Peyton Favors

Hostile Witness 18-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you feel about tunnels?”

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 20th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Murphy and Roald

“What do you think she’s like?” Roald asked Murphy as the two of them trotted up the last short distance to the pawn shop that Paintball had directed them to before taking off to deal with those Easy Eight people. “I mean, if she’s working with Paintball, she must be pretty cool, right?” 

Shrugging, Murphy looked up at the sign above the door as they approached. “Wren’s Nest. Looks like this is the place. So I guess we’re about to find out if she’s cool, or just some boring old rich chick who likes to build things.” She made a face then as a shudder ran through her. The two moved away from the front door to head around the back the way Paintball had said they should. “God, I hope she doesn’t smell funny. I’m not sure how much I can work for some old chick if she smells funny.”  

“It’s a real job,” Roald reminded her. “Paintball, he… he gave us a chance. He’s giving us a chance. C’mon, Murph. We can work for someone who smells funny, just get that chapstick stuff that smells really good and put it under your nose. Just remember, we’re not working for some smelly old woman, we’re working for a superhero.” Belatedly, he added, “Um, and don’t tell her she smells funny, okay? Even if she does. Cuz–” 

“That was one time, Roo!” Murphy shot back, holding up a finger. “One time. And that woman smelled like she walked through the perfume aisle at the store and dumped every single bottle they had on herself. There was a little girl on that bus who was crying because of that smell. She couldn’t breathe. Nobody could breathe. That woman was a danger to everyone. I’m pretty sure the driver was practically blind from the fumes! I did everyone a favor.” 

Snorting, Roald nodded slowly before pointing out, “Sure, right. It was bad. I’m just pretty sure there was a better way to handle it than dumping your water bottle out over her and asking if she was aware that chemical weapons are a war crime.”  

With an audible snicker, Murphy lifted her chin. “Hey, it got the point across, didn’t it? She got off the bus at the next stop. And I’m pretty sure she took it easy on the perfume after that. I really did a service to everyone she ever meets in the future. Sometimes you have to go with the direct approach. Tough love.” As she said that, they had reached the back door, and the girl put a hand out to ring the buzzer there. 

“Yeah, well,” Roald replied, “at least you don’t have a water bottle this time.” 

Spinning on him at that, Murphy pointed. “That’s why you wouldn’t let me stop to get a drink, you–”

She was interrupted then, as the door abruptly swung open to reveal a six-foot tall, roughly fifty-year-old man with dark slicked back hair and a pronounced potbelly that was at odds with the rest of his quite thin body. “You know, if you kids are trying to play Ding Dong Ditch, you forgot the ditch part.” When he spoke, the two could smell cigarettes. 

“Oh God,” Murphy managed, “are you Wren? I swear, he said she, right?” She looked to Roald. 

Squinting at them, the man grunted after a second. “Hold up, you’re those kids Paintball was gonna bring over.” He leaned out the doorway then, looking both ways before turning his attention back to them. “So, where is he?” 

“Uhh… he had to go fight some bad guys,” Roald hesitantly replied. “Easy Eights, they were driving by in a truck and um, and it looked like something bad was about to happen. So he sent us here, uhh, Mr. Wren, sir.” 

“What?” the man blinked that way, then laughed. “Hell naw. Name’s Fred, not Wren. C’mon, I’ll introduce you.” He stepped back then, holding the door as he waited for them to enter. 

For a brief moment, the two teenagers looked at one another, silently communicating. Finally, they shrugged and stepped in before looking around. Murphy gave a low whistle. “Wow. This place looks awesome. Look at all the shit you’ve got around here. Holy crap, is that a real record player? Like, that thing’s real and not just some fake with an MP3 player built into it or something, right?” She was already moving that way to squint at the thing on the shelf. 

“Uh huh!” A new voice piped up from right in front of Murphy, as a small blonde girl popped into view from where she had been bent down behind the shelf. She had an armful of random objects that she’d clearly just picked up. 

Murphy, of course, yelped and stumbled backward while cursing. “Shit, shit, fuck, what, what?” 

“Sorry!” the younger girl blurted before turning to carefully put the stuff she had collected into a nearby box. “You just sounded really excited about the record player. It’s a Pioneer PL-55X. Classic.” 

Roald, who had come up to Murphy’s side, blinked at the kid. “Oh, uhh, hey. That’s cool. So, is this your… mom’s shop? Your grandmother’s?” 

“Well,” the girl frowned thoughtfully. “It was my dad’s, but… but my parents died.” She went quiet then, before shaking off those feelings. “Now it’s mine.” 

“Yours?” Murphy managed a bit weakly, as the truth began to dawn on both of them. 

“Oh! I’m dumb. Sorry, hi.” With that, the younger girl extended her hand with a bright smile. “I’m Wren!” 

That, of course, left the two teenagers staring at her, then at each other, then back at her again. Roald was the first to find his voice. “Wren the… second, right? You live here with your… grandmother and…” He looked back to Fred. “And him.” 

“That’s Uncle Fred,” Wren informed them. “And nope, it’s just us. Me and Uncle Fred. We help Paintball! And now you get to help us help Paintball. Isn’t that great?” 

In a dull, flat voice, Murphy agreed, “Totally fantastic. He just uhh, he didn’t exactly mention that…” 

“He didn’t tell them you were a kid,” Fred grunted from where he was standing by the door. The man sounded amused by the whole situation. “Probably wanted to see their faces or something. His loss.” 

“So–so wait, wait.” Murphy was clearly still reeling from the whole thing. “This is real? Like, really real? It’s not a joke? You–you’re the Tech-Touched Paintball wants us to help around this place?” 

Scrunching up her face a bit, Wren hesitantly asked, “Is… is something wrong?” 

Once more, the two teenagers exchanged looks before turning back to her. Roald shook his head. “You know what? Nope. Nothing’s wrong. We’re good. You’re like, this really cool Tech-Touched, right? You can really build things?” 

“Can we see some of it?” Murphy put in then, her eagerness totally eclipsing the uncertainty she felt about apparently working for a child. 

The worried, uncertain look on Wren’s face faded quickly, and she brightened. “Sure! C’mon, I’ve got some really great stuff.

“If you think the record player’s cool, wait till you see the machine that makes people really, really slow. Or the teleporter, or–” Abruptly, she hit something on her sleeve, and a pair of dragonfly-like wings sprang out, as she lifted off the ground. “Or these!” 

“You know what, Roald?” Murphy managed, staring up at the hovering, giggling girl, “I don’t care if she’s a kid, a toddler, or an old lady. Even one that smelled. 

“This is gonna be an awesome job.” 

********

Peyton

“Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What’s up with you? What? Whaaaat? Are you serious? Fell-Touched? Like, real bad guys? What? No, no, I wasn’t there. Nope, I was at McDonalds. I was walking home. I was at the bus stop. I was grabbing a sandwich from the store. I was behind the mall buying a bagful of drugs to sell at school. You should see the profit margin on that shit.” 

As she walked across the back parking lot behind the apartment building where she lived, Peyton Favors slowed, grimacing. “Yeah, probably not that last one.” Opening her cupped hands where the assortment of colored marbles quivered and pulsed excitedly, she asked, “What do you guys think? Which excuse is Mom gonna buy?” 

The marbles floated up off her hand, spinning around in circles rapidly before bouncing off each other. Which wasn’t exactly helpful for making up the right thing to say, even if it was cute. Plus, they were going to attract attention. So Peyton quickly pulled them back and pushed the marbles into her pockets. “Just be quiet for a little bit, okay? I can’t explain you to Mom. She just… she wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t understand any of this.” Muttering that last bit to herself, the girl took a deep breath and then jogged across the parking lot. “Time to face the music.” 

She still hadn’t settled on exactly which excuse to use by the time she had gone in the back entrance and used the elevator to reach the ninth floor, where the apartment she and her mother lived in actually was. There, she headed down the hall, and was just about to use her key to unlock the apartment itself when the door suddenly swung open. 

Automatically, Peyton began to launch into her recited speech. “Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What–” 

If her mother noticed that the girl had accidentally started responding to questions she hadn’t even been asked yet, she didn’t show it at all. Instead, the short, red-haired (just like her daughter) and almost abnormally skinny woman grabbed Peyton by both arms and pulled her into the living room, then hugged her so tight the girl thought she might’ve cracked a rib. “Oh my God, you’re home! I was just talking to the police, they told me you weren’t one of the hostages down there and I told them how fucking incompetent they were and–” 

“Mom! Mom, what–” Taking a deep breath to prepare herself for what was coming while her mother was holding her so tight, Peyton managed to extricate herself. “What are you talking about? You called the cops because I was a little late? What hostages? What? Mom, what happened? What did you say to them?” She did her best to look completely baffled and lost about the whole situation, hoping her mother wouldn’t see through it. 

Then she met her mother’s frantic gaze and had to suppress the urge to react. Oh boy, this was hard. It wasn’t like Peyton enjoyed lying to her mother. As much as she might have bristled against the woman’s overprotectiveness lately, she really did love her. Seriously, it had been the two of them basically on their own for as long as she could remember. Lying to her mother right now was hard. But she knew what would happen if she didn’t. Her mom would overreact. She would try to stop her from doing anything dangerous. After Peyton’s dad left, they just… she kind of lost her mind at the thought of losing her daughter too. 

Peyton understood that. She really, truly did. But she couldn’t let that stop her. She had these marbles, these powers, for a reason. She had to use them to help people. Someday, she would be able to explain it to her mother, once she proved that she was a real hero. She would establish herself–her Touched self, as a bonafide, genuine hero. Then she would show her mother who she really was. Once her mother saw what she could do, how she could help people… maybe she would understand? 

Pushing all those thoughts down, she focused on looking as confused as possible while her mother went on about the attack at the shopping center. Through it all, Peyton continued to insist that she hadn’t been there, that she went earlier but had been gone by the time any of that went on. She claimed she was eating with a few people from school that she’d run into. Thankfully, any doubts her mother might’ve had were forced to contend with the fact that Peyton was right there in front of her and that the cops had told her she wasn’t with the group of hostages. 

Of course, Peyton had to explain why she hadn’t answered any calls or texts from her mother. Thankfully, she had an excuse ready for that. Namely, her phone was dead. Mostly thanks to the special app she had downloaded and run to make sure it had been completely drained by the time she got home, but still.

Finally convinced that her daughter was fine after all, and had never been in any actual danger, Suzanne Favors gave a long sigh before looking over to her own phone. “Okay, I guess I’ve got a police lieutenant to apologize to. Let me get that done and then I’ll make you some–oh, you’re not hungry.” 

Peyton started to object that she was starving, only to catch herself. Fuck. She’d said that she was eating with those people from school. Right, damn it. She was going to have to grab some food later. Eating now would just make her mother suspicious again. “Yeah,” she murmured, “couldn’t eat another bite. I uhh, I’m gonna go to my room.” 

Her mom hugged her once more with a sigh of relief, before Peyton headed off with a sigh of her own. But hers was not one of relief. She heard her mother starting to apologize on the phone, hesitating before looking over her shoulder to see the woman standing with her back to her. For a moment, Peyton just stood there, staring for a moment while listening to that. Her voice, when she spoke, was a barely audible whisper. “Sorry, Mom.” 

Yeah, it was probably a good thing she wasn’t trying to eat anything right now. 

She probably wouldn’t be able to keep it down anyway. 

**********

Cavalcade

Technically, the woman who drove her Range Rover through the gates of the storage facility somewhere in the middle of Detroit, a mile or so away from downtown, was known to the world at large as Cavalcade. But no one would have recognized her now. Her hair in that public identity as a Sell-Touched was long, flowing, and black. The woman who was parking her vehicle near the building that served as the main office had short blonde hair styled in a pixie cut. She also wore thick-rimmed glasses. And yes, she was aware that she was leaning into that trope, but the truth was she actually needed them. The goggles she wore in costume weren’t just for show, after all. They had prescription lenses. 

In addition to the different hair and the glasses, she wore a pair of slightly loose jeans and a somewhat too-large shirt and jacket that helped to play down and conceal rather than emphasize her voluptuous figure. The opposite of her Touched-Self’s red bodysuit. 

No, it was quite clear from both a glance and further inspection that this woman and the mercenary known as Cavalcade were very different. By design, of course. Being someone who worked for the highest bidder on either side of the legal line tended to also make you enemies on both sides of that line. Even when you lived by your own code, kept things professional, and refused to either rat out criminals who employed you or work with total psychopaths like the Scions, there were still those who would love to make life hell for a poor mercenary who was just trying to get along. 

Okay, ‘poor’ was a very bad descriptor for her in almost every way. But still. 

Stepping out of the Range Rover before crossing the short distance to the main office on a pair of simple, functional tennis shoes, the much-less outrageous and attention-getting woman tugged open the door before poking her head in. “Morning!” she called toward the desk that took up about half of the room in this small office. 

“Miss Mclean?” the dark-haired young woman, practically a kid really (she was still in college, after all) rose from the seat. “Is everything okay?” 

Brianna Mclean. That was what people (generally) knew her as whenever she wasn’t being Cavalcade. It wasn’t the name she had been born with, of course. She’d left that behind at least two identities ago. But Brianna Mclean worked. 

“Oh, absotively!” Brianna confirmed with a smile, still standing in the doorway. “I just wanted to let you know I got your request for next week off, and you go right ahead. We’ll get people to cover your shifts, you focus on studying for that test, Jessie.” 

Brightening, Jessie thanked her, and Brianna gave the girl a quick thumbs up before stepping out again. There, she had done her job as the owner of this place. Time for a little fun. 

She left her vehicle where it was. It wouldn’t surprise anyone, since her apartment was actually connected to the lot itself. She often left her vehicle at random places on the property. 

However, rather than walk toward that small building, barely a stone’s throw away from the door into the main office, Brianna turned the opposite way and began to stroll through the parking lot, past dozens of storage sheds where random people kept their random junk. 

