Richard Mornes

Equal And Opposite 21-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Two quick things! First, there was a non-canon for this story posted yesterday for EVERYONE to read, focused on Joyride vs the Minority, right here. And second, if you only read this story rather than Heretical Edge, there is an important note in my comment at the end of this chapter concerning updates to Patreon bonuses and goals. If you do support these stories or have any interest whatsoever in doing so to help ensure they are as good as they can possibly be (and help get every reader even more of those stories), it would be fantastic if you could read that comment after you finish the chapter. If you do read Heretical Edge and have already seen that comment/update, there’s nothing new there.

So, that Andy guy and I stepped away to a small hallway just outside the main room. It led to some offices or something, and while we could still hear people going nuts through the closed door, it was at least quiet enough that we could talk without shouting to make ourselves heard. For a few minutes, I talked to him about having a Tech-Touched friend who was looking to get into selling stuff and how we wanted to make sure she wasn’t giving away her location that easily. He made it clear that he had a pipeline of people who could move the stuff and sell it if it was any good, including himself. So, I told him I’d talk to Trevithick and set up a meeting if she wanted to, or just continue to be the go-between if she didn’t. He seemed pretty stoked about either option, to be honest. Especially when I asked for his phone number and an address where I could maybe find him later. He fumbled a bit, but eventually gave me a card with a business office listed on it, quickly letting me know that he shared it with a couple other people but all I had to do was ask for him and someone would track him down. Or call the number on the back, day or night. He stressed that part, making it clear I could call him any time I wanted. 

After promising that I would be in touch, and that he should be ready to move product as soon as Trevithick had something done, I made my way back out onto the main floor while stowing the card he had given me. Alloy was waiting by the door, apparently preferring to let me handle that part while she simply watched more of the convention. Which was fair, given how much there was to see. 

When I emerged, she glanced my way and tilted her head curiously. “So how’d it go, Mr. Businessman? Are we gonna be rich and powerful?” 

“Well, you’ve got the powerful part down already,” I pointed out. “As for rich, let’s hope for successful to start out. Gotta build contacts, make it clear we can deliver what we promise, that sort of thing. Being Touched will help somewhat, but if you screw up early on or overhype it, people’ll just end up turning on you as fast as they turned to you. Better if we build a solid ground network and improve it from there. This guy’s got his own contacts, if we can get some stuff into his hands and let him sell it, we’ll have a better chance at laying a foundation that–what?” I blinked that way, realizing she had been staring at me intently for most of that. 

Quickly, Alloy shook her head. “Uh, nothing. I mean, you’re just really into this stuff. You know a lot about it for a–you know, middle schooler. No offense. Err, I guess that would be more offensive to everyone else. You just–never mind.” 

Blushing a little bit despite myself, and glad that I had the helmet to cover it, I shrugged helplessly. “It’s really not a big deal. I just read a few paragraphs out of a book in the library. You know, after we talked about doing something like this with Trev the other day.” What else was I supposed to say, that I had heard my father talking about business stuff and what sort of problems startups ran into since I was a little kid sitting on his knee? And then I’d just follow up by telling her exactly who my father was. That would sure go over well. 

Okay, I thought that sarcastically in my head, but really, I did need to tell her the truth at some point. Just not right at the moment. There was way too much to deal with as it was. I wasn’t ready to get into that whole thing, even if it would help the whole feeling of awkwardness around her thinking I was a kid. 

Yes, yes, there were several good reasons to tell her everything. Another large one being that she deserved to know if we were going to work together. Soon, I told myself. It would have to be soon. Even if I couldn’t make myself get into it right now, it would come up eventually. It had to. And better that it be on my own terms. Just… yeah. 

Shaking all that off, I gestured for her to come with me. “Where’d the other three go?” 

Stepping up beside me, she raised a hand to point. “That Fragile girl– boy that’s a weird way to phrase it–she wanted to check out something called a dimensional-phase room. Which, for the record, sounds completely amazing, and we are so going over there. You’re lucky I lost the paper rock scissors game for who had to stay and wait for you.” 

I pointedly adopted an exaggerated huffy voice. “And here I thought you were just being a loyal partner.” 

“Partner shmartner,” she shot back, “did you hear what I said about dimensional-phase room? Sorry, but if it comes down to a choice between you and one of those, you’re gonna lose.” She seemed to consider those words briefly before amending, “I mean, unless it’s a villainous dimensional-phase room. Then… well, how villainous are we talking, on a scale from say, rob an ATM to murdering innocent children… a four and under, you’d probably lose out too.” 

