Roald Nilsen

Equal And Opposite 21-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitter, me? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Did it work?” 

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-02 (Summus Proelium)

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The next morning was Saturday. It was also the day of Tyson’s funeral. Some part of me had had the wild thought that even if I couldn’t appear as Paintball because of the connection it would draw to Murphy, maybe I could at least go as myself. Except that was a bad idea too. Even if people didn’t recognize me (and to be honest, most wouldn’t because I didn’t fit what they assumed the daughter of Elena and Sterling Evans would look like), they would still wonder why I was there. After all, this clearly wasn’t going to be some big crowded event. If I attended, I would be noticed. Especially by Murphy and Roald, who would wonder why some girl they had never seen before was sitting in on the funeral. 

Not for the first time, I wondered if I should just come straight out and tell all of them exactly who I was, and the full truth about this entire situation. But there were things still holding me back. I trusted them, of course. But if I let them know who I was, I didn’t know how it would change… everything. How they thought about me, how they–but no. No, that wasn’t the important thing. The most important thing was that I was afraid of what would happen if my identity happened to somehow get further than that. Or if my parents found out they knew something and… talked to them. If they didn’t know who I was, they would have no way of telling– but that put them in danger too. If they couldn’t tell my parents what they wanted to know, if they–so I should tell them. But if I told them, I didn’t have control over who found out. Or even less control than I already had, given Izzy and Amber knew. But they didn’t–but if my parents–

God damn it. I had no idea what to do, or what the best move was. Every time I thought that I was bound and determined to just tell them all the truth, my stomach twisted in on itself and I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t even sure exactly why not. I just couldn’t make myself take that step. Something in my head kept telling me that it was something I couldn’t take back. If I told Murphy, Roald, Wren, Peyton, and Fred all who I really was, I just… Something about that felt like too big of a step. It was so dangerous. Even telling them as much as I had was dangerous, of course. But totally revealing all of my secrets was just… I felt queasy at the thought. Was that stupid? Was I being dumb about this whole thing? Should I just bite the bullet and go for it? Maybe… maybe later. Yeah, I just had to let them process what I had already told them. It was too much to dump on all of them all at once. Later, maybe I would see what–how they dealt with it. 

Telling myself that made sense helped somewhat. But then, it didn’t actually solve my original problem. I wanted to do something for Tyson’s funeral. I couldn’t just sit around and ignore it. Of course I didn’t know the guy, and what little I did know about him didn’t paint a very flattering picture. But he didn’t deserve to die, and Murphy had said that he was trying to turn his life around. Except now he would never have that chance. Just ignoring his funeral, when my family was the reason that his murderer was still free, was wrong. I couldn’t do that. 

In the end, I had to do something for it. Even if I couldn’t actually attend the funeral itself, I could at least be nearby. So, I found myself taking a seat on the roof of a building across the street from the cemetery where the funeral was being performed. Well, we kept calling it a funeral. It was more of a simple graveside service. They couldn’t afford some big event at a church. And it seemed like they didn’t have the family or friends to fill such a thing anyway. That part didn’t surprise me, given everything I had heard and already knew about the Murphys. 

The building was really too far away to make out much of the funeral. Which was kind of the point, given I didn’t want to be seen attending it. But that was what high-powered binoculars were for. Nestled in a sitting position with my back to an air conditioning unit, I lifted the front of the helmet so I could put the binoculars against my eyes and scan that way. Now I could see what was going on more clearly. They were all standing around the open grave with the casket ready to be lowered into it. Murphy was there, in an ill-fitting suit that looked as though it had been patched several times. Roald was standing next to her in a suit of his own, which didn’t look much better. There was a smaller girl right beside him whom I assumed was his younger sister. The older sister, if I guessed right, was standing a little further away talking to what looked like the man who would be giving the service once they got started in a few minutes.

My eyes scanned over the rest of the people, not that there were many beyond that. I did, however, catch sight of a van approaching through the winding cemetery road that had the Detroit Department of Corrections logo on it. Which gave me pause for a moment before I realized. It was Murphy’s parents. That had to be it, right? If they were going to be given leave from prison for anything, it would be the funeral of their son. Somehow, I hadn’t even considered the fact that they would be there. How would they react to the whole thing? How would Murphy react to them being there? Suddenly, I felt more like a creepy voyeur than I had ever intended. This was wrong. I had felt so strongly that I needed to be here, but now I was questioning that whole thing. Maybe the truth was that while being here might make me feel better, I was actually just spying on things I didn’t deserve to see. This service wasn’t for me. It was– 

A sound nearby interrupted my inner turmoil, and I quickly lowered the binoculars and turned to see a familiar figure landing on the roof nearby. Peyton, in her newest purple and black armor configuration. As the hoverboard transitioned back into her bronze and gold marbles, she spoke up. “You couldn’t stay away either, huh?” 

Grateful, for more than one reason, that I still had my ski mask to hide my face even with the front of the helmet lifted up, I hesitated before giving a short nod. “But now I’m starting to rethink that. It feels weird to spy on them, you know? LIke I’m being a shady creep.”

“We’ll tell them we were there,” Peyton offered with a hesitant shrug. “I mean, we’ll tell them you were there. I already said I would try to find a way to watch. I was looking around for a decent place when I saw you down here. It umm…” She trailed off before sighing while taking a seat next to me, both of our backs to the metal box. “This whole thing sucks, doesn’t it?” 

“It’s definitely not fun,” I replied simply before raising the binoculars again. The van had stopped by that point, a couple hundred feet from where the burial was happening. I could see a couple of prison guards opening it up to help the occupants out. I didn’t recognize them, of course. But I could tell that they were Murphy’s parents. One was an average-height slender black man with long, incredibly luxurious-looking hair. The other was a somewhat tall caucasian woman with brownish-blonde hair and a nervous look about her. She kept glancing around constantly, as though convinced they were being watched. Which… well, yeah. Both of them were wearing prison jumpsuits and were still handcuffed as the guards helped them down from the van and then started to escort them over to where the service was happening. All of which seemed stupid to me. They were in prison for simple drug offenses. Couldn’t they be given normal clothes to wear so they could attend their own son’s funeral without looking like Hannibal Lector? I mean, yeah sure it wasn’t that bad, but still. This was ridiculous. Just unchain them and let them say goodbye to their son, for fuck’s sake. 

I was so focused on my annoyance about that whole situation while following the moving parents with the binoculars, that I almost jumped when Peyton nudged me while saying something. I’d half-forgotten she was there in my distraction. “Huh–what?” 

“I said,” she repeated, “Doesn’t it seem fucked up that they think they need four armed guards just to watch over a couple grieving parents, who are still chained up? They just sold some drugs to willing people, it’s not like they murdered the pope or something.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed in a flat voice, “it’s a bit of overkill.” Even as I said that, I realized what she had said. Four guards? I had counted three, the driver and two helping the Murphys down. Looking back that way once more without the binoculars zooming me in so much, I finally caught sight of the fourth guy. He was a bit further back, having apparently gotten out the far side of the van before trailing behind. From this distance, I could barely make out anything about him. And yet, there was something immediately familiar about–

Raising the binoculars quickly once more, I focused that way. And then almost cursed vehemently out loud. Of course the fourth guard looked familiar. It was Simon. My brother. The person who was the entire reason Murphy’s brother’s murderer had escaped unscathed. He was dressed up like a prison guard, escorting their parents to the funeral. What–why? What the fuck? Why the hell was he here? What did he think he was doing? Was this some sort of sick joke or something? Why would he ever come to a funeral like this? I knew he wasn’t a real prison guard. He had to be using one of those hologram things or something. But either way, why? What the hell did he get out of being here? What was–why–what? 

“Uh,” Peyton spoke up curiously. “You okay? You’re holding those binoculars so tight it looks like you might snap them in half. And they look pretty fancy, so you probably don’t want to do that.” 

Forcing myself to lower them and look back to her, I kept my voice as even as I could. “Yeah, I’m good. I mean, no I’m not. I’m really pissed off about this whole situation. But I’m about as good as you could expect.” After a brief pause, I added quietly, “I’m doing better than Murphy.” 

With a sigh, the other girl slumped back a bit next to me and reached into a compartment she had added to her armor, pulling out some binoculars of her own. Lifting them up, she looked that way and murmured, “This whole situation is pretty fucked up, isn’t it?” 

Wincing inwardly, I nodded. “Pretty fucked up indeed.” She had no idea just how much. Even as that thought came to mind, I was adjusting the binoculars to check on Simon again. He was standing at the edge of the funeral, playing the role of a guard watching over their prisoners even as Murphy’s parents embraced her. There was… there was a lot of emotion going on there. I quickly moved the view back over to Simon, not wanting to intrude on a family thing like that. He was staring intently, not at the Murphys, but at the casket. He looked… not happy. 

I had no idea what to make of that. I have no idea why he was here, what was going through his mind, why he looked angry while staring at the casket containing the body of the guy whose murderer he had helped esca–okay, when I put it like that, It sort of sounded like he felt guilty. But did he? I didn’t trust my own judgment about that whole thing. I couldn’t think of any other reason why he would be here. Was he going to all the funerals? Or was there something special about this one? Was I being incredibly naive? Maybe there was a valid reason beyond guilt for a member of the Ministry to come here. Maybe he was making sure there were no more loose ends. And the anger was because he had something else he wanted to do more, and blamed Murphy’s brother for making him miss it. 

Okay that felt a little too far to the other end of the naive/cynical line. Both of those felt wrong, but I had no idea what the actual answer could be. Why was Simon here, and why did he look so upset when he looked at that casket? 

Unfortunately, I was pretty sure that, short of marching down there and demanding answers from him in person, I wasn’t going to get any right now. And, come to think of it, that probably wouldn’t help either. Even if it was really tempting just to see the look on his face if I had actually confronted him. Maybe being taken by surprise like that would make him give something away that he wouldn’t have otherwise. But no, this wasn’t the right time for that sort of desperate move. Especially not now. I wasn’t going to ruin the funeral just because I wanted to violently shake my brother until he spat out real answers. 

Instead, I made myself put that thought away and focus on the funeral as a whole. For around an hour while people spoke and said their goodbyes, Peyton and I both sat there watching. Every once in a while we spoke quietly to each other, but for the most part we just sat silently and observed. It still felt a bit like we were intruding, yet this was the best we could do. Now that I saw Simon there, I knew not physically attending the funeral properly was the right way to go. A terrifying thought of what he would have done if I had been down there as myself raced through my mind, and I shuddered inwardly. That could have been really bad. 

Eventually, the service was over, and Tyson’s casket was in the ground. Several of the people, including Murphy and Roald, had each shoveled some dirt over it, then watched as a backhoe did the rest of the work. Once he was completely buried, goodbyes were said. That lasted for about five minutes or so, while Murphy and her parents had a whole… thing. It felt awful just sitting here, my emotions twisting inside my stomach. Again, they were only in prison on drug offenses. Couldn’t they be released for a couple days to help their daughter get through this whole thing? 

If they were rich, they would have been. It was no question. Hell, their prison would have been a country club, and they would have been given at least two weeks leave from it to handle funeral arrangements and everything else. But they weren’t rich. So they were fucked over by the system that was supposed to protect them. 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, and made it even harder to avoid snapping the binoculars, I watched Simon and the real guards lead their charges back to the van. Meanwhile, the rest of the (rather small) crowd was dispersing as Roald’s older sister led the others across to another lot where a beat-up sedan was waiting. From what Murphy herself had said, they would now go to get some lunch at a buffet somewhere. Obviously, I wasn’t going to follow them. I was tempted to follow the prison van just to see what Simon did, but that was probably a pretty bad idea too. 

Which left me sitting next to Peyton as the two of us looked at each other. With a heavy sigh, I muttered, “Well, that pretty much sucked, huh?” 

“Hoover-level sucking,” she agreed. “Can we go find some bad guys to beat up? I need to get it out of my system, and the people I really wanna punch, I… can’t. Not yet, anyway.”

“Good idea,” I agreed, pushing myself up. “Let’s take a bite out of crime.” 

*****

Unfortunately, McGruff the Crime Dog would have starved that day. No matter where Peyton and I went, we couldn’t find any criminals to deal with. It even looked like the always-rampaging gang war had decided to take a timeout for the day. Which was just typical, really. The one time we wanted to find bad guys, they had all decided to go on vacation. Or maybe we just sucked at finding them. It was, after all, a pretty big city. 

