Roald Nilsen

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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Building Connections 16-11 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HELP

DAD

VIRUS

SECOND

ME

COPY

TRYING

ERASE

REPLACE

KILL

HELP

PLEASE

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

“We have to start saving Paige right now.”

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Building Connections 16-04 And Patreon Snippets 19B (Summus Proelium)

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So, after a very quick detour to grab the girl’s phone from where she had apparently dropped it, I helped her get away from that scene. She was freaking out about needing to go home before her mother found out what she was involved in, but waited at least long enough for me to give her my number to stay in contact. There was a moment after that where it looked like she was going to say something important. She looked at me awhand I saw uncertainty in her eyes, visible through the helmet. But in the end, she just shook her head and promised to text eventually. 

Then, with the sound of sirens still filling the air as more Emergency Services arrived, she took off running out of the alley we were in. For a moment, I stood there and watched her leave before shaking my head. What was I going to do when she did call? Should I point her toward the Minority? What if she asked what I thought of them? What was I supposed to say to that? I didn’t even know this girl at all. I couldn’t just start telling her about the Ministry and all that shit. Even if she was a good person, which I didn’t really know at all (though risking her life to help those hostages was a really good indicator, to be fair), I still didn’t know how she might react to the actual truth. I had no idea how good she was at keeping a secret, especially not one that huge. Or if she would even want to. For all I knew, she would see the Ministry as a great thing and immediately side with them. I really had no idea what would happen if I told her the truth. 

Right, sigh. So, at the moment I had absolutely no idea what to do about the girl. Which was an ongoing theme. Hopefully, I would think of something useful and stop being so indecisive before she called. But for now, I needed to put it aside and focus on other things. Important things, like-

“So, who’s the chick with the sweet armor?” 

Taken completely by surprise when the voice behind me suddenly spoke up, I spun that way to see a different armored figure standing over by the nearby dumpster. Of course, I immediately recognized her. “Broadway?” I found myself blurting the La Casa Touched’s name. Suddenly, I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I wasn’t exactly as close with her as I was with Pack, and the lizard-controlling girl didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. I didn’t know Broadway at all, though the fact that she had helped save me from Pencil was about a million points in her favor. So I wasn’t exactly on my guard. But I wasn’t relaxed either. 

She, in turn, actually giggled at my reaction, taking a moment before speaking again. A moment which gave me time to take her in a bit more fully. As always, Broadway wore dark-purple armor with white speaker system vents all over it. Her helmet was the same color purple, with three vertical speaker vents where the girl’s ears would be, angled forward. There was a wide V-shaped visor over the face part of the helmet, where a series of bright, multi-colored lines bounced back and forth in rhythm with the words whenever she actually spoke. 

“You know her name?” the girl asked, making those lines dance with her words. “Tell me she’s got a name–wait, no, if she doesn’t it’ll be cool to come up with a good La Casa name for her.” 

Squinting at her, I shook my head. “She’s not joining La Casa, or any other gang. She just helped stop your allies from holding hostages over there, you know.” I gestured back toward the shopping center with those words. “And hey, speaking of which, since I was just fighting them, shouldn’t you be like… swearing vengeance or starting some kind of brawl or whatever?” 

“Meh,” she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand, sounding fairly bored. “Whatever. I mean, Easy Eights and us, we’re basically allies in the sense that… Churchill and Stalin were allies? The slightly lesser asshole of the bigger asshole is my asshole. Or something like that.” 

“You know, Stalin killed an awful lot of people before he was done,” I pointed out flatly. 

“True,” the girl agreed, head tilting just a little as she looked at me. “The point is, I wouldn’t say we’re exactly friends. And personally, I definitely don’t care what you did to stop them from whatever the hell that was. I’m more in this whole thing for the fun, the rush, you know? Not taking hostages and hurting people.” 

For a moment, I just stared at her. “You really think your boss doesn’t hurt people just like these guys were? Cuz I’ve got news for you, he definitely takes hostages too. He steals from innocent people, and innocent people get hurt because of things he does. Just because he’s more–I dunno, classy and cool about it doesn’t make him some upstanding figure or anything.”  

“Yeah, that’s fair,” the girl easily agreed. “Never said we were great people or anything. But there’s like… levels of that shit. The people I work with try to avoid putting civilians in unnecessary danger, though scaring them’s a bit fun. We don’t go out of our way to kill and torture anybody, and most of the shit we take is insured stuff from businesses anyway. You don’t see me mugging old ladies on the street, do you? Hell no. You can call it petty justification or whatever, but the way I see it, capitalism is a fucking failure that just makes the rich get richer and stomps on the poor. Anything I can do to fuck with that system and have a little fun while I’m at it is fine with me.” She pointed to her own armored chest then. “I’m not a hero, never claimed to be anything of the sort. But I’ve got my own standards, and I stick with them. Blackjack, he’s got standards too. He keeps his word, he lets us refuse jobs that make us uncomfortable, he doesn’t intentionally go after innocent civilians or target people like that. And right now, he’s fighting a war to deal with people who tried to let his kid die. Gotta say, I’m totally onboard with that. You would be too, if you ever met the kid.”

“Of course I want the people who almost got Blackjack’s daughter killed to be brought to justice,” I pointed out. “Not just for that, but for everything else they’ve done too. But if your boss really wants them to pay, he could just work with…” Then I trailed off. He could work with who? The authorities? I knew the truth. The Ministry would only allow Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners to be brought to justice if it worked for their bottom line. They were allowing this war to happen, probably because doing so would keep Blackjack on their side. But that didn’t mean they’d just let the cops actually put them all away. I had a feeling that whatever came out of this war, my parents and their business would somehow end up in an even better position than before. 

Broadway, arms folded across her chest, had clearly noticed the way I trailed off. But she didn’t actually address it. Instead, the girl offered me a simple shrug. “It’s complicated. I chose my side and I stick with it. You, on the other hand, seem really confused about where you want to be. You won’t join the Minority or any of the other heroes, and you helped my boss get those vials. You’re even like… sort of friends with good ol’ Pack. But you won’t join us either. You’re right in the middle of this whole thing, you know? Whose side are you really on?” 

For a moment, I was silent. Then I let out a breath and looked back to her to reply firmly, “I’m on whatever side protects innocent people at the time. The rest of this, I don’t–I don’t know. Sometimes the Star-Touched are right, sometimes the Fell-Touched are. It’d help if–” Again, I stopped myself. Fuck. I couldn’t say ‘if the Ministry wasn’t a thing.’ Instead, I ended that with, “It’d help if it was actually simple. But it’s not.” 

Broadway pointed at me. “Hey, I’m pretty sure that’s the smartest thing I’ve heard you say. You’re right, it’s complicated. But just to be clear, I’m still a bad guy most of the time. And I’m okay with that. I steal some things, break other things, piss people off, and you know what? I have one hell of a fun time doing it. I think you could have a lot of fun too if you just let go a bit.” 

My eyes, hidden behind the helmet, narrowed. “Were you here trying to recruit me, or that new girl?” 

I could hear the grin in her voice. “Hey, whatever works. I wouldn’t mind getting a two-for-one deal.” She paused then, watching me for a moment before adding, “Does this mean you’re not giving me her number or name?” 

“I don’t have either,” I retorted honestly. “She’s brand–never mind. You know, we’re probably supposed to be fighting right now or something.” 

“You saying you wanna wrestle?” came her response with obvious amusement. “Sorry, buddy, I think I’m a little too old for you.” With that, she held out both hands to either side. “Actually, to be honest, I mostly came over to make sure you were okay. For Pack’s sake. She likes you. But not like that, don’t get any ideas. She’s more into That-A-Way, if you get my drift. Though that was less drifting and more plowing straight through the wall.” 

That-A-Way and Pack. They were–oh right. Blinking at that, I started to say something before catching myself. There was no reaction I could have that wouldn’t either just amuse her or give the girl way too much information. Instead, I just managed a slightly weak, “I’ll uhh, keep that in mind, thanks, I guess. But you’re still not gonna recruit that girl.” 

That earned me a thumbs up. “We’ll see, PB. It’ll be fun to find out where she ends up. And hey, glad to see those guys didn’t rough you up too bad. I’ll let Pack know you’re cool.” 

