Peyton Favors

Center Of Attention 26-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Giving Murphy and Roald a second to catch their breath, Paige and I turned to Sierra. She offered a shrug. “They did pretty well, all things considered. Kept a couple of those guys off my back.”

“What’s going on upstairs?” I asked tensely while looking around at the fallen figures. Before they could recover too much and cause more problems, I started red-painting their weapons, radios, and equipment belts over to where we were, making a small pile. “Please tell me they have stuff under control by now.” 

Paige shook her head. “We have no idea. Most of the cameras have been destroyed already. The only ones left are outside and a couple in this stairwell here. So we can tell you if anyone’s coming, but that’s about it.”

The answer made me grimace and curse a few times under my breath. Now, what were we supposed to do? Should we just sit tight like we’d been told? What if they sent more people down here to find out what had happened to their friends? Would it be better to wait here and meet them? Well, obviously, yes. We could prepare this area. Better than if we went looking for them. But on the other hand, what if there were people up there being hurt right now? What if people died while we were sitting around down here doing nothing? 

Sierra moved over to the nearest guy, and began to drag him by his ankle while he was still groaning in pain. “Oh shush, you big baby. I didn’t hit you that hard. Just be glad I didn’t get to bring my new taser cane. Then you’d really have something to whine about.” With that, she unceremoniously kicked open the door into the room across from where we had left Banneret with Peyton and Wren, shoving him inside.

Page and I quickly started to help, and soon we had all of them shoved into that room. Sierra shut the door and locked it, leaving those guys in there. It wasn’t perfect, obviously. But it would hold them for a minute. And hopefully we’d hear if they started trying to break out.

“Okay,” I started, “so now we have a whole pile of weapons here, and we’ll know if they start coming down the stairs. But we have no idea what’s going on up there in the rest of the courthouse. We’ve gotta find some way to check on things.” 

“I can help!” That was Wren, coming out of the other room. She bounced up and down a little while, reaching into her pocket before producing a tiny thing that I had to lean closer to see. It looked like a bumblebee made of metal, like some sort of tiny ornament, or something. 

“It’s a drone!” the girl announced proudly, as we all stared. “See?” She touched the top of its head, and the thing floated up in the air. Then she turned her phone around to show us the screen, where we could see our own faces from the view of the drone itself. “It can fly around and show us what’s going on! I was building it to help with security at the shop. Cuz Uncle Fred said we needed more cameras and the ones that just sit there and don’t do anything are boring.” 

“Kid’s got a point,” Sierra agreed. “Bee cam is much more interesting than boring old do-nothing cameras. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to send one of those upstairs to snoop around.”

Nodding slowly, I painted a smiley face on the front of my helmet. “Good job, Trev. Why don’t you send your little buddy up there and we’ll see if the good guys have this under control yet.” 

She did just that, while Peyton stood in the doorway of the other room so she could watch while also keeping an eye on the still-cursing Banneret. Together, we all stared at Wren’s phone while she controlled the bee with it, sending the thing up the stairs. 

“Why isn’t there an elevator to come down here, anyway?” Peyton demanded with her arms folded. “Isn’t that like, the law or something? You’d think a courthouse of all places would have to be accessible to the handicapped.”

“There is an elevator,” Paige informed her. “It’s just hidden over by the western wall that way, near the stairs. You can sort of see the seam where the doors are. I guess they only let certain people use it, or only open it when someone comes in who needs it.” 

“But why is it hidden in the first place?” I pointed out. “What’s the point of hiding an elevator?” 

“Dude, this whole underground place isn’t supposed to be here at all,” Sierra reminded me. “The lawyers who get brought down here have to be blindfolded first so they don’t know where it is, and the entrance is labeled as a supply closet.” 

Right, no wonder Banneret and her people had thought they found a secret exit when they started coming down those stairs. And, actually, they had. I kind of doubted that big metal security door would have stopped them forever. So if we hadn’t been here, they eventually could have gone all the way down the tunnel to that house, where we still had no idea what was going on with Officer Metts and the others. Part of me wanted to pink-paint my way through the vault door and run down that way to check on them, but there wasn’t time. They were probably fine and just locked down this place to stop anyone from escaping that way. Which I would obviously mess up by doing just that. 

Either way, by that point, the bee drone had flown all the way to the top of the stairs, where it found the aforementioned empty ‘supply closet.’ Wren carefully sent it through the open doorway, peeking first one direction, then the next. It was in a very large open corridor somewhere on the ground floor of the courthouse. To the right was the front rotunda with the welcome desk (where no one was sitting at the moment), while the corridor went on to the left past an assortment of doors into various offices. It looked like there was another corridor past the rotunda leading to even more doors, with a sign above the entrance to it listing various courtroom locations. From here, we couldn’t see any signs of people, aside from the fact that several doors had clearly been kicked in, and there were random bits of debris lying around. 

Wait, scratch that, there was a sign of people. Namely, the gunfire. It came from the rotunda area abruptly, making me jump. The sound was followed by a view of three armed guys backing up into frame from where they had apparently been right by the front windows of the building. They were pointing their guns outward, one of them shouting, “Yeah, you want your precious legal eagles to stay alive, keep the fuck back!” 

Okay great, so now we knew they had hostages, and they were using them. No wonder the authorities hadn’t stormed this place yet. But that made our whole situation even more complicated. What were we supposed to do now? Obviously, rushing up there when they could kill innocent people was a bad idea, to say the least. But should we just sit tight and wait like the people outside were apparently doing? I really wished we still had all the cameras so we really knew what was going on everywhere in the building, but at least there was Wren’s little bee drone. We just had to be patient and watch.

Wren asked where she should send the thing next, and I thought about it for a moment while the others looked at me expectantly. Finally, I gestured. “Send it higher up so we can get a better view of everything going on. Then I guess we should check out the court rooms on the far side of the front area. They probably put everyone in one place so it’s easier to keep an eye on them, and one of those places is probably the best for that.”

Murphy sighed. “Why don’t they just make a run for it? They’ve gotta know the longer this goes on, the more screwed they are, you know? It’s not like they’ll actually be able to negotiate their way out of this. What’re they gonna do, demand a fleet of helicopters?”

“That’s what our friends down here were dealing with,” I replied. “They were looking for a secret way out. I’m not sure if they actually knew where the tunnel went or that the cops probably know about it, or even how they had any idea it could be here. But that’s definitely what they were doing.”

Paige nodded. “And they’re probably not the only ones. Believe me, this isn’t the only tunnel this place has, and there’s plenty of rumors about them and where they might be. Some more secret than others.”

By that time, the drone had reached the ceiling and gave us a good view of what turned out to be seven guys spread out in the rotunda. They were staying mostly behind cover and keeping a close eye on whoever was outside. I had no doubt that they had more guys at the other entrances, but this was the main one. All of the men were armed, and clearly had radios on so they could warn everyone else in their little gang. I didn’t see any of the Fell-Touched, but there was no doubt they were somewhere around here. I didn’t believe Banneret would be the only one to come on this rescue mission of theirs. And knowing those guys were around somewhere, but not exactly where they were or what they were up to made me nervous.

Shaking that thought off for the moment, I continued to stare at the screen while the drone flew over all those guys’ heads. Their focus was centered on the front windows, so none of them even thought of looking up, even if that would have helped. Given the size of the drone, they might not have noticed it even then. 

The doors leading into the various court rooms were all closed, aside from one. A man with some sort of automatic rifle slung over his shoulder was standing there playing lookout. So, that was obviously where Wren sent the drone. 

We had to be more careful with this. The man was actually watching the hallway at least part of the time, though he turned to glance inside at what I presumed were the hostages now and then. Considering he didn’t have his eyes on them all the time, I doubted he was the only guard. Not to mention the fact that he occasionally seemed to mumble something under his breath as though talking to somebody nearby. We had to get the drone low enough to make it into the room without actually letting him see it, and without flying directly into the view of whoever he was talking to on the other side.

To that end, Wren carefully made the drone land on top of the doorjamb just over the guy’s head.  From that position, we could see his balding spot, and finally hear what he was saying. Basically, he was annoyed that the others hadn’t checked in yet, and wanted to know how long they were supposed to stand around and wait. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure whether he trusted their new Fell-Touched yet. Apparently Mister Harmful had said something to him that was rude or whatever and he didn’t appreciate it.

After that, we heard another voice, female this time, say that she didn’t care how rude any of them were, because moving to this city was the best thing she’d done. She had some sort of excellent sign-up bonus for agreeing to come here with ‘Gregory,’ whom I was taking to be her son through context. Apparently she’d even been set up with a decent cover job. 

Working extremely carefully, Wren moved the drone to the corner of the doorway and made it peek down. Thankfully, we didn’t have the extremely horrible luck of the woman staring right at the thing. Her back was to the other man as she watched what was very clearly a large group of hostages. The woman had blonde hair that was mostly buzzed. Aside from a ponytail-sized bit on one side that was long enough to fall to her shoulders. She also had a tattoo of something on the back of her neck that I couldn’t really make out but looked like a flower with something in it. Like her partner, she had a gun slung over her shoulder.

As for the hostages, it looked like there were a couple hundred of them, a mix of court employees, disarmed police officers, lawyers, even defendants. They were all sitting down in the audience area of the courtroom.  We couldn’t see the whole area, and everything was upside down from this point of view, making us tilt our heads around to try to make sense of it. Paige and I even managed to slightly bang our heads together in the process, making the other girl flush as she murmured an apology. 

Wren made the bug slip fully into the room, inverted itself, and fly up toward the ceiling once more. Now we could make everything out better, and see that there were a couple more armed thugs spread throughout the room. And perched up in the judge’s seat was Fogwalker. He was probably there so that if any of the hostages tried to make a run for it, he could fill the place in his power and make it impossible for anyone aside from their own people to see what was going on. Which would probably also work if any authorities tried to break in. Before they could actually handle everything, the place would be dark, and any number of the hostages could be killed. Come to think of it, the cops and Stars outside probably knew that. I was pretty sure these guys had made that much clear to them. It made sense that they would want those people to know what a bad idea it was to try to break in here and stop this by force.

Or maybe I was just overthinking it. Either way, we knew where at least these hostages and one of the Fell-Touched were. Now we just had to figure out what to do about that, if anything. We had already dealt with one group that came down here. Was it a good idea to just sit tight now or not?

While I was still trying to decide the best move, a voice came over the radios on both of their hips. I hadn’t heard it much, but still recognized it as Theory. “Has anyone heard from Banneret? She’s not picking up on our channel.”

The rest of us exchanged quick looks before Sierra pivoted and grabbed one of the radios from the pile of equipment on the floor. Holding it up, she spoke in a perfect imitation of Banneret’s voice. “Yeah, well, maybe you should try being on the right channel. It was supposed to be one zero four nine.”

There was a brief pause before the man’s voice came back with a sigh. “No, it was one three one five. How the hell did you get the wrong one?” 

“Whatever, why’re you bothering me right now?” Sierra replied as Banneret once more. “Don’t we all have jobs to do?” 

“Yeah,” came the response, “and I’ve gotta make sure you’re actually doing yours. So, what the hell’s going on down there? Did you find that tunnel or what? Part A of the plan is pointless if we don’t get enough attention with Part B. For that, we need the tunnel. Or we won’t have time for part C.” 

Injecting annoyance into her voice, Sierra retorted, “Yeah, we found it. And the chupapollas blocked it off. They sealed the tunnel with some sorta vault door. We’re working on it.” 

I had no idea what that word she’d said meant, or why she was saying it right now while trying to pose as Banneret. But I also couldn’t ask. Paige, clearly interpreting my body language, put a hand on my shoulder and nodded reassuringly. 

And boy, how much had my life changed when Paige Banners could do anything that reassured me? 

Fortunately, Theory didn’t seem to object or question that particular phrasing. He simply replied, “Hold there, I’ll send a couple down with one of the laser cutters we brought for Part C. They’ll get through it. Looks like the Stars are still regrouping outside, but you know how their type is. They’ll decide to breach sooner or later. I’d rather be onto the next phase by the time that happens.”

I tensed up a bit, but Sierra only hesitated for a second before replying, “Yeah whatever. Give my guys enough time and they’d find a way through this. But sure, if you’re worried about a few Stars, go ahead and send your little toy down here. Or maybe I’ll grab one of those hostages and try using their head as a battering ram.” 

The response was a little chuckle before the man signed off. Meanwhile, on the screen, the two guards in the courtroom were bantering with each other about which lawyer or judge they might send downstairs as a living battering ram if it came down to it. 

“What’s a chupapolla?” Peyton asked. “And how’d you know to say that?” 

“Let’s just say it’s a bad word,” Paige put in. “And we heard her use it twice while we were listening over the security cameras, so it was a safe call. But now they’re sending a couple guys with a big laser down, so what do we do?” 

“We let them bring it, then we take it from them,” I replied slowly, looking toward the stairs once more. “I think we can–” 

“Uh, Paintball!” That was Trevithick, blurting the words out fearfully as she pointed at the screen where the bee drone was still monitoring the courtroom. “Look!” 

We all did, just in time to see one of the hostages, a red-haired guy in a fancy suit, lying on the ground with one of the other Prev bad guys standing over him. The thug was breathing hard, a slight bruise forming under his eye, while the hostage’s nose looked like it was broken. Something had just happened. 

“You think you’re tough, huh?!” The Prev gang member snapped, aiming his gun at the man on the floor. “Cheap-shotting piece of shit, let’s see how tough you are with–” 

“No.” That was Fogwalker, jumping down from the judge’s stand to perch on the nearby railing. “You shoot him, he doesn’t learn anything. Neither does anyone else who wants to be a hero.” He looked around the room, a small smirk seeming to cross his feline face. “No, if you wanna really teach them a lesson, you hurt the ones they care about.” 

With that, he nodded to the blonde woman from before, who reached down and tugged a wallet out of the fallen man’s pocket. Opening it up, she held it out for the TONI to see while flipping through it. Fogwalker almost purred. “Nice pictures? These your kids? Oooh and a wife too. Excellent.” 

The man started to respond, but the blonde woman put a foot on his throat while taking out her radio. Tuning to some other channel, she held the radio out for her boss. The lynx immediately began to speak again. “Amos, Terrence, you guys still cruising out there? Need you to make a quick stop.” His head turned once more to look at the license his subordinate was holding up for him, reading off the address for Amos and Terrence. 

“Head over there right now and kill everyone you find in that house. Then burn it down.”

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Center Of Attention 26-07 (Summus Proelium)

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According to Sierra and Paige, we had a dozen members of the Trendscendents coming our way. Fortunately, almost all of them were the ordinary Prev-type soldiers. There were eleven of those, though heavily-armed and ready for trouble, and only one of the Touched. That was the good news, such as it was. The bad news was that the single Touched who was coming was Banneret, and she had already taken the time to put some boosts on her people. So even though they might not have had any powers of their own, they were still enhanced by hers. Which was just great.

But hey, if she could boost her friends, I could boost mine. Over the next few seconds, I quickly put plenty of paint on everyone as we got ready for what was about to happen.

The other bit of good news was that it didn’t sound like these guys actually knew what they were about to walk into. They were just checking every corner of the building and had found this basement. So they were exploring it. Paige said it seemed like they thought this might be a secret escape tunnel they could use to get out of here without running into any cops or Stars.

Boy were they in for a surprise. 

To get ready for their arrival, I silenced the door just in case before letting Paige go ahead and force it open. That would undoubtedly set off alarms, but I didn’t think anyone cared by that point. We were able to see out through the open doorway toward a room across from us that was probably identical to this one, aside from the fact that that door was already open. 

Oh, and there was one very important thing that hadn’t been here before. Covering the entire width of the corridor just past these rooms, was a heavy steel vault-like door. It was blocking the way down the tunnel toward the safe house we had come in through. 

“Security measure,” Paige noted quietly. “The authorities don’t want anyone getting out that way. Or starting a fight with the people in the house.”

Right, of course they’d have something like that. But could the good guys come in that way? I pondered that before shaking it off for the moment. The point was that there was no one in that other room across the hall from us. At least, there wasn’t anyone in it, until Calvin, Hobbes, and Style darted that way. The three of them crouched down behind the door on that side of the hall. 

What the hell was I doing? Murphy and Roald didn’t even have their Wren-tech guns with them. Fuck, why didn’t I put them in my special bag before we came in here? What was I thinking? That this place was safe and we wouldn’t need them? How stupid was I? And now I was actually going to let them try to fight these guys without those Touched-Tech weapons? This was stupid. Not to mention Wren. She was here too, and involving her seemed practically inexcusable.

And yet, what other choice did we have? There was no way in hell these people would listen if we just told them we weren’t fighting today. We had absolutely already pissed them off plenty at the park when we interrupted their mission. When they saw us here, and they would definitely check the rooms, there would be trouble. We just had to be as ready for that as we could.

But still, I could keep Wren as far out of the fight as possible. Which I did by telling her to stay in the corner of the room out of the way until her moment came. She kept trying to apologize for not having one thing or another ready yet, including more of the bags like I had or some system she was working on to instantly transport weapons and equipment around. Obviously, we all told her not to worry about it. She was already doing more than enough as it was, and she would still have a part to play in this situation. But I was pretty sure she still felt guilty. 

Boy, good thing I didn’t know anything about what that felt like.

After giving Trevithick one last glance to make sure she was safely out of the way and ready to do her thing when the time came, I left Poise and Alloy crouched by the first door and stepped out into the hall. It was about twelve feet wide, with a fifteen foot ceiling. The tunnel we’d come through to get here was fifty feet to my right, past more doors, and the open doorway leading to the stairs the gang members were already stampeding down was thirty feet to the left. 

Judging from the sound of those footsteps and voices, the bad guys were almost here. They would be within view any second. So, I activated black paint to silence myself while running that direction. On the way, I leaned down and trailed my finger along the floor, leaving large blue lettering with yellow outlines, feeding the latter into the former. 

Once I was three-quarters of the way there, I straightened up and used red paint to yank myself up to the ceiling right above the entrance from the stairwell. Thanks to my special boots, I was able to crouch against the wall there indefinitely. Just as our soon-to-be guests were coming around the final turn in the stairs, I covered the floor under me with more blue and yellow paint, making a semicircle shape that time, as though it was an intentional design on the floor. Then I glanced back at the letters I had drawn along the floor on my way. From here, they read ‘Proceed With Caution’ one letter at a time, with the P starting right at the edge of the semicircle I had just made, and the N just in front of the doors where the rest of my team were waiting. 

