Raindrop

Showdown 7-08 (Summus Proelium)

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There was a buzzing of panic in the back of my head that wouldn’t go away. My mouth opened and closed a couple times as I stood there, face still covered by the mask while the broken helmet was held tightly in one hand. The buzzing turned audible as I managed a low, “Uhhhhh…. n-no, I—”

And that was when my panicking brain had the incredibly genius idea to make Eits stop talking by shooting black paint at him. I didn’t even know what that was supposed to accomplish other than keeping him silent for a few seconds. What was I going to do, follow him around forever constantly shooting black paint at him so he couldn’t tell anybody? What was my endgame there?

From the look on what I could see of his face after he tried and failed to say something, Eits was just as dubious as to the long term validity of this plan as I was. He stared at me, arms spreading apart in a ‘really?’ gesture that made me blush. 

Finally, I canceled the paint and stammered, “Look, you can’t— I mean, don’t… I’m not… you—”

His hands raised while he shook his head quickly. “Stop, just stop. I’m not telling anybody. Are you kidding me? After you helped me get my ball back and all that? You saved my ass. I’m not gonna throw you under the bus, geez. I was just surprised, that’s all. I just…” Trailing off, his head tilted to the side. “Blackjack’s coming. Gimme your phone. That’s what you’re using to change your voice, right? Let me see, quick.”

I didn’t have much of a choice, so I passed the phone that way. He took a quick glance at the damaged device while pulling another phone from his pocket. I saw one of his mites jump into my phone, then slip over to the other one. Then Eits past the new phone to me. “Plug it into your mic, hurry.”

Without wasting time asking questions, I paired the new phone with my microphone (that was what was actually changing my voice, it just needed the phone for the software part to work properly) and tried talking. “Hello, hello. Good?” It worked. My voice sounded like it should have again. My mic had kept the same settings. 

And just in time, because a nondescript blue car screeched to a halt a short distance away. Blackjack and a couple of his armed people stepped out. The man himself looked around briefly before his eyes centered on the two of us. And you know what? I had to give him credit, because despite how terrified for his daughter the man had to be, the first words out of his mouth were, “Are you two okay?” Belatedly, he ordered his men to spread out and watch for trouble. 

Eits was quiet, so I spoke up. “Cuélebre’s gone. I… um, lost him, I guess. But I got this back.” Holding my hand up, I showed the man the vial held tightly in it. 

As soon as it appeared, I saw a load of tension, though not nearly all of it, slip from his shoulders. He exhaled and stepped that way, reaching out for the vial. I let him take it, and only once it was secure in his own pocket did the man speak. “The others?” 

“Pack has one with her, and my… my friend has the other in the car,” I replied, hesitantly looking toward Eits. “Which is…” 

“I lost track of it,” he admitted. “But so did everyone else. I was kind of focused on leading all the others away, and on finding you after that whole lightning thing. I’m pretty sure they got the car out of sight.”

I had no idea what he was thinking, what his opinion was about what he had just found out about me. And there wasn’t exactly time to ask at the moment. Instead, I said, “I’ll find out. Just…” Then I paused, realizing a problem. I couldn’t call Wren without the number in my phone. But the real phone was broken.

“You should call them,” Eits urged,  giving me a brief, yet significant look. Clearly, that mite of his had copied all the number data out of the old phone. So it was probably a good thing that I wasn’t keeping deeply personal information in it. That phone was intended as my Touched thing, so I kept my personal stuff off it.

Sure enough, when I opened the phone, I found the right number in the contacts. Giving Eits a slight nod, I hit it and brought the phone to my ear. I could see Blackjack standing there, watching me like a hawk with tension still visible in him. It was clear that he would not relax until he had every vial. And after seeing how far his rivals were willing to go to get the things for themselves, I really couldn’t blame him. 

The phone rang a couple times before Wren answered. “Hello? Who—”

“It’s Paintball,” I cut her off. “I’m okay. I got one of the vials back from Cuélebre, but there’s one still on the car. Please tell me you still have the car.”

There was a burst of noise from the other side, as the younger girl clearly turned to tell someone else, no doubt Fred, that I was the one on the phone. Then she was back. “Paintball! Why are you— never mind. Yes, we’ve got the car! There were a bunch of bad guys, and then there were a bunch of other red cars and I think they were trying to help. But there were still lots of bad guys trying to stop us— I mean the car— so I hid it behind a building and I don’t think anybody knows where it is. But they keep driving past looking for it and I don’t know who’s bad or good anymore. Where’s Pack? She’s not answering her phone either. What—”

Wincing, I quickly interrupted. “I’m working on it. Just keep it there and I’ll come get them. And hey, thanks. That was some really good driving. Just hang on a second.”

With that, I muted the phone and looked over to Blackjack. “We’ve got it. The next vial’s in the car and I can go get it. But what about Pack and That-A-Way? They were both taken by that weird prisoner guy, and Pack’s got the last vial. Plus, I mean… I know the Minority aren’t exactly on your Christmas card list, but—”

It was my turn to be interrupted, as the man spoke. “I owe the girl no particular ill will. Particularly given the current situation. Intentional or not, she’s helped me secure these vials. And as far as that goes…” He exhaled. “The boy calls himself Jailtime. From what I understand, there are two aspects to his power. The first allows him to selectively cancel movement-based powers, such as teleportation, within an area.” 

“Which is why That-A-Way couldn’t teleport,” I murmured. 

“Correct,” he confirmed. “The second use of his power allows him to take anyone he’s touching to some kind of abandoned prison somewhere. The boy has some kind of power over the prison to create simulacrum beings and to control things within the prison itself, everything except the people he brings in. If you can get to the exit, you get transported back to where you left from. Other than that, we have no idea where this prison is. Or if it’s even a true physical place that can be reached.”

“So we just have to wait until they manage to get out of there by themselves?” I winced after saying it. “I mean, at least Pack has her animals and… I… I guess we just… oh God, I hope they’re okay.”

“As do I,” the man agreed quietly, and I knew it wasn’t just because he wanted that last vial, even if that was a big part of it. Hell, I knew it had to be taking everything he had not to scream at me to just get the vial in the car, but Blackjack controlled himself. His voice was mostly calm. “But in the meantime…”

“I’ll go get the next vial right now,” I assured him before pausing. “But uhh, maybe I shouldn’t go the fun way with Cuélebre still pretty pissed off out there.”

Eits promptly took the hint, speaking up. “I’ll drive him over to grab the vials. Then we’ll come right back.”

I could see the objection in Blackjack’s body language. He didn’t want to let me out of his sight until he had all the vials, particularly if I was about to go grab one. But he relented with a slight nod. “Go. I need to check in with my people, but I’m not leaving this spot. Get them and come back.” His words did not invite discussion or disagreement, only obedience. 

I let it go. The guy was stressed. I mean, he was also a supervillain with a horde of minions at his beck and call who was clearly accustomed to giving any orders he wanted. But in this case, he was also understandably stressed. The fact that he hadn’t snapped at me and was even willing to let me leave his sight to get the next vial for him said a lot more about his patience and control than anything else. I wasn’t going to childishly demand he say please or anything stupid like that. 

Instead, I just looked over to Eits. “Car?”

No sooner had I said it, than a station wagon pulled up to the curb. The boy gestured to it before looking to his boss. “We’ll be right back. What about the other attacks?”

