That-A-Way

Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone now right here!

For the next hour or so, we worked our way through searching the stuff we had taken from the Ministry base. Amber (as That-A-Way of course) showed up to help out while on a break from patrol duties, and was immediately recruited to scan through a pile of papers. The more the merrier. Or at least, the more the less this mind-numbing job of reading what often looked like gibberish would drag on. 

There was something that appeared to be a key for the code that was written on those papers and the vials, but I wasn’t able to decipher it with a brief once-over. So, I passed it over to Paige, who said she would figure it out and decode what was written on them, but it would take awhile. 

Beyond that, we found some interesting things. First and possibly foremost, there was a ledger that showed how up to date on their payments various gangs were. Not just the Detroit ones, but practically all of the organizations throughout the entire state. Nearly every Fell-Touched group (aside from a couple like the Scions) and even most of the non-Touched gangs were represented in the ledger. If you were a criminal group of more than one person (and even some who were solo), you paid taxes to the Ministry. 

But it went further than that. Because obviously having that many people know about the Ministry would make it impossible to keep even a little bit secret. So the vast majority of criminals who paid their fees had no idea that it was part of a larger organization. The Ministry had lieutenants who acted as though they were the boss of an area, unconnected to anyone else. They made people who acted in their territory pay tribute, then secretly passed everything but their own salary to the higher-ups. And for the most part, even the lieutenants didn’t know how wide-reaching the whole thing was. They were all divided into smaller cells who didn’t know anything about the other groups, and didn’t know that a number of their rivals in an area were actually also working for the Ministry. Some of the lieutenants were gang bosses, while others were actually their right-hand people who were secretly keeping the Ministry up-to-date on what was going on. The operation encompassed the entire state of Michigan, and we had all these names and the explanations of what they were doing. 

It wasn’t all in one spot, of course. It wasn’t like all of this information was conveniently written out for us. We had to piece it together between the ledger and several other pieces, including on a few of the hard drives, which were heavily encrypted and password protected. We would have been shit out of luck if we hadn’t had Paige and Sierra. They were able to use the…wires that extended from their fingers to plug into the hard drives and access them directly. 

As expected, there were none of my family’s real names written down anywhere. Not even in the secret encoded parts of the computers. Which made me slightly relieved, a reaction which instantly made me feel guilty. This was wrong, it was all wrong. It was going to blow up in my face somehow, I just knew it. But right now, I just had to focus on this stuff.  

Murphy was shaking her head, muttering about how none of this would help find Luciano, when she abruptly paused. From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl quickly shuffle back through a few other pages she had been looking at before elbowing Roald beside her. She asked him where something else they had been looking at a moment earlier was, and he dug through a discarded pile before handing it to her. She had two papers, one in each hand, and was looking back and forth between them. “Hey… hey I think I got something about that piece of shit.” 

We all turned our attention that way, as she explained. “Okay so on this page they’re talking about something called Plan Z. I think it’s a group or a person or something. It says Plan Z couldn’t be called on for this other thing they needed, so they should send Squire. Then this other page with the same date mentions that this safe house is ‘now available’ because ‘L’ has been taken by Z and won’t be needing it anymore. That’s right after Luciano got away. Whoever or whatever Plan Z is, they probably escorted this L, Luciano, away from that safehouse and out of Ministry territory.”  

Taking that in, I frowned thoughtfully. “There’s a few other bits in here about a Plan Z. I thought it was like… an actual plan, but you’re right, it sounds more like a person or a group. Maybe a set of Touched they use? I dunno. Sending a group to escort Luciano seems like overkill, but then again, maybe they were nervous about us finding him again.” My shoulders raised in a slight shrug. “Does it say anything about where that Plan Z might’ve taken him?  I doubt he stayed there, but it might give us a place to start from.” 

“Maybe not there, but it does here.” That was Peyton, waving a hand with a small notebook clutched in it. “It’s like a memo or a reminder note or something in the margin. I didn’t think it was important at first, but the page right before it has the same date as those ones, and the memo says, ‘Z pick-up’ and then an address in Pontiac.” 

Right, Pontiac was a city about twenty miles north of Detroit. I absorbed that information. It made sense as a place to take Luciano. Far enough away to be clear of the city without taking up too much of their time.

