A/N: The non-canon chapters for December were posted over the weekend and can be found ONLY on Patreon (but you don’t have to be a member to read them). The Heretical Edge chapter can be found right here and the Summus Proelium chapter can be found right here
We got through the lockdown without any problems beyond a couple anxiety attacks in other classrooms, and what I heard was a positively hysterical tantrum from some guy who was pissed off that he was supposed to head to the airport just after lunch in order to head for some special event his family was putting on and now he wouldn’t be able to make it in time. As if his family, who I knew for a fact did business with mine, couldn’t afford to reschedule a flight. He just kept going on about how the fighting was blocks away, the airport was in a totally different direction, just let him leave god damn it, and so on. Somebody recorded it and put it online.
Selfish tantrums aside, there weren’t any problems. The fighting never came any closer, and we were released from the lockdown within a couple hours. They also cancelled the rest of school, sending us home for the day. Which was fine for me, since it gave me time to swing by the site of the battle for a looksee. Not that I expected to find anything all that helpful, but still.
First, of course, I had to call Jefferson and let him know that he did not actually have to come pick me up early, despite the school calling him. He didn’t exactly sound broken up about it, given how far outside of his schedule such a reroute would have taken him. Still, he made sure I wasn’t in any distress, using the code phrase to establish that no one was making me call him off. I just let him know that I was hanging out with some friends for awhile and would meet him outside Izzy’s school when it was time to pick her up, since he’d be there anyway.
Once that was done, I headed for the first private area I could find (an alley between two buildings where a small, dark doorway was cut off from any view) and changed into my costume. Hiding the bag with my clothes and other things, I took to the roofs and began to head for the area where the fighting had been going on.
The place was still swarming with emergency services, of course. There was a mix of cops, paramedics, firefighters, and even Prev members of Ten Towers and the Seraphs. It was a madhouse, especially when the reporters were added in. The whole battle had mostly been centered around two city blocks, and the authorities had basically that whole area cordoned off. As I landed on a roof at the edge of the territory, a guy dressed in a Ten Towers security uniform (including full SWAT-like armor, helmet, and protective mask) who had been standing up there with a rifle slung over his shoulder and binoculars in one hand turned abruptly, hand moving to the weapon before stopping himself. “Paintball. You’re a bit late.”
There was something vaguely familiar about his voice, but it was muffled by the mask, and the guy was talking a bit quietly, obviously trying not to attract any attention from the rest of the emergency people. His words weren’t exactly scolding, and he tempered even that with, “Good. No reason for you to skip school to be out here. Wait.” Clearly frowning behind the protective cloth covering his face, the man asked, “Shouldn’t you still be in school?”
Oh, right, that was a thing huh? Technically they thought I was in middle school or something and had no reason whatsoever to think I’d been let out early. Actually, them thinking I was let out early would be a really bad thing, given how much it would narrow things down. Shit.
Thankfully, I’d learned to think quickly and offered the man a shrug. “Study hall. I just wanted to see what happened. The news said everything was handled, but…”
“The news got that one right,” the man informed me. “It’s all handled, we’re just cleaning up a few stragglers that tried to hide, and pulling out the injured.” After a brief pause, he added, “Listen, kid, you need to leave this one alone. Anything like this. It’s all well and good that you help people, that’s great. Stop a robbery, nail a mugger, you do you. But this… this is a gangwar. They’re going fu–freaking nuts out there. It’s nothing you want to be close to or involved in. Seriously. Just leave things like this to the people who–who have more experience.” His voice had softened toward the end, as the man quietly insisted, “You don’t deserve to see the kind of stuff that happens down there.”
Oh, if only he knew. My family allowed this stuff to happen. I did deserve to see it. I deserved to understand what kind of horrible things my parents accepted and even profited off of. I needed to understand exactly how much death and destruction they allowed in the name of their bottom line. Maybe it would help me shove aside some of the conflicted feelings I had.
I didn’t say any of that, of course. Opening up to Izzy had been one of the best experiences of the past couple months, but I wasn’t stupid. Well, not that stupid, anyway. I didn’t know a single thing about this guy, for all that he was trying to sympathize with me and everything. He was just some guy who could’ve worked for my parents directly, for all I knew.
Instead, I offered the man a nod. “Fighting’s over now anyway, no reason for me to get involved. Unless I can go back in time, and as far as I know, that’s not one of my powers. I’ll ahh, keep you updated if that changes.”
From the man’s body posture, he knew I was just trying to lighten the mood. Still, he coughed and gestured. “You better take off, kid. I’ve gotta get back to work before one of those fucks manages to sneak out.”