“Distractions,” Blackjack replied. “Hit and run techniques meant to keep us busy. They did the same thing across the city to occupy the Star-Touched. I’m checking in on our other people now, just to be sure. You grab those vials, then we’ll secure them and all of this will be over.” His gaze flicked over to me as he added, “And I will owe you more than I can ever repay.”

Rather than respond to that, I stepped down into the station wagon. Only when Eits had gotten in the other side and pulled away from the curb did it occur to me to weakly ask, “Oh God, this is stolen, isn’t it?” 

“Borrowed for the emergency,” he corrected. “As soon as we’re done, I’ll fill it with gas and put it right back where we found it. Scout’s honor.”

I probably should’ve said something else to that, but all I could think about was what he now knew. I fell silent, chancing a glance that way. He was looking at me rather than the road. Then again, he wasn’t actually physically driving anyway. One of his mites was, so Eits didn’t need to watch the road. 

The two of us stared at each other for a minute, as I rested the broken helmet in my lap. It was obvious that neither of us really knew what to say. But we had to say something.

In a minute, anyway. Right then, I remembered Wren and quickly unmuted the phone. “Okay, heading for the car. Where is it, exactly?”

She gave directions, and I passed them to Eits before letting the girl know that we would be showing up in a station wagon so she wouldn’t freak out when she saw it on the car’s cameras. I stayed on the line with her the whole way just in case something happened. And, of course, because it gave me an excuse not to get into the inevitable awkward conversation with Eits. 

It also gave me a chance to explain what was going on with Pack. Wren, of course, wasn’t exactly happy about the fact that we couldn’t do anything but wait. I couldn’t blame her for that, considering how annoyed I was by it. Yet there was nothing else for it. We just had to be patient and hope the two of them (plus the lizard buddies) could get out of that prison without our help. 

Finally, we pulled up around the back of the building in question. The car was waiting there, and I had Eits wait while I went over, opened the door, and reached in. There it was, the vial. We had the vial, meaning there was only one more out there. The one Pack had. Please, let her and That-A-Way get away from that Jailtime guy.

Clutching the vial from the car, I looked up to the sky and murmured a silent prayer before  bringing the phone back to my ear. “Got it. Pack’s got the last one, as soon as she… Wren, you… you did great. Seriously, this wouldn’t have happened without you. That girl survives all this, it’s totally because of you.”

Promising to let her know the second I found out anything else, I disconnected, reaching the car just as something else occurred to me. Eyes widening behind my mask, I grabbed the door and got in while blurting, “Wait, what about Ashton? I just left him back there when we took off after Cuélebre.”

“I guess Blackjack’s probably got him,” the boy replied before physically wincing. “I really don’t see that ending well for him after what he did.”

And I would have to do something about that. Going silent for a moment, I waited before glancing to Eits. “I guess you probably have a lot of questions, huh?”

He hesitated before shrugging. “It’s pretty self-explanatory, actually. Maybe not specifics or anything, but posing as the gender you’re not makes it harder to identify you later. It’s a pretty good—” In mid-sentence, he suddenly stopped, making a kind of adorable horrified noise. “Errr, did I just do to you what people kept doing to me? I mean, are we both… are you…”

My head shook as I quickly assured him, “No, no, I’m not trying to transition or anything. It’s really just a disguise.” Belatedly, I hit the button to deactivate the voice thing and spoke normally. “I guess you could probably take offense to that, huh?”

His response was another shrug. “Not really. It’s a disguise, you’re not mocking anything. Context kinda matters. I just… I mean… I guess I’m still just a little surprised. Okay, a lot surprised. It’s a pretty good way of hiding your identity though, if you’re the kind of girl with a body type that can pass for a boy and oh my God I just realized I said that out loud.” The last bit came all in a rush as he lowered his head to bang it against the steering wheel, making me glad again that he wasn’t driving the normal way. 

My face flushed under the mask, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. There were a lot of people who could have said something like that and basically ruined my night. Or, they could have a while ago before my priorities got pretty reorganized. Still, the reminder that at best I looked like a girl who had not made it very far through puberty sent an embarrassed twinge through me. At least it could be worse. 

“Sorry,” Eits was saying. “I’m really not trying to pry into your identity or anything, I swear. But how long are you going to be able to pull this charade off? I mean, once you get a little older, people might notice… changes.”

It was worse! It was worse, definitely worse. Oh God!

My face went bright red, feeling warm under the mask as I dropped my head into my hands and groaned. “I’m not a kid.”

“Oh,” Eits started, “I wasn’t trying to say you—”

“I’m not a kid,” I interrupted. “Let’s just say I’m closer to college than middle school. The puberty fairy’s already made it pretty clear that her ideal look for me is ‘vampire turned when she was thirteen.’ At my sixteenth birthday party, we celebrated that I finally crossed five feet. I—” Then I stopped myself, realizing that for all he’d talked about not prying into my identity, I probably still shouldn’t hand him so much information like that. I probably should have stopped talking sooner, but I was just so flustered. And it had been a long night. 

Eits was looking my way, waiting for me to fall silent before he spoke. “Sorry. That was a really dumb assumption and a stupid thing for me to say. I was trying to help things and… well, yeah. You see how that turned out. Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl under that costume. what matters is who you are, right? And who you are is the guy—sorry, girl who really helped me out of a jam, and accepted who I am pretty much instantly. You’re the girl who risked her life to save the daughter of a supervillain, and who is going back there right now to talk to said supervillain about not hurting the guy who almost killed his daughter, about letting the guy go without taking his revenge. So personally, I think you’re pretty brave, cool, funny, and accepting. Those are the things you can change. Anyone gives you shit about the things you can’t, fuck ‘em.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of my mouth. “I’m not entirely sure ‘fuck ‘em’ is really the best way to handle my body image issues.”

Before Eits could really recover from his reaction to that, the car stopped right back where we had started. As promised, Blackjack was there. He’d been joined by more of his troops, including Cardsharp. When I got out of the car (taking a second to make sure my voice changer was on again), the La Casa leader’s gaze snapped to me, and everyone seemed to freeze. 

At first, I didn’t say anything. I simply steeled myself and looked to him. “Pack’s got the last vial.” I held up the one that I had retrieved. “As soon as she gets away from Jailtime, you’ll have everything you need to save your daughter.” 

A bit of weight seemed to slip from the man’s shoulders, as he murmured, “Pack…” Looking to one of his men, he ordered, “Make absolutely sure that spot is clear and safe when they show up. And–” He glanced to me before adding, “Let That-A-Way go unharmed, along with the rest of her team. The truce stays so long as they don’t attack any of our people.” 

His man acknowledged that and moved away while speaking into a phone, and I started again. “You have Ashton. You also said that if I got you the vials, you’d owe me a favor.” Stepping over, I extended the one I had to him before adding, “I’ve helped you find them. Assuming Pack gets out of there okay, I want two favors.”

Only once he had the vial in his hand and confirmed it looked right did the man speak. “Two favors?” 

From the way his voice cracked, he would have granted fifty. But I wasn’t going to get greedy. Instead, I nodded once. “Yeah, two. First, I want you to let me take Ashton to the cops, and then you leave him alone. He’s grieving for his friend and he did stupid things. He was wrong and he was psycho, no matter what his reasoning was. No tragic backstory gives him the right to do what he tried to do. But let him go to prison for it.”