Walking to a specific storage unit, Brianna hummed to herself while reaching out to open the nearby keypad. Thumbing in the code, she waited until it gave a confirming beep, then looked straight at the tiny lens on top, waiting for it to scan her face. As it did, there was one more beep, followed by a ding. The ding was from the woman’s phone in her pocket, where she would have just gotten an alert that the door had been accessed. Even if someone managed to copy her face and get her code (and know to come here in the first place), she would get the alert that they were there. 

Taking the phone from her pocket, Brianna entered the six digit code there that would prevent the place she was about to enter from engaging security measures. Then she reached down, hauled the door up, stepped inside, and let the door roll back down behind her. 

The storage room looked like any other, on the surface. There were boxes stacked up that had various clothes and books, a pair of skis, a rundown chair, and some paintings in the corner that weren’t worth more than twenty to thirty bucks a piece. Walking around all that, Brianna moved to the back corner of the room. Taking her phone out, she pressed a button, and, with a low grinding noise, a small section of the floor there slid away to reveal a set of stairs leading down. 

She descended, letting the hidden trapdoor slide shut behind her before continuing on to emerge into what turned out to be an enormous penthouse condo that took up a large portion of the underground area beneath the storage facility lot. The place would have been right at home functioning as the imperial suite in a five star hotel. 

This was Brianna’s real home. She spent enough time in her supposed apartment at the edge of the lot to make it look as though she lived there, and it was where her official residence was. But this was where her money went. This was where she relaxed. She had everything she needed here, far from prying eyes and legal entanglements. 

With a smile, the woman glanced around the luxurious living room that her hidden tunnel opened up into. Her gaze passed over the ‘windows’ along the opposite wall, which were actually video screens showing a view of the skyline over Tokyo at the moment. 

“Lana,” she addressed her personal assistant computer. “Dim the lights to half, run a hot bath in the master whirlpool, and put last night’s Pistons game on the screen in there, starting from the second quarter when I had to leave.” 

“Yes, Brianna,” came the soft response. 

As the lights dimmed and she heard the distant sound of basketball and running water, Brianna sighed in appreciation. Then she walked that way, stripping down as she went. 

Even the Evans couldn’t have it much better than this. 

*********

The following takes place a short time in the future from the current regular chapters

Right, I couldn’t avoid it anymore without drawing attention. Even though I was still dealing with everything that happened (and was still happening) with Paige, there was something important I had to do. Okay, there are a lot of things I had to do, but this one jumped to the top of the list. I had to go to court. Well, I had to go to the courthouse and give my depositions for everything official that had happened since I started this whole Star-Touched thing. Every bad guy that got arrested because of me, every official police case I had any involvement in, all of that. 

First, I’d gone through that same unremarkable building a block away from the courthouse That-A-Way had directed me to so I could turn in those papers about holding Ashton prisoner before. I’d even been escorted through to the tunnel that led to the courthouse itself by my old pal, Officer Metts. 

And now, here I was, sitting in one of the so-called deposition rooms. As Flea had promised, the room consisted of a long table. The judge sat at one end, the court stenographer at the other end. I sat in the middle on one side, while a couple empty chairs sat opposite me, and one just a little bit down from where I was sitting. 

The judge, an old, entirely bald black man with the last name of Pamure, gently asked, “Do you know how this is supposed to work?” 

Swallowing back the nerves that I felt, I nodded. “Those folders next to you are all the cases that I have something to do with. You’ll go through each case one at a time, call in the lawyers for both sides. The defendant lawyer sits over there, the prosecuting attorney sits over here on this side. They each get to ask questions about everything in the case, just like they would in court. The stuff I say gets recorded by her, and by that.” I nodded toward the stenographer, then to the camera up in the corner of the room. “We do that for every case, then move on.” 

Judge Pamure confirmed, “Yes, pretty much. We also like to move these things along as quickly as possible, because there’s a lot to go through every month. You, it’s been more than a month, but we let newbies slide a little bit. Not like the system doesn’t have enough to deal with anyway.” He cleared his throat then. “Anyway, that’s the gist. You don’t have to answer any questions about your identity, your personal life, anything you feel uncomfortable with. We’ll zip through the questions from both sides, you just tell the truth about what happened–you’ll be sworn in before we start, and we’ll all get out of here. Okay, you’ll get out of here. I’ll move to the next Touched in line. So, you ready?” 

After I confirmed that I was, the judge had the first pair of lawyers brought in by the bailiff–who happened to be the same man who subsequently had me put my hand on a copy of the state constitution and swear to tell the truth. I did, of course, and everyone settled in for the first set of questions, from the prosecuting attorney. 

Ashton. This was all about Ashton. I should’ve figured they’d start with this one. Bit by bit, question by question, I established everything safe for them to know about what had happened, why we held him prisoner for a short time, what we’d done to get back the vials that he had stolen and why, and so on. 

Ashton’s lawyer, of course, had her own questions. But honestly, she didn’t seem all that invested. Oh, she did her job. She pushed back on a few things I said, just enough for the judge to calmly tell her to back off at least once. But she didn’t really seem completely devoted. Probably because she was a public defender. She did her job well enough to be counted, but Ashton wasn’t an important case to her. He was just a number. I also had the feeling that some of those questions had come from Ashton himself, thinking he was going to trip me up. A few I saw her cross off with a pen without even reading them. So those ones must’ve been real doozies. 

Eventually, it was done. Both lawyers said they had no more questions. But instead of leaving, they both shuffled some papers around, and suddenly we were talking about a different case, a random mugging I’d stopped weeks back. It took me a bit by surprise before I recovered. Right, of course the same lawyers would work different cases. They were going to run through every case that involved the same attorney(s) while they were already here. 

Yeah, this was going to take awhile. But at least I only had to do it once a month. So, I pushed my thoughts away from worrying about that whole… Paige thing and focused on answering questions. 

If nothing else, trying to answer all these questions without saying the wrong thing was a pretty good distraction from everything else going on in my life.

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Building Connections 16-13 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, congratulations! We have pushed over the 400 dollar per month mark on the Patreon! Which means you’ve hit the reward level that raises the minimum chapter length from 3000 words to 3500 words! As long as we stick above 400 (or generally close to it) I’ll keep that minimum length there. And hey, if we ever get up to 500, that will mean the minimum length goes up to 4000 words! Thank you all so much and now let’s get on with the last chapter of this arc.

Of course, talking to Peyton about Paige meant that I was going to have to expose a bit about the other girl. But what else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t save her by myself. Well, I could try, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t go very well. If there was someone in there that was giving Paige a hard time, if that virus duplicate was enough to make Paige desperately call for help, then I couldn’t deal with her by myself. I just couldn’t. And I was pretty sure even one other person helping wouldn’t be enough. Especially considering Wren wouldn’t have any control over what happened once I was in there. I’d seen plenty of movies and games about going into computers, and the person in control tended to be able to, like, manipulate the environment. That would complicate things, to say the least. Especially if I was in there by myself. 

Yeah, I had no choice but to involve Peyton in this situation (if she was willing to be involved), because I was going to need all the help I could get to save Paige from this virus thing. It wasn’t the most… optimum situation. But then, when had I ever been in an optimum situation since that first night? The night when my entire life had changed, when I’d found out the truth about my family. Or started to. Things had been complicated ever since then, and they only seemed to be getting more so as time went on.  

At the very least, it was possible that I could stop Peyton from actually finding out who Paige really was beyond her first name and what she looked like. Seriously, it wasn’t like she had any reason to recognize the girl on-sight or whatever. Paige wasn’t famous, and her face wasn’t all over the news. She hadn’t been reported missing. Most people had no idea who she was, thanks to the fact that her family (her adopted family anyway) didn’t exactly go showing her off for the press or whatever. Sure, she was pretty and all that, but lots of people were pretty. I was fairly sure that even her name wouldn’t be recognizable. Well, maybe her last name if it happened to come up for some reason. But just a blonde girl named Paige? Yeah, maybe I was just trying really hard to justify it to myself, but I was pretty sure Peyton wouldn’t have any clue who the other girl was, even if she heard her called Paige and saw her face. After all, she definitely didn’t go to our school. That was one benefit to knowing who Peyton was. I already knew for a fact what school she went to. Paige would be just some blonde girl she knew nothing about, right? 

Not to mention, all of that, again, depended upon Peyton actually agreeing to go along and help with this ridiculous, insane thing. As I reached the main store and saw the girl in question over helping Murphy and Roald pick some things up and restock them, I had a sudden wave of doubt. Should I even bring it up? God, what was the right answer?  Even if she wanted to contribute to this, what if something happened to her in there? Okay well, supposedly nothing could happen to her in the virtual reality system. It was basically the safest mission we could go on, aside from what would happen if we failed and the evil virus duplicate took over and started controlling Paige. And the best way to stop that would be to have as much help as possible, right? Yeah, just great. This was all just so great. Wonderful situation I’d found myself in, yet again. 

Taking a deep breath just as the others noticed me and looked over, I walked that way. “Hey, Alloy, could I talk to you for a minute outside? It’s kind of important. Okay, it’s really important.” I was trying to stress that importance with my voice without actually sounding as panicked as I felt about the whole thing. 

After a brief pause where she glanced at the other two, Peyton shrugged and nodded. “Uh, sure, yeah. No problem. I’ll be back, you guys. But remember, don’t you dare ask the kid what that machine in the corner is without me. I’ve still got five bucks that says it makes waffles and I’ll be damned if I’ll let you cheat me out of it.” 

That said, the two of us headed out through the back door together and into the alley behind the shop. Once we were there, Peyton just watched me curiously while I hemmed and hawed for a few long seconds, trying to decide exactly how to bring this whole thing up and explain it. Because boy was this ever hard to jump into. Seriously, how was I supposed to easily bring her up to speed and then ask her to get involved?  

Finally, I settled on giving her the basic story, that there was a girl who was part android thanks to her evil Tech-Touched father who wasn’t in the city anymore, but her identity had to remain mostly secret for her own safety. I explained that we had to use virtual reality to go into her mind, essentially, to stop an evil duplicate virus from that same evil father from taking over and controlling her into doing lots of horrible things. And yes, the longer I went on, the more crazy it sounded even to me. And I had been living it. I knew it was true, but I still felt like a complete gibbering psycho the more the words about it came out of my mouth. How did I go on day by day living with this kind of insanity? 

Unsurprisingly, by the time I finished, Peyton was staring at me like I had just told her the most ridiculous, absurd story she’d ever heard. Funny, that. She made a noise now and then as though to say something, but no words came out the first several times she tried to speak. Finally, with one finger raised (the index, not the middle as some might have after that kind of story), she asked, “Are you fucking with me right now?” 

Snorting at that despite myself, I shook my head as firmly as possible. “No, believe me, a big part of me wishes I was. I wish this whole situation was a joke, that my life wasn’t actually this complicated and ridiculous. And you really don’t even know a quarter of it.” Muttering that part under my breath, I shook it off and pushed on quickly. “But the point is, I’m telling you the truth about what’s going on here. You seriously don’t need to get involved in this if you don’t want to. Trust me, I will absolutely understand if you decide to turn around and run away as fast and as far as you can. Err, metaphorically speaking. Don’t run away from home or whatever. The point is, this is just something I have to do. And it would be pretty nice to have as much help as possible, especially considering I have no idea how much control this virus thing is going to have over the… you know, environment or whatever in the virtual reality system. Honestly, I don’t know anything about how it’s gonna go in there. Maybe you’d be safer leaving well enough alone. Maybe you’ll regret it if you go. Maybe we both will. But I’m going in there, and if–if you’d help me do it, I’d be really grateful.” Yeah, that whole thing sounded and felt incredibly awkward both in my head and out loud. But what else was I supposed to say? This was the simple and easy part of how things were. If I told her the full story about my family, the Ministry, and all of that, I was pretty sure she really would run screaming in the other direction as fast as she could go and I’d never see her again. Sometimes, I really wished I could do that. Just run away from the whole thing.

So, I just got all of that out there, breathed a couple times, and looked to the girl with a hesitant, “So, ready to change your mind about that whole ‘teaming up’ idea now that you know what kind of insanity comes with it? Believe me, I will absolutely understand if you’re ready to bounce.”

For a few seconds, Peyton was completely silent. She seemed to be weighing the whole thing. Which, I honestly couldn’t blame her for either. I would have needed a hell of a lot more than a few seconds if I was going to process being told what she had just been told without any real warning. It was a lot to take in. Eventually, however, she straightened and looked at me. “If this is the kind of stuff you’re involved in, then it’s the kind of stuff I’m involved in. I told you, I wanna team up. I know you’re still keeping a lot of important things away from me. I’m not dumb. But I don’t blame you for keeping things to yourself. You don’t even know me. Not really. And if this is how I can start to earn your trust, I’ll do it. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but we’re teenagers with superpowers, of course it all sounds crazy. For all I know, this is a completely normal day for Touched people. Maybe they go into virtual reality machines to help android girls all the time. I just–I wanna help, Paintball. Seriously, I want to be involved. Whatever it takes for me to prove you can trust me.” 

Yeah, even after she said that, a part of me wanted to tell her to turn around and get the hell out of here. But I pushed the impulse down and just told the girl to be back here tomorrow evening. And that we would focus on looking for that Amanda Sanvers girl once we dealt with this situation. Yeah, repaying Deicide was important, and so was doing whatever we could to get rid of Pencil before he killed more people. But we had to prioritize, and Paige came first right now. Especially after everything she had done to avoid killing me. I owed her.

Finally, Peyton looked to me before asking, “So, it’s just you and me going in there tomorrow? Or are you taking your minions in too? That Murphy girl seems like she’d be a good scrapper.” 