Then I waited. From here, I couldn’t see the others, just the doors that were slightly open with the darkened rooms beyond to make it look like there was no one down here. For a second, I glanced at the big steel vault door and wondered what was going on with Officer Metts and the others over there. 

Then I didn’t have time to wonder anymore. Because the bad guys were here. The first couple Prev troops came through carefully, weapons raised as they looked around them. But they didn’t look up. Nor did they seem to wonder about the blue and yellow tiles they were walking on. Really, they had this whole thing coming. 

I didn’t hit them right away though. I let them keep coming. One of them called over his shoulder while continuing through, “More office shit! Probably stick the peons down here to do research or something for the judges.” Belatedly, he added, “But there’s a vault door here too! Think we found that tunnel!” That set off a chorus of cheers amongst the others in the group, and I heard a few mutters about winning some sort of bet with some other group as more of them continued on through the doorway and began to move down that hall toward the door to check it out. 

Through all that, I waited as patiently as possible. I couldn’t make a move yet. The last thing I wanted to do was go too soon and end up with half these guys still in the stairwell where they could use the doorway for cover and start shooting. I had to wait until they all came through, even if it was incredibly nerve racking to just crouch here and hope no one thought to look up. 

Nine people were through, ten, a few had moved to the sides, off the area I had painted to check the corners of the room. Hell, they were so close to seeing me out of the corner of their eyes, but their focus was on the walls themselves, searching for, I supposed, any cops hiding within the completely open and clearly empty space there. 

Okay, to be fair, that wasn’t completely impossible with Touched-Tech and stuff. But still, you’d think they would–

“Oh shit!” 

Ah, there it was. One of the men who stepped over toward the corner of the hall had turned back to say something to his buddies, which gave him a clear view of me, crouched above them. His hand was already rising to point, which was better than if he had lifted the gun in his other hand. But either way, the time for waiting was over. 

By that point, all eleven of the Prev troops had come fully into the hall, with four of them already off the paint I had put down. The other seven were still at least partway on one of the letters or the semicircle. Including Banneret, who had just stepped through. Her head snapped straight up to look at me, following the line of sight of her minion. 

“Hi!” I called cheerfully, waving that way even as all those guns immediately started to swing up toward me. In that instant, I activated the paint. Instantly, those seven guys plus Banneret were launched off the floor. Only, of course, they were launched slowly. It kept them in the air longer while also slowing their movements down to about half speed right as they were trying to bring their weapons in line with me.  

Unfortunately, that left a couple problems. First, the guys who weren’t on the paint obviously weren’t affected at all. And second, there was Banneret. Oh sure, she was slowly rising through the air, right toward me, actually. But she also had about a dozen guns floating around her, and those were all suddenly pointed my way just as they opened fire. 

Or at least, they were pointed where I had been a second earlier. I’d already activated green paint on my shoes, catapulting myself off the wall and away from the incoming bullets. On the way, I managed to blurt, “Lemme guess, you’re having trouble with this escape room too!” 

While still flying down the corridor thanks to that paint, I pointed back the way I’d come with both hands, sending a shot of red from one and a shot of purple from the other. Both hit Banneret. Flipping over, I landed on the floor near the vault door, skidding backwards a bit on the tile from my momentum. At the same time, I held my hand up, revealing the purple-red combination paint on my glove as I activated both that and the same mix I’d hit Banneret with. She had still been floating, but now she was immediately yanked toward me. The purple boosted the strength of the red’s pull, yanking her straight toward me until I canceled both that and the yellow-blue effect, allowing her to drop just a few feet away from me. 

She probably would’ve liked to lunge at me right then. But the second her feet touched the floor, two things happened. Or rather, two doors opened, the ones on either side of her, where the others were. Alloy and Poise came out of the left door, facing the still-recovering Banneret. Meanwhile, Calvin, Hobbes, and Style came through the other door. But they didn’t turn our way. Instead, they immediately pivoted to head back down the corridor toward where I had left the rest of those guys. The second I laid eyes on those three, I activated the orange, purple, and green paints I had given them. 

As soon as they had taken just a couple steps that way, Alloy made her white, gold, and black marbles combine together into a literal wall. It wasn’t very thick, but it covered the entire space from floor to ceiling and out to either wall. The silver marble transformed into a large hammer and hovered there in front of her, while she continued to use the purple and bronze marbles as her suit (it made her look like a ninja, with purple as the base and bronze padding). 

Poise, right beside her, had produced two knives from somewhere and had one held out the normal way while the other was backwards. Both were raised and ready for any move the Fell-Touched woman made. 

And just like that, we had cut her off from basically all of her resources and aid. The guns she had put under her control and her minions were both back on the other side of the wall, where she couldn’t see to direct them, and they couldn’t get through to help her. That was the whole point of this plan: ambush them before they knew what was happening, then drag the main threat and force multiplier down here, separating her from everyone she had empowered and the weapons she was controlling.

This was the major reason I felt so guilty about the Murphy and Roald situation. They barely had any training and no special guns, and I was sending them into the other side of the hall with a bunch of armed and pissed off bad guys, who were going to be rather intent on going through them and finding a way past this wall. The biggest advantage they had was Style, who was almost certainly enough of a badass to handle ordinary guys. But those weren’t ordinary guys, they had been boosted by Banneret and we didn’t know if she needed line of sight to keep those boosts active once they were placed. 

I just had to hope that between Style and the boosts I had given my people, the trio could deal with those guys for a bit. Banneret was the one we really had to deal with, and right now while she was cut off like this was our best (possibly only) chance. 

All of that, and my associated doubts had been playing through my mind ever since we came up with the plan. But now we were in the thick of it, and I shoved them down hard while addressing the woman right in front of me. “Yeah see, like I said, we’ve been trying to beat this escape room for practically the full hour now, but the puzzles are ridiculous. I swear, you practically need a law degree to figure this place out.” My voice adopted an even more cheerful tone. “You wanna team up?” 

Apparently, the answer was no, because the woman extended her arms to either side, pointing toward Paige and Peyton with one and me with the other. A very slight humming sound was the only other warning we had before a pair of concussive blasts, like the ones from the bracelets and guns that Theory and Praxis used, shot out. 

Thankfully, we didn’t need much of a warning. Honestly, at this point, if an obvious bad guy like that pointed at you, it was probably a good idea to hit the dirt just in case. Who knew what sort of power or tech they had? 

In my case, I used renewed blue paint on my shoes to launch myself upward toward the ceiling so the blast could pass by underneath me. Paige and Peyton, meanwhile, dove to either side and let it go between them. It hit the marble wall, which held, fortunately. But we couldn’t let her do too much of that or we’d risk losing the biggest advantage we’d been able to set up with this ambush. 

Even as I bounced off the ceiling, I was sending two shots of paint toward the woman. One was red, which I used to pull myself toward her, while the other was yellow to slow her down so she couldn’t easily grab me and use her power to make me slower or weaker or whatever. There was an advantage to being able to debuff from a range. Inverting in the air, I managed to slam both feet into her shoulders, knocking the woman over to land hard on her back. Going down with her, I rolled over Banneret’s head. Her hands grasped for me, but the yellow paint slowed her down just enough that I was able to get out of her reach. 

Meanwhile, Poise took advantage of the woman’s extended hands as she tried to grab me, throwing those two knives with expert precision. Each cut through something on Banneret’s armored wrists, sending a spray of sparks out. The weapons she had just used to send those concussive blasts at us. She wouldn’t be doing that again any time soon. 

While she was still reacting to that (which involved sputtered cursing), Alloy sent her remaining marble, the silver one, flying that way in its hammer form. The woman flinched just slightly, but Peyton wasn’t hitting her with it. Instead, the marble transformed into a pair of shackles, attaching themselves to Banneret’s wrists while her arms were still extended over her head as she lay on her back from me knocking her over. 

As soon as her wrists were secured, the marble-shackles hoisted her up. At the same time, Poise grabbed her feet. Then she and the marble worked together to quickly carry the struggling, cursing, wildly threatening woman straight through the open doorway into the room where we had been having our whole meeting not so long ago. 

Trevithick was there waiting. The second the other two got Banneret into the room, she ran up with her flightpack held in both hands. The marble-shackles hoisted the woman upright while Poise released her legs. But before she could get her feet under herself and react properly, Wren stuck the pack up against her back. It latched on immediately, the wings extending to fly her up halfway to the ceiling. 

And now she was stuck like that. The flightpack kept her off the floor so she couldn’t get any leverage or go anywhere because it would only listen to Wren’s orders. And the silver marble in its shackles form kept the woman’s hands extended outward so she couldn’t reach around to touch the flightpack and control it. 

We’d done it. The crazy plan worked. We had separated Banneret from her troops and put her in a position where she couldn’t use her power on anything. Now we just had to hope the others had–

Oh shit, the others! All of us had the same thought, exchanging glances. “Watch her!” I shouted toward Wren and Alloy. Sure, we believed she was safe now, but we weren’t taking stupid chances. They would keep an eye on the woman. Meanwhile, Poise and I sprinted out of the room and raced for the marble wall, which split apart so we could pass through as Alloy poked her head out to watch us go. 

The two of us made it to the other end of the hall just in time to see Style hurl what appeared to be the last of the Prev troops into the wall hard enough to make him bounce off it and fall to the floor with a groan of pain. Nor was he the only one making that sound. All eleven of them were lying in various states of ‘I have no desire to do anything aside from lay here and contemplate my life choices.’ 

Calvin and Hobbes were down too, but not in pain. They both just seemed exhausted, lying side by side on their backs where they had apparently slumped down to breathe hard. When they saw us arrive, both looked up, Murphy speaking through several long, deep breaths. “So… are… we winning?

“And if so… can we call for a five minute timeout?” 

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Center Of Attention 26-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a non-canon for this story (sort of, it’s a pretty big crossover with the setting of Heretical Edge) posted a few days ago right here

When we got to the neighborhood near the courthouse, I showed the others where the right building was. According to Paige, several of the other nearby houses and buildings were either empty, or used as anonymous safe houses, homes for people with the authority to know about this place, that sort of thing. And they had cops whose job it was to ensure no one was lurking around for too long. As well as a few other measures, all of which was meant to make it even harder for anyone to notice the Touched who went in and out of the place. 

I was pretty sure that also meant the small camera above the door was unnecessary, given how many other people we undoubtedly had watching us the entire time we were in the neighborhood. But it was probably mostly for show. Or to give the person at the door somewhere to look when whoever was inside spoke to them over the intercom if they didn’t open it immediately. 

Either way, I showed everyone how to get to the building, then reached out and knocked. “Okay everybody, wave and try not to look like Fell-Touched impersonators.” I informed them before raising my hand to do just that for the camera. I even painted a big smiley face on my helmet. There was a slight pause before the door opened, revealing my old friend, Officer Metts, the guy I’d met the first time I came here to drop off the detainment paperwork for that whole Ashton situation. Upon seeing me, the man raised an eyebrow. “My, you’ve been busy, haven’t you?” 

“Yeah well,” I replied, “I figured out there’s less work to do when I have more people to help.”

“Not to mention more targets for the enemies to shoot at,” Style put in. She casually evaded my attempt to step on her foot while adding, “I’m surprised he doesn’t make us wear bullseye costumes, really.” 

Trevithick, wearing that costume consisting of the black bodysuit, bright pink armored panels over the chest, arms, and legs, and a matching black helmet with pink visor, bounced up and down excitedly. “I could make matching costumes like that!” Her voice made it decidedly unclear if she was kidding or not.

Flushing a bit behind the helmet and mask, I shook my head, “Uh, thanks, I think we’ll find another way to show team unity.” To Style, I added, “And sure, because I definitely don’t make a big enough target of myself as it is. That’s me, always keeping my head down and avoiding any trouble.”

Snorting at us, Officer Metts gestured. “Okay, I still need your leader here to demonstrate his power so we can prove it’s really him. Then he takes responsibility for the rest of you being who you say you are. It’s faster than making all of you demonstrate, and I’m pretty sure you aren’t all Touched anyway.” He added that last bit slyly, clearly curious if we’d confirm or deny anything. 

Of course, we did nothing of the sort. I demonstrated my power, and Alloy showed off her transforming marbles as well just to add to the evidence. The officer accepted that and stepped aside so we could go in. Soon, we were led through the building and down the stairs to the tunnel. Officer Metts waved and then headed back upstairs while we went through the tunnel to meet the guy at the other end, who let us into the basement of the courthouse.

From there, we sat in a few different rooms, being moved around into different combinations as well as sitting by ourselves now and then, all while giving depositions about everything that had happened throughout the past little while. We had already planned out exactly how to talk about that stuff, as well as what we weren’t going to talk about. I knew it was incredibly unlikely that they would suddenly start asking about the Ministry or the Breakwater situation. The idea that my parents would ambush us with something like that wasn’t completely impossible, however, so we had practiced what to do if anything like that happened. The only person I was maybe a little worried about was Wren, just because she was so young. I’d already told her what to do if they pushed her too hard while she was by herself. She was just supposed to shut down and tell them that she wanted Poise or me to be with her. She had that right. Technically we all had the right to leave or refuse to answer whenever we wanted. But as an obvious child, they were on even stricter rules with her. As a Touched involved in this sort of thing, she could voluntarily come in and discuss these things. But the moment she said she didn’t want to talk about it anymore, or that she wanted one of her older teammates to be there, they had to acquiesce. 

But nothing like that happened. The whole thing went pretty smoothly, aside from a couple defense lawyers who pressed us on a few different points. They didn’t really seem to get anywhere, however, and it was all done before long. I had the impression that most of the people involved were just going through the motions and wanted to get done with it as soon as possible. They also kept checking their phones as well as whispering to one another in the hallways. I heard Flea and Trivial’s names come up a couple times, so it was obvious what they were distracted by. There didn’t seem to be any news yet. They, like the rest of us, were simply hanging on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what happened. 

Everything seemed completely fine to me, even somewhat boring, really. Until we started to leave the main conference room. After the last bit of testimony, there was a sudden, sharp, chiming sound that made me jump. The armed bailiff guy held up a hand and asked us to wait a minute, adding that something was going on in the courthouse. Then he escorted the two lawyers, stenographer, and judge out into the hall. The door shut behind them, and we all looked at one another as the alarm went quiet. Obviously, I had the sudden, somewhat paranoid thought that this was some sort of trick. Maybe my parents really were trying something after all. This did seem a little bit obvious, but honestly, it wouldn’t be that hard. The only people we knew had heard that alarm besides ourselves were two lawyers and a few court people. It wouldn’t have been hard for the Ministry to have those few people in their pockets.

Still, I didn’t actually think it was them. It didn’t seem right. But I didn’t say anything. At least not until Paige and Sierra both turned back to us and nodded. “We’re good,” Paige announced. “The security system here is just going to think we’re standing around talking about what that alarm could be.” 

“It’s not the cheapest system in the world,” Sierra added idly. “I mean, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get through it on my own with the primitive-ass hardware my new orb is made of.” 

Rolling her eyes, Paige put in, “Oh stop complaining. It’s not that far behind. You’re more advanced than any of Dad’s other work. It’s pretty obvious that body was one of the last things he put together. Besides, I’m sure Trevithick could–” 

“Nuh uh.” That was Wren, head shaking rapidly. “I’m not gonna mess with those things until you guys find an intact one, or like, several so I can mess around with them without, uh, you know…” She shifted uncomfortably. “Without breaking you. I want some orbs I can play with and take apart so I can see how they work.” 

“Thanks, kid,” Sierra replied while giving her a thumbs up. “Glad to hear you don’t wanna break me. If we can find some more of dear old Dad’s toys for you to tinker with, maybe we’ll see if you can make any improvements.” 

Wincing a bit, I raised a hand. “I know you guys say it’s safe and all that, but can we just not talk about any of that stuff while we’re in this place, please? Now what’s going on out there?” 

Murphy, standing near the door, offered a shrug. “I can’t hear a damn thing out there. Pretty sure they made this place soundproof on purpose. Probably every room down here, just so they can gossip in the hall and not let the rest of us hear any of it. Assholes.” 

Paige shook her head, focusing on me as she explained, “It looks like there’s some sort of attack going on in the courthouse. Some of those guys you helped catch at the park the other day, they’re here for arraignments and their gang showed up to rescue them.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Wait, you mean like, Janus and the rest of that group? Wait, what the hell does that gang call themselves anyway? I forgot to ask when we were all punching each other in the face.” 

“Trendscendents.” That was Roald, actually. He shrugged when we looked that way. “You know, like transcendence and trend put together. I was, um, you know, curious after all that. They were called the Trendscendents in their old city and I guess they kept the name after moving here.” 

“That is a stupid fucking name,” Sierra noted. “But fine, whatever. The Trendscendents are attacking the courthouse to save the rest of their people. And yeah, that means the Touched people too, if you’re that eager for round two.” 

“I don’t think it matters how eager I am,” I pointed out while gesturing to the door. “Something tells me that thing isn’t exactly gonna be easy to open if we tried. And if the court house is under attack, they probably wouldn’t react that well to us breaking out of here, even if we’re trying to help.” 

Peyton started to say something, but Paige interrupted. “That bailiff is coming back, maybe he’ll ask for help.” 

Sure enough, after another second or two, the door opened and the uniformed guy stepped in. “Ah, apologies, we’re having a bit of a situation in the courthouse.” 

“We–” Catching myself before I would have given too much away, I amended what I had been about to say. “We can help get people out if there’s a fire or something.” 

Wren caught on immediately and piped up, “Yeah, we’re really good at saving people like that! I mean, theoretically, you know? Fires, floods, gas leaks, or if there’s some old guy who won’t shut up and thinks everyone wants to hear his opinion about something that doesn’t actually affect him. Those guys are the worst.”

As I was giving the younger girl a look for that odd, seemingly rehearsed statement, Murphy and Sierra both snickered a little behind me. Oh, of course it was them. When had they planned that

The man paused briefly before shaking his head. “I don’t wanna just leave you in the dark. It’s not a fire, or a flood, or… anything like that. There’s some people attacking the courthouse. And yeah, I’m sure you’d love to help. But it’s against protocol. Y’all need to stay here and wait. We’ve got plenty of help already as it is, with more on the way. There’s just… security measures to keep in mind.” He visibly grimaced. “Might not be what you wanna hear, but it’s the rules. You stay in this place and wait for the all-clear. I’ll come back and check on ya soon enough.” 

Before any of us could say anything, he offered another apology and stepped out, pushing the door closed behind him. It wasn’t surprising, obviously, but still. The idea that there were bad guys right upstairs in the rest of the courthouse and we were just supposed to sit here and wait was… uncomfortable, to say the least. Especially when those bad guys were the very people we had all just helped fight a few days earlier. 