Before I could even start to try to respond to that, someone dressed like Boulderdash began to approach us. It was a pretty good costume too, with clear effort put into small foam rocks over most of the body, and a big shell over the back that was probably fiberglass or something. For the head, they had a black and gray ski mask to match the rest of the body, with painted goggles to mimic his large eyes. They were a little bit short for the real thing, but still. 

The Boulderdash person slipped through the crowd, walking up before stopping right there in front of us. Their voice was muffled. “Here to see all your adoring fans, huh?” 

Confused, I exchanged a glance with Alloy before turning back that way. “Uhh, do we–” 

Before I could say anything else, ‘Boulderdash’ reached up to the shell on their back, opening a little slot on it so I could see a familiar face peering out at me. A familiar lizard face. It was Mars Bar. I swore he smiled as soon as he saw me, giving me an iguana grin. 

“Wha–” Giving a quick double-take at that, I snapped my attention back to the figure herself while demanding, “What the hell are you doing?” 

In a voice that was still muffled yet suddenly recognizable, Pack teased, “Well, I had to wear a costume that allowed me to get my little buddies in. You really think I’m going to come here and not let them see all this cool stuff? They’d never forgive me.” 

Giving the girl a look, I retorted, “Believe it or not, it’s not the lizards’ presence here I’m concerned about. I mean, okay it is, but they’re only here because you are so why are you–what’s–are you guys–” 

“He’s freaking out, isn’t he?” That particular question came from Lucent. Or rather, a giant version of him, a person in a raven costume, who stepped over to join us. “I told you he’d freak out.” 

“If you’re one of her lizards that she’s somehow given full speech capability to, I swear to God,” I managed, shooting a look back and forth between them before the voice struck me. “Wait, Broadway?!” I hissed that name, of course, not that it was strictly necessary. It wasn’t like anyone was eavesdropping. Actually, I was pretty sure I could have screamed, ‘Two real life members of La Casa are right here’ and no one would’ve heard me or paid attention. Not with how nuts and loud everything was around us. 

“Aww, he recognized me!” Broadway was clearly beaming under her costume, shooting a look toward her criminal teammate. “Wait, did he get me faster than he got you? Does that mean he likes me more?” 

“Dude.” It was Alloy’s turn to hiss at me. “How many members of La Casa are you friends with?” 

Once again, I was glad that my costume choices left my flushed face undetectable. Yes, that was clearly the biggest benefit, rather than stopping anyone from knowing who I was in the first place. With that filling my mind, I coughed. “We’re not exactly–I mean– that is…” Okay, I gave up on that, turning to face the other two. “Wait, are we about to have a problem?” I said that while trying very hard not to pointedly look at the several cameras around the room. I had no doubt that there was some advanced security in here including audio. Not that they would necessarily just happen to be paying attention to us, but still. 

Pack, however, shook her head as she interpreted my meaning. “Don’t worry, we’ve got it under control. Some of their surveillance equipment is just having a little bit of a hiccup now and then. Nothing too dramatic, just enough to make sure they can’t hear us. Or a few other places, just so it’s harder to narrow down where it’s coming from.” 

“Their surveillance is having issues and they’re not like, evacuating the building?” Alloy questioned. She too seemed to barely resist the urge to literally look at the cameras. 

“Like she said,” Broadway put in, “it’s just audio. And maybe a bit with not allowing them to zoom in, blurring a few cameras here and there, that sort of thing. They’re not gonna evacuate the building for that. Especially when they can stand right there and see that nothing’s going wrong. Besides, with all the amateur Touched-Tech all over the place in here, they’ve gotta expect it.” 

“On that note,” I questioned, “What’re you guys doing here?” 

“He keeps asking me that,” Pack informed Broadway in a clearly put-on confused tone. “It’s like he thinks we’re not supposed to want to go to places and have fun or something.” 

“Okay, I think my question is, are you here to have fun or here to have fun?” I managed with a somewhat weak voice. “I mean, you did just point out that there’s lots of… toys around here.”  

“Pshh, now he thinks we’re here to rob the place.” Pack was clearly rolling her eyes. “Honestly, if we were, we wouldn’t announce ourselves to a couple Boy Scouts. I mean–” She looked toward Alloy and gestured. “Not Boy–you know what I mean.” 