My head shook quickly. “We’re not taking them in. But there is someone else. There’s… okay, so there’s this girl I’ve sort of been… right, this is gonna sound weird, again.” With that, I explained that Pack would be coming over to help, assuming she agreed. Which required a lot of explanation about how I was almost, kind-of, sort-of friends with someone from La Casa and all that. Even after I did explain it, I was pretty sure that Peyton was still confused about the whole thing. Which, who could blame her? The entire situation was really strange. But, she basically accepted it, shaking her head before muttering something about how I seemed to have a lot of contacts on both sides of the fence. 

“Actually,” the girl quickly put in, “that reminds me, what’s that whole thing about how it’s not ‘time yet’ for you to talk to Glitch? Or whatever you said. Something like that. You thought Cavalcade was there to get you to talk to Glitch instead of Deicide. How many bad guys do you owe favors to? And does that have anything to do with why you won’t join the Minority or any other team? Is this about trying to play both sides just to make good things happen? Cuz that seems pretty complicated. Oh, wait, is this about me? Do you owe Glitch a favor because of me and that whole thing?” 

Snorting at that, I replied, “Trust me, it’s definitely complicated. And no, it’s not really about you. It’s about…” Glancing over my shoulder, I gestured to the store behind us, explaining the whole thing about Glitch wanting to be paid a fee to allow Wren to operate in the city without being part of her gang. 

Immediately, Peyton asked, “What about Switchshift? You know, the Tech-Touched who works for Ten Towers. Do you really think he’s paying some kind of fee to a bunch of villains just to work in the city, when he’s actively working for people like Ten Towers? Hell, do you think they’d let that happen? I mean, it wouldn’t really be good for their business to let themselves be extorted, right? Not when their entire thing is, like, keeping businesses safe from bad guys.” 

Right, Switchshift did exist. People didn’t really see a lot of him, since he didn’t do much in the way of fieldwork. Which came from the fact that he was apparently paralyzed from the waist down. Or at least, he had to use a wheelchair. Still, he was a guy who made ‘things that transformed, changed position, or switched places.’ There were rumors that he helped make special tools that allowed the heroes of the city to quickly get from one area to another, though nobody was really sure how that worked. Or if it was even true, aside from the fact that the Star-Touched did tend to be able to get around faster than you might expect in this city. 

Anyway, the point was, he was part of Ten Towers. Who might indeed have a problem with paying extortion money to a group of villains just to allow their guy to operate without the constant harassment. For a moment, I considered that, weighing it back and forth my head.

“Maybe,” I finally murmured. “Or maybe they consider paying a small, secret fee to be better than having to fight all the time. Especially if there’s some kind of provision about how much Glitch and her gang are allowed to do against them as long as they’re paid up. I mean, we’re talking about a bunch of corporations here. They care about the bottom line. Like, I can see them deciding that writing off a monthly or yearly fee or whatever is worth it if it makes a group like Braintrust play somewhat nice.” Getting all that out, I reconsidered, adding, “On the other hand–” 

“On the other hand,” Peyton put in for me, “Braintrust attacks Ten Tower places all the time. Okay, I mean, not all the time. But they definitely do it. Would they really be okay with paying them off to leave one guy alone, while Braintrust just keeps hurting their customers? It’s like you said, if they were going to make that deal, they’d want to get more out of it. I mean, if that was even on the table, they probably go ahead and pay enough of a fee to get Braintrust to back off completely, right? It just seems weird if they’ve got some financial arrangement like that with a group that’s actively attacking their property and stealing from them.” 

Thinking about that for a moment, I gave a slow nod. “Okay, so maybe they don’t go after someone like Switchshift because he’s got strong friends around him. Too strong for Glitch and her gang to intimidate. Or maybe it’s something else. The point is, they are coming after Wren. They want her to start paying them for permission to operate here in the city, and she doesn’t want to join Ten Towers, or any other big group in the city that could protect her from them.” 

Peyton was squinting at me, her voice dry. “Yeah, gee, I wonder where she could possibly have gotten the idea that joining some big, powerful group in the city would be a bad idea.”

Flushing a little, I shook my head. “It’s not like that. It’s not– I mean–  okay, maybe I’m not sure what it’s like. I just…” This was getting entirely too close to a conversation we weren’t ready to have yet. Instead, I waved that off. “I know it sounds bad, but I think the best thing to do is to pay the fee, at least for now. We can work on getting rid of Braintrust later, or at least getting into a position where we’re too strong and they have to back off. Right now, I really don’t want to give them a reason to target Wren or this place, you know? We can’t be here twenty-four seven. She’s got defenses already, and she’s working on more, but these are other Tech-Touched. It just–it feels like a bad idea to push things when we don’t have to. If they’ll take money to leave Wren alone until we’re in a better position and know she can protect herself, it just feels like that’s the best move.” 

Peyton thought about that for a few seconds. I wondered how much she was considering what the Braintrust people had done for her before, when they ruined that asshole’s life and exposed him for being a creepy pedophile piece of shit. Even if they had basically done it for their own purposes, just to punish him for stealing their equipment, it had to affect the way she saw them, right? Did she think they were nicer than they really were? I wasn’t sure how that would go. 

In the end, she gave a short nod. “Okay, but is this place even ready to start paying fees, or whatever? Cuz I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly get enough of an allowance to help pay off a supervillain gang. And I don’t think this is the best time to go get a job.”

“Actually,” I pointed out, “it might be the very best time to get a job. Just not a real one. Or at least, not a normal one.” As the other girl stared at me, I quickly explained, “If your mom thinks you have a part-time job, she won’t be as curious about where you keep going all the time, right? It might keep her happy.”   

“Okay,” Peyton agreed, “maybe, but where exactly am I supposed to find a place where I can pretend to have a job, which includes getting paid, but also be able to run off with you whenever…” She trailed off, following my pointed gaze back toward the building we had come out of. Staring that way, the girl raised a hand, then lowered it, quietly murmuring. “Oh. Wait, you really think that’d actually work? You think I can just pretend to have a job here?”  

I shrugged. “I don’t see why not. I mean, come on, it’s just a small pawn shop as far as your mom would be concerned. Run by some guy and his little niece after her parents passed away. They’d pay you to clean up, help around the store, whatever. It sounds like a good cover to me.” 

She was quiet then, considering the point for a few seconds before giving a slow nod. “Okay, yeah, I guess that might work. But isn’t that asking for this little pawn shop to pay out even more money when they haven’t even officially reopened or whatever? I mean–wait, they’re doing more than just pawning stuff, aren’t they?” 

Chuckling, I nodded. “As soon as Wren gets a chance to catch up on everything, which includes this… situation we’re dealing with tomorrow, she’s gonna start working on projects that she can sell. That’ll bring in more money. Trust me, she’s already got ideas, and I’m pretty sure they’re good. The pawn shop’s just a cover. But it should be a pretty effective one. It’s–it’s gonna be okay, Peyton. I know everything seems really complicated right now, and it is. I can’t even–fuck. I can’t get into it right now. But if you can stick with it, I think playing at being an employee here could really give you the cover you need to…” 

“To go out with you and help people?” she finished for me, offering a slight smile. “Sorta like a sidekick?” 

Squinting at that, I looked away, running the thoughts through in my head before turning back with a short nod. “Yeah,” I murmured, “that’s probably fair. You know, to try it out, see if you umm, if you actually want to stick with it once you see how crazy everything is.” That said, I extended a hand to her, waiting for her to take it. “I know I haven’t told you everything. That’s gonna take awhile, if–it’s gonna take awhile. We’ll work up to it. I’m not exactly super-quick to trust people. I mean–it’s a long story. Maybe I’ll even get into it someday. But for now, if you’re up for it, I… yeah, I’d like to work together. You really up for all that, sidekick? What do you say?”

“What do I say?” Peyton echoed. 

“I say, give me a month, and I’ll get you to call me partner.”  

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Building Connections 16-11 (Summus Proelium)

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On the way through the back alleys to the shop, I explained who Trevithick was (as well as what the name meant). It was all stuff I’d meant to tell her as we were making our way through the city, but then our little race thing happened and well, here we were. So, I just filled her in with the brief SparkNotes version. As we approached the back door, I mentioned that the kid was pretty young, and asked if she would have a problem working with someone like that. 

I clearly hadn’t thought that question through entirely, because Peyton looked at me pointedly and asked, “Young like you? Because I’m pretty good with that. I don’t think I get to judge what a kid can do after one saved my life like… twice within the same month, dude.” 

Burying my annoyance at being seen as a kid again beneath the much more useful fact that my disguise was stopping anyone from suspecting who I really was, especially my parents, I nodded once. “Younger than me.” It was the literal truth, after all. Wren really was younger than me.  I just wasn’t specific about how much younger. “She’s a kid. But she’s a genius Tech-Touched.” 

That said, I reached up to hit the buzzer. But before I could, the back door was flung open, and Murphy stood there, looking back and forth between the two of us for a moment before seeming to realize who Peyton was. “Ohhh, it’s marble girl. You changed your armor.” With that, she looked the other girl up and down briefly as though judging it. “I like this one better.” 

Peyton, in turn, stared at her briefly before turning to me. “She’s not younger than you.” 

Exactly how many times was I going to be tempted to blow my cover within a five minute span? Seriously, I was starting to think this was just gonna be a thing going forward. Exhaling, I shook my head and gestured between them. “This is Murphy, she’s… helping. It’s a long story.” 

“He caught me and my friend, Roald, after we broke into a gas station to steal food, and told us we could be his minions and help out around here or whatever instead of going to jail,” Murphy promptly summed up. Then she looked at me and added, “It’s really not that long of a story.”  

Peyton, meanwhile, had turned to look at me with obvious incredulity. “Wait, you have minions?”

Before I could respond to that, Murphy put in (with a voice that was basically the most cheerful I had ever heard her sound), “Just for now. But I think if we do a good job, he might upgrade us to henchpeople.” That, of course, was accompanied by the girl raising both hands to show her crossed fingers. “I’m pretty sure that’s when we get the matching uniforms.” 

Shaking my head, I gestured for the girl to step back so we could come in. Once the door was closed behind us, I asked, “So where’s Trevithick? Upstairs?” 

“Who?” Murphy blinked at me before remembering. “Oh, right. Nah, she had to run out. Took Fred and Roald and made me stay to watch the shop. Something about needing to grab important supplies or whatever.” Her hand gestured my way. “Kid said she was gonna text you an update.” 

“Text me an–” As I echoed those words, my hand was taking the phone from my pocket, and I blanched a little behind the helmet. I had a message from Wren, alright. Sure enough, it was all about how she had to go grab a few super-important things and that she would explain everything about what was going on once they got back. “Oh, well okay then. I guess we’ll wait here for them.” 

As I finished saying that, Murphy had already shrugged and moved back to a corner of the main shop floor where she had apparently been sweeping and mopping. From the look of it, she was actually doing a pretty good job. Okay, a very good job. Better than I could have, considering I’d basically almost never done anything like that except for the times when I was a kid trying to help the maids. Actually, I remembered that being kind of fun. But even now, I knew the reason it felt ‘fun’ to me at the time was because I could stop any time I wanted to. I didn’t depend on doing that to live or put food in my mouth. If I had to do it every day, as much as the people who worked in our house or at my school had to? Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It was a thought that made me shift a little uncomfortably. Yet Murphy seemed pretty fine with what she was doing. It made me wonder how much cleaning she ended up doing at home. Which also made me think about her brother. Part of me wanted to ask how that was going and if he’d stopped being pissed at her about not running those drugs over to his friend. But I was pretty sure that would be pushing a bit even if we were alone, let alone with Peyton here. 

So, I decided that conversation could wait. Meanwhile, Peyton herself had started to walk around the shop floor, picking up and examining various things from the shelves. “Wow,” she murmured quietly while turning an old miner’s helmet over in her hands, “they’re actually selling all this random junk?  

Wincing, I stepped over that way. “Don’t let the kid hear you calling it junk. This was her dad’s store, she’s pretty protective of it. And right now I think a lot of it is just a way of having basically any random thing she needs at any point when she starts building stuff.” 

A noise of regret escaped the other girl, as she turned to me while shaking her head. “I–sorry. I didn’t mean to just–ugh. I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t trying to like–insult her family’s shop or anything. I was just… yeah, sometimes I don’t think before I speak.” She muttered the last words before giving a heavy sigh. 

“It’s okay,” I assured her before reaching out to squeeze the girl’s arm. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. All this stuff is a lot to get used to. Believe me, I know.” And boy was that a severe understatement. A lot to get used to? Wait until she learned the real truth about the city–no, stop it. I couldn’t tell her the full truth about the city. Except she was already helping, and she was going to push that help as far as helping me find the girl who might be able to take Pencil down. Even if the idea was to stay completely away from that piece of shit and never directly involve ourselves with him, there was no definite one hundred percent certainty that we wouldn’t see him. And she was still here, still willingly putting herself in danger. Didn’t I owe her the–fuck. Would this question ever end up getting me anywhere except for more uncertain and confused?

“Dude.” Peyton, who I belatedly realized had been staring at me for the past few seconds while I went through all that in my head yet again, spoke up hesitantly. “Are you okay?” 

“It’s fine,” Murphy called from where she was still working. “He just does that sometimes. I think he likes brooding or something. That or he’s listening to podcasts in that helmet and gets distracted.” 

Flushing a bit behind the aforementioned helmet, I shook my head. “It’s not brooding or podcasts. I just–never mind. I was just thinking.” 

“Hey, speaking of just thinking,” Murphy called out again, “what do you call yourself, anyway? I mean, we can’t just stick with ‘that marble girl’ all the time, right?” 

It was Peyton’s turn to blush, slightly visible through the space that left part of her face around her eyes uncovered. “Uhh, we sort of went over some ideas, but I’m not sure. It’s really hard to come up with a good one that doesn’t sound stupid or overly dramatic or… whatever.”

“Oh, I know all about that too,” I muttered mostly to myself before gesturing. “Well, while we’re waiting, why don’t we go over the list? You wanna help, Murphy?” 

