Paintball

Building Connections 16-05 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********* 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Building Connections 16-04 And Patreon Snippets 19B (Summus Proelium)

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So, after a very quick detour to grab the girl’s phone from where she had apparently dropped it, I helped her get away from that scene. She was freaking out about needing to go home before her mother found out what she was involved in, but waited at least long enough for me to give her my number to stay in contact. There was a moment after that where it looked like she was going to say something important. She looked at me and I saw uncertainty in her eyes, visible through the helmet. But in the end, she just shook her head and promised to text eventually. 

Then, with the sound of sirens still filling the air as more Emergency Services arrived, she took off running out of the alley we were in. For a moment, I stood there and watched her leave before shaking my head. What was I going to do when she did call? Should I point her toward the Minority?  What if she asked what I thought of them? What was I supposed to say to that? I didn’t even know this girl at all. I couldn’t just start telling her about the Ministry and all that shit. Even if she was a good person, which I didn’t really know at all (though risking her life to help those hostages was a really good indicator, to be fair), I still didn’t know how she might react to the actual truth. I had no idea how good she was at keeping a secret, especially not one that huge. Or if she would even want to. For all I knew, she would see the Ministry as a great thing and immediately side with them. I really had no idea what would happen if I told her the truth. 

Right, sigh. So, at the moment I had absolutely no idea what to do about the girl. Which was an ongoing theme. Hopefully, I would think of something useful and stop being so indecisive before she called. But for now, I needed to put it aside and focus on other things. Important things, like-

“So, who’s the chick with the sweet armor?” 

Taken completely by surprise when the voice behind me suddenly spoke up, I spun that way to see a different armored figure standing over by the nearby dumpster. Of course, I immediately recognized her. “Broadway?” I found myself blurting the La Casa Touched’s name. Suddenly, I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I wasn’t exactly as close with her as I was with Pack, and the lizard-controlling girl didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. I didn’t know Broadway at all, though the fact that she had helped save me from Pencil was about a million points in her favor. So I wasn’t exactly on my guard. But I wasn’t relaxed either. 

She, in turn, actually giggled at my reaction, taking a moment before speaking again. A moment which gave me time to take her in a bit more fully. As always, Broadway wore dark-purple armor with white speaker system vents all over it. Her helmet was the same color purple, with three vertical speaker vents where the girl’s ears would be, angled forward. There was a wide V-shaped visor over the face part of the helmet, where a series of bright, multi-colored lines bounced back and forth in rhythm with the words whenever she actually spoke. 

“You know her name?” the girl asked, making those lines dance with her words. “Tell me she’s got a name–wait, no, if she doesn’t it’ll be cool to come up with a good La Casa name for her.” 

Squinting at her, I shook my head. “She’s not joining La Casa, or any other gang. She just helped stop your allies from holding hostages over there, you know.” I gestured back toward the shopping center with those words. “And hey, speaking of which, since I was just fighting them, shouldn’t you be like… swearing vengeance or starting some kind of brawl or whatever?” 

“Meh,” she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand, sounding fairly bored. “Whatever. I mean, Easy Eights and us, we’re basically allies in the sense that… Churchill and Stalin were allies? The slightly lesser asshole of the bigger asshole is my asshole. Or something like that.” 

“You know, Stalin killed an awful lot of people before he was done,” I pointed out flatly. 

“True,” the girl agreed, head tilting just a little as she looked at me. “The point is, I wouldn’t say we’re exactly friends. And personally, I definitely don’t care what you did to stop them from whatever the hell that was. I’m more in this whole thing for the fun, the rush, you know? Not taking hostages and hurting people.” 

For a moment, I just stared at her. “You really think your boss doesn’t hurt people just like these guys were? Cuz I’ve got news for you, he definitely takes hostages too. He steals from innocent people, and innocent people get hurt because of things he does. Just because he’s more–I dunno, classy and cool about it doesn’t make him some upstanding figure or anything.”  

“Yeah, that’s fair,” the girl easily agreed. “Never said we were great people or anything. But there’s like… levels of that shit. The people I work with try to avoid putting civilians in unnecessary danger, though scaring them’s a bit fun. We don’t go out of our way to kill and torture anybody, and most of the shit we take is insured stuff from businesses anyway. You don’t see me mugging old ladies on the street, do you? Hell no. You can call it petty justification or whatever, but the way I see it, capitalism is a fucking failure that just makes the rich get richer and stomps on the poor. Anything I can do to fuck with that system and have a little fun while I’m at it is fine with me.” She pointed to her own armored chest then. “I’m not a hero, never claimed to be anything of the sort. But I’ve got my own standards, and I stick with them. Blackjack, he’s got standards too. He keeps his word, he lets us refuse jobs that make us uncomfortable, he doesn’t intentionally go after innocent civilians or target people like that. And right now, he’s fighting a war to deal with people who tried to let his kid die. Gotta say, I’m totally onboard with that. You would be too, if you ever met the kid.”

“Of course I want the people who almost got Blackjack’s daughter killed to be brought to justice,” I pointed out. “Not just for that, but for everything else they’ve done too. But if your boss really wants them to pay, he could just work with…” Then I trailed off. He could work with who? The authorities? I knew the truth. The Ministry would only allow Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners to be brought to justice if it worked for their bottom line. They were allowing this war to happen, probably because doing so would keep Blackjack on their side. But that didn’t mean they’d just let the cops actually put them all away. I had a feeling that whatever came out of this war, my parents and their business would somehow end up in an even better position than before. 

Broadway, arms folded across her chest, had clearly noticed the way I trailed off. But she didn’t actually address it. Instead, the girl offered me a simple shrug. “It’s complicated. I chose my side and I stick with it. You, on the other hand, seem really confused about where you want to be. You won’t join the Minority or any of the other heroes, and you helped my boss get those vials. You’re even like… sort of friends with good ol’ Pack. But you won’t join us either. You’re right in the middle of this whole thing, you know? Whose side are you really on?” 

For a moment, I was silent. Then I let out a breath and looked back to her to reply firmly, “I’m on whatever side protects innocent people at the time. The rest of this, I don’t–I don’t know. Sometimes the Star-Touched are right, sometimes the Fell-Touched are. It’d help if–” Again, I stopped myself. Fuck. I couldn’t say ‘if the Ministry wasn’t a thing.’ Instead, I ended that with, “It’d help if it was actually simple. But it’s not.” 

Broadway pointed at me. “Hey, I’m pretty sure that’s the smartest thing I’ve heard you say. You’re right, it’s complicated. But just to be clear, I’m still a bad guy most of the time. And I’m okay with that. I steal some things, break other things, piss people off, and you know what? I have one hell of a fun time doing it. I think you could have a lot of fun too if you just let go a bit.” 

My eyes, hidden behind the helmet, narrowed. “Were you here trying to recruit me, or that new girl?” 

I could hear the grin in her voice. “Hey, whatever works. I wouldn’t mind getting a two-for-one deal.” She paused then, watching me for a moment before adding, “Does this mean you’re not giving me her number or name?” 

“I don’t have either,” I retorted honestly. “She’s brand–never mind. You know, we’re probably supposed to be fighting right now or something.” 

“You saying you wanna wrestle?” came her response with obvious amusement. “Sorry, buddy, I think I’m a little too old for you.” With that, she held out both hands to either side. “Actually, to be honest, I mostly came over to make sure you were okay. For Pack’s sake. She likes you. But not like that, don’t get any ideas. She’s more into That-A-Way, if you get my drift. Though that was less drifting and more plowing straight through the wall.” 

That-A-Way and Pack. They were–oh right. Blinking at that, I started to say something before catching myself. There was no reaction I could have that wouldn’t either just amuse her or give the girl way too much information. Instead, I just managed a slightly weak, “I’ll uhh, keep that in mind, thanks, I guess. But you’re still not gonna recruit that girl.” 

That earned me a thumbs up. “We’ll see, PB. It’ll be fun to find out where she ends up. And hey, glad to see those guys didn’t rough you up too bad. I’ll let Pack know you’re cool.” 

With that, she gave me a salute, then pointed up and over my head to the roof of the nearby building. The sound of a dog barking came from her armored gauntlet, as the girl vanished, teleporting along the soundwaves. 

Which left me standing there, belatedly realizing that one of the phones in my pocket had gone off a couple times already. Quickly, I took it out to check. It was the Touched phone, with messages from Wren wanting to know if everything was okay now since she’d been watching reports online about what was going on. There was an adorably rambling bit about how she didn’t want to send any message while I was busy fighting bad guys but now the news said the fight was over but wasn’t saying anything about me so was I really okay and what happened, etc. It was a pretty long run-on sentence which ended with, ‘PLZ CALL PLZ’ and then a series of hugging bear emojis. So yeah, pretty freaking adorable. 

Of course, how could I make her keep worrying? I had to let her and the others know I was okay. But first, I used red paint to pull myself up to the roof of another building (different from the one Broadway had used), looking around to make sure I was alone. Only once I was satisfied did I hit the button on the phone to connect with Wren’s, using the bluetooth in my ear rather than the actual phone itself for the conversation. 

“Paintball?!” came the blurted word after the phone had gone for like… half a ring. 

“Hey, kid,” I quickly confirmed. “Everything’s fine. I’m on my way. How’re my new friends doing?” 

There was a very brief pause at that before the girl’s voice returned, sounding just a little scolding. “They were really surprised when we met them.” 

Snorting despite myself at the thought of those two finding out just who their boss was, I admitted, “Yeah, I’m sorry I missed it. Anyway, things are good here. I’ll be at the store in just a few minutes. Everything okay besides that little surprise?” 

She confirmed that things were chill there, and I disconnected before heading off. Time to pick up the pace a bit. I still had about an hour before I needed to head home for family dinner, but still, I definitely wanted to at least say more than two words to the people who were supposed to be helping Wren. Especially now that they knew just who they were going to be working for. 

Again, I was really sad that I’d missed that reaction. 

In any case, I managed to make it back to Wren’s shop in record time, even with taking a short loop to make sure no one was following me. Then I moved to the back door and hit the buzzer to be let in. The moment I did, Wren was right there, wanting to know everything that had happened. Behind her, I saw Murphy and Roald watching the whole thing from next to one of the shelves full of random junk in the middle of the main pawnshop floor. It looked like they had already been set to work organizing things. Which was almost unfair, given how chaotic the whole shop was. It was definitely a job that would take awhile. 

So, for all three of their benefits (as well as Fred’s, as the man came downstairs just after the start), I explained everything that had happened, including meeting the new girl. It was during that part that Murphy finally piped up. “So that girl just got her powers because those fucks attacked the place she was shopping at?” 

Pausing, I shrugged. “That’s what it seems like, yeah. She definitely wasn’t used to them, that’s for sure. She didn’t have a name or anything. But she’s got my number, so hopefully she’ll call back.” 

“You gonna tell her to go to the Minority?” That was Roald, his voice sounding curious. Belatedly, I realized he was also curious about why I myself hadn’t gone there. Apparently everybody wanted to know that these days. Either way, it was a fairly clever way of getting around outright asking the obvious question, and I gave the boy a brief, appraising look. 

Before I could respond, however, Wren piped up. “You should tell her to join our team! We don’t need no Minority! She can be with us.” Giving me a dual thumbs-up, the girl added, “Besides, you said she was afraid of her mom finding out about it, right? If she goes to the Minority, they have to tell her parents. If she comes here, we don’t. Plus, we get another person on our team. See? Perfect plan.” 

“We have a team now?” I asked, watching the girl. 

“Well, it’s either a team or a gang,” Wren pointed out. “Team sounds better. I mean, you already have minions!” She flailed both hands randomly back toward the other two. 

“Oh my God, they’re not minions!” I insisted with a groan. 

Wren, of course, chose that moment to pivot back that way and demanded, “Guys, what are you?” 

That, of course, made Murphy and Roald look at each other. There was a moment of mostly-silent conversation with a few muttered words before both turned back and nodded, the girl speaking. “Yeah, we’re minions.” 

“Cool with that,” Roald confirmed. “Long as you don’t make us wear blue overalls and speak gibberish.” 

“And become weirdly associated with incredibly stupid antivax mothers on the internet,” Murphy added. 

“I’ll uhh, do my best not to let that happen,” I managed with a soft cough, shaking my head. “But seriously, you guys are just–I mean… I’m not gonna–look, you’re here to help and I appreciate that. Seriously. You’ll get paid just to work here in the store, not to go out and get in trouble.” 

“Whatever,” Murphy replied. “You want help, we can help. Better than stealing shit and going hungry. Or ending up in jail. Or dead.” 

“She means there’s a lot worse options than playing minio–assistants to a superhero,” Roald added. “We get paid here, we get to work without involving drugs or hurting people, it’s…” He paused, seeming to search for the right words before settling on, “It’s cool.” 

“Really cool,” Murphy put in. “If you need more than just some clean-up and shelf stocking, you let us know. Seriously, we don’t have like–you know, powers or anything, but we can do other things. Whatever you need. We–uhh…” She kicked the floor, suddenly looking self-conscious. “We wanna help.” 

“Okay, but… I’m still not gonna put you guys in any more danger than I have to,” I insisted. “I’m glad you’re here and willing to do stuff, but just… just focus on helping Wren.” 

We talked a little more, I promised to let them know if I needed more help and about what happened with the newly-Touched girl. Then it was about time to head home for dinner. But first, I went upstairs to see the still comatose Paige. 

Standing by the motionless figure, I hesitated, putting my hand in hers and squeezing it. “Sorry this is taking so long,” I murmured, unsure if she had any idea I was even there, let alone speaking. “But I swear, we’ll find the right person. I’ll find whatever we need to fix you and wake you up. Just hold on a bit longer, okay?” Then I snorted. “What do I mean, hold on? You’re just taking a little nap, right? You probably won’t even know any time has passed by the time we turn yo–by the time we wake you up.” 

Still, standing there, staring at the girl, I couldn’t help but feel like I was failing. She was counting on me and I was failing. It felt like there was a time limit, like… like there was some bomb counting down and if it hit zero, everything would… what, explode? 

I didn’t know. But one thing was for certain. We needed to help Paige and wake her up as soon as possible. Maybe then the awful feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach whenever I looked at her lying unconscious like that would go away. At the very least, it would be nice to scratch one damn thing off my to-do list. 

And hey, at least my whole encounter with the new girl and that conversation with Broadway were two more examples of how I was gradually building connections in this city. 

Wait a second.

Hold up. 

I was building connections… I had built more connections… made… connections.

That was it. I had an idea. 

I knew how we were going to break into that base under the mall.

Patreon Snippets 19B – Lightning Bug

“C’mon, c’mon guys, we gotta go to bed in a hour! That’s like–that’s a, that’s less than a movie. That’s like half a Frozen. They didna even make it to the ice castle in half a Frozen!”