Pack, who had been sitting at the far end of the table we were all gathered around, made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. “So, whoever these Plan Z people are, it sounds like they needed to be picked up after taking Luciano somewhere. Maybe they gave him the vehicle?” She ran two fingers along the top of Tuesday’s head as the gecko sat perched beside the papers she had been looking through, before turning her attention elsewhere. “What do you think, Sierra? Pretty interesting stuff, but then, you must be tired of just sitting around. Being trapped for all that time in a body with someone else, and now you’re completely free. But here you are just playing with paperwork. Don’t you want to get out there and have some fun?” 

“Please don’t try to recruit her into your villain gang until she at least has time to stretch her legs a bit,” Amber idly requested from where she was sitting basically right next to the La Casa Touched. She didn’t bother to look up from the files she had been scanning. “As far as having a body goes, she’s not even one day old.” 

As for Sierra herself, she offered a shrug. “Yeah, I wanna get out there. But there’s gonna be this nagging voice in the back of my head if I don’t help find Irelyn and those two Touched girls and get them off that island. And believe me, after everything we went through to get me this body, the last thing I want is another nagging voice in my head. I just got the old one to be external.” She gave a quick glance over toward Paige before adding, “So, the sooner we save those three, the sooner I can move on and figure out what my real life is going to be.” 

Clearing my throat a bit, I looked toward the stairs. Wren was up in her main lab, working on that tracer device that was supposed to tell us where exactly Breakwater was. I still wasn’t absolutely sure we would go with the plan to blackmail the people in charge into helping Flea and Trivial, but knowing where the island was would at least be a good place to start from. 

“Well, until we have something else to work with,” I announced, “I think we should check out that address that you guys found. Maybe Luciano isn’t there. I mean, he probably isn’t. But there could be something to tell us where else to look. He might’ve left a clue or something.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly, shoving herself up from the table so firmly she nearly knocked over the stool she had been sitting on. “Fuck yeah, let’s get out there. I can’t take looking at another piece of paper right now or I’ll scream.”

Standing up, I hesitated. “We need to be quiet and stealthy about it. Whatever that address is, I don’t know if it’s a Ministry place or just somewhere they took Luciano and dropped him off. But whatever it is, if we show up and make a spectacle of ourselves, it’s going to get back to the Ministry. And I’m pretty sure they could put two and two together, considering those files were just stolen from their base yesterday. If the place looks like it’s guarded or whatever, we have to wait. And we don’t let them see us.” 

Paige started to rise, and I focused that way, shaking my head. “You should stay here. Keep working on those harddrives and see if there’s anything else we can use. This isn’t gonna be a fight, we’re just checking the place out and looking around if it seems clear. We need to be subtle right now.” 

“Paintball, subtle?” Pack snorted and gave me a look. “If I asked you to define that word, would you be able to?”  

Flushing a bit under the helmet and mask, I huffed at the girl. “I can be subtle when I want to be, I promise. I was subtle in that base last night.” Before she could say anything, I hurriedly amended, “I mean I was subtle about who I was and my power and—you know what I mean.” Now I was really blushing. “Look, the point is, we’ll just head over there and check the place out.” 

“Uh huh,” Pack gave me a long look. “And how are you going to get there, exactly? You know, to the city twenty miles north of Detroit. Without attracting attention.”

My mouth opened, then I paused before tilting my head. A muttered curse escaped me while Pack snickered. 

“I can’t drive,” Way hesitantly pointed out. “I’ve gotta get back to patrol pretty soon, or they’ll start to wonder where I am. Which we really don’t want.” 

Pack nodded. “And I’ve got–uhh, let’s just call them plans and leave it at that. Gotta do my real job, or the boss might wonder what else I’ve been doing with my time. Which, as Rose over there said, we don’t want.” 

“Yeah,” Way muttered, “wouldn’t want you to get kicked out of your job as a thief.” 

“I could drive,” Sierra idly noted. “I mean, I’d need a car for it, but I could drive.” She offered a somewhat feral smile then, which was weird to see on a face that was so like my own. It made a funny feeling form in my stomach before I pushed it down as she continued. “And hey, if I need to acquire a car for it–” 

“We’re not stealing a car,” I interrupted. This whole situation was already precarious enough without adding something like that in. It wasn’t likely that she would get caught, of course. And even less likely that she would stay caught, but still. The image of Sierra, in a body that looked like a blonde me, getting taken to the police station was just… no. No, we couldn’t risk anything like that. 

“Besides,” Murphy pointed out, “That body looks like you’re younger than we are. That body’s, what, fourteen?” 

