oh yeah, we know all your identities. Parts of the benefit to having a backdoor in with the Ministry. Okay, maybe not an entire door. But at least a window. Enough to know some pretty juicy secrets.”  

“Secrets we don’t talk about,” Paige snapped pointedly, before adding, “And you two should get out of here before they send someone in to check on you. I mean, you can have this whole conversation somewhere better than this place, right?” For a brief moment, she looked as though she was going to say something else, before stopping herself. I had the feeling she actually wanted us to stay even longer, and pointing out that we should leave was her way of ripping the Band-Aid off. 

But she also had a point. We had to eject before the guys outside freaked out and came in after us. They would obviously give us a little leeway, but I didn’t want to push that even further. So, biting my lip, I focused on the blonde girl who had antagonized me for so long. “I’ll come back and check on you when I can.” Belatedly, I glanced toward Raige. “I’ll check on both of you, I mean. So try not to antagonize each other too much while we’re gone. Like I said, just go to your own corners of the world if you have to. Whatever it takes to play nice and get along until we can separate you.” 

“What he–I mean she said.” Shaking her head a bit at her own correction, Amber continued. “Seriously, just leave each other alone if you need to. We’ll both come back and check on you whenever we can. And we want to find you both without all these bruises, so no more fighting.”

“Hey,” Raige replied easily with a shrug, “I was just following orders before. Now that Daddy made it abundantly clear what he thinks of loyalty, I don’t have any reason to fight with that one over there. I mean, as long as you work on getting me that new body so I can go off and live my own life far away from all of you. Just do that and everything’ll be totally hunky-dory.”

Exchanging brief looks, Amber and I both replaced our mask and helmet respectively. Really, I wasn’t exactly sure why we did that. It wasn’t like whether we had them on or not would affect our bodies in the real world. Maybe it was just a psychological way of telling ourselves that we were going back to being That-A-Way and Paintball for the time being. 

In any case,  I watched intently as her facial features shifted slightly along with her hair turning blonde. Touched-Tech, obviously. Which again, made perfect sense. It had always seemed a little odd that the adults behind the Minority would let her get away with only hiding her identity behind a little domino mask. The fact that it did so much to actually change what she looked like solved that question.

Once we were suitably disguised, I glanced over to the twins to promise one more time that we would check in on them. There was more I wanted to say, but it would have to wait. I really didn’t feel like talking to Paige about all the issues we had while in front of an audience. Even if I was now aware that I knew That-A-Way much better than I had thought. And yeah, that would be a whole thing in and of itself. The two of us were clearly going to have a long chat. Between that and the fact that I definitely still needed to talk to Peyton about some of the stuff she’d heard in here, I had several of those ‘important conversations’ coming up in my near-future.  

For the moment,  Amber and I simply spoke the code to eject ourselves from the simulation. Again, my vision was filled with the kaleidoscope of lights, colors and all the random sounds. Seriously, at one point it sounded like one of those old World War One fighter planes had flown practically right through me. To say it was disorienting was a massive understatement.

Finally, there was that reddish-purple fog from before, accompanied by the sensation of falling straight down on a roller coaster. I had thought I was ready for it this time, but a yelp still escaped me. Then I was conscious and aware, jerking a bit against the seat I’d been perched in. Nearby, I could see Wren watching anxiously, even as I heard Ambe–no, That-A-Way jerking in her own seat on the opposite side of the machine. We’d made it, we were back in the real world. Quickly, I pulled the sunglasses and special gloves off before fixing my mask and helmet. Only then did I push myself up and give an almost dog-like shake. My body felt weird and tingly. Probably a side effect of sitting for so long while my brain thought I was actually moving. “Wow, that’s some nifty gizmo you got there, dude,” I informed Wren with an only slightly shaky thumbs up. “Seriously, that French guy you got this prototype from really knows his shit. And you put it together, just–maybe see if he wants to collaborate on something, cuz you two do good work.” 