The blurted, rushed words in the doorway of the brightly lit room heralded the arrival of what was quite possibly one of the strangest-looking Conga lines in anyone’s memory. At the head, and the one speaking, was the small, red-skinned five-year-old girl with long white hair, too-large compound blue eyes, and insect-like wings. Her arms were outstretched to hold onto a truly massive (relative to her size) bowl full of popcorn. The bowl was decorated with images of fairies flying through some trees, surrounded by various insects. It was known as the Bug Bowl, the closest thing they had to something that showed the girl and her friends, with the fairies standing in as images of Lightning Bug herself. Despite its size, the girl ate all of her snacks and treats out of it, along with some of her meals, even when they only filled a very small portion of the actual bowl. While her arms were full of the bowl, in one hand she also carried her ‘Bug Cup’, a bright blue sippy cup with a lid shaped like a ladybug. 

Behind the bowl and cup-bearing girl came the rest of their strange Conga line in the form of the five-and-a-half foot tall praying mantis named Simminin (Or Cinnamon), the three-foot-tall emerald-green beetle named Snugglebug, and then much smaller (but still relatively enormous) cat-sized and metallic purple-colored Orchid bee named Kenobee bringing up the rear.

The room they entered together was the entertainment room of the penthouse apartment where Bug and her mommy lived with Aunt Hana. The room had a massive flatscreen television that was hung up in the middle of the wall, surrounded by a big couch and several chairs. There were even several video game systems set up on the nearby shelf. But Bug and her companions ignored all of that, instead moving to the other corner of the room, where several fluffy cushions and a couple beanbag chairs lay haphazardly around a second television that was set close to the floor. A plastic table nearby held various half-finished crayon drawings, a few toys, and a computer pad covered by a shock-proof plastic shield with large, colorful designs. 

Plopping herself down on one of the bean bags while her trio of insect friends spread out to perch themselves around her on various cushions, Lightning Bug carefully settled the bowl in her lap and put the cup on the nearby table. Then she picked up the computer pad and tapped it a few times. As she did so, the screen of the nearby television popped on to display the YouTube homepage. From there, Bug typed in her search request very carefully, tongue poking out the side of her mouth as she painstakingly typed the right letters while sounding them out. Partway through, she turned a bit in her seat and called loudly toward the doorway. “Mommy, what’s the letter for T?! Tuh Tee Tuh Tee.” She giggled then, happily repeating the sounds to herself to the point that she nearly forgot what it was she was actually asking. 

A moment later, her mother appeared in the doorway. Out of her public-people costume, Bug’s mother was an Asian-American woman of mixed descent, with short, close-cropped black hair and a faint, barely visible scar across one side of her face, from her cheek, over her right eye, and up to her forehead. She held her phone in one hand, telling whoever was on the other end to hold a moment. “T, Buggy? Hold up the pointing finger.” As her daughter did so, holding up an index finger, she added, “Now put the other pointing finger on top.” A fond chuckle escaped the woman as the young girl put the tip of her other finger against the tip of the first, so they were pointing to each other. “Good try, other way, see? Sideways. There you go!” She smiled when the girl got it right. “Like that. You see it? The T looks like–yup, good job!” 

While her mother went back to the call, Bug finished typing in her search request, then scrolled her finger along the screen of the pad while watching the television until she found the video she wanted. It took a couple tries, but eventually she got it. “Oh, oh, this is a good one! It’s really funny.” With that promise to her trio of insect friends (all of whom were watching the screen with far more understanding and intelligence than should have been possible), she started to hit play, only to be stopped as Simminin bumped one claw gently against her arm, somehow managing to look beseechingly at her.

“Oh! Sorry, guys.” Quickly, the young girl reached into the big bowl in her lap. She began producing several smaller bowls that had been stacked up inside it. The first, which she set it down in front of Simminin herself, was full of small dead crickets. The second, placed in front of the cushion where Snugglebug had draped himself, had seeds, bits of leaves, pieces of dry fruit, and some honey mixed in. Finally, the bowl she put in front of Kenobee’s perched form held a sugar-nectar mix, which the bee immediately stuck his face up against to start slurping from. 

Now all her friends had their respective treats, Bug took a handful of popcorn out of the bowl for herself, then hit play on the computer pad while shoveling the snack into her own mouth. 

Immediately, a video about Paintball started up. She’d seen it before, of course, but this one was one of her absolute favorites. It was a combination of scenes from people’s phones and the news all about Mr. Ball jumping and flying through the air, and making bad guys look dumb. The music in the video came from one of the Super Mario Brothers games, and whoever made it put in the Mario jumping sound effect whenever Paintball bounced around, along with various ‘jump on an enemy’ sounds when bad guys were hit. It was funny every time, and Bug was quickly doubled over in the seat, laughing so much her mother poked her head in once or twice to make sure she was okay. 

For most of the hour she had before her bedtime, Lightning Bug watched more videos, alternately bouncing in her beanbag chair and hovering above it with her rapidly beating wings. The videos weren’t all about Paintball. Some of them were about Aunt Hana or Mommy. Or other people. But the Paintball ones were her favorites. There was just something about the colorful, bouncy Star-Touched that made for fun videos. Some of the videos were mean, like with the dumb guys who said Paintball should stop being selfish and join a team. She turned those ones off really quick. 

In the midst of watching another of the fun ones, Bug pointed. “Look!” she blurted, as though her insect trio’s eyes weren’t already firmly fixated on the screen, “it’s Mr. Lucent!” 

Sure enough, on that particular video, someone had captured the image of  Lucent the Touched-Raven perched on a lamppost as he watched Paintball jumping through the air in the distance. The video, taken from the high-up balcony of a hotel room, went on to show Lucent follow Paintball for a short distance, before diving away into an alley. From there, the video switched to showing various scenes of Paintball and Lucent each fighting criminals at different times (none of them together, but the video made it look like they were), while a song about fathers and sons played. 

Eventually, Bug’s time with the videos ended as her mother called that it was time for her bath. Finishing the last of the juice from her cup, the girl hit the button on the pad to turn off the TV before pushing herself up. “C’mon, you can help Mommy!” she announced while starting to leave. 

It was fun watching videos about Paintball. Bug really hoped she would visit again soon and make more pretty designs for her friends. 

He. She hoped he would visit again soon, Lightning Bug told herself sternly. He, he, he. She had to make herself think of Paintball as a he. 

After all, she wasn’t supposed to give away people’s secrets.

A/N: Do YOU have an idea of what Peyton’s Touched name should be? Just like when Cassidy got her name, I’m leaving it up to you guys to decide what it should be. Submit your suggestions either in the comments of this chapter OR via e-mail to ceruleanscrawling(at)gmail.com and a future chapter will list as many possibilities as I can out of what is given. After that chapter, I’ll list the possibilities again and everyone will be allowed to vote on them.

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Building Connections 16-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Time, time. I needed time for my paint to come back so that I wasn’t essentially a helpless little girl facing a bunch of armed men anymore. But I also needed to make sure I kept their attention long enough for that to happen without the group noticing the other girl over by their prisoners. 

“Hey, asshole!” The sudden shout from Juice himself made me jump, but it was coming from the front while I was already back near the stock room with several rows of shelving units in the way. “Think you’re getting outta here?!” he continued in a loud, echoing bellow. “Think again! We got this fucking place surrounded! Out back and up top. It’s all covered. You ain’t going nowhere!” 

Oh boy, oh boy was it hard not to call out a retort pointing out his double-negative. I had to bite my tongue, because he was so begging for it. Apparently a consequence of dealing with all my confusion and insecurities in the middle of horrible, traumatic danger by using insults and bad jokes was that it was hard to turn that impulse off when using it was a really bad idea. 

When he was met with no response (barely), Juice gave an audible growl. I heard a blast of his electricity shoot out somewhere, though it came nowhere near where I was, currently ducked behind the last row of shoe shelves. His voice was dripping with annoyance and the promise of violence. If not to me, then to others. “Get your asses moving. Drag that arrogant little brat out here.” 

Right, so… apparently I wasn’t going to have to work very hard at the ‘keep their attention on me’ plan. In fact, I was gonna go right ahead and give myself a stunning A-Plus on that assignment.

But now what? The men were starting to move through the store, smacking shoes and boxes off the shelves, spreading out so they could cover every row, and methodically working their way toward me. The area I was in at the moment was the kid’s section right before the stockroom. There were two rows of half-sized shelves sticking out perpendicular to the wall, creating a sort-of miniature boxed in area that was all kid shoes. I was currently ducked down behind the last of those shelves to stay out of sight. The stockroom door was only a few feet away, but it was in plain sight of one of the rows that I could hear one of those guys making their way down. 

Okay, my paint only needed a short time to recharge. Like a minute or two? Had it been a minute or two yet? It had to be, right? Fuck. Fuck. I had to wait as long as possible, let my tank have as much time as it could to recharge or refill or whatever the hell it did. Unfortunately, the men were almost to my spot, and I had a feeling they were starting to realize that it was the most likely place for me to be, because all of them were moving faster. Before, they had been taking the time to knock boxes around, leaning up to peer on top of the shelves, and just basically being thorough. Now, however, I heard footsteps approaching quickly, along with dangerous muttering. In a second, they were going to be right on top of me. They could peer over the half-sized shelf or come around the corner there. Then I’d really be a sitting duck. I had a few seconds at best.

Ready or not, it was time to do this. Quickly, I grabbed the nearest thing that could possibly be anything resembling a weapon. It was a Brannock Device (one of those metal measuring things you put your foot into and adjust to tell you what size shoes you should wear). With the thing in my hand, I focused. To my immeasurable relief, it turned orange. Paint was back on the menu! 

Instantly, I put the image of a large purple stick-figure man kicking someone across the front of my costume, and an orange bull head on the back. But I didn’t activate them just yet. First, I waited and listened to the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps. At the last possible instant, I activated all that paint both on myself and the Brannock Device, as my hand lashed forward. With a grunt, I hurled the metal measuring thing like a tomahawk or something, chucking it as hard as I could right at the space where one of the men was just coming into view. Just as it left my hand, I left a spot of red on one end of the thing while pivoting to face upward.

The hurled metal device, spinning through the air, slammed into the face of the first guy just as he came around the corner with his gun raised. Between the orange paint keeping it intact and the strength boost from the purple paint on me, the thing hit him hard enough that he immediately collapsed with a strangled cry, hand snapping up to his suddenly-bleeding face. 

By that point, I had just started to see the head of the man right by the half-shelf I was hiding behind. My hand, still outstretched, summoned the measuring device back by activating the red paint on it and on my glove. It flew right into my grip just as the man in question leaned over, his gaze reflexively looking to where the other guy had just fallen. That head, covered in a dark ski mask, presented the perfect target for me to crack with my makeshift weapon. There was a cry from the man as he fell out of sight, gun going off to shoot a hole through one of the shelves. 

Two down. Or at least hurt enough that they weren’t going to jump right back up immediately. Unfortunately, I could already hear what sounded like half a dozen more running for this spot. Not to mention the fact that Juice was still at the front. 

But I still had over half my time for the already-active paint, and I wasn’t about to waste it. Shooting red paint toward the ceiling above the nearest aisle, I used it to pull myself up and over that way. Immediately, the guy there snapped his gaze up and started to shout while raising his gun. But I released the red paint, dropping down to crash into him first. We collided, my momentum knocking the man to the ground before I lashed out with a quick, somewhat-awkward backhand. It wasn’t pretty or skilled, but with the purple strength, that didn’t matter. The guy’s head snapped back as he groaned in pain and went limp under me. 

With maybe a couple seconds left on my current paint, at best, I pivoted to put my feet against the row of shelves, then shoved as hard as my enhanced strength would let me. There was a loud, protesting groan, then a violent snapping sound as the shelf broke. It tipped over sideways, collapsing into the next aisle over. As it went down, the shelf hit the one next to it, knocking that one over, and so on like dominoes. I could hear yelps and curses from the guys in each aisle. 

“God damn it, you useless motherfuckers!” I heard Juice shout from the front even as he started to move, finally coming fully into the store himself. “Can’t you do one goddamn thing right?!” 

Taking a breath, I used blue paint to launch myself up to the ceiling, inverting so the shoes would hold me there, in plain sight. “Hey, don’t blame them, a good manager takes responsibility for his employees!” 

With a snarl, the big guy lashed out, sending a bolt of lightning. But I was already moving before I’d even finished saying that, throwing myself sideways along the ceiling (which was more like a floor for me at the moment, thanks to Wren’s work). I was also still talking, blurting out a quick, “Maybe you guys just need a team-building exercise!”

Another bolt of lightning came my way. Also, a large rack of sports shoes, which the man hurled with his other hand while bellowing about what he was going to do when he put his hands on me. Honestly, none of it sounded very pleasant. 

But again, I was quicker, launching myself straight down toward the floor. Or rather, toward one of the overturned shelves, just as the electricity and hurled metal rack hit the spot where I had been. Shoes rained down all around me, while the rack itself landed in a crumpled heap a bit to the side. 

“Seriously,” I called while quickly scrambling on my hands and knees over the rows of shelves, “I hear those retreats do a lot of good for building rapport between boss and employees!” Putting blue paint under my feet while still scrambling, I launched myself forward and up, shooting another puddle of blue at the wall ahead of me just as yet another blast of electricity hit where I had just been. Hitting that blue spot, I rebounded backwards off it to fly over Juice’s head, landing in a roll behind him as he spun back toward me. But just before he could try to hit me from point-blank range, I snapped a quick, “How ‘bout we start with a trust fall?” 

With that, I activated the red paint I’d stuck to his back while flying over him, as well as one of the bits of red I’d left on the shelving unit I’d been scrambling over. Instead of pulling the shelf to him, however, I sent him flying backward, yanked up and over to crash down onto his back against the shelf. 

“I think it’ll really lift your stocks!” I shouted, while activating the other bit of red paint I’d left on the shelf he was lying on, as well as its matching spot on the ceiling. The shelf flew upward, slamming full-force into the ceiling with the man lying on it. 

Right, now the rest of his men in here were starting to pull themselves out. Plus, I could hear crashing and banging in the ceiling above where the guy was pinned, while chunks of the shelving unit started snapping and falling. He was breaking out, and it definitely wasn’t going to take long. These shelves weren’t exactly built to contain a guy like that. Not to mention the fact that he sounded seriously pissed off. Between this guy and Janus, I was just racking up friends on the Easy Eights. With my luck, they’d find Cuélebre and the whole group would form a club dedicated to making my whole existence a living hell. Because that was just how these things seemed to work. 

But, oh well. I would have to deal with that later. Right now, I shot several quick bursts of red at the remaining shelving units and one spot at the floor right in front of the doorway. Seeing several of the men scrambling toward me and shouting, I pivoted and threw myself through that doorway while activating all the paint. Instantly, I heard a cacophony of bangs and crashes as the shelves all flew to block the door I had just gone through. Hopefully, I hit a couple guys in the process. But right now all I cared about was slowing them down for a few seconds. Even if they just went through the back door, it was still something. Every little bit helped.