“Can you see what’s going on up there?” I quickly asked Paige as soon as she gave the signal that they had once again stopped the security system from observing and recording us. “How bad is it?” I was really hoping that this whole thing was already all-but over and that the bad guys would be handled without anyone else getting hurt. I didn’t actually believe that was possible, but I still hoped. 

Unsurprisingly, however, Paige shook her head. “We don’t have the full picture. They keep destroying the cameras up there or just blocking them. But from what I can see, it’s nowhere near being under control yet.” 

“That’s for sure,” Sierra added. “I mean don’t get me wrong, looks like they’ve got some solid Touched-Tech defenses up there, but things are still pretty wild. If you were seeing what we’re seeing, uhh, well you’d probably want to find a way out of this room to get up there even more than you already do.” 

“They had to know this was a possibility, right?” That was Peyton. “I mean, the courthouse has to be one of the biggest targets every day, let alone when they’ve got a bunch of gang members here who just got picked up a couple days ago. You’d think they’d have extra security. Like, some big guns just to make sure everything went smoothly. Unless they–wait this is the Ministry again, isn’t it?”

Everyone looked at me, and I grimaced behind my costume. I still didn’t want to talk about this stuff here. But Paige insisted it was safe. They couldn’t overhear us on the security system. Which, to be fair, if she had been wrong about that, we all would’ve been fucked back when she and Amber took me down into that special room in the school’s basement to train. If Paige said she had control of the system and no one could use it to spy on us, I had to take her word for it. Even if it did make me incredibly uncomfortable. And I still wasn’t going to say anything that could potentially give away my identity. 

All of that ran through my head before I nodded. “You’re probably right. I mean, they did make a deal with this gang to help them with that Inessa situation. Setting up a scenario where they could break out the ones who got captured doing that is… probably fair, as far as they’re concerned.”

Even as I said that, I was straining to listen, trying to hear some evidence of what was apparently an intense fight going on. But Murphy was right, we couldn’t pick up anything beyond the door. They had gone through a lot of trouble to make this place soundproof. Honestly, a big part of that was probably for the opposite reason. They didn’t want people in the hall to be able to hear depositions being given by people with secret identities. Then again, there were multiple rooms like this, so maybe it was just as much about making sure people in one of them couldn’t overhear what was being said in one of the others. 

Whatever the reasoning, it did its job, and we were stuck here waiting in silence. Well, most of us were. Paige and Sierra could keep track of what was going on, and for a moment I envied them. Then I thought about the father they had to deal with and decided I didn’t envy them anymore. My own family situation was weird and complicated enough, but at least I knew my parents loved me. 

None of that mattered right now, however. What mattered was dealing with what was happening upstairs. According to our resident two Biolems, every Touched member of that gang (the… Trendscendents) was here. They were all fighting up there while we just sat here. Damn it, why couldn’t that bailiff just let us out so we could help? Protocol or not, damn that, and damn the rules, we could be in there, helping to make sure those guys didn’t escape. After all, we were a big part of the reason they had been arrested in the first place. Yes, yes, we weren’t cleared through their security measures and could end up being targeted by them too. Logically, I knew all that. But it didn’t help me feel any less anxious and annoyed about this whole thing.

Pushing all that out of my mind, with some effort, I focused on what we could affect right now. Namely, planning what to do if that fight made it all the way down here. Rules or not, if those guys came to this room and picked a fight, we were going to show them one. Unfortunately, I couldn’t decide if I actually wanted that to happen so I’d have an excuse to get involved or not. 

So, we talked quickly about what the Touched on their side were capable of, how their Prev troops seemed to act the other day at the park, and how we could possibly counter them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot to say on that point. We hadn’t had time to create any big new strategies or countermeasures. Give Wren equipment, tools, and time, and I was sure she could come up with something good. But it had only been a couple days since we first found out half these people existed. We needed more time to put something real together. At the very least, however, we could talk it out a bit. Besides, it gave us something to focus on besides just waiting for Paige and Sierra to tell us whether the situation was resolved or if we had trouble coming our way. 

In the midst of that, however, Sierra cocked her head to the side. “Well that’s odd,” she murmured. “Isn’t it?” 

Paige frowned. “Yeah, definitely weird.” 

“What?” Murphy blurted. “What’s so weird? Is Janus wearing a tutu? Please tell me Janus is wearing a tutu. Are wearing? I’m not sure what the right word would be. But tell me a tutu is involved.” 

“Please stop saying tutu,” I pleaded before focusing on the Biolem girls. “But she’s right, what’s happening?” 

The two of them glanced at one another before Paige answered. “The Trendscendents aren’t the only Fell-Touched here right now. We only caught a glimpse of them before they broke the camera, but it looks like Pack and Broadway are here too, with a couple others I didn’t recognize. Just kids in ski masks. Whatever they’re doing here, they were headed for one of the archive rooms, with the paper files.” 

That news made me blink in confusion. “Wait, what’re they doing–” 

As I was in the midst of questioning that, the lights in the room went out. We were plunged into darkness. Just as Sierra put in, “Uh, I don’t know how to tell you guys this, but we’ve got bad guys coming our way after all. 

“Things are about to get pretty violent.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Over the next couple of days, people got louder and more insistent about wanting to see Flea and Trivial come back from Breakwater. Not just people in Detroit, but all over. The story about two Touched going onto that island to save a missing woman had worldwide attention. Not only did the mayor of Detroit and governor of Michigan put out public statements urging their safe and timely return, but the president of the whole United States did too. That congressional inquiry was proceeding along, with several representatives on multiple sides of the political spectrum giving soundbites about it. So did my father, both as himself and as Silversmith. It was a whole thing. Flea and Trivial were both made out to be a couple of the biggest heroes around. The news played various clips from across both of their careers, including Flea as one of the first Minority members way back when the whole Touched situation was just getting off the ground.

Needless to say, the more this went on and the bigger it became, the more nervous I was about it potentially blowing up in our faces. We had known it would be a big deal. That was the whole point after all, we had to make it loud and public enough that the people behind Breakwater couldn’t just sweep it under the rug and ignore it. But this was even more than I had expected. If anyone found out we were the ones responsible for it, I didn’t know what would happen. 

Breakwater, of course, had already officially acknowledged that the two were there and that they had safely recovered the missing civilian woman (who would remain ‘anonymous’) from the island. According to those people, the three were simply being examined to make certain they were safe. As public voices grew louder about wanting to see them back where they belonged, Breakwater put out another statement basically saying they would be on the next available plane and would touch down here in Detroit on Friday afternoon. Then they would be able to answer questions and show everyone they were safe.

At the moment, it was Thursday, two full days after Peyton and I had done that whole thing with the homeless camp. The past couple days had been spent mostly helping to keep Paige and Sierra from totally losing their minds while we all waited. There had been a couple more calls from their dad, but we ignored them. None of us wanted to deal with him right now. 

A lot of the job of distracting them came down to training. Not just with my new paint combinations, but all of us doing more to learn how to protect ourselves. The two of them really threw themselves into that whole thing, making us spend hours every day getting our butts kicked and stretching our muscles both in virtual reality and in real life. They insisted that it was more important to train and to be ready than it was to be out on the street right at that moment. Sierra in particular took great pleasure in describing all the ways she could think of that we could end up hurt or crippled. Paige, on the other hand, took the tack of explaining just how bad we would feel if we went out to help people and ended up making things worse. So, for those couple days, we mostly stayed inside and worked on that whole training thing. Though we did keep an eye on local social media in case something big happened. But, for the most part, the city was quiet through those days. It was like all the gangs were collectively taking a breath and evaluating their next moves. 

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, we had something other than training planned. It was time for me to take my whole team in to do the court deposition things. I had called ahead to set up an appointment for that, so they knew we were coming. Obviously, I was nervous about how that would go. Not that I expected anything bad to happen, and yet. We would all be in the underground court place giving our depositions and talking to the lawyers for all the people we had fought against. I had no idea how that was going to go. Especially considering I had only done it myself once before. If the lawyers pushed Murphy or Sierra too much about one thing or another, I had no idea how they would react. Murphy in particular was still getting through her emotions about her brother’s death, and I really could not imagine how she would react if any lawyer for one of Luciano’s thugs pressured her on what had happened with them. It probably wouldn’t be pretty, that was for sure. I had warned her that the subject might come up, but still.

But all of that would be settled later. At the moment, I was still in school. It was right before my last class of the day, and I was exchanging books from my bag to the locker. As I grabbed the last book I needed from the shelf, a voice spoke up behind me. “Cassidy Evans?” 

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a familiar Asian face, though one I hadn’t expected to see around this place. “Maki?” Turning fully, I blinked that way and closed my locker with one foot. “What’re you doing here? I mean, not that you’re not allowed to be here, I just–I thought you were homeschooled or whatever.” Okay, I really had to stop talking right then, or I might just accidentally blurt out something about them changing sexes randomly and that would be hard to explain knowing about. Even if I was incredibly curious about how that worked. 

Maki, for their part, offered an easy smile. “Oh, I am. My parents rather insist on it, particularly given how much we move around. But there are certain subjects even they are not as versed in as they wish to be, so I tend to come to one school or another for extra tutoring during a teacher’s free hour. They are compensated quite well for it. Which I would normally say the teachers compensate for their criminally low regular pay, but from what Tomas says, this school is an exception to that rule.” 

Coughing slightly, I nodded. “Yeah, we’re a private academy so the teachers are pretty, ahhhh, well-compensated already, I guess.” I ignored the fact that my parents were one of the biggest reasons for that, along with my own question of how many of the staff around here were spying for them in one way or another. It was a bad idea to get into that line of thought around anyone, let alone a near-stranger whom I knew had some sort of Touched powers that I didn’t understand. 

Granted, it was unlikely that ‘shapeshifting sex and maybe possibly making things taste really good’ would translate into being able to magically know what I was thinking about, but I was pretty sure weirder things had happened. And I still had no idea how those two things worked together. 

Yeah, this whole situation and things like it would sure be a hell of a lot easier if I could just come out and ask people what I wanted to know. Come to think of it, that would solve a lot of my issues. Granted, it would almost certainly create even more, but it was still somewhat tempting. 

If they noticed anything weird about my expression, Maki didn’t comment on it. Instead, they replied, “They do seem happier here than in other schools I have seen.” They give me a curious look then. “Do you mind if I ask you a rather personal question? You are free to simply tell me that it’s none of my business if you don’t wish to answer.” 

“I uhh, sure, go ahead.” Shrugging, I added, “I’ll do my best, but no promises that any answer I give will actually be worth anything. You know, even if I do feel comfortable with it.”

Giving a nod of acceptance of that, they asked, “I know that the only reason you and Tomas broke up was his move back to England. But do you still have feelings for him? I mean, feelings you wish to pursue, if I was not in the picture.” 

Ohhhh boy. Couldn’t they just ask me if I knew anything about this big criminal organization known as the Ministry, or if I had ever seen these biological robot things around, or something easier to get into like that? This was so much harder to think about than those things. 

Blanching when they saw the expression on my face, Maki quickly held up a hand. “Don’t worry, forget about it. You don’t have to answer. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot or cause any problems. Pretend I didn’t say anything, it’s–” 

“No, it’s okay,” I interrupted before glancing around. Not for the first time, I was glad my school wasn’t exactly super-crowded. Even though we were between classes right now, there weren’t too many people near enough to overhear this whole personal conversation. “Believe me, I get why you were asking. I do. I’d probably wonder about it too if I was in your situation. I just–” Taking a deep breath, I pushed on. “If he hadn’t moved, I think we’d still be together. I like him a lot. He’s fun and talented, and all those things you already know. But he did move. And because he was gone, we broke up. Now he’s with you. And I know he likes you. You two are together, that’s what matters. Not what it is. He’s with you, and I’m happy for both of you. Trust me, I just…” A sigh escaped me. “I don’t really have time for that sort of thing right now anyway.” 

“You don’t?” Maki blinked. “Your friend, ah, San Francisco, he made me believe that you were actively looking for someone to go out with.” 

“He did wh–” Catching myself, I felt my face flush a bit. “Yeah well, San tends to read into things that aren’t there. And he has a bit of a one track mind sometimes. Trust me, I’ve got plenty of stuff to keep me busy. You know, schoolwork and… just trying to stay on top of things.” It was a lame response, I knew immediately. But what was I supposed to do, tell them most of my free time went into either being a Star-Touched or training to become a better one? 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head, I forced myself to continue. “And I’m definitely not looking to get back with Tomas, I swear. You guys are cool together.” 

Maki started to say something else, but the bell rang. They looked up before turning their attention back to me. “Thank you, Miss–I mean Cassidy. I am very sorry for putting you on the spot. I just thought it was best to be open about these things.” 

“Oh no, sure, yeah, no problem.” Realizing I was babbling, I flushed a bit before stepping away from the locker. “I get it. And hey, good luck with your whole tutoring thing. I’m sure you’ll be perfect at it.” 

I turned to head to my own class then, but not before seeing the weird way Maki’s head snapped around to stare at me in what looked like disbelief and uncertainty. 

Was it something I said? 

******

“This is bullshit!” Those words were accompanied by a loud bang as Sierra punched the wall upstairs in Wren’s lab. She was dressed in a pair of long black slacks and a purple silk shirt with a black tie, her dyed blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Even then, and with her having sunglasses on as well, I could still see the deep similarities between us. But I had no idea if that was just because I already knew we were physically identical. Nor did I know if that was really what I looked like when I was exasperated and angry. 

“Friday?” she continued. “If they already got them off that stupid island, why would it really take them until Friday to send them back here? It doesn’t take that long to get a plane over there. especially not with the sort of pressure they’re under. Official, government-level pressure.” Her expression tightened, as she took the sunglasses off and tucked them into the front pocket of the shirt. “They’re up to something, I just know it.” Her voice was dangerous, making it clear just how much she wanted to show her displeasure about the delay to the people responsible for it. 

Before responding to that, I glanced around. The others were all up here too, as we got ready to go deal with that court thing. Everyone was standing around, looking anxious. Understandable, really. Even if we didn’t have the depositions to do, there was the obvious Breakwater situation. Everyone else might not be as open about their feelings on the subject as Sierra was, but we were all feeling the pressure from the delay. Still, I was trying to remain optimistic. If nothing else, the others really needed me to. 

So, I took a breath before starting with, “Yeah, it’s possible they’re up to something. I wouldn’t really put it past them to be doing everything they can to cover their butts. But honestly, they already acknowledged that Flea and Trivial were there, and they claimed that they got them off the island. If those two disappear now, it’ll be a lot worse for Breakwater’s people. They already have all the attention on them. In the long run, it’s best if those two just show up back here in Detroit following the same story we gave them. That’s probably what they’re spending these couple days on, making sure they’re on the same page and that they’ll stick to the story. I mean, besides the whole medical evaluation thing, which they probably really are doing too. I mean, that’s an exotic island full of super villains who could be doing anything. It’s not really surprising that they’d need to go through a whole evaluation period.” 

Paige spoke up with clearly forced calmness, though I could hear the tension behind her voice too. “They’re probably also scouring the info we sent in, trying to figure out if it was someone in their own ranks who exposed the situation.”

Oh right, that made sense. I hadn’t even really thought about it that way, but yeah. Of course Breakwater would think it was one of their own people who had sent that information out, rather than it actually having come from here in Detroit. After all, their own people would be the ones who knew that Flea and Trivial were on the island. They probably thought that whoever it was had a soft heart or something and had simply made it look like the information came from here. It did make more sense from their perspective for it to be one of their own people. It was a thought that made me wince a little bit at the idea of what the employees there were probably going through as their bosses struggled to identify the leaker. 

“That’s probably part of the reason for the delay too,” Roald put in while raising his hand. “Maybe they want to see if they can figure out who was responsible for exposing the situation before they actually send them home.”  

Murphy snorted. “In that case, it’s gonna be a pretty long time before we see them.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the girl visibly blanched and focused on Paige and Sierra. “I mean, shit, sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like–I mean… sorry.” 

Wren quickly piped up from where she was busy using her wrench on some big metal box-like thing she had been working on. “They’ll be home soon, I know they will. And they’ll bring your sister with! But uhh…” She looked up, pulling the goggles off her face to stare at Sierra in particular. “What’re you gonna tell her about… you?” 

“Hey, that’s a good question,” Peyton agreed. She popped up next to Wren, holding the box of tools the other girl kept asking for items from. “How are you gonna introduce yourself to her? Or explain any of–you know.” She gestured back and forth between the other girl and me. 

Sierra hesitated before shaking her head. “I’m not. I mean, I’m not gonna introduce myself. How could I? I’d have to get into that whole thing, all of it.“

“Would that be a bad thing?” I pointed out. “Seriously, she’s probably our best chance at getting an adult involved in this. We can be pretty damn sure she’s not involved in the Ministry herself by this point, and she’ll trust Paige.” 

“Will she?” Paige put in, shaking her head. “I’m the reason she ended up on Breakwater to begin with. Whatever she’s been through over there, whatever–” She stopped, giving a heavy sigh before pushing on. “Maybe she’ll want nothing to do with me. I just want to know she’s safe, and… and I don’t know. But if she wants me to leave her alone forever after all that, I’d completely understand.” Even as she said that, the girl glanced in my direction. I knew what she was thinking. She’d expected me to not want anything to do with her after years of being forced to treat me like shit. But that was the key point, she was forced to do that. Even if I still had some lingering uncertainty and emotional… issues with the whole thing, logically I knew it wasn’t her fault. 

“We’ll handle it,” I managed after taking a second to collect myself. “When she gets here, we’ll figure out how she’s feeling and… and all the rest of it. Then we’ll go from there. But for now–” As I said that, the alarm on my phone chimed, and I looked down to check. “Uh, right, for now, it’s time to go to court. You guys ready to head out?”

Raising his hand, Roald asked, “Is it too late to call in sick? Because I think I might ralph.” 

“Oh don’t worry,” I assured him, “I’m pretty sure that’s a normal feeling. But if it happens, do us all a favor and please don’t aim for the lawyers.  

“No matter how tempting it is.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Sierra wasn’t kidding. When Paige showed up, after a quick run-through of everything that had happened with my parents (if it was really them), she insisted we find a place to start testing my paint combination powers. We couldn’t really go back to the secret room in the school without drawing attention, so we went down to the store’s unfinished basement. Half of it was taken up by stacks of boxes that Wren swore she still needed to go through at some point, but the other half was basically an open room with cement floor and walls. It would work for some testing. 