“Oh, I dunno,” Pack put in casually, “appearances can be deceiving. Some people look older than they are, other people look younger. You can’t really go off first impression these days.” 

Murphy shrugged at that. “Whatever, the point is any cop who saw her driving would definitely pull you over to check, stolen car or not. She’d stand out. And I thought the whole point of this trip was to blend in and not attract attention.” 

I nodded quickly. “She’s right, we need to be subtle. That means not stealing any cars and not having someone drive who would make the cops do a double-take. So all of us who are wearing masks are out.” 

While we were all looking at each other and trying to figure out where to go from there, Fred grunted. “I’ll drive. Whatever, it’s just a quick recon thing, right? The kid’s gonna be busy upstairs for awhile, and if she needs something, you can take care of it.” He nodded toward Paige before turning his attention to me. “You want subtle, can’t get much more subtle than an old sedan. Long as that’s not a big fancy neighborhood, it’ll fit in just fine. Plus, I’ve got that bakery ID, so I can be out after curfew. Trouble is, I can only take a few of you. We can say you’re helping with loading stuff into the bakery trucks for some extra cash since the place is shorthanded.” 

“Well, Pack and Way are out,” I noted. “Raindrop isn’t here. So I’ll go with Alloy, Hobbes, and Calvin.” I nodded toward Murphy and Roald. “We’ll check it out, see what we can find.” 

“I’ll go with you.” That was Sierra. “Like I said, I really need to get out of here and stretch my legs. Besides, this way if something goes wrong, you’ll have some back-up.” She gave Paige a look. “It’s my turn to be out there. You can keep scanning the hard drives.” 

For a moment, I thought Paige was going to object. But she paused before exhaling. “Be careful.” Her gaze moved over the rest of us as she added, “All of you. Just don’t get involved in some big thing. If there’s trouble, get the hell out of there and come back. Like you said, we don’t want the Ministry to know that you’re involved. This whole house of cards will come down pretty damn quick if they get too many pieces of the puzzle.” 

Amber looked a bit guilty about the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to go with us. Focusing on me, she urged, “She’s right about being careful out there, okay? We caused a big scene last night. The Ministry is going to be on guard and itching for some payback after the bloody nose we gave them. They can’t cover everything, and they won’t know what we were looking for since we grabbed everything we could. But still, just… watch yourselves and don’t attract a bunch of attention. And if something goes wrong, call. I’d rather make an excuse for–I’d rather ditch and figure out how to explain it later so I can come help than have you guys end up in even worse trouble.” 

“We’ll be careful,” I promised. “We’re just going to check the place out and see if there’s anything to find that might tell us where that guy went. From those papers, it sounds like the Ministry took him from their safehouse to that spot. I’m pretty sure that means they just dropped him off, probably in a place he chose. Which would mean they don’t really have any ties to it. But either way, we’ll watch our backs.” Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder. “But you watch yourself too, okay? Don’t get so distracted worrying about what we’re doing that you get yourself in trouble. There’s still a gang war going on out there.”

Pack made a noise in the back of her throat, before quietly excusing herself. She said something about coming back to check in on what we found later, before heading out to do her… whatever it was La Casa was doing. That whole situation was becoming more complicated by the day, especially given how much I could tell she and Amber liked each other. But it wasn’t my place to say anything. 

Instead, I focused on getting ready to go. With some reluctance, I changed into the other suit, complete with the raised shoes and fake chest. I didn’t want to, but if it came to it, better to be spotted by the Ministry looking like this than as Paintball. There was no sense in taking the risk, even if we weren’t planning on making a big scene. Or so I told myself repeatedly while putting the other suit on in the bathroom before going out to join the others. 

Peyton, Murphy, and Roald wore the same suits as last night as well, while Sierra simply had a ski mask. I had conflicting thoughts about her going out like that. But then again, I had conflicting thoughts about everything involving her. Including the fact that she was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and somehow pulling it off better than I could have even though the body she was using was literally identical to mine. 

So yeah, conflicting thoughts all around. Still, if we got caught and her mask was removed, we… it would be a whole thing anyway. If we got caught to the point that she lost the mask, I would lose mine too. And then we’d really have a situation. 