Whatever the reason, we finally gave up after a couple hours. We both had other things we wanted to take care of before that big dinner thing tonight. So, after warning the other girl again that she had better show up to the event hungry given how much food there would be, I headed off. My brain was full of thoughts that I didn’t want to have, yet wouldn’t go away. Mostly revolving around what the hell was going on with Simon going to the funeral. Yeah, that was clearly a whole thing. There was no way I was going to be able to figure it out just based on what little information I had, but that wouldn’t stop my brain from obsessing about it. Because brains were stupid like that and often refused to listen to common sense. 

I was hungry, but after all of that, there was no way I was going home just yet. So, I changed clothes to avoid attracting attention, and found a small, out-of-the-way Indian place to eat at. It was pretty incredible, even distracted as I was. So, I made a mental note to come back another time, and to bring the others.  

As I was getting up to leave, my phone buzzed with a text. The one for Cassidy Evans, rather than Paintball. So, I took a look. It was from that Dani girl, inviting me out to that skatepark on Grand River. Right, that whole thing about people from school talking me into doing dangerous shit for fun. For a moment, I squinted and considered asking for a raincheck. But no, I needed some way of distracting myself from everything. Later tonight, I was going to have to play nice in public while my father and others gave their big speeches and all that. Going while I was still tense about the whole situation with Tyson probably wasn’t a good idea. If I couldn’t let off steam by finding crime to fight, maybe I could do it this way. 

So, in the end, I sent back a text saying I would be there as soon as possible. I just needed to grab my stuff from home. I would head in, grab it, and head out again. No reason to stick around. With any luck, I would avoid Simon and my parents altogether. Sure, it was Saturday, but they had plenty of their own stuff to do before that party.

*****

For once, I wasn’t completely proven wrong about my assumptions. My family was occupied with their own things, and I was able to get in, grab my stuff, order a ride, and get out without any interruptions. A short while later, I arrived at the skatepark, paid the driver, and headed over to where I could see a bunch of people from my school already hanging out. 

Dani was there, talking to someone with their back to me. As I approached, she gestured and called out, “There she is. Told you the richest teenager in Detroit wouldn’t blow us off.” 

Rolling my eyes, I retorted, “Maybe I bought the place and came to kick everyone off it.” 

“What–” Turning quickly to face me, the person Dani had been talking to came up short. “Oh, uh, hey.”

“Hey yourself, I know you,” I put in, realizing belatedly where from. “You’re–” 

“Ryder Towling,” Dani interrupted, gesturing back and forth between us. “this is Cassidy Evans. Ryder–wait, did you say you know him?” 

“He’s tutoring… uh, someone from school, Arleigh,” I replied. “Right?” 

Ryder, for his part, squinted briefly before belatedly extending a hand. “Oh, yeah. We met at her house the other day.  She uhh, talks about you a lot. Are you guys–” 

“We’re nothing,” I immediately cut in. “Nothing at all.” With a gesture, I added, “So, you skate?” 

“Me?” The boy blanched. It was pretty cute, and I couldn’t help the quick smile even as he continued. “Nope, no sir. I’m just here as emotional support. Dani’s an… old friend. I get to watch. Believe me, if I step on one of those things, I’ll find a way to break my leg and at least three limbs from an assortment of other people.” 

“He’s not exaggerating much,” Dani remarked with a small smirk. “You definitely don’t want him on a board anywhere near you. But he’s pretty good at watching. So, let’s get to it. I wanna see what you can really do. Surprise me.” 

Yeah, I was pretty sure if I showed them what I could really do, she’d be plenty surprised. It was a bad idea, of course. And one that I would never actually indulge. 

But boy, was it ever tempting. 

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Equal And Opposite 21-01 (Summus Proelium)

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The next few days were even busier than I had thought they would be. As much as we all wanted to focus on digging out that tunnel, the gang war was only getting worse. There was something going on between Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners. I wasn’t sure what, but it seemed like their alliance was fracturing. I’d heard something about Grandstand going off on some of the Ninety-Niner people for some reason. 

Whatever it was, it didn’t make the war any easier. If anything, it was getting worse. Amber and Pack had a few remarks back and forth about it, eventually leading to the latter pointing out that she had zero control over what Blackjack did anyway. She was essentially at the bottom of the pile as far as La Casa Touched went. Even if she wanted to tell him to call it off, which she didn’t because she and everyone else in that gang wanted to really stick it to the people who had put Blackjack’s daughter’s life in danger, she couldn’t. The man himself wanted Oscuro and Ninety-Niner blood for the shit they had pulled, and he was so well-liked by his people that they were right there with him. Pack had no say in telling them to ease off. 

In the end, Amber knew that, of course. But she did get Pack to at least agree to point out to Blackjack that the war escalating too much would drive people out of the city, which would be bad for business. I had a pretty good feeling that my parents had already made that clear to him as well, given how much they relied on the city being under control to be profitable. Still, it clearly made Amber feel a little better. Not to mention the realization after a particularly loud argument between them that Pack did feel at least somewhat guilty about the level of violence the war had escalated to. 

The problem, I had realized, was that none of the gangs involved could back off without the others pouncing on them for weakness. Blackjack had his righteous (and earned) anger about the threat to his daughter, but even beyond that, he couldn’t withdraw La Casa from the confrontations even if he wanted to, because to pull back would make Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners sense blood in the water and push even harder. The fact that it was about the threat to his daughter’s life made that whole situation even worse, because being seen as too weak to keep the war going when he was fighting for her would be catastrophic. 

And then there was the fact that the Easy Eights were fighting alongside La Casa. If Blackjack withdrew his people, it could piss off Deicide and her lieutenants and make them turn on their former allies. Rather than stopping the war, La Casa withdrawing on their own without an agreement from the other three sides involved could actually make the whole thing worse. 

It was all so complicated. And what it amounted to was that there was a lot of violence in the city right now. A situation that was only getting worse. We worked in the tunnel as much as we possibly could over those few days, but that didn’t amount to nearly as much as I had hoped it would. Amber and Izzy were kept pretty busy on extra patrols, Pack had her own La Casa business to help with, and Alloy and I didn’t want to just completely ignore the actual helping people part of being Star-Touched. Besides, if we disappeared from the streets for days at a time leading up to when the Ministry’s secret base was broken into, I was pretty sure they could put one and one together and end up somewhere close to two. 

So, we had to be visible out there. We had to keep helping people not only because it was the right thing to do, but because my family would be suspicious otherwise. Which severely limited the time we could work on the tunnel at all, to say nothing of when we could all work on it together. Still, we did the best we could. Murphy and Roald actually tried to work on it a bit while we weren’t there, but they didn’t make that much progress by themselves. Plus, Wren needed them at the shop to help her work on the stuff she had in mind for when we actually finished the tunnel. 

And, of course, we had school and family things to work with. All of which meant that, in those few days, we had finished digging out what we were calling the entryway of the tunnel. It was a twelve foot wide circular area about ten feet down from the floor of that motel room. Which wasn’t quite as low as we wanted to be by the time we got all the way to the mall, but we would slope the tunnel downward a bit as we went. We had a metal ladder for climbing in and out of the hole, which we had secured against the dirt wall by using a purple-paint strength boost to hammer u-shaped metal things against the legs of it in several places, keeping it from moving.

As for the tunnel itself, it was six feet high, a few feet wide, and extended about twenty feet. We were pretty sure that now that we had the main entry finished, the ladder set up, and a decent system for digging and removing the dirt and rocks, the work would go a bit faster. At least, as fast as we could make it go with all the other stuff we had to keep up with. 

Now, it was late Friday evening. Or Saturday morning, depending on how you really looked at it. Most of the others had left to either get some sleep or work on other things they had to do. The only ones left here, sitting in the motel room above the tunnel together for a few minutes before we would leave too, were Alloy, Murphy, Roald, and myself. We had already covered up the hole with the pallet full of cement mix over the rug, and were sitting there on folding chairs that Pack had brought. It had been a minute or so since any of us spoke, just sitting together in the near-darkness (we had a flashlight sitting nearby, but it was turned down low so we could barely make each other out), thinking about how much more work we had to do. At least, that’s what I was thinking about. 

“I guess,” Roald spoke up to finally break the silence, “if it was easy to break into this place, people would be doing it all the time.” 

Snorting despite myself, I gave a short nod. “Yeah, it’s gonna be a lot of work before we get in there. But it’ll be worth it. I hope.” With a sigh, I added, “Still wish we could bribe Undermine to do some of the work for us. Do you think we’d still be considered superheroes if we abduct him and tell him we’ll let him go after he digs a tunnel for us?”

“Don’t tempt me,” Alloy muttered before pushing herself to her feet. Her voice was quieter as she stepped over to look out the nearby glassless window. “You guys heard about that reporter lady?” 

Wincing, I stood up with a short nod. “Jolene Iverson. They killed her even though she used one of those appearance changer things. That-A-Way was talking about how messed up Whamline is about it. He had to take some days off. They don’t know when he’ll be ready to go back.” 

“Did… did he see it happen?” That was Murphy, looking over at me. 

I knew why she was asking that. Jolene Iverson had been shot, like Tyson. She wanted to know if Whamline had seen the woman die the way she had witnessed her brother’s murder. I wanted to say something that might be helpful, but all that came out was a slightly belated, “No. Well, sort of. There was some concussive flashbomb or something. They think one of the Scion thugs managed to attach it to the side of the van where the rear left window was and set it off. Linesight was driving and the force flipped the vehicle. By the time Whamline woke up, all he saw was some figure standing over Jolene with a gun. He… couldn’t move fast enough to stop them.” 

“He must feel like shit.” Murphy’s voice was hoarse, the pain very evident in it as she put her hands against the windowsill and stared intently out into the darkness. “He was right there and couldn’t stop it. Couldn’t even catch up with the guy before he got away. Couldn’t save Jolene Iverson, couldn’t catch the guy who killed her. Couldn’t do anything. Fucking useless.”

Yeah, I didn’t exactly need a map to tell me the name of the track this particular train of thought was on. Wincing to myself, I glanced at the other two before stepping that way. “They’ll find that guy, just like we’ll find ours. You–” 

“His funeral’s tomorrow,” Murphy interrupted. Which was fine, because I had no idea where I was going with that. “Tyson’s funeral. Roald’s sister did all the work. I couldn’t even help with that. Didn’t know who to talk to, what to say. I’m just a stupid kid anyway, they wouldn’t listen.” 

My eyes closed briefly as I fought for words. Fuck. What was I supposed to say? I knew it had to be me, I just… I had nothing. No idea how to make it better. Or at least make it hurt less right at this moment. Finally, the only thing I could manage was a weak, “I wanted to come to the funeral. We both did.” I gestured toward Alloy. “But…” 

“But if you came as yourselves, we’d have no idea who you are and people would wonder what you were doing there,” Murphy finished for me. “And if you came in costume, you’d be drawing attention to us. People might wonder why a couple superheroes were hanging out at the funeral for a nobody, and then they’d look at his nobody sister and–” 

“Stop that,” I interrupted. “You’re not a nobody, Murphy. Neither of you are. But yeah. We can’t really–I mean I can’t…” Yeah, I had really struggled with this. “I’m sorry. Not just for the funeral thing. For all of it. I’m sorry about what happened.” 

“It’s not your fault,” she replied, turning away from the window finally to face me. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. Help dig this tunnel so we can find that piece of shit and put him where he belongs.” 

Meeting her gaze, I gave a short nod. “You got it. Whatever it takes, we’ll bring him in. For now,” I reached out to put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it. “You say goodbye to Tyson, okay? Don’t–” My throat closed up briefly and I had to swallow hard. “Don’t worry about anything else. Whether it’s at the funeral, the memorial, in the shower, at breakfast, or standing all by yourself out in the yard, just… say goodbye to him. We’ll be there when you’re ready.”

She gave a murmur of agreement, then started out the door. Roald glanced back at the rest of us before following after, the two of them disappearing into the darkness together. 

Which left Alloy and me sitting there alone in the room. Not exactly looking at each other. Both of us were silently gazing at the door the other two had disappeared through. I was pretty sure she was wishing just as much as I was that we could do something to really help Murphy. Finally, I pushed myself. “I guess we should head out too. A lot going on tomorrow.” 

“What, uhh, time are we supposed to be there?” Peyton asked while picking herself up as well. 

“Hallowed said the party thing was at eight pm,” I replied. “He also said the food would be worth sitting through all the boring speeches.” Including one from my father, apparently. Which would be an interesting thing to sit through, to say the least. I was just glad I had a mask and helmet to hide my reactions. 

Peyton stopped by the door as I passed through it to the construction lot beyond. “So I show up at nine-thirty if I want to eat without all the speeches?” When I looked at her, she snickered and held up both hands. “I’m kidding. I’ll be there, I promise. We’re still meeting at Wren’s, right?”  