Before getting into that, however, I focused on Paige. Sierra was down here too, along with Wren and Peyton. Fred was upstairs to deal with any customers who came in, though he made us promise to tell him what we found out, and show him anything ‘neat.’ Of course I told him that would take a while since everything I did was neat. 

Now, facing Paige, I asked, “Do you think my parents believed everything you were saying?”

She, in turn, shrugged. “Probably not all of it. At the very least they knew I was holding some things back and not telling them the whole story. The real question is whether they believed enough of it. And yeah, I think they did. At the very least, they don’t think I’m an immediate threat. I actually think they believe I could be useful.” 

That made me blink. “Useful? Because you could lead them to this mysterious group who contacted you for this whole thing?” 

She nodded. “That and because they want to recruit me.” 

Needless to say, that made me choke a little, while Sierra snickered in the background at my reaction. Finally, I stared at Paige. “You think my parents want to recruit you into the Ministry?” 

“Well they don’t want to recruit me to plan your birthday party next January,” she informed me with a tiny smile. “But yeah, they know I can lie to them. They know I’ve got some skill in manipulation and infiltration, since I stole those documents and managed to get away from them. You know, with Paintball’s help. They don’t know everything, not even a quarter of it. They definitely don’t know what I really am. But they know enough to think I could possibly make a decent early recruit. I wouldn’t be surprised if they reach out soon enough and try to make an offer. After waiting what they deem an appropriate amount of time from when they tried to kill me.” 

That was… yeah, that was a lot to take in. She had a point, of course. Naturally my parents would be looking for anyone they could recruit with the skills they needed. And even if they didn’t know anywhere close to the real story, Paige had demonstrated that sort of skill and she already knew about the Ministry. From what she’d told me about how she’d handled that whole situation, they probably also believed she was still malleable enough to be guided and trained the way they might want. 

So yeah, it made sense. But it still left me uncertain about exactly how I felt about that. I was worried about what would happen if my family paid too much attention to Paige (not that it was easy to avoid that given the whole Irelyn thing, to say nothing of them already knowing about her having Ministry information), and about everything that could come crashing down because of that if one of us said the wrong thing. And beyond that, I knew my family was aware that I didn’t really get along with Paige, to say the least. What would they do about that? Try to get us to work through our issues? That was an image that made me blanch. My family, trying to counsel Paige and me on how to get along so we could work together within their criminal enterprise.

Well we had been trying to figure out how we could get away with Paige and me hanging out without attracting suspicion. Wouldn’t it be convenient if my parents worked toward explaining that completely on their own? 

Yeah, that was going to be a whole thing, if it came up. Which would probably also mean that they would at least move closer to telling me what was going on. And boy oh boy was I looking forward to that just ever so much. I couldn’t wait to go through that and try to figure out how to react. If I said the wrong thing once they did reveal the Ministry to me, would they just erase my memory of the whole situation again? Would I know if they did? I still had no idea how to tell when that happened, or if there was any way to defend against it if you weren’t a Biolem like Paige. That Kent guy hadn’t seemed completely and utterly shocked beyond all belief by the fact that his power hadn’t worked on her, so maybe there was a way to resist? I wasn’t sure, nor did I know how we could go about testing it.

Shaking all that off for the moment, I focused on the issue at hand. “Well, if they do try to recruit you, make sure to hold out for a decent salary and benefits. You know my family can afford it.” 

Paige, who actually seemed a little nervous about how I would react to that, offered me a quick smile. “Yeah, for sure. I know what I’m worth, can’t take any lowball offers.” 

“I’d take a lowball offer,” Peyton put in while raising her hand. “But only because I’m pretty sure you guys have no real concept about what anything costs, so their idea of a lowball offer might just pay my entire way through university.” 

We all snickered at that, even Wren. It helped ease the mood a little, which was nice. Then we got into the actual testing. I had already shown them what I could do when it came to the paint combinations I used at the park, but now it was time to get into seeing what else I could do, and how exactly the combinations worked.

Clearly, whatever effect the main paint possessed remained the center of any combination, and was simply twisted or adjusted by the color I fed into it. When I’d added green to white, it sped up the effect and made the entire ten seconds worth of light go off in an instant, creating a blinding flash grenade. And when I had added green to red, it made the whole pulling thing happen much faster. I had been hauled incredibly quickly toward Uncle Friendly when I did that before. We tested it with a couple empty boxes down in the basement now, just to see for sure. Paige used a stopwatch app on her phone, and made me experiment with adding different amounts of red and green. In the end, it turned out that the more green I added into it, the faster the pulling happened. But the more red I used, the heavier the object that could be moved. And beyond that, the more green I added, the less time the red would pull and hold for. Adding too much green would move things very quickly, yet also detracted from the normal ten seconds that the pull should have lasted for normally, similar to the whole green with white thing. It was a balancing act. Beyond that, I also couldn’t feed more paint into something than the original color had. Any image I made had to be made of at least fifty-one percent of the base color and only up to forty-nine percent of whatever was fed into it. Which made sense, given it was supposed to be the base color, so if there was more of the other, it wouldn’t really make sense.

Anyway, it seemed like that same ‘speed up’ principle applied to green being added to other colors. Like when I had fed green paint into that blue circle to launch Fogwalker away from me at incredibly high speed. The green made the effect faster and stronger, but at the cost of lasting for less time. But how would that translate into powers that weren’t so easily ‘sped up?’ 

Under Paige’s direction, we tried orange with that. But of course, we needed a baseline for how much orange protected on its own. We used cardboard boxes, which Paige and Sierra took turns hitting, because they could be certain to use the exact same amount of force every time, and at regular intervals. Or they could simply apply a steady amount of pressure to the box the entire time the paint was active, so we knew exactly when the defense wore off. All of which meant we could get useful data. And the way Paige said ‘useful data’ was a little weird. Like me when I was talking about an awesome ramp. 

Between that system and a bit of ‘how much do you feel this poke, how about this one’ we were able to figure out that, by itself, the orange paint protected against something like ninety percent of the damage that would have been done, even at the smallest, most basic amount of paint. As long as it was a notable amount to begin with (more than just a speck of paint, it had to be something real), roughly ninety percent of the damage done would be negated. That increased by one percent for every added ten percent of the item in question that I covered with orange, up to a max of ninety-eight percent. Whatever I did, two percent of the damage would always get through. 

Once we had that baseline, we tried green mixed into orange, because we were all curious about what that would do. How would speeding up ‘being invulnerable’ actually help at all? 

As it turned out, the answer was closer to the white paint. Adding green into the orange made the invulnerability stronger for a shorter time. After a bit of testing, it seemed like for roughly every ten percent of a total image that was taken up with green instead of orange, the amount of time the defense lasted for was dropped by two seconds, but the amount of protection it provided was raised by two percent. 

Due to the limit of only making up to about forty-nine percent of an image green instead of orange, that meant I could, at most, raise the total protection ten percent. And doing so would decrease the orange defensive time from ten seconds down to essentially nothing, just a brief one second at most burst of protection. But that was where it got interesting. Because unlike orange paint by itself, which could only get up to ninety-eight percent protection no matter how much I added, with the maximum amount of green mixed in, that level of protection could get up to one hundred percent. Sure, it only lasted for an instant, but it would completely protect me or anyone else from all damage if I timed it right. 

Again, there was a balance to be struck with how much of the base paint I used versus how much of the other color I added into it. It wouldn’t be useful or practical all the time, but in a few specific cases… yeah, I could do something with that. 

Once we did that, Peyton brought up the question of what purple added to orange would do. If green already made the paint stronger at the cost of making it last for a shorter amount of time, what would the paint that was meant for increasing strength do?

The answer ended up being that it still raised the amount of defense, and without shortening the amount of time the orange paint lasted. But it only raised it by one percent for every ten percent of purple that was added to the orange, so it reached a max of ninety-five percent protection. That, of course, was something I could reach with just orange by itself. So maybe not every single paint combination was useful. I just had to find the ones that worked the best. Which was exactly what we were doing here. Paige wanted me to be prepared for whatever happened. 

Well, that and she was really anxious about what was going on with Irelyn and needed to distract herself. 

To that end, I looked toward Peyton. “You wanna see what happens with black and green?”

She gave me a look at that. “You mean do I want to be your guinea pig so you can hit me with that combination and see if anything weird happens?”

Grinning at her I gave a thumbs up. “See, you’re already on top of things. That’s the best partner slash lab rat.”

She rolled her eyes, but acquiesced. We had her start reading aloud from a random book that was in one of the boxes down here, while I put black paint across her back along with a strip of green and fed the latter into the former. Then we all watched while I activated it. 

“Andwhenwewalkedupthehilltherewereelevensoldiersin—“ The words all came out of the other girl in a nearly completely indecipherable rush that sounded like one of the cartoon Chipmunks talking very quickly. She stopped short after that, eyes widening as she looked back at us. Then she took a breath and tried again. But again, the words came out all together and high-pitched like that. She was visibly trying to slow her voice down, but it wouldn’t work. Not until the paint had worn off. 

Bouncing up and down, which in her case involved using her wing pack to reach the ceiling, Wren blurted, ”Ooh, I wanna try, I wanna try! Please can I try?!”

Of course I let her. We tried that a couple more times to the same result. It didn’t make the person physically faster, it just forced them to speak very quickly and somewhat squeakily. Anything that was affected by the paint would produce any sound much faster than it normally would have. I wasn’t exactly sure when or how that would be useful, but at least we knew what it did.

Then there was green with yellow, which brought anyone who was affected by it to a complete halt, expending the yellow’s entire charge, but only for that instant. It would stop someone, then immediately wear off. I could definitely see where that would be useful, and filed it away.

Green with purple was the same idea. It wore off immediately, but gave a very momentary incredible burst of strength. 

Then there was pink. If that one did anything, we couldn’t figure it out. Then again, it was hard to say what making something affected by pink faster could even look like. Suffice to say, it wasn’t terribly interesting at the moment. 

While we were at it, we also checked what would happen when I added purple paint to a couple other colors. It made red paint able to pull larger, heavier things and do more damage if they collided. It also made the glow from the white paint notably brighter. And it made both green and yellow stronger with their respective powers. Not as dramatic of an increase as green gave yellow, or purple for that matter, but it also didn’t wear off immediately. It was simply a boost.  

After the green with black incident, we naturally checked purple with black. How would it make muting things stronger? 

As it turned out, adding purple to black made the muting affect extend outward a bit from the thing that was painted. For every ten percent of a picture that I made purple, the effect extended in a two feet diameter circle. Again, only up to just under half of a picture could be the second color. So at most, I could make a circle that was ten feet in diameter where no sound could emerge. Now that would be very useful. 

We knew from my whole artificial stilts and whip-arms trick at the park that adding purple into pink made the stretchy bits stronger. But if going the other way around and adding pink to purple did anything, we couldn’t figure it out right then.

That was about as far as we got before I called a halt to the testing. It was already starting to get late, and I wanted to take a lap around the city to stretch my legs and check in on things. After all, we were supposed to be helping people, not just playing with my paint combinations.

Paige and Sierra stayed to help Wren get some other work done, but promised to join us if we found anything big. Meanwhile, Peyton and I took to the streets. We didn’t exactly find a big fight, but as we were making our way across the rooftops, I spotted what I initially thought was some sort of gang gathering in a field near a freeway overpass. It turned out to be a bunch of homeless people all camping out. As we watched them from a nearby building, I felt my stomach twist itself over. This, this was how we should have been helping the city. 

So, that was exactly what we did. Similar to that time when I had been by myself, the two of us went to a nearby store and bought a couple carts full of supplies. Which was going to attract attention, but it wasn’t like I could go there without my costume. If this situation got out and my parents checked the cameras of the store to see me buying a bunch of stuff that Paintball eventually gave the people out there, they might just be able to do the math.

And yes, there were still people in the store. It was barely before curfew, which had been extended to ten pm. Again, not out of any real connection to how dangerous it was, but because people couldn’t stand to be locked in that early. 

In any case, we attracted attention, and the two of us tried to play it off and joke around with the crowd as best as we could.

I bought every premade sandwich the store had, along with a dozen loaves of bread and peanut butter with honey. Then I bought various boxes of cookies, crackers, cans with easy pull-tops that had fruit or meat inside, anything I could find while we went through the store with a couple different grocery carts.

Needless to say, people wanted to know what we were doing. One even jokingly asked if we had turned to a life of crime and we’re going to steal all this stuff. So we just told them that we’d gotten anonymous donations so we were going to provide food for the homeless. A few people scoffed at that, but others actually donated money of their own, which I really wanted to tell them not to bother with, but had no idea how to do so. I couldn’t exactly tell them I was actually paying for all this myself without risking my identity.

By the time we left the store, we didn’t just have money donations. There were also a dozen other people with their own carts full of not just food, but other supplies. They went to the back of the store and got sleeping bags and blankets, as well as flashlights and lanterns. Seeing that, I bought a bunch of clothing that could be passed around as well. 

Together, our small army made our way back to that freeway overpass a couple blocks over. Peyton and I helped distribute everything, and hung out with the people there for a while. It was… interesting, considering how many wild stories the people had. Not that it was all fun and games. They definitely needed every bit of help they could get, but they were doing their best. And hopefully this stuff would help. 

When I asked one of the guys there if they were worried about the cops making them disperse or chasing them off, he informed me that the land they were on was owned by ‘those Evans people’ and that they… my family… had designated it and about half a dozen other places throughout the city as a safe place for them to set up homeless camps. They also had a few shelters and a couple apartment buildings set up to be temporary homes for people who were trying to get work and needed a place to get back on their feet while they waited for a solid paycheck. So they did help put roofs over peoples’ heads, but also had these bits of land where anyone could sleep without being harassed by the police. Apparently this was one of the newest places like that. Others had port-a-potties and a few other needed amenities. 

So my family did… all that. Yeah, I had a lot of thinking to do. Not that that was anything new. 

Eventually, the two of us slipped away and left together. We were back on that first building where we had seen them before, as I spoke in a low voice. “Sorry we didn’t get into any cool, dramatic superpowered showdowns.” 

Peyton, in turn, shrugged. “Meh. This was fine. In fact, it kind of feels like we should make this a regular thing, you know?”

Watching the people in the distance, I smiled to myself behind the mask and helmet. “You know what? I think you’re right. 

“This should definitely be a regular thing.”

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Center Of Attention 26-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, they weren’t just going to fly the missing Star-Touched right back here to Detroit, pat them on the head, and let them go immediately. We didn’t even get any current video of them, so there was no way to know for sure what sort of condition they were in. Instead, there were simply reports from the prison itself that they had picked all three women up and would be bringing them home as soon as they went through various debriefings and medical examinations to ensure they were safe. But according to the report, there are no serious injuries. 

That was reassuring, to say the least. Now that they had publicly acknowledged that the women were with them, it would be much harder for Breakwater to just make them disappear and pretend they had no idea what anyone was talking about. It took an enormous load off my shoulders. 

And if I felt better about it, Paige and Sierra were like totally new people judging by the conversations we had online and over texts that night. Oh, there was still suspicion there, of course. Especially on Sierra’s part. Neither of them would be exactly satisfied until Irelyn was right in front of them. But still, this was pretty positive and we all knew it.

At the very least, it helped me get to sleep that night without feeling too guilty and anxious. Which was a real treat, for sure. I had school the next morning, and the whole weekend had been long and draining. Getting good news to cap it off was just the thing I’d needed, so I decided to crash before anything could happen to ruin that. It was basically a ‘stick my fingers in my ears and pretend there’s nothing bad going on so I can fall asleep’ defense. 

As for school itself the next day, it was, well, busy. There were a lot of people talking about the Flea and Trivial thing, and how they had gone in to save ‘the unknown woman.’ And boy was there a lot of speculation about who that was. People weren’t sure if Breakwater was covering up her identity, or the news, or the government, or all of the above. The fact that she was someone who lived here in Detroit prompted everyone to start asking one another which important people in the city they hadn’t seen in awhile. And yes, my mother’s name came up. As did a few others I recognized. But no one could agree on whether they’d been seen, or even seen closely enough to be certain they were that person and not some sort of double. To say nothing of all the talk of holograms or shapeshifters or whatnot. When that subject came up, I felt like the living embodiment of the awkward look monkey puppet meme. 

In any case, Amber and I spent some time out on the bleachers by the football field, well away from anyone else. We talked a lot about what had happened Saturday at the park, as well as the whole Breakwater thing. She seemed distracted, but when I asked about it, she just said it was a personal situation and she’d be fine. So I asked if Jae was doing okay after that whole weird situation with the maybe homeless guy. According to Amber, she was also fine, but there was a little bit of hesitation there that made me think she wasn’t completely sure. 

Or maybe she just didn’t want to talk about Jae having a boyfriend in Damarko. I had seen the two of them (Jae and Damarko, that was) talking again at the edge of the school grounds when I was dropped off, and whatever it was about, they seemed pretty close. But I still didn’t know if Amber was aware of that situation or not. Or if she was pointedly ignoring it. He was already their friend, so I could see how that might be a little weird. But it definitely wasn’t my place to push. I had enough stuff going on as it was anyway. Not to mention how dangerously close I was veering toward being a gossip. So, I just let it go. 

On the other hand, Amber did want to talk a lot about Izzy agreeing to be adopted. Obviously, we both knew that entire situation was a lot more complicated than it was even on the surface, and it was already complicated there. Izzy knew what she was getting into, and had apparently talked it over with Amber a bit as she was coming to her own decision. As for Amber, she wasn’t sure how she felt about Izzy being adopted by the people in charge of the Ministry, considering she still thought they might have been responsible (at least in some way) for the guy who killed her dad getting away. That made things even more complicated, and I promised if there was any chance to find out if they were involved or knew anything about it, I would help her find answers. 

After all that business at school, I spent a little time at home with Izzy as we made a whole big deal about playing games together to celebrate the adoption. Mom and Dad had already put the paperwork in the day before (it being Sunday didn’t matter at all for various obvious reasons), and the judge would be going through it over the next couple days. It wouldn’t take long at all before Izzy was officially and legally my sister. Not that I needed anyone to tell me anything ‘officially and legally’ for that to be true at this point. I’d only known the other girl for a short time, but it still felt like she’d been around for much longer. Was that just because I had needed someone in my family I could completely trust and confide in? 

That was part of it, sure. But not the whole thing. Izzy was amazing all on her own, no matter what my own situation was. Her being here, knowing things, and me being able to confide in her was clearly one of the luckiest things that had ever happened to me. And, to be quite clear, my life was already pretty damn lucky to begin with, despite its complications. 