“They let girls in now anyway,” Alloy informed her with a shrug. “And what are you doing here if you’re not being nefarious? Which, for the record, is a very fun word.” 

“Having fun, without the nefarious part,” Broadway replied a bit primly. “And yeah, totally a fun word. But seriously, dude, look around. We’re not like, supervillains twenty-four/seven/fifty-two. We have time off.” With that, she gestured around us. “This place is sweet. We came in to have fun. Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun.”

“Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun that requires you to use security jamming tech?” I pointed out. 

Broadway, in turn, giggled. “We’re not using it all the time. We just have it in case things go wrong and we need to skedaddle, you know? And in this case, to come over and say hi without being eavesdropped on. And without you guys getting in trouble for not immediately starting in on the whole ‘halt evil-doers’ business. So slow your roll. Or, you know, whatever the right term would be.” That last part came in a distracted tone as her head (still covered in the raven mask) turned to follow a large man dressed up as The Hyperborean, a seven-foot-tall muscular guy made of ice who wore bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sunglasses. This guy didn’t quite match the real Hyperborean in height or muscle, but it was pretty close. And the costume he wore over himself resembled ice pretty well. 

“See, now she’s distracted.” Shaking her head, Pack nudged her partner. “Like she said, we’re here to have fun, not cause trouble. Scout’s honor. And as your partner there said, we can actually join them now, so it’s all kosher. I mean, I’m not Jewish either, but you get the point.”

Before I could find my voice to respond to that, That-A-Way approached with Raindrop and Fragile, the three of them holding several light green balls. The (currently) blonde girl was already speaking. “Okay, so they let us take a couple extra–uh?” She had just noticed the other two. 

Clearing my throat, I nudged Peyton and slipped a twenty dollar bill in her hand. “Hey, there’s souvenir hats over there, why don’t you take our new friend to get one?” 

“Super-subtle, I don’t suspect anything weird at all,” Fragile announced, giving me a thumbs-up before pivoting on her heel to walk that way with Alloy. 

“Aww, man, that’s a great costume,” Pack abruptly announced, giving Way a pointed look. “You look just like the real Way, only even more attractive and smart.” 

“Uhh,” Way managed to repeat her previous noise. 

Broadway, in that raven costume, was looking after the departing Fragile as she noted, “Hey if she’s hanging out with you, she must be that new chick, right? That was a nice entrance she had up there. Should’ve seen the look on those rich fucks’ faces. It was a hoot.” 

“Uhhhhhhhh!” Way’s gaze snapped to me, her eyes wide. 

“God damn it,” I muttered before waving my hands back and forth. My voice was as low as it could be while still being audible to them. “It’s Pack and Broadway.” 

Even as I finished saying that, Pack was opening up the little slot in her costume shell. That time, it was Tuesday the Gecko who was looking out at us, joined quickly by Scatters the Neon Day Gecko. Both of them seemed to brighten when they saw Way, who had turned that wide-eyed stare at them. 

“You–what–how–why–” Her brain was clearly stuck, as she couldn’t put a full sentence together and had resorted to simply pointing. 

“They’re not here to cause trouble,” I finally put in while shaking my head. “I mean, obviously they’re here to cause us some mental trouble, and having a lot of fun with it, but other than that…” 

Looking back and forth between them as she processed all of that, Amber opened and shut her mouth a couple times before focusing on Pack. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” She hissed those words while her eyes darted toward Broadway a couple times. 

The other girl agreed, and they stepped out of the way. Which left me standing there with Raindrop on one side and Broadway on the other. Which was just the most comfortable and excellent position to be in. But at least–nope, I wasn’t even going to think about hypothetical ways it could get more uncomfortable. That just seemed like a recipe for disaster. 

While all those thoughts were running through my head, Broadway gave Raindrop a thumbs up. “Hey, while we’ve got the chance, great job the other day with that whole dropping the tarp from that hardware store on us? I swear, you almost got me.” 

“Um, are you… complimenting me for almost arresting you?” Izzy sounded understandably confused. 

“I mean, sure?” Broadway shrugged as much as the bird costume allowed her to. “We do illegal stuff, you try to stop us. If you manage it, good for you. It’s not personal, dude. And like I said, it was a cool move. I’ll be ready for it next time, but you uhh, you keep me on my toes. It’s cool.”

