Peyton Favors

Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone now right here!

For the next hour or so, we worked our way through searching the stuff we had taken from the Ministry base. Amber (as That-A-Way of course) showed up to help out while on a break from patrol duties, and was immediately recruited to scan through a pile of papers. The more the merrier. Or at least, the more the less this mind-numbing job of reading what often looked like gibberish would drag on. 

There was something that appeared to be a key for the code that was written on those papers and the vials, but I wasn’t able to decipher it with a brief once-over. So, I passed it over to Paige, who said she would figure it out and decode what was written on them, but it would take awhile. 

Beyond that, we found some interesting things. First and possibly foremost, there was a ledger that showed how up to date on their payments various gangs were. Not just the Detroit ones, but practically all of the organizations throughout the entire state. Nearly every Fell-Touched group (aside from a couple like the Scions) and even most of the non-Touched gangs were represented in the ledger. If you were a criminal group of more than one person (and even some who were solo), you paid taxes to the Ministry. 

But it went further than that. Because obviously having that many people know about the Ministry would make it impossible to keep even a little bit secret. So the vast majority of criminals who paid their fees had no idea that it was part of a larger organization. The Ministry had lieutenants who acted as though they were the boss of an area, unconnected to anyone else. They made people who acted in their territory pay tribute, then secretly passed everything but their own salary to the higher-ups. And for the most part, even the lieutenants didn’t know how wide-reaching the whole thing was. They were all divided into smaller cells who didn’t know anything about the other groups, and didn’t know that a number of their rivals in an area were actually also working for the Ministry. Some of the lieutenants were gang bosses, while others were actually their right-hand people who were secretly keeping the Ministry up-to-date on what was going on. The operation encompassed the entire state of Michigan, and we had all these names and the explanations of what they were doing. 

It wasn’t all in one spot, of course. It wasn’t like all of this information was conveniently written out for us. We had to piece it together between the ledger and several other pieces, including on a few of the hard drives, which were heavily encrypted and password protected. We would have been shit out of luck if we hadn’t had Paige and Sierra. They were able to use the…wires that extended from their fingers to plug into the hard drives and access them directly. 

As expected, there were none of my family’s real names written down anywhere. Not even in the secret encoded parts of the computers. Which made me slightly relieved, a reaction which instantly made me feel guilty. This was wrong, it was all wrong. It was going to blow up in my face somehow, I just knew it. But right now, I just had to focus on this stuff.  

Murphy was shaking her head, muttering about how none of this would help find Luciano, when she abruptly paused. From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl quickly shuffle back through a few other pages she had been looking at before elbowing Roald beside her. She asked him where something else they had been looking at a moment earlier was, and he dug through a discarded pile before handing it to her. She had two papers, one in each hand, and was looking back and forth between them. “Hey… hey I think I got something about that piece of shit.” 

We all turned our attention that way, as she explained. “Okay so on this page they’re talking about something called Plan Z. I think it’s a group or a person or something. It says Plan Z couldn’t be called on for this other thing they needed, so they should send Squire. Then this other page with the same date mentions that this safe house is ‘now available’ because ‘L’ has been taken by Z and won’t be needing it anymore. That’s right after Luciano got away. Whoever or whatever Plan Z is, they probably escorted this L, Luciano, away from that safehouse and out of Ministry territory.”  

Taking that in, I frowned thoughtfully. “There’s a few other bits in here about a Plan Z. I thought it was like… an actual plan, but you’re right, it sounds more like a person or a group. Maybe a set of Touched they use? I dunno. Sending a group to escort Luciano seems like overkill, but then again, maybe they were nervous about us finding him again.” My shoulders raised in a slight shrug. “Does it say anything about where that Plan Z might’ve taken him?  I doubt he stayed there, but it might give us a place to start from.” 

“Maybe not there, but it does here.” That was Peyton, waving a hand with a small notebook clutched in it. “It’s like a memo or a reminder note or something in the margin. I didn’t think it was important at first, but the page right before it has the same date as those ones, and the memo says, ‘Z pick-up’ and then an address in Pontiac.” 

Right, Pontiac was a city about twenty miles north of Detroit. I absorbed that information. It made sense as a place to take Luciano. Far enough away to be clear of the city without taking up too much of their time.

Pack, who had been sitting at the far end of the table we were all gathered around, made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. “So, whoever these Plan Z people are, it sounds like they needed to be picked up after taking Luciano somewhere. Maybe they gave him the vehicle?” She ran two fingers along the top of Tuesday’s head as the gecko sat perched beside the papers she had been looking through, before turning her attention elsewhere. “What do you think, Sierra? Pretty interesting stuff, but then, you must be tired of just sitting around. Being trapped for all that time in a body with someone else, and now you’re completely free. But here you are just playing with paperwork. Don’t you want to get out there and have some fun?” 

“Please don’t try to recruit her into your villain gang until she at least has time to stretch her legs a bit,” Amber idly requested from where she was sitting basically right next to the La Casa Touched. She didn’t bother to look up from the files she had been scanning. “As far as having a body goes, she’s not even one day old.” 

As for Sierra herself, she offered a shrug. “Yeah, I wanna get out there. But there’s gonna be this nagging voice in the back of my head if I don’t help find Irelyn and those two Touched girls and get them off that island. And believe me, after everything we went through to get me this body, the last thing I want is another nagging voice in my head. I just got the old one to be external.” She gave a quick glance over toward Paige before adding, “So, the sooner we save those three, the sooner I can move on and figure out what my real life is going to be.” 

Clearing my throat a bit, I looked toward the stairs. Wren was up in her main lab, working on that tracer device that was supposed to tell us where exactly Breakwater was. I still wasn’t absolutely sure we would go with the plan to blackmail the people in charge into helping Flea and Trivial, but knowing where the island was would at least be a good place to start from. 

“Well, until we have something else to work with,” I announced, “I think we should check out that address that you guys found. Maybe Luciano isn’t there. I mean, he probably isn’t. But there could be something to tell us where else to look. He might’ve left a clue or something.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly, shoving herself up from the table so firmly she nearly knocked over the stool she had been sitting on. “Fuck yeah, let’s get out there. I can’t take looking at another piece of paper right now or I’ll scream.”

Standing up, I hesitated. “We need to be quiet and stealthy about it. Whatever that address is, I don’t know if it’s a Ministry place or just somewhere they took Luciano and dropped him off. But whatever it is, if we show up and make a spectacle of ourselves, it’s going to get back to the Ministry. And I’m pretty sure they could put two and two together, considering those files were just stolen from their base yesterday. If the place looks like it’s guarded or whatever, we have to wait. And we don’t let them see us.” 

Paige started to rise, and I focused that way, shaking my head. “You should stay here. Keep working on those harddrives and see if there’s anything else we can use. This isn’t gonna be a fight, we’re just checking the place out and looking around if it seems clear. We need to be subtle right now.” 

“Paintball, subtle?” Pack snorted and gave me a look. “If I asked you to define that word, would you be able to?”  

Flushing a bit under the helmet and mask, I huffed at the girl. “I can be subtle when I want to be, I promise. I was subtle in that base last night.” Before she could say anything, I hurriedly amended, “I mean I was subtle about who I was and my power and—you know what I mean.” Now I was really blushing. “Look, the point is, we’ll just head over there and check the place out.” 

“Uh huh,” Pack gave me a long look. “And how are you going to get there, exactly? You know, to the city twenty miles north of Detroit. Without attracting attention.”

My mouth opened, then I paused before tilting my head. A muttered curse escaped me while Pack snickered. 

“I can’t drive,” Way hesitantly pointed out. “I’ve gotta get back to patrol pretty soon, or they’ll start to wonder where I am. Which we really don’t want.” 

Pack nodded. “And I’ve got–uhh, let’s just call them plans and leave it at that. Gotta do my real job, or the boss might wonder what else I’ve been doing with my time. Which, as Rose over there said, we don’t want.” 

“Yeah,” Way muttered, “wouldn’t want you to get kicked out of your job as a thief.” 

“I could drive,” Sierra idly noted. “I mean, I’d need a car for it, but I could drive.” She offered a somewhat feral smile then, which was weird to see on a face that was so like my own. It made a funny feeling form in my stomach before I pushed it down as she continued. “And hey, if I need to acquire a car for it–” 

“We’re not stealing a car,” I interrupted. This whole situation was already precarious enough without adding something like that in. It wasn’t likely that she would get caught, of course. And even less likely that she would stay caught, but still. The image of Sierra, in a body that looked like a blonde me, getting taken to the police station was just… no. No, we couldn’t risk anything like that. 

“Besides,” Murphy pointed out, “That body looks like you’re younger than we are. That body’s, what, fourteen?” 

“Oh, I dunno,” Pack put in casually, “appearances can be deceiving. Some people look older than they are, other people look younger. You can’t really go off first impression these days.” 

Murphy shrugged at that. “Whatever, the point is any cop who saw her driving would definitely pull you over to check, stolen car or not. She’d stand out. And I thought the whole point of this trip was to blend in and not attract attention.” 

I nodded quickly. “She’s right, we need to be subtle. That means not stealing any cars and not having someone drive who would make the cops do a double-take. So all of us who are wearing masks are out.” 

While we were all looking at each other and trying to figure out where to go from there, Fred grunted. “I’ll drive. Whatever, it’s just a quick recon thing, right? The kid’s gonna be busy upstairs for awhile, and if she needs something, you can take care of it.” He nodded toward Paige before turning his attention to me. “You want subtle, can’t get much more subtle than an old sedan. Long as that’s not a big fancy neighborhood, it’ll fit in just fine. Plus, I’ve got that bakery ID, so I can be out after curfew. Trouble is, I can only take a few of you. We can say you’re helping with loading stuff into the bakery trucks for some extra cash since the place is shorthanded.” 

“Well, Pack and Way are out,” I noted. “Raindrop isn’t here. So I’ll go with Alloy, Hobbes, and Calvin.” I nodded toward Murphy and Roald. “We’ll check it out, see what we can find.” 

“I’ll go with you.” That was Sierra. “Like I said, I really need to get out of here and stretch my legs. Besides, this way if something goes wrong, you’ll have some back-up.” She gave Paige a look. “It’s my turn to be out there. You can keep scanning the hard drives.” 

For a moment, I thought Paige was going to object. But she paused before exhaling. “Be careful.” Her gaze moved over the rest of us as she added, “All of you. Just don’t get involved in some big thing. If there’s trouble, get the hell out of there and come back. Like you said, we don’t want the Ministry to know that you’re involved. This whole house of cards will come down pretty damn quick if they get too many pieces of the puzzle.” 

Amber looked a bit guilty about the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to go with us. Focusing on me, she urged, “She’s right about being careful out there, okay? We caused a big scene last night. The Ministry is going to be on guard and itching for some payback after the bloody nose we gave them. They can’t cover everything, and they won’t know what we were looking for since we grabbed everything we could. But still, just… watch yourselves and don’t attract a bunch of attention. And if something goes wrong, call. I’d rather make an excuse for–I’d rather ditch and figure out how to explain it later so I can come help than have you guys end up in even worse trouble.” 

“We’ll be careful,” I promised. “We’re just going to check the place out and see if there’s anything to find that might tell us where that guy went. From those papers, it sounds like the Ministry took him from their safehouse to that spot. I’m pretty sure that means they just dropped him off, probably in a place he chose. Which would mean they don’t really have any ties to it. But either way, we’ll watch our backs.” Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder. “But you watch yourself too, okay? Don’t get so distracted worrying about what we’re doing that you get yourself in trouble. There’s still a gang war going on out there.”

Pack made a noise in the back of her throat, before quietly excusing herself. She said something about coming back to check in on what we found later, before heading out to do her… whatever it was La Casa was doing. That whole situation was becoming more complicated by the day, especially given how much I could tell she and Amber liked each other. But it wasn’t my place to say anything. 

Instead, I focused on getting ready to go. With some reluctance, I changed into the other suit, complete with the raised shoes and fake chest. I didn’t want to, but if it came to it, better to be spotted by the Ministry looking like this than as Paintball. There was no sense in taking the risk, even if we weren’t planning on making a big scene. Or so I told myself repeatedly while putting the other suit on in the bathroom before going out to join the others. 

Peyton, Murphy, and Roald wore the same suits as last night as well, while Sierra simply had a ski mask. I had conflicting thoughts about her going out like that. But then again, I had conflicting thoughts about everything involving her. Including the fact that she was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and somehow pulling it off better than I could have even though the body she was using was literally identical to mine. 

So yeah, conflicting thoughts all around. Still, if we got caught and her mask was removed, we… it would be a whole thing anyway. If we got caught to the point that she lost the mask, I would lose mine too. And then we’d really have a situation. 

For the moment, however, I put all of that aside and tried not to focus on the terrible what-ifs. Instead, I headed out to the back lot where Fred’s car was. Unfortunately, just as we were about to head out, Peyton got a call from her mother. Apparently they had a sick friend, and her mother needed her to watch that friend’s kids while she took the woman to the hospital. She obviously felt bad about ducking out, but I assured her it was understandable and that we would be fine. After all, we were just going to poke around, it wouldn’t be that bad. 

She still looked doubtful, but stepped back while I got in the back of the sedan with Murphy and Roald. Sierra got in the front passenger side, not bothering with the mask just yet. 

Starting the car, Fred glanced in the back at us. “Don’t worry, those back windows might look clear, but…” He reached out, hitting something on the dash. “Now they’re tinted from the outside. Nobody can see you back there.” With a proud smile, he tapped the steering wheel. “She might look like an old jalopy, but Wren’s done a lot of tinkering. We get in a chase, whoever’s after us will be in for a big surprise.” 

“Let’s hope there’s no opportunity for you to prove that,” I put in. “At least, not today. But good to know.” 

“Just don’t let Paintball drive if you get into a chase,” Peyton pleaded while standing just outside the car, staring at us as though she was about to change her mind about going to help her mother.

Making a scoffing sound in the back of my throat, I primly pointed out, “I got us out of the last chase pretty well.” 

“You also got my stomach out of my lower torso pretty well,” Peyton shot back. “I’m pretty sure it still hasn’t settled properly.” 

Another huff escaped me. “Wimp. I could totally have driven crazier than that. I took it easy on you.” 

From the front seat, Fred gruffly informed us that he would be the one driving today. And with that, we all waved to Peyton and the others before pulling out onto the street. 

“Now,” our driver announced, “you all might want to sit back and relax for a few minutes, cuz if we’re trying to avoid attention, that means following the speed limit. And I guarantee, there’s gonna be traffic.”

He was right, of course. There was plenty of traffic from people heading home to get back before curfew hit. And just getting out of work in general. Pontiac had grown as well, alongside Detroit as it acted as a suburb for people to live in while working here in the city. At last count, the place had a population of about a hundred and fifty thousand or so. And part of me thought that the entirety of that was on the freeway with us. It made me want to jump out and find my own way to the city. Which would have been a terrible mistake, but still. 

It took over an hour and a half for us to drive the twenty miles from Detroit to Pontiac, which would have been worse if I hadn’t fallen asleep leaning against the window. When the car abruptly stopped, I jolted awake, suddenly feeling panicked about where I was and what was going on. 

“It’s cool,” Murphy assured me. From the sound of the yawn that came with her words, she had actually fallen asleep too. “We’re here.” 

“That’s right,” Fred confirmed, raising his hand to point across the street from where he had parked. “That’s the address. It’s number 3C.”  

I looked that way with the others and we immediately spotted an apartment building with what looked like some sort of memorial out front. There were flowers, wreaths, candles, and similar stuff all stacked up next to the stairs. 

“What…” I frowned. “What is that?” 

“I’ll check it out,” Sierra announced. And before I could say anything, she had the door open and was walking across the street to look at the memorial. There were a couple people standing nearby, and she said something to them before listening to their response. The whole time, I sat with my hands clenched tightly, praying nothing went wrong. 

A minute later, Sierra came back and got in. “It’s a memorial alright,” she announced. “Apparently a couple teenagers were killed by someone the day after that Luciano creep was supposed to have been dropped off. From what the one witness who survived said, they were poking around the dumpster back behind the building and someone attacked them. They ahh, they said it was a monster. Actually they said zombie. He came out of the garbage and screamed at them. The girl got away but her friends were… they weren’t as lucky. Apparently the monster bit them. Ripped their throats out with–” She stopped, grimacing. “It was bad, that’s the point. Real bad. And from the description the girl gave…” 

“Luciano?” I asked, before grimacing when she gave a silent nod. “Fuck. Okay wait, so…. the Ministry brought Luciano here… and the next day a few teenagers found him in the garbage, and when they disturbed him, he attacked and murdered a couple of them? By ripping their throats out with his teeth? And they said he was like a zombie? What–what does…

“What the fuck does that mean?”  

Previous Chapter

Enkindle 23-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

To my relief, the others did not immediately recognize the newly-dubbed Sierra as looking like me. The real me, that was. In the back of my mind, I sent a silent thanks that I had never really been a focus of paparazzi or whatever. I didn’t know how much of that was the fact that I didn’t fit what they would want to show as a daughter of Elena Evans, and how much was my parents keeping me sheltered from it. But either way, it helped me out right now. I could only imagine what sort of explanations we would have had to give otherwise. 

Maybe the truth. I was going to tell them the truth anyway, so why not now? It was a question I couldn’t quite answer, even to myself. th

Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were all circling Sierra, looking her up and down. Peyton gave a low whistle. “Damn, you really do look completely–I mean…” She looked back and forth between her and Paige. “I guess saying you look real is pretty bad, isn’t it? Cuz, like, you are real.”

Paige snorted at that. “Yeah, we’re real. Flesh and blood body, just like you. Well, not just like.” 

“More like a new and improved us,” Murphy murmured, before flushing a bit. “I mean, I didn’t–” She seemed to squirm a little bit as though embarrassed. “You both look great, but what I meant was the whole strength and speed stuff. Wait, do you have that same–you know.” She gestured a bit vaguely toward Sierra. “Improvements, I mean. Are you like a super-soldier like Paige?” 

A very slight smirk crossed the other girl’s face. And yes, seeing a look like that on my own face was still weird. The whole thing was weird. Every time I looked at her, I had another startling moment of realizing I was staring at my own face. It threw me off, to say the least. That smirk stayed as she inclined her chin a bit. “Like her? I’m pretty sure I could kick her ass.” 

Paige started to respond to that, and I quickly spoke up. “Why don’t we save finding that out for later? I’m just glad Rai–I mean Sierra has a body now, so we can move on to the next problem.” 

Roald made a noise deep in his throat, folding his arms across his chest before hesitantly asking, “You mean we don’t get to just be glad we got out of that whole thing alive and relax for awhile? She um, she has a body now, and it’s gonna take awhile to look through all that stuff, right? You don’t… you don’t want to go out and do something like that again already…”

Murphy’s hand slapped his back. “I think what he means is, we just did a lot of pissing some really powerful people off. And while all of that was fun, and they have that and a hell of a lot more coming–” Her face twisted a bit as thoughts of her brother clearly filled her mind briefly before she pushed them away. “–we probably don’t wanna push too hard, too fast. They’re gonna be on guard now. Even more on guard than usual. They’re gonna be watching for us. So maybe we should chill out.”

“He didn’t mean anything to do with the Ministry,” Paige informed them with a glance my way. “This is about my–our father.” The correction came as she met Sierra’s gaze briefly. “And the fact that he’s got…” She hesitated slightly, clearly deciding how much to actually say before starting over. “The fact that he’s got two Star-Touched trapped on that prison island with him. With them. With all those prisoners.” 

That made everyone else besides Sierra and me do a double-take. It was almost funny. Wren flew right up in the air, wings lifting her into a hovering motion so she was several feet off the ground. “Wait, wait, what?! He’s got Star-Touched on Breakwater?” 

“How did that happen?” Peyton demanded. “And how do you know about it?” 

Paige took a breath before explaining, “The Banners–the people who adopted… who bought me, they have an older daughter, a real daughter, who was estranged from them. When they went missing–err, when we went missing, she started looking for them. I guess Trivial was a friend of hers, because she convinced her to help look. Trivial got Flea, from the Conservators, to help too. When we found out that there were Star-Touched looking for me, we were afraid they’d tip off the Ministry. Or even that they were Ministry. So we made them think I was in Florida. You know, using a phone that made it look like that was where I was calling from.” 