With that, she gave me a salute, then pointed up and over my head to the roof of the nearby building. The sound of a dog barking came from her armored gauntlet, as the girl vanished, teleporting along the soundwaves. 

Which left me standing there, belatedly realizing that one of the phones in my pocket had gone off a couple times already. Quickly, I took it out to check. It was the Touched phone, with messages from Wren wanting to know if everything was okay now since she’d been watching reports online about what was going on. There was an adorably rambling bit about how she didn’t want to send any message while I was busy fighting bad guys but now the news said the fight was over but wasn’t saying anything about me so was I really okay and what happened, etc. It was a pretty long run-on sentence which ended with, ‘PLZ CALL PLZ’ and then a series of hugging bear emojis. So yeah, pretty freaking adorable. 

Of course, how could I make her keep worrying? I had to let her and the others know I was okay. But first, I used red paint to pull myself up to the roof of another building (different from the one Broadway had used), looking around to make sure I was alone. Only once I was satisfied did I hit the button on the phone to connect with Wren’s, using the bluetooth in my ear rather than the actual phone itself for the conversation. 

“Paintball?!” came the blurted word after the phone had gone for like… half a ring. 

“Hey, kid,” I quickly confirmed. “Everything’s fine. I’m on my way. How’re my new friends doing?” 

There was a very brief pause at that before the girl’s voice returned, sounding just a little scolding. “They were really surprised when we met them.” 

Snorting despite myself at the thought of those two finding out just who their boss was, I admitted, “Yeah, I’m sorry I missed it. Anyway, things are good here. I’ll be at the store in just a few minutes. Everything okay besides that little surprise?” 

She confirmed that things were chill there, and I disconnected before heading off. Time to pick up the pace a bit. I still had about an hour before I needed to head home for family dinner, but still, I definitely wanted to at least say more than two words to the people who were supposed to be helping Wren. Especially now that they knew just who they were going to be working for. 

Again, I was really sad that I’d missed that reaction. 

In any case, I managed to make it back to Wren’s shop in record time, even with taking a short loop to make sure no one was following me. Then I moved to the back door and hit the buzzer to be let in. The moment I did, Wren was right there, wanting to know everything that had happened. Behind her, I saw Murphy and Roald watching the whole thing from next to one of the shelves full of random junk in the middle of the main pawnshop floor. It looked like they had already been set to work organizing things. Which was almost unfair, given how chaotic the whole shop was. It was definitely a job that would take awhile. 

So, for all three of their benefits (as well as Fred’s, as the man came downstairs just after the start), I explained everything that had happened, including meeting the new girl. It was during that part that Murphy finally piped up. “So that girl just got her powers because those fucks attacked the place she was shopping at?” 

Pausing, I shrugged. “That’s what it seems like, yeah. She definitely wasn’t used to them, that’s for sure. She didn’t have a name or anything. But she’s got my number, so hopefully she’ll call back.” 

“You gonna tell her to go to the Minority?” That was Roald, his voice sounding curious. Belatedly, I realized he was also curious about why I myself hadn’t gone there. Apparently everybody wanted to know that these days. Either way, it was a fairly clever way of getting around outright asking the obvious question, and I gave the boy a brief, appraising look. 

Before I could respond, however, Wren piped up. “You should tell her to join our team! We don’t need no Minority! She can be with us.” Giving me a dual thumbs-up, the girl added, “Besides, you said she was afraid of her mom finding out about it, right? If she goes to the Minority, they have to tell her parents. If she comes here, we don’t. Plus, we get another person on our team. See? Perfect plan.” 

“We have a team now?” I asked, watching the girl. 

“Well, it’s either a team or a gang,” Wren pointed out. “Team sounds better. I mean, you already have minions!” She flailed both hands randomly back toward the other two. 

“Oh my God, they’re not minions!” I insisted with a groan. 

Wren, of course, chose that moment to pivot back that way and demanded, “Guys, what are you?” 

That, of course, made Murphy and Roald look at each other. There was a moment of mostly-silent conversation with a few muttered words before both turned back and nodded, the girl speaking. “Yeah, we’re minions.” 

“Cool with that,” Roald confirmed. “Long as you don’t make us wear blue overalls and speak gibberish.” 

“And become weirdly associated with incredibly stupid antivax mothers on the internet,” Murphy added. 

“I’ll uhh, do my best not to let that happen,” I managed with a soft cough, shaking my head. “But seriously, you guys are just–I mean… I’m not gonna–look, you’re here to help and I appreciate that. Seriously. You’ll get paid just to work here in the store, not to go out and get in trouble.” 

“Whatever,” Murphy replied. “You want help, we can help. Better than stealing shit and going hungry. Or ending up in jail. Or dead.” 

“She means there’s a lot worse options than playing minio–assistants to a superhero,” Roald added. “We get paid here, we get to work without involving drugs or hurting people, it’s…” He paused, seeming to search for the right words before settling on, “It’s cool.” 

“Really cool,” Murphy put in. “If you need more than just some clean-up and shelf stocking, you let us know. Seriously, we don’t have like–you know, powers or anything, but we can do other things. Whatever you need. We–uhh…” She kicked the floor, suddenly looking self-conscious. “We wanna help.” 

“Okay, but… I’m still not gonna put you guys in any more danger than I have to,” I insisted. “I’m glad you’re here and willing to do stuff, but just… just focus on helping Wren.” 

We talked a little more, I promised to let them know if I needed more help and about what happened with the newly-Touched girl. Then it was about time to head home for dinner. But first, I went upstairs to see the still comatose Paige. 

Standing by the motionless figure, I hesitated, putting my hand in hers and squeezing it. “Sorry this is taking so long,” I murmured, unsure if she had any idea I was even there, let alone speaking. “But I swear, we’ll find the right person. I’ll find whatever we need to fix you and wake you up. Just hold on a bit longer, okay?” Then I snorted. “What do I mean, hold on? You’re just taking a little nap, right? You probably won’t even know any time has passed by the time we turn yo–by the time we wake you up.” 

Still, standing there, staring at the girl, I couldn’t help but feel like I was failing. She was counting on me and I was failing. It felt like there was a time limit, like… like there was some bomb counting down and if it hit zero, everything would… what, explode? 

I didn’t know. But one thing was for certain. We needed to help Paige and wake her up as soon as possible. Maybe then the awful feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach whenever I looked at her lying unconscious like that would go away. At the very least, it would be nice to scratch one damn thing off my to-do list. 

And hey, at least my whole encounter with the new girl and that conversation with Broadway were two more examples of how I was gradually building connections in this city. 

Wait a second.

Hold up. 

I was building connections… I had built more connections… made… connections.

That was it. I had an idea. 

I knew how we were going to break into that base under the mall.

Patreon Snippets 19B – Lightning Bug

“C’mon, c’mon guys, we gotta go to bed in a hour! That’s like–that’s a, that’s less than a movie. That’s like half a Frozen. They didna even make it to the ice castle in half a Frozen!”

The blurted, rushed words in the doorway of the brightly lit room heralded the arrival of what was quite possibly one of the strangest-looking Conga lines in anyone’s memory. At the head, and the one speaking, was the small, red-skinned five-year-old girl with long white hair, too-large compound blue eyes, and insect-like wings. Her arms were outstretched to hold onto a truly massive (relative to her size) bowl full of popcorn. The bowl was decorated with images of fairies flying through some trees, surrounded by various insects. It was known as the Bug Bowl, the closest thing they had to something that showed the girl and her friends, with the fairies standing in as images of Lightning Bug herself. Despite its size, the girl ate all of her snacks and treats out of it, along with some of her meals, even when they only filled a very small portion of the actual bowl. While her arms were full of the bowl, in one hand she also carried her ‘Bug Cup’, a bright blue sippy cup with a lid shaped like a ladybug. 

Behind the bowl and cup-bearing girl came the rest of their strange Conga line in the form of the five-and-a-half foot tall praying mantis named Simminin (Or Cinnamon), the three-foot-tall emerald-green beetle named Snugglebug, and then much smaller (but still relatively enormous) cat-sized and metallic purple-colored Orchid bee named Kenobee bringing up the rear.