Izzy clearly had no idea how to respond to that, but eventually settled on a weak, “Um, thanks.” Then she thought about it for another moment before adding, “I uh, I don’t suppose you’d like to give me some advice?” 

“To catch me, my friends, or bad guys I don’t care about?” Broadway shot back with clear amusement. “Because something tells me the last one would still lead to the first two. Unless you want to hand over a written statement that you’ll never try to catch me again. And, quite frankly, I like the whole cat and mouse thing, so not even then. But, I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t know what happened to you recently, but you’re a hell of a lot cooler than you used to be. I mean, you’re more confident, you look like you stick up for yourself more, you’re even answering questions on the news sometimes. You used to be this quiet little wallflower who always looked like you were afraid the person who was asking you questions was gonna hit you with the microphone. I mean, I don’t ahh, I’m not trying to be insulting or whatever. I don’t mean it in a bad way. I mean, I do, but only in the sense that you’re not like that–and it’s fine to be like that if you’re not comfortable with–fuck.” 

For a brief handful of seconds, she was quiet, as though considering her words. Then she gave a short, decisive nod. “What I mean is, whatever changed in your life recently to make you more confident, it’s a good thing. You’re a lot more fun this way, and a lot harder to get away from. So whoever or whatever was making you all meek and stuff before, I’m glad you’re in a better situation now.” She paused, clearly ran those words over in her head, and then nodded once more. “That’s it.” 

I almost said something, but decided it was a bad idea. Not only because I wasn’t supposed to have that close of a relationship with Raindrop, but also because she could speak for herself just fine. Which, come to think of it, was Broadway’s entire point. 

So, I stayed quiet. Izzy, however, straightened up a bit. “Thanks, I um, I guess. But just so you know, I’m still going to try to catch you, even if you are nice to me.”  

“If I thought anything less, I wouldn’t have said anything,” the other girl informed her casually. “And who knows, you keep pulling out tricks like that tarp and you might just do it.” She didn’t sound worried about the possibility, yet it wasn’t as though she was dismissing it entirely or being insulting. She simply wasn’t worried about what would happen if she was caught. 

By that point, Pack and Way had finished their conversation and came back. Amber cleared her throat. “Let’s just say, you guys… don’t start anything and we’ll all just pretend we don’t know anything about each other.” She gave a quick glance toward the girl in her Boulderdash costume before adding, “Please don’t make me regret trusting you when you say you’re not here to do anything bad.”

“Promise,” Pack solemnly replied. “We are absolutely here for casual fun and nothing else. Legal casual fun,” she added quickly after giving that a second of thought. “You know what they say. Be gay, do crime. And you’re already halfway there.” With what was very clearly a wink that was hidden behind her costume, she took Broadway by the hand and they started off. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and Fragile approached once more. The latter had a quite snazzy-looking red top hat, which she was practicing flipping around in her hands, along her arms, and up to her head. She was surprisingly good at it. Once they arrived, she looked to me and brightly announced, “If you have any more friends around here that you don’t want me to hear you talk to, they’re selling these really cool belts at the booth next to the hat one.” 

Flushing a little, I mumbled something about keeping that in mind, before thanking her for playing along. Then I added, “What’s with those things you guys came back with, anyway?” My hands gestured to the light green balls she, Amber, and Izzy still had. 

“They’re for the phase room,” Amber explained. “They’ve got a lot of people waiting to go in, so they do it by colored balls. When these light up, it’s our turn. We got a couple for you guys too.” She passed them over toward Peyton and me. “Seriously, we’ve gotta try it. It’s all set up like a normal living room and kitchen, but they can phase you while you’re in there. You know, make you intangible. So you can walk around and wave your hands through stuff.” 

For a brief second, I just stared at her. “Dude, you can already do that by yourself. Why do you need to wait around and go in a special room for it?” 

“Pfft, I can do that while going one direction,” she retorted. “I always wondered what it’d be like to be able to use my power anywhere I wanted. Believe me, if they had a ‘teleport room’ or a ‘be super fast’ room, I’d try those too.” 

By that point, it was time to go over to where those guys were taking the photograph of all the people dressed up like Alloy and me. I felt a little weird about actually being in the picture, but then, it was also pretty fun to think that nobody there knew. 