Wren abruptly spoke up. “You were calling the umm, Trivial with that?” 

“Not at first,” Paige replied. “But when I wouldn’t tell Irelyn where I was, she uhh, thought making me talk to a Star-Touched would help. Obviously it didn’t change anything, but they kept trying.” 

This was all uncomfortable, obviously. I didn’t like the idea of lying to these guys. But then again, it was about protecting Irelyn’s secret identity. Awkward as the whole situation was, it would have been even worse to go blabbing that when it wasn’t our secret to tell. There was no simple answer here. We could either betray their trust by lying about the whole Irelyn/Flea situation, or betray Irelyn by exposing her identity to a lot of people she didn’t know anything about. I just had to hope that if this came out in the future, they would understand why we hadn’t told them the truth. Actually, I had to hope that they were cool with an awful lot of ‘not the whole truth.’  

I shook those thoughts off while Paige finished with a simple, “We thought it’d be safe enough down there, that they couldn’t get in trouble that far away from what was actually going on.” 

“You also sent them away from the city when this whole gang war is going on,” Roald pointed out. He didn’t exactly sound completely recriminating, but he didn’t not sound that way either. It was somewhere in the middle. “They could have done a lot of good here for people.” 

Wincing visibly, Paige nodded. “You’re right. We didn’t think they’d be gone for this long, honest. We assumed they’d go down for a few days and then come back. We didn’t expect anything like this.”  

“Stupid us, apparently,” Sierra put in. “Cuz they managed to get Pittman’s attention somehow and he had them… uh, we dunno what or how exactly, but they ended up on Breakwater. He has the phone they were using to communicate with Paige. Irelyn gave them the number. I guess she thought they might have more luck convincing her to tell them where she was.”

Peyton was looking back and forth between all of us, marbles orbiting agitatedly around her head while she was clearly thinking intently. “Okay, so this Banners woman was looking for you and her missing parents and she got a couple of Star-Touched involved. Does she know they ended up on Breakwater?” 

“We’re pretty sure she’s there too,” I found myself saying, picturing the hole I was digging getting deeper with each word. Though technically that was the absolute literal truth. We were pretty sure Irelyn was there. “Flea and Trivial went with her as back-up and now…” I grimaced. Fuck, it was so easy for this to go wrong and fall apart. The moment they didn’t see Irelyn with Flea and Trivial, it was–fuck. That was a problem to figure out later. We were doing the best we could not to give away her secret identity, but that could only go so far. 

“So there’s a Prev trapped on that island too?” Murphy blurted. “How’re they keeping her safe?” 

Paige shifted her weight a little, her tone flat. “She’s fully capable. Her father was training her to take over his security division before they had a falling out. She’s had more– she can take care of herself in a fight. With those two backing her up–or her backing them up–whatever, she can help.” 

I really almost had to admire Paige’s ability to lie in that moment. She really sounded like she was sticking up for Irelyn being able to keep up with a couple Star-Touched, as if offended by the insinuation that she would drag them down. 

Peyton started to say something else before stopping as a noise of confusion escaped her. “Wait, hold the phone, why isn’t this all over the news? If there were a couple heroes and some ordinary person trapped on that place, wouldn’t it be front-page material? We’d be seeing it on television, there’d be top pinned posts about it on Sphere, on Reddit, everywhere. And trust me, it’s not there. No one’s talking about anything like this. Not even rumors.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shifted my weight uncomfortably before nodding. “That’s why we think they’re keeping it secret. The people on Breakwater, I mean. I don’t think they want anyone to know that there’s even a chance of good people ending up there. Because if people knew it was possible for someone to be transported onto Breakwater–” 

“They’d realize there must be a way to transport off of it,” Murphy finished, sounding disgusted. “And we can’t have that. Gotta keep up the fucking illusion of perfect security so there’s not mass panic in the streets or whatever the fuck they’re scared of. Even if it means abandoning those three–wait, do you think they’ve told the people here? Do you think their teammates know what happened to them? I guess they wouldn’t tell anyone that Irelyn chick knows, but the other two?” 

My head shook. “I don’t think the people in charge of that place would be able to keep it a secret if the Star-Touched here knew about it.” Pausing to consider, I added, “I mean, maybe one or two know, like the leaders? But I don’t… I don’t think even them. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that if even the Ministry knew about it, they’d be doing something to get the word out. Remember, their whole thing depends on balance. It’s not just about giving the villains a free ride. They need to have the power on the good side to shut down anyone who steps out of line. Losing two really good Star-Touched at any point, but especially right now, isn’t exactly conducive to that.”

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “Pittman’s their enemy. They’d want to get the word out and put a stop to it just to make sure that there was no chance of him getting off that place.” 

Peyton was nodding slowly, her voice thoughtful. “I mean, that’s a good point, right? Like, there’s no reason they’d be helping to keep this secret. Safe to say they don’t know anything about it.” 

Roald snorted. “Yeah, well, maybe we should tell them so they can do our work for us.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and grimaced behind the helmet. “I know you meant that sarcastically, but part of me wants to know if that’s something we could do. I mean, think about it. They’ve got a hell of a lot more resources than we do. And like we said, they’ve got every reason to want to shut him down and save Flea and Trivial.” 

“Has Irelyn been reported missing?” Peyton asked, her golden helmet tilting my way. “I mean, I doubt she took this much time off work. Her–wait, what does she do for work?” 

Paige was the one who answered. “She’s a security consultant for a few different tech companies. Trains their staff, works with a couple mercenary groups, that sort of thing. Freelance, so she doesn’t have anyone to report to. They might’ve noticed she hasn’t been answering calls, but what are they gonna say? Hell, they’d probably think she’s on some assignment for a different company.” 

Clearing my throat, I quickly spoke up. “The point is, it’s pretty doubtful that either the people she works with, or Flea and Trivial’s teammates, know how bad their situation is. Maybe they’ve noticed them missing, but even then it’s not like they’d jump straight to ‘they’re trapped on Breakwater,’ you know? No matter what they think happened, they’re probably keeping it quiet to avoid a panic.” 

“They might be blaming the Scions,” Roald pointed out with an audible grimace. “Maybe they think those guys grabbed them and are planning some big event.” 

“Please don’t even give me any reason to picture that,” Alloy groaned. “Cuz now I’m just wondering what those guys are actually planning for their big revenge come-back.” 

My head shook quickly. “Let’s not think about that right now. We’ve got enough problems to deal with. We just need to focus on how we get those people off of Breakwater.”

“Maybe you should let the Ministry know,” Fred put in. He was sitting over in the corner with a copy of the newspaper and a cup of coffee, shrugging when we looked at him. “Like you said, they’ve got the resources you–we don’t, right? And they’d want to convince the authorities to get those three out of there. You get them to put pressure in the right places, maybe the people in charge of the island just step in and pull them out. Could be that easy.” He paused, frowning at his cup. “Yeah, I know, it sounded wrong as soon as I heard it.” 

“I’m not sure how we can let them know what’s going on without becoming even more of a target ourselves,” I carefully murmured, thinking about it for a moment. “Or how we could get them to believe it. I mean, maybe we could get them to think that the people who hit them last night worked for him and lead them to it that way? But I don’t know how we could do that, exactly. It seems pretty… easy to screw up.” 

Wren was practically vibrating as fast as her wings while hovering in the air. “I think I can find out where the island is.” When everyone looked at her, she quickly added, “When you use the phone to talk to that mean guy. I think I can build something to track the signal to the source. Would that help? I mean, um, if you know exactly where the island is, maybe you could trade that to the people in charge and say something like, ‘you wanna keep that whole location a secret, so maybe you should get our friends out and it’ll stay that way.’”

That made me stare even more, my mouth opening and shutting a couple times. Of all the people who might have suggested literally blackmailing the authorities into getting Flea and Trivial off that island, I never would have expected it to be Wren. 

Apparently everyone else was just as surprised, because the girl found the whole group staring at her. Slowly, she lowered herself back to the floor, wings continuing to beat for a few more seconds before slowly fluttering to a stop. “What?” she asked weakly, looking back and forth between all of us. “Was it a bad idea?” 

I was the first to answer, my head shaking quickly. “No, not a bad idea. A surprising one for sure, and definitely a dangerous one too. Blackmailing the government into doing what we want them to do, even if it’s the right thing, could get a target put on our backs. Especially with something as big as the location of their super-inescapable prison.”

Paige spoke slowly. “He’s right about that. Believe me, just trying to force them to do what we want in the first place would be enough to make them look at us in a, let’s say not favorable light. Add in the part where it involves the secret location of the supervillain prison that every government in the Armistice alliance uses and…” She grimaced a bit. 

“But it’s still a good idea,” Sierra put in flatly. Her tone has made it clear that she was practically daring us to disagree, which would obviously mean coming up with a better plan of our own. “Think about it, it’s not like we can get over there ourselves. Even once we know where the island is, that place is so well defended that we’d get blown to smithereens before we got anywhere near it. Unless the kid’s ready to upgrade the odds of her teleportation system from a fifty percent chance of successfully moving a few blocks to a one hundred percent chance of moving all the way across the continent and over the ocean.” 

Wren visibly blanched at that, head shaking slowly. “Um, I’d rather risk blackmailing the government. Wait, does that make us bad guys?” 

“We’re saving a couple Star-Touched, and another good woman, from real bad guys,” Peyton reminded her. “That gives us a little wiggle room on the good or evil chart, doesn’t it?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. “A little wiggle room. But let’s be careful with that, because I’m pretty sure we’ve been wiggling a fair bit already. Um. Wren, maybe you could work on creating that tracking system so we can call Pittman and get his location? Then we can decide what to do from there. I mean, it’s not like having the location automatically means we have to blackmail the government people, right? If anyone else can come up with a better plan, feel free.” 

“One that helps Trivial, Flea, and Irelyn as soon as possible,” Paige put in. “They might be good at what they do, but they’re stuck out there on an island full of the worst of the worst. Nobody’s good enough to survive in that place forever. And it’s our fault that they’re stuck out there to begin with.” 

A nagging voice in the back of my head was saying that everyone trying to think of a better solution might have more luck if they knew the full, correct situation. They were operating under the assumption that Flea and Irelyn were two separate people. That could very easily come back to bite us in the ass. But again, until we had permission from the woman herself, we couldn’t just go around blabbing her identity to everyone here. We were doing the best we could with a shitty situation. 

Wren was nodding almost frantically. “I’ll work on it. I’ll build it. I mean, I’ve got the design in my head already, but we might need to get a few things. They’ve probably got blockers–I mean they’ve definitely got blockers. Things to stop stuff like exactly what we’re gonna do. But I think I know how to get past them. I–uhh, gotta draw!” Even as she finished saying that, Fred was handing over a tablet with a stylus, and she quickly moved to a corner of the room to start sketching designs. 

After watching her for a second, I turned back to the others. “Well, that’ll keep her busy for a while. I guess there’s nothing else we can do for those three right now, so maybe we should start going over the stuff we found? Sorry, I mean the stuff we stole. Wren says the tracking stuff is all gone, right, Fred?” 

“Yeah, it’s all taken care of,” he confirmed. “The kid promises that everything over there is safe.” He gestured to a table on the other side of the room, where our bags were spread out. “There were a lot of trackers on it, but we got rid of them. Nobody’s gonna find that stuff here.” 

So, we all went over to find our own bags and started to sort through what we had stolen. First, I took those vials from the front pocket and unwrapped them from the towel before frowning thoughtfully. There were five vials in total, one blue, two purple, one brownish-black, and one a bright amber. There were labels on the vials, but it wasn’t like they had easy-to-understand names and explanations. Each label had four numbers and three letters on it. Such as, on the blue one, 9F2X7P0. The two purple ones looked identical, and the codes on them were close but not the same. One was 8D1J4N1 and the other was 8D1J4N8. Did that mean they came from the same batch? I had no idea. And I certainly wasn’t going to do anything stupid like uncork them and smell or touch the stuff without having a better idea of what it was. 

Hopefully there would be information in the files we’d taken, something we could use to decode the labels. For the moment, I carefully set them aside on the folded towel and turned my attention to the assortment of papers I had yanked off the wall back in that place. They had been taped up near the vials, so maybe they had something I could use? 

Unfortunately, the papers were no help. At least, not yet. They had the same sort of code written on them. Until we found the key for it, we still couldn’t decipher what any of it meant.

While I was focused on that, Pack arrived at the back door. Fred let her in, and she came with her lizards all over her shoulders, arms, and head. “I tell you, these guys must’ve been pretty upset about being left behind, because–what?” She had stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Sierra, who had just looked up. “What the hell are– err… oh.” Seeming to catch herself abruptly, the masked girl pointed. “That’s the body you found for Raige?” 

“Sierra now,” the girl in question corrected. “Sierra Nevada.” 

“Sierra Nevada,” Pack echoed thoughtfully, still staring at her. I couldn’t read her expression through that completely blank mask, but she sounded… odd. “Well, it’s good to meet you, Sierra. 

“Very good to meet you indeed.” 

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Dig In 22-13 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we made our way back to the shop. We were careful, of course. First, Peyton and I took the time to each find a private area to change into our actual costumes. Amber had grabbed the bag with the costumes in it just before teleporting us out of the van. Naturally, the most important part of that point was that I was able to take the damn bra thing off. I resisted the urge to hurl it as far as I could, but only barely. I really hoped that nothing would come up in the future forcing me to wear it.  

Now I was back in my costume and far more comfortable. I was the right height, the right… shape, and everything felt a hell of a lot better, even if we weren’t out of the woods yet. I was just plain happier like this. 

Alloy and I basically just had to do the exact same thing we had done to get to the motel in the first place, only in reverse. Now we were heading back to the shop, and it was even more crucial that the others not be seen. It would have been bad enough to deal with cops or other Touched seeing them dressed up like that before. Now… now it would be a lot worse. 

Thankfully, the Ministry was still busy scouring the lake and area along the shore for us. I had no doubt that the search would widen soon enough, but we would be safe in the shop by then, and everyone would be out of the incriminating suits. Or so I kept telling myself throughout the entire very tense affair of oh-so-slowly working our way through the city. We couldn’t afford a single screw-up now. We had to get back there and get rid of all the evidence before anyone, particularly anyone who might work for or talk to the Ministry, saw us. 

Yeah, it was a bit nerve-wracking. But, despite having several near heart attacks on the way there and time and space doing their level best to stretch the whole thing out into an eternity, we finally made it. We were back in the alley behind the shop, and as far as we could tell, no one had seen us. It probably would have been impossible, or at least a lot harder, to do it that way before the curfew was put in place, so I did have to thank the authorities for that. Maybe I would send them a nice card or something. 

Fred opened the back door, giving us a nod. “We had cameras set up the last couple blocks, watching you. There’s no one on your tail. Come on.” He stepped aside then, holding the door for us to go in while his eyes carefully and suspiciously scanned the alley despite his own words. Apparently after the mistake he had made with that whole Ashton situation, he was being a lot more careful in general. Or maybe my paranoia was rubbing off on the people around me. Either way, I wasn’t going to object. He was Wren’s guardian, and there would be people who wanted to use her skills for their own ends. 

Speaking of which, I was going to have to give Glitch an answer about that whole situation soon. She had said she would send someone in two weeks, but it had been longer than that without a word. I assumed that had something to do with the whole war escalating thing. Maybe they were busy helping my parents work out nasty new toys to play with or something. Whatever the case, I knew that it was only a temporary delay. Soon enough, she would send someone to get our answer about what Wren was going to do. We’d talked about it of course, and… well, I just hoped we knew what we were doing. 

But right now, I had to focus on this particular situation. We all slipped through the doorway, before Fred closed it after us. I felt a sudden rush of relief wash over me in that moment. Tension that I hadn’t even realized I was holding in myself rushed out in a heavy sigh. We were safe. Well, maybe not completely safe from everything. The Ministry would be looking for whoever had stolen from them. They would be turning over every stone they could, and would go over that van with a fine-toothed comb. Thankfully, there was nothing for them to find. The van wasn’t registered to any of us, or connected to us in any way. Pack had stolen it from a place that rented them out for people to move furniture, and none of us had touched anything in it with our bare hands. We didn’t touch anything and we didn’t leave anything. They wouldn’t find any leads there. 

So, they would look, but they wouldn’t find us. Not right now, anyway. We had time. We had space to breathe and think. And to find out what we’d actually taken from them. 

Of course, first we all had to survive an attack of a completely different kind. The moment we came into the main shop area, I was suddenly hit straight on by a (literal) flying tackle-hug as Wren zoomed across the open space on her wings to crash into me. “You made it!” 

Staggering backward, I laughed. It was a laugh of relief, which felt really good right then. So did the hug itself, actually. I closed my arms around the girl and nodded. “Yup, we sure did. In and out just like that.” Even as I said those words, my voice cracked a little. I still couldn’t believe it had worked. And despite the fact that most of me was celebrating, there was a small but not insignificant part of me that was convinced that Ministry bad guys were about to crash through the windows while my brother and dad blew the door down and came storming in. It was… not a fun thing to imagine. 

Wren didn’t hug me for long, quickly moving on to the others. As she did, I stepped back and glanced toward Fred. “Good driving back there,” I informed him quietly. “Looked like a real wipeout. I’m sure they’ll have their suspicions, maybe even enough to be sure once they investigate and don’t find us anywhere. But still, you sold it in that moment.” 

Folding his arms, the man gave a short, thoughtful nod. “That’s the important part, isn’t it?” he mused. “If they don’t know exactly what happened, it’ll slow down their search. Even if they know you intentionally went into the water, they’ll look for diving equipment and extend the search area to find places further along where you could’ve come up. It’ll confuse them, muddy the waters, so to speak.” He gave a soft grunt of amusement at his own joke. 

“Every little bit helps,” I confirmed before letting out a breath. “Thanks for being around to help with all this. We definitely couldn’t do it without you. I mean, certainly not without Wren, but you too. I…” Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I hesitated briefly, wondering if I was overstepping. “I know you… you’ve felt shitty about what happened before.” 

“It was a stupid mistake,” he replied flatly, not looking at me. “I should’ve paid more attention to what that idiot wanted to do with that stuff, to exactly what he was going to steal. He just said he was going to rob a bank and–shit.” Shaking his head, he muttered something I didn’t catch under his breath. Then he sighed heavily. “Sorry I treated you the way I did when you showed up. You know, with the whole pointing a gun at you thing. That was out of line. It was–I’m glad you found us. Glad you… did all that.” 

I knew what he was saying. He was horrified at the very thought that he might have been even indirectly responsible for the death of a child. If we hadn’t found those vials and gotten them back to Blackjack in time… yeah, I didn’t really want to think about it either. I’d never met his daughter, but no kid deserved to die. Especially like that. 

I was spared from having to find some way of responding to that when Pack abruptly spoke up. “Okay, well, it’s been real fun basking in the glory of pulling something like that off, but can we get the next part of this show on the road?” She had all of her lizards out on the counter and was brushing her fingers over them tenderly, clearly apologizing for leaving them behind. 

Paige cleared her throat, straightening up with a slight grimace that told me she and Raige were having their own discussion inside her head. “Yeah, we, for two, would like to see what we pulled out of that place and if it was anything useful.” 

Her face shifted just a bit before Raige added, “And it had damn well better be after all that.” 

Of course, we couldn’t just open up the bags and dig through them just yet. There was way too big of a chance that the Ministry had put tracking devices on their hard drives. Right now, the special bags that Wren had provided were bouncing any potential signal all over the country.  But we weren’t going to take the risk of pulling anything out until there was no chance of us being tracked back here. Which meant that Wren had to take the bags into a specially prepared large metal crate she already had set up in a corner of the room. It was just large enough for her to sit inside with her tools and the stuff we’d grabbed, and did basically the same thing as the bags themselves while giving her room to work. Which meant the rest of us stood around and talked about what we had just done while she got busy. Anxious as we were to see what we had managed to grab, none of us wanted to take any risks. We had gotten through this so far without giving away who we were, and this was no time to start getting reckless. Slow and steady, one bit at a time. We’d done our part, now it was time for Wren to do hers. 