Wren proceeded to blush deeply, hopping off the edge of the table she had been anxiously perched on. “You’re okay? You’re all okay? It took you awhile to come out of it, longer than the others.” Even as she said that, the girl was looking over to the corner of the room, where Pack and Alloy were clearly exercising/playing with the lizards. They had both straightened up when That-A-Way and I had emerged from the machine, Pack standing with two of her lizards (Twinkletoes the chameleon and Holiday the skink) perched on either shoulder, while Scatters the tiny Neon Day Gecko was settled right on top of her hooded and masked head. “You two good?” she asked, though her attention was more on That-A-Way than me.  

“We made it,” Way confirmed while casting a brief glance back toward me before her attention shifted to Wren. “And he’s right, that was a lot more realistic than I expected. Hope your French guy gets it up and running so I can talk the bosses back at the Clubhouse into buying one for the rest of the Minority to use in training. Seriously, just being able to practice stuff and have full-contact sparring without worrying about hurting anybody would be pretty amazing.”  

Alloy, who had picked herself up from the floor while holding Riddles in her small bearded dragon form, abruptly spoke up. “Are we seriously just being this casual right now after what happened in there? Who the hell is Paige’s father and how did he send some… some virtual copy of himself into her computer brain thing and oh my God I sound like a nutjob.” 

“Welcome to the club,” I replied, reaching out to squeeze Wren’s shoulder briefly before leaving the girl to walk over to where Alloy herself was. “Seriously, welcome to the club. There’s a lot of stuff to talk about. And I will, I promise. You’ve earned some answers. And maybe I should have talked about it with you before. But I just… it’s hard for me to get into all that. I’m sorry. You deserve more of an explanation than you’ve gotten so far. Especially after you went in there with us. I really don’t know what we would have done without your help.” 

“Damn straight,” Pack put in. “You were the MVP in there. So if he doesn’t treat you right and start giving you answers, I can talk Blackjack into a really good signing bonus for you.”

Letting out a clearly exaggerated sigh, That-A-Way protested, “Seriously? Could you at least wait until I’m not in the room before you start trying to recruit for your criminal boss?” 

“Sorry, babe,” Pack replied casually and without any actual regret, “You know what they say. Always be hustling. Especially when your boss offers such attractive bonuses for anyone who recruits a good Touched to begin with.” Slyly, she added, “Speaking of which, do you have any idea how much bank you and I could make if I bring you over to the shady side? Huh, huh? We could have a lot of fuuuun.” She intentionally and pointedly drawled out the last word. 

Visibly flushing a little behind that mask, Way shook her head. “Sorry, not interested in anything Blackjack has to offer. You’re just gonna have to do without. Why don’t you try robbing another bank to make up for it,” she added while rolling her eyes. Even as the words were out of her mouth, however, the girl was already frantically trying to verbally back up. “I mean, not that I–” 

It was too late, as Pack raised both hands triumphantly over her head, playing that whole thing up for all it was worth. “And there it is! You all heard it. I have carte blanche to rob a bank, given straight from a prestigious and, dare I say, truly stunning member of the Detroit Minority.” 

“Sorry,” Way retorted while giving a dismissive wave of her hand. “You forgot to get it in writing, so I guess you’re screwed and you’ll just have to go to jail like the other bank robbers. Oh, I know, how about you have a total redemption moment and come over to the sunny side?”  

Pack, in turn, shot back, “Tell you what, as soon as the kid over there joins you guys, so will I.” She was nodding in my direction, of course. Considering how clear I’d made my unwillingness to do that, as well as (at least partially) why, Pack obviously felt safe making the bet.

Before they could banter back and forth any more, Alloy abruptly blurted, “Oh shit, I need to get home.” She was looking at her phone before wincing while glancing up. “Sorry, I didn’t realize what time it was. We were in there for longer than I thought. I umm, I really have to go, before Mom has a coronary. Uh, thanks for inviting me to that… crazy thing, I guess?” Looking to me, she added, “I really do want answers about what’s really going on and all that. And about what that guy wants and how he’s ‘trying to end death’ or whatever. But you know, Mom comes first.”