She, in turn, looked at the mop in her hand for a moment before setting it aside to step over where we were. Shoving her hands in her back pockets, the brown-skinned girl rocked back on her heels before asking, “What sorta options are you working with?” 

So, Peyton and I tugged a couple random stools over and slid one over to Murphy before starting to go over all the potential names. The three of us went back and forth for awhile about the ones that sounded good, why they were good, the ones that probably wouldn’t work, and so on. 

We went over all that for a good ten minutes. Finally, Peyton said she had some favorites, especially after talking to the two of us, but she wanted to think about it some more before deciding, and maybe ask the others what they thought. Which was pretty good timing, considering it was only a couple minutes after that before Wren showed up with Fred and Roald. 

“Wow,” Peyton murmured very quietly in my direction as the trio arrived with armfulls of paper grocery bags, “you weren’t kidding about her being young. But she’s really that good?” 

“She’s really that good,” I confirmed before stepping that way to take a bag from Wren. It was heavier than it looked, geez. The bag was completely filled with what looked like half of an average-sized store’s electronics department. Peyton was already doing the same for Fred. “Hey guys, look who I brought back. It’s… uhh, she doesn’t actually have a name yet. So TBD. But TBD, this is Wren or Trevithick, her uncle Fred, and Roald.” 

That was followed by both Fred and Roald shaking the girl’s hand, the latter commenting that her armor looked different this time. Peyton then explained how that worked with her marbles. Both of them seemed a little awkward and uncertain in a way that almost seemed kind of cute. Especially when Murphy inserted herself and all three of them went back and forth about different types of armor and weapons she might be able to make with the various marbles. 

For her part, Wren waited until all the bags were put down and was quietly respectful of letting the other three talk for about ten more seconds before flinging herself that way with an added boost from her flight pack wings (the pack was on under her jacket and it projected the wings through a couple almost-invisible slits in the back) to cross the distance before landing directly in front of her. “Hi! I’m Wren, like he said! You are so cool, I watched the videos of you fighting those bad guys like eighteen times! When you hit Juice with the battering ram and then threw him with the gloves, that was so awesome! You were like, ‘don’t you touch him!’ then wham! Did you really just get your powers? You totally kicked his butt before he even knew what was happening!” 

Peyton, looking more than a little taken aback by the enthusiasm, managed a little giggle. “Uhh, thanks. Just beginner’s luck, really. I think he was more focused on being mad at Paintball, so he wasn’t paying any attention to me.” 

“He was definitely distracted,” I agreed, “but that doesn’t take away from the fact that most people wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of that distraction the way you did. Seriously, she’s right, you were awesome back there. I would’ve been screwed without your help.” Blanching a little, I added, “Still don’t know why they keep calling you my ‘sidekick’ though. I mean, I haven’t even been doing this for two whole months yet.” 

Wow, saying that part out loud made me think about just how much had happened in the past six-ish weeks. The vials, finding out about my family, being taken by Pencil, the whole situation with him and the rest of the Scions at the hospital, the Paige thing… Just how damn busy was I

While I was focused on that, Peyton had started to explain her whole naming situation and the various ideas she was working off of. Roald, Wren, and Fred gave their own opinions and went back and forth for awhile, until Peyton finally held up both hands. “Okay, okay. I’ve got it, I think. The name I’m gonna go with is…” She took a breath, letting it out before finishing. “Alloy.” Even after she said it, the girl looked uncertain. “I mean, is that good? I think– never mind. Sorry. I’m terrible at making decisions! I even like boys and girls cuz throwing out half my options is bullshit!” With that cry, she waved both hands vaguely. 

It was Fred who spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you uhh, close your eyes for a second.”

Looking a little confused and uncertain, the girl did so with a quiet, “Um, okay.”  

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up loudly. “Alloy, Paintball needs your help, get out there!” After a pause, he asked, “So, did that sound right? I mean, the name, did it sound like something you’d like to be called?” 

Peyton opened her eyes. I had the feeling she was smiling behind the mask. “Uh huh. That’s it. That’s the right name. Thanks, uhh, Mr. Donovan.” 

“Fred’s fine,” the man insisted, looking self-conscious as he rubbed his head. “I just know sometimes it helps to hear the name from someone else. It’s how…” He paused briefly before continuing in a softer, more subdued tone. “It’s how I helped Wren’s folks choose her name.” 

Well, that was sobering. I still wasn’t sure about the whole story there, other than the fact that her mother and father had died in the hospital after racking up quite the medical bill. Which was the whole thing that led to Fred selling that device to Ashton so he could steal the vials in the first place. Not that Fred had known what his plan was at the time.

Of course, thinking about that reminded me of why we had come here today to begin with. “Um, Wren? You said you had something really important to talk about. What’s wrong? And, uhh, does it have anything to do with the fact that you just went on a huge shopping spree? All this stuff looks pretty intense.” I said that while gingerly reaching into one of the bags and picking up what appeared to be a circuit board with seven different colored wires leading out of it and a large computer power supply attached to one side.  

Immediately, Wren looked guilty about her distraction. “Oh, uhh, yeah. I should probably talk to you upstairs about it.” She winced, shifting back and forth on her feet, clearly anxious. 

I had the feeling Peyton really wanted to ask what was going on. Instead, she gestured to the others. “Hey, you wanna see how I raced Paintball to get over here? I could show you outside, if y–hold on!” Tugging her buzzing phone out, she blurted, “Everybody be quiet, or sound like shoppers!” Then she was answering it, talking to her mother, who was checking in again. After a moment, she muted her phone, grabbed Murphy by the arm, and hissed at her to pretend to be someone named Dana coming up to say they had to check out some sale somewhere.  

Looking to Wren while that was going on, I whispered, “Are you okay?” 

“Wha–oh.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s not about me. It’s–it’s about Paige.” 

Of course it was. I’d figured it had to be as soon as whatever the problem was didn’t turn out to have anything to do with bad guys at the shop, her or Fred’s health, and involved her going out to buy a bunch of things on an emergency shopping trip. Much as I might’ve loved to hope this whole thing was just a kid overreacting to some brand new idea she had about an invention that she wanted to show off, I knew Wren better than that. And I knew my luck better than that. 

So, while Peyton (or Alloy now) took the others out back to show off the whole hoverboard thing, I went with Wren upstairs. The two of us took the elevator, the younger girl being oddly quiet and subdued all the way. Finally, once the door opened and we stepped out into the hall, she turned to face me. “Okay, see, I felt really bad that I couldn’t help wake up your friend. So I thought maybe if I could at least find a way to communicate with her, it might help. You know, connect with her umm, mind or whatever?” She was fidgeting nervously or self-consciously. 

“Did… did you manage to communicate with her?” No, that didn’t make sense. Why would her succeeding at something like that make Wren so… like this? It certainly wouldn’t be an emergency. 

Sure enough, the blonde girl shook her head quickly. “No–I mean yes, I mean sort of. Hang on–c’mere.” Pivoting, she grabbed my hand and led me into the lab where Paige was lying comfortably (I hoped) on a padded table. There was a wheeled cart nearby with some electronic equipment stacked up on it. Wren picked up what looked like the drum and tubing part of a stethoscope that led into what I swore was part of an ancient Atari video game system with an original Gameboy attached to it via a series of wires. Yeah, it was a whole confusing thing.

“This,” Wren told me while holding up the end of the stethoscope, “sends electronic messages and receives them at close range. It–okay it gets complicated. The short version is that you’re supposed to be able to put it on Paige close to where her CPU thing is, then it’ll send a message to her. Then she can send a message back. Or, you know, whatever tiny part of her is still conscious. They have to be simple messages, and slow. Like one or two words every fifteen minutes. It’s like talking to her in her dreams.” 

“I’m guessing the big emergency isn’t that it didn’t work?” I asked hesitantly, staring at the thing in her hand, then back to Paige. 

“No,” she confirmed quietly. “It worked. I sent a message asking, ‘Can you hear?’ and she sent back, umm, well it took awhile to get all of it, but…” 

Rather than finish, she simply picked up the Gameboy and turned it so I could see the screen. Written across it were eleven words in succession, one under the next, all in capital letters. 

HELP

DAD

VIRUS

SECOND

ME

COPY

TRYING

ERASE

REPLACE

KILL

HELP

PLEASE

Reading all that through, I took a second to process it before my eyes widened. “Her dad made a virus that’s like a copy and it’s trying to replace her. I–we don’t have any more time to try to come up with the perfect plan or find the perfect people to help. We don’t have time for any of that.

“We have to start saving Paige right now.”

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Building Connections 16-10 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There is an update for voting on Peyton’s name in my first comment at the bottom of this chapter! If you’d like to participate in the final round of determining what her Touched name will be out of the three finalists, jump down there once you finish this chapter!

Deicide didn’t know exactly where this Amanda Sanvers was, of course. That would have been too easy. Instead, she had a list of podssible last locations, along with people who had spoken to the girl somewhat recently and might be able to give a better idea of where she was. Apparently Deicide was worried that if she or her people dug any deeper than that, Sanvers herself would hear about it and go even deeper into hiding out of paranoia that they were somehow working for the monster who had traumatized her so much years ago. 

She also told us a bit more about that situation, about how a very early Pencil, before even taking up leadership of the Scions, had taken this girl’s family prisoner. Apparently, on camera, he had forced Amanda’s parents to shoot each other in order to save the lives of both Amanda and her brother. Nick Sanvers had completely disappeared within a year, something about going to an Alaskan oil rig to work. But Amanda had stuck around for one reason or another, mostly going underground, changing her name repeatedly, that sort of thing. From what Deicide knew, it sounded like the girl was staying specifically to testify against Pencil if they ever managed to catch him. So the police and Star-Touched kept her somewhat informed about how their various investigations into the Scions were going. It wasn’t really by-the-book, but they were impressed by how tough she was to not take off for another continent. And honestly, so was I. If she had experienced Pencil firsthand and still wanted to stick around to testify against him given the chance? Yeah, she was pretty brave. 

Brave, but not entirely stupid. Hence the whole changing her name and disappearing thing. A couple of the authorities knew how to contact her, but even they had to jump through certain hoops to do so. She refused to go into normal witness protection. Something about not trusting it and wanting to manage on her own. Which, apparently she was pretty good at if the girl was still alive after all this time. So yeah, kudos to her. 

Which, of course reminded me of a certain other person who had stayed hidden from the Scions for a long time now. Robert–Bobby Parson, my old driver and the man who had apparently saved me back when my own grandfather had sent his men to kill Anthony and his family, and to abduct me. Yeah, Bobby was another one I needed to find. I had the feeling that he would be able to answer even more questions about my family. Especially considering everything I’d already found. Like the toys in his cabin with the code that had led me to find out more about Paige. Why did he have those there? And where was he now? Had he just gone deeper after finding out Pencil had gotten so close to finding him? And why was Pencil really after him? If the psychopath was that obsessed with tracking him down, it had to be something pretty important, right? 

Whatever, the point was, I had a lot to deal with. Right now, I really had to focus on finding a different member of the ‘stay the fuck away from Pencil society.’ I had to focus on finding Amanda Sanvers. 

Okay, that wasn’t exactly the immediate concern. That, at the moment, was looking at me from across the roof both of us were standing on a few minutes after Cavalcade had dropped us off. She was just finishing the sandwich that the mercenary had insisted on picking up for us. I had one too, but wasn’t eating it yet. It was still wrapped up and tucked into one of the pockets of my suit for later. 

Taking a breath, I focused on Peyton. “Look, you really don’t need to be involved in any of this. Trust me, you don’t want to. Like I said, you don’t owe Deicide anything. And you definitely don’t owe me enough to put your neck anywhere near this shit.” 

Peyton just stared at me. “Dude, you’re like… what, a thirteen-year-old kid? You shouldn’t be anywhere near this shit either. But you are, for some reason. Maybe that paper chick’s right about this Sanvers girl talking to you because you’re not a threat. But like, that brings up a good question. If Amanda Sanvers has been like… you know, cooperating with the authorities and trying to bring Pencil down, why does Deicide think she’s got this top secret information about his power or whatever?” 

“I asked her about that when you went out with Cavalcade and I stayed behind for a minute,” I informed her. “Apparently this Amanda girl thinks that the only reason Pencil hasn’t like… totally gone after her is because he believes she doesn’t know anything important about him. According to Deicide, Amanda saying she’d cooperate with the cops and then supposedly not being able to tell them anything useful is her way of letting the Scions know they don’t need to come after her. I mean, think about it. Pencil doesn’t really care about leaving witnesses. They know what he is and what he’s done. It’s not like he’s thinking ahead that much to a trial or whatever. The only thing that would make him come after her hard is if he thought she knew something dangerous about him, something that could bring him down or expose a weakness. So, Amanda makes it clear she’s trying to help the cops but can’t tell them anything helpful. Which reassures Pencil so he has no real reason to expend that much effort looking for her, because if she did know anything, she would’ve told them.” 

Peyton considered that for a moment, running it through in her head before nodding. “I guess that makes sense. But what makes Deicide think this girl actually does know something big?” 

I shrugged at that. “Something about hearing it through a friend of a friend of a friend, or whatever. Amanda said something to someone that made it sound like she might know a secret about Pencil’s power, and it got back to Deicide.” With that, I shook my head. “But seriously, like I said, you don’t need to be involved in this, Peyton. This is way, way too much to ask.” 

She, however, shook her head. “I’m not going after the Scions, dude. No fucking way. I don’t–I’m scared. Yeah, I’m too scared for that. But if this girl–if she really does know something that can stop those assholes from–” She choked a bit on her words, blanching while her arms folded across her stomach. The floating marbles that weren’t part of her armor hovered protectively in front of her. “Everyone knows what Pencil does to people. If this Amanda girl really does know something that can help stop him? I don’t care if it’s Deicide or the Star-Touched, the military, or the freaking Smurfs who pull it off. Getting rid of that bastard is a good thing. And if I can help do that just by helping you track down this girl? Then… then I wanna be a part of that.” 