For the moment, I pivoted, coming face-to-face with a bad guy who looked completely surprised to see me there. He was just coming around the corner of the shop, through a narrow path that ran between the buildings. His gun was held loosely at one side, and he started to bring it up belatedly. But I reacted faster, quickly lunging that way while painting purple on my gloves and activating it so I could rip the gun from his grasp, then simply shove the guy hard in the chest. He hit the ground and I jumped over him. There wasn’t time for any of this. Hurling the pistol as far as I could to the side, I sprinted back toward where the prisoners had been. 

Had been being the thankfully operative words, because all I saw as I reached that point were two of the Easy Eight thugs laying on the ground, groaning in pain. The civilians were all gone. Well, mostly gone. Looking up, I saw a few of them disappearing off across the street or rounding the corners of the other buildings. The point was, they had escaped. Thank God.

Or rather, thank whoever the girl in the armor was. Because she was clearly the one who–

“Paintball!” Speaking of whom, the girl herself suddenly jumped out from behind the overturned cart where she had apparently been hiding. “Are you okay? What happened in th–” 

Abruptly, the girl was interrupted by a loud crack of thunder and power as the front of the shoe store was blasted apart by a burst of lightning. The enraged Juice came into view, head snapping our way immediately as a violent curse erupted from him. Yeah, he was not happy. 

“Oh, you know,” I managed, reaching out to grab the girl with both hands while turning my shoes blue to launch both of us upward. “Just did a little browsing!” As we rocketed upward, the next shot of lightning passed right where we had been. I aimed for the roof of the nearest shop, and we came down there, tumbling just past an air conditioning unit with a pair of yelps. 

Lying there on my side, I looked over to where the other girl was sprawled. Somehow, the helmet had stayed in place. But just as my mouth opened to say something, I heard a bellow from below. Eyes widening, I blurted, “Move!” and shoved her away. Then I quickly rolled the opposite direction, scrambling to get out of the way. 

It was just in time, as Juice landed right where we had been. His hands lashed out to grab both of us, but he missed by inches. “You wanna fuck up my night, huh, assholes?! This whole thing would have been smooth. Use the civvies to keep the cops back long enough to bust up everything the fucking Niners have in this place, then let ‘em go. They would’ve been fine. But no! No, of course not. You stupid fucks have to jump in and play hero so you can ruin everything!”

On my feet, I quickly spoke up to draw his attention and ire. “Sounds like you’re having a bad night. We could always call it a draw. You go home, we go home, all of us just rethink our lives and choices? What do you think?” 

Apparently he thought ‘zap’, because the man pivoted to throw a bolt of electricity at me with a snarl. I’d already anticipated, and activated a pair of green wings on my back. They made me fast enough to dive out of the way. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough to dodge the second bolt that he sent right to where I was diving, having anticipated the move.

It was only a brief hit, a graze really. But it was enough. The electricity hit me, and drew a sharp cry of pain. Suddenly, my whole body seized up. I hit the ground and spasmed. In the background, I heard a girl’s voice shout, “Get away from him!” Then there was a grunt of surprise, and a large shape was flung over me. Opening my eyes, I saw… well, first I saw a bunch of static on the screen where my heads-up display was supposed to go. But it cleared up a second later. More importantly, Juice was on the ground, while an enormous silver, bronze, violet, and black battering ram was hovering in the air just in front of him. It was about as big as a car, the colors spread throughout it in a tie-dye pattern. The armored girl was standing back a bit, arms outstretched. Her armor no longer had black in it, and looked a bit thinner. The purple cloak was gone too. Wait, purple cloak was gone, black part of the armor was gone, and now the previous silver and bronze transforming marbles had been joined by those two specific colors? Right, duh, the armor was made up of the same marbles as the weapons. Yeah, that made sense. Not like she’d had time to go grab a costume in the ten seconds since she’d gotten her powers. Convenient, really. Also explained how her helmet had stayed on before. 

In any case, apparently both of those marbles that had been a part of her armor and the cloak had helped form the massive battering ram that hit Juice hard enough to knock him clear across the roof and left him lying there looking dazed. Which was just fine with me, because I was still feeling pretty dazed too. 

Armored girl, however, wasn’t dazed. She was more along the lines of pissed off. Her hands swept out to either side. With that motion, the battering ram split apart too. It broke into two half-sized pieces. One was black and purple, the other silver and bronze. Those two pieces instantly shaped themselves into a pair of enormous glowing boxing gloves of those respective colors. Each was about the same size as the big guy himself. Then, as the girl slammed her own fists together with a loud, ringing metal clang from her armored gauntlets colliding, the huge, glowing boxing gloves did the same, slamming into one another. Or rather, into either side of Juice. They collided with the big guy hard enough just as he was picking himself up that he fell right back down again, actually bleeding and bruised. 

Immediately, the girl made a quick twisting motion with her hands. The two boxing gloves actually scooped up the man and held him tight, cupped around him. Then she pivoted, making a wide throwing gesture. As she did so, the cupped gloves flew up a good thirty feet and forward another twenty before abruptly disappearing. But Juice’s momentum didn’t disappear. The man was sent flying clear off into the distance, sailing over at least two different buildings before crashing down somewhere a couple blocks away. 

As it turned out, the giant gloves didn’t disappear. They simply turned back into four colored marbles, all of which flew back to hover around the girl herself like obedient puppies waiting to be praised. 

Looking down, I murmured under my breath, “Test, test…” Then I breathed a sigh of relief. My voice changer was still working after being shocked. I hadn’t been hit nearly as hard as Cuélebre had with his own lightning. 

“What?” the other girl was asking as she turned to me. Already, I saw the white from her helmet had sort of half-melted down into the rest of the armor as though to reinforce it. 

“Nothing,” I quickly replied, shaking my head. “But–dude, that was amazing. What–how did–wow.” 

“Ummm, I…” Trailing off, the girl squirmed on her feet. “I think–” Just then, she was interrupted by the sound of loud sirens and the sight of a dozen cop cars roaring up. Seeing that, she blurted, “Oh God! I’ve gotta get out of here!” 

“What?” I blinked that way. “Are you like… wanted, or–” 

“No!” she interrupted, sounding panicked. “It’s my mom!

“If she finds out about this, she won’t let me out of the house for a year!”

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Building Connections 16-02 (Summus Proelium)

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By the time I caught up with the Easy Eight trucks, they had reached what was apparently their destination. It was an outdoor shopping center, where one of the trucks had already plowed its way through a statue in front of the fountain. All of the vehicles were spread out along the road and sidewalk in front of the shopping center, clearly being used as barricades to help stop the people within from easily escaping. They couldn’t block off everything, but they did their best. 

Landing on the roof of one of the buildings, I took a second to process what I was seeing. Down below, a bunch of the Easy Eight troops were busy rounding up customers and employees alike. They were moving them to a specific area in the middle of the open walkway between shops. Some of the civilians were struggling more than others, but it didn’t do them any good. Easy or hard, all of them were taken to join that crowd, tied with what looked like ordinary zip-cuffs, and made to sit on the ground. Just how rough the thugs were with their respective prisoners seemed to vary a lot, though at least it looked like they were treating the elderly a bit more gently. There were a few benches nearby and anyone who genuinely looked old was being allowed to sit there with their hands zip-tied in front of them rather than behind. So at least there was that. Not that it made these Easy Eight guys heroes, but they weren’t the ‘push a helpless elderly person to the ground’ level of scum. They still had some vague level of decency. 

Beyond just waiting to see what the general scene looked like before I threw myself into it like an idiot, I was also trying to get an idea of where Juice might be. He was obviously the biggest threat. I couldn’t do anything to the other guys until I knew where he was. I had to hit him first, had to make sure he couldn’t jump me from behind or whatever, cuz between his strength (I’d seen reports of him hoisting a truck over his head) and his electricity powers, that would be bad. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the guy anywhere. As I stayed low and quickly scanned the whole scene, he didn’t appear. I was pretty sure it would have been hard to miss a guy his size, wearing that helmet and gauntlets. But he wasn’t anywhere. Not out here, at least. Did that mean he was in one of the shops? There was no way he would’ve taken off already, right? 

Even as I was wondering all of that, and trying to figure out what I was going to do to track him down before this all got too out of control, there was a blast of what sounded like thunder coming from directly below me. My gaze snapped to the roof under my feet, and I managed a snapped, “Well, that doesn’t sound good,” before the air was filled with sound again. That time, it was the sound of tearing metal and shattering glass, also from below me but slightly ahead. 

A figure was hurled through the window just under me. I barely caught a glimpse of bright metal–armor of some sort? Whatever it was, the shape went flying through the window, screaming the whole way before sprawling out onto the ground before I could even think of moving. They were holding a bat and a whip, but even as my gaze took that in, I saw both weapons shift and transform to… marbles? They looked like marbles. What the hell? 

Now I had a better look at the figure. They were female, that much was clear. Not to mention young. My age maybe? Either way, she wore a gold chestplate with black highlights, while the rest of the armor across her arms and legs was the opposite, black with gold highlights. She also wore a white helmet and a purple cloak. The whole armor set, including the cloak, gleamed and shone brilliantly with what seemed like some kind of minor inner glow. They were a knight in shining armor, quite literally. 

While I was still trying to process all of that, there was a much louder crash below me. Juice. Hey, I found him. The huge man had hurled himself through the wall and landed easily a little bit away from the metal-armored figure. I heard his voice even from the roof. “Still ticking, huh?” He chuckled, sounding awful and evil as he slammed his electricity-covered fist into his other palm. “Good, let’s have some fun.” 

Right, so… I supposed it wasn’t hard to figure out which side the armored girl was on. Whether she was part of the Ninety-Niners or not, I wasn’t sure. I’d never seen or heard of her before. 

But now, all that really mattered was the fact that she was in trouble. Juice wasn’t exactly going to take it easy on her. His tone of voice, the way he smacked his palm eagerly, made that much clear. This guy was going to do some real damage to the armored girl if I let him. 

Thankfully, he was also intently focused on her. He had no idea I was even here, which would give me one free hit. I just had to make sure it counted. A single free shot while he was distracted. 

To that end, I checked the path between the front of the shopping center and where Juice was straightening up. Just a few Easy Eight thugs, watching with what appeared to be amusement. Oh, they’d be super-amused soon. Quickly, I shot a wide blotch of red paint against the hood of the nearest of their trucks. With my other hand, I hit Juice with a blotch of red on his raised arm even as he was pointing toward the frantically-protesting armored girl, who was lying there frozen from apparent terror. 

Apparently he noticed the paint hitting him, because Juice blinked down at the red mark. “What–” 

That was all he had time to say before I activated the paint. Instantly, the truck tore itself off the ground and went tumbling end over end, crashing its way through those few thugs (who dove to either side with a collection of curses). But Juice couldn’t dodge. Even as the man started to dive away, the truck adjusted its trajectory. I heard a brief, belated curse (or maybe it was a threat) escape the Easy Eight lieutenant just before the truck slammed full-force into him. He was sent crashing to the ground within the wreckage. From the sound and look of it, the truck actually took the worst of that collision. But it still helped, because it put the guy on the ground at least for a moment. 

It was a moment that I put to good use. Namely, by extending a hand to shoot red paint at the still-motionless girl on the ground. She gave a yelp as I activated it, launching her up off the pavement and toward where I was standing. My hand caught hers and I pulled her onto the roof beside me. “I take it these guys weren’t part of the entertainment for tonight?” 

“Paintball!” the girl blurted out loud. I could see her eyes through the small, open slits in the helmet. They were wide with what looked like a mixture of confusion, shock, and fear. “Y-you saved–” She seemed to cut herself off, making a noise in the back of her throat as though unsure of what to say. Then her eyes shifted slightly to the side, and widened even more as she blurted, “Down!” 

With that, she grabbed my arm, yanking herself and me both flat against the roof even as a blast of lightning went flying over our heads. It was accompanied by a bellow of anger. Apparently Juice was up. I’d really been hoping getting hit by a truck would keep him down a few seconds longer. 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to focus on that. Because Juice’s super-strength extended to his legs. He leapt, landing hard in the middle of the roof before pivoting to face the two of us. I could hear the snarl in his voice. “Paintball. Who’s your new friend?” 

“Uh.” I blinked that way while scrambling to my feet, hauling the girl herself up after me. “You don’t know her either, huh?” 

My words were met with a low chuckle. “Doesn’t matter. Deicide might have reasons for playing nice, but they don’t extend to me. You threw yourself into this. And me? I think you’re pretty fucking annoying.” 

Grabbing the girl beside me by the shoulder, I adopted a scandalized tone. “Dude, I think he’s trying to say he won’t join the Paintball fanclub! But we already have posters and hats and bye!” With that last word, just as Juice extended his hand to shoot a blast of lightning at us, I shoved the startled armored girl off the edge of the roof, activating the orange paint I’d put there when I grabbed her arm. At the same time, I fell backward myself and activated a bit of orange on my back. 

We landed back on the ground, while the lightning shot off into the air above us. But we weren’t exactly in great shape there, considering now we were surrounded by more Easy Eight thugs who had picked themselves up and realized just what was going on. Which meant they were about to open fire, so I quickly painted an orange shield across my chest while reaching out toward the armored girl to do the same. 

Except it turned out I didn’t need to. Because just as four different guys started shooting, the two marble-things I’d seen earlier (the ones that had been weapons before this girl dropped them) abruptly came zipping through the air, transforming into a huge pair of shields that covered the two of us from both sides. One bronze and the other silver. They were shaped like medieval kite shields or whatever. The incoming bullets just bounced off, and I heard one guy squeal as he was hit by a ricochet. 

“Dude, did you do that?!” I quickly demanded, looking over my shoulder to the girl. She stood there, looking completely flatfooted and confused. I could see her wide eyes glancing back and forth in what amounted to a panic. 

“I-I dunno!” she stammered. “There was the orb thing and the voice and–” 

Oh shit. I’d never heard of this girl because she was brand new. No wonder she didn’t seem to have any idea how her power worked. And now the bad guys were closing in, deciding to go with melee weapons. Worse, Juice announced his presence by crashing to the ground, grabbing one of the hovering marble-shields, and tossing it aside with a violent curse before lunging straight at us. 

Instantly, my hand snapped out to grab the new girl, holding tight as I painted blue under our feet and activated it. The two of us were launched upward, just barely escaping the big guy’s grasping arms as I shouted, “No free chiropracty today, thanks!” 

The momentum of being launched sent us up and backward, landing toward the rear of the shopping center and sort-of out of sight behind one of those big stands with a bunch of tee-shirts for sale all over it. Slightly beyond where we were was a railing overlooking a set of stairs leading down to a secondary parking area. Already, those guys were coming, so I turned to the girl. “You need to get down. Just find a corner and stay there, I’ll try to deal with these guys and help the prisoners.” 

“No,” the girl abruptly blurted. “I wanna help. I can help. I mean, I think I can.”

There wasn’t time to argue. Even as my mouth opened, a bolt of lightning tore through the top half of the tee-shirt stand while Juice bellowed for them to drag either us or our carcasses back over there. Between that and the running footsteps–yeah. No time. So, I just spoke as quickly as I could, all in a rushed whisper. “Stay low. I’ll get their attention, you sneak around the side and use those fun toys of yours to free the prisoners and get them out of here. Go, go!” With that, I shoved her away, sending the girl falling over the railing and to the stairs below where she would hopefully be okay and ready to follow instructions. 