Okay, that wasn’t even in the least bit accurate. Wren had done more than her part so far. As I’d said to Fred, we would have been pretty screwed without her the entire way through this. The very thought of having to try to get into that place by myself, or even just without her, was basically inconceivable. I… maybe could have done it. At least, I could have dug the tunnel, but damn would it have taken a lot more time. Making everything pink and digging it out like that myself, I probably would have taken another month just to get there. Let alone having to go in alone. I either would’ve gotten caught, or I would’ve had to use my powers openly. Which would’ve let my parents know that Paintball was onto them, and that would have been a whole other–yeah. If I didn’t have these guys here to help, all of them, I would have been screwed. 

Those thoughts and more were running through my head as the others were loudly discussing just how crazy everything in that base had been. Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were going on about the guy they’d had to fight inside one of the other rooms, while the latter girl’s marbles spun wildly around her head. They were clearly as worked up and excited as she was, and possibly feeling a little agitated about the fact that they hadn’t been able to help in that place. If they could feel agitated, I still wasn’t sure how that whole thing worked. But in either case, whether it was the marbles or Peyton’s own subconscious, they were definitely energetic now, spinning around her head like a colorful halo or something. 

Glancing at her phone, Pack gave a soft grunt of annoyance. “Fuck. I gotta go. Getting a bit late and I’ve got a meeting with the boss before school in the morning.” 

“A meeting?” Amber’s gaze moved that way, clearly worried. And possibly curious. 

With an audible snort, Pack gestured casually. “Don’t worry, babe, the meeting was scheduled yesterday. Just a thing with me and a couple others about a job we need to do this week. A crime job.” She was clearly teasing the other girl. “But I promise, it’s the fun sort of crime.” 

Sighing, Amber waved a hand around the room. “You realize you’re talking about doing crime in a room full of Star-Touched, right? You’re literally admitting that you’re planning to do something illegal and expect us not to do anything about it.” 

“Oh, you can do something about it,” the other girl slyly replied. “Feel free to show up whenever you get the call and try to stop us. It’d be fun to play cops and robbers. Maybe one of us can tie the oth–” 

With an almost violent cough and vigorous clearing of her throat, Amber interrupted. “Didn’t you say you had to go? Meeting, school, all that?” 

Pack was clearly grinning behind that full face-covering mask as she gave a thumbs up. “Yup. But remember, I get to see the information you guys pull out of that stuff too. Don’t cheat me on this. I earned it.” 

We all promised to keep her informed about what we found, before the girl headed out with her lizards. Once she was gone, Murphy and Roald noted that they really should get home too. Obviously they couldn’t go by themselves, not with the curfew up. So Fred took them in his sedan, where they would hide under some blankets. He had an ID that identified him as a delivery driver for a local bakery, and if anyone stopped him he would just say that he was on his way to work a bit early to fill in. Assuming they called the place, the supervisor there was a friend of Fred’s and would cover for him. We’d thought about using that cover to get everyone to the motel earlier, but dismissed it both because we didn’t want anyone to take note of Fred being anywhere near the motel right before that whole thing went down, and because hiding all of us was a lot harder than just hiding Murphy and Roald. 

Finally, Peyton reluctantly admitted that she should probably start heading back home too, given her mother would freak out if she didn’t wake up in time to go to school. And besides, she had a test in the morning. So, after also making us promise to let her know what we found, she took off. 

Which left me there with Izzy, Amber, and Paige/Raige while we all waited for Wren to get done identifying and disabling the tracking devices. We talked a bit more, and had a snack of chips and cookies while watching the news for any word about what had happened. The only mention was something about a gang-related car chase that had ended with one of the cars involved driving into the lake. Of course, they identified the chopper as being part of the police force. And hell, for all we knew it really was. I would not have been at the least bit surprised to hear that it was an actual police helicopter that had been chasing us with that light. It gave them the perfect cover, anyway. And it wasn’t like my family having those sort of contacts and resources would be surprising. 

Eventually, Fred returned and whistled long and low while shaking his head as he saw what we were watching. “These people really have their fingers dug into fucking everything in this city, don’t they? They didn’t have any warning that you were going to be in there, and they still just snapped their fingers and summoned up a helicopter to chase after you. And just like that, it was a police chopper. Now they get to control the whole damn narrative. It’s just that quick, that easy. They say the word and the media reports what they’re told to.” 

“Helps when they have people in the police and the media,” I pointed out quietly. “Plus, we didn’t exactly give the news much of a reason to doubt that story. It makes sense that what happened right there would be a gang fight. And that it would disappear pretty quick. I mean, look at what’s happening in the rest of the city. As far as everyone else is concerned, it was just one more little event. Barely even worth reporting on, in the grand scheme of things.” 

Fred has started to say something, but before he could, the crate slid open and Wren emerged.  Her always-wild blond hair was sticking out in even more directions than normal, and she gave herself a shake, almost like a dog. Then she flashed us a broad smile and held up a plastic bag full of what looked like the remains of several small computer chips. They had been smashed into lots of tiny pieces. “All good now,” she informed brightly. “They can’t track these things anymore, and the last signal they got made it look like they were in Oklahoma. And there weren’t any tracking devices on the filters or papers, just the hard drives. It’s safe to look at the stuff now. Oooh, cookies!” With that, her wings extended and she literally flew over to the counter to grab a chocolate chip treat in each hand before smooshing them together into her mouth. “Mmmphh. Ur ruv oorrkiesh.” 

“Wren, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Fred advised. “And try to stick to one cookie at a time, kid.” Even as he said that, the man was shaking his head as he poured a glass of milk for her and handed it over, smiling as she drank greedily. “Good job though.” 

Reaching down to pick up the bag of broken tracking devices she had dropped in her rush, I examined it and smiled. “Definitely a good job. I’m pretty sure the Ministry is pissed off right now.” I had to pause then, imagining my parents being angry. It made me feel weird in my stomach, but I shook that off. Now really wasn’t the time to focus on that. We had to look through that stuff. It was getting pretty late, but still. I couldn’t leave yet. Not when we knew that Irelyn and Trivial were in some sort of horrible danger. There wasn’t time to waste. 

So, Amber, Izzy, and I took the papers and split them up to look through while Paige plugged herself into one hard drive after another. There was a lot of information here, too much to really take in with the time we had. Mostly we were just looking for the addresses of Pittman’s labs at the moment. There would be time later to take a full inventory of all the information once we had dealt with the most pressing matter. 

So, I was simply scanning through pages, looking for certain words like Pittman himself, or laboratory, or robots, biolems, anything about biological experimentation, and so on. I saw several things that made me want to go back and read more, but not right at the moment. Pittman. I had to focus on Pittman. 

Finally, after a few minutes of that, Amber abruptly spoke up. “Hang on, wait, I think I’ve got something.” As we all turned it to look that way, she held up a stapled-together stack of papers, flipped to somewhere in the middle. “Right here, it looks like an inventory of places where they could set up a lab to work on something called Project Carpenter, whatever that is.” 

“At least it’s not Project Owl,” I murmured before adding, “I take it the list has some interesting places?” 

“You could say that,” she replied before pointing to one part of the page. “This part here, there’s four addresses and  it says, ‘Acquired from B.P. Equipment on-site, inventory needed.’ B.P. That could be–” 

“Benjamin Pittman,” Paige interrupted. “That would make sense. We’ve got something here too. It’s not the addresses, but I think it’s codes to get through the doors. They changed the locks, obviously.” 

“You guys aren’t going out there now, are you?” That was Fred, frowning. “It’s already late.” 

“And as soon as they find out what we stole,” I pointed out, “they’ll start locking things down. They might not know exactly what we were after, but I don’t want to take that chance.” Belatedly, I grimaced to myself. “I mean, I don’t want to speak for any of you–” 

“No,” Amber interrupted, “you’re right, we need to get over there while we can. They’ll be busy scouring that base and van for any clues, or trying to track us by the lake.” 

The others nodded in agreement, Raige taking the time to point out that Irelyn needed help right now. So, I exhaled. “Right, okay then. Hope you guys don’t mind putting those suits back on just in case there are cameras in those places. 

“Looks like we’ve got one more job to do tonight.”  

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Dig In 22-12 (Summus Proelium)

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The tunnel was louder now than it had ever been in its entire existence. Heavy panting filled it, along with the sound of running footsteps as we raced, single-file, away from the sound of angry guards who had found their pursuit blocked. 

“Go, run, just keep running!” Amber blurted after giving a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure we were coming. “They’ll be right behind us.” 

She was right. I would have loved to say that we were through the hard part now, but I wasn’t that naive. We may have gotten out of the base itself with our hides (and identities) intact, but we were far from home free. Until we were out of this tunnel, miles away from this place, and positive that we weren’t being actively chased, everything could still go completely wrong. It wasn’t like my family’s people would just collectively shrug at the pile of dirt in their way and give up. This wasn’t a video game where the enemy would stop tracking you and go back to normal behavior after the mildest of obstacles. They knew we had been inside the secret base. They knew there was a tunnel here. They knew we were still running through it. And soon they would know where the other end was. There was no doubt of that. They would already be scouting it out. The only real question was whether we would escape before they closed the net. And there was nothing I could do about how quickly they managed that.

On the other hand, I could do something about our own speed. Now that we were out of sight from any cameras or onlookers, there was nothing stopping me from using my paint. So that was exactly what I did. Aiming quickly as we ran, I shot a stream of green paint until it had hit everyone, including Paige behind me. Then I activated it, boosting our speed as much as I could. 

God, it felt so claustrophobic down here all of a sudden. More than it ever had while we were digging it. Was that just the adrenaline and panic from the situation? I felt trapped in this tunnel, knowing that the Ministry people were no doubt already spreading out to find it from above, or to find the other end. They would be working out where it was, and the motel site wouldn’t exactly be hard to guess. We just had to beat them there. Which was not a given, considering the resources they had. Hell, I wouldn’t have been the least-bit surprised to find out that they had a helicopter up there scouring the area already. That might’ve seemed ridiculous in some cases, but this was my parents and the Ministry. They definitely had the resources to get something in the air that fast if they really wanted to. And the intruder alarm in one of their secret bases going off would definitely make them want to. 

The tunnel didn’t just seem tighter, more suffocating, it felt longer too. I could have sworn I had walked out of it faster than we were running. Was there some spatial distortion effect going on? Did my parents have that much power? Were they capable of pointing something at the tunnel to bend space so we could never get out of it? No. No, they didn’t. That was ridiculous. I knew that already. We’d barely started running. It wasn’t any longer. And yet, even knowing that, I couldn’t shut the panicked thought out of my head. Nor could I stop imagining us getting to the end of the tunnel and climbing up, only to find both of my parents and a horde of their people sitting there waiting for us. Every step we took, part of me screamed that this was taking too long. We were too slow. We were too fucking slow!

Wren and Fred were on standby, of course. If we had to, we could use Wren’s emergency teleporter, or even just have Amber teleport with us. But we really didn’t want to do either of those if we could help it. Wren’s especially, given how nervous the girl was about putting it into action. That was only for if we were completely fucked and about to be captured, or worse. Amber’s was slightly more useful right now, but we wanted to avoid using that too. Mostly because we wanted the Ministry to see how we had escaped and not start wondering if teleportation had been involved. Sure, it was unlikely that that would necessarily lead them directly to Wren or Amber, but still. Every little bit of misdirection was important. If they could follow our trail all the way through the tunnel and see how we had driven away, they would be even less likely to glance in directions we didn’t want them to glance in.  

The real trick was to give them enough of a trail to follow without getting caught. Because quite frankly, I really didn’t want to end up getting memory-wiped by my parents today. Or any day, really. Once was enough. Not that I even knew for sure that it had only been–

Oh thank God, we were there. The others had already reached the open area at the head of the tunnel, with Paige and me right behind them. Even as the two of us emerged, Pack was already climbing the ladder with her borrowed stun gun raised, just in case. Her head and upper-body disappeared through the opening, and I found myself holding my breath for what felt like an eternity before she called, “We’re clear!” 

With that, she hauled herself up and out. Meanwhile, I pointed, painting a bit of blue right at the base of the ladder before activating it. Alloy stepped there first, tucking her arms to her sides as she was sent flying up just enough to reach the top rung and pull herself out the rest of the way. One by one, the others followed suit, stepping to the paint and bouncing up. We weren’t taking the time to climb the ten feet to the room above. A quick bounce on blue paint did the trick. 

Technically we could have used Amber’s teleportation from this spot since we knew they weren’t here yet and could track us this far, but again, we wanted them to see exactly how we had escaped and that it had nothing to do with teleportation. 

It was just possible we were being too paranoid about that, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that letting my family have the slightest hint that we had used teleportation to escape was a bad idea. Especially considering how obsessively they would be scouring this place. For all we knew, they had some way of detecting that. How I had no idea, and yet… yeah, this was just safer in the long run. Assuming our luck (and planning) held out a bit longer. 

While the others made their way up, I glanced back the way we had come, just in case our not-so-friendly pursuers had managed to get through the dirt we blocked them with. Nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing from down there. Either they weren’t trying to dig through, or–whatever, everyone else was gone. Which meant it was my turn to go. And that, of course, was when I heard it. Two its, really. First, the sound of men in the tunnel. They were coming. Worse, there was the distinctive heavy thwump thwump thwump of helicopter blades. Not only were our pursuers coming up the tunnel, they were above us in the air. Which meant I had to get the hell out of here. 

The blue paint was gone, and I didn’t want to take the chance that the guys coming up the tunnel would see it before I could make the spot disappear. So I simply coated the inside of my suit with green paint to speed myself up and climbed as fast as possible. I took the ladder two rungs at a time, practically flying up it while blurting, “They’re coming through!” 

As soon as I was out, the others shoved the pallet with the cement bags on it back into place. Again, anything to slow these guys down. We just wanted them to know how we had escaped, not handcuff ourselves to their guns. 

Knowing that wouldn’t stop them forever, or even for that long most likely, none of us exchanged another word. We just ran straight out of the room and into the construction lot. The helicopter was high above, its spotlight at the far end of the construction site. They didn’t know exactly which room we would be coming out of (or even that this was the right place for sure), and were apparently right in the midst of flipping around for another pass. Even as we all glanced that way, the chopper’s spotlight was swinging back along the grounds, looking for us. 

It hadn’t been that long. Despite my panic, I was certain that it had only been a few minutes or so since we set off that alarm by going into the base. Everything, everything that happened in there had been incredibly quick. And yet, just as expected, my family’s people already had a helicopter in the air right above the construction site. They had narrowed it down that quickly, had gotten the chopper in the air and searching already. It was crazy. An expected and unsurprising crazy, yes, but still crazy. 

Naturally, our escape plan didn’t end at the motel. We had known that the Ministry would be right behind us, and were pretty confident they would have helicopter support. It wasn’t fantastic, but we’d planned for it. 

To that end, we all ran across the construction site, racing all-out toward a pitch-black corner near a big mound of dirt. Next to that mound, a dark brown tarp covered the next stage of our escape. It wouldn’t have hidden the thing from anyone standing down here with light, but from above a helicopter doing a quick sweep looking for running people would’ve missed it. At least, that had been the idea, and it seemed to have worked, given the chopper wasn’t focusing its light that way.

Oh, but it was focusing on us. Yeah, it hadn’t taken long for someone up there to notice us. Before we were halfway to the tarp, the spotlight swung our way, and suddenly it was like I was back on stage during the seventh-grade play. Only I was pretty sure the consequences to freezing up right now would be worse than a little embarrassment and polite chuckles from parents who didn’t want to be there to begin with.  

Thankfully, the spotlight had barely made it over to us before we darted out of its sight, with the dirt pile blocking most of the chopper’s view. It was still in the midst of swinging around though, so that advantage would only last for a couple seconds. Worse, I could see headlights approaching from the mall parking lot, cutting straight across the street in the process. The engines were loud and angry, like violent hornets whose nest had been disturbed. 

Without missing a beat, we all crouched, grabbed a piece of the tarp, and yanked it off the van that was waiting there. Pack went to get in, but Paige–no, it was Raige– beat her there while taking the key from her hand with a quick promise that she could drive faster. Pack hesitated only a split-second before realizing that arguing about it was a bad idea. Instead, she dove in the back right after Murphy and Roald got in, Alloy right behind them with me bringing up the rear. Amber was in front with Raige. Izzy was already in the back too, so I grabbed the door and yanked it shut while shouting, “Let’s go, let’s go!” 

“We’re going!” Raige shot back. She had already started the van and was flooring the gas while twisting the wheel to pull sharply away from the mound of dirt that had helped hide the vehicle. But she didn’t head for the road, where we could already see three different cars hauling ass to get up here while the helicopter’s spotlight resettled on us. Instead, Raige floored the gas to send the van heading straight for a small dirt ramp we had built at the edge of the lot. It wasn’t the ‘get air’ sort of ramp, awesome as that would’ve been. No, I had shown a truly remarkable amount of restraint if I did say so myself, and only put together a high enough ramp to let the van drive up and over the curb to the dirt and weeds beyond. Just like that, we were plummeting down the hill toward the road, while the helicopter kept pace, the light making sure we couldn’t disappear on them. 

At least, not yet. 

Raige wasn’t content in just driving straight down the hill. Instead, she started snapping the wheel from one side to the other, making the van jerk violently in the process. Right after she started doing that, the rear window shattered as a bullet hit it. A bullet that narrowly missed all of us and embedded itself in one of the seats while we reflexively screamed and dropped lower. 

“Stay down!” Raige snapped, spinning the wheel hard to the right and then back again. She was giving the sniper up in the chopper as hard a time as possible, but we had to get off this hill. Between the chopper with the gunman above us, and the guys in the cars right behind (they were just crossing our ramp), this whole situation could spiral out of control in seconds. 

“You people better be holding on back there!” Raige informed us through gritted teeth. “Cuz here we… go!” On that ‘go,’ the van hit an inclined bit of ground and launched itself. Seriously, that time we really did catch air, flying for what sure felt like several glorious seconds before coming down hard on the actual road. Really, the only bad part about it (besides the fact that we were in a chase for our lives) was that the stupid stuffed bra thing on my chest bounced up to smack me in the face as I looked down. Because everything I was dealing with right then wasn’t enough, I also had to be literally physically assaulted by the reminder that I wasn’t especially well-endowed. 

As soon as we were on the street, Raige floored the gas and we took off, speeding around a couple oncoming cars in the process. As the van angled toward a side street, we picked up several tails coming up fast, and that helicopter was still right above us. The gunman up there  had tried a couple more shots, apparently aiming for the wheels. But Raige wasn’t giving him the benefit of keeping the van steady, jerking the wheel wildly so he couldn’t get a clear shot. 

“Think we’ve got their attention?!” Amber called back while gripping the bar above the front passenger seat window. 

Murphy, ducked down low with Roald, shouted, “I don’t think we’re gonna get a better audience than this, boss! At least not without its own problems!” 

She was right. We had several cars on our tail and the helicopter above us taking shots. This wasn’t going to get any better than it was, and it had the potential to get a hell of a lot worse. We wanted Ministry people to see what happened, not actually catch or stop us. So, I grabbed my phone and hit the speed dial button. 

“Doctor?” It was Wren, using the code we’d established to make sure it wasn’t someone else using my phone after we had all been captured. 

“All I have is patience,” I replied with the counter code. 

Wren sounded somewhat relieved, but not all the way. There was still a bit of apprehension in her voice as she asked, “Option A… o-or Option F?” 

F for fail, as in we had to use the emergency teleporter. Grimacing a bit, I shook my head. “Option A.” 

Sounding considerably happier, Wren quickly replied, “Oh! Okay, got it. Good, good. Aaaand, there.” 

Abruptly, the van jerked a bit for a reason entirely unrelated to Raige’s driving. Really unrelated, given her hands were off the wheel. It continued to weave back and forth across the road, but now it was Fred in control, from all the way back at the shop. He was remote-controlling it using a small camera on the dash and one of Wren’s toys plugged into the electrical system. 