Without giving any indication of how he felt about that, Blackjack simply asked, “The second?”

“You put up a bounty of three million dollars,” I reminded him. “I decided I want you to follow through. Only send it to the children’s hospital that was just attacked by the Scions. All of it except one hundred thousand. I’m going to use that to help people in another way.” Namely as seed money to dump into Wren without my parents noticing any large sums disappearing. 

“Three million to the children’s hospital,” Blackjack echoed, his voice clearly carefully even. “One hundred thousand to you. And let you take Mr. Austin to the authorities. Is that all?” 

“That’s it,” I confirmed. “I know with Pack having the last vial, that means you already have what you want, but everyone says you’re a man of your word, so–” 

“Done,” the man interrupted. “The hospital will receive the full reward, with a small compensation of a hundred thousand going to your… efforts. And you… may take Mr. Austin.” The last bit was clearly the hardest for him to say, anger still turning his words brittle. “But should he remind me of his existence again…” 

“I know.” It was the best I could have hoped for. Hell, for all I knew, he’d just wait for Ashton to be in prison and then have him killed. But I’d try to make sure the authorities knew how much danger he was in. Other than that… well, it could’ve been worse. 

Blackjack interrupted my thoughts. “Now, we need to go and wait for the missing girls to return.”

I nodded quickly. Because I was going to be there when Pack and That-A-Way got out of that weird prison thing Jailtime had apparently sent them to. Not to mention check on the rest of the Minority who had shown up to help, if they were still around. And I was pretty sure Eits and I weren’t done talking about… about what he had found out. We’d managed a lot. Blackjack’s daughter was… well, almost safe. But I wasn’t going to celebrate just yet. Not until I knew for sure that Pack and That-A-Way had made it back with that last vial. Then the girl would be okay. She’d have all her medicine. Once that was assured, I’d have to actually take Ashton to the authorities, let them know what was going on and… and… everything. All of that, of course, assumed that Pack returned with the vial. After all this, it was down to her and That-A-Way to bring that last one back. 

Yeah, as long as this night had already been and as much as we’d accomplished, this night still wasn’t over yet. 

 

*******

 

Patreon Snippet – Izzy

 

The tiny, somewhat huddled figure ran through the dark alley before reaching a heavy green dumpster. There, she looked around quickly, while the sound of approaching footsteps grew louder. The young girl looked over her shoulder, seeing bouncing lights draw nearer to the mouth of the alley. Then she turned back, eyes settling on something in particular before she gave a small nod of decision. 

A few seconds later, two flashlight beams lit up the area where the girl had just been, revealing empty space. The source of the lights, two men holding them next to their pistols, grew brighter as the pair advanced into the alley. Their voices were hushed. “You see anything?” one man asked. 

“Nothing,” the next murmured, slowly panning his light over the collection of garbage around the dumpster, across a few old wooden pallets, and onto a moldy mattress against the opposite wall. “You sure the kid came this way?” 

“That’s what they said,” came the response, as the first man advanced cautiously closer to the dumpster. “Paola saw her in the rearview, crossing the street over on Beckards, but they couldn’t turn around in time to catch up. She was heading this way.” 

The second man kicked the mattress, leaning over to check in the space between it and the wall before shaking his head. “We gotta grab this maldita puta before she gets her powers back, or before she finds a working phone and fucks all of us over. You know how screwed we are if that kid gets away and tells anyone?”

Advancing toward the dumpster, the first man peeked around it to the spot where the girl had ducked earlier. His gun was raised and ready, but he found nothing but a smell from abandoned rotten food on the ground that made him gag a bit. “Uuuuggghh, tell me about it,” he muttered under his breath while leaning back and turning his head a little to press his nose against his shoulder for relief. 

After recovering a bit, the man took a step back to be out of easy reach before taking a knee to peer under the dumpster. His light illuminated the small space there, and he saw… nothing. Rising, he cast his light across the tall wooden fence at the back of the alley. “Shit, man, there’s nothing here. Maybe she got over that somehow?” 

“Or maybe she never came down here,” his partner replied with a shrug. “Whatever, let’s check in. Maybe someone else picked up the trail.” He gave one last look around with his light before turning to leave the alley. “Come on, smells like shit back here.” 

The two of them left the alley, muttering to each other. A few seconds after they were gone, the moldy mattress shifted, jerked against the ground, and then a hand emerged from the far side of it. Izzy Amor hauled herself out of the mattress. She had spotted a hole in one side of it and had managed to tear it open enough to shove herself inside. It wasn’t that hard, given how much of the interior of it was missing. There, she had curled into a tight ball in a space barely large enough to hold her small form, using her hands to keep the hole in the mattress closed while the men talked. She’d thought she had been caught when the man kicked the mattress, but all he’d done was shift it a bit to look behind it. 

Kicking her way free of the dirty, disgusting mattress, Izzy crouched there. Her arms folded tightly around herself as she stared toward the mouth of the alley. The girl’s face was still stained wet from tears, but she forced them back while slowly rising to her feet. There were people yelling back and forth to each other, beams of light occasionally flicking past the alley. They were out there, looking for her. She had no phone, no communicator, no costume, and she couldn’t use her powers without horrific pain. Not yet, anyway. That Handler guy’s power hadn’t worn off. 

Six more blocks. The nearest entrance to the Minority base, using one of the dozen or so spread across the city (entrances which all accessed the same building thanks to the Ten Towers Tech-Touched known as Switchshift), was six blocks away. Six blocks. She could get there. She… she could…

Mom. The thought wormed its way into Izzy’s mind, and she cringed as those same tears threatened to overwhelm her once more. Mom. Mama. Her mother… her mother had sold her, had literally sold her to the bad guys to be tortured and trained into… into…

Covering her mouth with a hand, Izzy restrained the horrified sob of anguish and grief. Bottling up those feelings, she pushed herself to her feet and carefully made her way to the wooden fence. With actual time now, she climbed up and over it, dropping into the alley on the opposite side before quickly crouching in the corner as an Oscuro car drove slowly past, more men leaning out the windows, scanning the streets for her. 

Six blocks. She could make it six more blocks. Taking a breath, the temporarily powerless girl made her way swiftly to the end of the alley and looked around. The Oscuro car was turning the corner, while two men at the opposite end of the street walked around the other way. She had an opening, and took it, darting out and running to the next alley over. 

Six more blocks. Stay low, stay quiet, keep moving. 

And don’t think about Mama. Push it down. Shove it down. Focus. 

She almost made it. Almost. Just as Izzy was crossing the last street, eyes centered on the building she needed to get to, there was a sudden screech of tires as a dark sedan came screaming up to block her path. Several Oscuro troops were inside, pointing their guns at her as the driver (whose side she was facing) snarled, “Hey kid, going somewhere?” 

Stumbling back, her eyes darted around, but there was nowhere to go. She was out in the open. They were pointing guns at her, she… she… had to use her power. The very idea made her nauseous. Not just because of the pain, which had… probably worn off by now, but because she was exhausted. She’d used it so much all night long to put out the fires at the hospital. She was tired, she was sore, she’d been up for too long, had used her power too much, and now… now she had to use it again. She had to, even if the thought of even trying to summon up more of it made her want to curl into a ball and throw up. 