The room they entered together was the entertainment room of the penthouse apartment where Bug and her mommy lived with Aunt Hana. The room had a massive flatscreen television that was hung up in the middle of the wall, surrounded by a big couch and several chairs. There were even several video game systems set up on the nearby shelf. But Bug and her companions ignored all of that, instead moving to the other corner of the room, where several fluffy cushions and a couple beanbag chairs lay haphazardly around a second television that was set close to the floor. A plastic table nearby held various half-finished crayon drawings, a few toys, and a computer pad covered by a shock-proof plastic shield with large, colorful designs. 

Plopping herself down on one of the bean bags while her trio of insect friends spread out to perch themselves around her on various cushions, Lightning Bug carefully settled the bowl in her lap and put the cup on the nearby table. Then she picked up the computer pad and tapped it a few times. As she did so, the screen of the nearby television popped on to display the YouTube homepage. From there, Bug typed in her search request very carefully, tongue poking out the side of her mouth as she painstakingly typed the right letters while sounding them out. Partway through, she turned a bit in her seat and called loudly toward the doorway. “Mommy, what’s the letter for T?! Tuh Tee Tuh Tee.” She giggled then, happily repeating the sounds to herself to the point that she nearly forgot what it was she was actually asking. 

A moment later, her mother appeared in the doorway. Out of her public-people costume, Bug’s mother was an Asian-American woman of mixed descent, with short, close-cropped black hair and a faint, barely visible scar across one side of her face, from her cheek, over her right eye, and up to her forehead. She held her phone in one hand, telling whoever was on the other end to hold a moment. “T, Buggy? Hold up the pointing finger.” As her daughter did so, holding up an index finger, she added, “Now put the other pointing finger on top.” A fond chuckle escaped the woman as the young girl put the tip of her other finger against the tip of the first, so they were pointing to each other. “Good try, other way, see? Sideways. There you go!” She smiled when the girl got it right. “Like that. You see it? The T looks like–yup, good job!” 

While her mother went back to the call, Bug finished typing in her search request, then scrolled her finger along the screen of the pad while watching the television until she found the video she wanted. It took a couple tries, but eventually she got it. “Oh, oh, this is a good one! It’s really funny.” With that promise to her trio of insect friends (all of whom were watching the screen with far more understanding and intelligence than should have been possible), she started to hit play, only to be stopped as Simminin bumped one claw gently against her arm, somehow managing to look beseechingly at her.

“Oh! Sorry, guys.” Quickly, the young girl reached into the big bowl in her lap. She began producing several smaller bowls that had been stacked up inside it. The first, which she set it down in front of Simminin herself, was full of small dead crickets. The second, placed in front of the cushion where Snugglebug had draped himself, had seeds, bits of leaves, pieces of dry fruit, and some honey mixed in. Finally, the bowl she put in front of Kenobee’s perched form held a sugar-nectar mix, which the bee immediately stuck his face up against to start slurping from. 

Now all her friends had their respective treats, Bug took a handful of popcorn out of the bowl for herself, then hit play on the computer pad while shoveling the snack into her own mouth. 

Immediately, a video about Paintball started up. She’d seen it before, of course, but this one was one of her absolute favorites. It was a combination of scenes from people’s phones and the news all about Mr. Ball jumping and flying through the air, and making bad guys look dumb. The music in the video came from one of the Super Mario Brothers games, and whoever made it put in the Mario jumping sound effect whenever Paintball bounced around, along with various ‘jump on an enemy’ sounds when bad guys were hit. It was funny every time, and Bug was quickly doubled over in the seat, laughing so much her mother poked her head in once or twice to make sure she was okay. 

For most of the hour she had before her bedtime, Lightning Bug watched more videos, alternately bouncing in her beanbag chair and hovering above it with her rapidly beating wings. The videos weren’t all about Paintball. Some of them were about Aunt Hana or Mommy. Or other people. But the Paintball ones were her favorites. There was just something about the colorful, bouncy Star-Touched that made for fun videos. Some of the videos were mean, like with the dumb guys who said Paintball should stop being selfish and join a team. She turned those ones off really quick. 

In the midst of watching another of the fun ones, Bug pointed. “Look!” she blurted, as though her insect trio’s eyes weren’t already firmly fixated on the screen, “it’s Mr. Lucent!” 

Sure enough, on that particular video, someone had captured the image of Lucent the Touched-Raven perched on a lamppost as he watched Paintball jumping through the air in the distance. The video, taken from the high-up balcony of a hotel room, went on to show Lucent follow Paintball for a short distance, before diving away into an alley. From there, the video switched to showing various scenes of Paintball and Lucent each fighting criminals at different times (none of them together, but the video made it look like they were), while a song about fathers and sons played. 

Eventually, Bug’s time with the videos ended as her mother called that it was time for her bath. Finishing the last of the juice from her cup, the girl hit the button on the pad to turn off the TV before pushing herself up. “C’mon, you can help Mommy!” she announced while starting to leave. 

It was fun watching videos about Paintball. Bug really hoped she would visit again soon and make more pretty designs for her friends. 

He. She hoped he would visit again soon, Lightning Bug told herself sternly. He, he, he. She had to make herself think of Paintball as a he. 

After all, she wasn’t supposed to give away people’s secrets.

A/N: Do YOU have an idea of what Peyton’s Touched name should be? Just like when Cassidy got her name, I’m leaving it up to you guys to decide what it should be. Submit your suggestions either in the comments of this chapter OR via e-mail to ceruleanscrawling(at)gmail.com and a future chapter will list as many possibilities as I can out of what is given. After that chapter, I’ll list the possibilities again and everyone will be allowed to vote on them.

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Building Connections 16-01 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“Hold up, wait just a second. Wait, so let me get this straight, you just came right out and asked for someone to help you fix a Touched-Tech robot-android thing on a public forum?” 

The incredulous words were from Pack, who stood in one corner of Wren’s upstairs lab at the shop, staring at me as if I’d just told her I was engaged to marry the Abyssal Typhon. 

It was Tuesday, April 14th, the next day after my interesting dinner with Caishen, Skip, Lightning Bug… and my parents. I’d spent some time after they left just hanging out with Bug, playing with her insect friends (and making them pretty, of course). Eventually, I’d promised to visit again soon and made my exit. Then I’d told Izzy all about what happened while we were safe in my room, which was… yeah. Just being able to tell someone else about the near-panic attack I’d had when I saw my parents there, and all the way through it, was basically a life saver. Or at least a sanity saver. 

Anyway, now it was the next day, shortly after school had let out. Pack and I had arrived at roughly the same time, which made me wonder how far away her school was. Did she even still go to school as a supervillain member of La Casa? Or was there like a… work-study program? 

Coughing while pushing that thought away, I held up both hands quickly, glancing off to the side where Wren was carefully running the new scanner she’d made over every inch of Paige, who lay motionless on a padded table. “Not exactly,” I corrected. “I’m not that stupid. Like I said, Lion told me about that secret code to privately hire Tech-Touched, so I’m just… feeling it out. I’m not giving any details yet. I’m seeing who bites and chatting with them a bit. Just, you know, feeling them out. It’s a potential option.” 

I couldn’t see her face, of course. But from her body language alone, I was pretty sure Pack wasn’t exactly convinced. A side glance toward her cage full of lizards sitting on a nearby equipment table showed that they seemed to be just as doubtful about the situation. Which, honestly, was a really weird impression to be getting from a group of reptiles to begin with.

With a sigh, Pack started to respond. “Look, I know I don’t need to tell you about the dangers of trusting anyone you talk to online and the whole stranger-danger, pedo–” She stopped, choking a bit before giving me what was clearly a sharp look. “I don’t have to tell you about that, right?” 

Squinting at her from behind the mask and helmet for a long, silent moment, I very slowly shook my head while keeping my voice even and flat. “I’ve had the discussion a few times before.” 

“Good, just… good.” Sounding almost insultingly relieved, Pack pushed on. “The point is, just because you think someone might sound trustworthy in a few internet conversations doesn’t mean they are. Don’t do anything crazy that you might regret, okay? It’s not like you’ll get a second chance if whoever you bring in here happens to blab about the whole situation.” 

“I’m not gonna do anything crazy,” I solemnly promised, raising my hand as though taking an oath. “I wouldn’t bring anyone in without seeing what you guys thought anyway. Not with something that important. Just–believe me, I won’t be stupid about it. But we have to do something, and soon.” With that, I glanced over to Wren again, who was still working.

