With a polite ding, the elevator doors opened, and Ryder Towling (the name the boy publicly known as Eits had taken for himself after his transition) stepped out onto the third floor of the apartment building. Or rather, staggered out, considering how full his arms were. The brown-haired boy had several grocery bags hooked over each of his somewhat gangly limbs, and was clutching a few of what looked like long cardboard tubes with caps on either end to his chest. The keys to the building that he’d used to get in were clutched between his teeth.
Unlike when he appeared in his La Casa costume, the civilian Ryder didn’t dress to wow people. Or to attract attention at all. At the moment, he wore simple faded gray jeans, tennis shoes, a burgundy tee shirt, and a brown leather jacket. Between that and his habit of watching the ground or his phone while walking, and his unremarkable drab brown hair that was a couple weeks late for a trim to tame it back to some working order, he blended right into most crowds.
Shuffling awkwardly down the hall while doing his level best not to drop anything, Ryder nodded politely to old Mrs. Jansen when she came trundling out of her own apartment. He shook his head when she asked if he needed help. Not that it wouldn’t have been nice given how overloaded he was (but who wanted to make more than one trip all the way back to the car?), but there really wasn’t much the nice elderly lady could do. She used a walker to get around as it was.
Waiting until Mrs. Jansen had made it to the elevator and stepped on, the boy turned back to the door of his own apartment. A thought summoned one of his mites, which jumped into the security keypad there and a moment later there was a confirming beep as the door clicked open just far enough for Ryder to push it the rest of the way with his foot and step through.
Finally, he was inside, and nudged the door shut with his heel. Once it clicked and he heard the affirming beep of the lock, the boy dismissed the mite in the control panel before heading through the narrow entranceway. To the left was his bathroom, his bedroom was straight ahead, and the living room and kitchen were to the right. That last was the way he went, yet just before he would have made it to the dining table in the living room and been safe, his feet seemed to tangle up in themselves. With a startled yelp, the boy pitched forward, falling to the floor while sending his groceries and the long tubes he was carrying scattering everywhere.
“Well,” Ryder mumbled while squinting at the mess from where he lay, “that’s just typical.”
Groaning, he picked himself up and began picking up the keys that had fallen from his mouth before moving on to the food items. Over the next few minutes, the boy restocked his fridge and put things away. As he did so, moving from spot to spot to pick up everything, he thought about how much easier Paintball would’ve had it. He could just stand in front of the fridge and shoot red paint at anything he needed to pull to himself.
No, not himself. Herself. She. Yeah. Ryder had trained himself not to think or say anything about Paintball actually being a girl in front of anyone else. He’d promised, after all. He’d sworn to Paintball that he’d keep her secret, and that was a promise he wouldn’t break. Especially not by being a complete idiot and blurting out the wrong pronoun at the wrong time. It was safer for the whole situation if he just made himself think of Paintball as a boy as much as possible.
But she wasn’t. She was a girl. And more than that, she was actually older than everyone thought. All those people who thought Paintball was like a thirteen-year-old boy, when she was actually, as the girl herself had put it ‘closer to college than middle school.’ She’d had a sixteenth birthday, at least. She’d mentioned that much, about how her family had celebrated that she’d finally made it to five feet in height that day.
Paintball was a girl around Ryder’s age. Maybe a bit younger. Either way, that was a hell of a lot different than anyone else thought. Which had to help keep her secret identity. Yet it was more than that. The desperation he’d heard and seen in the girl when she thought he might blow her secret, it was… there was… something big. A lot bigger than just keeping her superheroing secret from her parents or whatever. She had been scared, terrified.
But why? What had her so upset? Was she afraid of a specific person? Was she hiding from something bad she’d done in the past? What if people in some other city knew the kind of powers she used but didn’t realize it was her because she was pretending to be a boy now?
Yeah, that was a rabbit hole of paranoia that Ryder had gone down a few times. He’d had to talk himself out of actively looking up people who might have similar powers to what Paintball had, telling himself that it would be violating her trust. Digging into what could be her past, trying to figure out what her big secret was… it was tempting. The whole situation was so confusing. But it was a bad idea. It would be a betrayal of someone who deserved better.
And yet, he couldn’t help but think what she might need was help. And would she ever ask for it? Whatever was wrong, whatever or whoever had her so terrified about even her sex being discovered, was clearly bad enough that she needed more help than she was getting.
That was the situation he was stuck in. He knew Paintball was in some kind of trouble or had some secret traumatic backstory, but he couldn’t actually help her. Because digging into her past or trying to uncover her identity would be betraying her, and just a real shit thing to do in general. Yet just leaving it alone and hoping she got the help she needed when the time came? Was that the right thing to do? What was the right thing to do, damn it?
He had no idea. Hell, he’d even briefly considered checking with that Squire guy. Simon. He’d gone by Ryder first, which was where the new Ryder had taken his name from. Oh, and Squire. He was known by that moniker too. But his real name was Simon, and Simon had given Ryder a card he could use to potentially call if he got in trouble. After saving him from trouble the first time.