Either way, I didn’t have time to worry about it. Because just as I did that, one of the Easy Eight guys came lunging around the side of the half-destroyed cart thing I was hiding behind. He was already shouting, raising the shotgun he was armed with before opening fire at point-blank range. 

All those pellets tore into my chest… and through it, as I’d already painted my torso pink. The shotgun blast literally left dozens of holes in my chest, as the man gaped briefly. 

While he was still stunned, I red-yoinked his shotgun away, painting both my arms purple before lashing out to smack the man across the face with it. He went down with a cry. Then, hearing more guys coming, I pivoted and lashed out with a kick into the destroyed sales stand to send it and all the shirts hanging up over it (whatever was left of them anyway) flying out to slam into the bulk of the group. 

“Hey, Juice!” I called, even as my pink paint wore off (thankfully restoring my torso to pristine shape instead of leaving a bunch of little holes in me). “Is that Sunny-D or plain OJ? You know no one likes the purple stuff!” 

Yeah, that got his attention. As if he needed even more of a push. With a growl, the big guy reached out to grab the remains of the same truck I had hit him with, pivoting to hammer throw it right at me. Immediately, I started to launch myself upward using blue paint. But the instant my feet left the ground, I saw Juice already aiming upward. He knew what I was about to do. He was anticipating it, electricity coiling around his hand and already leaping forth toward the spot where I would be. 

So, I did the only thing I could think of. I shot red paint toward the remains of the incoming truck while both it and I were in midair, and hauled myself that way. A touch of orange shielded me from the impact as I hit the bottom of the spinning truck and stuck there, while green gave me the speed I needed to pull the next part off. The boots Wren had provided kept me firmly planted to the truck while it spun end over end, and I watched as the view in front of me kept changing through those brief seconds. Thanks to my own speed from the green paint, the spinning seemed slower than it really was. I saw Juice, then the ground, then the trashed tee-shirt cart behind, then the sky, then Juice, then the ground, then the tee-shirt cart, then the sky–as Juice came back around, I put blue paint beneath my feet and launched myself that way. 

He was still watching the sky where he expected me to be, his bolt of lightning already leaping from his hand and beginning to tear off toward that open space. From the corner of his eye, he saw me coming and tried to adjust, but I was a missile. A missile that flew right past the superstrong man even as he braced himself for a hit that never came. 

Instead, the instant I hit the ground right behind the man, my hands snapped up and around, touching his legs to turn them yellow. A quick activation left the man slowed to about half-speed. He was already pivoting, but I was gone, flinging myself sideways. Which left him time to see the red mark on the ground that I’d left where I was. 

I had to say this for him, the dude wasn’t an idiot. He knew immediately what was happening, and tried to fling himself aside as I had. But the yellow paint slowed him down just enough that the truck remains, hauled that way by the matching red mark I’d left when I was perched on it as the thing spun end over end, slammed into the big guy once again. 

Even that didn’t keep the guy down for long. As the rest of his men looked like they weren’t sure if they wanted to be the first person I threw a truck at, Juice tore the thing apart, scrambling to his feet with a furious shout. “Grab that stupid piece of shit!” 

Yeah, that motivated them. Even as intimidating as me yoinking a truck at them might’ve been, the group was more afraid of their boss being pissed off. Which, well, was fair. I threw trucks, he tanked being hit by the damn things and tore them in half. 

Still, I definitely had their attention. While Juice and his men came rushing my way, I gave the most sarcastic and condescending wave I could manage, then used red paint to yank myself clear to the far end of the shopping center. Landing in a roll, I tried to put some green paint on for a bit more speed. 

Nothing. Fuck. I was out of paint, and the bad guys were–yeah, they were coming. They were charging, weapons raised. Fortunately, they had no idea I was out of paint for the moment so they didn’t bother shooting at me. Unfortunately, they’d figure it out pretty soon. And even if they didn’t, I couldn’t exactly fight without it. 

Stall. I had to stall until the paint came back. Shoving back the sudden rush of terror, I made my body pivot and hurled myself through the open doorway of one of the shops, falling onto my side in the process. The place was a shoe store, and I quickly scrambled to my feet to rush toward the back even as Juice’s voice filled the air, bellowing for them to tear the fucking place apart and drag me out. 

Right, well… I had their attention. They were definitely focused on me, most of them anyway. I just hoped it was enough for the other girl to free those prisoners and get them out of here. 

Cuz, really, I’d hate to have all this fun for nothing.

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Building Connections 16-01 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But why spoil the surprise?” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trust 15-11 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we all started to head inside. But before I could go through the door, Mom turned my way. “And do your parents know what you’re…” She trailed off, clearly considering her words before amending, “Do they know about all this?” 

Why? I wanted to ask. Do you want to know if you need to get their permission to turn me into one of your obedient little thugs? Is that something you’d need to draw up a special parental permission slip for, or do you already have those for the other minors you’ve probably twisted?  

I didn’t say anything of the sort, of course. I wasn’t nearly that stupid or suicidal. Tempting as it was just to see the look on her face, on both of their faces actually, I resisted the urge. Instead, staring right back at her, thankful that face was hidden by two separate layers, I flatly replied, “No, I’m pretty sure my folks would be pretty surprised if they found out anything about this.” 

Yeah, they’d be super-surprised alright. Especially if I took my helmet and mask off right now.  Which, yet again, was almost tempting just for the reaction it would spark. I really had to shove every thought of shocking my parents tonight out of my head before they got me in trouble.  

I saw the look of concern on Mom’s face, her voice lowering a little. “I know you don’t need to be told to be careful, but… you should think about letting your parents know what you’re doing. I know it can seem like a bad idea, and I assume that’s why you’ve refused to join the Minority. Because you don’t want them to know about this, and having a guardian who is aware of your position is a requirement to be a part of them. Maybe you’re afraid they’ll make you stop. But they’re your family. They’re your parents. They deserve to know if you’re in trouble. If… if anything happens to you and they find out like that, they’ll probably blame themselves.” 

If my parents found out that I got hurt doing this, they would blame themselves? Oh boy was that just begging for me to have a fun response. I literally had to bite my lip to stop from saying the first thing that popped into my head. Because it definitely wouldn’t have been anything good as far as keeping my secret identity went. 

Mom might have interpreted my moment of silence as awkwardness, because she spoke up again. “I’m sorry. You can do as you wish, of course. I just hope that you give it a thought. It’s important to have people on your side. Especially those who love you, as I’m sure your parents do.” 

Dad spoke up then, hand on the side of the doorway as he looked over to me. “She’s right, Paintball. Whatever your reasons for keeping your family out of it, I think it’s safe to say they care about you. You seem like a pretty well-adjusted kid, all things considered. And the stuff you’re doing, it’s dangerous. That’s why being part of the Minority–or any team is a good idea. Having friends, having people watching your back, from everything I’ve heard, it’s pretty huge.” His gaze was locked on me, voice a little quieter as he pointedly added, “As my lovely wife said, it’s important to have people you can trust watching your back.” 

God damn it, they kept setting me up perfectly. There was… a lot I wanted to say to every last bit of that. So many immediate retorts sprang to mind and nearly leapt out. But all of them were a really bad idea, as much as they might have given me a very brief moment of satisfaction. Seeing the look in my parents’ faces would’ve been amazing for about ten, maybe fifteen seconds. Then I’d definitely regret it as my entire world came crashing down around me. 

So, I pushed all that deep into the back of my mind, smothering my reflexive responses under a metaphorical pillow before simply replying, “Don’t worry, I have people I can trust.” Not my family, but people. Belatedly, I added, “Thanks.” 

With that, we headed inside. The penthouse was–well, a penthouse. It looked a lot like the hotels that my family went to, or maybe one of our vacation homes. In fact, judging from the paintings on the wall of the main living area, I thought the place might’ve been decorated by the same guy who did the villa in Geneva. The place had his same sense of flair and style. 

On the way to the kitchen, we moved through the main living area, passing a series of huge floor to ceiling windows that looked out over the grounds on the way, similar to the ones in the main hall outside. These ones, however, were also clearly television screens as one of them was displaying an image of the news rather than a view outside. And another a few panels down showed a completely different view of what looked like the New York City skyline. 

Seeing the way my gaze moved as I paused there, Dad spoke up. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” He stepped next to me briefly, as I struggled not to tense up. His hand moved to gesture as he started to explain all about the technology behind the joint window/video screens, telling me all sorts of stuff I already knew but had to pretend I didn’t. It was pretty clear he thought this was a good way of bonding, by talking all about the fancy toys that a ‘boy’ like me would definitely be super into. 

I did my best to play the part, asking questions for a minute or so before we made our way into the kitchen. Skip was there, taking something out of the oven without bothering to use any kind of mitts. Obviously, she just ‘skipped’ the effect of being burned. Useful, that. 

Mrs. Chambers was there too, as promised. The blonde woman had just finished chopping up some mushrooms and was spreading them over several plates of salad. When we entered, she pivoted with a smile. “I have to say, a dinner party with so many superheroes is fun.” Her gaze found me, and she extended a hand. “Paintball, right?” 

“Uhh, yeah,” I managed, mentally kicking myself for the hesitation while accepting her hand. I kept having to remind myself that I wasn’t supposed to know her yet. “You’re Mrs. Chambers?”  

She gave a short nod to that. “That’s what they tell me. But please, just Joselyn. After all, we’re all having dinner, there’s no need to stand on formality. Here.” With that, she picked up the tray full of salads. “Would you mind taking these into the dining room? I–oh, what’ve you got there?” 

For a second I had no idea what she was talking about. Then I glanced down, realizing I still had the little paper bag from Lightning Bug, the one with the cute faces drawn on it. I’d been holding it through all of that, somehow. “Oh, I–” Looking to the girl in question, I asked, “Is it okay if I open this now?” 

She gave a hurried, excited nod. “Uh huh! But you can’t eat any until after dinner. Those are the rules.” The kid recited that last part firmly, squinting at me with those compound eyes as though letting me know that she was going to be watching to make sure I didn’t cheat. 

“I’ll be good,” I promised before opening the sack to glance in. Cupcakes. The sack had several cupcakes, all sealed up in ziplocks to keep them fresh and safe. Each cupcake had clearly been hand-decorated by Bug herself, with frosting and little candy pieces to make it look like the faces on the bag itself. Four cupcakes, one decorated to look like her face and three more decorated like Cinnamon, Kenobee, and Snugglebug. 

Suddenly sounding nervous again, Bug quietly piped up. “I did them myself. Um, sort of. Mom helped with the oven part.” 

“That’s right,” Caishen agreed, laying a hand on her daughter’s white hair. “She did it herself.” 

“Yum!” I enthusiastically intoned. “You sure we have to wait til after dinner?” 

With a giggle, the kid nodded. “No cheating!” she insisted while shaking her finger at me. “No dessert til you eat your veg-ih-tuls.” 

“Well, if you insist,” I finally agreed, rolling the top of the bag shut again before adding, “Thanks, Bug. They look great.” 

Her response to that was to give a little squeak of embarrassment and hide behind her mother again. Giving her a break, I turned back to take the tray from Joselyn. She easily handed it over with a smile that reminded me of my own mother, before asking, “Oh, and are you allergic to anything?” 

My head shook as I took the tray. “Not as far as I know, thanks. I’ll ahh, take this in…” I trailed off before looking toward Caishen and Skip for help. 

The latter had already put the glass dish from the oven down, and was stepping over to a nearby door next to the gleaming metal fridge. “This way,” she instructed flatly. 

So, we made our way into the actual dining room. There was a large glass table in there, big enough to easily seat ten on each side, where place settings had been arranged in what was clearly a carefully planned way. At one end nearest the door were two settings next to each other, one on the very end and one beside it to the right. A bit further up, about a quarter of the way up the long table, were two settings next to each other. Meanwhile, across from them and another quarter of the way (so halfway up the table) was another setting by itself. Finally, there were three settings at the far end of the table, one on the actual end opposite the one set here, and the other two to the right of it. The first seat to the right had a booster chair in it. 

We found our seats easily enough. Mom and Dad were at this end, with Joselyn and Lincoln up from them at the next two spots. Obviously, mine was the one by itself on the opposite side. Setting the tray of salads down in the middle, I stepped around to head that way. 

As soon as I sat, Caishen stepped over and showed me where there was a dial and button on the side. When I turned it on, a glowing forcefield of sorts appeared out of the glass. It was U-shaped, the sides of it continuing past me on either side to form a couple short walls near either shoulder. The field was semi-translucent, like frosted glass so that it was impossible to make out details through, and high enough that it would cut off all view of me while we were eating. Since I was all alone on this side of the table, with the way the forcefield continued onto either side of me to block off the view, all they would see was a frosted-glass sort of image if they looked my way. There was one at the other end too, where Caishen, Lightning Bug, and Skip were, so that they could block any view of their faces as we all ate. 

“It won’t block any sound,” the woman informed me. “We can carry on normal conversation. And you can see through it just fine from this side. Is that okay?” 

Nodding quickly, I assured her, “Thanks, it’s great. And–and thanks for having me over. This is all really cool.” 

For a moment, the woman regarded me. It looked like she was about to say something, possibly about how I could have this all the time if I signed up. But in the end, she clearly pushed the recruitment speech aside and simply replied, “I’m glad you’re here tonight. Buggy likes you a lot.” 

With that, she went back to help Skip bring out the rest of the food, carefully laying out trays. One by one, we each took salad first before settling into our seats. 

Despite the cover afforded by the forcefield thing, I was still careful. I was going to be careful regardless, but with my parents here (let alone an LA Times reporter)? Yeah, no way was I taking even the slightest risk. I opened the front of the helmet and lifted my mask up to my nose so I could actually put food in my mouth. Even without the shield, there was still no way to identify me that way. I also made sure the bluetooth in my ear wasn’t disturbed when I pushed the mask up, so it would continue changing my voice as I spoke. 

Even then, all of dinner was horribly nerve-wracking. I’m sure it was delicious, but I barely tasted it. Technically, I was pretty confident that given another hour I would completely forget what it even was. I was too paranoid about every last thing I said, every movement anyone made. Between that worry and trying to act like I wasn’t worried, we could’ve been eating broiled shoes for all I knew. 

Thankfully, Lightning Bug drew a lot of attention. She clearly loved having visitors around, shy as she might’ve been, and knew my parents enough to ask questions about… well, about Simon and me. She’d met Simon, apparently, and kept asking when ‘Cassie’ was going to visit. To which my parents promised they’d think about seeing if I wanted to come visit, which apparently made Bug happy. It sounded like they’d been telling her stories about me, which was… odd to hear about.  

And boy, wouldn’t that be an interesting time? I could hardly wait for my parents to bring that up to me. 

The kid also asked about the Chambers’ kids, Zed and Lexi. Apparently they were visiting another friend’s place for dinner that night, someone Lexi knew from her online games. That prompted a whole lot of discussion about Ten Towers sponsoring certain competitors in those kinds of games, and the fact that Lexi herself was angling for something like that. 