For the moment, however, I put all of that aside and tried not to focus on the terrible what-ifs. Instead, I headed out to the back lot where Fred’s car was. Unfortunately, just as we were about to head out, Peyton got a call from her mother. Apparently they had a sick friend, and her mother needed her to watch that friend’s kids while she took the woman to the hospital. She obviously felt bad about ducking out, but I assured her it was understandable and that we would be fine. After all, we were just going to poke around, it wouldn’t be that bad. 

She still looked doubtful, but stepped back while I got in the back of the sedan with Murphy and Roald. Sierra got in the front passenger side, not bothering with the mask just yet. 

Starting the car, Fred glanced in the back at us. “Don’t worry, those back windows might look clear, but…” He reached out, hitting something on the dash. “Now they’re tinted from the outside. Nobody can see you back there.” With a proud smile, he tapped the steering wheel. “She might look like an old jalopy, but Wren’s done a lot of tinkering. We get in a chase, whoever’s after us will be in for a big surprise.” 

“Let’s hope there’s no opportunity for you to prove that,” I put in. “At least, not today. But good to know.” 

“Just don’t let Paintball drive if you get into a chase,” Peyton pleaded while standing just outside the car, staring at us as though she was about to change her mind about going to help her mother.

Making a scoffing sound in the back of my throat, I primly pointed out, “I got us out of the last chase pretty well.” 

“You also got my stomach out of my lower torso pretty well,” Peyton shot back. “I’m pretty sure it still hasn’t settled properly.” 

Another huff escaped me. “Wimp. I could totally have driven crazier than that. I took it easy on you.” 

From the front seat, Fred gruffly informed us that he would be the one driving today. And with that, we all waved to Peyton and the others before pulling out onto the street. 

“Now,” our driver announced, “you all might want to sit back and relax for a few minutes, cuz if we’re trying to avoid attention, that means following the speed limit. And I guarantee, there’s gonna be traffic.”

He was right, of course. There was plenty of traffic from people heading home to get back before curfew hit. And just getting out of work in general. Pontiac had grown as well, alongside Detroit as it acted as a suburb for people to live in while working here in the city. At last count, the place had a population of about a hundred and fifty thousand or so. And part of me thought that the entirety of that was on the freeway with us. It made me want to jump out and find my own way to the city. Which would have been a terrible mistake, but still. 

It took over an hour and a half for us to drive the twenty miles from Detroit to Pontiac, which would have been worse if I hadn’t fallen asleep leaning against the window. When the car abruptly stopped, I jolted awake, suddenly feeling panicked about where I was and what was going on. 

“It’s cool,” Murphy assured me. From the sound of the yawn that came with her words, she had actually fallen asleep too. “We’re here.” 

“That’s right,” Fred confirmed, raising his hand to point across the street from where he had parked. “That’s the address. It’s number 3C.”  

I looked that way with the others and we immediately spotted an apartment building with what looked like some sort of memorial out front. There were flowers, wreaths, candles, and similar stuff all stacked up next to the stairs. 

“What…” I frowned. “What is that?” 

“I’ll check it out,” Sierra announced. And before I could say anything, she had the door open and was walking across the street to look at the memorial. There were a couple people standing nearby, and she said something to them before listening to their response. The whole time, I sat with my hands clenched tightly, praying nothing went wrong. 

A minute later, Sierra came back and got in. “It’s a memorial alright,” she announced. “Apparently a couple teenagers were killed by someone the day after that Luciano creep was supposed to have been dropped off. From what the one witness who survived said, they were poking around the dumpster back behind the building and someone attacked them. They ahh, they said it was a monster. Actually they said zombie. He came out of the garbage and screamed at them. The girl got away but her friends were… they weren’t as lucky. Apparently the monster bit them. Ripped their throats out with–” She stopped, grimacing. “It was bad, that’s the point. Real bad. And from the description the girl gave…” 

“Luciano?” I asked, before grimacing when she gave a silent nod. “Fuck. Okay wait, so…. the Ministry brought Luciano here… and the next day a few teenagers found him in the garbage, and when they disturbed him, he attacked and murdered a couple of them? By ripping their throats out with his teeth? And they said he was like a zombie? What–what does…

“What the fuck does that mean?”  

Previous Chapter

Dig In 22-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone right here

As it turned out, the new curfew did not actually extend to recognized Star-Touched, no matter our age. Which was convenient for Alloy and me, yet made things a bit more complicated for Murphy and Roald. We didn’t want to risk the two of them getting too much attention, especially not this close to when we were going to make the actual… incursion. It really would have been crappy luck to have them get in trouble with the cops right before we were about to go into the Ministry base. And crappy luck was absolutely something we didn’t need to be flirting with right now. There were already enough potential problems without adding even more. 