If anyone could help Paintball with whatever problem she had, it was Simon and the people he worked for. Ryder didn’t know a lot about that whole situation, only that they were really important. And powerful, given Simon had apparently hidden his real appearance behind an illusion. They were connected, and Simon himself had already saved Ryder once.
But no. That would definitely be violating Paintball’s trust. Maybe he could bring it up to her, mention a guy called Squire who might be able to help with any… problems she had? Would that be the best approach?
Ryder’s thoughts were interrupted by a ringing phone, and he quickly grabbed it from his pocket, answering with a, “It’s Ryder.”
“Hey, kid.” It was Grace. Or rather, Cardsharp. Her voice was all business. “You get those hotel blueprints yet? We’ve gotta get a move on if we’re gonna pull this off.”
“Oh, oh!” Shifting his thoughts away from Paintball for the time being (not like he could do anything about that whole situation now anyway), Ryder quickly moved to grab the long tubes from the floor. Uncapping one, he spread the large rolled up blueprint out over his table, weighing down the corners with a couple books. “Yeah, I’ve got them right here.”
“Good,” came the response. “I’m on my way to your place. You want me to pick up some Chinese or something? This is probably gonna be a long night. We need to make sure this whole operation goes off without a hitch.”
“Sure, sure, yeah, that sounds good. You know what I like. See you soon. We’ll figure it out.” After exchanging last pleasantries, Ryder disconnected, staring at the blueprints in front of him. Yet his mind wasn’t quite focused the way it was supposed to be. Despite his attempt to push Paintball out of his mind, the girl and her situation was still stubbornly there, right at the corner of his thoughts.
What the hell was going on with her? Who was she, really? And why was it so hard for him to push the girl out of his thoughts?
Pack and That-A-Way While Paintball Was In The Warehouse With Paige
The sound of gunfire filled the air as That-A-Way ran along the six-foot-high concrete wall that surrounded the car lot where members of La Casa and the Ninety-Niners had started brawling. Moving to the east as she was, the very few bullets that hit her (these Ninety-Niner chumps weren’t the greatest shots to begin with, let alone in the dark) simply bounced off. All three men kept shooting, none getting the point that it wasn’t working. Which was good, considering the entire reason Way had shown herself like that was to present a tempting, distracting target.
Finally, at the very end of the wall before one of the lot entrances, That-A-Way pivoted to her right, facing the men. Which meant she was now facing south. Her intangibility kicked in, making the bullets simply pass through her while she blew the men a kiss, right before Whamline, who had taken that time to get into position, grabbed the trio with his energy cords and hurled them away to crash into the side of an SUV with ‘shockingly low price’ stickers all over it.
Distraction successfully accomplished, the (currently blonde thanks to her Touched-Tech mask) girl threw herself backward off the wall, dropping to the other side just as a crossbow bolt struck the part where she had been standing. The moment the bolt hit where her feet had been, a six-foot-wide section of the wall simply burst apart. It didn’t explode in the typical sense. Rather, the wall broke apart into hundreds if not thousands of tiny inch or two inch wide chunks, expanding into a large debris cloud that was perfectly orb-shaped. The pieces of wall held there for a few seconds, then all fell to the ground.
Scatterking. That was the work of Scatterking, one of the Ninety-Niners. Way could see him even as the six-foot-wide section of wall was destroyed. He was a younger Touched from the look of him, her own age or even younger. He wore a black bodysuit with a green trenchcoat over it and a silver metal helmet-mask thing with a crown shape on top to go with the ‘king’ motif. The lower half of his face was exposed while the top half was hidden under a white visor attached to the helmet crown. He carried a pistol-crossbow and a rapier, either of which he could channel his power into. It was a power that allowed him to charge inanimate objects so that, if they struck something, the other thing would blow apart into little chunks and hover there in an orb-cloud the way she’d just seen.
If the thing he affected that way was a non-living object, he could choose to either put it back together as if nothing had happened, or let the whole thing fall apart and remain destroyed, as he had with the wall. If the thing he affected was a living object, he couldn’t leave it broken. The person or animal would return to their normal, uninjured shape after a few seconds. But, from what That-A-Way had read and heard, the experience was horrifically painful and traumatic. Not fun at all. Definitely not anything she wanted to experience. Especially considering his power apparently even worked on intangible and invulnerable things.
She could see the smile curving his lips as the boy paused before sprinting toward her. He loosed another shot from his crossbow before drawing the rapier. That time, however, the bolt didn’t get anywhere near her. It wasn’t intended to. Halfway to the girl, it suddenly exploded in a burst of bright light that made Way reel with a yelp. The bolt was a flash-bomb, a distraction, so the boy himself could close the distance with his rapier.
Not being able to see didn’t mean she couldn’t use her powers, of course. Yet even before Way could focus on that, she heard a roar, followed by a squeal and a thud. She had already thrown herself to the side by the time her vision cleared, allowing her to see Scatterking lying on his side with a certain reptilian cat-like figure perched on his back, still growling at the boy.