“Oh, believe me,” I assured her immediately, “I know exactly what you mean. And yeah, we’ll definitely talk later, I promise. Just go do what you need to. And Alloy, thanks. Seriously, I wasn’t just saying it before. I really don’t know what we would have done in there without your help.” 

Obviously embarrassed by the attention, she made a few noises about it not being a big deal and headed for the elevator to leave. Just as it started to descend, she called out that she would text me sometime the next day so we could meet up again and have that conversation.

Once she was gone, the three of us who were left gave Wren an actual update about what had happened. Alloy and Pack had given her the CliffsNotes, but they had been waiting for us to get into the whole story. So, over the next few minutes, we explained what was going to happen. Unsurprisingly, as soon as we got to the part about needing to find another body, the Tech-Touched girl was immediately apprehensive. Her head shook, insisting she couldn’t build anything like that. But I assured her that we already had some leads about how to possibly find one of Paige’s father’s prototype storage places. All she would have to do was look it over, and possibly help us compare it to Paige’s body to see if we could figure out what was different. 

“Plus,” Way pointed out, “since Raige isn’t actively fighting her anymore, she can probably talk you through some of this stuff herself. You know, with that communication thing you built. Hell, if it’s about getting her own body working, I bet Raige would help out too. You three could all collaborate to figure it out. You’d just be their hands. You know, in a manner of speaking.” 

That calmed the girl down a bit, and eventually Pack said she needed to go as well. After a little more teasing back and forth about what kind of crimes she was off to commit, she headed out. Meanwhile, Wren was yawning and trying to hide it, leaving Fred in the corner of the room giving us meaningful looks. He’d been downstairs before, but came up as Pack was on her way out. Now, the man was basically doing everything up to pantomiming that we should leave so he could get Wren to go to sleep. Yeah, after all the work she’d done to get that machine working in such a short time, the kid definitely needed to get some rest. Even if she was trying to hide exactly how exhausted she was. Any minute now, her head was probably going to hit the table. 

Without even needing to look at each other, That-A-Way and I both said we needed to get out of there. We thanked the kid one more time before taking the elevator down and heading out. Both of us were completely silent the whole way through the store, and even once we got outside. Together, we walked silently through the alley behind the shop, before Way caught my arm and looked meaningfully to a nearby roof. When I nodded, she teleported us up there. 

Once we were on the roof, the girl looked around to make sure we were alone before taking off the mask. As her hair and face shifted to normal, she stared intently at me. It looked like she was taking a moment to try to find the right words. While she did, I slowly pulled the helmet off and set it on top of the nearby air conditioning unit. Then I took off the mask. And boy did that ever feel weird. It made me feel naked, standing there with my face exposed. Finally, I plucked the Bluetooth device out of my ear and put it, and the mask, next to the helmet. And then I just stood there, looking at the other girl in silence for what felt like an eternity. There were several times that one or both of us started to say something, before stopping. Neither of us knew exactly what to say. 

Finally, I let out a long breath and looked to her while trying to clamp down on the nerves that were making my heart want to beat its way out of my chest. There was no point in holding back right now. Amber knew who I was. She was way too close to things for me to push her off, and quite frankly she’d earned the truth. So, that was exactly what I was going to give her. “Okay,” I announced, “I’m gonna tell you what happened the night I got my powers. And everything that came after that. I’ve only told the whole story once before, and that was to Izzy.” 

Amber blinked at that, hesitantly asking, “You mean Izzy really does know about you? How… how much does she know, exactly? And for how long?” 

“All of it,” I informed her. “I told her everything. And she found out the night we had that whole thing with Paige in the first place. When I got home after all that, I guess I wasn’t really thinking too clearly. I ended up going up on the roof, and she was already up there. She saw me use my paint and I saw her floating. That kind of forced us to talk about everything.” 

“Like you’re gonna talk about everything now?” Amber pressed, folding both arms as she watched me intently. 

“Yeah, like–wait a minute, she knows who you are, doesn’t she?” I suddenly realized. “She–boy, she really is good at keeping secrets.” After processing that realization, I shook my head before focusing on the matter at hand. “Okay. Well, here goes. 