“Aww,” the driver with his sawed-off shotgun pointed at her taunted, “what’s the matter? Is the little bitch gonna cry cuz we–” 

In mid-sentence, a giant silver hand, bigger than the sedan itself, burst out of the ground at the front of the car. A second appeared at the back. The two hands took the front and rear of the vehicle between giant fingers and ripped it apart with a scream of tearing metal. The inhabitants were dumped to the ground, crying out and cursing. One man tried to shoot at Izzy, but the two hands had already broken apart, reforming into a single wall between the girl and her attackers. 

A figure dropped from the building above before landing lightly on his feet. He straightened up, and Silversmith stood there, just beside the wall he had created. “Gentlemen,” he started flatly, “throw down your guns, and–” 

Several of the men opened fire. The bullets did nothing to the Conservator leader’s gleaming metal armor. They didn’t penetrate, but nor did they ricochet away. Ricochets would have potentially endangered other people. Instead, as the bullets struck the strange, Touched-summoned metal, it rippled slightly, almost like water. Tiny tendrils of liquid-metal encompassed each bullet where it struck, holding onto it to arrest its momentum before letting it go so the bullet would fall harmlessly to the ground. It all happened in a millisecond, impossible to see with the naked eye. Each bullet would start to penetrate the liquid-like spot of armor, get caught by the miniscule tendrils, and was then pushed out to fall onto the pavement in a shower of metal. To the naked eye, it looked like the bullets were hitting the man and simply falling to his feet. 

“Okay,” Silversmith said simply as the men interrupted his attempt to offer them a chance to surrender. His hand gave a dismissive wave, instantly sending a dozen small balls of liquid metal at them. The first six orbs reshaped into blades, solidifying just in time to cut through the weapons the half-dozen men were holding. Their guns were sliced in half, falling uselessly to the ground. Just behind those, the remaining six metal balls of metallic liquid formed into handcuffs. They snapped around each man’s wrists at once before hoisting them off the ground. With a collection of screams, the six Oscuro troops were hurled backward by the cuffs and suspended ten feet off the ground by their wrists against the wall of the nearby building. 

He turned to Izzy then, his voice softening. “Are you–” 

Izzy threw herself at him. Her arms went around his waist, and she clung to the man, unable to hold back the blinding, inescapable tears that poured from her eyes as she openly sobbed. Her body shook violently, while she tightened her grip. She was awash in an ocean of grief, and the man was her only life preserver. 

“Shhh,” Silversmith murmured, sinking to one knee before taking the girl into his arms. “It’s okay. You’re safe. 

“I’ve got you.”

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Interlude 6A – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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It was almost two o’clock in the morning when a small, clearly very young girl in a hooded windbreaker walked through an alley beside a fast food joint. Izzy Amor, publically known as Raindrop, was practically dead on her feet. She was so tired by that point that she could barely keep her eyes open as she all-but stumbled down the alley. She had just spent the past several hours helping to clear up the fires at the hospital, and then hanging around while the bomb squad people made sure there were no more explosives that might go off. There weren’t, but the bomb guys had to be really thorough, which meant Izzy and the others sat around for hours.

Now that it was all over, Izzy was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to even summon a little rain cloud in her hand. Just the idea of using her power any time soon made the twelve-year old feel kind of nauseous. All she wanted to do was get home, fall into bed, and sleep for a whole day. 

Reaching the end of the alley, the girl stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked both ways. There was no sign of anyone, aside from a sedan at the end of the street going the other way. Taking the phone from her pocket, she checked the messages. The most recent conversation showed the short, clearly terse, ‘Coming’. It was sent fifteen minutes earlier. Home was a ten minute drive away, so counting time to get dressed, her ride would be here any minute. 

A smile touched the girl’s face at the thought of getting home. She might take a shower before crashing, just to get the smell of smoke and stuff off. But mostly, just sleeping sounded great. 

With a yawn, she put her back against the wall of the nearby building and watched the corner her ride would be coming from. Headlights appeared, and she perked up. But they belonged to a jeep that drove straight past. After another minute, the girl yawned and slowly sank down to sit against the wall. Her eyes glanced briefly to the phone to make sure there wasn’t another message, before returning to watch the nearby intersection. Any minute now. Any minute. 

The sudden blaring of a horn along with a nearby light snapped Izzy awake. She jerked up right from where she had slumped over, staring with wide eyes until her gaze centered on the van waiting in front of her with the door open. The driver, her mother, hit the horn again and made an impatient gesture while shouting, “Stop wasting time and get in! Some of us have to work!”

Scrambling to her feet, Izzy took a brief second to glance at the phone in her hand. Forty-five minutes had passed since she sat down, an hour since her mother had said she was on her way. Quickly, she shoved the phone in her pocket and moved over to climb into the van. Before she had the door shut, they were moving, pulling away from the curb with a squeal of tires. 

Mariana Amor wore a jacket over her nightgown, grumbling to herself as they blew through a red light. “This is garbage, you understand? Garbage. These people have you out at all hours and they can’t even bring you home afterward? It’s disrespectful. Completely disrespectful. You know why they do it? Because they don’t respect you. They think they can walk all over you, walk all over us. It’s what they do. They use you for your power and they will throw you away as soon as you’re not useful enough. You know that? You tell me you know that, Isidora.”

“But Madre,” Izzy protested a bit weakly, “they’re still busy making sure everyone’s safe at the hotel and the hospital. They’re gonna be busy all night, but they said it was okay for me to leave because I was tired. And they said I could wait for a ride, but your message said that you were on the way, so I said they didn’t have to do anything. I thought you’d be here soon.”   

Her mother gave the girl a sharp look. “Don’t you put it back on me, niñita. I told you, I have to work in the morning. You know, that thing that puts real food on the table for both of us? Besides, I was a little tired when you called and I didn’t want to have an accident falling asleep at the wheel. You don’t want your mother to have an accident and die, do you?” 

“No, Madre,” Izzy murmured quietly, shaking her head. She turned a bit to look out at the passing buildings as they drove, not wanting to rile her mother up any more than she was. 

It didn’t really work. For the next seven minutes, Izzy sat in silence and listened as her mother ranted about how disrespectful the people behind the Minority were, how they treated her like a disposable asset, how they didn’t care what happened to her or what kind of trouble they put her family through as long as they had access to her power. And so on and so on. Occasionally, she would tell Izzy to agree with her to make sure the girl was listening, but mostly she just went on.

Finally, they parked in the covered parking lot next to their condominium and headed up the stairs. Izzy trudged along, yawning once more as they reached the front door. Her mother fumbled with the keys in the dim light from the nearby porch lamp, still cursing under her breath about how late it was and how little sleep she was going to end up getting before work. 

Eventually, her mother found the right key and unlocked the door. Izzy stepped through, unzipping her jacket while visions of her warm, comfy bed danced through her mind. Maybe the shower would wait until morning, because at this rate, she’d fall asleep in there and that would–

“Oh good, you’re finally home.” The sudden words interrupted Izzy’s thoughts, and she blinked up to see a strange man standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He wore one of those old bird-like plague doctor masks, along with a dark red apron over a black bodysuit. 

The sight of the man suddenly made Izzy forget all about being tired. Her hands snapped up, a ball of water forming between them before she even thought about the fact that she was giving away that she had powers. None of that mattered, except for protecting herself and her mother. 