In any case, I was soon distracted by the fact that Caishen started talking to me directly. Paintball me, that was. She was talking about how I should think about joining Ten Towers if I wasn’t interested in the Minority, how they had specific rules that would help soothe things over if my parents ended up objecting to what I was doing, rules that would help them feel better. And, of course, very good benefits packages. 

She still wasn’t overly pushy about it or anything, but yeah, it was clear that a large part of this whole thing was about testing the waters for potentially recruiting me, with my parents chiming in now and then about their own donations and investments. In Mom and Dad’s case, it was obvious that they wanted to test just how much I was devoted to working alone. Whether Caishen was actively in on that or just a convenient way to probe, I couldn’t say. 

Thankfully, every once in awhile, Joselyn or Lincoln would speak up and turn the conversation away from me. I really owed both of them for that. They seemed to almost instinctively know when I really didn’t want to talk anymore, and always had the right thing to say to pull attention to them. Especially Joselyn, actually. I’d expected her husband to be the one who could command people’s focus that easily. But she seemed to effortlessly draw attention, regaling all of us (me included) with stories about what it was like to be a police officer (homicide detective, to be specific) in Los Angeles. Apparently she worked as a liaison with one of their local Star-Touched groups, which helped explain why she and her husband were so casual with this sort of thing, come to think of it. She basically worked right alongside Touched every day. 

God, I really hoped the Chambers weren’t part of the Ministry. Please, I liked them a lot, even as little as I knew. They were cool, and it would’ve sucked to know that they were just more minions of my parents, possibly extending their reach all the way down into California. Hell, Mr. Jackson had been stationed in Britain, so the Ministry having people in Los Angeles wasn’t exactly far-fetched. But fuck, I really hoped not. 

In any case, whether they were part of the bad guys or not, dinner eventually ended. I had just fixed my mask and helmet before Lightning Bug hopped out of her seat, pleading with me to come play with her friends and make them pretty again. I agreed, partly because who could say no to her? And partly because it would get me away from my parents so I could breathe again. 

As I said my goodbyes to the Chambers and to my own parents before starting to follow the girl while she pulled my hand, my father spoke up. “Whatever you choose to do, stay solo or join a team, make sure you have people who can watch your back. Make sure people you trust know where you are. What you’re doing, this whole life, I haven’t been there but I’ve heard about how dangerous it can be. Like we said before, you need people you can depend on out there.” 

“And think about telling your parents,” Mom put in. “They would want to know, and as I said, finding out the hard way would be so much worse. For them and for you. If there’s anyone you can trust with this Touched stuff, it should be them.” 

I was quiet for a moment, squeezing Lightning Bug’s hand while she stood there gazing at me with obvious impatience tempered by trying to be as polite as a little kid could be. Finally, I nodded. “I’ll think about that. Thanks. I guess you’re right. 

“Families really should be able to trust each other.” 

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Trust 15-10 (Summus Proelium)

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I couldn’t breathe. There was a loud, tinny sound flooding my ears, a whistle that seemed to get worse the longer I stared at my parents. For just a moment, I forgot I had the mask and helmet on and almost blurted, ‘Dad, Mom?’ only to stop myself at literally the very last possible instant. I had to bite my lip hard enough that I almost yelped. Which would’ve been another thing to explain. For all I knew, that dull whine in the back of my head was actually audible, and coming from me. Wouldn’t that be a fantastic demonstration of keeping my cool under pressure, by standing in front of my parents literally audibly whining in some mix of terror and anxiety. It was perfect, they’d definitely never guess that I knew things I shouldn’t then! My poker face was a steel vault! 

But apparently I was better at hiding my reaction than I thought, because my mother and father never hesitated. Slowing only once they neared, Dad extended a hand and offered me his trademark winning smile that had graced so many magazine covers. “Hey there, it’s Paintball, right? Nice to meet you. Sounds like you’ve been making a real splash out there lately.” 

Oh God, he was still holding his hand out. What was I gonna do? What was I supposed to do?!

You’re supposed to shake his hand, idiot, I thought, snapping out of my shock just enough to raise my hand and accept his firm grip. Fuck, fuck, don’t shake his hand like Cassidy would. 

Cassidy doesn’t shake his hand, she’s his daughter, you maroon. Just shake his hand normally!

Shoving all those thoughts (and more) away and doing my best to focus, I moved to shake my own father’s hand, only to freeze briefly as another rush of panic ran through me. What the fuck was I supposed to say to either of them? Were they using that illusion thing? Was I supposed to be seeing them as who they really were, or under some kind of disguise? If I greeted them as who they were, and they were using an illusion, that would… yeah, that would be really bad. 

Fortunately, I was saved by Richard Mornes, whose departure had been interrupted by their arrival. With a chuckle, the man spoke up. “Not sure how much attention the kid pays to old fogey rich folks. Or to money in general. He’s got terrible financial sense.” With that, he stepped over, gesturing. “Paintball, this is Sterling and Elena Evans.” 

Oh, thank God. At least that answered that. A weird rush of relief mixed with even more terror (it was still my parents and I had to pretend I didn’t know them) washed through me while I took my dad’s hand and managed a belated, “Uh–right, sorry, Mr. Evans. It’s just, when my fortune teller said I’d have dinner with someone incredibly rich this week, I was really hoping for Scrooge McDuck.” 

That was good, right? That was sort-of good? I was making a joke, just like Paintball would. Sure, it was a bit lame, but so were a lot of my jokes. At least I was trying. And I was a little distracted by all the my parents were standing right in front of me. The fact that I’d actually managed to pull out a rich figure’s name, even a fictional duck, was pretty much a miracle.

Dad’s grip was firm, though not painfully so. It was the handshake of a man who made hundred million dollar deals regularly, the handshake of someone who knew exactly how strong he was (both literally and figuratively) and didn’t need to show off by crushing someone’s hand or jerking them back and forth. He kept it up for just a moment, barely long enough to make the person (me, in this case) feel like they had his full attention and focus, like they mattered. Then he released and moved his other hand out to guide Mom forward by the shoulder. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Please, call me Sterling, you’ve earned far more than that. And as our friend Richard here said, this is my wife, Elena. Elena, this is the newest defender of our beautiful city.” 

Our beautiful city. The words taken by themselves might have been innocent, of course. People said them all the time. It just meant you lived there. It was ‘your city.’ And yet, coming specifically from my Dad, they meant something else. They were literal. This really was their city, in a way that probably hadn’t been true in hundreds of years. This was the city of the Ministry, and they ran the Ministry. They owned it. They owned the cops, the media, the Star-Touched, the Fell-Touched, the courts, all of it. Not every last piece, of course. They didn’t own literally every person. But they might as well have. They had control unlike anything in modern times. Detroit, and probably all of Michigan itself as an extension, was their kingdom. 

Mom was smiling beautifully at me. It almost made me whimper again. Seeing her, contrasting what I knew she felt for me and what I definitely felt for her against the thoughts I’d just had about what sort of empire she and my father were running was completely screwing up my brain. I loved my mother and my father. But seeing them here, while I was dressed in my costume, was fucking with my head. It made it impossible for me to mentally separate them from the Ministry. Just as it was equally impossible for me to separate the Ministry from them. They were criminals, villains, people who let so many bad things happen in exchange for money and power. But they were my parents. They were my mom and dad. I loved them. I couldn’t–I couldn’t separate the people I loved from the crimes they were responsible for. 

Not that I’d been very successful at doing that before (nor should I be given how important it was to remember what my parents were capable of), but this was hitting me hard in a way I hadn’t expected. I wasn’t prepared to face them like this, and I’d had no time to brace myself. I’d been completely and utterly blindsided by their presence here. It twisted the two worlds I’d been trying to keep separate as much as I could for my own personal sanity. God, how was I going to get through the next few minutes like this, let alone an entire dinner? They’d figure it out. They’d realize something was wrong. They’d know, they’d pull something, they’d summon help, they’d–

Mom spoke then, her voice rising over the steadily droning buzz in the back of my head as I fought back that rush of panic. “I’ve seen the news. You’ve truly been a blessing for this city, young man. We’re all quite proud.” 

My throat was dry. It felt like I was going to throw up. If I threw up in the mask and helmet, would I drown? Would that save me from having to deal with any of this shit? Why did that seem preferable right now? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Somehow, I forced the words to come past the hard, thick lump that had formed. “I’m just trying to do my best. Sometimes it helps.” I had to mentally kick myself not to say anything else. Keep it light, keep it simple. Don’t babble. There was more chance of them figuring out who I was the more I talked. But I didn’t want to say too little, because then they’d know something was wrong. But–yeah, it felt like I was screwed no matter what I did. And that left me practically petrified. Be cool, I kept trying to tell myself. Calm down, just be Paintball. You can do this. You can keep it under control. Please, please don’t fuck this up. 

“Oh, he helps a lot more than just sometimes.” That was Mornes, whom I had somehow forgotten was still there despite him speaking up only a few moments earlier to ‘introduce’ us. Him and Lightning Bug, who had emerged once more from the apartment with two of her insects to see what was going on. “This guy here, he’s a real hero. We’re doing our best to make him realize he can do even more good with Ten Towers.” The way he said it was like a joke that wasn’t really a joke. His hand patted my shoulder briefly as he added. “Nice to see you again, Sterling, Elena. You both look wonderful tonight.” 

“Thank you, Richard,” Mom (Damn it, think of her as Mrs. Evans or you’ll fuck this up!) gracefully replied, granting the man a small, yet beautiful smile. How did she do that? How did she always manage to look so perfect, poised, and… and gorgeous? And why was I such a clod next to her? Each of them, both my parents, always looked so perfect. Dad was handsome, with a movie-star smile and million dollar hair, while Mom was just… just… Mom. She was Elena Evans, gorgeous and graceful, like some kind of queen. 

Meanwhile, I was just… Cassidy. The very best anyone could say about me was that I looked cute for a twelve-year-old boy. 

It was just slightly possible that running into my parents like this was seriously screwing with my head. With effort, I shoved all those thoughts into a box, forcing myself to focus. 

Mornes was still talking. “And now, since you made it here without my intervention, I suppose it’s time I headed out. Please, enjoy your dinner. I hear it’s going to be delightful. See ya, kiddo.” That last was directed toward Lightning Bug, as he headed off toward the elevator. Leaving me with the younger girl, her bugs, and my parents. Abandoning me with my parents. Jerk. 

For a moment, I was saved then, as the kid herself scampered past me and ran to embrace my father. He knelt, hugging her tightly in a way that made those conflicted feelings of mine a hell of a lot more conflicted. God damn it, just seeing my dad hugging Bug, laughing as she showed her giant insects to him in a way that made it clear he knew them quite well (he even asked about Simminin by name), brought that thick knot of bile back to my throat. I felt cold. I felt itchy. I felt–I felt helpless. I couldn’t do anything about this. And even if I could have, I didn’t know what I would do. Fuck, this was all so complicated. 

It was obvious, so very obvious, that Mom and Dad had a good relationship with Bug. Where she had been fairly shy with me, particularly when we first met, there was no such reaction here. She laughed loudly, proudly babbling on about something her insect friends had done, and excitedly told them all about how ‘Mr. Ball’ made them pretty. 

Were they being nice to her because they cared about her, or because having someone with her power at full strength once she was older would be incredibly useful? That was the thought that I couldn’t stop from worming its way into my head. Just like with Izzy. It made sense, didn’t it? If they were going to stay in control and keep the kind of power they already had, or even expand it, they were going to need to jump on the next generation. Getting powerful Touched on their side right now, while they were young? That was basic-level common sense. But how much of how they were treating Bug right now, how much of how friendly they were, was from that? 

Fortunately, I was distracted from that dark pit of obsessive thought when a voice spoke up from the doorway. “Well, I didn’t expect the rest of our guests to arrive at the same time.” The electronically-distorted voice came from Caishen, dressed in her full costume of dark gold pants with black lines down the sides that ran all the way to her matching black boots, and a dark purple scale mail-like shirt with a gold leather coat. Her usual black metal helmet with purple lenses where her eyes were hid the woman’s face. 

She greeted me first, extending a hand to shake just like my father had while telling me how glad she was that I’d accepted her sister’s invitation. Then she held her arms out. With no further prompting, her daughter leapt from where she had been hugging my mother, beating her wings twice before landing in her own mother’s grasp to embrace her. 

“Mama!” Lightning Bug blurted happily, “See? Mr. Ball came! Is he really gonna eat dinner with us?” 

“Well, Bunny, I think you should ask him, shouldn’t you?” Caishen prompted while shifting her grip to hold her daughter up a bit more comfortably. 

Suddenly turning a bit shy again, Bug turned to wrap both arms around her mother’s neck fully, burying her face against the woman’s shoulder. After a moment, she turned just enough for me to see one big, compound eye. “Are you really gonna eat dinner with us, Mr. Ball?” 

Screaming no and then throwing myself out the nearest window was probably a bad idea, huh?

Not only would it be slightly upsetting to the poor kid, I was pretty sure my parents might regard it as vaguely suspicious as far as ‘does that guy actually know anything about us’ went. No, I had to play dumb and cool, pretend any reactions I had were about being starstruck by the presence of super-rich people, and push on through this entire dinner. Sure, this would be fun. What a fantastic way to spend my evening, because I definitely hadn’t been paranoid enough. 

My head was already nodding, as I tried to keep my voice as cool as possible. “Sure, I mean, I kinda skipped out on dinner with my family already, so I better eat here while I’ve got a chance.” 

“Skipping out on dinner sounds dangerous.” 

It was a new voice. Yet not new. There was something familiar about it, and even as my head turned toward the doorway that Caishen had just come through, I realized why. 

Lincoln Chambers. It was him, the reporter guy from before. He stepped through, still looking more like a giant mountain man than someone who worked for a newspaper. Hell, the guy looked like he should be chopping down the trees that became the newspaper rather than writing on it. 

“Mr. Chambers,” Dad greeted the guy, extending a hand that way as well. “Glad to see you made it after all. And I hope your wife did as well?” 

With a nod, the big, heavily-bearded guy gestured over his shoulder. “Oh yeah, we couldn’t miss an invitation like this. Joselyn’s inside with that ahhh, Skip. And was it… Cinnamon?” He looked toward Bug, who was hiding behind her mother’s leg but leaned out just enough to nod before ducking back again. 

Belatedly, I realized the guy was staring at me. And that he wasn’t supposed to know me. So, I quickly blurted, “Oh, uh, hi. I’m Paintball. Nice to meet you, Mr… uh… it was Chambers, he said?” I gave a quick glance toward my father and back again. “Are you ahh, new in town?” 

For a long moment, the man watched me. It almost looked like he was staring through me, like he could see through the helmet and mask. Like he could read my mind. His gaze bore into me, practically picking me apart without saying a single word. Yet, in the end, he simply extended a hand. “Please, Lincoln’s just fine. Just visiting from Los Angeles for a bit. Always nice to meet someone trying to do some good in the world. And, from what I hear, you’ve been doing a lot of good.”