“It started when I was pretending to drive one of my family’s cars, and my brother came into the garage…” 

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In Like Flynn 17-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, I had set out to get this guy’s attention and to distract him from what he’d been about to do. And I was going to go ahead and call myself wildly successful at those goals. The guy completely abandoned the orb, spinning around and practically turning into a blur as he got right up to where I was. His hand grabbed my throat and squeezed as he stared into my face, his eyes wide. “You? You?! No, no this is a trick. You changed your form to look like her. No, wait. How… wait…” As his confusion and uncertainty grew, his grip around my throat tightened. Out of the corner of my eye while choking, I could see That-A-Way staring at me in silent, gaping shock. I guess finding out I was actually a girl, and someone she had probably heard of at that, was really taking a lot out of her. I couldn’t even imagine what was going through her mind. 

Unfortunately, I also didn’t have time to really think about that. All of my attention was on the fact that this guy was choking me. Not that he could really hurt me. At worst, I’d be kicked out of the simulation. But that would leave him alone here with the still-trapped and powerless Way, and his two ‘daughters,’ whom he was still trying to erase.

Yeah, I couldn’t let that happen. Luckily, he’d been too distracted to notice as I snapped the last of the wires before he could summon more. With a grunted, “Let’s kick this off,” I lashed out with my foot, the blow enhanced by an intricate purple dragon image running up my leg and over my back. It took the man in the chest and knocked him across to the far side of the room, where he crashed into one of my old paintings. 

The wires were trying to wrap around me again, but I’d already painted a green rabbit over my back and dove out of the way. Landing near Way, I grabbed the wires that were holding her and ripped them out before hitting the girl herself with a quick shot of purple and green. 

She reacted instantly, shoving me out of the way with her new strength just before our angry new friend’s fist passed through the air where my head had just been. He literally punched through the wall. Yeah, he obviously didn’t quite have godlike control over this place, but he had certainly been able to give himself plenty of advantages. 

“Your parents ruined everything!” he snapped at me while blocking a punch from Way. Almost contemptuously, he tossed her away from him. All of his attention was on me. “Their idiotic and pointless war against your grandfather destroyed my chance to change the world! I could have saved everyone! Everyone!” He was spinning to punch at me, and I barely ducked before his fist shattered a metal statue that had been sitting on my dresser. 

Hitting him with two shots of yellow from both hands, I dove between his legs and rolled while retorting, “Because you definitely come off as the altruistic sort!” Before he could turn, his movements slowed by the paint, I hoisted myself up on both hands from the floor and kicked out with my feet to hit the small of his back. Just before impact, I renewed the purple enhancement with the image of an anthropomorphic dog holding a baseball bat. 

The kick landed hard enough to knock the man to the floor. But he didn’t stay there long before lunging back to his feet. He grabbed my dresser and spun with it, lifting the whole thing up before swinging it at me like a baseball bat. A very large and awkward baseball bat. Oh yeah, and he was screaming like a totally deranged maniac. That was fun.

Luckily, he was still slowed down slightly. So, I launched myself upward in a flip before planting my feet against the ceiling. Extending both hands from above the man, I fired two shots of red. One missed, but the other hit, albeit just barely. It clipped his shoulder. Quickly, I activated both, so that he was yanked down toward the floor where the first shot had struck. 

Way was back on her feet by that point, and I managed to hit her with purple and orange paints just before the son of a bitch bounced back to his feet and grabbed my arm. A yelp escaped me, as he tried to crush it in his grip. I felt it start to snap as he yanked me off the ceiling and held me dangling there. 

“Let her go!” Way blurted, using the strength I had given her to grab my desk chair and hurl it overhand at the guy. But he was too quick, twisting right out of the way just in time without ever losing his grip on me. Just as the chair went past his head, he caught it with his free hand and sent it right back to the other girl, who had to dive out of the way. 

I tried to kick at him, but it didn’t seem to do anything, even with a bit of purple. It wasn’t enough. The best I could do was give myself an orange pumpkin image that made it harder for him to snap my arm. Even then, I wasn’t sure how long it would hold out. 