Squirming on her feet, the girl quietly added, “I was… scared–terrified when that asshole and his friends abducted me, and they didn’t even have any powers. Then yesterday with Juice and those fucking–” Cutting herself off, she gave a quick shake of her head, eyes closing briefly as she pulled it together. “I’ve been really scared, so I know what that’s like. But I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be one of his victims. I can’t–” The girl swallowed hard, clearly afraid even as she pushed on. “Even if all I do is help a little bit, I wanna help stop other people from feeling as terrified as I was before. No, even more terrified, because… because the Scions are worse. All the things they’ve done, everything they like to…” Again, she trailed off, taking a moment to collect herself before forcing the last words out. “ Please. I just want to help.” 

Well, shit, what exactly was I supposed to say to that? No, you’re not allowed to be brave? No, you can’t contribute to helping people, only I’m allowed to do that? Wait a minute, was this how people like That-A-Way had felt about me throwing myself into danger while refusing to join their team (before she understood why I’d done that)? Hell, was this what people felt in general about me doing this sort of stuff? Or worse, since as far as they knew I was like, twelve or thirteen? 

Eesh, how did they deal with it? 

Shaking that off, I finally agreed, “Okay. I mean, I’m not sure how it’ll go, but yeah. If you wanna help out, that could be cool. And we can like… talk about doing some other Star-Touched stuff together, if you still want. You know, to help people and to help you figure out exactly how your power works.” Taking in a breath and letting it out as I struggled not to show my own nervousness about this whole situation, I faced the girl. “If you really want to join me and my friends, and just… help people without being part of a real team, then… then that’s cool.” 

I wasn’t going to tell her the full truth about the Ministry. Not yet. But I could ease her into things, take her to meet Trevithick and the others there. Which would also, hopefully, mean Wren would have another person to come help in case something bad happened at the shop. Yeah, yeah this was a good thing. And if eventually it turned out Peyton really could be trusted with the Ministry information, that had to be good too, right? 

Anyway, it was the best plan I had right now. Yeah, it wasn’t perfect and there were definitely still ways it could go wrong. Not to mention the guilt I would feel if Peyton got hurt specifically because she was hanging around me and all my problems. But it wasn’t up to me to tell her she couldn’t help. And I couldn’t bring myself to send her off to the Minority while knowing what I did about how she would likely be exploited and used. So, this was the best compromise I had. 

While Peyton was about to respond to that, the Touched-business phone in my pocket buzzed. Turning a bit, I took it out and glanced at the screen. There was a text from Wren, saying she really needed to talk to me asap, along with a few ambulance and police emojis. Then there was an added note that there were no cops and that she and the others were fine but it really was super-important bordering on emergency and–yeah, she went on a bit in several texts. Clearly, something big had happened but it wasn’t to the point of active gunfire or anything, and they weren’t in immediate life and death danger. But it was still an emergency. One she apparently didn’t want to get into over the phone for whatever reason. 

So, exhaling, I sent back a message that I would be there soon and that I was bringing our new friend. With that, I looked back to Peyton. “Well, I guess I’m needed back at… okay, there are some things I need to tell you. I’ll do it on the way. That is, if you still want to come?” 

Peyton, in turn, nodded quickly. “I’m in. I mean, I’m as in as you want right now, I guess. I mean–” Cutting herself off, she simply shrugged. “I wanna help. I wanna participate. I um, hold on.” Pivoting, she took her own phone out, which had apparently started buzzing as well. Transforming the helmet to expose her mouth so her voice wouldn’t be muffled at all, she started talking brightly. “Hey, Mom! Nope, like I said, I’m just fine. Uh huh. Oh right, the password is peppermint patty. Uh huh. Yes, I’m positive. Thanks. Yep, I’ll be good. Bye. Bye!” Repeating the last word emphatically, she hit the disconnect button and exhaled. “Sorry, Mom’s been a bit… protective ever since the you-know-what happened. If I don’t give her the password she thinks someone’s holding a gun to my head to make me say everything’s fine.”

“So, definitely not gonna tell her what you’re up to now, huh?” I put in mildly. 

Blanching, the girl shook her head quickly. “Not on your life. She’d never understand. I mean, I love her, she loves me, all that stuff. But she’d never really understand that… that I have to help make sure no one else feels helpless like I did.” Squaring her shoulders, Peyton faced me, the mask returning to cover the bottom of her face once more. “I’m ready to go.” 

With a nod, I turned to the edge of the roof. “Right, let’s get–” I’d taken two steps before stopping with my leg raised. Pivoting back, I blanched a bit. “Uhhh, right. I’m not sure how we get you over there. Think you could run alongside me and I could paint you to places once we–” 

“Dude,” she interrupted. “Check this out.” With that, the girl looked toward the marbles hovering nearby. “Show him, guys.” 

Immediately, the gold and white marbles flew into one another before starting to shift and grow. Soon, what looked like a gold surfboard with white trim literally hovered there in the air beside the girl. Peyton, in turn, floated up off the roof herself. She literally floated up a foot or so in the air. “I can make the armor lift me up,” she announced. “Sorta like flying. The armor floats and I go with it. But I don’t really um, have the hang of it yet. Hard to keep focusing on it while the armor pulls and pushes my–yeah. It’s easier to do this.” 

With a gesture from one hand, she sent the floating surfboard under her feet before landing on it. “See? My armor bonds to it, so…” To demonstrate, she flew up another few feet before the board turned upside down with Peyton still attached. She dangled there, hanging from her feet. Or rather, from the boots of her armor, which were firmly attached to the board. “Can’t fall off!” 

“Hah, dude…” Despite myself, I was grinning. “That’s cool.” It seriously was. I’d wondered if the fact that her marbles and the things they made could hover would mean the armor could actually fly, but it made sense that the armor yanking her around through the air wouldn’t be super comfortable. Maybe she’d get used to that or learn to adjust how she made it move so that she could actually fly normally with it eventually. In the meantime, the hoverboard (or was that flyboard?) was an amazing compromise. 

“Right?!” Clearly grinning behind the helmet, Peyton flipped herself rightside up. “Now I can keep up with you.” 

“Oh, can you?” Feeling myself start to smirk, I glanced toward the edge of the roof. “Let’s find out.” 

First, of course, I texted Izzy to let her know something came up over at Wren’s that I had to check out and that she should definitely go see that second movie. 

That done, I told Peyton what area of town we were going to, using a landmark she was familiar with. Then I gave her a short nod, a thumbs up, and took off running while activating the green wings I had painted onto my shoes. Behind me, Peyton shouted something about cheating, before taking off on her board just as I reached the edge of the roof and used blue paint to spring up and forward through open air in a long flip. Instantly, as soon as my body righted itself, I used red paint to yank myself the rest of the way to a billboard, adding a bit of blue against the sign itself to spring up and forward even further. 

As I landed on the next roof, Peyton on her flying surfboard was just gliding past the sign I had bounced off of. She was crouched a bit on bent knees, urging the board to go faster to catch up with ‘that dork.’ The girl was clearly saying the last part loud enough for me to hear, so I painted a face with its tongue out on my back just before activating another bit of green I had pre-painted to keep my speed boost going as I popped my skates out and practically flew along the edge of that roof. 

That continued over the next few buildings. I built up a lead while running with the green paint active, but I couldn’t keep it going forever. Peyton would close the gap with her steady speed and ability to fly straight over or around any obstacle, while I used red paint to pull myself ahead every time we hit the edge of a roof. Once in awhile, she pulled ahead, then I would use a combination of blue, red, and green paint to regain the lead. 

It was… fun. That’s all there was to it. We laughed, teasing each other and making up ridiculous claims or faux-threats while she flew upside down over my head and swatted the back of my helmet, or when I used red paint against her board to propel myself past her in one spot where there was a large gap between buildings. I could see some people on the street stopping and noticing, but mostly I was just paying attention to trying my level best to stay ahead of Peyton. 

Then she got creative. Just as I was increasing my lead again, something thin, long, and metallic went flying past me. It looked like a whip with a grappling hook attached, which latched onto the corner of the building I had just been about to jump to. Twisting around, I saw Peyton still on her board. She had one hand extended, while the black and bronze marbles had combined to transform into that whip-grapple thing. Even as I watched, flatfooted for a second, the grapple-whip (it was a good fifty feet long, just very thin) retracted, yanking her forward and past me even faster than she could fly. Now she was getting the benefit of the two marbles that made up the board and the two that made up the whip-grapple. 

“Wha–hey!” Just as the girl flew past me with a cackle, I sprang to leap after her. “Totally cheating, you’re not supposed to figure out new tricks to your power before I get to beat you!” 

Her response, of course, was more cackling. 

From there, things were even closer. Peyton had worked out that she could separate the black and bronze marbles into separate but shorter whip-grapples, lashing them forward to either side of her to catch hold of things and then pull herself forward. Or she could combine them for the longer one whenever it was needed to reach something further away. She used them not only for additional speed, but also for fine course corrections. They let her spin around corners much faster. It was pretty damn cool, honestly. What she was doing was kind of a mix between hoverboarding and like… grappling her way from building to building. 

Still, I had been doing this for a bit longer. I knew my way around the city like this, especially when it came to getting over to Wren’s place. So, at the last second, I took an alley shortcut that was practically invisible until you were right on top of it, coming out to land on the roof we’d agreed to meet at just barely ahead of the other girl. There, I jumped up and down with my fists up even as Peyton landed beside me, her board and whips turning back into marbles. 

“Next time!” she declared. “I am so gonna beat you when we go again.” 

Snorting at that, I headed for the edge of the roof. “Yeah, we’ll see. Come on, whatever’s happening, Trevithick made it sound pretty important. 

“So let’s go see what’s on fire this time.”

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Building Connections 16-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Doing a quick double-take at the other girl’s words, I reflexively blurted, “First day as a what?”

Yup, still couldn’t see her face through that helmet. But it was pretty easy to tell she was blushing. It was just the way her body language read, the way she squirmed and hesitated before seeming to set herself as she repeated, “Sidekick. I mean, it seemed a little presumptuous or whatever to say partner, you know? You’ve been doing the whole hero thing for a little while, and I’m not–I mean I never, except yesterday with the whole–and I was just there for–um.” Realizing she was rambling, the girl shrugged uncertainly. “I know it’s probably weird to like, have a sidekick that’s older than you and all, but I’m okay with that from my end. I mean, you saved–like, you’ve saved a lot of people. So, you know, I’m like… I’m okay with being your… student?” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I mean, just outright denying her would be mean and might backfire in several ways. But I couldn’t actually have her as a sidekick, right? Not really. It was way too dangerous for both of us. If she was on the level, I’d be putting her in so much danger and stress. And if she wasn’t, if she wasn’t trustworthy, I’d be exposing myself. What could I say? How could I gently deny her, or give her a different idea of what to do with herself, without screwing things up? What kind of suggestion could I make? 

Finally, I said the only thing that came to mind. “You could join the Minority, you know?” 

To my surprise, the girl snorted at that. “Well, that’s obviously a completely terrible idea.” 

“What?” I blinked, confused. “Why? What’s so terrible about joining the Minority?” 

Her even more confusing answer to that was a shrug. “I dunno. They seem pretty cool to me. Actually they seem awesome. They’ve got cool powers and they help people all the time. Plus, you know, they’re like… training for the big teams. And I hear you get a scholarship and shit for being part of them. Not just a salary, but like… super-good education benefits. And once you’re part of one of the adult teams, they help you get a good cover job or whatever. Seems cool to me.” 

My mouth opened, then shut before I managed a weak, “So why don’t you want to join them? You know, if they’re so cool and everything. I don’t get it. You just said you like them, and they have all these benefits. So what’s wrong?”

“Uh, first, my mom would never let me,” she pointed out with what sounded like a grimace. “They make you report everything to your parents, and my mother would lock me in a tower, Rapunzel-style, before she’d let me go do stuff like that. And I don’t think I can grow my hair that long. I mean, maybe someone could talk her into letting me do the simple stuff or like… something. But it’d be a big problem.” 

Hesitating, I slowly asked, “You said that’s one reason. And one you might be able to work around. What’s the other reason you don’t want to join them?”  

“You.” That was her flat response as she stared at me. Her eyes, visible through that helmet, seemed to look right into me. “You know they’re good guys. I mean, you work with them a lot. You keep showing up to help them, or calling for their help. The point is, you work with them. And you obviously know every good reason to join them that I already said. But you don’t work with them. You know they’re good, but you don’t join them. You’re good and they’re good, but you keep refusing to sign up. Even though you like, fight together sometimes, or join them on something here or there, you don’t join. You’ve needed their help before, you know they have all these benefits, they obviously want you to join. But… but you don’t.” 

When I didn’t say anything to that, my mind too busy reeling, she continued. “Yeah, I dunno what the problem is. They seem cool. They seem great. But you know all that and you still don’t join them. So obviously there’s something wrong with them. It’s not cuz you’re a loner or you hate working with people, cuz you still work with them. Just not officially. I think that probably means the problem isn’t one of them, but the adults you keep avoiding.” 

With a shrug, the girl added, “Or maybe you just don’t want to join them for my first reason. Maybe you’re avoiding letting your parents know you’re Touched and all. I mean, you are like… sorry, no offense, a kid. So first I thought that was it. But I dunno. I sort of… looked up everything I could about stuff you’ve been doing last night. I spent hours with it. Seriously, that was like, the most homework I’ve ever done. And the more I tried to understand, the more it seemed like just having protective parents wasn’t the real answer. Trust me, I deal with a super-protective mom all the time, and your thing just doesn’t feel like that. Not exactly.” 

Finally, she folded her arms, finishing with a quiet, “I dunno why you don’t want to join them. But you already saved me twice, so if you think there’s something wrong with them, I’m gonna take your word for it. Or, you know, not your word. Your… uhh, decision? Whatever.” 