So, Izzy and I made our appearances in the house to make sure we looked appropriately giddy about the situation. Not that it really mattered all that much given Mom and Dad weren’t even home (but I was sure Mom would ask the staff how we were and if we seemed okay). Then she went off to do Minority stuff, and I made my way to the shop to check in. 

Peyton was already there when I arrived, apologizing for being stuck with her mother the day before. I tried to tell her it was fine, but she informed me, with a slightly haunted look, that her mother had dragged her through something called a ‘craft fair,’ whatever that was, and that it definitely wasn’t fine. She looked like she had just been through a war. When Fred asked if she’d rather spend a few more hours at one of those, or fight more super-heated zombies, she had to think about it. 

Unfortunately, it was Murphy and Roald who wouldn’t be joining us today. They were stuck babysitting at home, since Roald’s sister Rubi had an important meeting at work to try to get a raise while his little sister was having friends over for some sort of party. 

All of which meant it was just Fred, Wren, Peyton, and me waiting there when Sierra showed up on her own. She came in the front door, just like a customer, holding up this silver-topped cane she had apparently found lying around the Banners house. The girl was going on about how it had a taser in the tip that she could either poke someone with or shoot out a full fifty feet if needed, and wasn’t that cool? 

“Sierra,” I finally interrupted my blonde doppelganger once I could get a word in edgewise. “Where’s Paige? We thought she was with you.” She had come in all by herself, and considering how long she had been talking about the cane without the other girl coming through the door behind her, seemed to be alone. 

“Huh?” Looking up from the cane, Sierra made a dismissive noise. “Oh, that, she’s talking to people from the Ministry over at the house.” 

Needless to say, that provoked a reaction. Especially from Wren, who was sitting cross-legged on top of the glass counter. Even as the rest of us were jerking a bit in surprise, the younger girl fell over backwards with a yelp. There was a crashing sound behind the counter that sounded like a bunch of metal pans falling over, and Fred gave a visible flinch. 

“I’m okay!” Wren called out, popping back to her feet with her hands up. “I’m okay!” Only then did she notice the metal colander on her head, quickly taking it off with a blush. “Uncle Fred’s showing me how to cook!” She added that bit while holding up the colander proudly. 

Ignoring the fact that that didn’t really explain why there was all that stuff downstairs behind the counter, I focused on the much more important and immediate situation. Which was Sierra, who happened to be curiously poking through a shelf full of random stuff with her new cane. My mouth opened, but before I could actually say anything, Peyton beat me to the punch. 

“What do you mean, she’s talking to the Ministry?!” All of her marbles were spinning in circles around her head like a multicolored halo or something. In most cases, it would have been distracting. But now? Now I barely noticed. 

Sierra, still looking completely unconcerned, shrugged. “Uh, after what we did, are you that surprised? I mean, even if they don’t know it was us, obviously they’d want to see if she knew anything about it. Or how she feels about Irelyn coming home. Or if she has any idea where the Banners are. You know, all that stuff. Of course they sent someone over to talk. We were expecting that. Even if…” She trailed off, glancing toward me. 

“Even if what?” I prompted, my stomach already twisting itself into knots. Yes, it made sense that the Ministry would want to talk to Paige after that. But still, the idea that she was out there with them… it made me anxious. Anything could happen. How was Sierra so calm about this? 

Looking like she wasn’t sure if she should say anything or not, the other girl finally sighed while leaning on the cane. “Well, we’re pretty sure the people who are over there talking to her right now are your parents. You know, using their disguise holograms or whatever they are.” 

Now I kind of wished I had a bunch of pots and pans to fall off a counter onto. As it was, I made a choking sound in the back of my throat, eyes widening as I grabbed hold of the nearby shelf. “My what?! What? What?!” It was tempting to just keep shouting that single word at her, but I restrained myself to just three times. 

“Right, I was supposed to say that when I first got here.” Sierra frowned thoughtfully. “Sorry, I got distracted when I figured out this thing could shoot the taser darts too. Anyway, yeah, we think your parents stopped by for a two-on-one conversation. They’re in disguise, like I said. They’re not saying they’re the leaders of the Ministry or anything, it’s just… sort of the impression we’ve got.” 

“So why are you here?” That was Fred, asking the very good questions. “Why aren’t you back there, just in case things go wrong?” 

“Well, one, we’re in contact up here.” Sierra tapped the side of her head. “She’s letting me know how it’s going. So if that whole situation does go sideways, I’ll know. And now, since I’m here, so will you guys. Which brings me to point three, if the Ministry decided to abduct Paige, I’d sort of need you guys to help stop it. And if it comes down to that and I had to have a confrontation, it might be a little awkward to just be there as myself.” Her finger twirled around her face demonstrably. “They might have some questions, you know?” 

Okay yeah, that made sense. Still, I took a moment to breathe out and try to calm myself just a little bit before asking, “You said you’re still in contact and she’s fine? What’s going on?” It was all I could do to convince myself that changing into my costume and charging out there right this second was probably a bad idea. My parents, if they really were the ones over there (and even if they weren’t) would also have questions if Paintball suddenly showed up. 

Clearly realizing we were anxious about this whole thing and enjoying dragging it out, Sierra took a moment to make herself comfortable leaning against one of the shelves. Then she shrugged. “They’re just asking about what she knew and if she had anything to do with this information getting out. She’s telling them that someone she doesn’t know came to ask her what she knew and she told them the same thing. Then they told her about the Breakwater thing and asked if she wanted to help. So she gave them the boat and let them break it to make those pictures and send them. We figured they might be able to figure out what the boat was somehow, and that it was actually sitting at the marina here. So we might as well give them that one. They wanted to know why she didn’t come to them, and she pointed out the whole ‘trying to shoot her in the head thing.’ They seem to be accepting that.” 

Taking that in, I tried to make my heart slow down. It didn’t really help. My stomach was still all twisted up. I was paranoid about what else could happen. My parents were at Paige’s house right now. What if they decided she needed to be disappeared and put that into play before we could actually do anything about it? Yes, it made sense that they would want to talk to her, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t really thought about that too much. With everything that had happened over the weekend, I just didn’t consider that part of it. 

Sierra was already continuing. “She’s telling them that she doesn’t know who these people are, just that they contacted her in person. She’s giving them a couple descriptions that won’t lead anywhere, and telling them that she’s pretty sure those people were intermediaries. Plus the usual other ways this sort of thing happens. You know, meeting in dark warehouses with people she couldn’t see, that sort of thing. Real interesting spy stuff. The point is, she can’t identify them. She did say they might have worked with Mr. Banners, so that might lead them down the wrong rabbit hole.” 

“But she’s okay?” I pressed. “I mean, they aren’t calling for a van to take her away, or giving her any dangerous vibes? Does she want us to suit up and be ready? I mean we could–” 

Pushing off the shelf, Sierra walked over to stand in front of me, putting her hands on my shoulders. And boy did it ever feel weird to have this happen with someone whose face looked like my mirror double. “Dude,” she pointedly intoned. “It’s gonna be fine. We knew they’d want to talk to her, so we planned this out. I mean, we didn’t know it’d be your parents exactly, but still. If she’s in trouble, she’ll let me know. And we’ve got plenty of emergency measures just in case. I mean, it’s not perfect and foolproof, but it’s better than you losing your mind and rushing over there.”

Okay, if having my near-twin talk to me face to face like that was weird, having her tell me the same thing I had been telling myself was even more so. It was like my inner monologue was given physical form. And she was right, of course. Just like I had been right when I thought the same thing. So, I exhaled and gave a little nod. “Right, sure. Just tell us if anything goes wrong. Maybe we should suit up and be ready anyway, just in case? We could get–” 

“They’re leaving,” Sierra interrupted. “They said they’ll report to their ‘superiors’ and let her know if they find out anything important. And that she should call the number they gave her if she remembers anything else about the people who came to her. See? No big deal.” 

“No big deal?!” Peyton blurted before I could. “It’s a very big deal! The Ministry leaders–her parents–just went to talk to Paige in person about all this! Of course it’s a big deal!” 

“What she said,” I muttered with a gesture that way. “But at least it’s just ‘big deal’ and not ‘giant, immediate, blaring emergency.’” 

“Weren’t you worried at all?” Wren pressed. She had put the colander on her head like a helmet. 

Holding the cane up, Sierra replied, “Why do you think I was distracting myself with my cool new toy? Yeah, I was worried too, kid.” She sounded like it was hard for her to admit that. “But seriously, everybody just breathe. Paige is gonna be here soon.” Her eyes found me with a tiny smirk. “And then you’re really gonna be in trouble.” 

“Me?” I blinked at that. “Why would I be in trouble?” 

With a small chuckle, the blonde version of myself poked me with the cane. “Because Paige really needs a distraction right now. And you told her about those new paint combination things. So you better be ready when she gets here. 

“Cuz she is gonna put you through so many tests you might as well change your name to Guinea Pig.”  

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Schooling 24-06 (Summus Proelium)

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The first place we found ourselves in once we had arrived within the virtual reality space just looked like an ordinary dojo. There were mirrors on every wall, and the floor was padded enough to be a little springy under our feet. Only after looking around for a minute did I notice what made this place not just a normal dojo, besides the obvious. There was no door. The whole thing was just this one room. We also appeared wearing simple shorts and tee shirts. Even now, knowing everyone here knew who I was, it still made me reflexively tense up to see myself in clothing that made me being a girl blatantly obvious. 

Okay, not that blatantly. I wasn’t exactly packing melons under my shirt. But still. It was clear that I was a girl, and that by itself was still an odd sensation for me. 

Seeing me looking around, Paige immediately realized what I was thinking and spoke up. “This way there’s no distractions. You know, random cars driving by, pedestrians, other buildings in view, whatever. We don’t need to make anything else except for this place. It means we can put more of our effort and energy toward the actual training. It felt like the best way to do this.”

“That is,” Sierra put in, “if you all think you can focus without feeling claustrophobic just because you’re in a room with no door.” After visibly considering that, she added, “Come to think of it, getting over distractions like that should probably be part of your training anyway, so yeah.” 

Murphy was grimacing as she slowly turned her head to look at every wall. “You know, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if you guys hadn’t pointed it out.” She exchanged with Roald before adding, “But whatever, what I really want to know is… is this shit for real?!” After blurting that out, she patted down her own face, then poked Roald in both shoulders with a gasp before turning to the nearest wall. She ran that way, bouncing off the mirror before running her hands over it. Then she knelt down and punched the padded floor, staring at everything in complete wonder. “Seriously, is this place for real?!” Her gaze snapped from Paige and Sierra to me and then back again. “We really didn’t just teleport somewhere?” Belatedly, she made a face. “Not that that wouldn’t be fucking cool too, but like, I mean… this whole thing is all in our heads?”

Paige made a waving so-so motion with her hand. “Basically, yeah. The machine is projecting this into your minds from our orb-cores. That’s the really basic version. Anyway, your physical bodies are still out there just sitting in those chairs. But, as you can tell, your brain interprets what you should feel in here into actual sensation.” With that, she reached out to poke the girl in the forehead. “Up to a certain point,” she added quickly. “I mean, if you take too much pain, there’s a certain cut-off where it won’t let you feel it anymore. And you can’t really be physically injured. Otherwise there’s no point to doing this stuff in here instead of out in the real world.” 

Sierra quickly piped up with, “But you’ve got to feel some pain as we do this, or you won’t learn from it. You know what they say, no pain no gain. And we’ve really gotta make you gain a lot if we’re gonna keep helping Cassidy over there get through the shit she gets herself into.” 

Making an exaggerated harrumphing noise under my breath, I pulled myself up to my full (totally pathetic and inconsequential) height and squinted that way. “You know most of–some of–there are parts of that stuff that are absolutely not my fault. Besides, you say that as though you wouldn’t be incredibly bored out of your mind if you didn’t have all this stuff to help all of us deal with.”

Audibly snorting, my doppelgänger retorted, “If I thought you were all being boring, it’d be because you weren’t planning on doing something about dear old dad. And that would mean I’d be out of here so fast your heads would spin. Let’s just keep that in mind, huh? He’s a lying, traitorous piece of shit, and I don’t want my–I don’t want Irelyn or the others anywhere near him. But I know I can’t do this by myself.” She squirmed just a little, the admission of any weakness clearly making her uncomfortable before she pushed on. “I need help. I mean, we do.” Her gaze toward Paige briefly. “As fucking badass as we might be–and the answer to that is very, we still can’t just swim over there and take on everyone ourselves before ripping Dad’s head off and playing soccer with it. We need you people. Not just for the whole photoshopped blackmail plan, but in case we need to do more than that. And the only way you’re going to be able to really help us if shit goes down is with some actual training. You need to learn how to fight. So, are we gonna do this, or what?”

I shrugged despite myself. “You really didn’t have to talk me into it. I know what the stakes are, and yeah, we need some help. Even without this whole thing with Breakwater–which is super-important, don’t get me wrong. But even without that, stuff in the city is just getting more and more dangerous. Sure, I’ve been doing sort-of okay with the basic few self-defense lessons my parents made me get. I mean, that and my powers. But it’ll be nice to have something better to fall back on. Something tells me just expecting to fall back on luck all the time is gonna backfire sooner or later.” 

“Yeah!” Murphy immediately put in. “And some of us don’t have powers to rely on anyway.” 

Peyton, who had been quietly looking around the room while taking in everything we were saying, slowly nodded while turning back to us. There was a small smile on her face, as though she could barely contain herself. “Dude? We’re in a fucking virtual reality. I mean, sure, I was here before. But it wasn’t exactly–I didn’t get a chance to savor it that much. We were sorta busy. And now you’re talking about letting these badass ninja android girls teach us how to fight? I am all-in. All-fucking-in, okay? Let’s do this thing.” 

Smirking despite myself, I gestured to Paige and Sierra. “You heard the girl. We’re, ahem, all-fucking-in.” 

“Good to know,” Paige replied flatly, exchanging a look with her sister before turning back to us. That slowly spreading smile seemed somewhat serpentine. It was a vaguely dangerous look. A look that told me she was going to enjoy putting us through our paces. “In that case, everybody line up right here in the middle of the room. Give yourselves a few feet between each of you. 

“Time to start whipping you people into shape.” 

*******

There weren’t any actual whips involved, of course. Not yet, anyway. Though I was pretty sure Sierra might’ve been tempted. We weren’t even doing anything that intense to start out. Mostly because we started out covering very basic things. Stuff like how to make a fist, how to throw a very normal punch, how to hold your arm, how to position yourself, even how to breathe properly. They spent a decent amount of time just on that last part, teaching us to keep our breathing steady to get enough oxygen in the middle of a fight. It was all stuff I’d heard before, but going over it again didn’t hurt. Besides, the others needed to hear it. We had to get through the basic stuff like that before anyone would be ready to learn more. I was just glad Paige and Sierra weren’t moving too quickly on that. I’d been a little worried that they might jump straight into the advanced training, leaving Roald, Murphy, and Peyton (and let’s be honest, me) completely lost. But no, they were actually pretty good teachers. Which made me wonder if they’d been given programming for that, or just–yeah, I had no idea how that worked. Apparently Pittman had programmed their fighting ability into them, which was just confusing on another level. Did he know how to fight that well? Did he have someone else work on that programming and then add it? Did he just download a bunch of instruction manuals and videos into them? I–eh. It was confusing when I got right down to it. But either way, they knew how to fight and they knew how to teach the rest of us. 

As I had heard before, and as they reiterated when this whole instruction thing started, one of the biggest, most important things to do was to make these motions be instinctive. We needed to be able to do them immediately without thinking about it. We had to see the attack coming, or the opportunity for our own attack, and react instantly. Because, as Sierra put it, the moment we had to stop and think about what we were doing would be the moment we were either maimed or killed. She wasn’t the sort of person to sugarcoat things like that. She made the whole thing very blunt, standing right in front of Roald as she repeated the word killed while poking his chest hard enough to make the boy wince just a bit. 

So, we went through the motions as they taught us, straight from the simplest, most basic movements and positions. Once they had us to the point where we could all stand properly, make fists without looking stupid, and more importantly, without doing it in a way that could have broken our fingers the moment we hit anything, we… did that some more. But in this case, they made a game of it. Basically, they had us stand around talking to each other or watching a television screen they’d put up on the wall, or any number of other distracting things. Randomly and without warning, one of them would shout one of our names and tell us where the threat was coming from, using clock positions. We had to spin that way and get into a decent position to defend ourselves within a certain amount of time before they would set off a loud buzzer and say we were dead. 

They were lenient on how much time they allowed at first, but as the hours wore on, they grew less and less so. Eventually, they got to the point of throwing a ball at us immediately, as soon as they called out the threat. We had to spin that way and react to it, either dodging the attack or blocking before it hit us. In some ways, it was fun. Which, I was pretty sure, was the point. But it was also stressful, and definitely took a lot of practice. We all got hit with plenty of balls, enough that I was glad I wouldn’t be carrying any of these bruises out of this virtual reality with me. We might not have been going totally nuts on how we used this place just yet, but even that was incredibly helpful. Maybe I could’ve explained away any minor injuries from this sort of thing with some story about falling on my skates, but this was just easier in the long run. 

Plus, the fact that we were in virtual reality meant it took a lot longer to get tired. It was still there, in its own way. Learning things and actively using our brains like this wore us out too, but it took much more time. Which meant we could train for a lot longer than we would’ve been able to otherwise. Long enough, in fact, that I finally had to ask how long we had been doing this whole thing. Upon finding out how late it was, I insisted that we had to stop. I wanted to do a quick patrol to make sure nothing in the city was on fire before heading home, and it was already getting late enough that Murphy, Roald, and Peyton might end up with people wondering where they were. 

So, with promises that what we had just done was only the very beginning, we exited the program and found ourselves back in the real world. I groaned while picking myself up from the chair and staggered a bit. Plucking the visor and headphones off, I sighed and shook my head. To one side, Paige and Sierra were pulling themselves out of the machine, while the others were in the same position as me, staggering a few steps one way or the other while shaking off the weird feeling of having not moved at all for hours, despite what our brains thought. 

Fred was there, eating some of the leftover pizza while watching us with a raised eyebrow. “How’d it go with Sensei Morpheuses? Wait, would that be Senseis Morpheus? Morphesei? Wait–” 

Coughing, I gestured. “It’s good. I think ahh–I think this is gonna be a really important advantage. Especially once we get to the point of doing more than learning basic motions.” Before Paige and Sierra could say anything, I quickly added, “Not that that stuff isn’t important. I know, believe me. You have to learn how to walk before you can run. I’m just saying, once we get to the point where we can use that place like a real-world virtual reality training ground, and take advantage of the sort of scenarios we can run through… it’s gonna be big. Yeah, I’m pretty sure some other groups have their own virtual reality training rooms of one sort or another, but I don’t think it’s anything like ours. And, they won’t expect us to have it. Which means they won’t expect us to be able to train like this.” 