My head tilted a little. “You’ve heard of me even in LA? That seems a little crazy.” Eyes widening behind the helmet, I stammered, “I mean, not that you’re crazy, or that LA isn’t–I mean–” 

With a chuckle, Mr. Chambers shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, kid. Believe me, I get it. But yeah, I’ve been up here interviewing some people for the Times and every time I ask about you, they’ve got nothing but good things to say. Well, aside from the criminals. Most of them don’t like you as much. But I’d take that as a good thing, if I was you.” 

“You interview criminals?” I asked a bit blankly. 

That earned me another light chuckle before the man nodded. “I interview whoever will let me. Gotta be careful about a lot of that stuff, but sure. If you want the whole story, you’ve gotta take a look at it from every angle. You have to consider every side.” There was a brief pause then before he looked over to my father. “Isn’t that right, Sterling?” 

“Absolutely,” Dad replied smoothly. “But right now, I’m afraid the only sides I’m considering are those potatoes and broccoli I smell.” 

“Yeah, Joselyn’s been helping them out in there,” Lincoln agreed. “And banning me from the kitchen, just to make sure the whole place doesn’t burn down. I think everything’s about ready though.” 

Caishen gave a nod, gesturing. “It sounds like everyone could do with getting this dinner started. In that case, won’t you all please come inside?” She stepped out of the way then, still holding her daughter while gesturing for us to go ahead. 

Right, great, fantastic. I was about to have dinner with my parents and this reporter guy whom I already knew was really good at his job. And I had to do it all while pretending I didn’t know any of them, especially my parents. Was this what I got for accepting these kinds of invitations? 

Fuck. Suppressing the worried sigh that tried to escape, I took a breath and then moved toward the door. 

Whatever happened next, this was definitely going to be a meal I would never forget.

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Trust 15-09 (Summus Proelium)

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They were expecting me at Ten Towers, of course. Tours of the place had shut down for the day by then, but the guards at the gates to the complex were ready. As soon as I showed up, two of the uniformed men greeted me before sending for my guide. While we were waiting, one of the men asked if it was true that I was making a picture book for ‘that Orens guy over at Seraphs.’ When I confirmed it, he quickly said his own daughter would love something like that too and asked if he could give me his phone number to call when I was done with the first one. Of course, I agreed, and soon had a paper with his number stuffed deep in my zipped-up pocket. 

A moment after that, while I was still reeling from the thought that all these people apparently wanted me to draw pictures for them, the sound of footsteps drew my attention. My guide was approaching, and I immediately recognized him. It was Richard Mornes, the same guy that had shown me around before. He wasn’t wearing the exact same clothes, but it was the same style and easy to pick out. Before, he’d had a white suit over a black hawaiian shirt with red and pink flowers. Today, it was a light purple suit with an open jacket over a bright pink shirt. He wore the same dark pink Aviator shades and comfortable tennis shoes. He definitely stood out from the dark-suited guards that were standing nearby or patrolling the grounds. They almost could’ve been clones. Or, come to think of it, biolems. Which was a thought that made me shudder. 

“Paintball!” Richard greeted, extending a hand. “Glad to see you again. It’s been too long.” 

Accepting his hand, I replied, “Mr. Mornes, I see they still haven’t adopted your fashion sense.” 

The man chuckled while giving my hand a shake. At the same time, he pointed at me with the other one. “I’m wearing them down on that one, believe me. And please, call me Richard.” 

“In that case, you can call me…” I trailed off, head tilting to the side as I made a show of thinking quickly. “Uhhh, Paintball, I guess.” Coughing, I shrugged. “Sorry. But hey, I can’t believe you’re still here. Shouldn’t you be home by now? You’d think the vice president of outreach would have plenty of lackeys he could make stay around to escort me to wherever dinner’s supposed to be.” 

“Believe me,” Richard promised, “I have no shortage of lackeys. One of the perks of the position. But another perk is getting to choose the things you do want to do. Err, to an extent, anyway. And I definitely wanted to be involved with this one.” He offered me a smile, taking his sunglasses off to tuck them away. “You’re a pretty intriguing figure, you know that? I mean, you were already, but the way you’ve been going… a lot of people already look up to you. Saving the girl in that car chase was pretty damn impressive. And showing up to help at the theater? You’ve got some of the teams angling to find a way to recruit you, Minority or no Minority.” 

Feeling myself flush a bit under the mask and helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal. Seriously, it’s really not. And um, that whole ‘finding a way to recruit me’ includes you, I take it?” 

With a chuckle, the man turned, gesturing for me to accompany him. “Come on, I’ll get you up to the residence. And yeah, of course I’d love to have a young, hotshot Star-Touched with a long career ahead of him sign up for the Towers. Trust me, kid, you’d be an amazing get. Everyone knows you turned down the Minority, yet you keep working with them. It adds an air of mystery. You’re great on-camera, the public has fun watching you, and you’re not dark and edgy. You have any idea how many grim and gritty assholes there are who think the way to popularity is lurking in shadows and growling at people like they’ve got a mouthful of glass or something?” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “Sorry you’ve gotta deal with all that. But I’m still not interested in joining any team.” Especially not now that I’d worked through in my head just how likely it was that Ten Towers was in some way, either directly or indirectly, controlled by my parents. 

If he was offended or upset or anything, Richard didn’t show it at all. Of course, he probably had a lot of experience with disguising that sort of thing. He simply smiled as we approached the door of the same building from before. The doors opened automatically to let us through. “Don’t you worry, I’ll find a way to make you an offer you like. Might take awhile. Might take a year or two, but… just promise me if you do decide to join up with some people, you give me a chance to show you what we can provide? I’d hate to make the board think I’m not doing my job.”

“I’ll totally vouch that you’re definitely doing outreach,” I assured the man. “And yeah, if I change my mind about the team-joining thing, I’ll give you a chance to woo me.” God, it felt weird to say that. The whole idea that there were multiple groups angling to get me to sign on the metaphorical line was strange. And, given what I knew about my family, a bit uncomfortable. 

But, I pushed all that aside and followed Mornes onto the elevator. He used a key to unlock a panel next to the regular buttons. Behind that panel was what looked like a small camera. It projected a green laser light thing that ran over the man’s face as he spoke. “Richard Mornes. One guest. Starlight.” To me, he added, “Please stand as still as possible.” 

After scanning the man himself, the green light moved over me. It scanned me from head to toe before flickering off. Then the elevator began to rise smoothly. 

“Starlight?” I asked, glancing at him curiously. “That’s not some kind of nickname for me, is it?” 

With a chuckle, Mornes shook his head. “Don’t worry. We just have a special password to let the computer know we’re not acting under duress. It changes a few times a day. Makes a couple of the bigwigs who can’t remember anything crazy when they get locked in until someone comes to check on them, but you know. Better safe than sorry. Especially in this line of work.”

It made sense, of course. Dad had taken me on tours of places that had similar, or even stricter security measures. A lot of those people tended to squint at me until they found out who my father was, then they were suddenly a lot more accommodating. Which, now that I thought about it, made me even more uncomfortable. It was… yeah. Yeah, it was a whole thing I didn’t want to think about right then. Or anytime, really. But especially not right then. I was just going to shove all of that out of my mind and focus on what I was doing here. 

To that end, I quickly piped up with, “So Caishen and her family really just live on the grounds?” 

“All the Ten Towers Touched do,” he informed me. “Most live in the apartments belowground. Don’t take that the wrong way though. Those apartments are pretty damn spiffy. And safe. But yeah, Caishen, Skip, and Lightning Bug live up here in one of the penthouses. There’s a few for the board members and other VIPs when they show up, but the main one in this building is for the Star-Touched boss lady and her family.” 

Right, yeah, there were other Star-Touched who worked for Ten Towers here in town beyond just Caishen and her family. A lot of them tended to be focused on protecting corporate interests rather than patrolling in the city the way the Conservators, Minority, and Spartans did. Well, they did help out in the city, of course. When Fells attacked places or caused trouble nearby, the Ten Towers people would jump in and help deal with the situation. They just didn’t tend to actively patrol for the most part. Kind of like the Seraphs, come to think of it. 

By that point, we had arrived. The doors of the elevator slid open soundlessly, revealing a wide, long corridor beyond. The floor was made of white polished marble, while the entire wall opposite the elevator was a floor to ceiling window looking out over the grounds of Ten Towers and the city beyond. 

“Impressive view, huh?” With a little smile at his own words, Mornes stepped out of the elevator with me, gesturing. “Go ahead, take a look.” 

Resisting the urge to reply that my father’s office in the city had a better view, I stepped out to join him and stared out across the scene below. Identity-revealing jokes aside, it was a really nice view. I could see why he was proud of it. Across the way I could see the other two skyscrapers that had formed the original Three Towers Plaza. With the way the grounds themselves were lit up and the rest of the city stretched out beyond… yeah. He definitely had plenty to be proud of. And I was going to do my level best to ignore my questions of exactly how connected this place was with the Ministry. Because those kinds of questions might just interfere with my enjoyment of dinner tonight. 

Before I could actually say anything else, what appeared to be the sound of several people running filled the air. Except, as I pivoted that way reflexively, it turned out not to be several people at all. It was one thing. One giant, neon-green beetle with a small figure perched on its hardshell back. The sound I’d heard was the beetle’s multiple feet all hitting the floor in a rapid rush as it came running for me. 

“Snugglebug, stop!” the beetle’s rider blurted, making it suddenly halt just a few feet from me. Which gave me a chance to see said rider a bit better. It was, of course, Lightning Bug herself. The five-year-old looked the same as the last time I’d seen her, with that red skin, shockingly white hair that hung loose and wild around her face, and compound eyes that were both incredibly bright blue and also about twice as big as average human eyes. Oh, and the insect-like wings that sprouted from her back. Wings that made me think of Wren’s flight pack, though these were natural. 

With a squeak as she realized how close they were, the kid slipped backwards off her mount and half-crouched behind him. All I could see was the top of her big eyes and a bit of her hair as she peeked over the shell to stare at me. 

Exchanging a brief look with Mornes, I offered the girl a smile. Then I remembered that was idiotic because she couldn’t see my face. Whoops. Quickly, I spoke aloud. “Hey there, ahh you like to be called LB, right?” 

There was a brief pause before the hesitant response came. “Or Bug. Bug is okay too, Mr. Ball.” 

“In that case, you can just call me Ball,” I assured her. “And that’s Snugglebug. Is it okay if I come closer?” I really didn’t want to freak the beetle out if he was in protective mode with Lightning Bug suddenly being nervous and shy. 

Again, there was a brief pause, before Lightning Bug slowly stepped out from behind the beetle. Her wings fluttered uncertainly while she gave a short nod. “Uh huh. Y-you can come say hi if you want to. That’s… that’s what Snugglebug wanted. He wasn’t tryin’ tah… attack you or anything.” Her foot kicked nervously at the floor as she squirmed. 

Stepping that way, I took a knee in front of the beetle. “It’s okay, I know. Hi there, buddy. You remember me, right?” Staying still, I let the pony-sized bug lean closer, its antennae working over the front of my helmet. Snugglebug made a sort of chittering noise, his enormous green mandibles looking like they could chomp right through my arm if he wanted to. But he didn’t. Mostly he looked like an oversized, armored puppy pleading for attention. 

Carefully reaching out, I ran my hand over the beetle’s outstretched leg, feeling the hard exoskeleton. “Yeah, you remember me. I made you pretty. You’re a great boy, huh?” 

By that point, Lightning Bug had stepped the rest of the way around to nervously stand next to her buddy’s head, one hand on the shell. “He liked being pretty,” she offered hesitantly, voice quiet while shifting back and forth on her feet. “A-and we wanted tah give you… this.” 

I looked up to see the red-skinned girl nervously holding out a brown paper bag. There was a smiley face drawn on the front. Actually, four smiley faces. One was a normal human circle face, another had antennae poking out the top, the third had crudely drawn praying mantis claws and big bulbous eyes, and the last one had big eyes too, along with wings sticking out behind it. 

“Oooh,” I took the bag, turning it to point at each of them in turn. “So this is you, right Bug? And this one here is Snuggle. This one with the pincers is Simminin. And who’s this right here?” 

The kid hesitated before moving her finger to point to the last picture while replying, “Kenobee.” 

“Kenobee?” I echoed. “Wait, is that a joke about–” 

Then I heard it. A loud buzzing sound filled the air, and I turned to see… well, a giant bee. But not just any ordinary bee, even discounting its size (the thing was as big as a large housecat). It was also bright metallic purple, a gorgeous coloration that made me gasp.

As the bee flew, Bug held out her arms and it basically fell right into them, allowing the girl to hug the insect against her chest. It looked basically like a little kid holding a cat that was almost too big for her to do so. “Kenobee!” She announced happily. “See, he’s already pretty!”  Quickly, as though afraid she had offended me, the girl added, “But he’d like tah be even more pretty.” 

“Aww, well we’ll have to see what we can do about that.” Carefully, to avoid startling the insect, I reached out and rubbed over the fuzzy shell while his head tilted to consider me. “Hey, buddy. How’d you get to be so pretty all by yourself?” 

“He’s a orchard bee!” Lightning Bug informed me brightly, clearly incredibly proud of her (sort of) little friend. 

“Orchid Bee,” Mornes gently and quietly informed me with a small smile. “The third and newest of Miss LB’s companions.” 

Gently petting the insect, I made a bright white and pink flower appear on the back of his purple shell (using the white to allow the pink to stand out). “Well you are definitely a handsome guy.” 

“Flower!” Bug chirped happily, turning the bee in her arms a bit to see better. “See, Kenny? I knew Mr. Ball could make you more pretty!” With that, she clutched the bee even tighter before holding him out. “Could… could he give you a hug?” 

Well, how would I ever say no to that? Gently taking the offered insect, I hugged him as best as could while the kid watched with delight. Once Kenobee started squirming, wings pushing against my arms, I released him and let the bee hover up into the air between us. 

Of course, giving one insect some paint meant I couldn’t exactly ignore the other one. Especially when Snugglebug started bumping against my side, managing to look almost anxious despite being, well, a huge bug. So, I gave him (my version of) a rainbow across his shell along with some various colored stars. He seemed happy with that (probably because Lightning Bug was happy with it), and we started down the hall toward the actual penthouse, passing a few other doors that apparently led into the apartments of other VIPs. 

On the way, I asked, “Speaking of Simminin, where is she?” 

“Protecting Mommy,” Bug piped up immediately and solemnly, head bobbing as she sat on Snugglebug, who was walking alongside me. Kenobee was flying nearby, clearly quite interested in Mornes’ bright pink shirt. “And helping.” 

“They’re in here,” Mornes informed me, gesturing to the door of the penthouse ahead of us. “Simminin likes to help in the kitchen when Caishen cooks.” 

I wasn’t sure what the protecting Mommy bit was about. Hopefully it was just a little kid not wanting to leave her mother alone and not something actually dangerous she had picked up on. Either way, I nodded. “Right, well I can’t wait to see what’s for dinner. Are you coming in?” 