For a moment, I tried to think of how to respond to that. What was I supposed to say? I could claim the first instinct was right, that I was really just trying to avoid letting my parents know about me. Which, technically, was one hundred percent true. But I was pretty sure she’d want more than that. I considered that briefly before blinking. “Wait, hang on.” Running what she’d just said back through my head, I looked back to her. “What do you mean, I saved you twice?” 

There was no response at first. Instead, the girl just stared at me. I had the feeling she was reeling inwardly for those several long, silent seconds before eventually managing a single, “Oh. I… uh.” Deflating a bit, she reached up to tap the side of her white helmet with one finger. Immediately, it popped off her head, transforming back into a small white marble. Now I could see her face. A face which, while not one I had seen much of, was still instantly familiar. 

“Wha–you!” I blurted out loud, pointing that way completely ridiculously. “It’s you! You–” The right name came to me abruptly, though I’d only heard it once. “Peyton?!” 

Squirming there on her feet, the red-haired girl offered a weak, “Hi, Paintball. Funny to see you again, huh? At least I didn’t get kidnapped by a pedo this time?”

While I was still trying to cope with the odds of all this, she quickly pressed on to tell me everything about what actually happened the day before. She told me about how she was shopping when those guys arrived, how she panicked and ran away when they told her to stay put, then got cornered in the bookstore until the orb showed up and gave her powers. 

Orb. Her saying that reminded me of the thought I’d had the day before. I’d been half-sure that I’d caught a glimpse of one of the orbs from the corner of my eye. That was the whole reason I’d turned around and looked just in time to see the Easy Eight people driving past. If I hadn’t thought I saw the orb right then, I would’ve missed them. And if I’d missed them, I wouldn’t have been at the shopping center place in time to help this gi–Peyton. And if I hadn’t been there, she might’ve–what? Would she have died? Would Juice go that far? I wasn’t–maybe. Either way, she would’ve been hurt. Or abducted. Maybe they would’ve turned her, or just injured her, or–it would’ve been bad. That was the point, it definitely would’ve been bad.

Did… did that mean the orb that gave Peyton her powers had then come to find me for help? Was–were they capable of that kind of–no. Of course not. They were just orbs. But maybe whoever was behind them had sent one to get my attention, somehow? No one knew who created the orbs, if it was some alien race or super-advanced secret society of humans or… or what. So maybe whoever sent the orb to her or… or whatever realized she was still in trouble and sent one to get my attention? But… but… that was just–that… huh. 

Well, that just opened up a whole new slew of questions that I didn’t have any chance of getting answers to any time soon. A whole lot of people much smarter than I was had been trying to figure out the truth about the orbs for a long time. I wasn’t about to solve that mystery.

Shaking all that off, I focused on the current situation. Peyton was here, the girl I’d saved from one kidnapping and then helped deal with a hostage situation. And she had figured out that I had a good reason not to join up with the Minority, even if she had no idea what that reason was. Suddenly, an already-complicated situation had become even moreso. Which was just perfect.

“Should I uhh, go grab a sandwich while you figure out what to say?” the girl hesitantly asked, offering me a somewhat lopsided smile. “I guess I could get one for you too, if you want.” 

For like the millionth time, I was grateful that my helmet and mask combination made it impossible to see when I blushed. That was an excellent costume choice on my part, really. But I quickly shook that off, focusing. I had to say something, had to explain–what? How much could I actually tell her? What… what was I going to say to the girl now that she had figured all that out? 

Finally, the solution I settled on was to take a deep breath before starting with, “Yes. I have a reason–reasons not to join the Minority or any of the Star-Touched teams. Good reasons. But… I’m not sure–I don’t think I should talk about them just yet. For my safety and yours. It’s…” Oh boy, how much further could I go with this? “It’s dangerous for anyone who knows about it.” 

Peyton was silent for a moment. She seemed to be considering that, weighing what I’d said in her mind to figure out if I was blowing her off. Eventually, she gave a short nod. “Sure, I get it. I mean, you barely know me. You don’t know me. If it’s important enough to make you not join any of the Star-Touched teams in the city, then–” A grimace crossed her face. “It must be pretty bad. And if it’s that bad, it’d be dumb to go babbling about it to every random girl you save twice.” There was another pause before she added, “You’re pretty mature for a kid, you know?” 

Oh boy did I really not know what to say to that. Or rather, a lot of potential things to say jumped into my head immediately, but none of them would’ve been a good idea. Instead, I coughed before gesturing. “I had to grow up fast. But you–you’re okay with not being told? Yet. You’re okay with not being told yet.” Somehow, I’d figure out if the girl could be trusted with the secret, and if it was a good idea to actually bring her in on it. I just needed time to sort through all of it. 

Her head bobbed a little. “Sure. Like I said, you barely know me. But seriously, if you’re not joining those guys, I’m not joining them. And I’m pretty sure I’d get in way too much trouble all by myself out there, especially since I just pissed off that Juice guy when he was like, ‘raaaawr’ and I was like, ‘yeet!’ Sooo…” Trailing off, she gestured to herself, then to me, then to herself, waggling her eyebrows in a way that made me giggle despite myself before I managed to clamp down on it.

“Okay, okay,” I made myself quickly put in. “Look, I’m really not sure about the whole… yeah. I’m not sure. But at least I can maybe help you get some idea about how your powers work and all that? You know, if you want. Though you seemed pretty good with them yesterday for just starting. Especially with the whole, uh, yeeting bit.” Yeah, that was a memory that made me smile. “I really wish someone got that on camera.” 

“What–they did,” Peyton quickly blurted. As I blinked in surprise, she stepped closer and turned, bringing up her phone to show me someone else’s video, apparently from the point of view of one of the hostages who had fled and was hiding around a corner. In the distance, you could see the three of us on the roof as the bolt of lightning hit me, then the way Peyton’s marbles formed the battering ram to slam into Juice. The person recording blurted some kind of half-curse and half-laugh just as the battering ram before shifted into the boxing gloves to hit Juice again, then scooped him up and flung him off into the distance. The half-laugh turned to a full-on guffaw. 

“Uhh, have a lot of people seen this?” I asked hesitantly as the video looped back to the beginning for additional sound effects when the Easy Eights lieutenant was sent flying. 

“Depends,” Peyton noted, checking the views. “Do you consider three hundred thousand views to be a lot? Wait, you don’t think it makes you look bad or something, do you? Cuz it’s really–” 

“No!” I hurriedly blurted, head shaking rapidly. “No, I think it makes Juice look bad, and he’s gonna be really pissed off at you. At both of us, really. But especially you. I just–uh, be careful, okay? Be really careful. I get the impression he doesn’t take being embarrassed very well.” 

“Yeah, I got that impression,” the other girl muttered under her breath, making a face before shuddering. “Believe me, I’m not about to go knock on his door selling cookies and candy bars.” Shrugging then, she added, “But you said you could help me figure out these guys?” With those words, the girl gestured to the four differently-colored marbles (silver, white, purple, and bronze) hovering in the air to the right, as well as her two-colored armor (black and gold). “Cuz right now they sorta just do what I think about them doing. Sometimes before I even actually think about it. Are your powers like that? Do they uhh, like, do stuff on their own?” 

“Nope,” I replied, stepping closer and taking both of my gloves off before gently reaching out so I could touch the purple marble curiously. It shied away from my hand, then stopped when Peyton looked at it and hovered there as I very gently brushed one finger against it. The thing felt warm, and mostly smooth but with a bit of roughness to it. Sort of like very fine sandpaper, or something like that. It seemed to almost pulse under my touch, making me jump slightly. Which made it jump. Yeah, I swore the thing bounced backward an inch or so in the air. As it did so, the other three quickly flew in as though to defend it. They didn’t snarl or anything, but I was pretty sure they would’ve if it had been possible. 

“It’s okay! It’s okay!” Peyton blurted hurriedly, stepping up behind the marbles. “Sorry, they’re just a little nervous and protective.” She hesitated before adding, “I’m not sure how I know that. I mean, I’m not just making it up. I can sort of feel what they feel? That’s pretty weird, huh?” 

Shrugging, I pointed out, “Lots of powers are weird, believe me. Here, let me try it this way.” Reaching out with my palm up, I held it close to the marbles but not quite touching them. Gradually, the purple marble lowered itself, gently touching the end of one finger before it moved to settle in my palm. It was still quivering a little bit, but stayed there while I moved my other hand up and very gently brushed one bare finger along it. After that initial moment, the marble seemed to enjoy the sensation and the others joined it. I gently brushed all of them, before looking toward the other girl. “I think your friends and I are starting to get along.” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed, “these two are jealous. Hang on.” With that, the girl seemed to focus briefly, before the gold and black armor melted off of her and transformed back into two more marbles. As soon as they did, the purple and silver marbles lifted off of my hand and flew that way. They formed into new armor for Peyton that looked slightly different. Instead of being a medieval-type chestplate and bracers and such, the new armor looked like it was from one of those Super Sentai shows, or the old Power Rangers stuff. The base suit was purple, with the silver marble making up the outlines and highlight designs up through it. Also, the silver part stretched itself up to cover her neck and throat in a sort of protective sheath before spreading across the bottom half of her face. From there, the purple armor raised itself in the back to cover the back of her head, then up over the top, stopping just above her eyes. The result left her hair entirely concealed while only her eyes and nose were exposed. 

“Whoa,” I managed just as the gold and black marbles came over to be petted. “Did you do that yourself?” My fingers gently brushed over them while all the remaining marbles crowded up for attention. 

“Uh huh.” With that confirmation, Peyton looked down at herself. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” 

“Definitely cool,” I agreed. From there, I started to say something else, but the sound of a car engine drew both of our attention over to the nearby alley. Frowning, I checked to make sure her face was still covered before pulling my gloves back on. “Careful,” I murmured. “Might be nothing, but–” 

By that point, a black SUV with heavily tinted windows had pulled up just in view, through the alley. There was a brief moment of silence and I was about to tell the other girl we were leaving, when the driver-side door opened and a familiar figure stepped out. 

“Cavalcade?” I blurted, while Peyton made a noise of surprise behind me. Yeah, it was the Mercenary Sell-Touched woman who made rapid-fire duplicates to simulate super speed. Among other uses. 

“Hey, kid,” the woman greeted. “Ah, kids, I guess. Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. But we need to take a little ride.” 

“What?” My head shook. “It’s not time to talk to Glitch yet.” Behind me, I heard Peyton half-whisper that name, clearly baffled by this whole situation. 

“No, you’re right,” Cavalcade confirmed. “This isn’t about Braintrust. It’s about Deicide.

“She’s calling in that favor.”

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Building Connections 16-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, Mom, Dad, and Simon were really putting some work into their ruse of going out of town. When Izzy and I got home, the hallway was full of suitcases and boxes with various files poking out of them. It really looked like they were going off on some kind of emergency business trip. Honestly, I was almost kind of impressed. I’d basically expected them to just walk out the door without so much as a backpack. It wasn’t like the old me really would’ve questioned it very much, if at all. 

As the two of us walked in and paused to look at all that, Simon basically came flying down the main front foyer staircase, taking the steps several at a time while calling up, “Yeah, I already called them! They’re gonna round up those guys and meet–” He reached the bottom of the stairs and saw Izzy and me before finishing with, “–us at the hotel! You booked the conference room?” Standing there at the bottom of the stairs, he pretended to ignore the two of us while looking up toward the next landing. “They wanted the one facing Central Park, not the one from last time!” 

A moment later, Dad appeared at the landing, descending briskly (though he at least hit every step). “Yes, we got the right room,” he replied while adjusting his suit cufflinks. “Not making that mistake twice. And hi there, girls.” Pausing, looking just as crisp and handsome and perfect as my father always did, he asked, “My God, is it really time for you both to be home already? Your mother’s still in our room packing.”

With that, he turned toward the nearby intercom. “Broadcast now, Elena.” There was a pause before the intercom beeped to indicate it had connected to the room my mother was in. “Dear, are you aware that it’s already after three o’clock? The girls are here. We need to head out.”

There was a brief pause before Mom’s voice replied, “It’s not–oh my word, yes, I’ll be right down. Don’t you go anywhere, girls. We’re leaving in just a minute and I still have things to say to you.” 

Again, Izzy and I exchanged glances. Now I was a little confused. Did they really lose track of time? It seemed like an oddly specific ruse to add onto them going out of town. Maybe they were really just that distracted by this gang war? I also noticed that Dad used the intercom’s ability to connect to a specific person rather than saying the room she was in, despite the fact that he’d said she was in the bedroom. Did that mean he didn’t want me to know that she wasn’t there? Or was I just being paranoid and picking at every little thing no matter how inconsequential? 

Except even if I was simply being paranoid, that didn’t necessarily mean that I was wrong. 

Shaking that off after giving Izzy a very slight nod, I spoke up. “You’re staying in New York? So it’s not an out-of-the-country trip. You sure we can’t both go with you? Izzy’s never seen New York.” Of course they’d say no, but if I didn’t ask once I ‘knew’ where they were going, it’d look weird. 

As expected, Dad gave me a regretful look. “Sorry, kid. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I really want our first trip with…” Trailing off, he glanced toward the other girl as though considering what he was saying. “Izzy, we’ll absolutely take a trip with you when we get a chance. But it’s like you said earlier, school comes first, and you’re just getting started.” With a small smile, he added toward me, “And don’t think I didn’t notice your cunning attempt to get out of your school, young lady. No, I think you’ll be just fine here. Be good, don’t burn the house down or end up in the hospital, and we’ll talk about where to go for summer break when we get back, deal?” 

“So if the ambulance has to come but we don’t actually go to the hospital, it’s still good?” I asked brightly, batting my eyes a few times at him innocently while he squinted at me. In the background, I heard Izzy snerk before she caught herself and turned it into a faint cough. 