“Being underestimated is a big deal,” Peyton chimed in while rubbing the back of her neck. “I really like being underestimated.” With those words, she added a smile that looked almost feral.

“Dude, as useful as you’ve been with those marbles, I don’t think people are gonna underestimate you any time soon,” Murphy pointed out. 

“That’s the point though,” Roald put in. “If everyone thinks she’s reliant on the marbles, they’ll think she depends on them. So they won’t be ready when she can actually fight without them.” 

“Exactly,” I agreed, before turning my attention back to Fred. “What’s going on with Wren? Is she–” 

“Still working on the tracker thingamabob,” he confirmed. “She locked herself up in the room over there so she can work without any distractions. Told me to tell you that she’s gonna be busy with it for the rest of the night and that it’ll be ready by the time you come back from school tomorrow. Assuming you’re planning on coming?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah, I’ve got–” A grimace found itself to my face. “I’ve got plans for dinner, but I’ll be here first.” Seeing them all stare at me, I sighed before explaining what was going on. 

“Dude,” Murphy put in, “you’re going to dinner to hang out with Inessa Sidorov? What the fuck? I mean like, this is normal for you? God, you’re lucky.” She grunted as Roald nudged her. “Err, yeah, there’s all the other complicated stuff and–yeah, but still!” 

“If I could invite you and have more people on my side, I would, believe me,” I assured her, before grimacing.

Paige, of course, grimaced just as much as me. “You really have to go over to Arleigh’s house? Couldn’t just make an excuse not to?” 

“Like Murphy said, Inessa Sidorov is gonna be there,” I immediately shot back. “If my dad ever found out I gave up the chance to meet her, he’d immediately have my head examined to make sure I didn’t have a mind-controlling slug or a little cybernetic ball inside my head.”

Meeting my gaze, the taller, blonde girl gave a very tiny smirk. “Yeah, that’s true. You always were a little obsessed. I used to think you had a bit of a crush or something.” 

Blushing at that, and at the weird feelings I had from having this sort of casual conversation with someone I had seen as a nasty, vindictive bitch for so long, I mumbled, “She’s just a really good skater. And she’s cool, and she’s got great fashion–shut up. Just shut up, all of you.” 

Ignoring their snickers, I gestured. “I’m gonna head out for that quick patrol, just to see what’s going on. The rest of you should head home.” 

“We’ll go with you,” Paige insisted, gesturing to Sierra and back to herself. “We don’t exactly have people waiting around for us, and I don’t think anyone should be going around on their own right now. I don’t know what Deicide is going to do about that betrayal, and it might take her a few days, but something tells me her retaliation is gonna be pretty loud. Between that and Jennica still being out there…” 

“Right, sure.” Nodding a bit, I glanced to the others. “Speaking of which, you gonna be okay?” 

They confirmed that they would be sticking together on the way back. Peyton would drop the other two off at their apartment before going to her own, which wasn’t that much further away. Especially not the way she traveled. 

So, we talked a little bit more about what we had done and what we were going to do, then separated. I found myself back in costume, mask and helmet firmly in place, while standing on the roof of the shop. Paige and Sierra were stretching a bit behind me, as I looked out over the neighborhood below, and at the much taller skyscrapers in the distance. “Things are gonna get worse before they get better, aren’t they?” I found myself murmuring. 

Paige, stepping up beside me, confirmed, “That’s why we’re doing this training. It’s important. We all have to be better, we have to be ready.” 

“Not just for this whole gang war thing,” Sierra pointed out while stepping up on my other side. “I know we’re all hoping this plan with the edited picture and all that is gonna work. We let everyone know where Irelyn and Trivial are, give Breakwater a way to come out of it looking like they’re not completely incompetent, an excuse that gives them a reason to keep those two alive, and… and then it’ll be over. But in case it’s more complicated than that–” 

“In case, we need to be ready,” I agreed. “And that means we need a lot more training than we’ve already got. You’re right. Don’t worry, we’re with you. Whatever happens, we’ll figure out a way to get Irelyn and Trivial out of there. If it’s not this plan, it’ll be another one. But at least this is a start.” 

Paige gave a short nod of agreement, her own voice soft. “It’s definitely a start. In a lot of ways.” 

For another moment, the three of us stood there together, looking out over the city. Then I cleared my throat. “Well? Let’s go for a run so I can get home and sleep. 

“Something tells me I’m gonna need all the rest I can get if I’m gonna survive visiting Arleigh’s house tomorrow.” 

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Schooling 24-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Once we made our way out of there and over to the van that, as promised, was waiting, the driver took us back into the city. We had the man drop us off a few blocks away from the shop, and thanked him for the lift. Then, once he drove off, we moved into the nearby alley and all of us practically collapsed against the nearby walls to look at each other. The drive had been a nice chance to sit for a bit, but we hadn’t really relaxed there, not with that guy around.

“Man,” Murphy announced while slumping down to sit on the ground, “I feel like I could sleep for a week. And my hand won’t stop shaking. Is that normal?” 

Sitting next to her, Roald shook his head. “My hands are just fine, but my knee won’t stop moving. See?” He gestured as his leg bounced erratically. “Seriously, it’s like I’m exhausted, but I sort of feel like I want to run a marathon. I could close my eyes and fall asleep right here, or my brain could keep me up all night. My body’s ready to fall apart, but…” 

“It’s adrenaline,” Paige advised him. “That’ll wear off. You’ll want to get back home and in your bed before that happens. Otherwise you really might end up sleeping in an alley. And that’s not as fun as it sounds, believe me.” 

With a nod, Peyton put in, “Yeah, and speaking of sleeping in an alley, if I don’t get home, my mom is really gonna freak out.” She looked over at Murphy and Roald. “I’ll give you guys a ride if you want.”

They agreed with that, and we arranged to meet and talk about things the next day. Then those three headed off together, while I focused on Sierra and Paige. “Well,” I started, “at least we stopped that whole thing. I mean, sure, that evil chick is still running around out there trying to impress the Scions, but this whole thing could’ve been a hell of a lot worse.”  

The two of them exchanged glances before Sierra spoke up. “Yeah, it sure could’ve.” Turning back toward me, she added, “Which is why we decided something on the way back here.”

“You decided something?” I asked while looking back-and-forth between them. “I didn’t think you guys even said a single word to each other that whole drive.” 

“We didn’t have to physically talk,” Paige informed me. “Remember, we have Wi-Fi. We set up our own private chat server and talked there. We can add you guys in, so you can join the chat room on your phone or computer. That way, we can all stay in contact.” 

“Wait hold on,” I interrupted, “is that whole ‘we have Wi-Fi’ thing a joke? Because I’m pretty sure that’s not the most secure thing for you guys to be talking about private stuff on. Especially if it was Wi-Fi inside a government van.” 

“Yes and no,” Sierra informed me. “It’s not a joke because we really can connect to Wi-Fi if we want to. But we also have our own private network. Trust me when I say, it’s secure. The version we were using in the van is short-range, line of sight communication. The signal went from me to her and back again. On top of that, it’s all encrypted. They’d have to literally be one of us to understand it. We’ll have to fix up your devices so they can connect to it, and when you do, you won’t exactly find a bunch of fun websites. But at least we’ll all be able to use our little chat room to stay in contact.” 

“Okay, right, cool.” Nodding slowly, I murmured, “So you’ve got this secure little chat room for just the two of you, and you’re gonna let us into your clubhouse so we can all keep up with each other in a way that doesn’t involve normal texting.” 

Paige straightened while looking down the alley as she confirmed, “That’s about the size of it. Obviously, when you guys use it, you’ll be going through the regular internet. But it’ll still be secure. A hell of a lot more secure than ordinary phone texting, anyway. Add that into using phones your parents don’t know about and that’s about as safe as we can be. We’ll make sure the program we add to your stuff looks like something innocent, and wipes anything incriminating if anyone pokes at it.”

“Right, sounds good to me,” I managed. Hell if I knew anything about the details. If they said it would be safe, I believed them. Which was an odd feeling coming from the whole Paige direction. But I shoved that thought out of my mind and asked, “So, what was this decision you guys were talking about before we got off on that little tangent?” 

Once more, the two of them exchanged glances before turning back to me. Paige started, “Like you said, that situation could’ve gone a lot worse. And there’s going to be more like it. Jennica is still out there. She’s trying to hook up with the Scions, who don’t really like you very much. So they won’t like any of us very much. To say nothing of all the other bad guys out there.”

“Including our father,” Sierra put in. “We still have to get Irelyn and that Trivial chick out of there.” 

“Exactly,” Paige agreed. “But if we’re– that is if you’re all going to survive all that, you need real training. Or you’re just gonna die.” 

“Don’t get us wrong,” Sierra put in, “with your powers, you’re pretty awesome. And, you know, it’s obvious you’ve had a little self-defense practice. You know how to punch someone. But you need more than that. A lot more. And so do the others. I just started to like you guys a little bit, so I’d rather not watch you get murdered. You’re all a lot more fragile than we are. And we can’t exactly go shoving the lot of you into more biolem orbs and bodies… yet.” 

“So,” Paige finished while I was giving Sierra a double-take, “we’re going to start teaching all of you how to fight. Really fight, I mean. We’re going to train you so that you’re not completely helpless without your powers.” 

Sierra coughed. “Well, let’s be honest, you’d still be in pretty bad shape without any power. I mean, come on, look at us, you and me. We’re like five foot nothing and, what, a hundred pounds? If I didn’t have enhanced biolem-strength, I’m not completely sure my foot wouldn’t snap off if I kicked a ball.”  

Grimacing, I retorted, “It’s not that bad. But yeah, you’ve got a point. I mean, about us needing to train. Do you really think you two can help with that?” 

Paige gestured pointedly. “We might as well put what Pittman programmed into us to good use. And the very best use I can think of for it is teaching all of you how to survive long enough to kick his ass and get Irelyn and Trivial off that island.” With a shrug, she added, “Besides,  with the way you make a habit of pissing people off in this city, you need all the survival training you can get. And so does anyone who’s planning on spending time with you.” 

My mouth opened as I raised a finger, before pausing. “I… yeah, okay, that’s fair. So, sure, that sounds like a plan to me. Or a goal, at least. If you guys want to designate yourselves our official trainers or whatever, feel free. You’re right about us needing all the help we can get. Seems like everything out there is getting more dangerous, not less. And you’re not the only ones who don’t want to see anything happen to anyone else in this team now that we just started to–uh, be a team.” 

“We’ll work something up,” Paige informed me. “But right now, you should get some rest. Do you want help getting home?” 

My head shook. “No, that’s cool. I’ll be fine. You guys head back to the shop.” She had been staying there with Sierra, even though they were both mobile and in separate bodies now. 

“Actually,” the girl who was my doppelganger under that mask informed me, “we’re gonna head to the Banners’ house, considering no one’s there right now. Not even any staff. And since the Ministry already interrogated Paige–” 

That made me do an almost violent double-take, while reflexively painting half a dozen question marks across my chest and helmet. “I’m sorry, the Ministry did what?” 

Sierra gave a look toward Paige, her voice reproachful. “I thought you said you were going to tell her.”

“I was,” Paige confirmed, “but then we got a little busy. The zombie baseball apocalypse was distracting.” Looking at me, she insisted, “It wasn’t a big deal. One of their agents talked to me earlier today, before we met up for all this. He wanted to know where I’ve been, and if I knew anything about Irelyn’s disappearance. I told him my dad was paranoid about something and took my mother and me on a bunch of increasingly stupid retreats. And I said that I finally convinced him to let me come home so I could go back to school, but when I got here, Irelyn had already left to go find us. I don’t know where they are now, and I don’t know where she is either.” 

Absorbing all that quietly, I finally asked the most important question, “Do you think he believed you?” 

Paige considered, though I was absolutely certain it was something she’d already thought about a lot. “If I didn’t, I would have brought it up sooner. They’re covering their bases. They know I was adopted by the Banners, and that I disappeared with them, then two of the local Star-Touched, one of whom happens to be the daughter the Banners bought me to replace after she pissed them off, disappeared too. Between that and me knowing about the Ministry, I would’ve thought something was wrong if they didn’t have a discussion with me. Mostly they wanted to know if Aaron Banners knew anything about them. So I told them I was pretty sure that’s not why he’s paranoid, and that he said something about business competitors and maybe Japan, or China or something. I kept it vague enough.” 

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “they’ve got other things to worry about right now.” 

“Right, our break-in secret is conveniently distracting them from peering too hard at our other secrets.” Snorting at that, I added, “Speaking of which, we need to decide what gang to hit next as our other-selves. Err, our other-other-selves. You know what I mean. If we’re gonna keep up the facade about there being some other group out there robbing them, we need to do it again.” 

“We’ll workshop that,” Paige agreed before flatly adding, “later. Right now, you really need to sleep. You’re swaying a lot more than you think you are right now.” 

She had a point, as much as I hated to admit it. It felt like there were still a dozen things I should be doing right then, but I really was incredibly tired after everything that had happened. So, with a heavy sigh, I nodded. “Fine, fine, I’ll head home and get some sleep. Just promise me that you guys are going to be careful.” 

Sierra coughed again and smirked at me after taking the mask off. “I’m not gonna get caught by your parents, trust me. It’s all cool, twin.” Her head tilted as she looked at Paige, then back to me. “Have you guys ever thought about how weird it is that I’m technically the twin of both of you in different ways?” 

Staring right back at her, I replied dryly, “Believe me, it’s come to mind.”

With that, I left the two of them and began to race-paint my way across the city. The chaos had thoroughly died down by the time we got back here in the van, as the gangs had all gone back to their own respective corners to lick their wounds and reassess their current situations. So, I had the city pretty much to myself. It was after curfew, and the emergency services were busy cleaning up various messes, or just recuperating themselves. I saw a few faces in windows waving or calling out greetings at me as I passed, so I waved back. One guy leaned out a nearby window entirely and shouted my name. Well, my Touched name anyway. When I stopped and looked, he waved a baseball bat while cupping his other hand against his mouth to shout, “Could you sign this!? Come on, I wanna give it to my kid!”

Well, what was I supposed to say to that? I launched myself that way and planted my knees against the wall next to his window after landing. “Hey there! What’s your name? And your kid’s name?” 

The man, a blonde guy in his forties with a neatly trimmed beard, beamed cheerfully. “Name’s Kyle. My son’s name is Edgar. Yeah, I know, but it was his mom‘s choice. She named him after her great uncle. Tried to go with Eddie, but the kid insists it’s Edgar. He’s nine. Just starting Little League.” 

Taking the bat as he offered it to me, I touched the side and instantly inscribed the words, ‘Hey Edgar, hope you smash a homerun so hard the bat breaks and I have to sign another one – Paintball.’ It took up most of the length of one side. 

Grinning as he saw what I had written, Kyle thanked me profusely and asked if I minded if he took a quick picture so he could prove it was real to his son. I agreed, and he leaned back in the window while holding the phone up so he could take a picture of us together. 

With that done, I gave him a thumbs up before launching myself away from the wall once more. As I was flying through the air, he called after me, “Oh, shit, thanks for what your new team did at that ballgame! I meant to say that!” 

Laughing, I turned over in the air to wave at him, using yellow paint to slow myself for that long. Then I landed on a lamppost and immediately used blue to hurl myself upward once more. The adrenaline was running low. I needed to get home, fall into my bed, and just die for awhile. 

Which, of course, was the thought that I had just as another figure caught my eye. This one was waving too, as I launched myself over another building. But it was waving from the roof, rather than from a window. And that wasn’t the only odd thing about it. The waiting figure wore a nice suit that looked like it belonged at one of those fancy millionaire dinner parties my parents liked to go to. It definitely wasn’t the suit of a man who would normally have been standing on top of an old used tire shop. Oh, then there was the fact that the man wasn’t a man at all. It was a bear. A literal bear, as in the furry animal, stood on its hind legs, wearing a perfectly tailored suit, waving at me. 

Okay, either I had been dosed with something, I was even more tired than I thought I was, to the point of being delirious, or that was a TONI. Wait, a bear in a suit. I’d thought I saw a bear in a suit back at the stadium! Wait a minute, was this… was this someone new? I wasn’t sure. I’d definitely never heard of a bear TONI in Detroit. But either way, it certainly got my attention. Especially since it meant I hadn’t been seeing things back when all that was going on. 

So, making sure I had enough paint on me to protect myself and get out of there if something went wrong, I used a shot of red to yank myself down that way. Landing smoothly, I straightened up and stared at the bear. Yeah, nothing had changed. From up close, that suit looked even more expensive. I’d seen a lot of fancy clothing in my time, even if I didn’t tend to wear much of it myself. I’d been in the sort of stores where these suits were sold, and I knew this one was top of the line. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had its own Touched-Tech enhancements for protection. Those expensive ones tended to have bullet-proofing and even fire-protection, that sort of thing. 

And this wasn’t just any bear. He was enormous, standing what had to be nine feet tall and impressively built, a fact that was apparent even under that suit. He looked like he could take my head off with a casual swat. 

After looking the bear up and down briefly, I hesitantly started by raising my hand in a wave. “Uh, hello? Did I… did I see you earlier? Back at the stadium. I thought I saw… but then…” 

“Ah, good evening, Paintball,” the bear replied. His voice seemed to literally come from him, rather than an electric translator. Which wasn’t always the case. Some TONIs could speak normally, others couldn’t. “Do you mind if we call you that?” 

“Uh, to be honest, I’m still not sure I’m conscious right now and didn’t just plow into a building to give myself a concussion,” I informed him with a shrug. “But sure, I guess. If this is real, you should probably call me the same thing as everyone else.” 

The bear smiled, and it took me a moment to realize that he was trying to reassure me rather than be intimidating. Those teeth were very sharp. “Don’t worry, “ he rumbled politely, “you’re not in a coma and you’re not dreaming. Or hallucinating. And yes, to answer your question, we were at the stadium earlier, attempting to provide what aid we could given the circumstances. I am called Fisher. We are Minister Gray.” 

Okay, that made me do a double-take. “Wait, Minister? As in–” 

“Part of the Ministry, yes,” came the response, while he held up both paws. “But please, relax yourself, we are not here with any ill-intention. Rather, we wish to offer our thanks for your aid in maintaining relative peace within the city.”