“Yup,” I confirmed while giving her a thumbs up. “I figure if we meet up around seven, that gives us plenty of time to talk before we head over there. I really don’t want to show up early. There’s only so much of that I can take.”

Peyton shrugged. “I don’t know, it shouldn’t be that bad, right? I mean, sure, there’s definitely gonna be some Ministry people there and all. But still, not all of them. And seriously, how often do you get to go to one of these big fancy parties?”

I had a feeling the truth wasn’t the right answer to give right then. So, I simply coughed. “Right, yeah. At least we get to see some interesting people and all that. Good food and interesting people. Some of whom would kill us if they knew what we know.”

Clearly grimacing, the other girl retorted, “You really know how to be a party pooper, don’t you?”

Holding up both hands before crossing my heart, I promised, “I’m not gonna be like that at the party. Just getting it out of my system. We’ll go and have a good time. Just keep your eyes open and don’t let your guard down too much while you’re having it. We watch each other’s backs, yeah?” 

She gave a quick nod. “That’s what sidekicks-slash-partners are for. Well, that and some other things, I’m sure.” Sobering then, the girl added, “I know it’s a pretty big deal to go to something like this. But don’t worry, I’ll be right there with you. Just don’t forget to have fun there, too, huh?”  

“If I do, remind me,” I replied. “That’s another thing partners are for.” Pivoting, I gestured. “And speaking of remembering to have fun, you ready for another race so I can kick your butt again?”

Making an affronted noise, Peyton retorted, “Oh, you wish! I’m gonna beat you so fast, it’ll rip a hole in space-time and we’ll end up right back here like it never happened.” She gave a sudden, exaggerated spasm. “Whoa, what–hey, what’d I tell you? Kicked your butt, hole in space-time, right back here.” 

Snickering despite myself, I shook my head. “You know, somehow I don’t think I believe you. You’ll just have to show me again. I think I’ll go ahead and risk the damage to the timeline.” 

And with that, the two of us took off together. Peyton using her board and grapple things, while I had my paint. She was getting even better at it than she had been to start out, but I had my own tricks too. Even if I had promised not to use yellow paint on her, which she considered cheating for some reason. 

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to find out which one of us would have won that particular race. As I was right on the edge of a roof with a hair’s-width lead and about to extend it with a blue-assisted leap, a shout from below caught my attention. Instinctively, I dropped into a crouch and pivoted that way. In the distance, almost out of sight, a homeless guy was being accosted by three guys who looked like they were part of the Easy Eights. Why they felt the need to push him around when they had a whole war going on, I had no idea. But I definitely didn’t like it. Not one bit.

Thankfully, Peyton immediately realized something was up when I stopped and turned like that. So she was quiet as she came in for a landing next to me. Her voice was low. “What is it?” 

Gesturing, I whispered, “Those guys think it’s a good idea to pick on the homeless. I think we should teach them a lesson.” Realizing belatedly that I shouldn’t volunteer her for things, I added, “If you’re up for it?” 

“Oh, I am definitely up for it,” she confirmed. “How about you get their attention with the leadoff, and I’ll bat cleanup.”  

“Uhhh, insert appropriate baseball response here.” Giving her a quick nod, I took a few steps back for momentum, then raced forward and shot blue ahead to launch myself into the air. Before, I had been pretty ready to get home and fall into bed. But now? Now I was angry. These people weren’t making the city bad enough as it was, they had to start shit with some homeless person? Hell no. I wasn’t going to let that stand. 

Using red paint against the roof of a building further on to carry me over the two guys, I could see their weapons. One was holding a wooden bat with a few nails through the end, while the second only had a knife. The third guy, however, was holding a revolver, which he kept pointing at the homeless man while laughing. That was the more dangerous one. If I tried to mess with him or his gun the wrong way and it went off, I could create the very tragedy I was trying to stop. 

So, of course, my first move, as I released the red paint power and let myself drop to the ground, was to send a shot of orange paint straight at the homeless guy. It hit him in the side, making the man and the three guys harassing him all curse in surprise. 

By that point, I had landed in a crouch, using a bit of orange of my own on my shoes to cushion it. “Now, come on guys,” I called out. “I know he’s smarter, cooler, and all-around better looking than all of you combined, but why don’t you back up and give the poor guy some room to breathe? I’m sure he’ll give you all the autographs and life advice you want.” 

Apparently knife-guy thought his weapon was pretty inadequate too, because he immediately took off running in the opposite direction. Unfortunately for him, he only managed to take a few steps before one of Alloy’s marbles flew in front of his face and transformed into a pair of thick manacles with an attached chain, which wrapped itself around the nearby lamp post while the manacle parts clamped onto his wrists. 

Gun-guy, meanwhile, decided to point his revolver at me. But even as he was turning my way, I hit the weapon with one shot of red paint and the inside of a nearby open dumpster with another. Before he could pull the trigger, the gun was yanked from his grasp and went flying that way. The force of the paint pulling the weapon from him made him turn slightly, and by the time he recovered, I had already activated green lightning bolts along my legs and up over my sides, along with a purple lion face across my chest. I was right there, catching him by his outstretched arm before giving a hard yank to pull him off-balance toward me. The enhanced strength gave me enough of a boost to throw myself into an backwards flip up and over his head as he stumbled past me, before I landed hard on his shoulders and back to knock him to the ground. 

“It’s okay,” I assured him while perched on his back, using my temporarily boosted strength to hold him down. “I know you tired yourself out with the whole trying to beat up one helpless guy with two of your friends. So why don’t you take a nap?” With that, I shoved both of his hands into the pink spots on the concrete that I had just created, before releasing the power to trap them there. “I’ll even tuck you in!”

Meanwhile, the guy with the nail bat was swinging it wildly at a second bat that had been made by one of the other marbles and was basically fencing with him. At least, that’s how it went until the marble-bat managed to trick the guy into turning far enough that Alloy was able to fly down from above on her board, jumping off it at the last second before the board itself slammed into his back. He was knocked to the ground and the board wrapped around him to pin his arms to his sides while he struggled. 

“Huh,” I noted, “I guess she was board of you.” 

“Ew,” Alloy remarked, straightening up beside me. “I think I took psychic damage from that.” To the man on the ground, she advised, “Do yourself a favor and uhh, stay down. Or he’ll make an even worse pun. Don’t test him.” 

Together, we turned to look at the man these guys had been attacking. “Are you okay?” I asked. “What did these jerks even want from you?” 

He, in turn, hesitated before giving a short nod. “I–y-yes. Thanks. You–they thought I was a spy for Oscuro in their territory. Because I’m Puerto Rican.” 

Heaving a sigh, I shook my head. “They’re morons. I–here.” Reaching into my pocket, I produced a few twenty dollar bills and pressed them into the man’s hand. “Find a motel for the night, get off the streets. There should be enough there for a night, some food, and a change of clothes if you go to the secondhand shop.” 

He hurriedly thanked me and rushed off, before Alloy spoke up. “Man, that must’ve been like…. three weeks allowance. Wait, do you have a job delivering papers or something?” Belatedly, she realized. “Right, probably shouldn’t ask that right here.” 

“Yeah, probably not,” I agreed before turning my attention (and changing the subject) to the three gang guys. “Let’s send a message to the cops to come pick up these assholes. 

“After all, it’s late and I have to be ready for my paper route in the morning.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-10 (Summus Proelium)

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I was in for a bit of a surprise when I made it to the alley (really it was more of the space between one half-finished office building and an old self-service car wash that barely got any use) where I was supposed to be meeting Amber, Izzy, and the others. Two surprises, actually, named Murphy and Roald. They were both standing next to a dumpster with the others, and were the only two besides Fred not wearing any sort of mask. As I dropped down from the roof to land casually on my feet (thanks to orange soles), both looked up from the ground they had been intently staring at. No one had been talking, aside from Amber and Pack, who were in a whispered conversation until I arrived. 

Focusing on Murphy and Roald first, I stepped that way after catching myself. “Wha–you guys–” 

“Don’t say it,” Murphy interrupted. Her eyes were bloodshot and had dark circles under them, voice sounding hoarse and strained. “Don’t say we don’t need to be here.” She opened her mouth, then stopped as the only thing that escaped her was an almost keening sound for a moment before she caught herself. Visibly swallowing, she tried again. “I need to be here.” 

How was I supposed to argue with that? Instead, I simply asked, “No masks?” 

They both shrugged, Murphy asking, “What difference does it make? Not like they couldn’t figure out who we were if they actually put the slightest effort into it. If we’re gonna work at the pawn shop, they could all just… you know, walk in and shop there.” Belatedly, she added, a bit darkly, “Besides, what’s Pack over there gonna do, tell all her supervillain friends how to track us down and steal our three-dollar lamp and fifty-dollar television?” 

For her part, Pack offered a casual, “I asked Blackjack and he said the market for fifth-hand goods held together with duct tape and prayers dried up last week. So I guess their stuff is safe.” With a glance toward those two, she added a belated, “I mean, fuck. Sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like–I mean–” 

“Don’t worry about it.” That was Murphy, her voice flat. “I don’t care if you think our shit is shit. I care if you’re gonna help drag the secrets out of these motherfuckers so we can find the guy.” 

“That I can definitely do,” Pack agreed. “Luciano’s a worthless fuckbag. And he definitely doesn’t deserve to ride off into the sunset after that shit he pulled. I’m in for bringing him down.” Looking at me, she added, “And not for betraying people.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “I didn’t think you were. Just… wanted to make sure they were comfortable with this. It’s not just about you. It’s about showing their faces to everyone here.”  

Clearing his throat, Roald spoke up finally. “We couldn’t sit around the apartment anymore. My sister’s taking care of all the big picture stuff, so we just…” He trailed off, though it was obvious that he was going to say something about feeling useless. Instead, he finished with, “… decided it’d be a good thing for you guys to have people who can stand around and play lookout, or go over to the mall itself. And trying to do all that while constantly putting ski masks on whenever you guys come out or we go in was, you know, more trouble than it’s worth.” He offered a weak shrug. “We’re not important enough to disguise.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. But I wasn’t sure where to start, or what good it would do. Still, I felt like I needed to say something. It was just that everything that came to mind felt wrong, trite, or worse. In the end, all I managed to say was, “Any time you guys need to leave to… to focus on other things, do it. And if you need anything–” 

“I’ll tell you what we need,” Murphy put in. “We need to do something about those fuckers who let–who helped Luciano escape. And we need to find out where they sent him. Both of which we do by getting inside that fucking base. Which isn’t gonna happen by standing around here.” 

Alloy, standing behind the two with her arms folded tightly as though trying to restrain herself from doing… something (probably punching the nearest wall), spoke up. “Yeah, we all wanna contribute. See?” Her head nodded over to several of her marbles as they transformed into a shovel, a drill, and a pick-axe. “Even these guys. We’re raring to go.” 

Fred, who had instinctively put his hands over Wren’s… helmet where her ears would have been every time Murphy cursed, spoke up. “We’ll be heading back to the shop to get to work on the tech stuff. Okay, she’ll get to work on the tech stuff and I’ll hold stuff. But the kid wanted to be a part of this whole… thing.” He waved a hand around as though encompassing all of us. 

Bobbing her head quickly, Wren added, “It’s important! But don’t worry, I already have ideas about how to make some stuff to protect you guys. But seeing you together, it helps me, uhh, visualize, and visualizing is important.” With a heavy sigh, she mumbled, “I wish I could ask Lion for advice.” Even as she said that, however, the girl was already holding up both hands. “I won’t, I won’t, I swear. I won’t talk about it at all. I won’t say a word.” She mimed zipping her lips, running fingers across the front of the helmet. “I know how to keep secrets.” 

“We’re all gonna have to be the biggest secret-keepers in the world,” I pointed out, glancing around at everyone. “If we don’t want the Ministry to figure out what’s going on.” 

“He’s right,” That-A-Way agreed, before gesturing in the direction of the mall. “This isn’t a simple, quick thing. Even with help, it’s gonna take days, even weeks of digging to make this tunnel, considering we have to be so careful about doing it while also doing all the other stuff we have to do. We don’t rush. We don’t screw it up. Cuz we won’t get a second chance if they even get a hint about what we’re doing. As soon as they do, as soon as they even have a reason to start checking around, we’re screwed. Our main advantage here is them being complacent. So, as much as we all want to get to the part where we break through to the base, let’s try not to get in a rush and end up captured and exposed.” 

Pack grunted. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time. But I still don’t want to spend months doing this thing, and the longer we take the more chance of something going wrong anyway. So let’s get busy, huh?”  