“Who needs an ambulance?” Mom asked as she descended the stairs, taking a moment to assess Izzy and me critically. “Please tell me it’s someone in another house, we haven’t even left yet.” 

“Oh please, Mom,” Simon put in, “as if she needs us to be out of the house before she does something crazy dangerous.” 

“You wanna compare whose crazy has cost the most?” I shot right back at him. “Cuz something tells me you’re not gonna come out ahead on that balance sheet, Mr. Full Contact Laser Tag Inside The House.” 

Simon, in turn, squinted at me while both our parents arched eyebrows at him with the memory clearly running through their minds. “Really? Bringing that up right before I have to sit on a plane for an hour? Uncool, Booster. Super uncool. See if I bring you back one of those skyscraper plushies you like so much.” 

“Dude,” I retorted, “they sell those online. I’ve got the whole set already, except the new one. And that doesn’t come out until next month.” 

With a heavy sigh, my brother looked to our parents as he lamented, “She was a lot easier to bribe before she figured out how internet shopping works.” 

A giggle escaped me, despite everything. Fuck. This was all so normal. This was my family, this was–they were the people I loved, the people I’d grown up with. And they were faking all of this. Okay, not faking all of it, but still hiding who they were. They weren’t going off on some kind of important-yet-normal business trip. They were staying right here in the city so they could focus on dealing with this mounting gang war that they themselves had allowed to start. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head, I focused on looking back and forth between my parents. “You guys really need all this stuff?” The question came as I gestured toward the stack of suitcases and boxes. Even though I couldn’t exactly ask why they were bothering to go to these lengths in their deception, I could at least point out that they were taking a lot of stuff with them. 

“Unfortunately,” Dad confirmed with a grimace. “Let’s just say the clients want a lot of paperwork to hammer through this deal, and we’ll probably have to attend a few palm-greasing parties.”

“He says that as though he’s going to suffer,” Mom casually noted, “but we all know your father enjoys those things more than he lets on. And he isn’t mentioning the fact that half of these meetings will be at that country club with the caddie he has the running wager with. How much have you conned that poor man out of, Sterling?” 

“Hey now,” Dad shot back even as several of the house staff came through the hallway to start picking up the boxes and suitcases, “it’s hardly my fault if that fool keeps thinking that whatever poor schmuck I’m teeing off with that day has a chance of coming in under me on my third-favorite non-Detroit course.”

Izzy, looking uncertain and possibly a little uneasy, spoke up. “Uh, you bet money with a caddy?”  

“What?” Dad blinked that way before chuckling. “Oh, no, of course not. Believe me, Pete makes plenty of tips off our visits and I wouldn’t take those away from him. No, we gamble with something other than money.” Saying that, he was smiling fondly at the thought. 

Nudging Izzy, I explained, “Dad and Caddie Pete make bad movie bets. Whoever wins gets to make the other watch a horrible movie from start to finish and write a full report about it. Pete’s only managed to make him watch two-wait, three movies. But Dad’s made him watch… how many?”

“Thirteen,” came the answer with a broad smile. “And I’ve got a doozy in mind for the next one.” 

“Be that as it may,” Mom put in smoothly while laying a hand on his shoulder, “we are going for work. So let’s keep that in mind. Now, girls.” She focused on the two of us. “I know this is sudden, and very last-minute. I’m sorry for that, Izzy. But you’ll be okay here. The staff all know to accommodate any reasonable request, you’ll go to school in the mornings with Jefferson the same as always, and Claudio will have your meals ready at the usual times. We may or may not be able to have Skype dinner time on our usual days, but I do expect both of you to be available if it’s possible on our end, understand?” 

We nodded and murmured agreement, before both of my parents went over a few more last-minute instructions. In the background, all the luggage was being taken through the open front door to the waiting limo, and I could see Jefferson himself having a discussion with one of the security guys. Another man, whom I recognized as the chief of Dad’s security detail (a tall, blond man with cold gray eyes named Finn Wagner) was standing just inside the doorway on the phone with what sounded like airport security. 

Yeah, they really were pulling out all the stops for this. Then again, I supposed it also made sense, come to think of it. After all, they needed the rest of the city to believe they were gone, not just me. 

Finally, it was time to exchange hugs. I did so with both of my parents, and then with Simon.  Which left Izzy. And while my father may have hesitated slightly out of not wanting to make her uncomfortable, my mother was different. To be fair, she didn’t grab the girl out of nowhere. She didn’t force any kind of affection on her. Instead, she simply opened her arms slightly and extended both hands, palms outward to her in a gesture that was perfectly calculated so that the girl could choose to interpret it as either an offer of taking both hands and squeezing, or an actual embrace. 

Izzy chose the hug, which seemed to surprise both of us a little bit. She was already embracing my mother before her head turned to me with an expression that said she had no idea how it had happened. Still, she didn’t pull away too quickly, allowing the hug to linger for a few seconds. How much of that was out of not wanting to look suspicious somehow, and how much was because she desperately needed a hug from an adult was unclear. 

Either way, eventually the hug ended, and she exchanged another (slightly quicker) one with my father. Simon, apparently, did not rate a hug. Though he did get a somewhat awkward high-five. 

Then it was time for them to go. Izzy and I stood in the doorway, watching the limo pull out, escorted by three different security cars. The two of us looked at one another once they were out of sight, but didn’t say anything important, of course. Not with half-a-dozen house staff within earshot. So, we stood there for a few extra seconds before I shrugged. “You wanna go get a burger or something? Maybe some cheese tots?” 

“Ahem.” It was Dexter, the butler. Unlike other butlers I’d seen in movies, Dexter wasn’t actually old or British. He was a handsome guy in his forties or so with deeply tanned skin (which I suspected was unnatural) and coppery red hair. Honestly, aside from the suit he wore all the time, the guy almost looked more like he belonged in some kind of cover band or something rather than working as a butler. Normally, I didn’t have much direct interaction with him. But I supposed in this case he had decided that I was the closest thing to his boss currently in the house. 

“Miss Evans,” the man started easily, “if you would like Claudio to be summoned to prepare–” 

“Uh, no thanks, Dex.” My voice was a little awkward as I shrugged, my backpack shifting a bit in the process. “We’ll just head into town and get something there. You know, greasy and simple and cheesy and now I’m making myself hungry again. C’mon, Izzy.” Taking her by the hand, I pulled the girl with me. 

“Will you be requiring the services of another driver?” Dexter called after us. “I can have a car brought around.” 

Waving that off, I informed him that we’d walk for a bit before calling an Uber. It sounded like he was going to object (probably something about how the Evans should get around in their own cars or whatever), but we were already jogging down the driveway. Waving to the security guy at the gate, the two of us slipped out, made an immediate left, and kept walking down the sidewalk. We didn’t say anything until we were out of sight of the gate (it would be another minute or so before we were out of the sight of the actual house). Finally, I breathed out. “That was weird, right?” 

“It was weird to you too?!” Izzy blurted, sounding like she was about to explode to get those words out. “Are they really going anywhere? I mean, they’re not, right? Why would they–” 

“They’re not–I mean they’re clearly going somewhere in the city,” I confirmed. “But they definitely didn’t need all those suitcases. They must’ve been making it look good for… for you, I guess? It’s not like they’d have to show the rest of the world that they’re taking a bunch of extra luggage. Unless they were taking other things with them and wanted us to think it was just luggage?” 

“What would they have in the house that they had to take with them like that?” Izzy cautiously asked. 

Letting out a long breath while shifting my backpack on one shoulder, I shook my head. “I dunno. Seriously, I have no idea. Convincing us and the rest of the city that they actually left is the best suggestion I’ve got. Because there’s no way this trip to New York is real. Not with this gang war going on, and getting worse by the day. They’re shutting everything else out to focus on that. The suitcases and that whole production back there is probably just one part of their ‘make everyone think we’re gone so no one connects us to the Ministry getting more involved in things’ plan.”

We both thought about that in silence for a few minutes, before we eventually approached the main gate into the neighborhood. One of the guards was in the booth there, giving both of us a brief look before nodding as he went back to playing a game on his ipad. Between the two of us, we chorused a greeting, acting like we were nothing but two random kids going for a walk. 

Finally, we were past the gate and Izzy spoke again. “Is it bad that I’m kinda rooting for your parents to get this under control?” 

“They better get it under control,” I retorted. “Having the criminal and heroic worlds in the palm of their hands is like… their entire thing

“If they can’t stop the city from falling apart, what is the Ministry even for?” 

*******

Eventually, we did end up calling an Uber, and took the ride over to one of the malls (not the one where my family’s secret base was, of course). The two of us ate something at the food court there before splitting up. Izzy was going to see a movie or two in the theater there, while I changed into the costume in my backpack and went out to meet with marble girl (boy did I hope she had a better name in mind). 

Skating across the rooftops of the city really helped clear my mind a bit. If nothing else, at least my consolation prize for having to deal with my entire family situation were these powers. I loved my powers. The way I could leap from building to building, skate along the side of one and then blue-paint boost my way to the opposite side of the street? It was, as always, an insane rush. It made me feel alive and free in a way I had never experienced before. It was incredible, and I would never trade my powers for anyone else’s. Not really. They were mine. 

Distracted as I was with all that enjoyment, it still wasn’t hard to find the old rundown mattress store the girl had wanted to meet at. As I came in to land smoothly on the edge of the roof, I saw her below, hidden from public sight behind the building, with a tall wooden fence to one side and an alley to the other. She was in that same armor with the white helmet, talking to herself while the rest of those colored marbles floated in front of her. 

Not to herself, I realized belatedly. She was talking to the marbles. Something about telling them to show ‘him’ what they could do, but not to be nervous because she would be proud of them no matter what. 

Smiling a bit despite myself, I hopped down with a tiny bit of orange paint to cushion the drop. “Personally, I like to offer my powers treats if they behave.” 

Right, probably should’ve announced myself a bit more carefully. The moment I spoke up from behind her, the girl gave a strangled yelp of surprise, lunging out of the way. At the same time, the three hovering marbles (silver, bronze, and purple) all transformed and grew into a huge claymore, a hammer, and a spear respectively. They flew toward me, before the other girl managed to catch herself and spin around with a blurted, “Stop!” 

They stopped, hovering a foot or so away from me with the business ends still pointed my way. 

“Heh, heh, sorry.” With a nervous giggle, the girl beckoned with one hand, summoning the weapons away before they turned back into marbles. “That was almost pretty bad, huh?

“Shish Kebabing the boss is probably a pretty horrible way to start your first day as a sidekick.” 

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Building Connections 16-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Building Connections 16-02 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 15A – Peyton Favors (Summus Proelium)

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A/N- For those who missed the commissioned interlude posted Saturday, there… was a commissioned interlude posted Saturday focusing on Lion! You can find that right here

“Heeeey Mom, this is my hourly check-in to prove I didn’t get kidnapped again. The password is ocelot. Or wait, was that yesterday? No. No, I swear, this isn’t a cry for help. No, no one’s making me say that. I swear, I thought the password was ocelot. What–ostrich! We should’ve gone with ocelot, they’re cooler. No, Mom, still not a secret code for you to call the police.” 

Throughout her conversation with her mother, Peyton Favors strolled through one of Detroit’s outdoor shopping malls, idly checking storefronts to see if anything looked good enough to step inside. The fifteen-year-old redhead checked her own image in the reflection of one window, turning her head this way and that as she studiously watched for any zits that might’ve snuck their way in. Her hands were full of shopping bags, the entire conversation being had through a bluetooth earpiece. Her eyes rolled exaggeratedly at her own reflection as she carefully replied, “Mom, I need you to listen very carefully to the words that are coming out of my mouth. No secret codes, no one has a gun to my head. I have not been kidnapped. Mitchell is gone, the creep got what he deserved. Yes, I know Paintball can’t be around to save me all the time. Believe me, I’m just trying to find something cute for Tanya’s party this weekend. And maybe a couple other things.” She glanced down at the full bags in her hands and made a face at her reflection. “No one is bothering me. I promise, I am absolutely and completely safe. I love you. You’re even more paranoid than Grandma, which is saying something, but I still love you. Bye!” 

Reaching up to hit the button, disconnecting the call, Peyton took the earpiece out and put it in her pocket with a shake of her head. “Urgh, you’d think she was the one thrown into the back of a car by a fucking pedo piece of–” She shook that off abruptly. Dr. Corners, the therapist she’d already seen a couple times since that whole thing went down, had said something about how her mother was overcompensating for not being able to help at all during the kidnapping itself by trying way too hard now. The whole calling in every hour, checking everything she did, using codewords to say whether someone was holding her against her will, it was crazy. Peyton wasn’t sure how much longer she could deal with it. Half the time she was afraid that she would say the wrong thing on a call and her mother would end up sending a SWAT team after her. 

Hell, there’d already been that one bit a few days earlier when Peyton had been at the theater. She’d made the mistake of hissing into the phone that she ‘couldn’t talk now’ before turning it off. They’d only been fifteen minutes into the show when security came barging in and the house lights came on. That had been just about one of the most mortifying moments of her life. Especially considering she’d been that close to telling Sarah Conrad that she thought she was cute. Now that was definitely ruined, after those guards had made it clear whose mother called them in. 

Sigh. Being into both guys and girls was supposed to make it easier to find someone to date. But between the guy she had liked online turning out to be some much older creepy kidnapping pedo loser, and looking like a fucking paranoid freak family in front of Sarah, maybe she was just doomed from the get-go. Byron was ace and he didn’t seem to have any problems with his own relationships. Or maybe he was just a lot better at hiding it and looking like they were fine.

“I don’t care what Mom says,” Peyton informed her own reflection in the window, “it is not easier being a fifteen-year-old. And you know, it’s kinda fucked up that she says that practically in the same breath as the one she uses to give me all these rules because she’s so paranoid that I’m going to somehow magically end up in danger again. Like, we live in Detroit, not the middle of–” 

In mid-sentence, Peyton was abruptly interrupted by the sound of a roaring engine, followed by a loud crash. Spinning that way with a yelp, she stared, mouth agape. 