Pack hesitated, watching me for a moment before giving a very short nod. “We will, Paintball. Trust me, I know it’s easy to feel… you know, fucking anxious and shit about all this. But we’ll figure it out. You said yourself there’s no real rush. The girl’s fine over there, just sleeping. And honestly, if we were in a rush, I’d rather trust Eits to get in there and fix the damn orb thing.” She shrugged. “Even if that meant finding a way to get to it. You sure you can’t just pink paint it?” 

Grimacing slightly, I offered a hesitant shrug before admitting, “I dunno. I’ve never really pulled someone’s body, uhh… apart or open like that. It just stretches the body part out like taffy. And I’m afraid–I mean, what if it does actual damage? Like, the part that’s painted is protected, but what if I rip open her stomach or whatever and expose her inner… uhh… organs and that goes wrong? I’m pretty sure they have super sterile operating rooms for a reason. And like, a bajillion years of lessons about how to safely open someone up.” My face twisted a little at my own words. “Plus I’d have to keep reapplying the paint or the whole thing would just, umm, schloop back. And that’s if it works to begin with.” 

“Too bad you don’t have another biolem body to practice with,” Pack noted thoughtfully. 

Before either of us could pursue the thought any further, Wren called out, “Got it, I got it!” 

“You sure, kid?” Pack asked while immediately stepping over that way with me just behind her. 

Wren, who was perched on a stool with the scanner against Paige’s back as the other girl’s motionless body lay on her stomach, gave both of us a hurried nod of excitement. “Uh huh. I mean, unless she’s got some other metal orb thing in her body that’s connected to all her nerves and muscles and all for a completely unrelated reason.” Pausing as though considering that, she quickly shook her head, pointing to a point about midway down Paige’s back before hurriedly insisting. “It’s here. Right in there. Basically right between her lungs. You know, protected by the ribs.” 

Exchanging a look with Pack, I slowly nodded. “I mean, that makes sense. Her dad would want it to be safe. He put the others inside the skulls, but maybe he thought avoiding obvious headshot damage would be easier?” Shrugging, I added, “Anyway, great job, Wren. At least we know where it is now. And if it’s in her chest instead of her head, maybe it’ll be easier to get someone else involved without exposing her identity. I mean, we can mask her up pretty well, right? If it comes down to it, we can just hide her identity that way. They’d know there was a really good biological android… person, but not who she actually is.” 

It was Wren and Pack’s turn to exchange looks, before the latter shrugged. “Sure, it’s an idea.” 

For a moment, it looked like she was going to say something else, but a sudden chirp from my phone interrupted. Holding up a hand, I glanced at the phone. “Oh, hey, it’s time for me to go pick up my uhh…” 

“Your minions?” From the tone of her voice, Pack was incredibly amused by the whole situation. With a wave of both hands, she teased, “Time for the noble and incredibly valiant Star-Touched hero to go meet up with the older teenagers he press-ganged into being his loyal minions.” 

Boy was I glad the helmet meant she couldn’t see my blush. It really would’ve wrecked my rep. Or something. “They are not minions!” I blurted, my voice rising in an embarrassing squeak that Pack did an absolutely awful job of pretending not to laugh at. Hurried, I pushed on. “I mean they’re not–I’m not–they’re just… you know, helping out in exchange for not getting in trouble and then we’ll give them money if they keep helping and keeping everything we’re doing secret and oh my God they really are minions.” 

“Hey, it’s okay!” Wren piped up. “I’m sure you’ll treat your minions really good, right?” She started to say something else, then paused while looking at Pack. Something on her face made me glance that way too, before realizing what it was. The other girl was standing basically directly beside the painted banner on the wall that read, ‘We Never Work For Bad Guys.’

Pack, who turned a bit to see where we were looking, pivoted back and offered an exaggerated shrug. “Hey, I consider this more me working for you.” 

Wren, however, simply shook her head. “It just says we don’t work for bad guys. You’re not a bad guy. There’s bad guys and then there’s bad guys.” 

Coughing, the lizard-tamer gently pointed out, “Far be it from me to argue, kid, but I literally rob places. I mean, sure it’s fun to do some good stuff now and then, especially with you guys. And I’ve got my limits. Still, I ain’t gonna stop stealing shit. Most people would consider that being a bad guy. Pretty sure taking what doesn’t belong to you is part of the definition, actually.” 

“Uh huh.” Sounding entirely unconvinced, Wren pivoted to look at me. “Uncle Fred’s picking up a pizza! And some breadsticks and stuff! So you should bring them back so it’s still hot when they get here. Oh, and make sure they’re not lactose intolerant or gluten-free or anything,” she added sagely. 

“Speaking of which, have you told those guys about ahh… who they’ll be working for in this place?” Pack asked, making a vague token effort at keeping the amusement out of her voice. As she spoke, her hand fell on Wren’s shoulder, squeezing it. 

“Not yet,” I replied, already starting to head to the nearby window so I could head out. “I mean, I could’ve. 

“But why spoil the surprise?” 

*******

Reaching the roof above where I was supposed to meet Murphy and Roald, a few blocks from Wren’s shop, I was greeted with the sound of a basketball being dribbled, then bouncing off a rim. Peering over the edge, I saw the two in question playing on a nearby court attached to the small apartment complex this building was a part of. Yeah, it was definitely them. Roald the skinny, pale blond boy and Murphy (seriously, was that her first name?) the biracial girl with very short brown hair and a temper that was even shorter. 

Neither seemed to be particularly good at the game they were playing from the few moments I watched, but they were clearly having fun. And who was I to judge someone else’s basketball skills? I wasn’t exactly… uhhh insert good basketball player. Simon would know.

In any case, they missed a lot more baskets than they made, but neither of them seemed to care. Crouching there, staring at the two, I saw the way they just goofed off and acted like they were both hotshot stars, playing up for an imaginary crowd and trash-talking each other.

God, what was I doing here? Why was I involving them at all in any of this? I should just disappear, leave a message to let the two of them know everything was fine and they didn’t owe anything, and let them live in peace. Even if I wasn’t planning on involving them in any of the actual… bad stuff, just having any connection to me could put them in danger. They didn’t have any powers or anything. They were total civilian Prevs with their whole lives to deal with. 

Right, their whole lives. That was the problem. I’d promised the two of them jobs, a way to get out of the holes that were their lives if they put some effort into it. Sure, they were going to have to work off the cost of the damage they’d done before, but after that, working for a Tech-Touched could seriously change everything for them. If I snatched that away now, after saying I was going to give them a chance, I doubted they’d listen to ‘but it’s for your own good.’ I’d just be another asshole who didn’t give them a chance. 

Besides, I could still keep them out of the worst of it. Working with Wren wasn’t exactly being around me. And Wren had all those defenses she’d been working on, right? Right. Yeah, I just had to keep convincing myself that this wasn’t an awful, terrible, horrible idea that I was going to regret. 

Pushing on past all that, I straightened, took aim, and fired a shot of red paint at the ball while it was in midair. Holding out my own red glove, I activated the paint, summoning the ball to me just as it bounced off the edge of the big wooden board thing the rim was attached to. 

Murphy and Roald both pivoted, their eyes following the ball as it flew all the way up to the roof of the three story building I was on. While they watched, I overhand chucked it back the other way, hurling the ball as hard as I could in the vague direction of the basket. It sailed… nowhere near going in. But while the ball was still falling, I hit both it and the inner part of the rim with red paint, activating them with a thought. That sent the ball on a complete course correction, falling neatly through the net. 

“Whooo!” Leaping from the roof, I painted my feet orange to land comfortably on the pavement. “How many points is that? Like seven?” 

The other two exchanged looks, before Roald jogged over to get the ball. As he was doing that, Murphy approached. She still had the mark on her face from the sealant that the ambulance guys used, since it hadn’t been a week yet. 

Oh my God, it hadn’t been a week yet? What the fuck? Was it really only Tuesday when Paige’s birthday party had been Saturday? It felt like it had been a couple months at least. What the hell was happening to my life? 

While I was busy reeling from the shock of how time worked, Murphy gestured toward the ball that her friend was picking up and remarked, “How’d you do that?” 

“Uhh, you do know I used my power, right?” I was confused. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t that sneaky.” 