Unfortunately, the ball of water had barely formed between her hands before a sudden, intense pain exploded in the back of the girl’s head. Izzy collapsed to the floor, sprawling out as her vision wavered in and out. Black spots had appeared, and she blearily looked up to see her mother standing there with a heavy, now-cracked figurine in one hand. “Sorry, baby,” she started while Izzy’s vision swam and began to fade. It took another second for consciousness to completely flee, enough time to leave her with her mother’s words echoing through her head.
“But this whole thing just isn’t working out anymore.” 

*******

With a sudden start, Izzy snapped awake. She tried to sit up as her eyes opened, only to find that neither helped. From what the girl could tell, she was tied to a chair, with a blindfold on. Some kind of heavy plastic ball was in her mouth, stopping her from saying anything. She did, however, make a noise of confusion, shifting in the chair while jerking a bit against the bonds. 

“Ah,” a man’s voice spoke, “she’s awake. Let’s see then…” There were fingers against her head, and she flinched at the rush of pain that shot through it from the blow she’d taken to the head. A blow from… from… her own mother? But why? Why would her mother hit her like that?

The blindfold came off, and Izzy found herself staring into that plague doctor mask, as the man studied her from behind the mirrored lenses in the eyes, leaving the girl staring at her own reflection when she tried to meet his gaze. She saw herself, bound to a heavy metal chair in her own kitchen, ball gag in her mouth. Her eyes were wild and looked almost crazed, leaving her even more stunned at the sight of it than she had already been. 

“There, see?” That was her mother’s voice, speaking up from the doorway. As Izzy’s eyes snapped that way, she saw the woman come into view. “The kid’s just fine. You can do your… whatever you’re going to do, after I get paid. So come on then, give it over before I change my mind about this whole thing and find someone who might offer a little bit more.” 

Instead of responding to her, the plague doctor looked at Izzy, head tilting a little. “You look confused, dear,” he murmured. “Let me spell it out for you. My name is Handler. I work for the man you know as Cuélebre. Your mother sold you to him, and I’m here to get you ready. That’s why it took time for her to come pick you up. We were… coming to a final arrangement.” 

Staring in shock and confusion, the words echoing through her head as she stared at her mother, Izzy shouted into the gag, her words swallowed up by it. At the same time, she jerked in the chair, a ball of water forming in front of her. But the instant it did, the man called Handler put a finger against her hand, and Izzy’s muffled words turned to a scream of agony. Pain, the likes of which she’d never known, exploded throughout her entire young body as the water fell apart.

“Hey!” her mother blurted, “I told you, not until you pay me. Money, you cheap bastard.” 

“In a moment,” the man assured her before turning his attention back to Izzy. “We have to make sure we all understand each other. So go ahead,” he urged, stepping away from the girl once her muffled scream had faded, hands up to show he wasn’t going to stop her. “Try that again.” 

The ball of water had barely begun to form that time before the shock of agony was back, bringing a renewed scream to the gagged young girl while her mother simply looked away. 

“I touch you,” the man informed her, “and mark a certain action as wrong. Actions such as using your power. Or raising your voice. Or disobeying an order from certain people. You do the action, you get punished. For now, the punishment my touch instills will only last for a few minutes. But with enough training and repeated sessions, anything you ever do that is against what Cuélebre requires or allows will bring that same pain for weeks, months, years at a time without needing to be refreshed. Eventually, I won’t need to renew it at all. And by then, you won’t need the pain anyway. You’ll simply do as you are told. Now then, remember that I have instilled a punishment for raising your voice. So no shouting. Let’s see if we’re on the same page.” He reached out, carefully unlatching the ball gag before pulling it away from her mouth. 

“M-Madre!” Izzy blurted, tears suddenly flooding her eyes. “Madre, it’s not true! Say it’s a trick! No, you wouldn’t do this! You can’t do this!” All thought of being tired had fled the girl, replaced by a feeling of loss and betrayal the likes of which she might never actually understand. 

Her mother spared a glance for her, pausing before stepping over. “Look, Izzy, it’s nothing personal. I just… I never wanted to be a mother. I never wanted to be a normal mother, let alone one for a… a superhero. I didn’t want it. I still don’t. I’m not… I’m not strong like you are, Izzy. Whatever happens, I know you can handle it. Yes, they’ll hurt you. But you’re a big girl. You’re a strong girl. You’ll be okay. And me… I… I’ll start a new life somewhere else. You’ll get over it.”

She’d… she’d get over it? Her mother had… her mother had sold her identity and her to a monster who wanted to torture her into obedience and she would just… get over it? Izzy stared, mouth open as tears continued to fall silently. She could find no words, could find no thought. Her mother… her mother didn’t care about her. She sold her. She was… she was going to leave her in this man’s hands so he could do… do whatever he wanted. Why? Why? Her body trembled, shaking against the bonds that held her to the heavy metal chair. Her voice was weak, marked by fear and confusion that made her ashamed of herself. “Madre… Mama, please…” 

“Don’t,” her mother snapped. “Don’t start that. I just–I can’t handle you. I don’t deserve to have to deal with any of this. I told you, I didn’t ask to be a mother, especially after your father left. I’m not cut out for it and you–you’re worth more like this. Do what the man says and you’ll be fine.” With that, she turned to Handler, voice snapping, “You have her and she’s secure. Money, now.” 

A new ball of water formed, reflexively summoned by the sobbing, pleading girl. It popped, as a renewed scream of agony exploded from her mouth. She’d barely gotten the first sound out before the gag was unceremoniously shoved back in. With it secure, muffling yet another scream as she struggled to use her power, Handler turned his back to the girl, apparently dismissing her from his mind as he produced a cell phone and extended it to her mother. 

“As agreed, five hundred thousand dollars for one moldable, powerful young Touched. As you can see, it’s been sent to the offshore account you specified. Are you satisfied?” 

The look of eager greed on her mother’s face as she stared at the phone screen made Izzy stop pleading and struggling against the gag. It was that, more than the woman’s cold words or the entire situation, which convinced her of just how real this was. Her mother didn’t care about her. She was selling her to be tortured and running away with the money. There was no sense in begging, no sense in pleading with her mother to change her mind, because she wouldn’t. Her mother wasn’t just okay with her being sold to Cuélebre, she was eager to leave with her money. There was no guilt in her face, nothing to indicate that she cared at all. 

Begging was useless. Being scared, sad, none of it would help. So Izzy stopped doing any of that. 

And started getting angry. 

Both her mother and the ‘Handler’ man had turned away from her. They were talking to each other while walking out of the kitchen. Izzy could hear them moving to the front door, her mother saying something about getting the money out of town before anyone found out what she’d done. Through it all, listening to her voice, she felt that… anger… that sense of betrayal. And with it came agony beyond anything she had ever thought possible, pain she couldn’t hope to describe. It suffused her entire being, her body arching up against the bonds as her dull, horrific scream of anguish, muffled only by the heavy gag, gradually filled the room.

The front door closed, and those footsteps steadily returned, as Handler came back. “Now then,” the man was already saying, “we’ll start your real training back at a more private place, but… we…” He trailed off, head tilting upward toward the rapid, steady thrum of water against the roof of the condo. “Is it raining? I–” His gaze dropped, staring at the bound young girl. She was pale, face stricken by the torture of what she was putting herself through. Sweat soaked through every pore, eyes tightly closed while she gave a low, tormented sob of misery.