“Well that’d be a completely new situation for me,” I muttered without thinking. As the others all looked at me, I found myself flushing under the helmet and mask. “You know, the ‘get busy’ thing. I mean. Because I’m always busy, and I have a to-do list the size of a–never mind.” Waving them off, I quickly changed the motion into urging them to move. “Let’s get insi–wait, Pack?” Before we all went running out into the open, I looked to her. Sure, the alley was only a short distance across what amounted to a dirt road (used for construction crews)  leading to the unfinished motel across from the mall, but still. There was always the slim chance that someone could be nearby, and given how close we were to that Ministry base, we were going to have to be really careful.

She, in turn, took a moment to lean out and look up at the sky before turning back to me. “Coast is clear. Riddles doesn’t see anything.” 

Taking the opportunity, we all ran across the dirt road, trying to be quick and low. It was only about a twenty yard dash to get from the alley to the cover of the construction site, which itself was down in what amounted to a pit lower than the level of the road. Once at the edge, there was a dirt slope we kind of half-slid down (aside from Alloy, who rode one of her marbles in board-form) about fifteen feet to the ground level. We could’ve followed the road around and into the lot, but that would have taken us into plain view of the nearby busy street, which would’ve defeated the purpose of being stealthy right then. 

Once we were all down and hidden from the back by the raised dirt, and from the front by the half-finished building itself, I spoke up. “Okay so most of the time when we come out here, we’ll make sure it’s after dark.” 

Way gave a quick nod, before focusing on me as she put in, “And never come out here alone, anybody. Sure, we all wanna get this done as soon as we can, but digging by yourself isn’t a good idea. You need at least one lookout.” 

Alloy raised a hand. “Hey, uhh, sorta speaking of lookout, how exactly are we gonna make sure no one finds this tunnel in the days or weeks it’s gonna take to dig far enough? I mean, sure, the construction isn’t active right now, but can we count on that lasting? And besides, there could be inspections, or just people who come up and screw around. If any of them find a big long tunnel leading toward the mall, they might, you know, say something.” 

“We’ll hide it,” I immediately answered. “We’re not gonna, like, start the tunnel right in the middle of the main office or whatever. We’ll find an out-of-the-way room, dig a hole down, and then cover it up whenever we’re done. We need to dig down first anyway to make sure we’re close to the level of the secret base itself. So we go down, widen it out a bit so we have some space to work with, then start tunneling over. And whenever we’re not digging, we’ll make sure it’s hidden.” 

By that point, we found our way to the building itself. The place was in varying stages of completion, with the main office and the nearest rooms to it being basically done except for paint and moving furniture in, while some of the rooms further away were little more than framework. We chose one of the near-completed rooms so we would be as hidden as possible. There was a wooden pallet just outside, and we looked around before finding a handful of heavy bags of cement mix. And Roald found a ratty old rug. That seemed like as good as anything for hiding the hole. Whenever we weren’t digging, we would put the rug over it, pull the pallet over top of that, then put the cement bags on top of the pallet. As long as we just did all that in a corner, it would hopefully stop anyone from finding our hole. At least accidentally. Assuming we could get this done before construction started again. If we didn’t, that was a whole new bag of worms. 

But we’d deal with that when and if the time came. For now, we had a plan. After finding the spot we wanted to start in, and gathering the stuff to cover the hole when it was made, we all met up once more in that room. 

Wren, hovering up off the floor on her dragonfly wings, was already cheerfully insisting, “This place is great! It’s perfect, you can dig down and over, you can see if anyone’s coming, but you’re out of the way.” 

“She’s right, you can see the main road from here,” Way was saying, as she stood over by a window (there was no glass in it) and pointed. “Right down that way is where the dirt road leading up here starts, so you should be able to see if any cars start heading this way.” 

“And over there,” Pack put in from the doorway, “You can see clear over the whole site. That way goes to the slope we came down, and that way is… pretty wide open.” She glanced to Murphy and Roald. “If one of you, or whoever’s standing guard, sits here by the door and the other sits over there by the charming and lovely That-A-Way’s window, you should be able to give us a heads-up if anyone heads this direction.” 

“Sure, whatever,” Murphy replied simply, glancing away from everyone as she muttered, “As long as we contribute. Standing guard, digging holes, kicking mother–” She caught herself, eyes shifting toward Wren before amending, “Kicking people who deserve it in the junk. Whatever.” 

“You’ll help,” I agreed. “You all will. You…” Hesitating, I swallowed, completely overwhelmed as I glanced around for a moment to take all this in. “Thanks, guys. I didn’t expect to have all this help when I came up with the plan before. It’s–you’re…thanks.” Yeah, it felt awkward. I had no idea how to say what I was feeling right then. Hell, I didn’t even know how to describe what I was feeling. Seeing these guys, realizing they were actually… helping, that they all wanted to do something about the Ministry (even if it was for varying reasons), it was big. It meant more than I could say. 

Thankfully, Izzy seemed to realize that I was floundering, and spoke up. “We should see how well the digging thing works. And the dirt plan.” 

“Dirt plan?” Roald echoed before giving a quick double-take. “Wait, what are you gonna do with all the dirt? I mean, you’re digging a tunnel all the way to the mall, that’s… a lot of dirt.” 

“Thankfully,” Amber replied, “we actually do have a plan for that part, like Raindrop said. We’ll put the dirt in buckets, then she’ll use water to make them weightless and float them up out of the hole to dump in one of the dirt piles that’s already out there from the construction work. Which means she’ll be focused on that, while Paintball has to be down there to do the whole pink thing.” 

“I can do both,” Alloy put in. “Whatever’s helpful. My little friends can be shovels, axes, buckets to carry dirt, and probably more things I can’t think of right now. And they can dig without anyone holding them.” 

My head was bobbing a bit. “I think the best thing for your friends to do, besides giving us a break on the digging sometimes, is to turn into scoops that can pull the dirt out of the way and carry it over to the buckets. And possibly even be buckets themselves. I mean, you and Raindrop can work out the specifics with each other. I’m pretty sure you can both carry out dirt and rocks faster than we can dig. We’ll figure out a system as we go.” 

“Yeah, and speaking of breaks and a system,” Pack noted, “we can trade off and on.” She glanced over to Murphy and Roald. “Me and Rose, we’ll switch back and forth with you minions between standing watch and doing the digging part. It’ll go faster that way. One pair gets tired of digging, the other pair switches in. If you think you’re good for that.” 

“I’m good for whatever helps find Luciano,” Murphy informed her. “I’ll dig twenty tunnels if that’s what it takes. Whatever. Let’s just get this show on the road.” 

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up. “Yeah, I think that’s our cue. We’ll head back to the shop so the kid can get to work with her designs or whatever.”

Those two headed off, quickly followed by Pack, who went to get the van with the supplies she had picked up, and Amber, who went to get the supplies that she and Izzy had bought. Which left me standing in the half-finished motel room with Alloy, Raindrop, Murphy, and Roald. The four of us just looked at each other in silence for a moment, before I cleared my throat and moved over to the spot we had picked out for the hole. “Okay, so let’s see how this works. Here.” Extending my hand, I painted a pink circle onto the floor, about three feet wide. Then I stepped back and gestured for Alloy to go ahead. 

She, in turn, waved a couple of her marbles that way. They transformed into a pair of shovels, then shoved their way down into the pink floor. The effect of my paint extended down about ten inches, so they were able to easily pull up big pieces of the floor and some of the dirt beneath, all of it like… thick foam or playdough. Very easy to rip away in solid chunks. Well, solid chunks for about five more seconds, before it turned back into a mix of dirt and broken pieces of cement. 

“How often do you think you can do that before you have to take a break to recharge?” Raindrop asked, stepping over to look at the hole. “For the actual tunnel, I mean.” 

Without thinking about it, I crouched down to run my hand over the dirt. “If I’m only doing that, and say the tunnel is… let’s say six feet high and four feet wide… I’ll probably need to take about sixty seconds to refill around every… maybe fourth time? Depends on how quick we are about digging into it and pulling the dirt out of the way. Probably get more efficient as we go. You know, work out a rhythm. Maybe we can get to the point of timing our speed so I don’t have to actually stop completely.”

Roald spoke up, his voice curious. “How do you know how much paint you have?” 

“I–” My mouth opened, before I stopped, head tilting. “I didn’t used to. It was more of a whole, ‘shit I’ve used a lot of paint recently, I’m about to run out.’ But now I can just… sort of sense it a bit? I know when I’m low.  I guess I’ve just gotten better at estimating after using it for awhile?” 

“Powers get better as you use them,” Raindrop informed us. “Sometimes that comes as ‘make them stronger’ and sometimes it’s things like knowing how much paint you have. When I started, I couldn’t umm, I couldn’t summon water. I mean, I could pull it and move it and stuff, but I couldn’t summon it from somewhere else.”

“Is that what you do?” That was Alloy. “I always wondered why you weren’t like, solving people’s water problems all over the place. You don’t make it out of nothing?” 

Raindrop shook her head. “Nuh uh. It’s pulled from other water sources. We did a test awhile back. The water I… ‘make’ gets pulled from places like one of the lakes or rivers around here. Whichever one is closest. It’s like… it’s like I can sense water in the air, you know? Humidity, I guess. And I can umm… feel all the way through that humidity to big sources of water, and then I just… think about it and put the big sources of water where the humidity right in front of me is.” Frowning, she sighed. “I guess that doesn’t make sense. But I can’t think of a better way to explain it.”

“You did just fine,” I assured her. “I mean, it makes about as much sense as a lot of powers do. They get pretty weird. Teleporting water to yourself through the connection of humidity in the air is about as good of an explanation as any.” 

By that point, Roald spoke up from the window where he had been idly watching. “They’re coming.” 

He was right. A couple minutes later, both Pack’s van and a truck that Way had apparently borrowed from someone were parked close to the room, the backs opened up so we could all carry the tools, lights, chains, and other supplies inside. 

“Okay, I think we should focus on digging down and widening it out at the bottom enough to stick all this stuff down there,” I murmured. “You know, so we don’t just have all this sitting here in plain sight. I don’t think anyone will come through the area tonight, but just in case.” 

So, we got started on that. And as we did, I took another look out through the window. The mall was visible in the distance. From here, it looked like way too much distance. It was definitely too far for me to do this by myself. I never would’ve gotten anywhere near the place. 

But I wasn’t by myself. Not anymore. I had people I could talk to, people who knew varying amounts of the truth. I had Amber and Izzy, who knew all of it. And I had Pack, Murphy, Roald, Alloy, even Wren and Fred. I had all of them here to help. 

I had… friends. 

I had a team.

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Kith And Kin 20-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to go find out how much the cops knew. 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good,” I murmured. 

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

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Kith And Kin 20-01 (Summus Proelium)

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I was sound asleep in my bed when the buzzing and vibrating phone under my pillow dragged me into something resembling a conscious state. I was pretty sure it had been going off for a while by the time I managed to wake up enough to recognize that it wasn’t just a buzzing in my dreams. Which was confirmed when I blearily dragged the phone out and stared at the screen for the few seconds it took to notice about forty-three text messages and half as many calls. They were from a mix of both Roald and Murphy, all over the past hour and a half. A quick scan of the texts showed that they had some sort of emergency going on. There were a lot of pleas for me to answer and call them back, that they were at the hospital and ‘he’ was really hurt. But in my barely awake state, I couldn’t figure out who they were talking about. I just flipped through messages randomly while shoving myself up and off the bed. 

It was very late Mond–no, it was early Tuesday morning, a glance toward my wall of clocks told me. After Sunday’s whole thing at the bank, yesterday had been pretty quiet, all things considered. Since there seemed to be nothing going on aside from watching Wren and Lion work on things for the second day in a row, I had come home and gone to bed to catch up on the sleep I knew I would need with my parents getting back tomorrow/today. 

And now, here I was, stumbling my way through the room to the closet while telling the lights to turn on. Painting my arms purple, I pushed the big mirror out of the way before grabbing the bag with my costume out of the hidden spot below the floor. While doing that, I managed to shove the bluetooth thing in my ear before hitting the button on my phone to call Murphy. It rang through about ten times before going to voicemail, while I was stripping out of my pajamas and getting regular clothes on. By that point, I had finally woken up for the most part and hit the button to call Roald instead.  

Thankfully, he answered on about the second ring. “Paintball? Paintball, you have to get down here. You have to hurry, she’s–she’s really upset and you have to–” 

“What? Who? What’s going on?” I managed while heading for my balcony. I had to pause a moment, watching the lights from a couple guards walking by below. Muting the phone, I ordered the lights to dim while very carefully opening the sliding door. The patrol moved on, as I heard the two men on the ground casually talking to one another about some baseball game. 