It also turned out the guy who thought he could get the real us to sign the photo once it was blown up to giant-size was Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who was in charge of coordinating with law enforcement, recruiting people from the Minority, that sort of thing. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me while we were doing the picture, but as soon as one of the other Paintballs asked if he was sure he could get me to sign it, the man glanced my way. His eyebrow rose before he replied, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’ll be interested.” 

Shortly after we were done with that, the balls lit up. As soon as she saw that, Fragile seemed to light up herself. “Oooh, come on, come on, let’s go check out the phasing room!” 

Before we could head that way, however, my attention was drawn to one side, as none other than Silversmith approached. Okay, to be fair, there had been like fourteen Silversmiths, all varying levels of believable. But something told me this was the real thing. This was really my dad. 

“Ahem, sorry for interrupting,” he spoke while I did my best not to react to his presence. “I’ll let you guys get right back to enjoying the rest of the convention down here in just a second.” 

“Uh, so, there’s nothing wrong?” Amber asked, obviously worried about the whole Pack and Broadway situation. 

“Nope,” my father confirmed. “Nothing at all. Actually, you guys can go ahead.” His attention turned from her, sliding over the others and settling on me. 

“Paintball, you mind having a little chat for a minute?” 

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Trust 15-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Skipping out on dinner sounds dangerous.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trust 15-09 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew that voice.

I knew it incredibly well. 

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

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

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

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Friends and Enemies 8-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Almost the same moment that I set foot on the Ten Towers property, the sound of approaching footsteps drew my attention ahead and to the right. A man was approaching me with a purposeful, though not intimidating, stride. He looked like someone threw the idea of casual and formal-wear into the blender and put on what came out. Basically, that amounted to wearing white suit pants and a matching open suit jacket over a Hawaiian shirt (black with red and pink flowers), with comfortable tennis shoes and a pair of Aviator sunglasses tinted dark pink. 

Stopping as he approached, I looked from the man’s loud shirt up to his matching shaded sunglasses, cocking my head a bit. “So you would be the official team fashion consultant then?” 

He laughed, extending a hand. “Sadly, our organization doesn’t seem to share my taste. More’s the pity.” As I accepted his hand, he shook it while adding, “Richard Mornes. As I understand, you call yourself Paintball, yes?” He released my hand after a moment. “Here for the papers.” 

I nodded quickly. “Uh, yeah, Caishen said I could get some of those detention application things and maybe some advice about how to fill them out properly? I’m, um, still really new to all this.” 

With an easy smile, Richard turned to gesture back the way he’d come. “Of course. She’s asked me to give you all the help you need. I’m also supposed to tell you that we’re all more glad than we can say that the Blackjack situation has been resolved relatively peacefully without undue damage to property or person. Which is corporate-speak for ‘thanks for saving the day before our profits were heavily affected.’ We probably should’ve gotten you a cake or something.” 

Shrugging, I headed the way he had indicated, toward the eastern tower. “I definitely would’ve eaten cake. But I think I can live without, as long as this whole Ashton thing doesn’t blow up.” 

Walking alongside me, the man shook his head. “Shouldn’t be a problem. We know how this whole thing works, and the judges in this city are usually fairly lenient on the whole ‘locking up bad guys before they can do more bad things’ situation. In your case, keeping that guy off the streets did a hell of a lot more good than harm, given how many Fell-Gangs were looking for him. Long as you didn’t rough him up too bad or starve him or anything, I don’t see a problem.”

“That’s what Caishen said,” I murmured. By that point, we were passing the small open-air market area. They were selling tee-shirts, hats, and other Ten Towers-branded merchandise, and I saw a few probable tourists look up as we approached. Before I could say anything, a couple of them ran right over in a rush, asking to take pictures and whether I was about to sign up with the team. Taken aback, all I could do for that moment was stand and gape while dozens of questions were hurled rapidfire at me, along with a few shirts that were thrust up with requests for autographs. Autographs? For what? I hadn’t even been doing this whole Star-Touched thing for an entire month yet, so how did these people even know about me?  

“Uhhh…” Taken aback as I was, it took me a second to collect myself. Finally, just as Richard looked like he was going to say something on my behalf, I managed to blurt, “Whoa, hey, sorry. There you guys are. Guess I just went blind for a second cuz of my friend’s shirt over there.” With a thumb, I gestured toward Richard and his loud apparel, who playfully scoffed at that while the group (several more had approached to join the first few in that time) snickered.  