Then her eyes opened, staring at the man while the rain hammering against the condo suddenly grew louder. It sounded like a deluge of water had suddenly opened up. It hammered the windows, the rain coming down so hard and fast that the entire building literally shook under the force of it. 

“Oh,” Handler managed to get out, “shi–” 

That was as far as he got, before Izzy arched her back, bonds barely holding her to the chair. The gag did almost nothing to muffle her deafening scream, as the condo literally ripped its way out of the ground. Her other power, the one that allowed her to control gravity on anything that was wet, tore the building up into the air. They went up a good ten feet or so before the building tipped over entirely. Handler’s words turned to a surprised shout, as the lights faded, plunging the condo into darkness. Cabinets had flown open, furniture, dishes, and more flying through the rooms. The last sight Handler had of the girl, she had directed water onto herself before flying, chair and all, through an open window just before the entire building slammed upside down into the ground. 

The wreckage of the condo littered the street, looking like a small, personal tornado had lifted it up, torn it apart, and thrown it back down again. Izzy found herself staring at it from where her power had dropped her when she could no longer handle any more pain. The drop had been enough to bend the chair somewhat, so she could slip her way free. Now, she stood, staring at the wreckage while tears fell freely from her face. Tears that would not slow, or fade, for a long time.

Some of the rubble shifted a bit, and she saw Handler pushing himself out of it while lights on the front porches of nearby houses turned on. People were starting to come out, even as the masked man climbed up. He was joined almost immediately by several other Oscuro soldiers who came running from the nearby car where they had obviously been waiting to transport her. 

Her mother’s van was already gone. 

The Oscuro people were looking around for her, weapons raised. They hadn’t spotted Izzy from where she was crouched by a fence a couple houses down. But they would soon. And she still couldn’t use her power without more pain. It had nearly killed her to do what she did. 

She couldn’t fight them. Not like this. Not physically, and not emotionally. So, the twelve-year old did the only thing she could in that moment. 

She turned and ran away.

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Interlude 1 – The Minority (Summus Proelium)

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“Would someone here mind telling me who would be stupid enough to try robbing a bank that belongs to La Casa?”

The man asking the question was Lieutenant Harold Dabber, of the Detroit police department. He was a short, somewhat heavyset man with a gray walrus mustache, long stringy hair, and the face of someone who had been in a lot of fist fights. He looked more like a bum off the street than a thirty-year veteran of the police force, particularly with his beat-up brown raincoat and checkered shirt. The people he was addressing were the roughly thirty-odd officers who were helping to secure the main entrance of the bank in question.

The bank, named Prime International Enterprise, didn’t advertise that it was owned by what amounted to a Touched version of the mafia, of course. But it was understood. Blackjack, the leader of La Casa, controlled several banks in the city, even if the authorities lacked the ability to prove that fact. It was an open secret.

The point was that trying to rob the place was tantamount to suicide. And yet, that was apparently what had just happened. There was a group that had gone into the bank to actually steal from La Casa. Which had led to the bank’s own security, backed up by at least one of the La Casa Fell-Touched, attempting to deal with the situation on their own, to send a message. The first group had fought back just effectively enough to gain a foothold on one side of the bank’s massive lobby. Now there were hostages on both sides, caught between the rival gangs.

One of the uniformed officers responded, ”Witnesses said it looked like a few of the Ninety-Niners, sir. No sign of any Touched on their side. Just rank and file troops. Might be new guys trying to make a name for themselves and move up.”

Dabber grunted, muttering a curse. “They’re gonna make a grave for themselves. Which I might not even complain about too much if they’re that fucking stupid, except that they’re going to drag a lot more people into those graves with them.”

“Don’t worry Lieutenant,” a new voice announced, “we won’t let that happen.”

Turning, the man saw exactly who he knew it would be. Standing before him and the other cops was a group of teenagers. Touched teenagers, in full costume.

They were called The Minority, the official team throughout the country for Star-Touched who were under eighteen. Teens who were training to be heroes. Some would be taken on by the Conservators, while others would be picked up by groups like Ten Towers or the Spartans. Once they were old enough, each group who was interested would extend an offer of membership and benefits.

The boy who was talking was called Syndicate. He was their current leader, who had held that position for under six months at this point. Syndicate was a tall black boy, fairly thin in a wiry way. The lower three quarters of his face, aside from his temple and hair, was covered by a hard shell red mask of some kind. It look like a full head-covering helmet that the top had been cut off of. His black hair stuck up through the opening in random spikes. Most of the base of his costume was red as well, with gold accents and armor pieces. It seemed to tread a middle ground between protection and sleekness.

To his left was a muscular boy in what looked like an army camo suit save for the fact that it was black and brown, with a ski mask and heavy gauntlets, and a much smaller girl who looked as though she was barely twelve, wearing a dark blue bodysuit with silver armor panels and a white cloak, the hood up over her head. Her identity was concealed by a mirrored faceplate that reflected her surroundings.

Whamline and Raindrop, respectively.

The other three members of the teenaged team were to Syndicate’s right. There was a Caucasian girl in a dark purple bodysuit with white arrows drawn randomly all over it that pointed in every direction, and a domino mask, her blonde hair fashioned into a ponytail. There was also another girl whose ethnicity was impossible to determine, as she wore a jester’s mask and full robes and hood that completely covered her. All were made in a gold, silver, and purple color scheme. And there was another boy, this one the tallest of all. Actually, he was even taller than any of the police officers, standing at over six and a half feet. His suit made him look like a medieval knight, though the armor and helmet were emerald green.

The two girls were That-A-Way and Carousel, and the armored boy was called Wobble.

Syndicate, Whamline, Raindrop, That-A-Way, Carousel, and Wobble. The Detroit team of the Minority.

“No offense, kid,” Dabber replied after taking in the side of the group. “But I was kind of hoping we’d get one of the varsity teams out here for this.”

There had been a time, not so very long ago, when he would have objected to teenagers having any involvement in this whatsoever. This was a hostile situation. Any time before the previous decade or so, he would have raised holy hell. He had done so, in fact. But in these recent years, he had seen teenagers with powers be thrown into far more dangerous situations than this one. And he had also seen what happened when those teenagers weren’t properly experienced. This may have been something that would have been utterly unthinkable more than twenty years earlier. But things had changed in those past couple of decades. The threats in the world required solutions that he didn’t have. People with powers had to be stopped by people with powers. Especially when an Abyssal got going. And the only way they were going to get the training they needed to face those threats was by facing smaller ones. Real field experience, like this situation.

Still, as he’d said, he really would have preferred having one of the adult groups here, with the teens running cleanup.

Syndicate shook his head. “Sorry, there’s a brawl going on uptown between Oscuro and Braintrust. It’s all hands on deck right now. They’re going to be busy for a while. But don’t worry, we can get the hostages out of there and calm this whole thing down.”

Beside him, Carousel gave a quick nod that sent the bells on her jester’s mask ringing. “That’s a fact. We’ll make it a pact, to set things right, and call it a night.”

Yeah, Dabber had no idea why the girl made everything rhyme all the time. It was just kind of her schtick, along with the whole jokester motif.  