Regardless of his words, I reflexively took a step back and glanced around. “Okay, you keep saying we, but I only see one of you. Wait, sorry, are you–” 

“We are not plural,” the bear informed me. “Not in the way you are thinking, anyway. But–ah, it is a bit complicated. Please, this is not a threat or an attack, though it will be a bit of a surprise.” 

Even as I opened my mouth to question that, there was a sudden burst of smoke right where the bear was, along with a glowing pyramid shape right in the center. I jumped backwards and brought my hands up despite his warning, but the smoke cleared to reveal that the bear was gone. Then a voice spoke up sharply. “Hey, down here.” 

My gaze lowered promptly, until I saw a raccoon. Just like the bear, he was in a clearly-tailored suit. And yes, it looked completely goddamn adorable. The bear had been intimidating, but seeing this little raccoon in a suit made me want to pick him up and squeeze him. 

“Don’t even think about it, kid,” the raccoon snapped, clearly interpreting my body language. “No hugging me, no picking me up. The name’s Price. Like my partner was saying, we’re Minister Gray. The short version is we Touched together, now we share space and take turns being on the outside. You don’t get to know any more than that.” 

This was a lot for me to take in. My mouth opened and shut a couple times as I fought to work my way through the confusion before I managed, “Wait, you were at the–I mean of course you were at the stadium too, but Alloy saw you!” 

“She sure did,” Price the Raccoon retorted, “cuz I wanted her to. How else were you supposed to find those hostages in time?” 

Absorbing that, I fumbled for a response before landing on, “You guys are part of the Ministry?” Yeah, it was dumb, but I had to say something

“That’s right, and we came to thank you for putting aside any differences of opinion you might have with us. Getting that girl to call for help was the right thing to do,” he informed me. “The situation back at that ballpark could’ve been an outright massacre. But you accepted help from people others would call villains, and you requested help from us. That showed both initiative and forward thinking. It shows we might need to reevaluate a few things about you.” 

“I uhh… well, thanks, I guess.” What the hell was I supposed to say to that? “But you could’ve sent that message with someone who wouldn’t attract this much attention. Don’t take this the wrong way, but something tells me you’re not just here to say thank you. I don’t think you would’ve revealed yourself if that was it.” 

The raccoon smiled, showing his own teeth. “Well, no, not exactly. But that was at the top of the list. We also hear you’ve experienced a bit of a break-in from a set of masked… intruders. We’d like you to tell us exactly what happened, in detail.” 

“Oh, uh, right.” We had mentioned that to Glitch, of course, as part of maintaining our cover and making it look like Avant-Guard and the black-masked people who broke into the Ministry were different people. “That might take awhile.” 

“It’s quite alright,” came the response. “We’ve got all the time in the world.” 

“And we’re not going anywhere until we hear that story.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“She’s crazy, right?” Murphy asked a short while later, as we all sat on a roof together far away from that pizza shop and any of Braintrust. “Paintball, that lady’s gotta be loco in the heado.” 

“Did you just say loco in the heado?” Paige (or Poise now as she was still in-costume) echoed, head tilting that way as she dropped down with her back to a brick chimney.

Sierra (Style) stood on the opposite side of the roof, arms folded. The way her red leather coat flapped a bit in the breeze while that matching tactical combat helmet was framed against the city skyline behind her made the girl look cooler than I ever could. It must’ve been the way she stood. Even that was cool.  “You know the Spanish word for brain is cerebro, right?” 

After dropping her offer, Glitch had simply handed over a card with a phone number on it and told us to call her with an answer in a couple days. Of course, I had promptly painted the number from the card onto my arm and then tossed the card into the nearest trash can. No way was I going to risk carrying around something that the literal leader of a bunch of Tech-Touched villains had given me. Maybe it had a tracker in it, or a recorder, or maybe it was completely innocent. Either way, I wasn’t going to take that chance. Especially not for a phone number.

Alloy did a quick double-take at Style’s words. “Wait, really? You mean the cool name that Professor X dude gave his super telepathy machine in the comics was literally just the Spanish word for brain? That seems kind of lame. I thought they made up a cool word based off cerebrum.”

“I mean, they did make up a cool word based off cerebrum,” Roald pointed out. “It’s just that the ‘they’ in this case is the ancient Spanish people.”  

Murphy threw her hands up, making a noise of disbelief. “The point, people!” She turned to me. “That crazy lady back there can’t actually be serious with this. She can’t think that’ll work.” 

I offered a clueless shrug. “I don’t think she’s crazy. Not like that. She knows how to use Tech-Touched. And, obviously, how to make a profit off them. Probably because–hold on. Trev?” 

Before saying anything else, I turned to Trevithick. She was standing by herself, clearly deep in thought. When I addressed her, she jolted a little, looking my way before realizing what I was getting at. “Oh! Oh, right, yeah. Hang on a sec.” From a slot in her belt, she pulled a small pen-shaped device, taking a moment to wave it over all of us like security at the airport used to do before they upgraded the system to simply alert if you were carrying any weapons anywhere inside the building itself. They didn’t rely on metal detectors anymore. The system was a lot more advanced, and the scanners were hidden throughout the airport.

In any case, this wasn’t a metal detector either. After Wren had scanned all of us, she clicked her little device a couple times before shaking her head. “Nothing new. No hidden trackers.” 

The device was actually part of her ongoing attempt to get a proper working teleporter. It was meant to scan someone from head to toe to get a one-hundred percent accurate and detailed picture of their body and clothing. It wouldn’t show her their face under a mask or anything like that, just give her a microscopically-detailed… map, essentially, of their current form. Every bump in their shoes, every lace, every imperfection in armor, every button in a shirt, every tiny crack in a glass watch face, the exact contours of a pair of tiny diamond earrings, everything. It scanned and stored a perfect map of your body and clothes together. And since we’d had her scan us just before meeting with Glitch, it would have told her if absolutely anything had been added to us in that time, as the before and after pictures would have been different. 

Not that I really expected the woman to try to get away with putting a bug on one of us, but again, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Just like with the card. Maybe I was getting to be a little better about sharing with my team, but Glitch definitely wasn’t part of that. 

Once I was as sure as I could be that it was safe, I continued my thought. “She knows how to make a very good profit because she has to give part of it to my parents. I don’t think she would’ve suggested this if she didn’t think it was possible.” Pausing, I looked back to Wren. “Which, I guess makes the question, do you think it’s possible?”

She didn’t answer at first, seeming to be lost in thought again. Finally, after we all watched her for a few seconds, she looked at me. “Um, I think so. I mean, it wouldn’t be easy. And I need to look at her prototypes more.” She nodded to the other corner of the roof, where she’d left the bag with the gloves in it. Gloves which we had also obviously gone over with a fine-tooth comb for any bugs. But I expected something to be on them even less than I expected something to be on one of us. Glitch wasn’t stupid. She’d have to know that we would have our own Tech-Touched scour every millimeter of those things. Spying on us like that wasn’t worth the risk. Well, okay, it actually was. It was totally worth the risk. The stuff they could have found out about what we knew… The idea was terrifying. But she didn’t know that. 

Wren continued. “I could only do that with help. But she offered help. But she’s a bad guy. But the things she wants me to do would really help people. But she’d probably find a way to use it for bad things too, even if I do put safeties in it. But people use good things for bad stuff all the time, and it doesn’t erase the good stuff those things do. But if someone hurts people with it, that’ll be my fault. But if we don’t give her what she wants, she might ask for something worse, or start a fight. And I don’t want you guys to get hurt. But–” 

“Wren.” I stepped over that way, putting my hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay. Whatever you decide to do, we’re with you. I mean, I’m with you.” Frowning to myself for the presumption, I turned to look over my shoulder.

“Oh, of course we’re with her!” Murphy blurted. “Come on, man, what do you take us for?” 

“Right,” Paige confirmed. “It’s her choice. Whatever she decides to do about it. We could try to negotiate a single payoff, but something tells me that once Glitch gets an idea in her head about how to make an ongoing profit, it’s not easy to make her give that up. Something like this would be revolutionary. And she’s even offering to let you keep seventy percent. Which should tell you something. She thinks it’s worth so much that she can profit enough off thirty percent, even counting what she has to give to the Ministry.” 

“To your parents,” Alloy put in, with a glance my way. “Which is still really fuuudging weird to think about, for the record.” She caught herself with the curse, giving Wren a sidelong look before turning back to me. “So I guess, in a way, you’d be benefiting from some of that thirty percent too.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shook my head. “I mean at this point it’s like emptying a few dozen dump trucks of water into Lake Erie. Yeah, it’s a lot of water when it’s in the trucks, but once you empty them into the lake, you never–” Stopping short, I blanched, raising my gaze to find Wren, Peyton, Murphy, and Roald staring at me. Paige and Sierra were looking away. “Uhh heh… hehe… I guess I was sorta, kinda just talking about dump trucks full of money not being a big deal.” 

“Because you already have a Lake Erie of money,” Peyton noted. “Yeah.”

I shook my head. “My parents have a Lake Erie of money. I’ve benefited from it, sure. But it’s theirs.” 

“So it’s a lake of money you can swim in,” Murphy replied while moving over to plop herself on the edge of a metal air conditioning duct running along the roof next to me. “The point is, Alloy’s right, that’s weird to think about.” She squinted at me curiously. “What is it like, being one of the richest teenagers in the country?” 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Let’s not get into that. I just–I just don’t want you guys to think of me that way. I’m still just Paintball.” 

I couldn’t see Murphy’s face behind the ski mask, but her body language said she wanted to say something about that. She stopped herself, however, and just replied, “So, Glitch thinks this idea is such a winner that she can get all the moolah she wants and what she has to pay the Ministry off just thirty percent? Kinda weird that she didn’t try for fifty-fifty, isn’t it?” 

“She probably assumes that by offering seventy percent to us, she’ll look magnanimous.” That was Poise, bringing her legs up to her chest as she continued to sit against the brick chimney. “We’re more likely to think she’s being nice.” 

“And,” Sierra added, “that if we think at all about the money, we’ll have dollar signs in our eyes. With, of course, the added benefit that this is all for saving lives.” 

Murphy was looking down at her phone. I saw her google the definition of magnanimous before muttering, “I knew it.” Then she put it away and gestured along with what Sierra had been saying. “Yeah, she offered the big life saving invention idea so it wouldn’t make us feel like we were giving her weapons or anything she could, you know, use to hurt people.” 

“Except she still could,” Wren pointed out flatly while shifting her weight and fidgeting uncertainly. “Even if the stuff itself isn’t turned bad, you said it yourself. She’d still make money off it. A lot of money. And then she’d use that money to hurt people.” 

“Or maybe she’d retire,” I pointed out before wincing. “Yeah, probably not. But it’s okay, Wren. You think about it and whatever you decide, we’ll go with. If we need to come up with a plan to make her back off and–” 

“No.” Wren’s head shook quickly. “No, I don’t wanna make anybody fight those guys. I mean, they’re bad guys so you’re gonna have to and all that, sure. What I mean is, I don’t wanna make it, umm… personal or anything. You–I mean we already have umm, you know, enough to do.” She focused on Paige and Sierra. “We’ve gotta save your sister! And Flea and Trivial too!” She took a deep breath, letting it out before slowly continuing. “I’ll do it. I’ll help build those things. But only after I work on the thing to help track Breakwater!” 

“We’ll tell her you’ve got projects you need to finish before you get started on anything else,” I agreed. “She can’t possibly object too much to that. She has to know that Tech-Touched have their own things to do, and she just sprang this on you.” Thinking about that briefly, I gave a decisive nod. “Yeah, we’ll just tell her that we’ll work on that but she has to wait a couple weeks.” Belatedly, I focused on the girl herself. “Err, I say we. We’ll help, any way we can. But it’s up to you. Do you want to try that?” 

She didn’t answer at first, going silent again for a few seconds before murmuring, “I said I wouldn’t build anything for supervillains. But… I guess this isn’t actually for them? She’s gonna get money out of it, but we were gonna give them money anyway. I…” She squirmed on her feet, making a cute little uncertain noise in the back of her throat before finally nodding. “Okay, okay. I’ll figure out how to work on it. Um, you know, after we do the other thing.” 

Obviously, I felt a pang of regret and annoyance at myself for not being able to simply tell Glitch to go shove it. But the others were right, there was so much going on already that we really couldn’t deal with a straight up fight on our own against Braintrust. After all, they hadn’t gotten a reputation for driving other Tech-Touched either out of the city or under their heel for nothing. If we were going to fight them, it was going to need to involve all of us and our full attention. And at the moment, the majority of that attention had to be focused on saving Irelyn and Trivial. Not to mention figuring out what the hell was going on with Luciano. Our plates were absolutely full. Picking a fight with Braintrust just wasn’t in the cards, and we all knew it. 

“We’ll wait though,” I finally spoke up after all of us had gone quiet for a few seconds following Wren’s decision. “She gave us a couple days, and I’d rather stretch that out as long as possible. Then we’ll tell her you need time to open up enough of your project space to work on something new.” 

“You should start with a month,” Paige put in. “Let her negotiate you down to a couple weeks or so. It’ll make her feel like she won something even though it’s what you wanted in the first place.” 

I was already nodding that way. “Right, yeah, good plan. Uh, but I guess in the meantime, we really don’t have anything we can–” 

And that was when Wren’s phone rang. It was a bright chirping sound, like a bird singing. No, it was literally a bird singing. I realized that belatedly, as the girl tugged it out of her costume and held the thing to her ear. “Hi, Uncle Fred! Sorry, I know I said we’d call as soon as we were done so you could come pick us up, but we were still talking about–huh? Oh. Wait, what?” 

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly listening as the man said something on the other end. The rest of us looked at one another and shrugged until Wren quickly blurted, “Really?! I knew that was a good idea! Oh, uh, tell the others, Uncle Fred.” With that, she put him on speaker phone and held it out so we could hear. 

There was a brief pause before the man cleared his throat on the other end. “Uh, well, I was just sitting here and the scanner the kid set up to monitor police and emergency traffic for certain words or phrases popped up with a bunch of stuff going on about a zombie and fire, right here in town.” 

Well, that sure made me straighten up. I was on my feet in an instant, my eyes widening behind the helmet and mask. “Wait, what? Here in town? You mean Luciano…” I trailed off, grimacing. “He made it here already.” 

“Yeah, but it’s a little confusing,” came the response over the phone. “There’s a bunch of different conflicting reports about where he is, what he’s doing, that sort of thing. Guy moves fast, and he’s just… causing a bunch of bullsh-crap chaos everywhere he goes.” 

I thought about that for a moment. “If he’s pissed at the Ministry, maybe he wants to cause that chaos. Maybe that’s the point. They try to keep things as neat and orderly as possible. They have their rules. If he’s going against that, maybe his whole point is to cause a lot of terror and confusion.” 

“Well he’s sure managing that,” Fred replied. “There’s reports coming in from all over the city. But as soon as someone gets there, he’s gone already. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. He attacked a real estate office on the north side of town, then a Wendy’s about six blocks east five minutes later, then a bookstore five miles south ten minutes later. It was quiet for fifteen minutes, then he hit an art gallery just two blocks east of the bookstore. Now it’s been quiet again for–wait, hang on.” 

We were put on hold for a few more seconds while my mind reeled. What the hell? Well, I knew what the hell. I’d said what the hell. He was causing a bunch of chaos with no pattern, almost certainly as a way of getting back at the Ministry. But they weren’t the ones who were really going to be suffering. It was the people he was targeting, the people whose misery he was throwing in the Ministry’s faces. 

Fuck. Fuck, we had to stop this. 

My mouth opened to say something to that effect, when Fred came back on the line. “There’s another one. He’s hitting a convenience store about–hang on… a mile north of where you are.” 

He gave the address, and I was already turning. “I’m on my way.” My foot rose, then I froze. “I mean…” Pausing, I looked back to the others. “I don’t wanna say–” 

“Oh, shut up,” Sierra blurted. “Of course we’ve got your back. Don’t be an idiot.” 

“Now hang on there,” Fred started, “I don’t want–” 

“Sorry, Uncle Fred, gotta be a superhero!” With that, Wren clicked off the phone and faced us. “So c’mon, what’re we waiting for? Let’s go kick his butt.” 

There wasn’t time to have a whole discussion about it right then and there. Not considering Luciano could disappear again any minute. So, I shot a spray of green paint from both hands, covering everyone as much as I could before pivoting back to the edge of the roof. “Okay then.

“Let’s go stop a zombie.” 

******

“Ahhhh!” Murphy yelled out while hitting the blue paint I had shot in front of her. It propelled the girl across the gap between the building rooftops we had been running across. It wasn’t the first or longest gap I’d shot her and the others over, nor was it the widest. But she screamed every time, as did Roald. I was pretty sure hers was about seventy-five percent joy and twenty-five percent terror, while Roald’s was closer to fifty-fifty. Either way, they insisted on continuing along with it. 

Roald hit the paint a second later, even as Murphy was landing on the far building, the orange paint I’d given her helping the girl avoid breaking any bones in the process. Meanwhile, Paige and Sierra hit the second blue puddle I’d put down, one after the other. They both launched themselves that way, rolling as they hit the far roof before popping right back to their feet. 

Rather than using either puddle, I just made blue paint appear on the bottom of my boots as I hit the edge of the roof, launching myself that way. Above me and to one side, Wren was flying with her dragonfly-like wings, while Alloy flew on her hoverboard above and to the other side. Both of them were calling out which way we should go to reach good jumping points to get from roof to roof. Beyond that, we were following my directions. Or rather, the directions the helmet was giving me when I used the map function Wren had provided in the heads-up display. It showed me just how to get to the spot where Luciano was supposedly still causing trouble, if what Fred had said when Wren checked in with him a moment earlier was right. 

There we were, running and jumping from roof to roof, using blue, green, and red paint as much as I could manage just so we could get there as fast as possible, praying we weren’t too late. Poise and Style being full of… poise and style. They were doing this as though they’d done it their entire lives, like Olympic-level athletes. Hell, they barely needed the paint boosts, which really helped given how fast I would’ve run out if I had to use it for everyone. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, clearly weren’t nearly as skilled. But they were doing their best, and they weren’t bad. Probably from a lifetime of running through dangerous neighborhoods and away from people who saw them as easy marks. Their method of getting around was just a bit less polished. 

With Trevithick flying along one side of me and Alloy along the other, we brought up the rear so I could hit people and spots with paint whenever needed. Wren and Peyton both helped with that, calling down to me to point out the right spots. It worked pretty well, once we got the system down a couple buildings in. By this point, we were basically a well-oiled machine with it. 