“Anyway,” I went on before my brain could finish telling me how nervous I was supposed to be, “sorry to disappoint, but Ten Towers has definitely not lowered their incredible standards enough for me to weasel my way in. Not yet, anyway. But maybe while I’m here, I can pick up some juicy secrets so they’ll make an exception and let me pal around with them at some point.” 

Hoping that was diplomatic enough and didn’t make it look like I was dissing the team by not joining up with them, I added, “But hey, you guys still want autographs from Independent Kid?” As one person nodded and started to eagerly extend up a shirt with a pen, I waved it off. “Nah dude, let’s see just the shirt.” He shrugged, keeping the pen as I took the shirt. 

Avoiding the Ten Towers logo (a ten-pointed star with the city skyline inside), I found an empty part of the shirt and pressed my hand against it. All it took was a moment of focus. Then I held the thing up for him. I’d put a black oval over a blank part of the shirt, written ‘Paintball’ in white cursive letters like a signature, then added spots of every other color (orange, blue, green, purple, yellow, and pink) in a rainbow-like spray from one side to the other. 

Seeing what I’d done, the man suddenly grinned, holding the shirt up for everyone to see. Which just made them start thrusting out more things for me to ‘sign’. I took everything they handed over, adding that little logo wherever I could fit it while the crowd just seemed to grow. It took about ten minutes of just standing there talking to people and adding my little Paintball image thing to whatever they wanted (taking occasional breaks to just chat to avoid running out of paint). I tried to answer as many questions as I could without sounding totally dismissive but also without giving away secrets (several people flat out asked how old I was or even what my real name was, which seemed weird, but I was pretty sure they weren’t actually serious). 

Finally, Richard stepped in and let them know that we had an important meeting soon and that he didn’t want to keep me for any longer than they had to. I ‘signed’ the last few things that people were holding out, then followed the man while giving one last wave to the group. 

While walking away with my escort toward the building once more, I quietly remarked under my breath, “Boy, am I gonna feel pretty stupid if that paint does eventually disappear after all.” 

Richard turned my way, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t actually know if it fades on its own?” 

“It disappears once I activate it,” I replied thoughtfully. “But I’ve never seen it disappear otherwise. I mean, I painted my costume all white to have a base to work from and that didn’t really disappear. But maybe if it’s far enough away from me for too long? Or… I dunno. Guess we’ll find out if a bunch of people start complaining about disappearing autographs, huh?” 

“Well, yes, I guess we will,” he agreed, casting a thoughtful glance back that way. 

“So, just out of curiosity,” I put in casually while he was still looking that way, “was that whole thing back there staged to make me feel good? You know, a way to boost me up while I’m here.” 

He laughed lightly, head shaking. “Not a bad idea if we wanted to recruit someone, I’ve gotta admit. But no, hand to the heavens, that wasn’t a set-up or anything. Guess there’s some videos floating around out there from last night of you and Cuélebre. Couple people edited in footage of your first run through the city with him awhile back, threw in music, and they went viral. You should check it out next chance you get, there’s one that’s pretty damn funny with Yakety Sax. Totally worth it, especially when you literally yoink that thing out of his hand.”

“Videos of–” Cutting myself off, I swallowed. “Oh. I um, he’s not gonna be happy about that.” 

“Hey, you caught onto that pretty quick,” Richard congratulated me with a nod. “Yeah, well, I was gonna tell you to be careful out there if you didn’t get that already. But seriously, you know that whack-a-mole game? Right now, you are the biggest mole sticking your head out and Cuélebre has the hammer. Just watch it, okay? If he wants to make his name back, he’ll come after you.” 

“Thanks for the advice,” I murmured, trying not to think about having to deal with a pissed off Cuélebre hunting me down. As if I didn’t already have enough problems with my family thing. 

We made it into the office building, and Richard led me straight past the receptionist/security desk, through the metal detectors (they went off when we went through, but he just waved off the guard there), and to one of the elevators. There, we rode all the way up to the third floor from the top. Apparently the second-from-the-top floor of each building was reserved for Touched team member stuff, and the top floor was where the CEO’s and such stayed and worked when they were around. 

Leading me through a quiet, well-decorated hallway while greeting a few people, my escort eventually stopped in front of a door that read ‘Richard Mornes, Vice President – Outreach.’ Beneath that was the Ten Towers logo with the ten-pointed star surrounding the Detroit skyline. From what I knew, Ten Towers chapters in other places used the skyline of that particular city in their logo. 