“Holiday!” she blurted unthinkingly. It was her, the panther-lizard pinning the Ninety-Niner Touched to the ground. But if she was there, that had to mean–
“Hey there, babe!” Pack was there, but off to the side. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of one of the pick-up trucks that were part of the sale lot, dangling keys from her fingers. The rest of her lizards were all in the back. “If you don’t quit playing with the mean boy, I might think you don’t want to arrest me anymore.” With that, she started the truck and, with a roar of the engine, pulled away. Holiday abandoned Scatterking with one last swat to the back of his head, then ran to catch up, jumping into the back with her companions.
Immediately, Way popped back to her feet. She took one last look toward Scatterking, but two of the Syndicates were already there, one waving for her to go after the truck.
So, she did. Pivoting back, the girl saw the truck off in the distance. It was still traveling north and within sight, despite having every opportunity to turn down a different street. Which meant she could teleport straight to it, and she did so without a moment’s hesitation, landing just inside the front cab in the passenger seat.
“Took you long enough,” Pack remarked casually. “I was starting to think I’d have to circle the block and come back.”
“What–what are you doing?!” Amber blurted, turning in the seat to stare that way. Not that it helped, considering the other girl’s face was completely covered by a full, featureless black mask with no holes. “I thought we were gonna lay low while we look into this–” She hissed the word, “–Ministry thing. And now you’re part of a fucking gang war in the middle of the streets?”
Pack didn’t answer at first. Instead, she pulled the truck off the road and into a parking garage, taking the little receipt that popped out marking what time she’d arrived before driving to an empty spot in the back. Only then did she turn to face the Minority girl.
Even when she’d snapped the demand a moment earlier, Amber had expected Pack to make some sort of dismissive, casual retort. She still expected it. But those words didn’t come. Instead, the other girl spoke quietly. “My boss is at war with the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro. I can’t exactly refuse to participate. He found out they were making a move against one of the car lots he owns through shell companies, we had to retaliate.”
“Wha–you mean…” Amber turned, looking in the back of the truck where Holiday and the other transformed lizards were eagerly watching her. “He owns it. Blackjack owns that car lot.”
“Distantly, sure,” Pack confirmed, gesturing. “Don’t worry, I’m not taking the truck anywhere else. You can tell them you chased me off away from here, so they can recover it, take the truck back to the lot, sell it, and Blackjack can earn even more totally legitimate money.”
“Oh, my God.” With a groan, Amber put her face in her hands. “I can’t believe this shit. And I can’t even tell anyone, because how would I know? Plus, even if I could explain how I knew, it wouldn’t matter, because your boss and the Ministry are peas in a pod anyway, so it wouldn’t go anywhere. Silversmith would just erase any evidence, dismiss anything I said, or worse.”
Pack started to say something, then glanced into the back and made a sound that was half-curse and half-growl. “Down!” She was talking to both Amber and her lizards, as a handful of Ninety-Niner thugs had apparently followed them to the garage and were rapidly approaching, firing shots at the truck.
As both girls ducked, Pack looked over to That-A-Way. “Wanna help me deal with these guys, Rose?”
There was a brief pause before Amber reached out to grab the other girl’s arm. “Yeah,” she muttered darkly.
“I’d love to hit someone right now.”
A short time later, the two of them were finally alone again. Well, alone aside from Pack’s collection of friends. This time on the roof of the parking garage, with the lizards spread out behind them.
“Well!” Pack declared as she shook her hand out. There was blood on her glove from where she had punched one of the men in there who dared threaten Tuesday. “That was exhilarating. Guess we’re done now. Unless…” Her tone turned a bit mischievous and pointed. “You think you and me should wrestle.”
“You and I,” Amber immediately corrected without thinking.
“Well, if you insist,” Pack teased, stepping that way before catching both of Amber’s hands as the other girl raised them, palms out as though to stop her. Interlacing their fingers, the black-masked girl seemed to stare intently at Amber from only a foot away, their hands locked. “Don’t worry,” she murmured in a low voice, “we’ll only wrestle when you ask for it.”
“I… I…” Feeling her face turn red and knowing that most of hers was visible (though altered a bit) beneath the domino mask, Amber finally extracted her hands and turned away to take her phone out to look at it. “I have to check with my team and–fuck!”
Head cocking to the side, Pack remarked, “Either I was really wrong about how boring being part of the Minority would be, or–”
“Paintball,” Amber blurted, pivoting back. “He sent a bunch of messages about needing help while we were busy.”
“What?” Pack produced her own phone to look at. “… Fuck.”
“I’ve gotta go, I can’t–if the team wonders where–”
“Go,” Pack gave her a push. “If they ask, just tell them you chased me that far. Get there. I’ll make sure things are cool and come after. Hurry.”
Amber hesitated only for another second, then cursed again and pivoted, sprinting away before immediately teleporting. The actual destination was more to the west than north, so she’d have to use superspeed to get most of the way there.
Watching the other girl disappear, Pack glanced to her lizards, who sat there expectantly, then started to run. “Well guys, we better get over there.
“And see what kind of trouble Paintball’s managed to get himself into this time.”