With Fred in control of the van and all our pursuers coming up fast, Raige abandoned the driver’s seat and clambered into the back with the rest of us. She was joined quickly by Amber, and we all huddled in close together. 

“How close are we?” I asked into the phone. 

“Wait for it,” came Wren’s terse answer as she was clearly watching the map and comparing it to Fred’s driving. “Just a little more…” Even as she was saying that, I felt the van lurch a bit as one of the pursuing cars slammed into us from behind. And in that moment, the right rear tire was blown out, making the van start to violently lurch before the rims screamed in protest. We were bouncing along. 

“Now, tell her now!” Wren blurted. Even as she said that, the van started to spin-out, the tires (or what remained of them) screaming in protest.

“We’re there, do it!” I snapped immediately, while the world outside the deeply-tinted windows whirled wildly. 

Amber wasted no time. We all grabbed onto her as she crouched in the middle of the group, and then we were elsewhere. We all appeared on top of the roof of a building that we had scouted out earlier. Amber knew where it was, and how to teleport to it from the spot on the ground where the van had just been when Wren gave the word. She didn’t have to look, she just trusted that it was the right distance and angle, and poof, there we were. 

The instant we arrived, we all heard the scream of breaking metal. While we were still in there, the van had been hurtling straight toward a sharp corner, only to ‘miss’ and spin out. And the instant we teleported to safety, Fred sent the ‘out of control’ vehicle right through the guardrail that was supposed to stop vehicles from plummeting off the road to end up in the middle of Lake St. Clair. 

And that, of course, was exactly what we wanted. 

My head snapped up to look for the helicopter first. There it was, off in the distance several buildings away. They were fully focused on the remote-controlled van just as it went hurtling off the embankment at top-speed, literally catching air off the slight incline at the bottom before flying out to crash into the water. It sank out of sight immediately. 

The helicopter stayed in place over at the spot where the van had disappeared, while the cars took the longer way down there. I could almost hear my parents on the phone already, ordering divers to get into the water. Even now, a second spotlight had appeared from the chopper, scanning the water to look for anyone surfacing while the first stayed on that spot. They were watching for us. No doubt they would have even more people scouring every place where we could climb ashore, while the divers picked through the wreckage. 

It was okay, they wouldn’t find much. Wren would already have self-destructed the remote control and camera, and she had assured me that there would be nothing to find. In her words, it would turn into goo and wash away. 

So, they would find nothing in the van. Of course, they would realize we had escaped, but they wouldn’t know how exactly. And while they were wasting time searching down there, we were all the way over here. We were done. We were out. We… we…

“We made it.” That was Roald, sounding completely shocked by his own words. “We didn’t get caught.” 

“We did?” Alloy was patting herself down, just as surprised by the declaration. “We… we did.” 

“Let’s not celebrate too much until we get back to the shop in one piece,” Amber pointed out, her eyes on the chopper in the distance. “But yeah, looks like we actually pulled it off.” She glanced toward me, then over at Pack before adding, “They’re gonna be really pissed off now.” 

“We knew they would be,” I replied, resisting the urge to reach up under my suit to rip off the fake bra. I wanted the damn thing off, but now wasn’t the time. Instead, I glanced toward Raige, who was staring at the assorted backpacks full of the stuff we’d stolen. “Remember–” 

“I know, I know, don’t open the bags or the tracking device blockers the genius built into them won’t work,” she interrupted. “Don’t worry, I’m not a fucking idiot. We don’t get to look through the loot until we get them back to the shop and she okays everything as not being tracked. So come on then, let’s get back there and get on with this already. And I sure as fuck hope there’s something we can use somewhere in there, because I am done sharing a body.” 

“Trust me, Raige, I hope there is too,” I quietly replied, glancing out toward the hovering helicopter in the distance. “Because whatever happens next, I’m pretty sure we’re gonna want both of you up and moving.”

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Dig In 22-11 (Summus Proelium)

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Even as the guns started, Paige was already yanking me to the floor with a snapped, “Table.” A second later, I heard a heavy thud as the table itself that she had dragged me behind was knocked over to create a shield. Which, honestly, I had no faith whatsoever that a table was going to block incoming bullets, but it seemed to do the job. At least if the sound of them rapidly ricocheting off the metal just a few inches from my head was any indication. 

Well, so much for doing this quickly and quietly! Now Paige and I were in a pitch-black room, crouched behind a metal table that was, thankfully, shielding us from the hail of gunfire from who the hell knew how many guards. A not-insubstantial part of me was terrified, as I put both hands over the back of my head and struggled not to scream or cry under the assault. These weren’t stun guns, and these guys clearly weren’t playing around. They were intent on killing at least one of us. As the man had said, they only needed one of us to answer questions. And I was pretty sure the idea was that whoever survived would be more willing to talk if they were faced with the dead body of their companion. 

For just a second, I thought about what would happen if I was the one who died. What if I was dead and my parents found my body? What would they do? How would they react? The morbid hypothetical filled my mind, making it hard to focus on anything else for a moment until I shoved it aside. Now really wasn’t the time to think about dying. 

Paige’s hand found my arm, as she hissed in my ear, “They’re circling, we need to move.” Thanks to the voice changer, it would be impossible to identify her if their recording equipment managed to pick up her words. But hearing her talk still made me flinch reflexively. 

Still, she was right, I knew immediately. If we just laid here and I surrendered to the terror that had overwhelmed me in that moment, it was all going to be over. Even if we didn’t die, we would be captured and my parents would find out the whole truth. Then they would either… wipe my memory or… something. I had no idea, and I really wasn’t in any hurry to find out. Nor did I want to find out what they would do to the others. I didn’t want to think about everyone’s memories being wiped, about them going back to having no idea what was really going on in this city. And that was the best possible scenario of what would happen if we were caught. 

“Can you see?” I found myself hissing under my breath. It was a good thing that the guns shooting at us were using some form of silencer. Or at least a quieter. The shots were loud, but not nearly as deafening as they would have been otherwise in this space. 

Wait, in this space. Now that I thought about it, I knew the exact dimensions of the room. It was forty-five feet wide at our end, shaped mostly like a half-circle with the curved side opposite us. The ceiling was basically twelve feet up, but also slightly concave. Wait, or convex. Which one meant curved upward slightly? Whatever, it was slightly curved to the point that the very middle of the ceiling was actually more like fourteen feet high. There were six long metal tables in the room just like this one, each arranged seemingly randomly, and adorned with tools, microscopes, computers, silver trays, stuff like that. Not to mention the eighteen swivel chairs and four wooden ones. There were objects all over the room, and I knew where they were. I knew the dimensions of the place and what was in it. Not the people, but at least the objects. Some of them, anyway. I knew stuff about the room, even though it had been pitch-black since we walked in and I had absolutely never seen it or been in here before. 

How did I know that stuff?! I had no idea. But I was absolutely certain it was right. The knowledge just jumped into my head in that instant, even as Paige hissed that she could, in fact, see. 

Okay, so Paige could see, and I could sense everything in the room for some reason. I’d have to figure out how later. Right now, all that mattered was getting out of this alive and uncaptured. I had no doubt that the others were on the other side of that door, waiting for an opening. They had to know that we were still alive in here, given that the gunfire hadn’t stopped. But they couldn’t come in to help, or they’d be in the middle of a shooting gallery. And even if these suits protected against the worst damage of being shot a couple times, I really didn’t think they could stand up against this level of incoming fire. 

We needed to give them an opening. And I knew just how to do that. At least, I hoped I did. 

To that end, I grabbed Paige’s arm and whispered, “Table run.” To demonstrate, I took her hand and pushed it against the underside of the table, then took the other and pushed it against one of the legs. 

She understood, immediately grabbing both spots as she started to lift the table from that side. Quickly, I activated a couple more green and purple paint spots on both of us, before grabbing the table myself. Together, the two of us rose, lifting the table with us as the gunfire continued to ricochet off it. Whatever this thing was made out of, it was strong enough to take a hell of a lot of abuse. I just hoped it stayed together long enough for us to do this. 

Together, clutching the table as a shield, Paige and I ran straight toward the men, who seemed to be firing even more frantically. They were also starting to split apart, if my judgment of where the shots were coming from was any indication. Given an extra second or two, they would have spread out far enough to shoot us from the side, where the table would be no protection. 

Thankfully, the table was quite long, and we weren’t going to give them that extra second. Just before the men would have been far enough apart to pose a real threat, Paige and I heaved the table at them, using the boosted strength to send it flying quite hard that way. The thing collided with the men. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear as they were struck by the thing and went down like an assortment of bowling pins. From the sound of things, a couple managed to dive out of the way. Including one who ended up going under the table in a roll that brought him right near the two of us. I could hear him right by my feet, as he started to push himself up. 

Before he could, and before I managed to react myself, Paige’s hand grabbed the man by the back of his neck and his arm. I heard his yelp, and her grunt, as she hauled him from the floor and literally threw the man to the other side of the room. 

She must have taken his gun too, because the next thing I knew, Paige was yanking me behind her while extending her other arm as the sound of gunfire exploded right there. She was shooting at the other men, even as her voice snapped, “New table six feet to your left and back two!” 

I knew that, of course. But she didn’t know that I knew it. Still, I was already moving, jumping at just the right time despite the pitch-blackness to throw myself that way and slide across the top of the table in question. I was pretty sure I could have cleared it normally, with my boosted strength, but between the unexpected weight on the front of my chest and these shoes, I didn’t trust myself to land properly. So I took it a bit easy. A handful of random tools, trays, and so on were knocked out of my way as I slid to the far side and off before shoving the table over with a grunt of effort. These things were heavy, even with my boosted strength. No wonder they were able to stand up to so much punishment. 

A second later, Paige was right beside me as she vaulted over the overturned table to land in a crouch on my left. “We’re on the opposite side of the room,” she hissed. “I hit three guys in the knees and two in the side. Enough to put them down for now. There’s ten left, including their leader. They’re spread out and regrouping.”

We couldn’t give them time to do that, of course. Hitting them now, while they were temporarily split up and disorganized, was our best shot to get out of this. Not to mention, there had to be reinforcements on their way right now. The longer this took, the more screwed we were going to be. 

Fortunately, we weren’t in here alone, and now we were on this side of the room, it would give Amber and the others an opening. We just had to let them know the opening existed before it was too late. This, right now, was our very best shot at dealing with these guys before things got a hell of a lot worse. 

With that in mind, I hissed, “Can you see the light switch?” 

Rather than answer immediately, Paige leaned up over the table and used her acquired gun to fire several shots. I could hear the men scrambling out of the way. Then she looked around briefly before ducking back with a grunted, “Found it. Twelve feet right. I can get there but need a distraction.” 

“You’ll have it,” I assured her. “On three. One, two, three.” 

On that third number, I activated the large orange and purple dragon I had been painting on the inside of my suit for the past couple seconds. At the same time, I activated a couple more orange and green spots on Paige, to give her a bit of a boost. Then I rose, grabbing the table we were using as cover. With the amount of paint I had given myself, I was able to lift it fairly easily. The guards clearly saw it, because they opened fire immediately. They had also gotten smart enough to aim for my feet and ankles as I lifted the table. But my hidden orange paint made those bullets bounce off the boots, before I went running toward the middle of the room and hurled the table to one side, in the direction I could hear the most gunfire coming from. There was another table immediately to the opposite side, and I, once again, threw myself in a slide across it. I misjudged the length of my own foot thanks to those shoes, hitting a computer monitor and knocking it off the table with a loud crash. 

Roughly, a hand grabbed my shoulder and I felt a fist slam into my face. Fortunately, it hurt that guy a lot more than it did me, thanks to my still-active paint. The man yelped in pain as I heard several of his fingers crack under the impact. In his case, it was like punching a brick wall. He instantly regretted it. And he also regretted being close to me, as I yanked my arm out of his grip before grabbing the front of his shirt. I could feel that he was wearing some sort of uniform and body armor. Which didn’t stop me from hoisting the man off his feet before I threw him as far as I could. As it turned out, the guard’s name was not Wilhelm, but he did give a pretty good scream anyway.

And in the next instant, the lights suddenly turned on. It was briefly blinding, but I was prepared for it while the others weren’t. I could immediately take in the room around us, which–well, looked identical to how my power had said it did. But now I could see the guards in their white and gray body armor all around. They had helmets with clear night-vision goggles attached. Unfortunately, they were clearly using the more advanced night-vision that instantly turned off when the lights came on, because none of them were screaming or tearing at the goggles. They recoiled slightly, but no worse than I had. Taken by surprise, yet not blinded. 

But we had a little more help. In the next second, even as everyone in here was still reacting to the lights coming on, the double doors at the other side swung open. Amber and Pack were right there, both with their borrowed stun guns raised. They each shot at two of the men in sight, sending them to the floor in a fit of spasms. 

A third guy was turning that way with his gun raised, but Murphy and Roald were right behind those two and managed to dive at the man together. They collided with him, taking the guy off his feet from the impact of being hit by both teenagers. The pair hit him with their batons, and he was out of the fight. And the fourth guy, who had been behind the door there, was taken down by Peyton as she drove her own baton hard into his stomach just as he took aim at the others. 

My paint was about to run out, but it wasn’t gone yet. So, I reached down to grab the fallen computer monitor that I had knocked over during my slide across the table. With a grunt, I turned and pitched it toward the nearest guy, while he was aiming toward the new arrivals. It took him in the side of the helmet, knocking him to the floor with a cry. 

At the same time, Izzy had appeared in the doorway with her own stun gun raised to take down yet another man on that side of the room. Three seconds into this since the lights had come on, and of the ten guys that Paige had said were still up and moving, I had thrown one into the wall and clocked another with the computer monitor, Amber, Pack, Peyton, and Izzy had each taken down one, and Murphy and Roald together took another. Seven down, which left three. 

No, not three, I realized. Two of the remaining guys were already down at Paige’s feet. How she had dealt with them, I have no idea. But they were definitely done. 

So there was one more left. And my eyes found him just as the man in question rose with his arms raised above his head. He looked basically like the others, aside from the fact that his body armor looked a little fancier and he had a radio held high in one of those raised hands. “I don’t know who you are or who you’re working for!” he called while scanning all of us. “But I promise that every single one of you is going to regret this pretty damn quick.” 

Reinforcements. They had reinforcements coming. We had already known that would happen, of course. But considering this guy was clearly the leader of their security down here, and he had the radio, I was going to assume he had already called for help. Which meant we were about to officially be out of time. If those reinforcements got here while we were still standing around, it was going to be a hell of a lot worse than this had been. 

Amber obviously knew that too, because she didn’t hesitate before lifting her own stun gun to fire a shot straight into the man’s chest. He recoiled and hit the floor, the radio falling away. Then she spoke sharply. “Turn your boosters to max, don’t worry about burning them out. Grab everything you can, then we’re gone.” 

Boosters to max. I knew what she was talking about. The paint. She was telling me to activate their speed paint so everyone could move faster, but doing it in a way that if anyone was watching the video of this later (like my parents), they would think that the speed came from enhancements on the suits or something. Either way, it would disguise the truth. 

I gave a quick glance around the room, focusing on each of them in turn to activate the paint. Not just their speed, but strength too. Then I ran to the nearest computer tower. The second I started moving, the others knew their own paint had been activated, so they ran too. There were computers all over the room, and we were already yanking them open to tear out the harddrives.  All around the room, computers were being ripped apart so we could get at what was inside. I was shoving the first drive in my bag even as I ran to the far wall, where there were a bunch of papers taped up. I couldn’t take the time to read what they said, not now. I just yanked them off the wall and shoved them in the bag, then grabbed a handful of vials of various liquids that were sitting on the nearby table, before doing the same for another handful in a fridge. It just looked like a bunch of colorful liquids inside glass vials. I had no idea what they were for or how we would figure it out, but they looked like they might be important, so I grabbed them. Unsure of how fragile they were, I grabbed a nearby towel to wrap them up in before stuffing them in the front pocket of the bag, apart from the rest of the stuff.

Next, I noticed a small room next to the fridge. There was a desk in there with another computer and a heavy filing cabinet. I managed to yank that harddrive just before my paint ran out, and I had to renew it once more so I could break the lock on the filing cabinet. 

Paige was right there, the two of us working together to grab everything from the drawers. We didn’t bother looking at what we were taking, we just yanked the folders and shoved them into our bags. Then we retreated from the room. Paige was shouting, “Move! Go, now! No time!” 

We went. Sprinting back the way we had come, we all raced for the entrance we had made. Whether we had anything useful or not, I had no idea. But we couldn’t push things any further than we already had. We would sort through it all later, once we were safe. 

Unfortunately, we weren’t homefree yet. As we raced down the hall back the way we’d come (past several other unconscious figures that the others had apparently dealt with), I could hear the door starting to open at the top of the stairs nearby. The real entrance. They were here and coming in. 

Paige heard it too. She still had the gun she’d taken from one of the guards back there slung over one shoulder. In one smooth motion, she pulled it free, aimed the weapon with one hand, and let loose that way. The hail of bullets all hit the door just as it was starting to open, making the person on the other side reflexively yank it shut once more. 

“Go!” she shouted at the rest of us while sending another couple shots that way to keep the people outside from coming through. Not that I expected it to hold them for long. 

We went. One by one, we all lunged through the opening and back into the tunnel. I was second-to-last, right behind Paige. “Come on!” I shouted back that way, standing just inside the tunnel entrance. 

Her gun clicked dry, just as the door at the top of the stairs opened. The gunfire from their side started up, and Paige threw herself through the hole with bullets hitting the ground right where she had been an instant earlier. Already, the men coming in were descending the stairs, their shots starting to come closer to us. Together, Paige and I exchanged a quick look, before racing to join the others. We ran through the open area, and I chanced a glance up. The canvas tarp was straining under the weight of the dirt and rocks piled up on it. 

We reached the far end of the open space, and Paige’s hand was already lashing out to grab the anchor rope. She yanked it hard while shoving me forward, diving after me. In the next instant, I heard a terrifying crash as all that stuff came crashing down. The ceiling in that area had been carved up high enough to allow so much dirt and rocks into the space that when it dropped, nearly that whole area in front of the entrance was blocked. I had no doubt they would force their way through, but it would take them a little time. Time that was incredibly important right now. 

Standing bunched up together in the tunnel, we all looked at one another. We could hear shouts from the other side of the dirt pile. They would be coming soon. They would also be spreading out and going up to find out where the tunnel was from above, or where the other end was. We didn’t have time to regroup, not just yet. 

So, with an assortment of nods, we turned back to the tunnel. And we started to run once more. 

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Dig In 22-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so dressing up like this felt as weird as I thought it would. With the raised boots, I was standing several inches taller than I was accustomed to. That was enough to throw me off all on its own, even though I had been practicing with them for awhile in preparation for this. Despite the hours spent walking and running in these, it still felt weird to see things from this high up. 

And, quite frankly, the fact that I could refer to five feet, four inches as ‘this high up’ was more than a little depressing. To say nothing about how much of a difference that padded bra made against my chest. I actually looked like a girl my real age now, if not older. Which was just… Yeah, I was going to try not to think about it too much. Which, I suppose, made the fact that I had plenty of other things to focus on right then a good thing. There would be time later to dwell on the fact that I had never filled out a set of clothes as well as I was right then, and almost certainly never would. Or I could just shove it onto my brain shelf and pretend I didn’t notice it. 

Pack whistled as we all met up inside the main room above the tunnel. Her eyes (hidden as they were behind the lenses in her own mask) were on me as she clapped a couple times. “I hate to tell you this, babe, but you might’ve missed your calling with that Y chromosome. You’re looking great that way.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? How was I supposed to react? She didn’t know what she was really saying. I knew that. Deep down, I knew that Pack had absolutely no idea how hard this was, or what her words really meant. She had no idea how long I had spent wishing that I really did look like this, and especially didn’t know how much the things she was saying stung. She was just joking around. She thought she was teasing an actual boy about how well he could pull off looking like a girl. I just–I had to shove all that out of my mind and try to react from that point of view. 