“Outreach?” I asked while squinting at the name on the door, a bit curious about that title. 

“Yup,” he confirmed. “It means that some of my jobs are to coordinate things like our work with local law enforcement, sending Touched to schools to give talks, looking into the Minority program to see who we might want to recruit, keeping the team popular, that kind of thing.” 

“And to help a local doofus Touched write up a report to a judge about why she shouldn’t–” Shit, I said she. Abort ‘she shouldn’t be arrested’, change it, change it! The judge can be a she! “–have him arrested?” The correction came so quickly that I didn’t even have to cough to cover it. 

“Pretty much.” With that, Richard opened the door, gesturing for me to go on in. It actually led to his secretary’s office, with his actual office beyond that. There was no one at the outer desk, and as we passed it, he informed me that she was on vacation. 

In any case, we went into his (quite large) office, and the man picked up a stack of papers. “Alright, let’s go over this. But first, I’ve really gotta ask… were you serious out there when you said your paint lasts forever as long as you don’t… whatever, trigger the powers on it?” 

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Nodding easily, I replied, “Actually, I’ve experimented and it can be scrubbed off with paint remover and that sort of thing. Or soap, water, and a lot of elbow grease, really.”

“So it’s basically instant paint that could disappear instantly if you wanted it to, or be scrubbed off and removed without you?” Richard asked. When I nodded, he looked at the stack of papers in his hand, muttering, “Excuse me for this.” Then he used the papers to swat my helmet.  

“Ow,” I blurted reflexively. “I mean, not really ow, because those are just paper and this is a pretty good helmet right here. But still, it’s the thought that counts. What was that for?” 

“What the hell are you doing the superhero thing for, man?” Richard demanded, though it was clear from his tone that he was only being half-serious. “Do you have any idea what people would pay you to put up billboards for them? Or just to paint houses. You could start an entire paint empire. Do you know what it costs to paint a house? The cost of painting the outside of the average two-story house is seven to eight thousand dollars. About three to four thousand for a one-story house. Now work in the fact that you don’t have to pay employees or buy actual paint, let alone equipment. Factor in how many houses you could paint in a day like that and you could be a millionaire before you’re eighteen. Why in the world are you slumming it as a superhero?” 

Blinking a couple times at that, I offered him a shrug and a probably lame, “I… have my reasons. But thanks, I’ll keep the paint thing in mind if I need a summer job or something.” 

With that, he sat me down at his desk and talked me through filling out the forms. He let me know which boxes to check, how to phrase things, what sort of words I shouldn’t use, and more. It was incredibly helpful, and I thanked him several times throughout. As we were leaving his office about twenty minutes later (I had the filled-out form as well as a stack of extras for later under my arm), I made sure to thank him again. “Seriously, I know you guys are doing this because of the whole ‘maybe recruit him later if we decide we want to’ thing, but thanks.” 

I was pretty sure Richard said something else to that as I opened the outer office door, but I was too distracted by the little kid riding the giant bug past the doorway. Yeah, seriously. 

It wasn’t just any little kid, of course. I knew that instantly. The girl looked like she was about four or five years old, and she was one of the obvious Touched, with dark red skin, white hair, and insect-like wings. Her eyes were bright blue and compound, like a fly. They were also about twice as large as regular eyes, taking up more of her face.

Meanwhile, the bug she was riding on was some kind of bright, almost neon green hardshell beetle. Except I didn’t know about many beetles that were the size of a small pony. Yeah, the hallway was big enough to drive a small car through, but the giant beetle was still pretty noticeable. The sight of them stopped me in my tracks. 

I’d seen the girl in the news, of course. They called her Lightning Bug. Caishen was her mother, and she did her best to keep her daughter from being a spectacle, but the fact that a little girl had become Touched (and a very obvious Touched at that) at such a young age, made that pretty hard. I wasn’t sure how long she’d been Touched, but it was over a year ago that she’d been in the news. So… really young. From what parts of the interview with her mother that I remembered, Lightning Bug (I couldn’t remember her real name, if they’d even given one) basically shot electricity from her fingers that healed people she liked, hurt people she didn’t like, and made bugs grow into giant size forms like the one she was now riding.  

As soon as she saw me, the girl made a cute, panicked little squeaking sound, falling sideways off the bug before hiding behind it. She peeked a bit, just the tips of her large compound eyes appearing over the bug’s shell.