“It’s Murphy,” Roald was frantically saying. “We’re at the hospital and she’s–her brother—” 

My eyes narrowed, voice going cold as a wave of terrible thoughts rushed through me. “What did her brother do to her?” I was already thinking about how I should have insisted on doing something about that guy when I had found out that he cut her face because she wouldn’t carry drugs around. Why had I just let her say that she would deal with it? I should have insisted. I–

Roald interrupted my snowballing thoughts. “No, no! Not him, not–it’s him. He’s been shot. Please, you have to get down here. We’ll explain it then. But please, come quick. Her brother’s been shot, and it’s really bad. He–they don’t think he…” The boy trailed off, audibly swallowing. “Please, you have to hurry. I don’t know what she’s going to do if anything… if he… please, hurry.” His voice cracked through that, showing just how afraid and upset he really was.  

By that point, the patrol had moved on, so I asked what hospital they were at. Upon getting an answer, I promised to be right there and told him to stay with Murphy. Then I disconnected, shoved the phone away, and started to step out before pausing. I thought about waking Izzy up to let her know what was going on, but that didn’t seem fair. She deserved to sleep. I was pretty sure she hadn’t gotten back from her own patrol with Wobble until after ten, and we did have school in the morning. Yeah, let her sleep. Shaking that thought off, I instead scribbled a quick note for the girl that said I had gone out for a walk because I’d had ‘the dream about those cartoon Minions ending up in the hospital.’ I figured she could work things out from there. I left the note under my pillow, where we had promised we would leave such things if need be, then grabbed the bag with my costume and headed for the sliding door once more. After a quick glance around to assure myself that  the coast was clear, I quickly made my way out and off of the grounds. The whole while, a mess of conflicting thoughts were running through my head. Murphy’s brother had been shot? How? Why? What happened? Was she okay? Had she been there when– when whatever had happened was–yeah, I had to get to the hospital and find out what was going on. My brain was just spinning out wildly. 

Once I was far enough away from home, I used my phone to order a ride. When it showed up, I told the driver to head for the hospital, then got in and sat back. The place was too far away for me to get there easily under my own power, but I still felt anxious and helpless, just sitting there. It was all I could do not to rock back and forth in a silent attempt to force the car to move faster. 

Thankfully, the fact that I had asked him to go to the hospital in the middle of the night seemed to make the driver realize something was wrong. He set out immediately, pushing the speed limit right from the start. Only once did he ask if I wanted to talk about what was going on, and when I said no, he dropped it. Still, I did belatedly tell him that I had a friend who was there, and that my parents were both working overnight. He seemed to accept that, and promised we’d be there as soon as possible. Then he suited action to words by accelerating around the corner. 

He really did get us there pretty damn quickly and smoothly, so I wrote in a thirty dollar tip for the guy in the app before also tossing him three twenties from my pocket without thinking about it. Then I was out and heading across the lot. I was almost to the doors into the emergency room before realizing the problem. Looking down at my distinctly uncostumed self, I grimaced before cutting to the left. Heading around the far side of the hospital, I found my way to a grassy area that led up to some apartments. After looking around to make sure no one was looking, I red-painted my way to the roof of one of those buildings, where I quickly changed clothes and stowed my bag in a hidden spot under one of the bits of machinery up there. Then I sat down and sent a text to Roald, telling him to meet me near the dumpsters behind the east-most exit. 

It took about five minutes before I saw that side-door open as the boy came jogging out. He looked around before heading for the dumpsters in question. I made sure he wasn’t being followed before zipping my way down there to land on the edge of the short brick wall that surrounded the trash area. “Hey,” I spoke up, dropping down off that to land beside him. “What’s going on? What happened?” 

Jumping a bit at my arrival, the boy focused on me. “Paintball! I–she–” He took a breath and then told me what was going on. Apparently he and Murphy had run into some guy on the bus who wanted money from her brother. They got away from him and made it home. But shortly after Murphy had been in the apartment with her brother, there was some sort of drive-by and the guy from before had fired several times through the window, hitting Murphy’s brother repeatedly while shouting that he should have paid up. Roald had heard the shots and came running, before being the one to call 911. Now the guy–Tyson– was in emergency surgery while Murphy herself sat outside waiting with Roald’s older and younger sisters. The former was the one who had driven them down here. All in all, it wasn’t looking good. 

“She wants to go after him,” Roald informed me, his voice cracking a bit. “Paintball, she wants to go and find the guy who shot Ty. I’m pretty sure the only reason she’s still here is because she wants to hear about–I mean because she wants to be here if–I mean…” He trailed off, swallowing hard. “I think she might do something really bad if she goes off by herself.” 

My head shook. “Could she even find this guy? How would she know where to look?” 

Roald hesitated before explaining that the man, whose name was Luciano, had apparently been pretty busy that night. Murphy’s brother wasn’t the only guy he hit up for money. He had, according to what other people in the hospital and the cops themselves were saying, been calling in debts all over the city and shot up a couple other places while he was at it. They were putting three different drive-bys just tonight on the guy. Something had lit a fire under his ass and made him desperate to call in every bit of cash that anyone owed to him, or just kill a few of them to make others pay up. 

Apparently Murphy and Roald had been just around the corner from a few prostitutes who had been in the hospital recovering from one of those shootouts. The women were talking about what they’d told the cops who interrogated them, and made it clear none had squealed about the fact that Luciano spent a lot of time hanging out at some all-night laundromat owned by his cousin or something. That was where he did his deals. But they weren’t telling the cops that because they were more afraid of him and his gang than they were of lying to the police. 

Speaking of the cops, obviously they were involved here. But apparently Murphy didn’t exactly have a lot of confidence in them either. Which, given that the way she had grown up, I guess I couldn’t really blame her for that. I had been super privileged in basically every possible way. I was a rich white girl whose parents basically owned law enforcement. To say nothing of our own private security. And that was before I found out about the Ministry thing. Murphy, on the other hand, had seen a much worse side of things. She was mixed-race, which was close enough to black for the people who would give her shit about it, and had grown up poor. Her parents were already in prison, apparently for something that had to do with selling antidepressants and such on the street. So really, it was no wonder she wouldn’t have the best opinion of letting the police take care of the situation.  

Yeah, it sure sounded like she was planning on running out to try to deal with this guy herself. I had to do something about him first, before Murphy ran out and got herself… before she got hurt. Or worse. This guy had already almost killed her at least once tonight, if not twice depending on what he would have done if he had caught them when they ran off the bus. He wasn’t going to be nice. 

Taking a deep breath, I focused on the boy in front of me. “Tell Murphy to come out here. She’s not answering her phone. I’ll tell her that I’m going to go get the guy so she can focus on being here for Tyson. Just–tell her to come talk to me and I’ll make sure she knows this guy’s going down. I promise, he won’t get away with this. He’s going to prison tonight. But I need to talk to her first. I need her to know I’m taking care of it.” 

Roald gave a short nod before pivoting to run back inside. I kept an eye out, but there wasn’t much going on here by the side exit. All the action was around the emergency room. So, I was just left standing there tapping my foot while asking myself what I was actually going to do about this guy. Get to him, catch him, turn him in to the cops and let Murphy and Roald testify against him? If they would. Tyson too, assuming he–

The side door slammed open once more, and my gaze snapped up to see Roald running out full-tilt. “She’s gone!” he blurted, eyes wide as he got up to me. “She–he–he’s not… he’s gone. He’s gone. He didn’t make it. Ty didn’t make it through the surgery, and they said she–she ran out. Murphy took off, I think she went after him. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t with her and she took off! Some nurse was talking about someone stealing her car in there, I think she took it.” 

“Stay here,” I snapped. “What was the address of that laundromat again?” 

He gave it to me, and I spun around, using red paint to yank myself up toward the roof of the hospital. Before landing there, I popped my wheels out and skated that way. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I had to get there. I had to get to that laundromat before Murphy got herself killed by rushing inside. She just lost her brother, and with her parents being in prison, there wasn’t… she wasn’t… yeah. This was bad. It was really bad. I had to get there before it got even worse. 

The laundromat was a fair distance from the hospital, but too close for me to take the time to call for another ride. I had to hope that going across rooftops and such would make up Murphy’s headstart and the fact that she was in a car. I just–I had to hurry. That was all there was to it. I had to get there in time. I pushed myself to go even faster, painting green across my legs while using my pace-skates to pick up even more speed. The next couple of minutes were a total blur of racing from roof to roof, leaping, yanking, landing, running, gliding, rolling, and skidding my way as fast as possible, all in a desperate attempt to get to that laundromat in time. 

Finally, I reached the building across the street from the strip mall where the laundromat was supposed to be. Dropping to my stomach so I wouldn’t stand out, I lay on the edge of the roof and stared that way, eyes hunting for the place in question. There. It was in the exact middle of the shopping center, sandwiched between a bar and some sort of hair salon. There were people gathered out in front of the bar and the laundromat, and a few people inside the latter. It didn’t look like the ones in the store were doing any laundry. More like they were standing around and drinking just like the ones outside. It was definitely a gang hangout of some sort, but I couldn’t see anyone who fit the description of this Luciano guy. Not yet, anyway. Maybe he was in the back. 

Nor could I see any sign of Murphy. Which, considering the guys out front looked perfectly casual, I hoped meant she hadn’t made it here yet. But now that I was here and she apparently wasn’t, what was I supposed to do? Should I go down there and tell them to send Luciano out, or wait for Murphy? If I already had him detained, would she calm down? I wasn’t–I didn’t think–

And then that the decision was taken out of my hands, as a car came squealing around the corner. My gaze snapped that way just in time to see Murphy behind the wheel. Oh, she was wearing a ski mask, but I knew it was her. I’d certainly seen her wearing that mask often enough by now. She was right there, car squealing its way across the road before hopping the curb straight into the lot. Right, so she wasn’t in the mood for subtlety, then. She was grieving and lost. Her brother had just been killed, and she was going to do something about it. 

The question of what exactly she was going to do was answered a moment later when she brought the car to a squealing halt right in front of the laundromat. The group there between the store and the bar looked that way, just as Murphy hopped out of the car with–with a shotgun. She had a shotgun in her hands. I had no idea where she got that, but she was pointing it at those people. I could hear her high, strained voice scream for them to get Luciano, along with something about how if he thought he was going to get away with ‘putting her people back at the Twenty-Seven Club in the hospital, he had another thing coming.’ 

The Twenty-Seven Club. That was one of the places Luciano had shot up. So even now, even in this condition, Murphy was covering her identity by pretending she was here as a member of one of those groups to get payback for that shooting. 

When the guys hesitated, she pointed the shotgun at one of the nearby cars and pulled the trigger to blow out the tire, then pointed it at them again and repeated the order. Yeah, this was bad. Especially since I could see several of the men start to semi-subtly shift to spread out around her. But Murphy was in too much grief to notice what they were doing. If I didn’t get down there and do something, they would surround her. And then… and then nothing, because I wasn’t going to let that happen. 

Getting up, I backed away a few steps for a running start. Then I gave myself some more paint before sprinting that way. A shot of blue at the edge of the roof launched me into the air, and I flipped over before using red against a distant traffic light for momentum. Flying that way, I pointed with both hands, sending a wide spray of red at the group before activating that, along with a bit of orange on my boots. 

Landing beside Murphy just as the assortment of guys were all yanked together to crash into a heap, I caught the shotgun before she could reflexively point it at me. “Now, guys!” I called out. “I’m pretty sure the lady here wanted you to all stay in one spot, not spread out. Don’t screw up your choreography, you know how much the director hates that.” 

For a moment, the guys on the ground froze when they saw me there. Then, blurting out something about getting ‘the shit’ out of the back, they all scrambled up and took off. They split up, spreading out to run in all different directions. Some of them ran into the laundromat, a few back into the bar, and the rest scattered across the parking lot. None of them stuck around to fight. Which I definitely wasn’t going to argue with, but Luciano would definitely know we were here now. If the shotgun blast hadn’t already given it away. 

Speaking of which, I spun on my heel to find Murphy staring at me. I could see the tears in her eyes through the holes in the mask. “P-Paintball,” she managed quietly, voice breaking, “Ty–Ty didn’t–he–” 

“I know,” I quickly assured her. “Stay here. I’m going to go get that guy. He’s not getting away, I promise.”

Her head shook frantically. “No, no, I have to get him. I have to get him for Ty.” She was already moving to go around me, shotgun in one hand as she stumbled toward the door of the laundromat. Just as quickly, she spun back to me, lunging to tackle me to the ground. An instant later, after the other girl landed on top of me, I heard an explosive series of gunshots as someone inside the building opened up. Quickly, Murphy and I crawled around behind the car before they could adjust their aim. 