After a brief back-and-forth to establish the situation, the team of teens focused on the occupied bank. Syndicate turned to the side, where three blue-gray ghostly and transparent duplicates of himself stood. Two of those ghost-copies ran off to either corner of the building. Then the main boy looked to the youngest member of their team. “Raindrop, there’s a skylight in the roof. If the rest of us play distraction, can you get the hostages up and out that way?”

There was a brief hesitation, as the little girl seemed afraid to answer. Finally, however, her head bobbed up-and-down in a quick nod as she set herself. “Uh huh. I um, I’ll do it.” She sounded nervous, but determined.

With that, Raindrop pointed above her head, creating a small cloud that poured water over top of herself. Once she had been soaked down (her cloak acting like a raincoat), the girl quickly floated up off the ground, heading for the roof. She was more than simply a powerful hydrokinetic. The kid could also manipulate how gravity affected anything that was wet.

Syndicate pointed then. “That-A-Way, Wobble,  take the far left window there, where that me is. That should put you right by the loan offices where the Ninety-Niners are holed up. Carousel, Whamline, you guys are with the me on that other side, where the La Casa and security guys are based. As soon as I go in the front door and draw attention of everyone in there, the groups on both sides go in and hit them from behind. While they’re distracted, Raindrop pulls the hostages out through the ceiling. Any questions? You got that, Drop?” For the last bit, the boy’s head turned a bit as though he was listening to something in his ear before nodding and satisfaction. “Good, let’s do it then.” He looked to Dabber. “Sir, if you’d like to send your men over and have them wait at either side, as soon as the hostages are clear, they can head in and mop things up. We’d sure appreciate it.”

Dabber agreed, sending several officers with both groups, along with orders to wait until the hostages were out of danger before moving in. Then he took his own pistol from its holster and looked to the leader of the Minority. “I’m going in with you.”

Syndicate nodded, before he, his remaining ghost-duplicate, and Dabber himself headed carefully up toward the front entrance. There was a man there with a rifle. He wore the uniform of bank security and gave them a hard glare, shaking his head to warn them off. This was a situation that the bank wanted to deal with themselves.

The main Syndicate stopped right alongside Dabber. But his ghost kept moving, walking straight through the locked door. As the man reacted to that, the Syndicate on the inside suddenly turned solid, while the one standing beside Dabber became insubstantial. That was the boy’s power. He existed in four places at once, four separate bodies. But only one of those bodies could be solid at a time, while the remaining three were basically ghosts. They switched which of them was solid at any point.

The newly solid Syndicate took the man by the door down in short order before unlocking the door to let his other self and Dabber inside.

As soon as they were through, a voice called out from behind one of the desks. “Lieutenant, Touched kid, you’re gonna want to leave. This doesn’t concern you. It’s an internal matter, and the bank won’t be pressing charges.”

Dabber looked that way, catching sight of a man in a dark chauffeur’s uniform and a white facemask. Spades, one of the La Casa Touched. His power made him quicker, faster, and stronger than any normal person. It also gave him a nearly unmatched reaction speed, and the ability to heal quickly.

“Sorry,” Dabber called back. “I’m gonna need you and everyone else in here to stand down. And while we’re at it, why don’t you stick around and answer a few questions about some other problems you’ve been involved with?”

His answer came in the form of a gunshot from the direction of the loan offices, where the Ninety-Niner thugs were holed up. The shot was either fired by someone who had no intention of hitting him, or an intentional warning. Either way, it hit one of the nearby pillars, before a voice from that direction shouted, “You heard him, get the fuck out, pig! This ain’t your business!”

Syndicate’s two nearby selves looked to one another before the one who was solid spoke up loudly. “Okay, guys. If you’re not going to surrender quietly, we’ll just have to now.”

Though the boy seemed to interrupt himself with that single last word while not changing his tone at all, it was clearly a signal. Because a lot started happening all at once. The solid boy grabbed Dabber by the arm and yanked him to the floor, while several more gunshots rang out from both sides.

At the same time, That-A-Way and Wobble appeared by the offices, the former teleporting the two of them right into the middle of the group that had set up there. The men spun to fire, but achieved little. Wobble sent a wave of vibrations through the air that knocked several of them into the ground, while others were simply left dazed and nauseous from the effect. A couple more shot at That-A-Way, but the girl had switched from moving north to moving east, which meant that her power had changed from teleportation to being invulnerable and unstoppable, allowing her to simply run straight at the men without being affected, crashing into them and knocking them to the ground.

One of the other thugs managed to roll over and aim his gun at the girl’s teammate. But he was now to the west of her, which allowed That-A-Way to use her superspeed to reach the man, taking the gun out of his hand before he could fire. He swung at her wildly. Unfortunately for him, his new position made it so that he was to the south of her. Which meant that taking a simple step toward him made the girl intangible so that his fist went through her.

It was weird. Dabber had no idea why someone’s powers would be dependent on the compass direction they were moving. But that was how hers apparently worked. She had superspeed, teleportation, invulnerability, or intangibility based entirely around whether she was moving west, north, east, or south, respectively.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Whamline had smashed a hole through the wall using his own power, which allowed him to create and mentally manipulate energy rope/tentacle things that were incredibly strong and could explode in a burst of kinetic force.

Several of the boy’s floating energy ropes quickly moved to wrap around Spades, trying to catch the quick man, who was having none of it, somehow managing to dart between all of them before one exploded close enough to knock him down.

At the same time, Carousel was focusing on the rest of the men there. A couple tried to shoot at her. But their bullets were caught by her power, which pulled them in to spin in orbit around her. And it was more than just the bullets. The nearby chair and desk, a picture, a few chunks of random debris, and a fire extinguisher were all yanked into orbit around the girl. What’s more, every object that was pulled in by her power immediately shrank down to about the size of a matchbook. Shrank, that was, until the girl sent the object flying away from her. Then, it regained its full size the instant that it left her orbit. Such as the desk that she sent flying into three of the men.

While all that was going on and the teen Touched were dealing with the bad guys from each side, Dabber looked toward the center of the lobby, where a dozen bank employees and customers were huddled. They were all looking up as water fell on them. Water from a cloud that had appeared near the ceiling. Raindrop was up there, her small figure barely visible floating near the now open skylight. As soon as all of the hostages were thoroughly soaked, they suddenly floated up off the floor, some yelping. But there was nothing that either gang  could do about it even if they had noticed, busy as they were with the other Minority members.

The instant that the hostages were being floated up through the open skylight, Dabber hit his radio and sent the order for the rest of the troops to come in. There were no more civilians in the way, so it was time to end this.

*******

“Dude, how cool were we? No, seriously, how fucking cool was all that? We went in there all, ‘bam, we gonna rock you!’ And they were like ‘what’, and we were like, ‘yeah, what do you think of this?’” That-A-Way bounced ahead of the rest of the group of teen Touched as the six of them walked (or skipped in her case) through the alley between the police station downtown and the attached parking garage where the cruisers and other vehicles were kept.

“Jeez, calm down, Amber,” Whamline replied. “How many energy drinks did you guzzle before we got there?”

Nudging the boy firmly in the side, Syndicate reminded him, “We’re in costume and outside. Don’t use real names.” Even as he said the words, the currently solid version of the boy sent a thought to his other three selves in their ghost-forms. Everything okay?

All good, Armadillo, Puma reported from the corner of the police lot. No one followed us.