“Oh, hey there, LB,” Richard casually remarked while standing just behind me. “It’s okay, this is Paintball.” 

A tiny, nervous voice hesitantly spoke from behind the safety of the beetle. “Hi, Miss Ball. Are… you helping Uncle Rick?” 

With a chuckle, Richard shook his head. “Actually, he’s here to get some help with his own situation. But hopefully he’ll be willing to help us later, right?” 

I nodded, watching the kid’s eyes take me in. “Sure, I don’t see why not.” I did see several conflicts of interest that might pop up, but I was hardly going to get into it right then. I’d take it as it came. 

“Sorry, Mr. Ball,” the tiny voice came again. There was a pause before she slowly stood up and moved out from behind the beetle. She shifted from foot to foot, looking uncomfortable, as if she was afraid I was going to tease her for looking the way she did. 

Instead, I looked over to the beetle. “That’s a really pretty bug. I like the green. What’s his name?” 

The answer came hesitantly. “Snugglebug.” 

“Well, hey there, Snugglebug.” Smiling, though it wouldn’t show behind the mask and helmet, I asked, “Do you mind if I give him a little color?” Again, there was a little pause before she nodded with obvious hesitation and nervousness, moving to put both hands on the beetle protectively. 

With exaggerated care and gentleness, I put my hand on the bug, moving it around a bit to leave several purple, orange, and white stars around the sides of the shell. Then I made a large yellow crescent moon before using my red, blue, white, and black paint to make a pretty good depiction of Lightning Bug herself perched on the moon, fishing out in the stars. 

Seeing it, the girl’s eyes lit up, and she blurted, “Snuggle, you’re pretty!” Looking over to me, she solemnly added, “Thank you, Mr. Ball. Can Simminin be pretty too?” 

“Oh, sure,” I agreed. “But who–” While speaking, I turned a little, only to come face-to-face with another giant bug that made me yelp and almost fall over. 

It was a praying mantis that was even bigger than Snugglebug. Seriously, this thing was freaking gigantic. It was even taller than I was, standing there with its enormous bladed arms held up defensively in front of itself. 

“Her name’s supposed to be Cinnamon,” Richard explained. “As in Cinnamon Toast Crunch. That’s her full name. Pretty sure the kid was hungry when she named her.” 

“That’s her name,” Lightning Bug herself insisted. “Simminin. And… and…” She could barely make herself look at me, half-hiding behind both her beetle and one of the outstretched claws of the praying mantis. “And she wants tah be pretty.” 

Forcing back my own nervousness, I looked up at the gigantic insect. “Well then, Miss Simminin, let’s see what we can do about making you the prettiest mantis in the world.” 

******

Eventually, it was time to head home. I’d made the bugs pretty enough for the kid, making it clear that the images would wash off but promising that I’d make more another time. 

Now, it was getting fairly close to time for dinner, and I definitely couldn’t miss that. Not if I wanted to live.

So, I took another trip around the city to stretch my legs before changing clothes and summoning another Uber to take me home. By the time I got there, I had just enough time to take a nice long shower and clean up a bit before changing into clean clothes. When I got out, still brushing out the long side of my hair, Izzy was waiting in the hall. She looked uncertain. “What’s… um… one of your… um, maids said something about dinner being late or something?”

I nodded. “Yeah, my dad had some kind of long meeting, so we’re having family dinner late. Right about now, actually.”

“Oh, sorry.” She started to step back. “I’ll stay out of the way.”

“You better not,” I retorted. “Mom gets a bit tyrannical about family dinner. If she thinks you’re not there, she might go on the warpath.” I was kidding. Mostly. Sort of. 

Izzy’s head shook. “But you said it’s a family dinner.”

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Family and guests. And right now, you’re living two doors down from me. That kind of makes you closer than my own brother. So you get to come.”

Before she could object, I started to take her hand. Just as I touched her, however, she jerked the hand back with a gasp. Seriously, it was like I’d burned her. Blushing deeply as she realized what she had done, the girl hung her head a bit before nodding. “Sorry, I… yeah, I’ll come.” She said it quietly, not looking at me as she started down the hall. My eyes followed her and I frowned a little to myself. Finding out what my family did to this girl and her family was suddenly a really big priority. Even if I was terrified of what the answer might end up being. For the moment, however, I followed after her. Time for another family dinner.

But hey, at least this time I knew there were two people at the table who weren’t evil. 

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