“Dunno how you walked out of that club without a bullet, bitch!” came a voice through the shattered window once the gunfire had stopped. “But I’ll be glad to make up for it. You and that fucking wannabe hero kid!” 

“Luciano,” Murphy snarled. Her hand grabbed the shotgun from the ground, and she started to push herself up before I caught hold of her arm to stop her. “Paintball!” she blurted, looking toward me. “It’s him, he can’t–” 

“He won’t get away with it,” I promised, grip tightening. “He is not going to get away. I won’t let that happen. But I’m not gonna let you get yourself killed either. Your brother wouldn’t want that.” 

For a moment, it looked like she was going to scream at me for that. And honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed her. But the girl caught herself, eyes closing tightly before focusing on me once more. “He’s mine,” she insisted in a voice that shook. “I have to help take him down, Paintball. I have to.” 

Pausing briefly, I glanced over my shoulder, listening to the sound of the man in question ordering his buddies to come flush us out. “Okay,” I murmured. “You can help take him down. But you listen to me, okay? We do this the smart way, not just by charging in. And we take him down for the cops. We arrest him and turn him in.” 

From the look in her eyes, I knew the girl wanted to argue with that. But she stopped herself, giving a short nod. It was clear that she was listening to the sound of the bad guys arguing about who had to come closer. They were clearly spooked, and none wanted to be the ones who came within shotgun or paint distance. But we were still running out of time. “Okay,” she murmured. “As long as he doesn’t get away.” 

“He won’t,” I assured her. 

“So here’s what we’re going to do.”

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Interlude 19A – Murphy and Roald (Summus Proelium)

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“Ready, set, go!” Standing near the dumpster in the alley behind Wren’s shop on Monday night (the day after Paintball had had that run-in with the Ninety-Niners), Alloy dropped her hand with that last word. At the call, Murphy, standing beside her, took off running. She raced straight toward the nearby wall. Ahead of her, four of Alloy’s marbles went flying in, transforming into flat circles about nine inches across. The bronze marble swooped down first, positioning itself about six inches off the ground, slightly ahead of the sprinting girl. The silver hovered a bit behind that, higher and to the left, while the purple and black were yet higher and further back. White and gold were being used as Alloy’s armor. 

Murphy’s foot hit the first transformed marble, then the second, and the third. By that point, the first had swooped up and around to rise up behind the fourth, and the second soon joined it. The marbles were forming a sort of rapidly-moving series of steps leading up toward the fire-escape balcony halfway up the building, allowing Murphy to climb them at a sprint without ever breaking stride. It showed just how much trust the girl had both in the marbles themselves, and in Alloy’s ability to control them. She only stumbled slightly once or twice, and the marbles were always there to quickly push her foot back into position. Soon, she was able to grab hold of the railing and haul herself up and over. Landing with a heavy metal clang, she raised both arms up and pivoted to face the ground below. “Whooo! And she sets a new record for the… floating marble stair climb event? We need a name for this. Hey, what was my time on that?” 

From where he stood on the opposite side of Alloy, Roald dryly replied, “You called it a new record before even knowing what your time was?” 

“Hey, I know I was going fast,” Murphy retorted, squinting down at her best friend. “I don’t need a stopwatch to tell me that much. But hey, you happen to have one. So spill the bananas.” 

Tilting her head toward the boy, Alloy asked, “Isn’t it usually spill the beans?” 

He, in turn, coughed. “Inside joke. Uh, it was a whole thing back in third grade with bananas in the lunchroom at school and… yeah.” Turning his attention to his phone, where he had the stopwatch app running, the boy called up, “Eleven point four two seconds!” 

“Told ya, new record!” Murphy crowed, before calling out. “Hey, help me down, would ya?” With that, she hauled herself back over the railing and dropped, just as two of the marbles obediently created a surfboard for the girl to land on and ride all the way back to the ground. “Whoo! Hey, you gonna beat my record or at least try to give me a challenge?” 

Blanching visibly, Roald shook his head. “No thanks, I think I’ll just let that one stand.” 

Before Murphy could tease him, Alloy spoke up. “Thanks, guys. Seriously, I just wanted some help working out the coordination between me and the marbles. You didn’t have to do something, you know, actually dangerous.”

“Meh,” Murphy shrugged, straightening up after stooping to rub her thumb over the silver marble as though it was a puppy that needed scritches. “I’ve done more dangerous stuff than that before we ever even met any of you guys.”  

“She’s not kidding,” Roald noted. “And definitely more illegal stuff. Like that time she stole a car when we were ten.” 

“I didn’t steal a car!” Murphy blurted, her reaction making it clear that this was a long-running debate. “The asshole mechanic promised it would only cost two hundred dollars to fix what was wrong with my brother’s car. Tyson did him a favor. Like, three favors actually. But when Ty went back to get it, suddenly it was supposed to be five hundred. And he wouldn’t give it back. So I… I took the keys off the board while they were arguing and drove it away.” 

“She couldn’t even see over the steering wheel and hit the gas at the same time,” Roald murmured with a small smile. “So she kept leaning down to hit the gas for a few seconds, then leaning up to see where she was going while the car coasted, then leaning down to hit the gas, just like that.” 

Murphy’s face had turned pink by then. “Yeah, well, I’m a better driver now.” 

“Uh, are you even old enough for a license yet?” Alloy questioned, glancing between the two. 

With a huff, the other girl pointed out, “I said I was a better driver. Not a more legal one.” 

“Right.” Shaking her head, Alloy snickered despite herself. “If my mom knew I was hanging out with terrible influences like you… well, she’d probably insist on dragging you both inside and shoving a Thanksgiving feast down your throats, honestly. That’s how she deals with that sort of thing. With lots of food. Pretty sure she’d insist on bringing your brother along too.”

“Oh, that’d go over well,” Murphy retorted with a snort. “Best holiday photo ever, my brother and your mom, fighting over the table full of food.”

“She’d probably try to make him wear a tie,” Alloy murmured, her amusement clear before she shook that off. “Anyway, thanks again. I’m going to come up with some new exercises for the whole coordination thing. Maybe even some that Roald won’t mind helping with.”  

“Hey, any time,” Murphy informed her. “Beats sweeping and mopping, anyway.” Quickly, she amended, “Not that we don’t, like, appreciate the opportunity or whatever. You know.” 

“Relax, I’m not gonna narc on you for not liking manual labor. I’m pretty sure everyone knows,” Alloy pointed out. “Besides, I’m sort of right alongside you, remember? I’m supposed to be working here too. Gotta keep my cover story intact.” 

“Great,” Murphy replied with a broad smile. “Next time, you get to mop out the restroom. You know, once the store officially reopens and all that.”

With a groan, Alloy lamented, “On second thought, maybe I’ll just go ahead and tell my mom I’m fighting supervillains.”  

While the three laughed at that, the back door of the shop opened, and Fred came out. “Oh hey, you’re all still here, good. Your new boss wanted me to hand these out.” He had a stack of envelopes in one hand. 

“The nine-year-old girl new boss, or the twelve-year-old boy new boss?” Roald questioned, with a glance to the other two as the absurdity of their situation really washed over him. 

Fred chuckled. “The latter. But really it’s from both of them. You’ve done good work around here. Paintball said to consider this an advance, or a signing bonus, whatever.” He extended the envelopes to all three of them. 

Taking hers, Murphy ripped it open before her eyes bulged. “What the–what–how–what?” She reached in, taking out a stack of twenty and fifty dollar bills. 

“Five hundred dollars for each of you,” Fred informed them. “Would’ve been more, but that one hasn’t done much work yet.” He nodded toward Alloy. “And you two are still working off your little escapade from before. Still, they wanted you to have something for the work you’ve been doing. It’s good work. Keep it up.” Belatedly, he added, “Seriously, keep it up. I’m kind of enjoying not being the one who has to sweep up around here. It’s nice.”

That said, the man walked back inside with a nod to them. As the door closed behind him, the three teenagers exchanged looks. Murphy found her voice first. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. I’m not eating off the dollar menu tonight. No, sir. It’s full-on combo time. Large sized, with a milkshake.” 

“Just don’t let Tyson see any of it,” Roald warned. “I get how you feel about him, but it’ll be gone in ten minutes. You know it too.” 

“Yeah, yeah.” Making a face, Murphy put the cash away in a pocket. “But I’m still getting food. Hey, maybe I’ll bring some for him too.” 

Glancing down at her phone, Alloy murmured, “I’ve gotta get home before Mom freaks out about curfew. Uh, you guys gonna be okay?” 

“Sure, we’ll take the bus. It’s cool.” Roald replied, glancing toward Murphy before adding, “Should we check to see if Wren and L-Lion need us?” He tripped a bit over the latter name, still finding it staggering that they were actually interacting with Touched to begin with, let alone someone like the mouse TONI. Having money in their pockets was strange enough on its own, but the actual facts of what their lives had become in such a short time was still unbelievable. The boy was generally half-convinced that he would wake up from this dream, and go back to the sort of life where throwing a rock through the door of a gas station so they could run in and grab as much food as they could stuff into their bags was the best way of feeding themselves.

Murphy, meanwhile, was shaking her head. “Dude, I tried to get their attention before we came out here, and they were just completely absorbed in their thing. And this is like the second day in a row they’ve been like this. Trust me, they’ll be fine. They’ve got Fred to get whatever they need. And something tells me they’re going to be having this whole meeting of the minds until like midnight. I’m not waiting around that long. Let’s just get out of here. Come on, remember, large combos. Milkshake. Not counting out pennies and asking for a water cup, then sneaking soda into it while they’re not looking. We’re living the good life.” 

Snorting at that, Alloy gestured. “Sure, you guys are totally living like the Evans or Banners now.” Sobering then, she added, “Seriously though, I’ll catch you guys tomorrow. We’ll do some more practice. I think my marbles are really starting to like you.” As though to prove that point, a couple of them moved up to dance in the air in front of their faces, clearly showing off before Alloy waved for the marbles to transform into a hoverboard. Then she was off, flying into the air. 

The pair watched her go before looking at one another. Roald spoke first, voice a bit awed. “She’s pretty cool, huh?” 

“Super-cool,” Murphy confirmed. “And I’m pretty sure she’s hot too. But come on, let’s get that bus. You know if we miss this one, they switch to that creepy driver.” 

They both shuddered at the thought before reaching down to grab their backpacks. Without another word, the two of them jogged out of the alley and made their way through the dark street to the nearest bus stop. Soon, they were on the bus and moved to the back, ignoring the curious glances they got. Both knew that being seen together tended to attract attention around here, given their appearances. Murphy was clearly mixed-race, with brown hair that was short enough to make people do a slight double-take as they worked out whether to classify her as male or female. Roald, on the other hand, was incredibly pale-skinned with longer blond hair, itself light enough to almost make someone wonder if he was albino. At a glance, many people reflexively thought of Roald as the female of the pair and Murphy as the male, before their brains had to adjust. 

Sitting in the back of the bus, the pair were already planning out where to stop near their apartment building to get food and carry it home. The two were in the middle of a debate about whether McDonalds or Wendy’s was better for that, when a shadow fell over them. Both looked up to see a heavyset Latino man with clearly dyed blonde dreadlocks perch himself on the edge of the seat across from them, feet firmly planted in the aisle. “I know you,” he said to Murphy. “You’re Ty’s little sister. Eleanor.” 

Making a face as the guy used her given first name rather than her preferred last, the girl corrected him. “It’s Murphy. Just Murphy.” 

“Well hey, Just Murphy,” the guy half-drawled. “Fancy meeting you here. See, the name’s  Luciano. Maybe you heard of me, maybe not. The point is, your brother owes me money, and he keeps ducking my calls. I don’t like it when people who owe me money duck my calls. Makes me feel ignored, you know? I really hate feeling ignored. Makes me just wanna lash out. Which isn’t good for anybody. I gotta talk to my therapist about that. But you know, she’s outta town. So I’m feeling some lashing coming on.” 

Murphy, in turn, retorted, “Yeah, well I’m sure you’ve got a lot of people who owe you money. What with that whole shoving drugs on them thing.” 

“Hey, I don’t shove shit on anyone,” Luciano objected with a slight snarl. “They come looking for me, let’s get that straight. Just like your big bro did. I did him a favor, hooked him up. Now he’s ghosting me. And hey, ain’t your folks locked up right now for slinging hard stuff?” 

“They sold antidepressants,” the girl shot back. “Not Fentanyl-laced crack, LSD, Heroin, any of that. Happy pills, not that shit.” 