While the girl rolled her eyes so hard I thought she might pass out, Roald approached and spoke up. “She means the paint part. You hit the ball in midair twice from all the way up on the roof. And you hit the inner part of the rim. Those are like… really good shots.” 

“Oh.” Blinking at the thought, I finally shrugged. “I dunno. Guess I’ve had practice aiming my paint lately. And if you think that’s impressive, you should see me navigate a forest in the middle of the night.” 

Right, I should probably try to figure out what was up with that at some point, huh? 

Poor Roald and Murphy, meanwhile, were just staring at each other in silence for a few seconds before both turned back to me. “Dude,” Murphy managed, “if you try to get us to follow you into a dark forest, I’m gonna have to peace out. I don’t do nature walks. Also, I’m pretty sure that’s how like half of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales start. You know, the original really psycho ones.”

“I promise to wait awhile before taking you to the Gingerbread House,” I solemnly replied before gesturing. “Anyway, you guys ready?”

“Sure, do we need these?” From her pocket, Murphy pulled out a ski mask. Probably the same one she’d been wearing that night when they tried to steal from the convenience shop.

“We weren’t sure how much you wanted us to hide,” Roald put in. 

“Depends,” I replied, “do you want to wear those the whole time you’re working for your new boss? I mean, it’s totally up to you and I’m pretty sure she could help you with more comfortable ones if you wanna keep your identities secret and all that. But you don’t have to. Like I said, up to you.” 

After a moment of thought and whispered conversation, Murphy shoved the mask away again and shrugged. “Whatever. I mean, you said we’re working for this chick, right? This shit is legit?” From the sound of her voice, she was at least half-expecting me to laugh in their faces and take off. Between that and the whole thing with her drug-addict brother giving her that cut on her face, I was getting the vague impression that Murphy didn’t have a lot of dependable people in her life. 

“As legit as we can make it,” I assured her. Briefly thinking about how both of them were going to react to finding out their boss was technically still young enough to get into the theater using kid prices, I smiled faintly. “I mean yeah. It’ll be real work and, as soon as you catch up with what you owe for your little escapade, you’ll make real money. From there, well, we’ll see what happens.” 

“Okay, sure, whatever. But how do we get there?” Murphy gave me a doubtful look. “And please don’t say we have to let you carry us or something. That’s just gonna be embarrassing for everyone involved.” 

Snorting at that, I shook my head and gave them the address and directions. “It’s just a couple blocks that way. You head there and wait by the backdoor. I’ll let you in and we’ll meet your new–” 

In mid-sentence, I cut myself off. Something had drifted past the corner of my eye, over by the building. My gaze snapped that way, and I thought I saw it right next to one of the bushes there. I could’ve sworn that it looked like one of those Summus Proelium orbs, but it was gone the instant I focused, so it must’ve just been my imagination. A trick of the light or something.

Either way, facing that direction meant I saw the trucks that went past. Several of them, in fact, all decked out with Easy Eight decals, men with weapons standing in the backs. I even caught a glimpse of Juice himself in one of the passenger seats. He was looking away from me, his attention on wherever they were going. But it was definitely him. 

A bunch of Easy Eight people heading down the street into what I was fairly certain was considered Ninety-Niner territory? Fuck. This wasn’t gonna end well. Or start and proceed well, come to think of it. It was gonna be bad all around. 

“Paintball?” That was Roald, drawing my attention. “What’s–” 

“Go to the address,” I blurted, already starting to move after the line of trucks. “Hit the bell on the back door, tell them who you are, and that I’ll be there soon. Just let them know that I’m going after some Easy Eights heading into Ninety-Niner territory.

“Looks like there’s not gonna be a ceasefire in the gangwar today after all.”

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New Deals 13-11 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: The first non-canon chapters for both of my stories were posted over the weekend on Patreon. They will not be posted here on the site but they are free and available for everyone to read over there. They were originally posted on Saturday for Patrons of any level, before being released for everyone 24 hours later. If you’d like, you can read the Heretical Edge chapter by going right here and the Summus Proelium chapter by going right here. Both will open in a new tab. Thanks!

Taking a nap helped. I was getting pretty good at splitting my sleep and having a few hours in the afternoon or evening sometime, going out late at night, and then getting a few more hours before getting up for school. Was that what all the Touched did? For that matter, how did my dad pull off being so busy all the time? Yeah, he didn’t exactly have a nine to five job or anything. But he still had tons of meetings to attend and had to put in random appearances as his civilian self and as Silversmith. Was all of that explained just by him having another employee use one of those illusion machines or whatever it was to pose as him in public? That couldn’t always be it. He had to actually play both roles himself a good chunk of the time.

Yeah, even with that explanation, I was pretty sure my dad only slept a few hours a night. Especially when you added in him being present in my life to be a father and just the general family stuff. He was like a machine. Was that just from having a lot of practice or something? 

Either way, I was back out in the city after checking on Izzy. This time, I left a note on my pillow for her saying I needed air and that I would be back, along with a reminder that she could text or call me if she needed something. 

It was getting close to midnight by the time I made my way near the gas station where this whole thing with my new delinquent friends had started. That was when I told them to meet me, so I put myself at the edge of one of the buildings, painted myself black to blend in, and watched carefully for them to show up. 

I actually had to wait longer than expected. It wasn’t until almost ten minutes after midnight before something drew my attention toward the edge of the building I had told them to meet me behind. Two teenagers, sans masks, came jogging around the corner. They were clearly out of breath and sweating. 

The girl, obviously Murphy, had brown hair that was cut very short, with skin that was just dark enough to make me figure one of her parents was black and the other white. There was also something weird about her face, but I couldn’t tell what from the roof. 

Wow, ‘something weird about her face.’ When I put it like that, it sounded bad. But seriously, she had like a tattoo or something. I couldn’t see that well even with the nearby street light. 

Roald, meanwhile, was a pale boy with very light blond hair. He was trying to say something to his friend, gesturing to some kind of small bag or something he was holding. 

Murphy, however, waved him off before turning in a quick circle and she raised her voice to call, “Hey, we’re here! Don’t be a fucking dick about punctuation, we made it!”

Yup, it was definitely them. Shaking my head, I used a bit of orange for protection before stepping off the edge of the roof and dropping those couple stories. I landed neatly right to the side of them, and both jumped in obvious surprise. “Punctuality. No masks tonight?”

“Fuck!” Murphy blurted while raising her hands defensively before she saw who it was. “Like you said, it’s not like it’ll be hard for you to figure out what ‘Murphy and Roald’ looked like. And did you really have to scare the shit out of us like that?” she demanded. 

But her words weren’t what I was paying attention to. Instead, my gaze was on her face. Now I could see what I thought was a tattoo. It wasn’t. She had a cut on her face, just to the side of her left eye and stretching up into her hairline. And not just a little scrape either. This was big. It had been leaking a decent amount of blood down onto her cheek, blood that had partly dried into the mark I’d seen. The cut itself was partly covered by a couple small bandaids, but they clearly weren’t all that adequate. Especially since they didn’t actually cover the whole thing. 

“Jesus Christ,” I found myself blurting. “What happened to you?”

It was Roald who answered. “Tyson.” He stepped over, and I finally saw that the thing he’d been trying to get the girl to pay attention to was a first aid kit. “Her brother.” 

“Never mind that,” the girl herself snapped while trying to wave him off. “The point is, we’re here. So don’t go knocking on doors looking for us or anything. That’s kind of the last fucking thing we need right now.”

Opening and then shutting my mouth, I took a second to put my thoughts together before looking at the boy. “You got cleaning wipes in that kit?” When he nodded, I held my hand out and he passed a couple to me. “Hold still,” I told the girl before carefully reaching up to wash some of the blood from her face. She grimaced and muttered complaints, but didn’t move. 

Once that was done, I looked around before pointing. “Come on, over there.” I was gesturing toward the park across the street where I knew there were a couple public restrooms.

The other two seemed uncertain and confused, but followed as I led them that way. Once we were in the restroom, I told her to stand in front of the mirror so she could see herself. Then I stripped my gloves off, set them aside, and scrubbed my hands really well with soap.

“What’re you, a doctor now?” Murphy demanded.  But she didn’t really object. From the faces she was making, I was pretty sure that cut hurt.