The outdoor shopping center she had been meandering through was shaped like a large U, with the doors into various shops spaced all along both sides of the curved shape. The middle of the U was essentially a large patio full of stands to buy snacks, sunglasses, cell phones, or even get massages. There was a fountain toward the front of the shopping area, with a statue of some old man holding an umbrella just beside it. 

That statue was the source of the loud crash. Or rather, the enormous pick-up truck that had just slammed into said statue, knocking it over. And it wasn’t alone. Three more huge trucks had come roaring up to block basically the whole road along the front of the shopping center. The backs of all four vehicles were full of thugs wearing a lot of leather and chains, holding bats, pipes, knives, and a few guns. All were hollering and whooping as they leapt from the trucks, landing right in front of dozens of shoppers paralyzed by surprise and confusion. 

“You know the drill, boys!” The voice came from the direction of the truck that had knocked over the statue, as the passenger door opened and a heavyset figure emerged. He was a large black man, standing about six and a half feet tall and very wide. His only concessions to a ‘costume’ of any kind were the sleek-looking blue metal helmet he wore, and a pair of matching metal gauntlets. Beyond that he wore simple street clothes. 

Juice. It was Juice, one of the lieutenants of the Easy Eights. Which were who all these other guys were. The guys who were already spreading out, grabbing people who started trying to run. As the screaming started, the man called over it, “Gather ‘em and shut ‘em up! Torch every building in this fucking lot!” To punctuate his words, the man extended his hands out to both sides and sent a blinding blast of electricity in either direction to slam into a couple storefronts with a loud, terrifying bang. “I want the whole fucking place burned to the ground! Move!” 

Almost as if he had been speaking directly to her, Peyton reacted to that last word. The bags dropped from her hands, even as one of the Easy Eight soldiers approached with his baseball bat raised threateningly. He was saying something, but Peyton didn’t hear. She was too busy pivoting. A scream tore its way from her own throat as she ran, sprinting away from that spot, away from the man who had approached her, away from the Fell-Touched Juice. Away from all of it, screaming the entire time. She ran, not even knowing where she was going. No plan, nothing. 

The sound of a loud curse from the man who had been approaching spurred Peyton to run even faster. She heard other people shouting, heard a couple terrifyingly loud bangs. Gunshots? She didn’t know, she didn’t know! Just run, that was all she could do. Just run. 

Racing past several stores, the girl glanced to the side. In the reflection of the windows, she saw herself. But she also saw the man behind her. He was so close! Oh God, oh god, he was so–he was lunging! 

Seeing the man make that leap, Peyton threw herself to the right, through the open doorway of a storefront. She landed hard on the floor, even as the man who had been chasing her landed on his stomach right where she would have been. His gaze snapped toward her as she lay on her side, and the man snarled while raising that bat. Reflexively, Peyton kicked out, hitting the door where it was propped open and sending it slamming closed just as the hurled bat crashed into the wood with a terrifying bang. 

Laying there on her side, Peyton hyperventilated as she stared at the door. It was only for a second, but that single second felt like an eternity. She heard the man cursing, could see through the window in the door as he started picking himself up. Up. He was getting up. 

Get the fuck up! 

Grabbing the side of the nearby counter, Peyton used it to haul herself up. She could see the man running toward her, toward the door. He was right there, right there. But just beside the door was a bookshelf stuffed with magazines. Even as a surge of terror raced through her, the fifteen-year-old lunged that way, shoving it hard. The shelf fell about halfway over before hitting the opposite wall of the doorway, wedging itself in tight just as the man kicked the door. But the bookshelf held, for the moment at least. 

A screamed threat from the guy as he hit the door again reminded Peyton that she couldn’t just stand there. The shelf was already starting to move under the repeated furious blows. Any second, the man with the bat was going to break in, and she was pretty sure he wasn’t happy with her. He would–he would–he had the bat–he was–

She ran. Pivoting away, Peyton fled through the shop, tears of terror almost blinding her, to the point that she tripped over the edge of another counter, landing hard on her stomach with a yelp. Behind her, she heard a loud crash as the bookshelf was nearly knocked clear out of the doorway. From the sound of multiple voices, he had been joined by more people, all of them working together to shove the door open. There were a couple shouted threats about what they would do if she didn’t stop, punctuated by the sound of a metal pipe hitting the wall. 

Fueled entirely by panic, the girl scrambled back to her feet and kept going. She didn’t dare look back, instead practically diving to the left where, thanks to hours spent wandering through these stores, she knew there was a set of stairs just beside the employee counter. 

The stairs were narrow and steep, but Peyton hardly noticed. Hearing the sound of the men behind her finally managing to breach the shop, their angry shouts growing even louder only spurred her to get up the steps faster. Taking them several at a time, using the railing and wall to boost herself, she struggled not to sob. Crying wasn’t going to do anything. Paintball wouldn’t sit there and cry about it. Sure, he had superpowers and all, but still. He’d actually do something, and he was like… a little kid. Okay, maybe just a couple years younger than Peyton, yet the point remained. He threw himself into life-threatening danger all the time. He’d done so to save her. If he could do that, she could keep running instead of cowering on the stairs blubbering. She wasn’t going to reward Paintball taking the effort to save her from that fucking creep by letting herself be… be whatever these creeps were planning, especially now that they were pissed off. He’d saved her before, but he wasn’t here now. She had to save herself. Somehow.

Only once the girl reached the top of the stairs (she’d always wondered where they actually went) did she realize the problem. Where the fuck was she supposed to go now? She was standing in some kind of storage area, full of boxes and crates for the books that were actually on display below as well as some promotional material, lines of other shelves, and a few old mannequins for some reason. There were windows, but they were all blocked by metal bars. 

She only froze for a brief moment, thoughts of how stupid she was to come up here flooding her mind, before the sound of the men reaching the stairs below spurred Peyton to move. Rushed by blind terror, she fled past the row of mannequins and several stacks of books, throwing herself into one of the corners between two different crates. Huddled there, the girl drew herself back as tight as possible into that small space and prayed something would happen to interrupt the men. Or maybe they’d spread themselves out too much and she could bolt for the stairs to escape? Please, please, she just wanted to go home. 

Home. In a rush, she reached for her phone, only to find her pocket empty. A memory flashed through her head of falling flat on her face downstairs. Her phone and the bluetooth had obviously fallen out then, and she’d been in too much of a panic to actually notice. Fuck, fuck! 

By that point, the men had reached the top of the stairs. There was a moment of quiet murmuring as they clearly had a brief discussion about what to do, before one of the men called, “Hey kid! Look, no one’s gonna do anything rash, aight? We’re just burning down these shops cuz the Niners make a bunch of money out of ‘em. Ain’t got nothing to do with you. Come out, we’ll take you to the rest of the braindead civvies out there, and you can just sit until the cops show up to hold your hand, take your temperature, and give you a nice cup of hot chocolate. What do you say? Come on out, no hard feelings. But ahh, if we have to come in there and drag you out, I can’t promise nothing.” There was a heavy thump of something like a bat or pipe hitting a nearby crate as though to punctuate his words. “Let’s make this easy.” 

It was tempting. Oh God was it ever tempting. But Peyton hesitated. Ducking her head as low as possible, she peeked out and looked, praying that she wasn’t about to be face-to-face with one of the attackers. She saw three men standing right in front of the stairs. The guy who had chased her initially was facing the man who had spoken, hissing something angrily into his ear. That man gave him a short nod, and the guy with the bat started to silently move through the open room, bat raised as he carefully searched. 

“We’ll give you thirty seconds to think about it!’ The man who had been talking, still by the stairs with the other guy, called. “Then we’re coming in there and you won’t like it!” 

Right, thirty seconds. They were totally giving her time to think about it. That’s why the pissed off guy with the bat was already searching. It was a distraction. They wanted her to think she had time to breathe, while that guy made his way through. And when he found her, he’d–he’d…

For just a moment, Peyton’s eyes closed. A shudder of panic ran through her as the tears came. What was she supposed to do? What could she–

Something was in front of her face. Nearly screaming as she opened her eyes, expecting to find the bat pressed to her nose, Peyton instead found herself staring at a small, glowing orb, about the size of a softball. It was blue, with hypnotically glowing hieroglyphics moving across it randomly. 

Oh. 

Oh, that was neat. 

Completely forgetting her entire situation, the girl slowly reached out. Her hand grasped the ball, and she felt… peaceful. She felt like she was safe. 

She wasn’t in the store. She wasn’t… anywhere, really. Peyton stood in some kind of completely empty space. Instead of a floor, there was gray dirt under her feet. It was impossible to make out any details, thanks to the fog that filled the whole area. Not that there seemed to be much to see anyway. It was all just a flat gray wasteland filled with that fog. 

Spinning in a circle, she saw images appear in the fog. She saw herself at the computer, flirting with someone she had thought was her own age. She saw her own look of disgust upon realizing the truth, saw the way she’d cut it off with the pedo fuck. She saw the moment she was kidnapped and thrown into the back of that car by Mitchell and his idiot friends, as well as the moment Paintball had saved her. She saw the intervention by those Braintrust people. She saw all of that, before the images shifted to show her today. It showed her shopping, fleeing, running up to this very point with the men chasing her. 

Finally, the images in the fog shifted to showing her the orb. The very orb she had touched to find herself here. And as that orb filled her vision, a woman’s voice spoke. 

“Summus Proelium.” 

Instantly, the vision vanished. Peyton was suddenly back in the shop. The orb had disappeared, but her open hand wasn’t empty. Instead, six small metal marbles filled her palm. They were sleek and featureless, each a different color. Gold, silver, bronze, purple, black, and white. They felt warm to the touch. 

“Hey!” The furious voice snapped her attention upward, just in time to see the man with the bat standing over her. “I got the bitch! C’mere, you little–” 

The silver marble suddenly flew out of her hand, slamming into the man’s chest. There was a sudden shockwave that knocked over the nearby shelves and crates, as the guy was sent flying a good ten feet to crash against a pile of books with a scream. 

Scrambling to her feet, Peyton saw the man lying there in a heap, groaning. The other two men had been taken completely by surprise, but were already moving her way with a pair of shouts. One–one had a gun. The guy who had been talking pulled out a gun! 

The marbles reacted to her terror immediately. All five that were still in her hand flew out of it. But instead of flying at the men themselves, they surrounded Peyton. The gold and black ones smacked into her chest and began to meld together before expanding. Suddenly, they weren’t marbles anymore. They grew and shaped themselves into a golden chestplate with black highlights, which then expanded down into black armor with gold highlights across her legs and up over her arms.  

Meanwhile, the white marble flew up to her face, seeming to stare at her for an instant before it opened up, expanding like a mouth to swallow her as she screamed. 

No. It didn’t swallow her. It turned itself into a sleek, pristine white helmet, covering her face and head but leaving her eyes exposed. 

All of that happened in the span of a couple seconds. Suddenly, her entire body was encased in armor created by three of the six marbles. The three remaining, purple, silver and bronze, hovered in front of her as though waiting. 

The two guys who had been running at her suddenly stopped, stumbling over their own feet as curses of confusion escaped them. Before she could react, the man with the gun fired a shot. Peyton screamed, stumbling backward… even as the bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the armor. It didn’t feel like anything. 

For an instant, she stared down at the spot of her chest where the bullet had struck, then her gaze snapped up to the source of it. The remaining marbles reacted to her impulse. The bronze transformed itself into a bat not unlike the one she’d nearly been hit with, flying out to crash into the stomach of the man with the gun, then slammed down into his back to knock him to the floor. Simultaneously, the silver marble transformed into a rope, lashing itself around the other man before hurtling him through the air to slam into the first guy who had been knocked through the air just as he started to get up. 

Which left the purple marble. That one transformed into a long, flowing cloth, which lashed out the length of the room to catch all three men in a wide arc, before hurling them bodily into the far wall together with a collection of screams. 

The rope shifted slightly to become a whip as it flew into Peyton’s left hand, while the bat found its way into her right. Finally, the purple cloth–cloak, she realized, affixed itself to her shoulders. Peyton was left standing there over the three men as they groaned in pain and confusion, muttering half-conscious curses. 

“Oh my God,” she whimpered, standing in the newly formed armor with the two weapons in either hand. “Oh my God, oh fuck, oh god. What do I do now?” 

“Well, ain’t this a surprise!” The sudden voice snapped the newly-Touched girl’s gaze toward the stairs, where Juice stood. The huge man could barely fit, but didn’t seem to care about the damage he’d done getting up there. His gaze was centered on her. “Thought this was gonna be a boring cakewalk, but looks like I get to have a little excitement after all.” 

“Wait!” the girl found herself blurting in a panic, “I didn’t–” 

He didn’t wait. Instead, the man used a blast of lightning that slammed into Peyton. It… it didn’t kill her. It hurt, that was for sure. But not nearly as much as it should have. 

Unfortunately, it still served to distract the girl, and before she knew it, the big guy was right in front of her. He hauled her off the ground, snarling. “Pretty tough, eh bitch? Let’s see how tough.” Suddenly, he was spinning, much more graceful than he should have been at his size. Before she knew what was happening, Peyton found herself hurled toward one of the bar-covered windows. She struck it with enough force to break through, flying out into open air. 

Then she dropped. With a scream, the girl fell all the way to the ground in the middle of the open shopping center, landing hard on her chest. The bat and whip dropped from her hands, reforming to their normal marble shapes. 

A terrifyingly loud crash, followed by a thud made her spin over into a half-sitting position, staring as Juice straightened up from his own landing. There was a hole in the wall where he’d leapt through. 

“Still ticking, huh?” A low, dangerous chuckle escaped the man. Electricity played over his fist as he slammed it into his palm. “Good.

“Let’s have some fun.” 

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