Mornes shook his head. “Nope, I’m just your escort to the door tonight. Go right ahead, they’re expecting you. I should go make sure the other guests are on their way.” 

“Bye, Mr. Mornes!” Lightning Bug called while excitedly pushing the door open to rush in, followed by her two insects. Within, I heard her excitedly babbling to her mother about ‘Mr. Ball’ showing up and making her friends pretty again. 

Before going through, I glanced toward the man who had brought me up here. “Thanks again. Hope you can go home and take a break now.” 

The man’s expression was mostly hidden behind his large colored aviators as he offered me a simple, basically humorless smile. “I don’t think anyone’s getting much of a break while this gang war keeps escalating. But I’ll do my best. Enjoy your dinner, kid.” 

He headed off then, while I took a deep breath and faced the open door. Well, time to see how this dinner thing was gonna pan out. 

But before we could step in, a voice called out from behind us, near the elevator. “Are we late?” 

I knew that voice.

I knew it incredibly well. 

My heart had already stopped, but my body was still turning. My head was still twisting. My gaze was still rising. 

“Oh good, we made it,” my dad spoke as he and Mom approached together. 

“This is one dinner I definitely didn’t want to miss.”

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Trust 15-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so I had… dinner plans, I supposed. Too bad I couldn’t tell my parents where I was going. Having dinner with Caishen, Skip, and Lightning Bug might actually have impressed them. Or maybe not, considering my whole idea that they could be connected to the Ministry. Maybe Caishen was just another one of my family’s secret minions. Hell, for all I knew, this entire thing was an elaborate ruse to pick my brain or try to figure out how much I knew about them. 

Maybe I was being a little paranoid. But wasn’t that better than being not paranoid enough? 

Either way, I was definitely going to keep my eyes open. But seriously, I did want to see the kid again, and if Ten Towers was part of the Ministry or connected to them in any way, cultivating a relationship was the best way of finding that out, right? Right. Maybe I was talking myself into a dumb idea, but at that point I couldn’t exactly refuse the invitation without looking even weirder. 

“Weird is better than exposed,” Izzy informed me as the two of us sat at an old wooden picnic table near the corner of her new school’s front yard. She’d gotten out of her final class early, since they were finishing up some kind of project she couldn’t participate in, so we were waiting for a few minutes until Jefferson showed up. Which was good, since it gave me time to explain the situation and go through my whole probably slightly-crazed thought process with her. 

This whole ‘saying the crazy things happening to me out loud instead of bottling them up forever’ thing was really something. It almost felt as though I was letting out enough pressure that sticking a balloon in my ear wouldn’t actually blow it up. Which was just crazy. 

Of course, I still felt bad about involving someone as young as Izzy in the whole thing in the first place. Which was kind of partially replacing that whole stress thing. But hey, baby steps. 

Now, she was looking at me. “I mean, better to look weird and paranoid than to actually be exposed, right? And better to look like you’re being a little rude to Caishen and them than to accidentally tell your parents exactly who you are. You can’t take something like that back.”

“No do-overs,” I agreed grimly. “The second my parents even start looking at me suspiciously…” I swallowed hard then, shaking my head. “You’re right, but I can’t just totally turn them down. I’m pretty sure that’d attract some questions too. Especially now that I agreed to it. Besides, Skip helped save my life.” And I really didn’t want her to be part of the Ministry, though I didn’t add that part out loud. From the look Izzy gave me, I didn’t need to. 

“I’ll be careful,” I finally promised. “No confiding in them, no exposing my face or anything just in case. Even with their ‘privacy measures.’ I can push the visor up and raise the mask enough to eat.” 

“New question,” Izzy put in then, “where are you gonna tell your parents you’re eating?” 

Considering that, I hesitantly started with, “Tonight’s not family dinner, so it won’t be total war for me not being there. I can come up with an excuse about eating out with friends or something, shouldn’t be a big deal. Mom’s pretty cool about that kind of thing as long as we show up when we’re supposed to.” Glancing toward the other girl, I added, “But are you gonna be okay there?” 

“You mean am I gonna be okay being there alone without you after everything you said?” With that, Izzy swallowed hard, seeming to shrink in on herself a bit. Her voice was smaller. “Yeah. I can keep it together.” She took a breath, focusing on me. “You can trust me, Cassidy. I won’t fuck up and expose you, or any of it. It’s okay. I mean, it’s not really okay, but… yeah.” 

“I know what you mean,” I assured her. “And I trust you. But there’s a difference between trusting someone and knowing that something is a lot to deal with. So believe me, if you have to walk away from dinner, just tell them it’s been a long day. I mean, brand new school and all that, after everything that happ– you know, now that I say it out loud, you probably don’t need to fake anything. How are you doing with all that? The more mundane stuff, I mean. This place.” 

Following my glance toward the school behind her, Izzy offered me a shrug. “It’s okay. I didn’t really talk to a lot of people or anything. I mean, it’s April. School’s out in a couple months. Everybody’s already got their friends and their everything. Plus, I’m not umm…” She hesitated, biting her lip. “I’m not really rich or anything. Everyone in there knows I’m just this poor nobody on a free ride.” 

Blinking at that, I scooted over on the bench and put an arm around the girl, squeezing her close to me. “You listen to me. First, you are not a nobody. You do more important things in one day than most of those kids have done all year. You’re a fucking superhero, Izz. And free ride? You do know those kids were born rich, right? Just like me. You think I did anything to earn the money my family has? Neither did they. If anyone, anyone’s going to that school on a free ride, it’s them. They’re like me. They got handed everything they ever wanted, pretty much. What the hell did they do to deserve a spot at that school, be born? That’s luck, not achievement. Everything you’ve got, you earned. You worked for it. You deserve every bit of success and help you get, and anyone who tries say you don’t can go fuck themselves, okay?” 

With a tiny smile, Izzy shook her head while leaning against me a bit while teasing, “That was really poetic. Go fuck themselves, I should write that down.”

“Damn straight you should,” I agreed, poking her side with my free arm. “Izzy, I’m the most privileged rich kid you’re ever gonna see. Seriously, think about it. My parents are billionaires and they control both the crime and the police in the city. Most of it, anyway. The point is, you can’t get much more privileged than me. So, speaking as the… Princess of all Privileged Fucks, never let anyone tell you that you don’t deserve to be in that school.” 

Before Izzy could respond to that, Jefferson pulled up. He didn’t honk or anything, because he expected us to be ready to go. With a quick glance toward one another, the two of us hopped up and headed to the car. On the way, Izzy murmured quietly, “Thanks, Cassie.” 

Then we got in and headed for home. And I spent the next few minutes wondering how this whole dinner at Ten Towers was going to go. Not to mention the Paige thing, which was an ever-present thought at the back of my mind. I still had to decide if Eits was the best person to trust with that. Or even the only person, cuz really, who else was I going to ask who was more trustworthy? Maybe a Star-Touched from another city, but then we’d have to take Paige there and explain… well, maybe that would work? Find some doctor and tech person as far from Detroit as possible, hide Paige’s actual identity, and take her to them? 

Boy, I was really grasping at straws, wasn’t I? Where the hell was I going to find someone willing to do all that work on Paige without knowing anything about her? If nothing else, anyone with the skill to help her was definitely going to have the skill to know there was a lot going on with her. So they’d probably have a lot of questions. Questions I couldn’t answer. 

Then again, I couldn’t answer questions from Eits either. And even if I did trust him, we still needed to have someone who could open the body up to get to–argh. It was a lot. I kept thinking a good answer to this whole situation would just pop into my head or something, but thus far I was getting nowhere. My only real comfort was that Paige would be okay. She was basically in a coma or whatever, just like… sleeping. So until we actually found a way to fix the girl and bring her back, she’d be fine the way she was, right? 

Yeah, that was something. But still, this was a lot to deal with. Plus there was the whole situation with the Ministry base under the mall that we still had to find a way to break into, and–yeah, I had a lot to deal with. Nothing new there. 

But hey, at least I might get a decent dinner and some interaction with Lightning Bug out of this one? 

*******

A couple hours later, I was on my way. Well, sort of. There was another stop that I had to make before heading over to Ten Towers. I’d taken some time to draw up some more pictures for the son of that guard guy at the Seraphs, Matt Orens and I wanted him to sign off on them. I hadn’t put them together into a full book yet or anything, but they were still some nice drawings. 

Seriously, it might not have been on the same level of amazing as hurling myself from roof to roof throughout the city, but being able to draw this well just by thinking about it was still pretty damn cool. It was a more mundane cool, and yet also one I could actually share with people as myself if I was careful. Amber and Jae already knew, for one, and they didn’t think it was weird. 

It was just neat to be able to picture something in my head and then make a perfect real picture on paper. Whether I did it with my paint or by literally drawing it, the pictures looked amazing. Like my imagination jumped out of my head and reproduced itself on the page. 

Orens wasn’t out there by the gate when I stopped by, but he was on duty and they said he’d come around. While I was waiting, Patchwork strolled out, shouting over her shoulder that she was going for food and if anyone felt like dying in the time she was gone, they better do it without fucking calling her. When she saw me, the woman stopped, looking at me through that green visor that matched her spiky hair. “Stopped by to do more work, kid?” 

“Uh, not exactly.” I shook my head. “But I’ll be back, promise. As soon as possible. Uh, tonight maybe. Yeah, tonight if I can swing it. Things just got… crazy.” 

“They’ve got a way of doing that,” she drawled. “Just be glad you ain’t a healer. That’s a good way of–” She turned a bit, half-shouting over her shoulder, “Never getting a goddamn minute to yourself, motherfuckers!” Then she pivoted right back to me. “Anyway, just make sure you show up and do some work soon, before Hallowed or any of the bigwigs get antsy. Plus,” she added slyly, “your dad misses you.” 

“Oh my God.” Hanging my head while fighting back a fit of giggles, I eventually managed a weak, “Is that still going on?” 

“Stronger than ever,” she informed me, sounding far more cheerful. “Especially since some completely terrible person or persons have been fanning the flames with pictures of you visiting the place and talking to him.” 

Squinting at her through the helmet, I was about to ask if she was that terrible person. But I was interrupted by a very small voice hesitantly speaking up. “Um–ahh, excuse me.” 

I blinked, looking toward Patchwork, then around behind me, then to the nearby guard, then back to Patchwork. She was pointing down, and I glanced that way to see a tiny mouse, a bit away from my foot. This was no ordinary mouse, though. She wore gold armor covering most of her body save for the head, with what looked like a tiny, also metal backpack of some kind. A pair of what looked like bluetooth earbuds were attached to either side of the mouse’s body just behind her head, which was where the voice was coming from. “I’m so sorry to ahh… umm, interrupt.” 

“Oh!” I blurted, taken aback. “It’s okay, I mean–wait, you’re… Lion.” I wasn’t dumb, of course she was a mouse. But her name was Lion. She was a fairly well-known Toni (TOuched Nonhuman Individual), but she didn’t live or work here in Detroit. Lion was based in Seattle. And she took ‘based’ to another level, because her whole thing was designing incredibly elaborate and powerful defensive structures. She made bunkers, basically. Bunkers, prisons, I’d heard she’d had a big hand in helping to design upgrades for Breakwater, actually. The point was, she was really good at creating defenses. 

The mouse’s tiny head bobbed up and down. “Yes, sir, that’s ahhh, that’s my name. It’s a umm, pleasure to umm, finally meet. I mean pleasure for me to meet you, I don’t ahhh, know if it’s a pleasure to meet me, I wouldn’t want to umm, speak for you or anything.”

“Trust me,” I assured her while crouching to be closer. “It’s definitely a pleasure. But what are you doing here in Detroit? You’re not moving here, are you?” Immediately, I regretted the phrasing, amending, “I mean, everything I’ve seen says Seattle loves you.” 

Sitting back on her haunches, Lion peered up at me while shaking her little head. “Oh, ahh, no. No, I still live in Seattle. It’s my ahh… it’s my home.” I was pretty sure I could see her gulp repeatedly before the tiny speakers behind her head continued. “I’m just visiting my ahh… my friend Lucent, to consult on something.” 

“Oh. Well, cool. Hope you work it out with dear old pops,” I couldn’t help but say. 

There was a brief pause from Lion, before I heard a sound that I belatedly realized was a giggle from the little mouse. She seemed to relax just a little, though from her voice was still obviously on-edge. From what I’d heard, that was basically how she always was. The mouse whose entire power revolved around creating incredible defenses was basically eternally nervous. 

And who could blame her? She was tiny. She had plenty of reason to be anxious within a perfectly normal, mundane world, let alone before you added in superpowers and villains and all that. 

“It’s ahh, it’s going well, I think,” her quiet and uncertain voice piped up. “But I saw you out here and just wanted to say hi. And ahh, and ask if you were okay with the umm, the… joke that’s going on. But you seem okay, because you made the same joke.” 

“Believe me, I’m fine with it,” I assured her immediately. I avoided adding that my father secretly being Lucent would, in several ways, be better than the alternative. Which was a thought that I immediately regretted for the rush of conflicting feelings of guilt that flooded in. But I pushed all that back, adding, “He seems like a pretty great guy–err bird. Guy bird? Guy still works, right?” 

“Works for the rest of us,” Patchwork put in. “Hey Lion, you wanna help me pick up some grub? Pretty sure you and Lucent have been down in your hole playing techy games all day without basic necessities.”

There was a brief pause as the tiny mouse seemed to regard the much larger woman for a moment, before she agreed with a thoughtful, “I… am rather hungry, ahh, I suppose. But are–are we being rude?” Her voice was suddenly worried as she looked back to me, nose sniffing frantically. 

Quickly, I shook my head. “Thanks, I’m good. I have dinner plans already. Over at Ten Towers, actually.” 

“Oh yeah? Tell bug-kid hi for me,” Patchwork replied before holding out a hand. “Let’s go, Nala.”

She didn’t reach all the way down to pick the mouse up. Instead, the little backpack attached to Lion’s armor opened up, and a thin metal bar, about as long as a pencil, poked out. The top of it started to glow, and what looked like an arm made of solid energy appeared. Not a little arm either, this was a full sized human arm with a hand attached. The glowing energy hand grasped Patchwork’s, then retracted to pull Lion all the way up so the woman could catch her with her free hand and put the mouse on her shoulder. 

From her perch there, the TONI waved with her big energy-form hand. Her voice squeaked, “Goodbye, Paintball. I… I hope we can talk again.” 

“Me too,” I quickly agreed, then thought quickly. “But umm, hey, could I ask you something, actually?” My mind was racing with an idea of how to get into this without giving everything away. 

The mouse tilted her head, watching me curiously and expectantly until I went on. “Um, I have this friend who helps me with a bit of Touched-Tech stuff, but they wanna stay super-anonymous. So they were wondering if there was a way to like… if there was an established method of hiring Touched-Techs where both sides stay private.” 

Yeah, hiding my actual question about whether there was a way for me to anonymously hire a Tech-Touched behind asking if there was a way for my Tech-Touched friend to anonymously hire herself out wasn’t exactly perfect, but it was the best I could think of on the spot. 