Wait, I was being stupid. Quickly, I painted that part of my arm pink. His tight grip immediately squished it, but it didn’t matter. I dropped out of his hand and back to the floor, with a narrow tendril of pink connecting one part of my arm to the other, which was dangling from his fist. My arm was basically stretched and squished like silly putty. And oh boy did he look confused. 

“Thanks!” I chirped, “I’ve been trying to work that kink out of my arm for weeks!” Even as I said that, I was painting my entire lower half purple for lashing out with a kick that took the man in the gut. That one finally made him stumble away from me, and freed my arm. I dismissed the pink paint, and my limb quickly schlurped right back to normal. Which was still disgusting and weird, of course. But I didn’t have time to worry about that. Instead, I used the time I had left with purple paint to spin, grabbing my flat screen television off the wall before coming back around to slam the whole thing into his face. The impact knocked him backward against my bedroom door. Then I reared back to hurl the thing at him. Unfortunately, he caught it in one hand and used the other to snap it all in half before tossing both sides away. His voice was a deep, angry growl. “This… is… my world!” As he said that, the floor changed into what amounted to pudding under my feet and Way’s as she pushed herself back up. Both of us stumbled and fell forward, our hands ending up trapped in the floor as well just as it turned solid again. I strained, using a purple elephant on my chest, but I couldn’t break free. Not quickly, anyway. 

Pushing away from my door, Pittman snarled, “I built these environments. I control them, me. I built her. I made her flesh and blood and I made her cybernetics. I made everything about her. She is mine. Nothing, no one is going to take her away from me. Not even her. I am–” 

“Hey, Dad.” It was Paige, the words coming even as she lunged away from the orb. In an instant, she had caught hold of the man’s arm and shoved it back against the wall on one side of the doorway. “Why don’t you–” 

“Shut the fuck up!” Her words were finished by Raige, who joined her twin by lunging over to grab the man’s other arm, holding it pinned against the other side of the doorway. 

“Wha–what are you doing?!” Pittman demanded. He was clearly straining against their grips as they worked to hold him in place. It took both of them thanks to the strength he had given himself in this world, and it was obvious that they wouldn’t be able to hold him for long. “I created you. I’m your father! You do what I tell you to and I tell you to let… me… go. Help me deal with our enemy!” His gaze was locked on me, hatred filling his eyes in a way that made him seem almost rabid. 

The two identical blondes exchanged looks. Even now, I could tell there was little love lost between them. There was definitely still tension. But they had joined up to work together against their common enemy. Their father was the problem, and they weren’t going to let him control them. 

“You want help, Dad?” Paige managed through gritted teeth, still doing everything she could to hold his straining arm in place. 

“You seem hungry,” Raige put in, equally straining. “Maybe… we could offer you… a snack.” 

Paige finished with, “It’s not a Snickers. But… how about… a Mars Bar?” 

And at that moment, the sound of shattering glass, wood, and part of my entire wall filled the air where my balcony and sliding glass door were. Or where they used to be. As my gaze snapped that way, I caught a glimpse of some kind of high-tech motorcycle thing made out of Alloy’s gold, silver, and black marbles crashing through everything to reach my room. But it wasn’t Alloy riding it. It was Mars Bar himself. Well, he wasn’t controlling it or anything, of course. But the big guy was definitely perched on the contraption as it barreled through my room, right between where Way and I were still trapped. 

Pittman barely had time for his eyes to widen before the motorcycle-riding lizard-bear collided with him, right where Paige and Raige were holding him pinned in front of the door. His arms were torn free by the impact, as the man himself was sent out into the hallway beyond, and then through the next wall, with Mars Bar right on top of them, snarling and roaring the whole time. 

“Guys!” I blurted in shock. “Are you–”  

Tossing her father’s (completely bloodless and clean) arm to the floor, Paige looked at me. As she did so, the floor pushed my hands and legs up so I could escape. Nearby, Raige did the same for That-A-Way. “It’s done,” Paige said flatly. “The invaders are being pushed out and erased.” 