“No, but I can help a bit before we see a real doctor,” I replied. “Hold still, again.” With that, I carefully wiped more of the blood away before very gingerly taking the almost useless bandaids away. They basically slid right off, so soaked through with blood were they. 

From there, I had the girl lean over the sink so I could wash the wound. That prompted more hissing and cursing, but I promised it would be okay and tried my best to be gentle. Carefully, I cleaned it, then took a cloth from that little first aid kit, applied a little antiseptic, and told her to hold it against the cut. 

It probably wasn’t exactly right. I’d had first aid training a while back, and I’d had plenty of cuts treated myself. But it was the best I could do right now. 

That done, I took out my business phone and texted Pack, asking if she could give me the current address of the criminal doctor who had treated Eits. I added that it was for a friend, who probably needed stitches. 

By the time I finished sending that message, both Murphy and Roald were staring at me, the former still holding the cloth against the cut. 

“The hell’s your deal?” she blurted. “I thought you wanted us to come show up and do some work for you.”

I nodded. “And I’d prefer you not pass out or die from blood loss or an infection or something in the process. Now— hang on.” I had to interrupt myself, because the response from Pack came. She included a phone number and told me to call it. Apparently the number was to some kind of roaming ambulance that served Touched, including Fells, in the field. It would work for these purposes. There was an added bit about how she wanted to hear more about this injured friend later. 

Calling that number, I told the gruff voice who answered what the problem was and told him where we were. There was a brief pause before the same gruff voice said they’d be in the parking lot in a few minutes and to watch for a red van. 

Once that was done, I focused on the other two once more. “Okay, seriously. What the hell happened? How did you get a cut like that? It was from your brother?”

From the glare that the girl shot toward her friend, I had the feeling that she hadn’t wanted him to say that much. Her voice was a mumble. “It’s not a big deal. He was just ticked off because I wouldn’t take a package for him. Told him I was busy.”

“Drugs.” That was Roald. “He knew we were going out, so he wanted her to carry some drugs to his friend a few streets over.”

Murphy snarled, “Yeah, if by friend you mean fellow meth-head. I told him before, I’m not touching any of that shit, not even to take it somewhere. Usually he lets it go.” With a small wince, she adjusted the cloth against her head. “Guess he was in a bad mood tonight.”

That made me stare at her for a few seconds. “Your big brother wanted you to take some meth to his friend and when you said no he cut you like that?” Fuck, my brother worked for a literal supervillain conspiracy and he treated me better than that. 

Murphy waved that off. “Look, you don’t have to worry about any of that shit. That’s my problem. Who the hell did you call?” 

Not wanting to push her too hard, I simply explained that it was a special ambulance with paramedics who would give her some stitches right here without needing to go to the hospital or anything. She wouldn’t have to talk to anyone about where the cut came from, even if I personally thought she should. 

It didn’t exactly help to calm her down, though. Instead, she blurted, “Are you fucking kidding me? What part of us stealing food from a gas station makes you think we can afford some motherfucking stitches? Who do you think we are, the goddamn Evans family?!”

Uhhhh… better not answer that. Raising both hands, I shook my head. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got this. You guys are going to do some work for me, right? So I need you in good shape. Just chill out, okay? Relax. Let the paramedic look at that cut and see what you actually need.”

Murphy looked reluctant, but mumbled something I took as both agreement and gratitude. Then she squinted at me. “You can’t go after my brother. It’s not his fault. His stupid ass piece of shit friend got him hooked on the garbage and he can’t control himself. He gets crazy.”

For a moment, I didn’t say anything. Then I quietly asked, “Is the fact that he can’t control himself going to make it better the next time he decides to carve up your face? What if he decides to cut something more vital? What if he cuts somebody else, or worse, and all three of us have to live with knowing we could have stopped him before it got that far? Saying he can’t control himself isn’t a reason for why you shouldn’t turn him in. It’s a reason for why you absolutely should. Not because you don’t care about him. Because you do.”

“Kid’s got a point, Murph,” Roald noted hesitantly. “Ty’s not gonna get off that shit all on his own.”

Murphy scowled. “Yeah? So we turn them in and then what? They throw him in prison with a bunch of other druggies and hardened fuck-ups, he gets hooked even more, then he gets out and can’t get a job, so he does more bad shit, gets thrown back in prison again, and the merry-go-round of eternal bullshit continues forever until he’s dead. Did you or the kid ever think of that?”

I tried to smother my annoyance at being called kid by people about my same age with the satisfaction that my disguise was working. My mouth opened to say something, though what, I wasn’t exactly sure. Either way, I was saved from having to by headlights. As promised, a large red camper van was pulling in.

The medic guys were dressed more like janitors. I wasn’t sure what kind of medical expertise they actually had, but they did seem to know what they were doing. They looked at the cut on Murphy‘s face, cleaned and sanitized it a bit more professionally, and gave her a few stitches. 

I’d heard from some people about how getting stitches used to involve needles and stuff. I supposed that’s where the term came from. Nowadays, it simply involved pressing what looked like a white cloth firmly against the wound for several seconds and then peeling it away to reveal that the wound had been closed with a special, temporary sealant. Judging from the faces and sounds coming from Murphy, it still managed to sting as much as it had the last time I had gone through it. Still, it was quick and easy. 

“How much do we owe you?” I asked once it was done. 

The man who had done most of the work and examination, a thin Latino, offered a shrug. “Whatever you think is fair. We survive off donations. Just keep in mind, stiffing us is a good way to make us not show up when you ask for it. And if we don’t make enough to keep going, this whole service disappears.”

I still didn’t want to draw too much attention, so I simply gave the man a couple hundred dollars while thanking him again. They both informed Murphy that the sealant would go away by itself in about a week, and that her cut should be better by then with barely a scar.

Then they took off for another call they received, leaving the three of us standing there at the edge of the lot next to the park. 

“Just think a little bit about what I said, okay?” I asked while looking at the girl once the medics were gone. “I won’t push again right now, but seriously. Think about it.”

With a bit of obvious reluctance, she promised to do so before changing the subject by asking, “So what’s the job we’re supposed to do for you, Mr. Superhero?”

Over the next few minutes, I told them about Wren. I explained that she was a Tech-Touched who needed more hands in her shop to help with everything, from putting basic equipment together, to carrying boxes around, to cleaning up, to just helping to run the shop in general. 

“That sounds like a job, not like… charity or whatever,” Roald pointed out. 

I nodded. “That’s because it is basically a job. And it’s one you’ll keep if you don’t screw around. You help get the shop off the ground and you’ll be paid. Part of your payment for working is going to go to helping other people who need it, until you work off a full thousand dollars. That’s the two hundred I gave you before, plus five hundred for the door that I gave to the shop owner, rounded up.”

Murphy was staring at me intently. “Dude, you want us to work off a thousand bucks?”

I nodded. “Like I said, it won’t all be taken at once. You’ll still be paid, it’ll just be part of your wages. You work in the shop, do everything you’re told, and you’ll be paid. Part of that payment will be taken and sent to other people who need it, to charity. Then once you’re done, you can either quit, or you can stick around and keep working. If you stick around and keep working, you’ll start being paid the full amount. As long as you help out and make yourselves useful, you can keep doing the job and keep being paid.”

Roald was shaking his head in confusion. “The only thing you know about us is that we tried to rob a gas station for snack food. Why would you try to hire us to work for some super techy place?”

For a moment, I didn’t answer. I just considered him in silence before slowly replying, “Because I think there are a lot of people who do bad things just because they don’t have any other choice. Not all of them, obviously. There’s a lot of awful people who do it for fun, just because they can. But there’s others who start small, like you guys with the gas station, and then get worse. They build up. I can’t give everyone on the edge like that the chance they need. But I can give it to you. I can give it to both of you.”

Looking back and forth between the two of them, I added a bit pointedly, “Maybe you’ll just go on and start doing worse crimes anyway. Maybe this won’t make any difference at all. But, if you do go on to be real thieves, if a couple years pass and you’re just as bad as all those other gang people out there, you won’t be able to say that it’s because no one ever gave you a chance. I’m giving you a chance right here, right now. I don’t care where your families come from, I don’t care who they are. I don’t care what kind of education you have, or what your neighborhoods are like. I don’t care what you’ve had to do up to this point. The jobs are yours. Once you work off the charity part, the rest is up to you.”