“He means without getting Glitch and her Braintrust on their ass,” Patchwork translated for me. 

“Oh.” Lion gave a quick nod. “Um, well, yes there is. If umm, if you go to the Sphere forum, search for threads with the title ‘Looking For A Carpenter’, find the most recent, and post a message there under any account, you’ll get a private message to set something up. The ahhh, umm, the first message will ask if you know a friend in metalworking and you say you know a sculptor. Then you’ll be able to ask about anything you want for your friend. It’s all very quiet.”

“Thanks.” I wasn’t sure if I’d use that or not, but it was something. And hopefully hiding it behind the Trevithick thing had covered me well enough. 

Seeing her glowing forcefield-like hand still there, I gave Lion a high-five, then waved before turning as Orens made his way out. I’d think about that whole forum thing later. For now, I had to talk to this guy, then head out. Considering how late it was getting, I was pretty sure it would be time to go visit Ten Towers once I was done with this bit. 

Honestly, I couldn’t wait to see Lightning Bug again, after that first brief visit. She was a fun kid. 

And hey, at least I didn’t have to worry about any more problems showing up while I was in the middle of one of the strongest compounds in the city and surrounded by Star-Touched and armed soldiers.

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Trust 15-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: The non-canon chapters for December were posted over the weekend and can be found ONLY on Patreon (but you don’t have to be a member to read them). The Heretical Edge chapter can be found right here and the Summus Proelium chapter can be found right here

We got through the lockdown without any problems beyond a couple anxiety attacks in other classrooms, and what I heard was a positively hysterical tantrum from some guy who was pissed off that he was supposed to head to the airport just after lunch in order to head for some special event his family was putting on and now he wouldn’t be able to make it in time. As if his family, who I knew for a fact did business with mine, couldn’t afford to reschedule a flight. He just kept going on about how the fighting was blocks away, the airport was in a totally different direction, just let him leave god damn it, and so on. Somebody recorded it and put it online. 

Selfish tantrums aside, there weren’t any problems. The fighting never came any closer, and we were released from the lockdown within a couple hours. They also cancelled the rest of school, sending us home for the day. Which was fine for me, since it gave me time to swing by the site of the battle for a looksee. Not that I expected to find anything all that helpful, but still. 

First, of course, I had to call Jefferson and let him know that he did not actually have to come pick me up early, despite the school calling him. He didn’t exactly sound broken up about it, given how far outside of his schedule such a reroute would have taken him. Still, he made sure I wasn’t in any distress, using the code phrase to establish that no one was making me call him off. I just let him know that I was hanging out with some friends for awhile and would meet him outside Izzy’s school when it was time to pick her up, since he’d be there anyway. 

Once that was done, I headed for the first private area I could find (an alley between two buildings where a small, dark doorway was cut off from any view) and changed into my costume. Hiding the bag with my clothes and other things, I took to the roofs and began to head for the area where the fighting had been going on. 

The place was still swarming with emergency services, of course. There was a mix of cops, paramedics, firefighters, and even Prev members of Ten Towers and the Seraphs. It was a madhouse, especially when the reporters were added in. The whole battle had mostly been centered around two city blocks, and the authorities had basically that whole area cordoned off. As I landed on a roof at the edge of the territory, a guy dressed in a Ten Towers security uniform (including full SWAT-like armor, helmet, and protective mask) who had been standing up there with a rifle slung over his shoulder and binoculars in one hand turned abruptly, hand moving to the weapon before stopping himself. “Paintball. You’re a bit late.”

There was something vaguely familiar about his voice, but it was muffled by the mask, and the guy was talking a bit quietly, obviously trying not to attract any attention from the rest of the emergency people. His words weren’t exactly scolding, and he tempered even that with, “Good. No reason for you to skip school to be out here. Wait.” Clearly frowning behind the protective cloth covering his face, the man asked, “Shouldn’t you still be in school?” 

Oh, right, that was a thing huh? Technically they thought I was in middle school or something and had no reason whatsoever to think I’d been let out early. Actually, them thinking I was let out early would be a really bad thing, given how much it would narrow things down. Shit. 

Thankfully, I’d learned to think quickly and offered the man a shrug. “Study hall. I just wanted to see what happened. The news said everything was handled, but…” 

“The news got that one right,” the man informed me. “It’s all handled, we’re just cleaning up a few stragglers that tried to hide, and pulling out the injured.” After a brief pause, he added, “Listen, kid, you need to leave this one alone. Anything like this. It’s all well and good that you help people, that’s great. Stop a robbery, nail a mugger, you do you. But this… this is a gangwar. They’re going fu–freaking nuts out there. It’s nothing you want to be close to or involved in. Seriously. Just leave things like this to the people who–who have more experience.” His voice had softened toward the end, as the man quietly insisted, “You don’t deserve to see the kind of stuff that happens down there.” 

Oh, if only he knew. My family allowed this stuff to happen. I did deserve to see it. I deserved to understand what kind of horrible things my parents accepted and even profited off of. I needed to understand exactly how much death and destruction they allowed in the name of their bottom line. Maybe it would help me shove aside some of the conflicted feelings I had.

I didn’t say any of that, of course. Opening up to Izzy had been one of the best experiences of the past couple months, but I wasn’t stupid. Well, not that stupid, anyway. I didn’t know a single thing about this guy, for all that he was trying to sympathize with me and everything. He was just some guy who could’ve worked for my parents directly, for all I knew. 

Instead, I offered the man a nod. “Fighting’s over now anyway, no reason for me to get involved. Unless I can go back in time, and as far as I know, that’s not one of my powers. I’ll ahh, keep you updated if that changes.” 

From the man’s body posture, he knew I was just trying to lighten the mood. Still, he coughed and gestured. “You better take off, kid. I’ve gotta get back to work before one of those fucks manages to sneak out.” 

Giving him a thumbs up, I turned, using a shot of red to pull myself up toward the balcony of another building slightly further away. He watched me go, offering a short salute before turning back to the job of panning the area with his binoculars as my feet left the roof.

Except, just as I was being pulled away by the paint, I heard a song start up. It was a Zenith Renaissance song, the same group that had played at Paige’s birthday party the other day. Except it wasn’t actually Zenith Renaissance playing it. It was a different band doing a live cover of one of their songs, a cover that had been widely panned by basically everyone I knew. 

On its own, that didn’t mean anything. But I knew one person who did like that cover more than the original, one person who had it as his ringtone and always took shit from his friend whenever it went off. 

His friend, my brother. The guy I had just been talking to, whose voice had been familiar, was one of Simon’s friends. He was a Korean-American guy named Kevin. And Kevin definitely wasn’t a member of Ten Towers. As far as I knew, he was still in college. I kind of doubted Ten Towers was so hard-up for new employees that they’d take him when the last thing I’d heard was that he was about to go for his art history major. 

It was him. I knew it was him. Hearing the ringtone had made the familiar bit of his voice click in my head. My brother’s friend Kevin, someone who definitely wasn’t part of Ten Towers, was the guy I’d just been talking to. 

Instantly, as I landed on that balcony, I was already leaping off it. I didn’t jump back the way I’d come, of course. That would’ve been too obvious. Instead, I jumped to the ground, painting myself black with just enough orange to cushion the landing. Even as I hit the cement, I was using another quick red shot to haul myself up to a windowsill just below the roof where I had been talking to Kevin. On the way, I activated the black paint on my costume and used a bit more on the building itself, to land completely silently in that brick windowsill. 

Kevin was still talking on the roof above me, “Yeah, Paintball was here. Naw, man, he didn’t stick around. I told him this stuff was dangerous. Yeah, think he was skipping school. You know those public teachers, they don’t give a shit. Ain’t paid enough to give a shit.” 

There was a long pause before Kevin spoke again. “Yeah, nothing’s going on here. They’ve got it covered. Sure, man. I’ll stick around and keep an eye on things, but it looks like they stuck to the rules. No further than Rowe avenue. They kept it contained.” 

No further than Rowe avenue. That was the street this building was on. So, the gang war did have limits that they stuck to. They were told by my family not to take it past this street, probably because my school was a few blocks away. That just really showed how much control my family had, didn’t it? 

I listened some more, but Kevin didn’t say much. Except toward the end, shortly before signing off. After a long pause where he was clearly listening to Simon, he answered, “When’s that? Wednesday. Yeah, I got it. Eleven-thirty outside the mall. I’ll be there. Yes, yeah, I’ll tell Elvis and Reynard. We’ll deal with it. Can I get the hell out of this uniform already? It’s hot as fuck.” There was a groan, then, “Twenty minutes, fine. Just in case.” 

Elvis and Reynard were both other friends I’d seen around Simon, the latter being the guy back at the mall whose name I had previously thought was Derrick. Apparently all of them worked with the Ministry, which made sense I supposed. And they were all going to meet up Wednesday night at eleven-thirty to do… something. I wasn’t sure what, but the fact that they were meeting near the mall where I knew a Ministry base was… yeah, I was going to have to be there at least to take a look. 

And hey, maybe I’d finally get some idea of how we could break in there. 

*******

I didn’t find out much else useful while hanging out below Kevin. Well, not much aside from the fact that his identity as a member of the Ten Towers security force was secure enough that he could get reports from them and talk to actual Touched, since Skip showed up for a moment to check in on how his lookout was going. I heard her voice abruptly, the girl casually talking to him to find out if he’d seen anything. From the things they said, I had the impression that she didn’t actually know him personally, but had seen him around the Towers headquarters enough to recognize him. Which, again, said a lot about how far Towers had been infiltrated. 

Or maybe they didn’t need to be infiltrated. For all I knew, Caishen was in on the Ministry thing from the very beginning. Or their CEOs, at the very least. That made sense, right? Ten Towers was about protecting their bottom line, about making money. The Ministry helped that happen and controlled just how much crime took place. It would make sense that the top leadership of Ten Towers knew at least some of that situation and signed off on it. With my dad’s work and contacts–yeah. Actually, the Ministry being strongly connected to Ten Towers was a huge possibility. 

Either way, it was eventually clear that I wouldn’t learn anything as Kevin was getting ready to leave. Things had calmed down, there were no more outbreaks of violence, and the only thing left was simply cleaning up. 

So, I took off first, staying quiet and low as I did so. Once I was a few blocks away, I slowed and took a moment to think about what I knew. Kevin was one of my brother’s friends, and they all worked with the Ministry. That made sense. He had obviously been placed to make sure the fighting didn’t move any further than my parents had allowed. So they were controlling how bad it got, at least to an extent. Enough to keep it away from my school, I thought bitterly. But not enough to stop it entirely. 

Yeah, I understood why Blackjack was mad. His daughter had almost suffered a horrific, agonizing death, and both the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro had contributed to that. They tried to stop him from being able to save her life. Of course he was pissed off. But innocent people were being caught in the crossfire here while he pursued this war. People as innocent as his daughter was were going to get hurt and die while he went after his vendetta. 

But what could I do about it? I couldn’t exactly demand a meeting and tell the man to back off, or only fight the battles against his rivals in safe areas. I was pretty sure he had no reason to listen to me, even if I had helped get those vials back. At least, any sort of favor he might’ve owed wouldn’t go that far. 

Damn it, what was I supposed to do? I already had the Ministry base to infiltrate and this Paige thing to figure out. What could I do about a fucking gang war? Blackjack wanted revenge against his enemies for nearly getting his daughter killed. Nothing I could say to the man would dissuade him from that. If nothing else, he clearly wanted to make sure nobody else ever tried to put his daughter in danger. 

Abruptly, my musings were interrupted by a female voice that spoke up casually from nearby. “You seem distracted.” 

It was Skip. Which my brain told me a moment after my heart leapt out of my chest and about half a dozen curses had left my mouth as I jerked sideways and spun toward her. The Ten Towers girl was standing a few yards away, watching me. As always, she wore the blue-black bodysuit under a white short-sleeved robe and hood, with a black mask covering the bottom half of her face while leaving enough of the top half revealed to make it clear that she was Asian. Her eyes were vaguely curious, which said a lot considering how unemotional and impossible to read the girl tended to be. 

“Sorry,” she informed me flatly, “I didn’t mean to startle you. There isn’t really a subtle way of getting someone’s attention in this situation.” 

Shoving back a few instinctive and unfair reactions, I took a breath. “I guess not. What–um, what did you… right, distracted. Yeah, I guess I am, a little. But I never really–I didn’t get a chance to thank you for helping me out before. Not as much as I should’ve.”

Skip said nothing to that, she simply tilted her head as though waiting patiently. Realizing what she was waiting for, I quickly continued with, “So uhh, thanks. Thanks a lot.” 

“You are welcome,” the girl returned in that same eerily calm voice that she never wavered from. “Are we finished with the gratitude ritual now? May we move on?” Again, though her words sounded rude if I just thought about them separately, they didn’t come out that way in her voice. She wasn’t intentionally dismissing my thanks or anything, just as she didn’t intentionally dismiss danger or fear. Talking in that flat, matter-of-fact tone was just… how she was. 

Did that have to do with her powers somehow? I wasn’t sure. Her abilities let her ‘skip’ effects. Was she skipping emotions, like… constantly? Or the effect of emotions, or something? I didn’t think it was that simple, because she clearly still cared about doing the right thing and about helping people. I’d seen videos of the girl with her niece, Lightning Bug. It was clear that she adored the kid, and vice versa. So it was more than just making herself emotionless, right? 

“Yeah, we’re finished,” I confirmed, shoving those thoughts aside. “But if you didn’t come for the gratitude ritual, was there something else? Or did you just wanna say hi? Cuz I am cool with just saying hi.” 

“I saw you leave the secure perimeter,” Skip informed me. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to tell you, Lightning Bug would like you to visit sometime. If you’re not too busy. She’s been watching videos online about you.” 

Flushing a bit at the idea that I had videos online for people to watch, I offered a shrug. “Sure, I can visit. When umm… when’s a good time?” 

“Tonight?” came the suggestion. “Not too late. Her bedtime is eleven o’clock. And we will have a few other guests as well, so you won’t have to feel singled out.”  

“Tonight, not too late,” I confirmed with a thumbs up. “I’ll stop by first chance I get.” 

“Come at seven for dinner.” Skip sounded completely serious with her suggestion, even adding, “We have arrangements to maintain your secret identity while eating.” 

And then she was gone. Just like that. She disappeared. No niceties, nothing like that. She just said the last thing she wanted to say, and vanished, teleporting off to the next thing. 

Shaking that off, I turned back. Right, it was just about time to head back so I could change clothes and meet up with Izzy outside her school. I’d have to tell her about the invitation to see Lightning Bug again. 

On my way to the school, I pondered how hard it would be to swing an invitation for Pack as well. If not this time, then at some other point. Yeah, probably pretty hard, considering she was a villain and a thief and all. I doubted a place like Ten Towers, meant to be security for corporations and businesses, looked kindly on that sort of thing.

But hey, wouldn’t it be fucking awesome to see Pack’s lizards and Lightning Bug’s giant insects in a big wrestling match? 

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