Rabbit and Colt reported the same. Armadillo, Puma, Rabbit, and Colt. When the four had been trying to decide how to differentiate themselves amongst each other, since they were far more than just duplicates, they had settled on using animal names. Or rather, Armadillo, Puma, and Rabbit had. For the first six months or so of doing this, since he’d become a Touched, there had been only three of him. He’d called himself Trilogy. Then a fourth one had appeared, and Trilogy no longer made sense. He’d thought about Quad, but if a fifth version of himself showed up, he’d have to change again, and it would get old. So he’d gone with Syndicate.

That had been a year and a half earlier, and no other versions of himself had appeared. Two years of this, four months as leader of the team. He was seventeen, about ready to graduate high school. And then he’d have to see what adult teams were interested in recruiting him.

Meanwhile, That-A-Way/Amber was spinning in a circle while replying to Whamline breezily, “I’m just happy. I can be happy, right? Because we got all those hostages out, and caught all those bad guys. With help from the cops, o’course.” In mid-spin, the girl gave a bow toward the police station. She even tipped an imaginary hat before spinning back to the others. “Oh! And there were cameras there. So we’re probably going to be on the news. I hope they got my good side.” She held up for the second before clapping her hands once and laughing out loud. “Isn’t this awesome!?”

“You’ve gotta admit,” Carousel put in, “her cheering’s infectious. Given time, they’ll even respect us.”

“Barely counted as a rhyme,” Wobble informed her. “I give it a four out of ten.”

Whamline’s head shook. “No way, man. You’ve got to factor in difficulty, and she just rhymed something with infectious. That’s gotta bump it up to at least six or seven.”

By that point, the group had reached a blue metal door at the far end of the alley. It looked utterly unremarkable, save for the fact that there was no handle on it, and only a single stenciled word reading utility. Pausing with his hand halfway to the door, Syndicate looked back at the others with a soft sigh. “You guys know we’re trying to get her to stop rhyming all the time, right? You scoring her work doesn’t really help with that.”

“I don’t mind the score,” Carousel replied, “but you should open the door. I could verbally soar, yet it becomes a chore and I find I can never ignore a call for encore, so please I’ve got rhymes here galore but I must ever implore, if we go to war, let’s keep our rapport as we stand in the gore to show them what for, til peace we restore.”

A solid four or five seconds of silence followed that, before Wobble looked at Syndicate. “Just open the damn door before she starts in again.”

Pressing his hand it to the seemingly blank brick wall beside the door, Syndicate activated the button there that made a hidden pinhole camera scan his eyes. A moment later, there was a click, and the door slid open. He gestured. “After you guys.”

They stepped through the door, into a small, featureless room that was just large enough to hold them and maybe a few more people (including the three ghost-like Syndicates who had followed the others in). The door closed, and the group waited together. As they stood there, That-A-Way reached up to her domino mask, unlatching the secure hook in the back before pulling the thing off. Instantly, her supposedly blonde hair turned to its real shade of black, and there was a very faint, subtle shifting of her cheekbones and nose. Just enough to make her look sufficiently different with her eyes uncovered. The mask was the work of a Star-Touched from Texas named Facade, whose invention-based powers focused around disguises and illusions. He sold his work to Touched throughout the country to help them maintain their secrets.

Without the mask, That-A-Way’s real name was Amber O’Connell.

Whamline took off his own ski mask before tucking it into his black-and-brown camo suit, revealing a freckle-faced boy with curly, dark red hair. Next to him, the enormous Wobble cracked open his emerald helmet, pulling it off to expose a clearly Samoan ethnicity, his skin darkly tanned and handsome. Just past the six and a half foot mark despite being only sixteen years old, the boy was often mistaken for an adult.

As civilians, Whamline and Wobble were Jerry Meuster and Laki Sefo, respectively.

All four Syndicates reached up to unlatch their helmets and pull it off, though only the solid one really needed to. Beyond the animal names that the four versions of himself referred to each other as, their shared real name was Damarko Myers. Each thought of themselves as the ‘real’ Damarko, and they took turns living the normal part of his life while the others either ‘slept’ (during which time they would fade entirely away until they woke up) or wandered around doing what they could as a ghost. They could appear in that blue-gray ghost form, or become almost entirely invisible aside from a distortion in the air when they moved. They were also able to communicate mentally with one another, and whoever was solid could summon any or all of the other three to themselves.

Holding his helmet under one arm, the black boy rubbed a hand over his cheek while looking over to Raindrop.

She had pulled down her own hood, and was taking off the mirrored mask. Beneath it was Isabel/Izzy Amor, a small Hispanic girl with wide eyes and a trembling lip, who always looked as though everyone around her was one mistake away from kicking her down a flight of stairs. She was jumpy and constantly apologizing for the smallest thing. But she also tried hard, and was wickedly powerful. Her issue was self-esteem.

Then there was the last member of their group. Carousel stood still for a moment before reaching up, tugging her hood down, then pulled off the jester mask. Doing so revealed the reason her own identity was so thoroughly covered. She was, for one thing, albino. Which would have stood out anyway, with her very pale skin, pink eyes, and almost white hair. But she was also Asian. An Asian albino in Detroit. Covering her entire face, head, and hair was important if she was going to maintain anything resembling a secret identity. Her jester mask even contained dark lenses.

Her real name was Jae Baek, and the moment her mask was off, the girl’s entire posture and demeanor changed. She seemed to shrink in on herself, holding the mask against her chest while looking at the floor. As Carousel, she was loud, outgoing, and constantly rhymed everything thanks to an incredible vocabulary. As Jae, she was quiet, shy, barely spoke (and didn’t do so in rhymes), and rarely initiated eye contact.

It was… probably a bit worrying just how different she acted as Jae and as Carousel, like they were two entirely separate people. She even tended to talk about each side of herself as if she were a different person.

By the time all of them had taken their masks and helmets off, there was a soft ding. The door they had just come through a moment earlier opened. This time, however, it revealed a much larger room rather than the alley they had just come through. Their base, clubhouse, training quarters, whatever else it could be called. The room they had entered was one of about a dozen spread over the city. A dozen they knew about, anyway. They were designed and built by one of the Ten Towers Touched, another technology-based superhero called Switchshift, whose gifts revolved around creations that could transform, change position, or in the case of these rooms, switch places. It allowed people to enter a room in one location and instantly appear somewhere else as the room changed places with its counterpart elsewhere.

A man was standing there, waiting just inside the lobby of their base as the group filed out. Silversmith, the leader of the Detroit branch of Conservators. His face, as always, was hidden behind his helmet. As far as any of the teens were aware, no one knew who Silversmith really was. He kept his identity secret even from his own team. Not that he was the only one. There were other Star-Touched who did the same, though none on this Minority team.

“Heard you did well at the bank,” Silversmith announced, his tone proud and impressed. “Good job. Come on, I’m sure you’re hungry, so I had pizza sent over. You can eat, and tell me everything from your point of view.”

“Are you going to eat, sir?” Amber asked, a not-very-subtle attempt to see something of the man’s face, even if it was only enough to tell his ethnicity. It would still be more than was publicly known.

For a moment, Silversmith didn’t say anything. His head cocked a little, giving the impression despite the featureless helmet that he was smiling at them. “Maybe another time,” he finally replied, his tone lightly amused. “For now, I’ll let you guys have the pizza to yourselves.

“Because if I spoil my appetite, my wife will kill me.”

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