“My shit makes people happy too, kid,” Luciano snapped, showing his teeth (many of which had been replaced with gold or silver caps. “And let’s not get off topic here. Your brother owes me, so the three of us, we’re going to go back to my place, then give him a call and see if he wants to get you back.” His gaze dipped down to take the girl in briefly before smiling once more. “Who knows, maybe if you’re real good, you can work off some of what he owes. Make it a little easier on everybody.” Even as he spoke, the guy used one hand to lift the bottom of his shirt, revealing the revolver stuck into his waistband to illustrate the implicit threat.  

Both friends froze for a moment, processing everything that had just happened and how quickly their situation had changed. Murphy finally shifted just a little, turning to face the man directly, since she had the aisle seat, with Roald next to the window. “Okay, fine, look. I have some money right here, if you just–” As she was speaking, she rose partway, reaching into her backpack. But it wasn’t cash she came out with. Instead, the girl produced a small canister of pepper spray, which she unleashed into the man’s face while he was anticipating cash. With a cry, the man fell backward in the seat, swiping at his eyes. Yet Murphy didn’t let up, continuing to spray it all over the man as she leaned over him to grab the cord against the opposite window. The ding signaling a requested stop filled the air, as the bus promptly began to move toward the curb. 

Both teenagers bolted toward the front of the bus together, while Luciano bellowed in pain and shouted threats. He was still swiping at his eyes as they practically shoved their way out the still-opening door, ignoring the driver blurting questions at them. The two could hear the drug dealer behind them, staggering toward the front while shouting for the driver not to go anywhere. 

Without looking back, Roald and Murphy took off running toward the nearest building, a three-story apartment place. Unfortunately, the door was locked and neither had any way in. An elderly woman taking mail out of her box within the lobby saw them knock at the door, but shot both a disgusted look before pointedly continuing down the hall. 

“Yeah, fuck you, old cunt!” Murphy shouted after her. “I hope you–” 

“Come on!” Roald interrupted, grabbing her arm. He yanked her, and the two of them took off again. By that point, Luciano had made it off the bus, still wiping at his eyes and coughing between blurted threats. He was fumbling for the revolver in his pants, while the pair made it to a nearby alley and darted through it. 

“Really would be nice,” Murphy managed between pants as they ran, “to have a couple of those marbles right now. Or any superpowers, really.”

“Just keep running,” Roald insisted. By that point, they had reached the end of the alley, where a wall blocked their path. But there was a much narrower space between buildings to the right, where they could squeeze through. It was full of trash and other, likely worse things that neither wanted to think about as they slid their way along. They could hear Luciano making his way through the alley, kicking over trash cans and shouting about what he was going to do when he found them. Yet the two reached the end of the narrow space, emerging into a rear parking lot behind the apartment building they had tried to get into before. Without any hesitation, they took off once more, racing through the lot, crossing the street at a sprint (causing two different cars to blare their horns at the two), cut through the lot of a car wash on the opposite side, then hop a couple fences to dash across the weed and rock-filled ‘lawns’ of nearby houses. 

By the time the two felt safe enough to stop running, they had gone three more blocks before stopping in the concealing shadows of a large tree to watch the way they had come for five minutes. When they saw no sign of the man who had been chasing them, both exhaled and slumped. 

“We could’ve given him the cash,” Roald pointed out. 

“Fuck that,” Murphy shot back. “It’s our money, not his. We earned it. Besides, you give a guy like that money and he’ll just keep coming back for more. Nothing’s ever enough. He’s a piece of shit leech.” She gave a visible shudder at how skeevy the man had been, before shoving it to the back of her mind. “Come on, now I’m really hungry after all that. I might just get two full combos.” She was clearly trying to play off what had just happened, but her voice shook a bit. 

Still, Roald wasn’t going to push things. With a slight nod, the boy gave one last look up and down the street before pushing off the tree. “Sure,” he murmured, “let’s get some food.” 

******

Some time later, Murphy told Roald good night while standing in front of the door of the apartment she shared with her brother. It was on the ground floor, while Roald and his family (his older and younger sisters) lived on the third. The stairs and doors were all on the outside of the building, with no interior space besides the apartments themselves. She watched her friend head up the steps, listening for the sound of him getting into his own apartment before going to unlock the door of hers. On the way, she glanced through the nearby window. In the gap between the curtain and the wall, she could see Tyson lounging on the couch, playing a game. 

“Hey, Ty!” Murphy forced enthusiasm into her voice while stepping inside. She took the time to lock, deadbolt, and chain the door behind her. “Got food!” Holding up the sack of burgers and fries, she stepped that way. “Figured it was my turn to cook.” 

Pushing himself to a sitting position, Tyson looked at her. He took more after their father, looking almost fully black without Murphy’s obvious mixed-heritage. His dark eyes were damp, as she belatedly realized he hadn’t been playing the game at all. He had been crying to himself. 

“Hey,” the boy murmured. “Why… why’d you come back? Before, I mean. I… I cut your face, Murph. Why’d you ever come back here with a fuck-up piece of shit like me?” 

Exhaling, Murphy stepped that way, sitting down on the couch beside him. “Shut up, dude. Take your burger. I know it’s not your fault.” 

“Not my fault,” Tyson muttered, shaking his head. He took the offered food, but didn’t unwrap it. Instead, he sat there, staring at the floor for a long moment. “I was supposed to give this cash to this guy, you know. Luciano. Had the cash and everything, after Jaylen finally paid up for that favor last week. But I didn’t. At first, I thought I would. I was going to. Then I was in front of this… place. This rehab place. I don’t even know how I got there. But I was standing there looking at it and all I could see was your face. After I cut it, I mean. All I could see was the stupid, fucked up shit I keep doing. So I uhh… I went inside. I paid ‘em. I gave them the money, got a reservation. Thirty days. It ain’t the best place, but they’ll take me.” 

“You… you’re going into rehab?” Murphy carefully asked, squinting at her brother. 

He nodded, pushing himself up from the couch. “Yeah. I just… I’m so sorry, Murph. I’m a fuck-up, and you deserve better than that. Especially with Mom and Dad gone and just–I’m gonna be better, okay? I’m gonna go into this place, get through rehab, get a job, a real one, and just… you and me, we’ll be alright. I promise. No more hard shit. No more… none of it. I’m done with all that.” Offering her a faint smile then, he extended his hand. “Ain’t gonna be easy, but we’ll be okay. You and me, ain’t nothing we can’t–” 

In that moment, as Murphy accepted his hand, a rapid series of deafening, cacophonous thunder cracks filled the air. The window shattered inward, glass spraying in every direction, as Tyson jerked repeatedly. His eyes met his sister’s, as he pitched forward, hitting the floor. Blood soaked through his shirt out of half a dozen holes in his back, as he lay in a heap on the floor. 

Through her own scream, Murphy heard the familiar voice from the bus shouting that he should’ve paid, followed by the sound of squealing tires. 

Then the car was gone, leaving Murphy clutching her brother as she screamed, through a grief-torn throat, for help. 

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Winging It 19-02 (Summus Proelium)

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As I had told Izzy, I wasn’t planning on going over to Wren’s place until after my whole thing with Lucent. But how could I possibly say no to Lion’s request to meet the girl? Well, okay, maybe Wren wouldn’t want to, and then I would say no. But something told me she wouldn’t.

Indeed, as I used my phone to call the girl in question and raised the subject, her answering squeal of joy made me flinch and wish that I could pull the Bluetooth thing away from my ear. It ahh, went on for a few seconds. Somewhere in the background, I heard the others quickly and repeatedly asking what was wrong. Oh, and they were also pleading with her to come down, so I could only imagine she had used her wing pack thing to fly up by the ceiling in her excitement.

“Trevithick!” I managed to cut in, glancing toward Lucent and Lion. From the way they both had their heads cocked as they looked toward me, I had the feeling they could hear at least part of that squeal and were amused. “Hey, if you really don’t want to meet her–” I started to tease. 

“No, no, no!” the kid immediately blurted. “I do! Yes, please! Bring her over! It’ll be great, it’ll be fun, are you serious? Is she really coming? It’s really the real Lion and she’ll come over?” 

Before I could respond to that, I heard a rather panicked Fred demand to know where Paintball had gotten a lion and why the hell I thought bringing it over there was a good idea. And that no, very firm no, absolutely no, she could not keep the lion. Also, was I/Paintball ‘completely nuts?’

Leaving Wren to explain the situation to her uncle for a moment, I looked at the two TONIs and cleared my throat before giving them a thumbs up. “I uh, think it’ll be okay. She’s really excited to meet you.” 

“And I to meet her,” Lion quickly assured me, tiny head bobbing up and down before jerking a bit to the side to watch as a car drove past in the distance. She turned just as sharply to look upward, and I glanced that way to see a bird flying past. The moment it had moved on and was no longer an immediate danger, her nose twitched and she snapped her head yet again, looking toward the gate nearby as a man walked out, heading down the sidewalk. 

Watching all that drove home just how vulnerable she must feel. She was even more intelligent than most humans, yet Lion was trapped in a body small and vulnerable enough that, without the armor she wore and her inventions for protection, a small human child could have killed her with a single kick. No wonder she was so nervous. And that didn’t even count all the actual predators out there who would have eaten her in an instant, without any regard for the things she could design and build. She had a mouse’s fearful instinct combined with a very intelligent understanding of just how vulnerable she could be. That must have been utterly terrifying. 

By that point, Wren had returned to the phone, her voice high with excitement as she urgently insisted that everything was fine and we should bring Lion over right now because she had so many things she wanted to ask about, and show her, and and and it went on. Yeah, she was basically losing her mind like a total fangirl at the very concept of meeting the mouse TONI. 

“Okay, okay,” I managed once I could get a word in edgewise. “But Trevithick, this is important. Do you want me to bring her to your shop directly, or do you want to meet her somewhere private?” I didn’t say it out loud, but I knew both she and the two in front of me would know what I was really asking. Which was, did she want Lion (and possibly Lucent) to know where her shop was and who she was, or did she want to keep her identity and place completely secret from them.  

In response, there was a pause. It told me that the kid was actually taking the question seriously, despite her excitement. I could picture her standing there, thoughtfully chewing her lip as she weighed the options back and forth a bit. “Hang on,” she finally replied. Then I heard her start a murmured conversation some distance away from the phone, talking to her uncle about it. And possibly to the others as well. Honestly, I was just glad she hadn’t dismissed the potential concern out of hand. Especially considering I still wasn’t completely positive that we could absolutely trust Lucent without question. Oh, I was pretty sure he was safe and all, but I wasn’t going to translate pretty sure into total certainty. Not when it came to something like my parents. 

Finally, the younger girl’s voice came back. “I want to ask her for ideas about protecting this place, so she should probably know where it is.” Unlike moments earlier, she was speaking calmly and rationally. It was clear she had put real thought into the answer. “It’ll be okay. ButI’mtotallywearingarealcostume!” The last bit came flooding out in a rush of words, followed by a lamenting squeal about how she had to find something good. 

Hoping that she was right about this being okay, I promised to be there soon, then disconnected and looked to the others “Well, guess it’s fine. You get to meet my friend, Trevithick. But umm, keep everything you find out to yourselves, please?” I wasn’t sure how to ask Lucent not to go as well. Despite the voice whispering in the back of my head that I can’t be certain he wasn’t compromised by the Ministry, I just couldn’t find the right words without being completely suspicious and rude. 

Fortunately, it turned out I didn’t have to find any words. Lucent himself gave what was the best bird-approximation of a bow. “I believe the invitation was for Lady Lion herself. Far be it from me to overstep. Perhaps you should take our exceptional friend here to meet this Trevithick, then meet me in some neutral location for our own training session while they converse?”

A swell of relief ran through me while I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. Yeah, I can do that.” Of course, then the relief turned into uncertainty as I looked down at Lion. “Um, do you mind if I carry you, or… umm…” Yeah, given how justifiably nervous she was, this was pretty awkward.  

Lion, for her part, turned a bit. “Jared, could you come out here, please?” 

Jared? Blinking uncertainly, I turned. Lion must have been speaking through a communicator or something, because it took a minute before the gate opened and a man emerged. Not that I would have noticed him if he hadn’t been the only person coming into view. In a crowd, he would have basically vanished completely. He looked completely ordinary and average in every conceivable way. He wasn’t short, and he wasn’t tall. He had dark hair with an unremarkable cut, his clothes were clean and might as well have been made by a company named Boring. He wore glasses, but they were so mundane that you would be forgiven for forgetting he had them at all five minutes after he walked away. The man seemed genetically predisposed to fade into the background of any situation, and everything he wore completely facilitated that. If I had seen this man in a crowd of people, I would have completely forgotten his existence a moment after they passed. Which, I was absolutely certain, was the intention. 