After that, I told them a bit more about the jobs. Specifically, that they should meet me Tuesday afternoon to go meet their new boss. I left out how young she was, figuring I’d let that be a surprise. I also told them not to meet here, but instead gave them an address a few blocks away from the shop itself. 

After that, I looked at Murphy. “You shouldn’t go home tonight. Not with your brother like that.”

She shrugged. “I’ll stay with Roald til things cool down. Not like it’s the first time.”

Not the first time… A sigh escaped me. “Think about what I said, okay? Your brother’s not going to get better just because you don’t want to get him in trouble.”

She squinted at me, but gave a short, silent nod. So, I sent them on their way, after exchanging my Touched phone number for both of theirs. I told them to let me know if anything else happened or changed. 

Then they left together. Right, so that was dealt with. And now, well, honestly, I was about to go right back to bed. I had a feeling I was going to need all the rest I could get before tomorrow came around. Because then it would be Saturday. Time for Paige’s birthday. The one I had been invited to for some reason.

Boy, I just couldn’t wait.

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New Deals 13-01 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: One of this story’s wonderful readers has commissioned a picture of Cassidy by the artist Shameichi, which can be seen on the  art page or directly right here

The shrill shriek of a store alarm filled thebef air the next night, as a couple guys in dark masks came tearing through the door they’d already busted open not even two minutes earlier. From the perch atop the billboard that I’d just landed on, I saw both of them scramble away from the closed convenience store. Their arms were full, each carrying a couple bags worth of stuff as they raced past the dark gas pumps and headed for the mostly-empty street. Whoever these guys were, they’d chosen a target near an area of town that was pretty quiet at one in the morning. Which was probably why the gas station was closed to begin with, come to think of it. 

Either way, I launched myself off the sign using a spot of blue paint under my feet. Rocketing ahead of the two guys, I hit them each with a quick spray of yellow to slow them down, before flipping myself over to land directly between them while activating the orange parachute and green rabbit shapes that were already on my back. With myself sped up and the two guys slowed down, it was child’s play to grab the bags out of their hands, tossing them behind myself before quickly blurting, “Holy crap, did you guys win one of those contests where you get to keep anything you can grab in like sixty seconds or something? Cuz…” Trailing off, I hit them both with red paint in the chest, jumping back while shooting a matching bit of red in front of them. A quick activation yanked the two facedown onto the pavement. “I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to wait for the news crews to be around before you cash in one of those.” 

Personally, I thought it was kinda funny. Not the best, but hey, maybe worth a very slight chuckle. Okay, maybe not even that. But it definitely wasn’t worth crying over. Which… was the next sound I heard. Crying. Stopping short, I cocked my head to the side, staring down at the figure to the right. Crying. He was definitely crying. Um. Well shit, this was kinda awkward now. 

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” came the babbled words. “I’m sorry, it was stupid, it was so stupid, we’re sorry.” The voice was so choked up by tears I could barely understand what was being said.

“Dude!” The other person snapped suddenly. It was a female voice, breaking my assumption that both of the thieves had been male. Which, given my entire situation, was probably a pretty bad assumption to have in the first place. “Shut the fuck up, don’t admit anything!” 

“I don’t… think you necessarily have to admit anything?” I pointed out weakly, still confused by what was going on. “We’re like… a couple hundred feet from the store. You barely made it out of the parking lot. A few feet closer and you’d still be on their property. The property of the store you just… broke into. And the bags with all the stuff you stole are right…” I reached back, grabbing one of them. “… here?” It didn’t jingle or anything. Opening up the bag, I found a bunch of bags of chips, sandwiches from the cooler, beef jerky, some sweets, a few packaged fruits and cheeses, that kind of thing. 

While I was busy staring down into the bag, the red paint must’ve run out. Because the female on the ground was suddenly on her feet, grabbing the crying boy and yanking him up. They started to run, until I hit them both with more red paint to yank them back to the ground. That time I used orange too, just to make sure it didn’t hurt. 

The boy was still shaking and crying. The girl was shaking too, but also cursing up a storm. She threatened all sorts of anatomically impossible things, lying there on her back. And now that I stared at them, I noticed… they weren’t adults. Even with the ski masks on, that much was obvious. Fuck. Fuck, looking at them now, like this? They were barely my age, if that. They were teenagers. 

Quickly, I dropped to my knees between them, setting the bag aside. “Stop it, hey. What the hell are you guys doing stealing this stuff?” Even as the words left my mouth, I knew they were pretty dumb. But I didn’t know what else to say. My mind was scrambling. I’d just heard the alarm while Paintballing around to clear my head a bit, already thinking about heading home. I heard the alarm and reacted. I’d expected to find hardened criminals stealing from a jewelry store or something, not… this. 

Sure enough, the masked girl blurted, “We heard there’s a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory in one random bit of gas station shit, and really want to swim in a chocolate fucking fountain, prick!” 

“Murphy, stop it!” the boy blurted, still shuddering. He managed to twist his head to look at me. “W-we’re sorry, we’re sorry. We were just… we were hungry. And our friends, my little sister, her big brother, we–we just wanted–we didn’t think it was–we didn’t know there was an alarm and then it was so loud and we were just g-gonna be really quick and–” 

“Roald, I swear to God if you don’t stop confessing to shit!” the girl, Murphy apparently, snapped. She was staring at me too. I could see the fear in her eyes despite her bluster. The mask didn’t cover them, leaving the wetness visible. She was just as scared as her companion about what was happening, even if she was better at hiding it verbally. 

Well fuck. God damn it, I did all this to stop real bad guys, and now I was… what, knocking down teenagers who were trying to feed their friends with gas station shit? Despite myself, I demanded, “Where’s your parents? Why don’t they feed you? What–” 

“Prison, fuckface!” came the retort from the girl. “Cuz they’re hardened fucking criminals for slinging a few happy pills to consenting adults. You got any other stupid questions?” 

“Murph,” Roald all-but moaned, his terror mixed heavily with exasperation, “Please.” The boy was clearly terrified of what antagonizing me was going to do. Which somehow made me feel even worse about the whole situation. God damn it. This was just supposed to be a quick little nothing, stopping a couple thugs from ripping off a gas station. What the hell? 

The brief sound of a siren interrupted my thoughts, making my gaze snap up. A few streets away, a cop car with its lights on had just used its siren for an instant to get through the intersection and was on its way. There were another couple intersections for it to go through, but the car would be here in just a few moments. 

“We’re going to jail. We’re going to jail,” Roald lamented, already linking his hands behind his head with his mask-covered face against the ground. “Please. Just… just keep me, okay? Just keep me and let her go. Our families, they’ve gotta have her around. I swear, I’ll take the fall, I’ll confess, just let Murph go.” 

“Shut the fuck up, Roald!” Murphy snapped at him. “I’m not leaving you, got it? It was my idea, I pushed you into it, so–” 

She stopped talking then, because I was yanking her up by the arm. My other hand was pulling Roald as well, as I activated a purple bear figure on one of my shoulders. It was enough of a boost that I could haul them both to their feet, while putting blue on my own shoes to launch myself upward. The two squealed in surprise, as we flew up and over to land on the roof of a nearby fast food place. Releasing them instantly, I hit them with black paint, activating it before yanking the two down with me as I dropped to my stomach. “Be quiet,” I hissed sharply. 

Below us, the cop car had just pulled into the lot of the gas station. I could sense the eyes of Roald and Murphy on me, both of them clearly confused as to what the fuck I was doing. Which was fair, considering I was pretty confused about what the fuck I was doing too.  

A couple cops got out of the car. One moved to look at the shattered glass of the door where one of these two had broken it with a brick or something. The other noticed the bags on the ground off in the distance and walked that way. He approached cautiously, shining his flashlight around the bags before gingerly touching the nearest with his nightstick. Then he checked more thoroughly and called out something to his partner about idiots dropping their ‘loot.’ 

Just to be on the safe side as Murphy bristled beside me, I hit both of my delinquent companions with another shot of black paint to keep them quiet. I’d already painted my entire costume black as well, to blend in more. We watched from our prone positions as two more cop cars pulled in, lights flashing, and the ones who were already here went to confer with them. Another car, that one apparently not a cop (the owner of the gas station, maybe?) pulled in nearby as well. He and a few of the police went into the store while others spread out and started looking around. They didn’t exactly seem to be putting their all into any kind of real search, honestly. Mostly they were chatting in pairs while halfheartedly shining flashlights around. None of them even bothered to look up toward the roofs. Obviously, they were convinced that whoever broke in was long gone. And the bags full of stolen shit were right there.