Giving him a thumbs up, I turned, using a shot of red to pull myself up toward the balcony of another building slightly further away. He watched me go, offering a short salute before turning back to the job of panning the area with his binoculars as my feet left the roof.
Except, just as I was being pulled away by the paint, I heard a song start up. It was a Zenith Renaissance song, the same group that had played at Paige’s birthday party the other day. Except it wasn’t actually Zenith Renaissance playing it. It was a different band doing a live cover of one of their songs, a cover that had been widely panned by basically everyone I knew.
On its own, that didn’t mean anything. But I knew one person who did like that cover more than the original, one person who had it as his ringtone and always took shit from his friend whenever it went off.
His friend, my brother. The guy I had just been talking to, whose voice had been familiar, was one of Simon’s friends. He was a Korean-American guy named Kevin. And Kevin definitely wasn’t a member of Ten Towers. As far as I knew, he was still in college. I kind of doubted Ten Towers was so hard-up for new employees that they’d take him when the last thing I’d heard was that he was about to go for his art history major.
It was him. I knew it was him. Hearing the ringtone had made the familiar bit of his voice click in my head. My brother’s friend Kevin, someone who definitely wasn’t part of Ten Towers, was the guy I’d just been talking to.
Instantly, as I landed on that balcony, I was already leaping off it. I didn’t jump back the way I’d come, of course. That would’ve been too obvious. Instead, I jumped to the ground, painting myself black with just enough orange to cushion the landing. Even as I hit the cement, I was using another quick red shot to haul myself up to a windowsill just below the roof where I had been talking to Kevin. On the way, I activated the black paint on my costume and used a bit more on the building itself, to land completely silently in that brick windowsill.
Kevin was still talking on the roof above me, “Yeah, Paintball was here. Naw, man, he didn’t stick around. I told him this stuff was dangerous. Yeah, think he was skipping school. You know those public teachers, they don’t give a shit. Ain’t paid enough to give a shit.”
There was a long pause before Kevin spoke again. “Yeah, nothing’s going on here. They’ve got it covered. Sure, man. I’ll stick around and keep an eye on things, but it looks like they stuck to the rules. No further than Rowe avenue. They kept it contained.”
No further than Rowe avenue. That was the street this building was on. So, the gang war did have limits that they stuck to. They were told by my family not to take it past this street, probably because my school was a few blocks away. That just really showed how much control my family had, didn’t it?
I listened some more, but Kevin didn’t say much. Except toward the end, shortly before signing off. After a long pause where he was clearly listening to Simon, he answered, “When’s that? Wednesday. Yeah, I got it. Eleven-thirty outside the mall. I’ll be there. Yes, yeah, I’ll tell Elvis and Reynard. We’ll deal with it. Can I get the hell out of this uniform already? It’s hot as fuck.” There was a groan, then, “Twenty minutes, fine. Just in case.”
Elvis and Reynard were both other friends I’d seen around Simon, the latter being the guy back at the mall whose name I had previously thought was Derrick. Apparently all of them worked with the Ministry, which made sense I supposed. And they were all going to meet up Wednesday night at eleven-thirty to do… something. I wasn’t sure what, but the fact that they were meeting near the mall where I knew a Ministry base was… yeah, I was going to have to be there at least to take a look.
And hey, maybe I’d finally get some idea of how we could break in there.
I didn’t find out much else useful while hanging out below Kevin. Well, not much aside from the fact that his identity as a member of the Ten Towers security force was secure enough that he could get reports from them and talk to actual Touched, since Skip showed up for a moment to check in on how his lookout was going. I heard her voice abruptly, the girl casually talking to him to find out if he’d seen anything. From the things they said, I had the impression that she didn’t actually know him personally, but had seen him around the Towers headquarters enough to recognize him. Which, again, said a lot about how far Towers had been infiltrated.
Or maybe they didn’t need to be infiltrated. For all I knew, Caishen was in on the Ministry thing from the very beginning. Or their CEOs, at the very least. That made sense, right? Ten Towers was about protecting their bottom line, about making money. The Ministry helped that happen and controlled just how much crime took place. It would make sense that the top leadership of Ten Towers knew at least some of that situation and signed off on it. With my dad’s work and contacts–yeah. Actually, the Ministry being strongly connected to Ten Towers was a huge possibility.
Either way, it was eventually clear that I wouldn’t learn anything as Kevin was getting ready to leave. Things had calmed down, there were no more outbreaks of violence, and the only thing left was simply cleaning up.
So, I took off first, staying quiet and low as I did so. Once I was a few blocks away, I slowed and took a moment to think about what I knew. Kevin was one of my brother’s friends, and they all worked with the Ministry. That made sense. He had obviously been placed to make sure the fighting didn’t move any further than my parents had allowed. So they were controlling how bad it got, at least to an extent. Enough to keep it away from my school, I thought bitterly. But not enough to stop it entirely.