“I guess I should just be glad you’re not the jealous type,” I found myself retorting, with no idea of how I pulled the words out or made them sound so casual.  

Pack, in turn, snorted. “Please, in the alternate universe where you’re actually a girl, I’m sure I’ve already taken you under my wing to teach you everything I know.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat from the corner of the room where she had been talking quietly to Izzy, both in their own suits. “Everything you know about lizards or about being a thief? Because I’m not sure how either of those would help Paintball, no matter what sex he is.” 

“Oh, you’d be surprised how many relevant things I could teach,” Pack shot back. “Maybe I’ll show you someday, babe.” 

From the opposite corner where he and Murphy had been, Roald spoke up a bit hesitantly. “Um, personally I’m just glad I’m not the only guy in the group.” The poor, clueless boy gave me a nod and a somewhat weak thumbs up. “Right?” 

Yet again, I somehow dug deep and found a casual response, returning the thumbs up. “Uh, sure, yeah. How’re those suits fitting?” 

Shifting a bit, Murphy rubbed at her leg, then at one of the lenses across her eyes. “Not as cool as ours, and I miss the teleport thing. But I guess they’re good enough for this.” 

Murphy and Roald weren’t wearing the prototype suits that Wren had put together for them. There had been some discussion both ways for that, but in the end, they had decided they wanted to eventually be able to use them for more than just this. And we knew that if they used the suits through this little mission and then appeared publicly as part of Avant-Guard, the Ministry would almost certainly be able to put two and two together. So, they were wearing a couple more of the other suits that Wren had traded for. 

Alloy offered them a shrug. “Hey, I feel weird not wearing a suit made from my own marbles. And I’m pretty sure they’re jealous.” She glanced down to the pocket where she was keeping them out of sight. 

When I glanced to the doorway where she was standing, Paige spoke up. “Does anyone have any questions about what we’re about to do?” 

Pack, in turn, replied, “I mean, to tell you the truth, I’ve got a ton of questions when it comes to you and how your whole… everything works. Especially with two of you in that head. But for this? Nah, I think we’ve all got the gist. We tunnel through the last bit of dirt we’ve got left, break into the base, grab everything that isn’t nailed down, and get out of there before we end up in the middle of a battle we can’t get out of. In and out, quick as we can. You can’t get a lot simpler than that. I mean, obviously it would be better if we had the actual blueprints for this place so we could plan out who runs where, or even build a full scale mock-up and practice. But I guess we’ve gotta be satisfied with what we’ve got.” 

“You know an awful lot about how to get away with robbing a place,” Alloy noted. “How would y-ohh yeah.” 

Coughing, I nodded. “She’s not wrong. It would be cool if we had the blueprints. But yeah, we don’t have time for that. Unless someone here spontaneously manifested the power to make that a thing?” I injected my words with a note of optimism and hopefulness while looking around. “No? Damn.” 

“Okay, I’ve just gotta say,” Murphy put in, “It is kinda weird to see you look like that, while sounding like… well, you.” Her hands gestured to encompass my whole form. “You sound like Paintball, but you look, uhh… yeah.” Coughing a bit self-consciously, the girl shrugged. “It’s weird.” 

“You think it’s weird from your end?” I retorted. “Try being on this end of it.” Boy did she not even know the half of what that meant.  In the background, I could see Izzy and Amber stifling their reactions. 

“She’s right though,” Paige put in while stepping up beside me. “At least about one thing. Your voice does seem odd coming out of this look. So maybe we should turn on the things.” 

Right, the things. I had ‘come up with’ the idea of all of us using voice changers, just to make sure that our voices wouldn’t be recorded in there. We all had essentially the same set-up that I always had under the masks. Now, we turned them on, and I waited a moment before speaking in a voice that was robotic and vaguely feminine. “We good?” 

“We’re good,” That-A-Way agreed in a quite similar voice before looking at me. “But even with these, maybe you shouldn’t do much talking in there. You know, just to be on the safe side. You know, because Paintball talks a lot and if you don’t, it’ll make them even less likely to connect you to Paintball.”  

Shifting a little, I gave a slow nod. “Right, yeah, I guess I do have a tendency to talk a little bit.” As everyone else exchanged pointed looks, I felt a blush cross my face under the mask. “Okay, okay, a lot. I talk a lot. I get it. I’ll be so quiet in there they’ll never know it’s me. Hell, maybe I’ll be so quiet you forget I’m supposed to be with you and leave me in there. And then they’ll find me and this whole thing will blow up in our faces. See what being quiet leads to?” 

None of them seemed convinced by my hypothetical for some reason, and we exchanged just a few more words. We were all nervous about what we were about to do, that much was clear. But eventually, we can’t put it off any longer. One by one, we grabbed the buckets that were waiting for us, then descended the ladder and began to enter the tunnel. Pack made a comment about how she had promised to bring her lizards back a souvenir of some kind to make up for not bringing them in with her. Which, I was pretty sure, was her way of playing off how nervous and out of her element she felt about that fact. 

Although, to be entirely fair, I was pretty sure she had at least one of her lizards in the pocket of the jacket she had put on over the suit. At least, if I was her, I would have. 

Eventually, we all crowded into the slightly widened spot where the tunnel ended. It looked mostly the same as it had the other night when I was here, save for a single addition that Fred and Pack had put in while the rest of us were busy. Namely, a thick canvas tarp across the ceiling. It was secured by metal spikes in the four corners of the ‘room.’ Between the strength of the tarp and the spikes, Wren had assured us it would hold at least most of the dirt we would be pulling out of the rest of this tunnel. There was an anchor rope next to the thing keeping it all in a place. Once it was full of dirt, if we cut that rope, the whole thing would almost instantly collapse and fill this open space. It wasn’t quite like collapsing the entire tunnel behind us, but it was something. Once we got out of there, we would drop the tarp and they would have to dig through at least this much room to find the rest of the tunnel. It gave us a little bit more of an edge. And we needed all of the edges we could get.  

Twenty feet ahead and fifteen feet down, the metal wall marking the edge of the Ministry base waited. We hadn’t wanted to get any closer until we were ready to go in, just in case. But now was the time. No more waiting. We were going to dig through the last few yards, angling downward, and get inside. Which was a thought that made my heart pound so hard I thought it might jump out of my chest. But hey, at least I had some extra padding there now to keep it in place. 

Yeah, okay, it was vaguely possible that I was feeling weird about this whole situation. Still, I pushed that away and began to use pink paint on the dirt and rocks ahead of us. The others immediately used their hand shovels to pry away the painted bits, dumping them in buckets that we had brought before Raindrop floated the buckets up onto that tarp, being careful to spread the dirt and rocks out to avoid putting too much weight on one spot at a time. This was the most important part of the entire thing. After all the time and effort we had put into this, the last thing we wanted was to screw up now. We were all working as quietly as possible, each of us in our own little world. It was incredibly unlikely that our voices would have carried anywhere near the base, but still. It felt wrong to be chatting, so we didn’t. We just worked as silently and efficiently as possible. After all the pink-paint digging we’d done over the past weeks, we didn’t have to talk, or even think very much. We were basically experts at the whole thing.  

In what honestly felt like no time at all, given how nervous I was about the next stage, the tunnel was finished. Finished for good this time. We were there. We had dug downward enough that the metal wall was right in front of us, now fully revealed. On the other side of it was the Ministry base. And, with any luck, a whole lot of answers about my family’s business. 

I’d had a momentary thought of how bad it would be if there were any pictures or anything inside the base that would give away my parents’ identities. But I dismissed the thought just as quickly. There was absolutely no way that my family would be that sloppy. They hadn’t kept this whole thing a secret for this long by being stupid enough to have pictures of themselves lying around their hidden base. Mom had smacked Simon with a shoe for bringing it home when it was connected to their unknown witness (me). If Dad suggested leaving pictures of themselves around their criminal empire base, she’d probably hit him with a shoe store

Besides, would it be that bad if I was forced into explaining the whole situation to the others? Amber and Izzy already knew. Not to mention Paige and Raige. By leaving the others out, I was creating a divide. Someday soon, I was going to have to do something about that. If I didn’t, it was almost certain that the whole thing would bite me in the ass. I knew that, I acknowledged it. But it just… it wasn’t the right time. I’d only just told them about the Ministry itself. Getting into my own family’s involvement was… yeah. I would get into it. I would tell them. Just not yet. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I turned to the others while putting my hand against the metal wall. Still remaining silent, I simply looked at each of them. They were spread out a bit through the open chamber, and when I met their gazes, they all gave me a thumbs up, a nod, or some other sign. Paige, in particular, gave me a dual thumbs up. One for herself and one for Raige. They were ready. We all were. It was time to do this.

To that end, I painted the wall in front of us pink. Then I stepped out of the way as Pack and Way moved forward with another toy from Wren. This looked like a handful of batteries strapped to some silly putty. Like a bomb. It looked like a bomb. But according to the girl who had created it, the device would send a strong concussive blast forward, like a shaped charge or whatever. The battery-powered putty thing was attached to the middle of the pink-covered wall, and I activated the paint just before Amber hit the button to trigger Wren’s ‘explosive.’ 

Instantly, the chunk of wall was blown inward, creating an opening. Before the changes tonight, Amber was supposed to be the first one through. But Paige had insisted that she should go first, given the skills she had. And after what I had seen her do in her father’s factory, I couldn’t exactly argue with that. Now that she was participating, there was no question that she was the best one to be in the lead. If there was anyone on the other side of that opening, Paige could deal with them. And if she couldn’t, well, the rest of us were probably screwed in this situation.

So, she went through the hole, followed closely by Amber, then Pack. I went fourth, with the others right behind me. I hadn’t heard any gunfire or struggling yet, so I supposed there hadn’t been–

There was an unconscious figure on the ground at Paige’s feet. She had clearly just dragged the person, who wore a white lab coat over casual clothes, away from the hole as I stepped through into what turned out to be a pristine white corridor at the bottom of a long set of stairs that almost certainly led up to the entrance I had seen before. The corridor itself went on for about another ten feet to the right before curving left, and there was a door almost straight across from the hole we had made. Meanwhile, a camera poking out of the ceiling right where the hall curved basically proved we had already been seen. Yeah, this was going to have to be quick. Not that that was exactly news. 

And speaking of being quick, there was that unconscious person. I seriously had not heard a single thing. Paige knocked them out–wait, were they… yes, I could see the person’s chest moving up and down. They were alive. She knocked them out without me hearing it, even though I was only a few feet behind her. That was just–wow. 

No time to be amazed, though. With that camera up there and proof that there were at least some people still in this base, we had to move. Immediately, Amber, Izzy, and Pack ran to the door that was right there. The two older girls went through first, already unslinging their backpacks so they could start shoving things inside.

Meanwhile, I ran alongside Paige, with Alloy, Murphy and Roald bringing up the rear. The five of us passed just under the camera, which had shifted to follow us. But I grabbed the electrified baton that Amber had provided, snapping it out to its full extension as we ran under the camera before jumping to lash out with it. The blow took the camera full on the lens, shattering it. They still knew we were here, but at least they couldn’t actively track us with that camera. 

We turned the corner, seeing a whole long corridor ahead of us with doors on both sides, leading to a set of swinging double-doors at the end, like in a hospital. Or a laboratory, I supposed. Either way, there was clearly a lot to search down here. And we didn’t have much time. 

“Split up,” Paige announced in her own altered voice. She pointed to the nearby door, then to Alloy, Murphy, and Roald. “You three grab everything in there. All of it. Scream if you see anyone. Come on.” That last bit was to me, as she grabbed my arm before heading down the hall toward those double doors. 

To the left, one of the doors opened as we neared it. Paige lunged ahead of me, but it was just Pack coming through. Apparently the room they had gone into over in the first corridor connected through to this one. Her bag was clearly about half-full of stuff, and we barely exchanged looks before she went straight across to the room across the hall. Izzy and Amber were behind her, both of them splitting up to take a different room. 

Thus far we hadn’t seen any people other than the one that Paige had knocked out. Maybe that guy was the only one here. Wouldn’t that be–nope, I wasn’t even going to consider it. 

Instead, I focused on running alongside Paige as the two of us full-on sprinted to those double-doors. And boy did it feel weird to run with all this… weight on the front of my chest. Yeah, yeah, it wasn’t really that much. But it still threw me off. It still felt awkward and–blah. It was different. I felt off-balance, probably not helped by the thought of exactly what I was wearing. There was a not-insubstantial part of me that wanted to rip it off. 

Just as we reached the doors, my hope that there was no one else here ended up being dashed, as two figures stepped into view. These were no scientists, however. They were clearly security guards, wearing dark blue uniforms with a couple submachine guns in their hands. Yes, these were literal submachine guns, not pistols or whatever. These guys weren’t playing around. 

Fortunately, we wouldn’t have to find out if they were planning to shoot us with them. The instant those doors started opening, I activated a bit of the hidden green and purple paint on myself and Paige. The two of us hit the two guards much sooner than they expected, ripping the guns out of their hands before tossing them aside. I caught hold of my own guard, yanking him around bodily by the wrist with my enhanced strength while he yelped in surprise. In the next second, I had him shoved hard up against the wall while shoving the taser baton into his back. 

I’d heard plenty of times that tasers didn’t generally work like they did in the movies. It wasn’t like you got hit once and fell unconscious. But the ones that Amber had provided came from the police and were Touched-Tech. They did knock you out, assuming you weren’t protected in some way. Taking a direct hit from a baton like that could put you down for a few minutes. And a few minutes was all we needed. 

As my guy dropped, I snapped my gaze to the side. Paige had already dealt with hers and was moving through the swinging doors. So I went right behind her, hearing the others behind us tearing apart their own rooms. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see what the room on the other side of those double doors looked like. It was pitch black as we went through. I couldn’t see six inches in front of my face. But I did hear a voice abruptly speak loudly, the sound echoing through what sounded like a large space. 

“Interesting. Leave one alive to answer questions.” 

And then the gunfire started. 

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Dig In 22-09 (Summus Proelium)

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So there we were, all gathered in the main area of Wren’s pawn shop. There was Alloy, Pack, That-A-Way, Raindrop, Roald, Murphy, Paige/Raige as a last-minute addition, and me. Wren and Fred were here too, of course. But they would be staying at the shop, ready to go with our ‘everything’s fucked’ emergency escape plan if it came down to it. Unfortunately, that basically amounted to Wren using a half-finished cobbled-together teleporter that she wasn’t confident in. We would all be carrying the markers that were supposed to allow it to grab and move us to a safe location. But again, it was unfinished. Wren had given me a few details about what could have gone wrong the one time she teleported me, back when I had been chased by Cuélebre, and I was seriously still debating on whether it would have been safer to stick with fighting him. Suffice to say, we really didn’t want to have to try this one until she decided it was one hundred percent safe. But we didn’t have time to wait for that, especially not now. 

“So ahh, maybe I should have brought this up when you came up with your genius plan,” Raige (obviously) announced after introductions had officially been made back and forth to everyone, “but how exactly are you planning on making it so they don’t realize a bunch of kids and teens just screwed them over?” Her hand gestured toward Raindrop and then to me, before she nodded to Murphy and Roald. “Like those two over there, or those two there. I mean, none of us actually look like full-grown adults, but seriously. Having a few people who look that young feels like a bit more information than you want them to have. Especially when their computers can compare the heights of probably all their top suspects, and something tells me Paintball might fall somewhere on that list given the history you have with them. Just saying.” 

Before the rest of us could respond to that, Murphy asked, “Okay, sorry, I just need to ask. Is the person talking now the super-scary but ultra-hot cyborg girl, or the ultra-scary and ultra-hot cyborg girl?” 

There was a brief pause as their head tilted before Raige spoke again. “Paige would like you to know she’s offended that you don’t find her ultra-scary too, and that if you knew her better, you’d understand that’s a terrible way of differentiating us. You could say nice one or mean one, but that’s not exactly accurate either. Let’s stick with names, hmm? That seems easy enough.” 

“Sure,” I confirmed. “Totally simple to just stick with names. So, to answer your question, Raige… ahh, Wren, you got the things?” 

With a broad grin, Wren held up a pair of boots. “Yup! Err, I’ve got these ones.” She tossed them to me before gesturing. “Uncle Fred?”

He, in turn, reached down to pick up a cardboard box and carried it over to the middle of the room. “They’ve got lifts in ‘em,” the man explained to Raige (and Paige). “Just enough to add about four inches of height for all these guys. They’ve been practicing with them for awhile.” 

“We had the same thought you did,” I murmured while holding the boots against my chest. “It’s not the perfect solution, but it should at least confuse things a bit. If they don’t see anyone my–err, you know, Paintball’s height in this group, and I don’t use my powers in a way they can see, it’ll really muddy the waters about who attacked their base. Which means we really need to get in and out without too many problems so I don’t have to use my powers in an obvious way.”

That said, I hesitated before adding, “And speaking of not using my powers in an obvious way…” Reaching into the backpack on the table in front of me, I started pulling out tee-shirts and tossing them to the others. “You all need to wear these under the rest of your clothes when we go in there.” Every shirt had an assortment of colored shapes across them. Several of each type. There were orange suns, green leaves, and purple mushrooms. Three different colors, three different shapes, all arranged in three rows across the front and three across the back. I had taken the time to prep the shirts ahead of time while sitting at home.
“I’ve been practicing,” I noted, mostly for Paige and Raige’s benefit. “As long as I know one of my bits of paint is there, and exactly what it looks like, I can activate it through other clothes when I’m looking at it. Not through a wall or anything, but still. It’s something. These are all completely the same. So I can look and remember exactly what the orange sun looks like to make all of you temporarily really tough, or strong, or fast. Or all three at once. Probably that last one. I can do it six times for each of you, and they last about ten seconds each time. That’s sixty full seconds for all of us to have full boosts without me obviously using my powers.” 

“And you won’t have to use them constantly!” Wren quickly put in. “There’s the suits too. Err, I mean, okay, I couldn’t give all of you suits as cool as the prototypes Hobbes and Calvin have. But we do have the normal ones.” 

“Normal, she says.” Fred huffed a bit. “They ain’t just boring old mundane suits. Kid traded the design for those wings of hers to some Tech-Touched in Texas for a shipment of these. Just got ‘em in yesterday. They’re supposed to adjust to your body size and all that. They’ll cushion any impact you take. Won’t make a bullet feel like a love tap, but it’ll make it survivable. Probably. From what the guy said, it’ll still feel like getting kicked pretty hard, so you don’t want to stand there and dare them to shoot you.” 

“Cushion impact, but no teleporting,” Wren put in. “And the cushion bit isn’t as protective as the total momentum-stop on the suits Calvin and Hobbes have. But, uhh, it actually works constantly instead of draining a bunch of power every time, so…” Her face twisted a little bit guiltily and self-consciously 

“Sounds amazing, kid,” Pack put in. “Can’t believe you gave your wing designs to some other tech, but I guess you got your money’s worth. Err, you know what I mean. Your blueprint’s worth? Whatever.” 

Way spoke up then. “So we have the lift shoes to throw off our height, the colored shirts from Paintball so he can give us temporary boosts, and these suits you were talking about for some extra protection. Plus these.” From her own bag, she produced several batons with tasers on the end, along with a couple gun versions. “Police-issue. I… borrowed them from one of the deployment trucks when they sent it in for repairs after Suckshot yanked it off the road.” Before Pack could say whatever she had obviously been about to, the girl pointedly added, “And I want them all back when we’re done. So try not to drop them or anything. Just… just be careful, okay? Everyone be careful in general.”  

“Good advice,” Raige noted casually. “And I guess it’s not bad as far as hiding your identities goes. Not perfect, but eh. You don’t exactly have the time, resources, or ruthlessness you need to make it perfect. And I don’t want to sit around waiting for my new body until you get every single duck in a row. So we’ll go with the ducks you’ve got. But hey, at least you’ll have one of us with you. And believe me when I say that’s quite the upgrade.” 

I quickly spoke up. “She’s not wrong. And we can use all the help we can get. Which–are we forgetting anything?” 