Once I joined them on that roof, my skates skidded to a stop. This was it. On the other side of this building was the parking lot connecting to the convenience store. I could hear screaming, along with a weird guttural howling sound. Oh, and fire. I heard fire too. 

Together, we raced to the far side of the roof, ready to jump down there and stop this guy. Then we all stopped short. Because we saw the guy. Except it wasn’t the guy. That is, it wasn’t Luciano. Standing down there in the middle of the parking lot, in front of a couple cowering civilians who were trying to take cover behind a bench in front of the store, was a man who looked nothing like Luciano. He was white, for one thing. He looked like a random beach bum, with long blonde hair, tanned skin, board shorts, and no shirt. Which gave us a good view of the dozen holes in his chest and stomach. Some were only partial holes, while others ran all the way through, showing daylight on the other side. It was like he’d been hit with a shotgun blast of pellets. 

It wasn’t Luciano. But he was still clearly dead, still had obvious death-wounds, and was still moving despite that. Oh, and he had the same fire power, given the way his teeth were visibly glowing. To say nothing of the way he grabbed the bench the people were cowering behind and made it start melting. He wasn’t Luciano, but he was in the same condition.

So… who the fuck was this? 

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Enkindle 23-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There will be a very long commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge posted a bit later today, outside of the normal schedule. This is today’s normal chapter.

Needless to say, there were some surprised looks when I pulled the mask off and dropped it onto the nearby table. Surprised looks from everyone, really, though for different reasons. Sierra and Paige looked surprised that I had actually done it, while the other five were clearly shocked at what they actually saw. Not instantly, of course. There was confusion first, about what the hell I was doing or what my point was. Then I could see as they realized what they were looking at. 

“Wait–” Roald started. His gaze snapped from me over to Sierra and back again, mouth opening and shutting. He was clearly trying to put the whole thing together, though his brain seemed to have short-circuited somewhat. Which was fair, given the circumstances. 

The others weren’t faring any better, for the most part. Murphy kept pointing at Sierra and then back to me while making confused noises in the back of her throat. It was part-choke, part-whine, and part-stammer. Fred was just gaping silently, and Peyton had actually sat down heavily in the chair behind her with an audible thunk followed by a squeak as the force of her falling into it slid the chair backward along the floor. 

Wren was the first to actually find her voice, wings carrying her up near the ceiling in her sudden excitement and confusion. She hovered there, calling down, “Paintball! You’re Sierra! Wait, no, the other way! Sierra, you’re Paintball! Wait, wait–” 

Sierra gave a very slight smirk, gesturing idly with one hand. “No, you pretty much nailed it. This body was built from Paintball’s DNA. Not that our dad knows that. I mean, he doesn’t know she’s Paintball.”

“She?!” That word was what Murphy jumped on, grabbing it like a drowning person being thrown a lifeline. She was pointing at me once more. “You’re a she! You’re she! She’s–you–not he, she, that’s a she, you’re–that is–I don’t–girl! Girl!” It was like that word was all she could manage to keep repeating. 

Looking down at the floor for a moment as I fought back a deep blush, I finally cleared my throat. “I uhh, yeah, That’s about the size of it. Yes–wait.” My voice was still that of a boy, which really confused everything. So, I reached up and took the Bluetooth device out of my ear, hitting the button to turn it off before speaking again with my normal voice while fidgeting with the device in my hand. “Yes, I’m a girl. Yeah, I’ve been lying to everyone about that. Well, almost everyone. I–” Squirming a bit uncomfortably as they all stared at me, I muttered, “I’m sorry.” 

“You mean you’ve been a girl this whole time?!” Peyton blurted, her eyes widening dramatically. She pushed herself back up from the same chair she had just dropped into. 

“Well I didn’t just change,” I managed reflexively before flushing even more. “I mean yes, this is me. This is who I’ve always been. It was easier to hide my identity by pretending to be a boy.” Even as I said those words, the awkwardness felt worse. Not just because I was telling them about how much I had lied, but also because this was me as myself rather than hiding behind the identity of Paintball. I hadn’t fully realized up until that point how much the mask and helmet had allowed me to pretend to be another person. Which was really weird given the actual situation. The anonymity of being Paintball rather than Cassidy really had affected me more than I thought. Revealing myself like this, talking to them as myself rather than through the mask, helmet, and voice changer made me feel a lot more vulnerable. Especially because it was happening all at once. I was exposing myself to all five of them, rather than having separate discussions the way I’d planned originally. This whole thing was a lot. 

But if I thought it was a lot for me, it had to be pretty heavy for them too. And they didn’t even know the half of it yet. If they thought their minds were blown now…

Clearing my throat, I straightened up to look at all of them. They had fallen silent for the moment, just staring at me while absorbing what I’d said. So, I continued. “Like I said, I pretended to be a boy because it’s easier to hide my identity that way. Especially because it means I can pretend to be younger than I really am. And it’s important that I hide who I am. I mean, even more important than it would be for most people.” 

“Who are you?” That was Peyton, sputtering a bit as she added, “I mean, why would Paige and Sierra’s dad have a special body made that looks like you?! He didn’t make it because you’re Paintball, they said he doesn’t even know that you’re Paintball. And besides, it would have been made a long time ago, right? So the only reason he’d make a body that looks like you is if he had some kind of history with you before, but what kind of history could it be? I mean, who are you to him? Who are you at all? What–wait–” 

She started to continue along those lines, while the others began to sputter questions too, making things difficult to keep track of. It was starting to spiral. But I held up both hands to hold them off. “It’s okay, guys, I’m going to explain, I promise. Maybe I should’ve explained the whole thing before, but… but I was nervous. I mean–sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lied to you guys for so long. But there’s a reason I’m so… I’m sorry. Just let me explain, please?” 

They all stared at me for another moment before Peyton showed up from her chair and nodded. Her voice cracked just a little. “It’s okay, Paintball. Or… or whoever you are. You can tell us the truth. We’re listening.” 

Her words were met with an assortment of nods from the others, even Paige and Sierra, who were staying in the background and being quiet through most of this. I’d actually gotten through the initial bombshell of showing my face and revealing that I was a girl, and now they were ready for me to actually explain the situation. Which, of course, would involve several more bombshells. But whatever, there was no turning back now, so here went nothing. And given the situation, I decided that I might as well start with a big one 

“My name is Cassidy,” I informed them, my own voice faltering just a bit before I forced myself to continue. “Cassidy Evans.” 

Yeah, that sure got a reaction. Everyone did even have more of a double-take than they had when I first revealed my face. Fred managed an incredulous, “Cassidy Evans? As in the daughter of–was in the–I pointed a gun at Cassidy Evans?!” His voice rose to an almost amusing shrill shriek with that exclamation. I could see and hear the reaction across his face and in his words. “You’re like, the richest, most important kid in town and I just–and I was–oh God.” It was his turn to sit down heavily in the nearest chair, clearly playing through what could have happened in his head. “If I shot you, if you–if your parents–” It sounded like he was about to be sick, his face pale.  

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “You didn’t know. I mean– wait, what am I saying, of course it wasn’t okay. You were kind of being a jerk at the time. But whatever, my point is this doesn’t make it worse. Or it does, but not for the reason you–never mind. You’re right though, it would’ve been bad if you shot me and my parents found out, because–” 

“It’s them, isn’t it?” That was Peyton. “They’re the ones behind this whole Ministry thing. They’re the ones in charge. That’s how you know for a fact that it isn’t Caishen, and why you’ve been so obsessed with hiding your identity. That’s why it’s so important that everyone thinks you’re a boy, a younger boy even. Because if anyone would recognize you as a girl, it’s your parents. And you really don’t want them to, because they’re the ones you’re trying to stop.”  

Taking a deep breath, I nodded that way. “Yeah, you pretty much nailed it. I found out the truth about my family the same time I got my powers, a couple months ago.” 

From there, I went on to explain the situation from the start. They all fell silent and watched while I started with hiding inside the car that night. Well, mostly silent. They did have a bit of an exclamation when I mentioned that I was hiding in one of the cars in our garage. But that quieted down soon enough, mostly because they wanted to hear the whole story. 

So, I told them. I explained about what I’d seen that night, about Touching the orb, getting my powers and using them accidentally for the first time, about hiding under the dumpster, hearing my brother, then eavesdropping on my mother and him at home, going out that first night in my makeshift costume and finding out my dad was Silversmith, and so on. I told them about the whole thing, the full story about what I had been through over the last couple of months. It was a lot to get through, especially given the way they were staring at me. 

I did leave out a couple of things, of course. I didn’t tell them about Raindrop being Izzy and living with me, or about That-A-Way being Amber. Those weren’t my secrets to tell, so I had to leave them out. Those two weren’t here to say it was okay. If they wanted to reveal themselves later, that was up to them. I wasn’t going to force the issue. This was enough for now. 

Once I had finished explaining everything that I could, including the whole bit about my history with Paige, who Anthony was and what had happened to my memory, and so on, I finally took a drink from the can of soda that Paige had offered me partway through that. “So,” I announced hesitantly after swallowing hard, “that’s the truth. That’s who I am and why I’ve been lying. Like I said, I had to hide my identity from my parents. They’ve got people everywhere, and I didn’t know who to trust. I still don’t, really. Except for you guys. You guys have earned that. So have Way and Raindrop, but they already know who I am.” 

“They do?” Murphy managed. “They already–wait so you know who they are?” 

Grimacing a little, I hesitated before nodding. “But I can’t tell you, because–” 

“That’s okay,” Peyton immediately put in. “Don’t uhh, don’t worry. We get it. Right?” She pointedly looked to the others, who all agreed. “You don’t have to expose their secrets just because you’re telling us yours. You–you’re really…” She rocked back on her heels, head shaking. “Holy shit, Paintball, this is pretty big.” 

Wren, who had come down from the ceiling by then, landed near me. She was biting her lip as she looked me up and down before starting hesitantly. “But… you’re still Paintball, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly as I met her gaze. “Yes. Yes, of course it’s still me. I’m still me. I’ve always been me, just a different me than you thought. Sort of different. I’m just older and a different gender than you thought, that’s all. The rest of it is still just me.” 

“That’s all?” Peyton echoed. “That’s a pretty big difference. I mean, in some ways.” She grimaced a little, taking a breath. “Sorry, I don’t–I’m not saying it’s–yeah. I get it. I think we all get why you lied about that even after you told us the other stuff. It’s a pretty big thing to get into. And you already dropped some pretty major bombs before.”

Murphy nodded. “Yeah, for sure. We totally get why you did it, but it’s still a lot to take in, you know? Like, I’ve been thinking of you one way this entire time, and the truth is completely different. You’re older than we are. You’re a girl. You–it’s–fuck, dude. Like I said, it’s a lot.” 

Everyone was quiet for a moment before Roald spoke up. “Plus, you’re not just a girl and older, you’re Cassidy Evans. The Cassidy Evans. Which, for the record, you don’t look anything like I expected. When people talk about Cassidy Evans, I always picture like, you know…” He trailed off before turning to gesture toward Paige without saying anything. 

Swallowing, I did my best not to make too much of a face. “Yeah, I get that a lot, trust me. My mom said I should take it as a good thing in some ways. The fact that people don’t really know what I look like means I don’t get mobbed out on the street. I guess she sort of has a point.”  

“Wait, hold on, are you sure that is what you look like?” That was Murphy, straightening up suddenly as she stared at me intently. “You said your family has a way of putting illusions over people, right? Are you sure they’re not doing it to you so that you and everyone else see this?” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before shaking my head. “First, I don’t think it works that way. I’m pretty sure the people that have illusions on them are using some sort of Touched-Tech for it, and I don’t have anything like that on me. If they were casting a hologram over me or something, I think it would have to come from something I had with me all the time. It’s not like I have a bracelet or something that I’m always wearing. And if it was somehow projecting the effect from somewhere to everywhere I go, they would have figured out who I really was by now.” 

“Plus the idea of them having some sort of machine that can project illusions over people anywhere in the city, and even out of the city, is pretty goddamn terrifying,” Peyton noted. “So personally, I’d rather believe they’re not quite that ridiculously powerful.”  

“Yeah, that too,” I agreed. Taking a breath, I started to say something else, before Sierra spoke up first. 

“Anyway, there’s definitely no illusion going on with her, because that one knew her five years ago.” She gestured to Paige. “And there hasn’t been a real change.” Turning back to me, she offered a shrug. “Sorry, not to be insulting or anything. I mean, you’ve gotten a bit bigger and all. And you–” 

Flushing deeply, I quickly cut her off. “I get it, yeah. I haven’t changed.” To the others, I added, “That was my second point. Not the Paige thing, but the whole bit about me from the past. There are pictures and videos of me throughout the whole time I’ve been growing up and there’s never a big shift in what I look like. Even if they had the ability to do something like that, I don’t think they’d carry it on for this long. That would just be cruel, and my parents are a lot of things, maybe even sometimes cruel to other people, but not to me. And yeah, I know how that sounds. I really do. But seriously. They’re not complete monsters. This whole thing would be–it’d be easier if they were. They’ve done a lot of bad things, but they’ve also done a lot of good things. My dad is literally Silversmith. He’s saved a lot of people.” 

“And he’s let a lot of other people get hurt and die,” Murphy pointed out. Her voice didn’t really sound accusatory, however. If anything, she sounded sympathetic. “Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a family member who does bad things sometimes but also does a lot of good.” 

Oh. Right, yeah she would understand that, wouldn’t she? It was a reminder that made me flinch a bit before I found my voice. “About that–” 

“I know,” she interrupted. “Your parents are the ones who made the call to help that piece of shit escape the city in the first place.” Her face twisted a bit as she clearly went through an assortment of emotions as far as that was concerned. “Trust me, I’ve been thinking about that this whole time. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. But I’m pretty sure they’re also the one who had him end up in the garbage. Probably cuz he made too much noise for them or something. You know, they stuck to the letter of their deal to get him out of the city and then shot him in the head or something. But he survived somehow and got powers. Or just managed to live with a bullet in the head long enough for one of those orbs to find him. And really, who could’ve predicted that?” 

Despite her words, I could still see anger in her expression and hear it in her voice. It was mostly undirected anger. She wanted Luciano dead, and the people who had helped him escape justice were the same ones who had apparently tried to make that happen. Yet they had failed at that, and now he was more dangerous than ever. Yeah, I could see how that entire situation would give her very conflicted feelings. If my family had just left it alone and let us take him in… fuck. yeah. She wasn’t the only one who had conflicted feelings.  

“We still don’t even know why he went nuts and started this whole thing in the first place,” Peyton pointed out. “Like you said, he started freaking out and causing trouble before he even had to get out of the city. That’s why he had to–” 

“Oscuro,” I blurted. “The cop from the other day outside the laundromat, he told me Luciano owed money to Oscuro. I guess maybe having Cuélebre breathing down your neck could motivate someone to go after all that money.” 

“What’re you gonna do about him?” Fred asked after we had all gone silent for a few seconds considering that realization. “Luciano that is, not Cuélebre. I mean, they’re both–” He stopped, shaking his head. “Point is, he’s still out there and he’s gonna keep hurting people, right? So what’re… uhh, we gonna do? Not that this whole thing about Paintball isn’t fascinating and all, trust me. I’m pretty freaked out myself. But seriously, he’s still out there.”

Everyone looked at me for a moment, and I hesitated while an assortment of thoughts ran through my head. Eventually, I exhaled before starting with, “First, I think we should let the Ministry know what happened, at least as much as we can without giving ourselves away. They don’t want him to be a problem any more than we do. If we’re right about them being the ones who tried to kill him, then they’ll want him stopped too. And they have a lot more resources than we do.” 

“Do you want to stop your family?” Murphy asked, her eyes on me. “Sorry, not to totally change the subject–for very long I mean, but really. Do you want to break up the Ministry?” 

Once again, my mouth opened and shut. I closed my eyes and grimaced a little before opening them as I looked at her. “I don’t know exactly what I want. That’s the biggest problem here, at least from my end. I know I don’t want things to stay the way they are. Yes, my family has done some good things, but they’ve also done some bad things. I believe they think they’re making the city better by only allowing some crime and all that. But… but they’re also making it worse in other ways. It’s like–” Cutting myself off, I tried to put my thoughts into words. “They might be stopping the city from being as bad as it could be, but they’re also stopping it from being as good as it could be. They’re keeping it static. People are still suffering. There’s still homeless, still people being shot and dying in the street, there’s still… there’s still stuff we could fix. I don’t believe there can be a place where there’s absolutely no crime and no suffering at all, but I sure as hell believe it can be better than this. I believe that the Ministry puts profit first, even if they also do some good. And I want to change that. But I can’t as long as it exists the way it does right now. I want to make things better.” 

The others were silent for a moment after I finished saying that, until Wren finally grabbed both of my hands and squeezed them. “We’re all gonna help! We’re gonna help make things better, right?” 

That was met with mixed agreement, before Paige made a point of clearing her throat. “I can… I can contact the Ministry. Anonymously, I mean. I have a phone number for them. I can give them a quick rundown of what happened so they can start looking for him before he… hopefully before he hurts too many people.” 

“Before he kills too many people, she means,” Sierra put in. “And yeah, probably best that you keep it anonymous, because I don’t think they’d listen to the group that just broke into their base.”

“Probably not,” I agreed. 

I started to say something else about that, but was interrupted as the phone in the store rang. Everyone looked that way as Fred grimaced and muttered an apology before answering it. He listened for a second, then looked over and held the phone out to me. “It’s for you, Paintball.” 

I started to take it, only to quickly turn the voice changer back on at a pointed nudge from Paige. Making sure it was working, I took the phone and answered, “Who is this?” 

“Fabulist,” came the response from a male voice. “You know why I’m calling.” 

“Glitch wants an answer about the Touched-Tech tax thing,” I guessed. 

“Exactly,” he confirmed. “It’s been a lot longer than two weeks, since we got a little… busy. But she’s ready now. And she wants to talk in person again. She’ll meet you at the old pizza place where you met before. You know where that is?” 

Thinking about that briefly, I replied, “Yeah, I remember where it is. We’ll be there. When?” 

“Tomorrow evening,” was the answer. “Make it around this time. And don’t make us wait for too long.” 

He hung up then, so I did the same. Everyone was staring at me as I explained what that was. 

“So you’re going?” Paige asked. 

“We are,” I confirmed, looking over the others. “We’re all finally on the same page. No pun intended.” I added that with a glance toward the blonde girl before continuing. “You guys know the truth. You know what’s really going on. So I’m not going to this meeting alone. If you–if you’re still with me, I think we should go as a team. All of us together, finally.

“Time for everyone to meet the full Avant-Guard.” 

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