Yeah, I understood why Blackjack was mad. His daughter had almost suffered a horrific, agonizing death, and both the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro had contributed to that. They tried to stop him from being able to save her life. Of course he was pissed off. But innocent people were being caught in the crossfire here while he pursued this war. People as innocent as his daughter was were going to get hurt and die while he went after his vendetta.
But what could I do about it? I couldn’t exactly demand a meeting and tell the man to back off, or only fight the battles against his rivals in safe areas. I was pretty sure he had no reason to listen to me, even if I had helped get those vials back. At least, any sort of favor he might’ve owed wouldn’t go that far.
Damn it, what was I supposed to do? I already had the Ministry base to infiltrate and this Paige thing to figure out. What could I do about a fucking gang war? Blackjack wanted revenge against his enemies for nearly getting his daughter killed. Nothing I could say to the man would dissuade him from that. If nothing else, he clearly wanted to make sure nobody else ever tried to put his daughter in danger.
Abruptly, my musings were interrupted by a female voice that spoke up casually from nearby. “You seem distracted.”
It was Skip. Which my brain told me a moment after my heart leapt out of my chest and about half a dozen curses had left my mouth as I jerked sideways and spun toward her. The Ten Towers girl was standing a few yards away, watching me. As always, she wore the blue-black bodysuit under a white short-sleeved robe and hood, with a black mask covering the bottom half of her face while leaving enough of the top half revealed to make it clear that she was Asian. Her eyes were vaguely curious, which said a lot considering how unemotional and impossible to read the girl tended to be.
“Sorry,” she informed me flatly, “I didn’t mean to startle you. There isn’t really a subtle way of getting someone’s attention in this situation.”
Shoving back a few instinctive and unfair reactions, I took a breath. “I guess not. What–um, what did you… right, distracted. Yeah, I guess I am, a little. But I never really–I didn’t get a chance to thank you for helping me out before. Not as much as I should’ve.”
Skip said nothing to that, she simply tilted her head as though waiting patiently. Realizing what she was waiting for, I quickly continued with, “So uhh, thanks. Thanks a lot.”
“You are welcome,” the girl returned in that same eerily calm voice that she never wavered from. “Are we finished with the gratitude ritual now? May we move on?” Again, though her words sounded rude if I just thought about them separately, they didn’t come out that way in her voice. She wasn’t intentionally dismissing my thanks or anything, just as she didn’t intentionally dismiss danger or fear. Talking in that flat, matter-of-fact tone was just… how she was.
Did that have to do with her powers somehow? I wasn’t sure. Her abilities let her ‘skip’ effects. Was she skipping emotions, like… constantly? Or the effect of emotions, or something? I didn’t think it was that simple, because she clearly still cared about doing the right thing and about helping people. I’d seen videos of the girl with her niece, Lightning Bug. It was clear that she adored the kid, and vice versa. So it was more than just making herself emotionless, right?
“Yeah, we’re finished,” I confirmed, shoving those thoughts aside. “But if you didn’t come for the gratitude ritual, was there something else? Or did you just wanna say hi? Cuz I am cool with just saying hi.”
“I saw you leave the secure perimeter,” Skip informed me. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to tell you, Lightning Bug would like you to visit sometime. If you’re not too busy. She’s been watching videos online about you.”
Flushing a bit at the idea that I had videos online for people to watch, I offered a shrug. “Sure, I can visit. When umm… when’s a good time?”
“Tonight?” came the suggestion. “Not too late. Her bedtime is eleven o’clock. And we will have a few other guests as well, so you won’t have to feel singled out.”
“Tonight, not too late,” I confirmed with a thumbs up. “I’ll stop by first chance I get.”
“Come at seven for dinner.” Skip sounded completely serious with her suggestion, even adding, “We have arrangements to maintain your secret identity while eating.”
And then she was gone. Just like that. She disappeared. No niceties, nothing like that. She just said the last thing she wanted to say, and vanished, teleporting off to the next thing.
Shaking that off, I turned back. Right, it was just about time to head back so I could change clothes and meet up with Izzy outside her school. I’d have to tell her about the invitation to see Lightning Bug again.
On my way to the school, I pondered how hard it would be to swing an invitation for Pack as well. If not this time, then at some other point. Yeah, probably pretty hard, considering she was a villain and a thief and all. I doubted a place like Ten Towers, meant to be security for corporations and businesses, looked kindly on that sort of thing.
But hey, wouldn’t it be fucking awesome to see Pack’s lizards and Lightning Bug’s giant insects in a big wrestling match?