“Not exactly forgetting,” Pack put in, “But circling back to that whole hiding who we are thing, I did have another thought. Especially when it comes to you.” She focused my way. 

“Me?” Blinking a couple times at that, I glanced to the others, who all shrugged, before looking back to her. “What about me?” 

“I was thinking about it, and I came up with the perfect plan,” Pack informed me with no small amount of pride. She paused briefly to let the anticipation grow, before dramatically announcing, “You should pretend to be a girl.” 

Okay, well, apparently it was not quite yet possible for me to literally die of shock. Although I did audibly choke and stumble a little, my eyes widening dramatically behind the helmet as I stared that way in total bewilderment. “I–wha–not–what–tha–yo-I-wha–” 

Quickly, That-A-Way moved over to slap my back a couple times, laughing pretty convincingly. “Whoa, hey there. No one’s questioning your manliness, buddy. I know how you guys are sensitive about that sort of thing.” She hit my back again, harder that time, while clearing her throat a bit pointedly. “You okay?” 

Thank God I had Amber in my corner to help cover. It gave me a second to collect myself. And with her help, my reaction made it look like a teen boy who didn’t like the idea of pretending to be a girl, instead of the truth, which… was a hell of a lot more complicated.

The point was, I absorbed the nuclear bomb that Pack had set off in the room and came out  relatively unscathed. Coughing once, I managed to look that way and found my voice. “Sorry, did you say I should pretend to be a girl? I don’t even–what would that–huh?” Right, totally smooth recovery. But again, at least she had suggested something that my fake teen boy-self reacting that way to made complete sense.  

With a snort of amusement that seemed to prove she really did buy that reasoning, Pack replied, “Look, I know it’s not going to be your most favorite thing ever, but being a girl isn’t the worst thing in the world, dude. I’m just saying, if everyone who sees you in there, or on video, thinks you’re a girl, there’s no way they’ll connect that you to Paintball, you know? Which means they’ll be even less likely to connect it to the rest of us.” 

Oh boy was there a lot that came to mind when she said that. Even when I filtered out all the curse words and stammering in my head, there was still a fair amount. A glance toward Raindrop revealed the girl standing completely still, not giving anything away. Nor were Raige or Amber, thankfully. All of them kept my secret perfectly. Probably better than I was. So, I pushed down my initial thoughts and simply asked, “Um, how exactly do you think we should do that? Err, if we did. I don’t think we can just put a skirt on the outside of one of these suits, so unless you’ve got a better–”  

“I have a better thing than that,” Pack interrupted. With that, she reached into her own bag and pulled something out before tossing it to me. 

It was a bra. I realized that even as I caught the thing in both hands. But more than that, the cups of the bra were stuffed, or padded, or whatever. It was clearly made so a guy could wear the bra and look like he had breasts. 

“This… this is…” I stared down at the thing in my hand, trying to find words. My stomach was rolling. There was absolutely no way that Pack could have known what a sensitive issue, in more than one way, this whole thing was. She didn’t know that I really was a girl pretending to be a boy, and she definitely didn’t know how sensitive I was about the fact that I didn’t exactly fill out a dress the way most guys wanted. Again, I wasn’t flat or anything. But well, this stuffed bra definitely had me beat rather handily. Which was a bit depressing all on its own. Again though, Pack didn’t know anything about that. She was just trying to help by offering what was, to her, a pretty good idea about concealing my identity. She wasn’t mocking me, she wasn’t messing with me, she wasn’t intentionally pushing my buttons. She was helping. 

Knowing all that helped me shove my reactions down. This was about hiding who I was, and whether I was really a girl or a boy wasn’t the point. There was absolutely no one way that my parents or anyone who worked for them would look at someone wearing this fucking thing and think it was either Paintball or their daughter. Pack was right, this was the best way to go.

Not that knowing that made it that much easier to resist throwing the thing into the nearest trash can as fast as I could, but it still helped. So I bit my lip and looked up again. Everyone was watching me. I could tell they were all curious about what I was going to say. Izzy, Raige, and Amber for one reason, and Murphy, Roald, Pack, Wren, and Fred for basically the complete opposite reason. They were all waiting to see what I would do. 

I wanted to say no. I wanted to dismiss the idea and say that it wasn’t necessary. After all, I would already be wearing completely different clothes, covering my face, not using my powers in any way that the Ministry would see, and even changing my height. I wanted to tell Pack that wearing this, that ‘pretending’ to be a girl was overkill. But the fact was, there was no such thing as overkill when it came to hiding our identities. My parents and the people who worked for them could not have any clues about who we really were. We had to throw them off as much as we could, because if they started coming after us directly, we would have no chance of winning. Not right now, at least. We needed more information, more details about their capabilities, their weaknesses, their–everything, all of it. Which was the whole reason we were breaking into the base so we could take enough stuff to hopefully know more. But to do that, to get away with it, I needed to be willing to do something that made my entire insides want to shrivel up and blow away in the wind. I couldn’t be selfish right now. I had to go with the hard choice. 

So, with a heavy sigh, I found myself nodding reluctantly. My voice sounded just a little hollow with the first word before I cleared my throat. “Okay–I guess you’ve got a point. As long as it means they don’t have any reason to suspect me, this has gotta be worth it.” 

While Amber gave me an understanding look, Pack pulled another stuffed bra from her bag. “I ahh, got one for the other pipsqueak over there too.” Her head nodded toward Raindrop. “Figured it’s not quite as big of a deal as it is for Paintball since you, you know, actually are a girl. But still, you’re not exactly–making you look different is better.” 

Izzy was clearly reluctant (even if not nearly as reluctant as me), but she finally agreed to the plan too. The bra that Pack gave her was just enough to make the fact that she was female more obvious even on-camera through the suits that we would be wearing. 

Actually, this whole thing was almost a good thing for another reason. I had been planning on wearing a jacket or a vest over my infiltration suit to hide the fact that–well, again, I wasn’t completely flat. Usually the coveralls I wore as the base of my costume were loose enough in that particular area to hide that. But I was going to have to cover it with a jacket when wearing these suits. Except now I didn’t have to. So… yay? 

In any case, the actual new suits turned out to basically look like a cross between a thief and a ninja. There was a basic layer of a black bodysuit that looked like a top and bottom set of pajamas, along with a vest that cinched across the chest for added protection (which probably would have covered my not-a-boyness well enough already), and what looked like a ski mask with black goggle-like lenses over the eyes. There was extra hidden padding in there to protect our heads. Finally, there were deceptively thin-looking gloves that were still quite protective and would hide our fingerprints. Between all that and the raised boots, we would look decidedly different than we usually did. Which, of course, was the point.  

The others changed in the shop, giving me a chance to see what the suits looked like, but Alloy and I stayed in our usual costumes. Given how sensitive this whole thing was, everyone getting caught by the authorities out in the streets dressed up like thieves or ninjas or whatever would kind of screw our entire night (and probably a lot more than that). Fortunately, we had a plan for that, even with the curfew in place. The plan was named Amber. Or That-A-Way. Wren’s shop was just south enough from the mall that she could teleport the group a bit at a time, from one roof to the next. The group, that was, aside from Wren and Fred, who would be staying at the shop, and Alloy and me, who had our own part to play. That was why the two of us were in full-costume instead of the suits, scouting ahead to make sure the way was clear. We texted back and forth to That-A-Way to let her know when it was safe to bring everyone over to the next spot, rather than shouting or using any lights or anything. Any cops or Star-Touched who saw us didn’t say or do anything about it, other than to wave and thank us for the help now and then. We would make sure each spot was safe, and then Amber teleported herself and the rest of the group there, disguised in those dark suits. 

There was a quick, relatively minor situation when Alloy and I actually saw a crime we had to intervene in. Some guy in a simple stocking mask was trying to loot an old pet grooming place. Yeah, I had no idea what he was hoping to find, but the dude was rearing back to throw a cinder block through the window and had an empty backpack with him. I managed to red-paint the block just as he went to hurl it that way, yanking it to a red spot on the street behind him. Then Alloy trapped him in a marble cylinder, until I got down there. He took a swing at me as soon as Alloy released the circular cage, but I used a bit of purple paint across my back to yank him by the arm over to a light post and used a ziptie to secure him to it while he shouted and threatened me. Then I used the Doephone app to contact the authorities to let them know where to pick him up and what his crime was. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and I returned to our planned spot and I let Amber know it was safe. Almost immediately, she appeared nearby with Pack, Izzy, Murphy, Roald, and Paige (she was the one in control right now) all touching her arms or hands. 

As soon as they appeared, everyone looked to me for an explanation about the delay. So I gave a quick rundown, before adding that we needed to get out of there before cops showed up to grab that guy. Not that they could see us from down there, but still. There were helicopters here and there in the sky with their spotlights passing over buildings. We needed to move on. 

So, we did. Bit by bit we made our way to the motel site, and took a minute to make sure it looked safe. No one was around, Wren’s sensors hadn’t picked up anything out of the ordinary around our tunnel, and the nearest patrols didn’t seem to be anywhere near this spot. The coast was clear.

The others headed for the main room while Alloy and I split up so we could go change. But first, I looked to Paige and hesitated. “Your… it feels different to see you standing up and moving around.” 

Paige (or Raige) was the only person here who didn’t have one of the special suits to wear. Wren, of course, hadn’t expected them to be part of this, so she didn’t get a suit for them. Instead, they were wearing a simple pair of jeans, a dark long-sleeved shirt, and a normal ski-mask. The mask itself was pulled up so it was barely covering their hair, acting more like a normal hat at the moment. Both of them had insisted that it was fine that they didn’t have a protective suit. After all, they already had their own advantages. Plus I had at least been able to paint another tee-shirt for her, like the ones the others had. 

“Feels different from this side too,” Paige informed me quietly before pausing. “Raige wants me to say that what she’d like to feel is how different it is to move around in her own damn body, so would we pick up the pace, please. I added the please.” 

Smirking just a little despite myself, I shook my head. “Don’t worry, Raige. We’re on it.” Still, I paused once more before adding, “Do you really think Flea and Trivial are trapped on that island?” 

“It’s the only answer that makes sense,” she pointed out. “Like you said, if Benjamin or his people had them, he’d know more about who Trivial is. But if they were free, they would’ve come back by now. Somehow… somehow they must’ve ended up there. Probably another one of his escape plans. I just–even if he doesn’t have them, that doesn’t mean they’re safe. They’re running around on an island full of the worst supervillains in the world. And that’s the optimistic scenario.” 

Grimacing, I took a second to find my voice. She was right, that was… it was bad. We had to get Raige a body so they could both act independently and then figure out what to do about it. Even if that meant sending messages to somebody about two Star-Touched being trapped on that island. Which raised the question of why people didn’t know about that already, or what–it raised a lot of questions. And I didn’t like any of the hypothetical answers. 

Forcing those thoughts down, I managed a weak, “We’ll figure out what’s going on. We’ll… we’ll find them. Right after we do this part.” 

Paige held up her fist, and I only hesitated for a second before bumping mine against it. I wanted to say something else, but nothing came out. Instead, I heaved a sigh, looked down at the stuffed bra in my hand, and headed for the room where I was going to change. 

If we didn’t get something useful out of this when all was said and done, no amount of being disguised would matter. Because I was probably going to scream so loud my parents would be able to identify my voice from the other side of town. 

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Equal And Opposite 21-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“Okay, this is not what I expected,” Alloy declared a short time later. “You didn’t say it was gonna be like this.” 

“I… uhhh….” I trailed off, unable to speak. 

The convention center was, to say the least, packed. Seriously, you would have thought that there was some sort of championship game being played there, or that a big star like Lou Devereux was going to show up. There was no room in the parking lot aside from the super VIP spots, so it was probably a good thing we weren’t showing up with a car. Similarly, I really hoped that we wouldn’t have to wait in the line that stretched out of the building and down the sidewalk, full of people waiting to show their tickets and get in.

Standing atop the roof of the convention center, staring at the packed lot and the line of people below, I found myself swallowing nervously. “Uh, that’s a lot of people,” I murmured under my breath. 

Alloy gave me a look, having switched up her marble costume to go with (mostly) the first set she’d ever used, metallic knight-like armor that was black along the legs and arms with gold highlights, and a gold chestplate with black highlights. Rather than her initial white knight helmet, however, the black and gold rose up to form a samurai-shaped one. “You think?” she demanded, nerves clear in her voice. “I thought this was just going to be, like, a school assembly sort of thing. Or, you know, some private function with a few rich people we could laugh at behind their backs. You didn’t say it was gonna be like–like–the fucking Superbowl!” 

“Oh, trust me, this is nothing like the Superbowl,” I reflexively replied, before catching myself. “I mean, have you seen how huge those crowds are on TV?” Pausing, I grimaced. “That’s not really helpful right now, is it?” As her head shook, I quickly put in, “If you want to take off, don’t worry, I get it. That’s a lot of pressure down there. I umm, I didn’t really expect it to be like this either. Really, really didn’t.” I felt a little faint, standing there staring down at that.  

I had already texted the number that Hallowed sent me, to ask how we were supposed to get in. If he said wait in line like everyone else, I was going to smack myself for waiting so long to actually come here. And for coming in the first place. This was, it was…

Alloy hesitated a moment, clearly considering before her head shook. “If you can handle it, so can I. I’m not going to abandon you here.” Straightening up a bit, clearly forcing herself to look at me rather than the huge crowd, she pointedly added, “That’s not what good partners do.” 

“Hear hear,” a new voice abruptly spoke up, making both of us spin to find Lucent behind us on the roof, perched on a piece of machinery. “Tis quite the fine thing, to see such excellent allies prepared to brave the uncomfortable and awkward for one another.”

Schooling myself to avoid yelping too much, I ignored my quickly-beating heart and replied, “Hey, I know your team is all about working with hospitals and stuff, but are they so empty you have to drum up new business by giving people heart attacks?” 

Lucent’s head dipped a bit in what I took as a gesture of apology and contritement. “Beg pardon, twas truly not my intention to startle either of you. Nor to spy upon a private conversation.” Lifting one wing, he gestured to the machine he was perched on. “This happens to be my own private entrance and exit from this facility, to avoid the ahh, crowds you have noticed.” As he said that, a hatch opened to reveal a small tunnel, just big enough for him to get through. “I received a message from Hallowed that you were waiting up here. My intentions were to welcome and aid, not frighten and eavesdrop.” 

“Wow,” I found myself noting, “that’s a pretty spiffy private entrance.” Pausing, I teased, “And speaking of getting inside, I don’t suppose it gets any bigger than that?” 

With an audible chuckle, the Touched-Raven shook his head. “Apologies, they did not prepare it to accommodate humans. Clearly an oversight. Yet, should you wish to enter the building privately, there is a more appropriately sized door on the far side of the roof, that way.” He raised a wing to point. “It is manned by a security gentleman who will simply assure that you are truly who you present yourselves as before allowing you admittance. Most Touched who come to events in this building enter through there.” 

Glancing that way, I saw the back of a raised structure. “Oh, uhh, thanks, Pops.” Giving him a quick thumbs up, I gestured toward Alloy. “See, told you we didn’t have to get in the back of the line.” 

“Good,” she retorted, “Because I forgot to bring my tent and sleeping bag.” Even as she said that, the remaining four marbles floating behind her abruptly transformed. Three became a tall, rigid tent-like structure with an open front, while the last one turned into a hammock hanging inside. Alloy, in turn, shot a look that way. “Not that I couldn’t have improvised.” 

Lucent’s voice was proud. “You appear to be gaining skill and creativity with your power by the day, Ms. Alloy. I applaud your progress.” 

Clearly blushing, Alloy stammered, “I mean–it’s not a big–I ahh, um, thanks.” She coughed, squirming a little before waving both hands as the tent and hammock turned back into the marbles. “Shouldn’t we go inside before we get in trouble for missing this whole thing or whatever?” 

“Judging from the line out there, it won’t be starting any time soon,” I pointed out, snickering a little as she shot a look at me. “Yeah, yeah, we should get in there.” Lowering my voice, I focused on Lucent. “But seriously, was this thing always such a big deal? How are they supposed to get all these people inside by eight o’clock? Let alone get them seated for dinner and–wait, how are they going to feed all those people?” 

“It is quite the event,” he confirmed. “But I’m afraid you may be slightly confused. You see, the people below are here for the SPHERE forum convention, which will be happening throughout the main floor throughout the next couple of days. The dinner you have arrived for is actually in one of the smaller rooms on the upper floor. But you are, of course, welcome to tour the rest of the convention center afterwards to see various exhibitions. Or even demonstrate your own if you wish. Though, you should be prepared to run into others dressed as either of you. Most likely will not believe that you are the, as they say, ‘real deal’ without some proof.” 

Peyton coughed behind me. “You mean dressed as him. No one knows me. I mean, no one would…” She trailed off, staring at him. “Right?” 

“I assure you, Ms. Alloy, your popularity has been growing exponentially as well,” Lucent insisted. “Your tendency to switch between multiple costumes aids those wishing to cosplay, as they may simply choose their favorite version, or any combination. Some even make up their own vaguely similar outfits and call themselves a future version of you.” 

Obviously blushing, Peyton made a noise in the back of her throat. “Uhhhh, right. Um. That’s really–I mean–” Turning to me, she hissed, “You didn’t say there were going to be people dressing up like me.” 

“I didn’t know there were gonna be people dressing up like me!” I shot back. “This whole thing is a lot bigger than I thought it was. But uhh,” I glanced to Lucent. “You said the actual dinner thing is more private?” 

“Quite a bit,” he assured us. “And should you wish to leave afterward, that is entirely your prerogative. Though I will note that mingling with others on the convention floor can be quite fun. I’m told it can be amusing to walk through while the crowd assumes you are simply another cosplayer as they are. And rest assured, all who enter the building are thoroughly scanned for weapons or Touched-Tech disguises. Those in heavy masks for costumes are asked to reveal themselves to security, to be on the safe side. Between those measures and others, it is quite safe here.” 

“Thanks,” I murmured. “I guess we’ll see how we feel after the dinner thing, right Alloy?” Honestly, I felt more comfortable with the idea of moving through the crowd of people down there than I felt about sitting in a private room listening to my parents give speeches while wondering how many of the super-rich people and other Touched sitting around me were actually connected to the Ministry. But I couldn’t exactly say that. 

“Honestly, I like the idea of being down with a big crowd of ordinary people having fun more than the idea of hanging out in a stuffy room with a bunch of rich and powerful people looking down at me,” Alloy informed me. Which–okay fine, she could say that. 

Reaching out, I patted her on the shoulder (ignoring the fact that I had to reach up to do so). “Don’t worry, I get it. But hey, we have a ready-made crowded place to disappear into if things get too awkward or uncomfortable. Maybe we could even find a couple people dressed up as us to take our places.” 

Chuckling once more, Lucent flew over to land on my helmet. “I wish you both luck with all such endeavors. Now, shall we get you inside so that you may at least make a token appearance as yourselves? There are those who will be quite pleased by your arrival.” 

So, we headed over to the area he had pointed out. As promised, there was a door there, partially concealed to look like the rest of the machinery. It was obvious once you were on the right side of it and close enough, but from the air it would blend in pretty well. As we approached, the door opened and a tall black man in a suit and tie stepped out. I could tell by the bulge in his jacket that he was armed, but he simply smiled our way. “Paintball and Alloy, the real deal?” With a low whistle, he added, “Name’s Rubin Davis. I just wanted to thank you for what you did for my friend last night.” 

“Your friend?” I echoed, confused. 

“Santiago Mendoza,” he confirmed. “He’s been down on his luck lately and he said some guys from the Easy Eights were harassing him, when you stepped in.” 

“O-oh, him.” Brightening, I gave a little nod, exchanging glances with Alloy. “It was no big deal, really. Those assholes were just–uh, assholes sums it up.” Shrugging, I added, “He’s okay, though?” 