“Yeah,” Raige confirmed in a grunt while stepping away from her twin as though she couldn’t stand being that close any more. “And by the time our dad can even hope to pull himself out of that…” She glanced over her shoulder, where the sounds of Mars Bar going to town on the bellowing man were still audible. “He’ll be erased too. Just takes another minute.” 

“Not our dad,” Paige muttered. “Not even the same sort of individual detail as the two of us. Just a quick copy of his mind. The real thing is still out there.” Looking my way, she added, “He didn’t have any kind of ongoing connection to it. He won’t have any idea what happened in here. Or what his other self saw.”  

Before I could say anything, That-A-Way was standing in front of me. She seemed to be staring right into my soul. “Cassidy…” the girl managed in a low voice that seemed equal parts awed and confused. “Cassidy Evans. You–” 

“The others are coming,” Paige interrupted. She stooped a bit, grabbing my helmet and tossing it to me. “I don’t think you’re ready for all of that.” 

Gripping the helmet tightly, I looked at Way for a moment before putting it on. “We’ll talk about it later,” I muttered. “I promise.” Not that I had any idea what I was going to say to the other girl now that she knew who I was, but I’d think of something. I had to. She knew so much of the truth now, and a lot of what she didn’t know, she could probably put together with a few minutes to think. Nothing I could do about that now except tell her the truth when we had time. 

I’d barely fixed the helmet in place before Pack and Alloy came floating up on a board made out of the latter’s remaining (white) marble. They stepped off and entered the room, looking around. 

“So,” Pack asked in an almost casual voice. “What happened? Did we win?” 

As if in answer to that, Mars Bar came lumbering back through the hole his flight through the doorway had created. He looked extremely pleased with himself and sat back on his haunches with a grunt. A moment later, the three other marbles came flying in over his head and rejoined Alloy, bouncing around her head like excited puppies showing off that they had done a good job.

“He’s gone,” Paige announced in a quiet voice that was barely more than a whisper. “We erased him. That shadow version, anyway.” 

Clearing my throat, I gave a short nod. “I guess what she’s saying is yes. 

“We definitely won.” 

********

Despite me saying that, things weren’t exactly completely solved at that point, obviously. Raige had worked with us to save herself from being erased, and to stop that copy of their dad after he betrayed her. But everything wasn’t sunshine and rainbows with her. She still insisted that she was her own person and wasn’t just going to lay in the back of Paige’s mind doing nothing. 

Yeah, it turned out that she hadn’t only focused on erasing the invaders while they were connected to the core together. Raige had also taken the time to link herself to it so she couldn’t be erased or controlled the same way. An insurance policy, she called it. Just to keep everyone honest. She and Paige now held identical power over the system. 

“I’m telling you,” I insisted about twenty minutes later, “give us a chance and we’ll find a way to help you.” We had left the virtual version of my home and returned to the farm place (the cowboy rancher people were there, but they left us alone and went about their pretend duties). 

“And like I said,” Raige shot back, “I’m giving you a chance. I’ll play nice in here and not attack my twinsy. I’m not even spilling anyone’s secrets. But I want my own body. I want my chance to be myself and live my life the way I want to. And quite frankly, I don’t trust anybody, not even you people. Dad made it perfectly clear that the only person I can trust is me. I can’t depend on anyone else unless I have leverage. So until you figure out how to get me what I want, my leverage is that this body stays put. If I don’t control it, she doesn’t control it. But hey, get me a new body and everything‘s hunky-dory. Can’t be too hard for Team Super-Competent, right?”

“If you just sat down and shut up and let me move my own body,” Paige snapped, “I could help them get one for you.”

“Yeeeeah,” Raige drawled casually, “but there’s that whole not trusting any of you thing I mentioned. Kind of a sticking point when it comes to giving up any power I’ve got. So no, I think we’ll let your friends handle this. Come on, Paige, have a little faith in someone else. I mean, isn’t that basically what you were telling me to do? And you’re supposed to be the good one.”