Most of the cops left within about ten minutes. The last ones were the pair who showed up first, who seemed to be taking a statement from the owner. They went into the store itself again, and I exhaled before pushing myself to my feet. Turning, I walked away a few steps before putting my hands against the front of my helmet, pushing the front part up so I could feel my hands against the mask while letting out a low groan. A few muttered curses escaped me. 

What the hell was I doing? Why did I do that? What was I even thinking? Why didn’t I just turn these guys in? Why’d I take them with me and keep them quiet. Hid them. That’s what I did. I fucking hid them from the cops. Why? Just… just… they were hungry. They were teenagers, not out for any kind of thrill or to fuck with that guy, but because they were hungry. They, and the people they cared about, were hungry enough that they’d risked prison by smashing their way into a gas station to grab a couple bags worth of random crap food. Sandwiches, snacks, things they could’ve taken back to their families to fill their stomachs. They weren’t hardened criminals. They weren’t thugs. They were just scared, hungry kids doing something stupid out of desperation. And I almost sent them to prison for it. Breaking and entering, burglary, whatever else the authorities could throw at them. And that kind of thing would follow them forever. Just because they were hungry. 

“Hey!” The initial, blurted word from the girl was sharp, a snapped demand that immediately shifted to a clearly awkward, confused, “What… what’re you doing?” 

Yeah, these two obviously had no more idea what the fuck was going through my head than I did. No wonder they were just sort of standing there staring at me like my legs had just morphed into a plate of spaghetti or something. They probably still weren’t entirely sure I wasn’t just going to decide to grab them and turn them in after all. They were stuck here on this roof with me. 

At first, I didn’t say anything. I just held up a hand for them to wait a minute while staring off into the distance. Fuck. What was I going to do? What was my next move after all this, exactly? I had to think. I had to figure… something out. Something besides throwing them to the cops. But what? 

I could hear the two whispering behind me. Not enough to make out the actual words, but they were definitely murmuring about what was going on. Apparently this whole situation was confusing them. Which… yeah, fair enough. I’d probably be pretty confused too, in their shoes. 

In the end, I finally came to the only real decision I could. It was the only thing that made sense to me. Pivoting on my heel, I faced the two, whose gazes snapped away from each other to stare at me as though totally convinced that I was about to take them to the cops after all. 

“Okay, guys,” I started, doing my best to sound confident and firm instead of like I was just flying by the seat of my pants with this whole thing. It probably wasn’t enough to convince them after I’d just spent several minutes very clearly silently freaking out, but maybe it was the effort that counted. Either way, I pushed on. “First, I’m not turning you in to the cops. But–” 

That was as far as I got, as the two high-fived and made an assorted bit of noise until I hit them with black paint again. “Wait a minute,” I hissed sharply. “You know, keep making a bunch of sound right now and I won’t have to turn you in, cuz those cops’ll come see what’s going on.” 

That obviously hit home, and both of them sobered, shrinking inward a bit. Satisfied, I continued. “Like I said, I’m not turning you in to the authorities. Not this time. But you’re gonna have to do some things for me in exchange for not going to prison.” 

Murphy immediately took a step in front of Roald, protecting her friend. “Do some things for you?” she echoed as the black paint wore off, suspicion heavy in her voice. “Like what? If you think we’re just gonna–” 

Roald put a hand on her arm, leaning in to whisper something to her. I caught a bit about hearing me out, and that it had to be better than going to prison. The look she shot him made it clear she was thinking of all sorts of ways that wouldn’t necessarily be true. 

“Okay, hold on,” I quickly put in, holding up my hands. “I’m not going to ask you to do anything bad. Just… work.” I was still planning this whole thing out in my head while I was talking. The thought I’d had was based entirely on my situation with the Seraphs. I was essentially stealing that wholesale. “I won’t turn you in, but you have to do work to make up for it.” 

“What kind of work?” Murphy demanded, though her voice was softer. She clearly wasn’t the least bit eager to throw away this chance and go to prison, despite her obvious suspicion. 

“I’m not exactly sure yet,” I admitted. “But I’ll find some kind of… helpful thing you can do for the community or something. I’ll find it, and you guys will do it.” 

“Um.” That was Roald, raising a hand. “How’re you gonna make us do that? I mean, how’re you gonna find us after this? You don’t even–” He stopped then, apparently reconsidering pointing out that I didn’t know what their faces looked like under those masks. 

“I’m not going to make you take your masks off,” I assured them both. “I mean, the hypocrisy of that might crack the planet in half. But I know your names. And you’re not exactly hardened criminals, so I dare bet you live not too far away from this place. Exactly how hard do you think it’d be for me to track you down if I just started going around asking for two teenagers named Murphy and Roald? Particularly a girl named Murphy.” 

From the look the two gave each other, my point struck home. They knew I was right, it wouldn’t be hard to find them with their names if I really tried. 

“Um, okay, fine.” Murphy sounded a bit shaken. Obviously she’d figured out that they shouldn’t have used each other’s real names. “We get it. So what’re we supposed to do?” 

“Be back here, behind this building on Friday night.” I replied quickly. Two days, that would give me time to actually figure out what the hell I was going to have them do to make up for this. “I’ll take care of the broken door and all that… this time. In exchange, I’ll find something for you guys to do. But you be here in two days at midnight. Got it? Two days, midnight, here. If I don’t make it within half an hour, feel free to take off and I’ll meet you back here the night after that. You know, just in case something happens.” 

The two agreed to show up then, and I took a breath before turning away from them. Reaching into the pocket of my suit, I carefully counted out some cash, considering before adding a little bit more. Then I turned back to them and held it out. 

“Here. This is two hundred dollars. Take it and get your families the food they need for a little while. But I want receipts, guys. Make the two hundred stretch as much as you can. Get real food, not gas station crap. Go to the grocery store, buy good things. Rice, beans, meat, canned stuff. Get decent food, as much as you can, and show me the receipts when we meet again, got it?” 

The two stared at me. Murphy found her voice first. “Y-you’re… just… giving us two hundred dollars for food? Why? What’s in it for you?” 

“Like I said,” I pointed out, “you’ll be working it off. This too. You’ll work off this money and the fact that you broke into that shop down there. I just know people need a break sometimes, okay? So I’m giving you a break. Don’t make me regret it.” 

They both hesitantly agreed, and I helped them down to the ground. With one more warning that they had better be here on Friday night, I watched them run off, flipping on my night vision so I could see them for longer, until they were out of sight. 

Then I flipped the vision in my helmet back to normal, and took a quick walk around the corner. The owner of the gas station was alone by that point, sitting in his car as he talked on the phone. The car itself had been pulled up to park right by the broken door, and it sounded like he was arguing about getting someone out there to fix it and how much it would cost. 

Right. How was I going to do this part? Frowning uncertainly, I thought for a moment while watching the man in the car. In the end, I went for the simple option. Which was to use a bit of paper and pen from my pocket (no way did I want this associated with my paint), and scrawl out a quick, blocky all caps note reading, ‘SORRY FOR THE DOOR.’ Then I took an extra five hundred dollars, red painted that and the note to a rock I found, and hurled the rock that way. It bounced off the ground loud enough to attract the man’s attention, just as the red paint wore off. 

Watching as the store owner picked up the note and the cash before looking around in confusion, I quickly ducked back. Breathing out, I turned to leave. That would have to be good enough for now. I’d figure out what work I could have those two do. But at the moment, I really had to get home and get some sleep. 

At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, no sooner had I turned to start to leave, than I found myself face-to-face (so to speak) with the slightly familiar sight of a tall-ish woman in a dark red bodysuit with black random swirly lines, black boots and gloves, and a pair of red goggles and a gas mask over her face. 

Cavalcade. It was the Sell-Touched Cavalcade, the mercenary I’d met when I was abducted by Deicide’s men, by Janus. 

“Fancy meeting you here, kid,” came the woman’s almost-purred words. “Hope you’re not too busy right now.

“Cuz my new employer would really like to talk to you.”

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