To that end, we made sure the two of them went home early that night. They weren’t very happy about it, especially not Murphy. She wanted to be there to help with the last finishing touches on the tunnel, given how much getting into that base meant to her. But I managed to convince her that it was better for them to avoid attention right now and be ready to use the tunnel on Sunday night than it was to finish the basic work now. After all, if we were going to pull this off, we couldn’t afford to give the Ministry any advance warning. I had no doubt that they would get reports of literally any situation within a certain radius of the mall. And if they heard about the sister someone who was murdered by a guy they helped escape being picked up for hanging around near their secret base after curfew? That might just draw their attention. Even if they didn’t figure out any specifics, it was still too much of a risk. And the last thing this whole situation needed was more risks. 

After making sure the two of them made it on the last bus back to their apartment, and sending Alloy home to get some sleep as well given how much she had been yawning, I took a circuitous route back around to the construction site. I had to make absolutely sure there was no one following or watching me. Again, avoiding last minute screw-ups. Once I was eventually convinced that it was safe, I got back to the room where our tunnel entrance was. Wren and Fred had both just left as well to avoid any unwanted attention. Which left a few of Pack’s lizards on lookout duty. Twinkletoes was invisible near the edge of the building, making a low groaning sound of greeting when I approached. The groaning turned to what sounded a lot like a purr when I reached up to scratch under his chin. Which, of course, meant that I had to scratch behind Riddles’ head when the eagle-lizard made a harumphing noise from the windowsill nearby.

Quietly telling the two of them to keep watching for any intruders, I made my way inside and over to the hole. Below, I could hear the others talking in low voices, so they clearly weren’t too far away. 

Sure enough, as I made my way down the ladder, I found Pack, Raindrop, and That-A-Way all near the entrance in that widened area we had set up. We had brought some chairs down there to sit in, and there were lights strung all the way around it, connected to a heavy-duty (but silent) generator. Those same lights continued down the tunnel so we could see what we were doing. 

“All good?” Way asked as I stepped off the ladder. “Your buddies there weren’t happy about leaving.” 

“No, they weren’t,” I agreed. “But they’ll be okay. They get it. The whole thing is just really sensitive right now, you know how it is.” My gaze passed over them before I added, “For everyone. But how does it look? Are we good?” 

Pack spoke up, idly waving a small tablet computer. “Scanner’s clear so far.” 

The scanner, as she called it, was a device that Wren had set up. The lights that were strung along the tunnel weren’t just lights. They included sensors that would detect digging in the area. Essentially letting us know if anyone was getting close to our tunnel with one of their own. They also did some other stuff, including acting as countermeasures for anyone taking scans of the ground from up above. There were plenty of different sorts of detectors that could have told anyone using them that there was a large tunnel below their feet. Wren’s devices essentially moved those scans over to a safe (aka still dirt-filled) section of ground so they wouldn’t pick up anything we didn’t want them to. 

That wasn’t the only way the girl had helped either. The tunnel itself was very winding, going down and then up and then twisting, all to avoid any underground pipes and wires, or anything else whose damage or disturbance would have immediately alerted someone that we were there. Wren had another scanner device that penetrated the ground ahead of us, letting our group know exactly where it was safe to dig. As a result, the tunnel was a lot less of a direct line to the mall than we’d originally planned, yet avoiding calling down a maintenance crew leading to cops felt worth it. To say nothing of what would happen if my parents received word that there was anything hinky going on near their secret base. Again, I was pretty damn sure they paid attention to stuff like that. 

So, it was thanks to Wren that this tunnel had any actual hope of succeeding. If we’d been doing this blind, I doubted we would’ve gotten this far. Or at least, we’d have had a lot more problems doing it. And it would have taken a lot longer. All in all, she was the tunnel MVP. 

Not that Izzy fell far behind. With her making huge piles of dirt weightless so they could easily float out of the tunnel, it was kind of a race between the two of them for which was more indispensable. Maybe they could share the trophy when this was over. 

Pushing those thoughts out of my head, I looked to the others and painted a smiley face across the front of my helmet. “So, you guys ready to do one last walk-through before Sunday? You know, just to make sure everything looks right.”