Alloy spoke up. “So, maybe this is a really dumb question or whatever, but how exactly are we supposed to find a robot body for this chick to move into? I mean, I don’t exactly have one of those in my basement. I don’t even have a basement, cause I live in an apartment. But you get the point.”

“Can’t just be any robot body,” Raige noted as she created a tennis ball in one hand and began to toss it up and down. “It’s gotta be one like this. That’s what my system is compatible with. I need another one of Dad’s orbs, and a body to go with it.”

Staring at her for a moment, I managed a fairly controlled, “And how exactly are we supposed to grab one of those? I know, we’ll book a flight to Breakwater, find your dad, ask him to pretty please build you a new orb and body, and then come back with it.”

The twins exchanged pointed glances before Paige sighed. “There is another slight possibility. Our father had multiple prototype labs all over the city. When… when he was captured, they took or destroyed almost everything he had.  But, it’s possible they didn’t find all of the secret storage rooms in those labs. It’s all been locked up and sealed away for years, but if you can find one of those labs with a prototype in it, you could probably get the kid out there to fix it up. Maybe with a little help.”

Biting my lip, I slowly nodded. “Sounds pretty slim, but I guess at least it’s something. How exactly do we get to these labs to find out if there’s anything left? Can you give us some addresses?”

Paige shook her head. “It’s not that simple. I didn’t even know about those places until… until we interfaced.” She glanced briefly at the identical figure nearby. “And she doesn’t know exactly where they are either. But, she knows where the addresses are. In a secret base under the mall, controlled by you-know-who.”

“Uhhh.” Alloy raised a hand. “I don’t? I don’t know who. What the hell is going on? Secret base under the mall?”

After blinking a few times, I shook off my surprise before muttering to the other girl that we would explain later. Yeah, by that point, I was pretty sure I was going to have to bring her all the way in. Well, at least as far as the Ministry stuff went. But right this second wasn’t the time for it.

Instead, I focused on Paige and Raige. “Yeah, we know the place you’re talking about. We were even working on ways to get in there. But it’s gonna take a while.”

Stretching her arms up lazily over her head, Raige replied, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing we’re both playing nice in here in the meantime, isn’t it? Go to the secret base and get on their computer systems. Look up any files under our dad’s name and then check out the addresses. Hopefully, you’ll find something useful.”

There was a lot I wanted to say, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t exactly blame her for wanting to make sure that we had no choice but to help her. So, with a heavy sigh I waved a hand. “Yeah, we’ll figure it out. But we’re also going to be checking in. So make sure you’re really playing nice. Just, go to your own separate corners or whatever if you have to. No more fighting or trying to kill each other.”

They both agreed, and Paige and I exchanged looks once more. There was other stuff I wanted to say, but couldn’t in front of everyone here. Maybe another time. Besides, it wasn’t like I had a shortage of important conversations that I needed to have soon.

“Okie dokie,” Pack put in. “Well, it’s been really interesting, but if we’re all done with this shit, I’d like to get back into the real world. I don’t even know what time it is, but I’m pretty sure I’m fucking famished. Plus, I need to check on Riddles and the others.” As she said that, the girl was rubbing Mars Bar’s side affectionately while he made a sound that was similar to purring.

With that, she spoke the code to eject from the simulation, both her and the lizard-bear vanishing. 

Alloy was next after a brief hesitation, her image fading away as she removed herself back to the real world. 

Which, of course, left me standing there with Paige, Raige, and That-A-Way. All of whom now knew who I was. Because every time I thought my life had reached the peak of complication, I was proven wrong. 

Taking a breath, I looked to Way. “Okay, obviously you recognized me. Which means we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

Before I could say anything else, Paige spoke up. “You’re gonna tell her, right?” But she wasn’t addressing me. Her attention was on Way. 

“You mean you—” The other girl stopped herself and shook her head. “Of course you know. Who am I kidding?”

With a sigh, she turned back to me. Her hand rose to her mask and she started to take it off.  As she did so, her hair began to darken from blonde to black, while several distinct features of her face shifted just a little bit. 

“You’re right,” Amber O’Connell announced, “We really do have a lot to talk about.”

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