Stopping in front of us, the man offered a faint, polite smile. “Good morning,” he greeted me. 

“O-oh, umm, Paintball, this is ahh, my friend Jared,” Lion introduced us, raising one paw to gesture back and forth. “Jared, this ahh, this is Paintball. You uh, remember from the videos.”  

Videos? Oh God. As a pink flush of embarrassment crossed my hidden face, Jared gave a short nod and smiled at me. “You gave that demon guy a pretty good run across the city. Gave Lion and me a laugh, let me tell you.” 

Still blushing, I managed a casual shrug. “Yeah, well, I sorta had to run away, considering I wasn’t really in the mood to let him dribble me off the ground and toss me in a dumpster. My name is Paintball, not basketball.” 

“He could do it too,” Jared agreed with a grimace. “Glad you got away. And made him look like a fool in the process. But I hope you’re being careful.” 

My head bobbed. “Believe me, I have a lot to be careful about, it’s not just him.” 

“Indeed,” Lucent put in, “You have proven yourself quite adept at a great many things. But perhaps none as much as your proclivity for making enemies very quickly. The Scions and their admirers will not simply go quietly into the night. You must remain vigilant, and aware of your surroundings. I–” He paused before shaking his little bird head. “I will not attempt to insist that you join a larger group, particularly not now that you have gone so far as to attract others to your side and given yourselves a name. But please, be as careful as possible. And do not hesitate to ask others for help should you need it. I, for one, will always stand ready to swoop in and lend a wing, so to speak.” His dark eyes seemed to stare straight through my visor. “All parental jokes aside, I will be there the moment you request it. You have more than earned that aid. Please, you are enough of a hero as it is. Should the need arise, ask for help.” 

Feeling embarrassed and uncertain under the intense scrutiny, I squirmed a bit on my feet before mumbling an agreement. Then I turned back to Lion, as the little mouse carefully asked Jared to take off the backpack he was wearing. As a testament to how utterly mundane the man and his clothing were, I hadn’t even noticed he had one. But there it was. He carefully took the thing off. It was very simple-looking, a brown and white bag with what looked like a cheap padlock and several zippers across it. At a glance, the bag didn’t look any different than what you’d see on any of a thousand different backs walking through an average high school. But something told me it was much more unique than that.  

Sure enough, Lion explained that the bag was a home away from home. It held screens and microphones she could watch and communicate through, and was shielded in general against damage. Plus, there was a mouse-sized holdout bunker in the bottom that was capable of standing up against an incredible amount of damage if things got really bad. 

“Oh, you want me to wear that while we go visit Trevithick?” I realized. 

Her little mouse head bobbed quickly, voice emerging from the speakers built into her armor. “If you wouldn’t mind? I don’t umm, ahhh, think it would be very comfortable in your pocket.” 

Jared spoke up then. “You’ll have to wear this too.” He extended a hand, showing me a small pin. It looked just like a little silver eagle or hawk, with black beads for eyes. Except they weren’t beads. They were the lens for a camera. Jared explained that if I clipped it to the front of my costume, Lion would be able to see what I could. She could also see behind me through cameras in the bag, but this was her way of keeping an eye on what was going on in front of us. 

So, I carefully put the pin on, and Jared helped the mouse into the bag. We made sure it was all working and she could see and communicate with me properly before Lucent promised to talk to Lion later, and reiterated that he would see me somewhere else after I dropped off Lion. We settled on the roof of a grocery store we both knew about, and my bird-dad went flying off. 

Feeling a hand on my shoulder, I turned it to find Jared looking at me intently. “You be careful with her,” he warned. “The bag’s protected, but don’t go chasing problems while she’s there.”  

Before I could respond, the mouse’s projected voice came through speakers in the bag. “It’s ahh, okay, Jared. I’m sure um, Paintball will be ahh very cautious about running after trouble. Um, right?” Her voice took on a slight note of worry, probably considering my reputation in that moment.

Coughing under Jared’s intense stare, I weakly protested, “Oh, come on, I’m sure I can go five minutes without chasing after horrible bad guys or tripping over a bunch of crazy violence.” 

“Um, if it’s only five minutes,” Lion’s voice piped up once more, “maybe we should, ahh, hurry?” 

Jared warned me again not to go crazy, and I gave him a thumbs up before carefully adjusting the bag on my back. Cinching it tight, I spoke up. “Let me know if I need to slow down or anything. And uhh, I’ll avoid doing any flips.” With that, I raised a hand to shoot a blob of red paint toward the corner of nearby street light, and launched myself upward through a mix of that and blue paint under my feet, releasing the red on my way up so that I shot past it and used another red shot on the roof of a building across the street. Then we were flying that way. 

Landing on the roof in a jog, I asked, “How’re you doing in there? Everything okay? I can slow down if you want, or just take it easy on the jolts.” We were approaching the edge of the roof, but I slowed down to give her time to respond before the next jump. 

To my relief, she immediately chirped, “It’s quite alright, Mr. Paintball. The ahh bunker bag was built to dampen inertia and umm, compensate for sudden motion. You would have to move much faster than that to have any sort of problem. But umm, just in case, this–” There was a loud ringing sound, like an old telephone.  “–means please stop, there’s a problem.” 

Holding my hand in front of the pin-camera, I gave her a thumbs up. “That’ll definitely get my attention. Right, in that case, hold on. Or, you know, brace yourself.” 

With that, I pushed off from where I had stopped a few feet from the edge of the roof. Painting my legs green, I use the burst of speed to get there in an instant before activating purple circles on my arms. Using the boosted strength, I launched myself out into open air, windmilling a bit  before sending another shot of red at the side of the next building. I let it pull me that way, twisting a bit so that I landed feet-first against the wall, the gravity boots keeping me in place. Then I ran along that wall a few steps before using the voice code to make the wheels of my skates pop out. As we rolled toward the edge of the building, completely sideways, I called back, “Hope you’re ready back there, Miss Lion. 

“Cuz we’re about to have some fun.” 

*******

I didn’t go too nuts, of course. I kept my promise to avoid flips, for one thing. There might have been inertial dampeners in the bag, but I wasn’t sure how well they would stand up to going completely upside down. And I definitely didn’t want to test it with Lion in there. That felt like a really bad idea. Or at least a good way of ending up with an incredibly dizzy mouse. 

But I did make some long jumps and showed off a little, making sure Lion was okay after each one. She seemed to be enjoying herself, so I played it up a little more as we got closer to Wren’s place. Something told me she probably didn’t get out like this that often, so I wanted to make the whole thing memorable for her. Preferably without making her sick. 

Taking a moment at the end to make sure no one was close, I made my way through the alley leading up to the back of the shop while telling Lion that we were almost there. “Before you meet Trevithick,” I started, “there’s something about her that I should probably tell you ab–” 

“Paintball!” The back door of the shop was already open as we approached, and Wren came flying out. Literally flying, with her wing pack. As promised, she was wearing a costume… of sorts. It consisted of a sleek black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels along her arms, legs, and chest, and matching black helmet, covering her entire head and face. A pink-tinted visor ran across her eyes. 

She flew right up in the air at eye-level, and grabbed my shoulders, staring at me through that pink visor. “Didja bring her, is she here? You weren’t fibbing, were you? She’s really coming?” Her gaze was darting around excitedly, like a kid anticipating Santa’s arrival. Which, for a Tech-Touched like Wren, being able to talk to someone like Lion probably was a lot like Santa. I had a feeling there weren’t too many people the kid could talk shop with. 

Laughing a little despite myself, I nodded. “First of all, you really threw that together in ten minutes? And it’s okay, she’s here. Lion, this is Trevithick.” 

There was a very brief pause before Lion’s voice emerged, “It is ahh, a pleasure to meet you. Quite a pleasure. May umm, may we go inside so that it can be face to face?” 

Realizing she was in the bag, Wren gave a delighted squeal. She spun three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, all the way around in the air. Then she did it again, only that time it was a full forward vertical flip rather than a simple sideways spin. “Come on, come on!” Inverting in midair, she flew right back through the open doorway while calling back for us to follow her. 

Clearing my throat, I managed, “Like I was gonna say, she’s young. But really effective.” 

“I-umm, I believe you,” came the response. “From everything I’ve ahh, heard, her age is no detriment to her skill. She is the uhh, one who built the forced movement suit?” 

Right, of course she would know about that. Lion probably had contacts within all the Star-Touched groups to have learned about what we did with Ashton. Plus, she was clearly friendly with Lucent from the Seraphs, and they knew plenty because I’d ‘borrowed’ a piece of their technology for the suit. 

So, I nodded while heading to the door, not wanting to make Wren wait so long that she spontaneously combusted or something. Only belatedly did I realize that nodding was dumb, because Lion couldn’t see my head movements. Flushing a little inwardly while silently thanking the fact that no one had seen that, I spoke up. “Yeah, that’s her. She’s umm, she’s done a lot.” 

For a brief moment, I actually considered asking for her advice about Paige. But I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Not that she wasn’t trustworthy, probably. But it really wasn’t my place to go exposing Paige like that to someone she didn’t even know. After all, with my secrets, how would I feel if one of the others took it upon themselves to tell someone else about them? Even if they thought the person could help, I’d still feel pretty shitty about it. 

So no, unless Paige said it was okay, I wasn’t going to get into all that with her. It wasn’t my place to make that sort of decision. Besides, I still needed to ask her what the deal with her older sister was. 

By the time I shook that thought off, we’d entered through the back door. Immediately, I saw Wren hovering over by one of the tables full of junk, clutching the side of it with both hands while literally vibrating in midair. She was hovering there, staring without moving any closer. Because, I realized, she was literally holding onto the table to stop herself from lunging my way and demanding once more to meet Lion. 

Oh yeah, and the others were there too. Fred stood in the background, watching with a wary, uncertain expression. He wore no costume at all, of course. Meanwhile, Murphy and Roald stood on either side of him. In their case, my two…. helpers wore their ski masks. Apparently they weren’t on board with exposing their identities to Lion. Which was fair. Not that it would be impossible for the little mouse to figure out if she actually investigated Wren’s shop at all, but still. 

Apparently Peyton wasn’t here yet. If she was smart (smarter than me, at least) she’d be using this chance to sleep in and relax.

Rather than torture Wren any further, I stepped over to the nearest table and slipped the backpack off. As I put the thing down, a little slot in the front opened and the guest of honor hesitantly poked her nose out. She snipped cautiously once, twice, then stepped into view. Her small head was darting around rapidly, looking almost panicked as she took everything in. By contrast with her rapid motions, her voice was actually fairly calm (at least as calm as she seemed to ever sound). “Ah, hello. It is uhh, my pleasure to meet another… ahhh… Tech-Touched such as you, Miss.” 

A rush of fear ran through me that Wren was going to squeal or scream and lunge that way, terrifying the poor mouse. But she actually seemed to understand what a bad idea that was. I saw her physically take a breath, then lower herself back to the ground before taking a few careful steps closer. “H-hi, Miss Lion.” Oh, and she sounded nervous, rubbing the back of her new helmet and squirming. “I’m… umm, I’m Wren. It’s really nice to meet you. Oh, that’s Uncle Fred.” She gestured that way. “And those are… uhhh…” She trailed off, as both she and I realized we weren’t sure what to call the other two if we weren’t giving away their names. 

Murphy, however, was on top of it. She gestured to her friend. “That’s Calvin. I’m Hobbes. Don’t mind us, we just clean up around here. Umm, Miss Talking Brilliant Mouse Lady.” Much as she was still trying to keep her cool and sound disinterested, I could tell it was all Murphy (or Hobbes) could do not to have a little squealing fit of her own. 

While Lion politely thanked everyone for greeting her, I heard Roald quietly hiss, “Calvin and Hobbes?” to Murphy. 

“Look,” she hissed right back, “that was what jumped into my head. It was that or Yogi and Boo Boo. And guess who would’ve been Boo Boo.” 

Smirking a little despite myself, I turned my attention back to Lion and Wren. “So, you guys cool to talk some shop here while I run around for awhile?” 

“Oh, oh yes.” Lion assured me. “I ahh, I believe we will be quite fine in your absence. 

“There is quite a lot I would like to speak with Miss Wren about.” 

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Summus Proelium)

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

Murphy and Roald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is gonna be an awesome job.” 

********

Peyton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

Cavalcade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Brianna,” came the soft response. 

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Building Connections 16-13 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do I say?” Peyton echoed. 

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

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