The man nodded. “Yeah, my wife convinced him to stay with us for a little bit. He was too proud before. I ahh, I should’ve insisted.” With a sigh, he glanced away for a moment, lost in thought before returning his gaze to us. “Oh, sorry. You’d probably like to go inside. I uh, I know this is probably stupid after all that. Especially with Mr. Lucent right there.” He gave a cheerful salute that way. “But just to keep things on the level and dot all the t’s and line all the i’s, could you both show me your powers? I gotta write down that I checked.”

We did just that, as I sprayed a bit of blue paint on the ground before letting the man drop his pen on it before catching it with red paint as it flew high into the air and bringing it to the red star I had painted on his chest. Alloy, meanwhile, had her four floating marbles put on a little show for him, switching between several forms while he grinned even more at each transformation. 

“Aight, aight, you’re good.” With a voice that made it clear he would have loved it to make us stay longer just to see more demonstrations, the man stepped aside and waved us in. “You all have a good evening, and keep up the good work. Lucent, I’m still holding you to that Yahtzee rematch you promised. I’m ready for you this time.” 

From the way Lucent moved on my helmet, I was pretty sure he was giving a wide bird-bow. “I eagerly await such an opportunity to part you from more of your shiny coins, Rubin.” 

There was a stairwell just beyond the door, and the three of us descended two flights of stairs before reaching a landing with another open door. There was a familiar figure standing there waiting for us, wearing that golden armor that seemed to glow with an inner power, and metal wings that were currently tucked in close to his back to make room. The helmet he wore covered his face, but I could hear the smile in the man’s voice as he spoke. “Glad you made it.” He gave a nod toward Lucent. “Thanks for bringing them inside.” That said, he extended a hand toward Alloy. “Good to finally meet you. I’m Hallowed.”

“I… I…” The girl stood there staring at him in what was clearly open-mouthed surprise, a few more incoherent sounds escaping her. It was a reaction that made me do a double-take before realizing the truth. Hallowed was her Silversmith. Err, not her father, her favorite hero. The way that Silversmith had been mine before I found out the horrible truth. She was starstruck right now.

Quickly clearing my throat, I nudged her with my hip while putting a hand on her back to give her a very slight push. “Yup, this here’s my partner. I’d be in pretty deep caca If it wasn’t for her. I mean, even deeper than I usually am.” 

Alloy, by that point, had managed to recover a bit and quickly grabbed the men’s extended hand with both of hers to shake a bit too enthusiastically. “Yeah, hi, hi! I’m puuuuhhherrrfectly capable of introducing myself without screwing it up. Alloy! I’m Alloy. Hi, hiya. You’re uhh, you’re uhh, wow. You’re wow. You’re…” Then she trailed off and just started giggling a bit awkwardly, all while still pumping the man’s hand up and down with both of hers as though she had forgotten she was even doing that. 

Thankfully, I was pretty sure that the man was accustomed to getting that sort of reaction. He offered a small chuckle before nodding. “It’s quite alright. We’re all doing the same job here. Seems to me you’ve hit the ground running straight out of the gate.” Smoothly extracting his hand without making it look like he was yanking away, Hallowed looked to me. “In which case, I hesitate to say whether you’re in excellent company, or terrible. You both seem to feed off each other in ending up in dangerous situations.” His tone was still light, but there was clearly a mixture of worry and a bit of recrimination mixed in. “I do hope you are both aware of just how dangerous that particular one was.” 

Blanching a little despite myself, I gave a quick nod. “Oh, don’t worry, we totally get it.” I didn’t want to jump into the details just what the extenuating circumstances were, nor ask how much he knew about the situation. As the leader of probably the most important defensive Star-Touched team in the city, a team focused on protecting important medical personnel and who had to be deeply involved in the Scions situation given they had just blown up part of a children’s hospital, it wasn’t exactly surprising that he would have been given a full rundown of everything we had told Flea. 

Giving me a look that made it clear he recognized that I hadn’t actually promised to never do that sort of thing again, Hallowed still remained silent on that point. Instead, he gave a short nod of acknowledgement before pivoting. “In any case, you should come along. We have quite the event planned tonight. And if being around a bunch of rich, self-important fogeys isn’t the sort of incredible experience you’ve been waiting for, I don’t think anyone would blame you for heading downstairs to check out the rest of the convention as soon as the first couple speeches are over and dinner gets underway.” Glancing my way, he inclined his head with another slight chuckle. “It’s what plenty of others will be doing.” 

Speaking up cheerfully, Lucent noted, “I believe Lady Patchwork is already there, in point of fact.”

As Hallowed muttered something under his breath about never being able to keep her trapped in a room full of boring rich people if his life had depended on it, we moved through the corridor beyond that doorway. Honestly, the place looked like a plain old boring office hall. The walls were dully painted and the carpet was cheap, with a few very generic-looking paintings that looked like they had come from a thrift shop or something. Between that and the few very… economical chairs and tables spaced through the hall, I was pretty sure someone had been told to decorate and furnish this entire floor on a budget of about thirty bucks. Probably because this particular area was never supposed to be seen by anyone aside from the people who worked here, rather than the actual guests. 

Either way, we soon moved to the end of that hall and to a plain, unmarked door. Hallowed glanced back to us with his hand on the knob. “You guys better take a deep breath, because this is… ahh, really something.” And with that bit of warning, he pushed the door open, stepping partway through to hold it in place before raising his arm for us to proceed. 

Stepping through that door was like going through some sort of magic portal or something. The hallway behind us was as generic and drab as anything could possibly be. But the room on the other side? That was a different story. First of all, it was enormous. Some sort of grand ballroom or something fit to allow hundreds of couples to dance on the gleaming polished wood floor without disturbing hundreds more people who could sit at the circular tables that took up either side and the back of the room. Straight ahead from the dance floor was a stage, including an orchestra pit and a balcony above and to the side of that stage. 

There was a band there, but they weren’t playing at the moment. They appeared to be getting themselves sorted out, preparing for later. Nor were any of the guests dancing or eating. But there were a lot of people standing and sitting throughout the place. It looked like everyone was still in the ‘just arrived and greeting one another’ phase. 

The door we had come through was in a far corner of the room, clearly not the main entrance. In fact, looking over my shoulder, I could see how the door would blend in with the wall when it was closed. It was meant as a staff entrance or something. No, the actual main entrance was to the right, a pair of stairwells that met at the bottom before winding upward to a landing in front of a set of grand double doors. Looking through those doors from this angle, I could barely make out a wide hallway that looked just as beautiful as this room did. That was where all the actual important people were coming in. 

Hallowed spoke as though reading my mind, following the direction of my gaze. “I didn’t think you would quite appreciate that sort of entrance. But by all means, if you would like the star treatment–” 

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s… totally fine.” I was already letting my gaze pass over the crowd. They hadn’t noticed us yet, standing in the corner. Another thing I was grateful for. It gave me a moment to catch my bearings and look at the people I would soon need to interact with. And… well, it was about what I figured. A bunch of very rich, very important people. Billionaires, their less-important cousin millionaires, actors and actresses, politicians, singers, rappers, a few important authors or television personalities, and so on and so forth. Not to mention the various Star-Touched spread throughout the room, having conversations with one another or with the rich people themselves. 

“Wow,” Alloy finally managed in a small voice. “We are definitely underdressed for this.” 

Lucent, however, insisted, “I assure you, my dear, you are perfectly fine the way you are. Though one must endeavor to play nice with those who carry the purse strings, never believe that you are their lesser in any way. You have chosen to use a power you were given to aid those less fortunate. You have every right to stand shoulder to shoulder with every person in this room.”

Hallowed gave a nod and started to say something, only to fall silent as a louder voice spoke up from the stage. “Pardon me.” 

My dad. Silversmith. I hadn’t noticed him step up there, but all my attention was on him now. As was the attention of everyone else in the room. He was in costume and everything. Unless that wasn’t him and was just his body double or… or an empty suit or–I had no idea. The point was, Silversmith was apparently standing in front of the microphone there. 

“Sorry, folks. We’ll get started with a nice welcoming speech that takes way too long so you’re gnawing your own foot off before dinner finally gets to the table in just a moment.” His words made the crowd chuckle appropriately, and Dad (if that was really him) paused to allow that before continuing. “Right now, I just wanted to allow all of you to become the very first to officially meet–” 

“Hi!” A small voice interrupted, drawing everyone’s attention away from my father and up to the balcony overlooking the stage. There was a figure there, one made of… wait, was that… glass? She was entirely made of glass, even her ‘clothes.’ It was like the clothing part of her was painted while the ‘skin’ part was plain see-through glass. Her hair was a long, incredibly intricate braid of glass. If I had to guess, I’d say she was about Izzy’s age.  

Once everyone’s attention was on her, the girl jumped off the balcony. There was an assortment of cries, just before she shattered against the stage, sending shards of glass in every direction. It all happened before anyone could even move. Horrified, I started to lunge that way, my hand rising. But Hallowed grabbed my shoulder, his other hand finding Alloy’s. 

In that moment, the scattered shards flew backwards off the floor, reforming into the girl once more, good as new. 

“Ahem,” Silversmith continued, putting a hand on her head. “As I was saying, I’d like to introduce you all to the queen of dramatic entrances. This is Fragile. 

“The newest member of the Detroit Minority.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Putting in an appearance at home for a while, I found myself being invited to the dinner party that evening. Invited as myself, that was. For just a moment, the possibility of needing to play a sitcom-style game of going as both Cassidy and Paintball while rapidly switching back and forth between them in closets jumped into my head. Which, of course, would have ended with me sitting down in my dress at the table with my parents while still wearing the helmet on my head, no matter how little sense that made. Wacky, murderous hijinks would certainly have ensued.  

But no, I simply told my parents that I wasn’t really feeling it that night and felt like going to bed pretty soon. They, in turn, let it go pretty easily. I had the feeling they weren’t very surprised about me not wanting to attend some party, even if it was hosted and attended by a bunch of Star-Touched. Maybe they were just happy to think that I wouldn’t be around just in case something went wrong and Dad had to jump into Silversmith duty. Which was a thought that in and of itself gave me pause. Would they give the green light for any Fell-Touched gang shenanigans at an event they themselves were attending? It made sense that they would, given how easy it would be for someone to notice if nothing ever happened at places they went. They were probably even making sure that their own businesses and other assets were hit repeatedly during this whole war, just to avoid any suspicion at all. 

Yeah, I really needed to look that up. Maybe even get an actual list of everything my family had any ownership in and compare it to crimes over the past twenty years to see just how that lined up. I was sure they were careful, especially with my mother making plenty of the decisions. But if I looked closely enough, knowing what sort of things to search through all twenty years, maybe I could actually find some evidence for my family overall profiting from all those crimes in the long run. Say, if they lost a token amount because one business they owned was hit, but had purchased stock in their competitor shortly beforehand. Or something. I wasn’t sure exactly how well that would work, or if it would pan out at all. But it was something to think about. 

In any case, I didn’t need to go to the party tonight. At least, not as myself. But I wasn’t going to completely rule out the possibility of any other sitcom-adjacent antics showing up while I was secretly attending the same party as my parents. I just hoped it stayed firmly in the cheap comedy realm and didn’t mosey its way into the epic drama or tragedy genres. 

Also, it was slightly possible that I was overthinking this whole thing and applying far too many tropes to it. The point was, my parents thought I was staying home. Izzy, on the other hand… well, she was supposedly going over for some tutoring or extra homework or something. That’s the story I was told, in my role as a clueless, obedient daughter who didn’t know anything. In reality, she would be appearing as Raindrop alongside the rest of the Minority. 

Come to think of it, that was probably another reason my parents were fine with me deciding not to go. They might have thought that I would somehow recognize Izzy if we spent time together. Which made me wonder when they planned on telling me about her true identity. If they ever did. Hell, maybe they wanted me to be clueless forever and would send me off to college without opening up about any of it

Bitter, me? 

“You’re brooding, aren’t you?” The words came from next to my window, where Izzy had been standing and looking out at the grounds for the past few minutes. She was ready to head out for her ‘tutoring’ session as soon as my parents were ‘ready to drop her off.’ Yes, the truth was that she would be going with them the whole way. But again, I wasn’t supposed to know any of this yet, so they carried on with the charade. 

Sitting up on my bed, I focused on her and offered a faint smile. “Maybe a little bit, but they say a little brooding now and then is pretty healthy.” 

Izzy raised an eyebrow while moving to sit on one of my nearby heavily-padded footstools. “Who says that?” 

My hand waved dismissively. “Oh, you know. They would’ve introduced themselves, but they were too busy brooding.” With a wink, I pushed myself up. “I’m okay. Sorry, I was just thinking about how long they’re going to keep me in the dark. Or, uhh, think they’re keeping me in the dark. About you, I mean. Have they said anything to you about talking to me?” 

After a brief hesitation, Izzy offered, “Yeah, they did. I mean, they said we should tell you what–um, about my extracurriculars when the time is right. They just, you know, haven’t exactly said when that time is. But your mom brought it up this afternoon. She asked how I would feel if you knew the truth and if I would be comfortable with it. I told her I was okay with telling you and she said to wait a little bit longer. But I think they plan to bring it up pretty soon. Um, do you think they’ll tell you anything… else?” 

My head shook. “If they tell me about you, it’ll be with you right there too. And it’ll probably be a test run. Think about it, they can see exactly how I’ll react to just the short time of being lied to and having Touched-related secrets kept instead of my whole life. It’s like getting to watch me dip my toes in the water, or just splash around in the shallows before they pull me to the deep end to see if I can swim.”

Taking that in, Izzy blanched. “You’re right, telling you the truth about me is gonna be their test for telling you the truth about themselves. It makes sense.” With a visible grimace, she focused on me. “So, how are you going to react when they tell you? About me, I mean.” 

“Uhhh, really convincing surprise?” I offered, before pantomiming slapping my hands against my face like the kid from Home Alone. 

Snickering, Izzy leaned out to kick my shin. “Maybe you should practice. Or, umm, maybe not?” She frowned, clearly trying to decide which way would be better. But before she could, and before I could say anything else, the intercom chimed and announced that my mother was requesting our presence downstairs so Izzy could head out and I could say goodnight. 

Wow, here went nothing, again. The two of us exchanged looks before getting up. We went down, as soon as I made sure I looked sufficiently ready for bed. I had changed into sweatpants and a tee-shirt that hopefully sold the idea that I would be falling asleep shortly after they left. The very last thing I wanted my parents to be doing that night was wondering what I was up to. Which, of course, made me feel like a little kid who was pretending to be sick or something. Only with much higher stakes than being forced to take a math test or something, in this case.  

My parents, of course, looked amazing. They were all dressed up to attend the event, my father in a dashing suit and my mother wearing an elegant gown. Standing in front of them in my bed clothes made the difference between us even more apparent. I would clearly never look the way my mother did in a dress. She was all… perfect, filling the gown out in all the right places, with long dark hair that curled slightly in a way that I could never have gotten mine to do. She was just… she was Elena Evans, a beautiful woman who had appeared on many magazine covers. 

Me? I was Cassidy. No one would ever look at me the way they looked at my mother. Not even if I dressed up the way she was, let alone while I was wearing sweats and a tee-shirt. I almost felt as though my parents should be offended that I was in the same room as them. I certainly didn’t belong there. 

Mom, however, opened her arms and pulled me into a full embrace. I felt her squeeze tight, her voice a tender murmur, “I love you, my principessa. You are everything you need to be.” 

Dad took his turn then, embracing me even more tightly before lifting me off the floor. “We probably won’t be back until after midnight, so don’t wait up. Maybe we’ll go do something fun tomorrow.” 

“Can’t wait,” I made myself say as he set me down. Stepping back, I waved. “Have a good time.” To Izzy, I added, “While you’re at the library, if you see this old lady with white hair that’s pulled back in a bun, and these big glasses with gold rims, don’t tell her you know me. I’m pretty sure she’s still holding a grudge from that whole sledding incident. Which is totally unfair, because that was like five years ago. Ancient history.” 

“Sledding?” Izzy blinked at me. “How do you annoy a librarian by sledding?” 

“When you do it inside the library,” Dad put in. Despite his put-upon sigh, he failed to hide all of his amusement. 

I offered a shrug. “Hey, those stairs were perfect for it. Four stories of steps? Come on. Besides, Noel double-dog dared me. What was I supposed to do, say no?” 

From the look my mother was giving me, saying no was exactly what I was supposed to do. But she didn’t say anything, instead settling on reaching out to gently squeeze my shoulder. “We will be home later tonight. You look very tired. Get some sleep, my beautiful girl.” 

With that, she released me and they all turned to head out. I waved once more, then pivoted and headed back upstairs, moving casually past a couple maids on their way down. As they passed, I smiled and nodded, acting as though I had nothing more interesting to do with my night.  

The facade dropped as soon as I was back in my room with the door shut behind me. Immediately, the mask of casual, bored innocence vanished from my face as I ran to the nearby sliding door and opened it to carefully peek outside. In the distance, I could hear the car engine start up, before a dark SUV with heavily tinted windows pulled into view on its way down the long driveway. There they went. Even now, Izzy was probably in the rear-most row of seats with the divider up so she could change into the costume that had been sitting there waiting for her. Meanwhile, my parents would be sitting in the middle, having a glass of wine while chatting to each other. Would they talk about Ministry business? With the divider up, Izzy wouldn’t be able to hear them, so it was possible. At the very least, I was sure the gang war was giving them plenty to talk about. And plenty of fires for the Ministry to deal with. They had to be allowing the conflict to continue and even escalate the way it was, but I had no idea how far they were willing to let it go. Or how bad it would get before they shut it down. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I moved to lock my bedroom door. Setting the computer to let people know I was asleep, I used purple paint to move the mirror out of the way in my closet, pulled the bag with my costume out, and went back to the balcony. There, I slung the bag over my shoulder, made sure the coast was clear and the cameras weren’t watching, then used red paint to zip my way to the wall. After one more quick glance around, I dropped to the other side and began to sprint through the wilderness at a diagonal toward the road. Once I was clear, I would call for a ride and head over to meet up with Alloy. And then? Well, then we would head for the same party that my parents were going to. 

Suddenly, this was seeming more and more like a bad idea. But what was I supposed to do, tell Peyton we couldn’t go because I was afraid my parents would recognize me? Besides, I’d gotten through a much closer dinner back at Caishen’s place when the Chambers and my parents had been there, without giving anything away. I could totally get through a much larger gathering. With all the other Touched there, I doubted anyone would even pay attention to me. 

Right, good thing I had some time before meeting up with Peyton. Because I was going to need every second to convince myself I wasn’t full of shit. 

*******

Showing up just outside Wren’s, I found Murphy, Roald, and Peyton out in the alley behind the shop. The other two hadn’t bothered to change out of their funeral clothes, though they were pretty dirty by that point. It looked like Murphy in particular had gone mud-sliding in hers or something. She was standing with her back to the nearby dumpster, bouncing a ball off the ground, then the wall, then back into her hand. When I dropped into view, she looked up, her eyes a bit bloodshot, voice audibly strained. “How’s it going, Boss? Heard you dropped by.” 

“I–” My voice caught a bit, before I managed a weak, “Yeah, I wanted to–I mean I thought I should–fuck. I’m sorry. I wanted to watch and be there, even if it didn’t really matter.” 

“It mattered,” Murphy informed me, her own voice cracking slightly. “Believe me, it mattered.” It looked like she was about to say something else, but in the end, she just closed her mouth tightly, gripped the ball, and looked away. 

Roald spoke instead, standing nearer to the shop door with a phone in one hand. “We were just wishing Alloy good luck at that dinner thing tonight. Sounds like it’s gonna be a real… umm, something.” 

Grimacing despite myself, I nodded emphatically. “Oh, it’s bound to be a real something, that’s for sure. Probably a bunch of rich people standing around, patting each other on the back, throwing some money around like it’s water, and giving speeches that last way too long.” 

Alloy snorted, “Listen to him, talking like he’s been to sooo many of these things.” She gave me a look. “Admit it, you’re interested in seeing how this whole thing goes too.” 

Well, at least my cover was intact. Forcing myself to sound casual, I replied, “I have a feeling we’ll be pretty bored before the night is over.” 

“By which,” Murphy put in while turning back to face me once more, “he means he really hopes he’s bored. Because the alternative is that something went wrong again and everything is on fire.” She offered a weak smile by the end of that, before immediately ducking her gaze once more with a guilty look as thoughts of her brother clearly intruded. 

“Come on,” I spoke up, gesturing toward the door. “Let’s go inside for a few minutes. You can tell us about Tyson.” 

“What?” She blinked at that, confused and uncertain. “You don’t want to hear me talk about my brother again. You’ve got that party to go to.” 

“And we will, later,” I confirmed. “But we’ve got some time right now. I’m not in a rush, believe me. That dinner will still be there later. And yes, I do want to hear you talk about your brother again.” But far more importantly, she needed to talk about him. That much was obvious. 

Giving me a long, appraising look, Murphy finally shook her head and muttered, “You’re a really weird kid, you know that?”  

With a quick, easy nod, I agreed, “People have said that now and then. Now come on. Roald, you still got those cards you’ve been playing with at the tunnel?” 

“Uhh, yeah?” He dug in his pocket to come out with the worn deck. 

“Great.” Giving him a thumbs up, I waved with the other hand for everyone to go inside. “Then let’s get in there and see if Wren wants to play. 

“If we’re going to be a dangerous influence, we might as well teach her poker while we’re at it.” 

*******

We did not have to teach Wren poker. Not only did the kid already know how to play, she cleaned our clocks. 

Honestly, I should have realized something was up as soon as Fred had a coughing fit when I brought up the idea of teaching her how to play. At the time, I’d thought that he was just stopping himself from objecting. But no, now I realized he had definitely been laughing. 

It was still worth it though. For about forty minutes, we’d sat around the table in the shop and played cards while letting Murphy tell stories about Tyson. There were good stories, bad stories, sad ones, and ones that made even Murphy laugh. At least, until she cried again. 

Wren had clearly won the games. But I was pretty sure Murphy had won a good bit too, just from being there. She had needed that far more than Peyton and I needed to get to the party. 

Still, we did need to make an appearance. So the two of us eventually said our goodbyes, left the others to play without us, and headed out together. 

Once outside, we made our way to the nearby roof and I used the handy dandy GPS mapping function that Wren had included in my helmet to tell me which way to go to the place the Seraphs were using for this whole party thing. They weren’t having it on Seraph grounds, but rather at a large convention center a mile or so away from there. I wasn’t sure exactly why, unless it had to do with the size of the crowd or something. Which itself was pretty odd. This was just a thing for rich people, right? How many rich people could there be? 

Either way, it was bound to be incredibly well-protected. But then again, the mayor’s fundraiser event across from the children’s hospital had been well-protected too, and look how that went. 

“You think something bad is gonna happen tonight?” Peyton asked, as we stood on the edge of that roof. 

“Okay, one, you are entirely too good at reading my emotions considering you can’t see my face,” I informed her with a look. 

“Body language, Boss,” she replied easily, shrugging. “I can’t help it if you’re basically an open book.” 

Snorting despite myself, I waved a hand. “That’s me, open book. Uh, anyway, two, I want us to be prepared in case it does. I don’t think anyone in any of the main gangs will try anything at an event that’s gonna have that many Star-Touched and other armed people around, but I wouldn’t put it past the Scions to try something just to lash out at people for…” 

“For what we did,” the other girl finished for me, her voice flat. 

Wincing a little, I put a hand out to touch her arm. “We did the right thing.” Yet even as I said that, I felt a pang of guilt. Jolene Iverson had been murdered specifically because she reported on the information we exposed. Right thing or not, if we hadn’t exposed Pencil and Cup’s true identities, she would still be alive. 

Yes, they would have killed people anyway, and exposing their identities was a real step toward catching them… maybe. It was the right thing to do. And yet…

And yet the pain in my stomach whenever I thought about Jolene Iverson and the people who had cared about her still remained.

Staring at me through that moment of silent introspection, Peyton quietly murmured, “Yup, definitely an open book.” It was her turn to reach out to squeeze my arm then. “I… for some reason I always forget I’m sort of the older one here. It doesn’t seem like it. You’re just so–” Cutting herself off, she sighed. “I’m sorry you have to be the mature one.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. Instead, I forced all of it down and simply turned to look at her once more. “I’m just glad I have people to talk to now. And someone to go with me to this party.” 

“Changing the subject?” she asked, as the extra marbles turned into question marks around her head. 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Did it work?” 

With a quiet chuckle, Peyton gestured. “Sure. We uhh, we can talk about that later.” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I turned back to the edge of the roof. “Great, for now let’s go party. I don’t know about you, but I am starving. And if something does happen, I’d like to deal with it after eating.” 

“Didn’t you say the food thing is supposed to come after all the boring speeches?” she pointed out. “You know, as the last possible thing.” 

“Oh my God, you’re right,” I agreed. “We’re doomed.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Kith And Kin 20-04 (Summus Proelium)

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I didn’t start immediately. Mostly because I figured this whole story would be told to Roald anyway, so it was probably for the best that I just tell him at the same time. Besides, Murphy was obviously still broken up, barely keeping herself in any shape to listen. She needed her best friend. So, I gave the boy a call and asked him to meet us right here. Yeah, it was maybe a little risky to not move away from the spot where we’d fought Simon and Luciano, but I was pretty sure neither of them had any intention of coming back here anytime soon. 

We did hear sirens approaching, and I checked to see that they were headed into the lot over by the laundromat. I  probably needed to go over there and explain what happened, or at least some of it. But I wasn’t going to leave Murphy alone right now. Not in the state that she was in. While waiting for Roald to show up, I took a seat next to her once more and put an arm around the girl again. She was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest, head lowered as her shoulders shook. Her eyes were closed, and she didn’t say anything during the time we were sitting there. She just cried mostly silently to herself. She didn’t return the half-embrace, but nor did she pull away from me. It was clear that she was too lost in her grief to want to talk, and I had no idea what to say anyway. So, the two of us sat in silence. Which really told me all I needed to know about how broken Murphy was right then, given she hadn’t really pushed hard for me to immediately explain what the hell I had just been talking about. 

Simon. God damn it, Simon. Why did you have to help that guy escape? He was a murdering piece of shit, and you knew that. Even as the angry thoughts flashed through my mind, I knew the answer. He helped the guy escape because Luciano paid for protection. This was the Ministry. They helped bad guys get away with crimes if they paid their taxes. And the people left behind with no justice were like Murphy. My family helped those pieces of shit get away, and people like this girl in tears next to me were just expected to suck it up. The thought was making me angrier by the second, and I had to close my eyes to let out a long breath so I could keep it under control. I had to keep it under control if I was actually going to explain the situation to these two. And I had to tell them now. After what had just happened, I couldn’t keep it away from them anymore. There was no way. Murphy deserved to know the truth. And if this situation was going to continue at all, they both deserved to know what the Ministry really was. 

It didn’t take long for Roald to show up. And he wasn’t alone. Apparently at some point in the intervening time, he had managed to get hold of Alloy, and she snuck out of her own home. The two of them came flying in on one of the marble hoverboards, landing nearby. Immediately, Roald went to sit on the other side of Murphy, and I let her go so she could lean on him. 

“What… what happened?” Alloy asked tensely while I stood up. “Did you…” 

“He got away,” I murmured under my breath. Nope, the anger I felt about that whole situation hadn’t dissipated at all in the time we’d been waiting. Saying those words still made me want to turn around and punch a hole in the nearby wall, without help from the pink paint. And scream. I really felt like screaming. But I kept it together. I had to. 

Alloy reeled back a bit from the news, even though she had to be expecting it. I supposed she’d been hoping for the best. Her head shook. “Is there any way we could still find him? I mean if we start right now, we could–” 

“He knows something.” That was Murphy. She had pushed herself to her feet as well, pointing at me. “He knows something about what happened. He said he’d explain. There was some guy here, and Luciano said he’d paid for help. He was a Sell-Touched or… or something. But he wasn’t–he helped that fucker–” Her voice broke at that point, even as Roald caught her arm to steady her. “That guy helped that fucker get away. Paintball said he knew what was going on. He said he’d explain what is really going on in this city. Whatever that means.” 

“You’re ready to tell them the truth?” Peyton asked quietly, rocking back a bit on her heels. She sounded surprised. 

“What–you know something about it?” Roald looked to the girl, then back to me. “What’s going on?” 

Now all three of them were looking at me expectantly. Peyton because she knew what was coming, and the other two because they didn’t. Oh boy, I really had to get into this again. I had to tell Murphy and Roald the truth. Or at least, part of it. I knew what was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. But that didn’t make it any easier to start talking. A part of me was screaming that I was opening up too much already. Izzy and Amber knew the whole truth, all of it. To say nothing of Paige and Raige. And Peyton knew about the Ministry. The secret was spreading too much. And now I was going to talk about the Ministry part with these two? A whole parade of ‘what ifs’ went through my mind in those long few seconds.

Finally, I forced all of it down and focused on Murphy. I thought about how I would feel if I was in her situation and had no idea what had just happened. That was all it took. With those thoughts in mind, I exhaled and then started to talk. 

Over the next few minutes, I explained what the Ministry was, and how they operated. I talked about how they had infiltrated every single Touched group in the city to one extent or another, as well as all law enforcement, the courts, everyone in power. 

“It’s not everyone, it’s not even necessarily people like the mayor or anything like that,” I explained. “It could just be, say, the mayor’s secretary or something. Someone who can get information in and out, that sort of thing. They have ins everywhere, on both sides. And like I said, the bad guys pay them for permission to operate in the city. Like this whole gang war that’s going on right now, they paid for permission to do that. Both sides, I think. I mean, I’m not sure on how that works exactly, but I’m pretty sure the Ministry is refereeing the whole thing. Or whatever. The point is, they’re the ones in charge of the city.” I looked to Murphy. “That’s what Luciano meant before. He made his payments, so they stepped in and helped him escape when he got in trouble.” 

“Believe me,” Peyton put in, “I was pretty freaked out too. It might be a little hard to believe at f–” 

“They helped that piece of shit get away?” That was Murphy, interrupting as she stared at me. Her voice cracked just a little. “You’re saying he paid them some cash and now they’re gonna help him get away with it? What part of that is supposed to be hard to believe? He has money and he spends it to get away with everything, even murder. That’s not hard to believe, it’s just every other fucking day.” Her voice practically oozed bitterness. 

My mouth opened to tell her that I understood, but I stopped myself just in time. Because I really didn’t understand. That would have been one of the worst possible things I could ever say. I would never really understand what it was like to live like these guys did. And I sure as hell didn’t understand what it was like to have my brother killed right in front of me. So I didn’t say that. Instead, I took a deep breath before starting with, “He’s not getting away. Not forever. We’ll find him, I swear. Whatever it takes, we will find that fucker and bring him down.” 

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Roald was the one asking that time. “You said these Ministry guys basically control, or like, influence every group in the city, right? Including the cops. So how are we supposed to find out where he is? And even if we find him, how are we supposed to get anyone to arrest him? You know, without immediately ‘losing’ him and all the evidence or whatever.” 

“Maybe he shouldn’t get to go to prison,” Murphy retorted a bit sharply. “Maybe that’s a privilege he threw away when he killed a bunch of people. You know, people like my brother.” For the most part, there was pure rage in her voice. But at the last bit, when she said the word brother, it broke a little bit. The grief was tearing her up. 

It would have been pointless to start an argument right then with her about what we would do with the guy. So, instead, I simply answered both of them with, “We’ll figure out how to handle him when we get a bit closer to that. As for finding him, we need to figure out where the Ministry sent him. We need to get a look at their files. And as it happens, we’re actually working on a way to get into one of their bases already.” Quickly and succinctly, I explained the bit about the secret base under the mall.

By the time I was done, Murphy was nodding, her mouth very tight. Her hand had caught hold of Roald’s arm, squeezing firm enough that I saw him wince just a little. She could barely speak through the emotions she was holding back. “We’ll find him. We’ll find him? You won’t let him get away?” There was a clear desperation to her voice. She needed me to promise her that. 

“Yes,” I replied firmly, meeting her gaze. “I swear, Murphy. I promise on… on everything. We’ll find him. We’ll track him down. He is not going to get away. We won’t let him.” 

She held my gaze for a long few seconds after that, our eyes locking even though she was looking at me through the helmet visor. I saw her throat move as she swallowed a few times, struggling to speak. Finally, she managed a weak, barely audible, “Okay.” 

That was it. She didn’t say anything else after that. She didn’t need to. She had my promise, and I was going to keep it. Instead of speaking, the girl turned away and clutched her stomach, falling back to her knees there on the pavement. Her whole body shook heavily once, a full-on shudder before I heard the tears start again.

Roald was right there, crouching beside her as he said something too quiet for me to hear. Peyton, meanwhile, looked back and forth between us, clearly torn about what she should be doing.

“Stay here with them,” I told her. “Actually, when you can, you guys should probably leave, just in case someone comes back to check this place out. But just be with them. I need to go over there and tell the cops… you know, some of it.” I still wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to say, but I knew I needed to explain at least part of what had happened. Even if it did make me feel like I was abandoning Murphy. But the truth was, she had Roald. He could help her more than I could. And I was pretty sure she had even bonded with Peyton a good bit already. 

Either way, what she had needed from me was the promise that the man who killed her brother wouldn’t get away. I’d given her that, and planned on following through. 

But in the meantime, there was nothing I could do for the girl, as much as I wanted to. I needed to leave her alone for now. No, not alone. I needed to leave her with the people who could actually be there for her. 

Shaking off that thought, I told Peyton to text me with updates and let me know what was going on. And to tell me where they ended up going so I could meet them later. Then I pivoted and used red paint to yank myself up to the nearby roof. 

Time to go find out how much the cops knew. 

*******

The answer, as it turned out, was both a lot and a little. They knew who had been in that laundromat and what he had been up to the rest of the night. But they weren’t sure what had gone down at the building itself. Their best guess, one of the uniformed guys told me, was that one of the other small gangs had gotten pissed and came after Luciano and his people in retaliation for one of his hits that night. Which, I supposed, was fairly close to the truth. And better than the full thing, given I really didn’t want them to know anything about Murphy. 

The only actual witnesses they had were a couple members of the gang themselves who hadn’t managed to flee before the authorities showed up. Apparently they were telling a story about being ambushed by several armed and masked figures, saying nothing about her being a teenager. I wasn’t sure whether they genuinely believed that, given how quickly Murphy had been moving around, or if they were lying to save their pride. Either way, it was another thing that protected the girl. 

I’d had a little time while crossing the street and listening to what they said happened to figure out what to say. I didn’t want to outright lie, but then again, I had no idea how much of what I said would go straight to the Ministry. Or how much they would share with Luciano, given what good terms they were on with him, considering the man paid his bills and all.  And the absolute last thing I wanted to do was say anything that would lead back to Murphy. 

So, what I ended up telling them was that I had seen some sort of confrontation between Luciano’s group and another going down, and one of my associates, whose identity I had to keep secret, had gone to get a closer look. Unfortunately, ‘he’ (another layer of protection for Murphy) had been seen and all hell broke loose. From there, I mostly told the rest of the story, except I didn’t mention anything about Simon or the Ministry, of course. I told them that we followed Luciano through the tunnel, tussled with him ‘and one of his men’ at the far end of it, and then they got away. 

The police officer taking my statement didn’t really question any of it. I had the feeling this was all just commonplace for him. Especially right now with the whole gang war going on. Sure enough, he finally sighed and shook his head. “You see, this is what happens when we get these big gangs going to war with each other. They call in debts from the smaller gangs, make threats, and these guys get desperate enough to do shit like multiple hits in one night.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Wait, you mean this guy was getting money to pay somebody else.” 

The cop, a slender Latino guy with a thin mustache and narrow eyes, who had introduced himself as Officer Sandro, nodded. “Pretty much. In this case, seems like Luciano owed Oscuro a bunch of cash. Think of these guys as like a uhh… subsidiary of that bigger gang. He owed Cuélebre a bunch of cash, and since this war is pretty expensive, Cuélebre called in the debt. Seems he made quite an impression on Luciano,  because the guy went around calling in every tab he had. Made a big show of it too. Shot some people who didn’t owe him as much, just to make sure the ones who owed him a lot got the message.” 

That made me reel back on my heels, bile in my throat. Fuck, Luciano wasn’t even that interested in the money that Murphy’s brother had owed him. He was using the guy to send a message to the bigger fish. God… damn it. How was I supposed to tell the girl that? She deserved to know the whole truth, but this was going to destroy her even more. Her brother’s debt and death wasn’t even a big deal to Luciano, aside from a means of intimidating other people. 

One thing was for sure, I was even more determined than ever to bring that piece of shit down. I didn’t care how much protection he paid for from my family, he was going to get what was coming to him. 

In any case, I thanked Officer Sandro and promised to let the authorities know if I found out anything else about Luciano or his group. Sandro, in turn, told me that I should have my ‘associate’ submit a report. They could be covered by the Touched anonymity thing too, but they still needed to explain what had happened from their point of view. That was going to be more complicated, obviously. And include a lot more half-truths or outright lies in order to protect Murphy’s identity. Because no way was I going to expose who she was to my family, or their organization. That was just asking for a lot more trouble. 

Still, I promised to see what I could do and then took my leave. I walked away from the cop cars and was about to text Peyton, when a sharp whistle caught my attention. Looking that way, I saw a familiar figure standing in a nearby alley, half-shrouded in shadows. Pack. She was waving one arm, beckoning me over. 

So, after glancing around to make sure no one was looking, I jogged that way. As soon as I approached, Pack stepped back further out of sight. But I could see Riddles perched on the top of the fire escape, keeping an eye on things. 

“Paintball,” Pack started once I entered the alley. “What the hell is going on?” 

“You wanna know what’s going on?” I caught myself, forcing the anger down. Lashing out wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, I took a deep breath and let it out before explaining from the top. I told her about what happened to Murphy and Roald earlier on the bus, then about Tyson being murdered, and finally everything that went down over at the laundromat. Finally, I pointed out, “So I guess what I’m saying is that this big war your boss is pushing made Cuélebre call in debts, which made Luciano call in debts, which got people killed. Including my friend’s brother.” 

Pack rocked backward a bit. Her hand moved to touch the side of Twinkletoes, the only other lizard she had out of their backpack cage and transformed other than Riddles. She processed that, exhaling before focusing on me. “It’s more complicated than that, and you know it. They tried to get Blackjack’s daughter killed. She’s a little kid, Paintball. She didn’t deserve to suffer, and those guys were all fine with letting her die if it would hurt her dad. It’s fucked up that your friend’s brother was killed. Seriously, I’m sorry. I–it’s… “ She sighed, head shaking. “I really am sorry. But Cuélebre kills people all the time. So do his lieutenants and other underlings. You can think we’re all the same, but Blackjack doesn’t target families like that. And he sure as hell doesn’t do drive-by shootings on civilians. We have standards.” 

“I know it’s not directly your fault, or his,” I replied slowly. “I just–this war is hurting people. And it seems like it’s just getting worse by the day. Not to mention, now the Ministry is helping that piece of shit get away with everything, just because he paid his taxes for them.” 

“So what are we going to do about it?” Pack asked. 

Catching that she had said ‘we,’ I gave her a brief look while she stared at me, before nodding once in appreciation. “Same plan as before. We need to find out where they took that fucker.  Which means getting into their files in the base under the mall. Now Calvin and Hobbes are in on it. So they’ll be helping with the tunnel.” 

“Sounds good to me,” she replied easily. “You ready to get started on that…” Checking her phone for the time to find that it was well-past midnight, she finished, “Later today?” 

The question made me realize I really couldn’t, so my head shook. “I can’t today. I have… commitments.” Namely, my parents were going to be home and they would want me around. “Besides, Hobbes is going to need some time. I don’t–tomorrow. We’ll start on the tunnel tomorrow.” 

“I’ll be there,” Pack replied. “Just give me a ring when we’re meeting up. And Paintball, whatever happens, I’m all-in for taking this Luciano fucker down when it comes to it.” 

“Good,” I murmured. 

“Between all of us, we’ll make sure this son of a bitch gets what’s coming to him.” 

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