I could hear the amusement in Pack’s voice as she retorted, “You sure you don’t want to go with Hobbes’ plan to have someone sleep in the tunnel until then?”  

Wincing inwardly at the thought of how Murphy would react to that considering I’d vetoed the thought earlier, I shook my head. “Like I said when she brought it up, I’d rather the tunnel get discovered and all our work end up useless than have someone here to get caught along with it. If they find it through the tunnel, having someone here won’t help anything. We’ve got Trevithick’s scanners to let us know if someone shows up. Other than that, having someone stay here would just be more risk. If they find the empty tunnel, all they’ll know is that someone was digging toward their base. Our work will be fucked, but that’s it. But if they find someone here, they can get a hell of a lot more information.”

Pack gave me a long look, shaking her head. “You’re pretty good at this subterfuge stuff for a thirteen-year-old kid. You sure you didn’t grow up with spy parents or something? Your dad James Bond?” She was teasing, but it was clear that she was also curious. 

Coughing, I managed to shake my head and play it off. “Just watch a lot of movies, I guess. Seriously, it’s no big deal. We’ll come back on Sunday and get in there.” 

“And hopefully find something useful,” Izzy put in quietly. “Or several useful things.” 

“Damn straight,” Pack agreed with a nod that way. “Personally, I’m leaning towards the sort of useful that can make sure I’m not getting ripped off in this whole system.” 

Rolling her eyes, Way muttered something amounting to god forbid she just want to do the right thing and fix the system. 

“Hey, babe,” Pack informed her, “I do want to fix the system. But I just happened to think it’s a little more broken than you do, so breaking it down and working outside the system makes more sense to me than making myself a slave to it. Besides, I can make a profit for myself and be successful while still wanting to make the whole thing better for everyone else, you know?” 

Amber met her gaze, carefully asking, “How does stealing from people and breaking things in the city make it better? How does taking part in a gang war that scares people so much they have to set up a curfew like this help fix the system?” 

For a moment, the other girl didn’t respond. It looked as though she was considering how to answer. Finally, she straightened up. “I’m not saying I’m perfect. I can be selfish, sure. And I’m loyal to a guy who isn’t exactly a paragon of justice himself, to say the least. But like I said before, we have our standards. Even if they don’t match yours, they still exist. And…” She paused, shifting on her feet. “And maybe we do break some stuff and steal, but I promise, people who live in our territory don’t exactly suffer. Blackjack wants his… the people who live near us to be loyal. Or at least he doesn’t want to give them reason to snitch or spy. Some gang leaders handle that through fear. And sure, there’s a little bit of that. Just the way the system works. But for the most part, we take care of the Prevs who live around us. Me wanting to profit and succeed in this world doesn’t mean I want a bunch of innocent people to suffer.” 

I could tell that Amber was thinking about that for a minute. This whole thing where she clearly liked Pack while still not being sure about her ethics or whatever was really doing a number on her. I was pretty sure that her dad being killed by some carjacker on a random joyride had really… colored her perception of ‘non-serious crimes’ or whatever one might call it. As had finding out about the whole Ministry situation and her growing worry that they had done something to allow her father’s killer to escape justice. Which, to be fair, wasn’t exactly dissuaded by the fact that now we had literally seen them help Murphy’s brother’s killer escape. It made that whole thing seem even more plausible. 

So, all in all, Amber clearly had to reevaluate a lot of things lately. I was pretty sure that was actually why she was repeatedly pushing Pack about all that, because the things the other girl said made enough sense to Amber that she was reflexively pushing back against them, thanks to how much her entire worldview was being shaken.

And if nothing else, I definitely understood what it was like for one’s worldview to shake.

Finally Amber spoke up. “I know you’re probably tired of me bringing it up. I know you’re tired of defending yourself. You…  you can make your own choices. I just…” She hesitated, clearly considering her words for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “I just feel like it’s really easy to do things that you think aren’t going to hurt anybody. Like rob a bank or steal a car and go on a joyride.” She managed to keep her voice relatively steady at that point. If I hadn’t already known the truth, I might not have caught the emotion there. “But there can be unintended consequences. People can get hurt or even die. It doesn’t mean you meant for it to happen, just… it happens all the time. Someone goes out, does something they think is just for fun and not a big deal, and then they hurt someone, or even kill them. Sometimes you can hurt people, or worse, even when you don’t mean to. And I don’t want you to go through something like that. You’re my– you’re a friend. I don’t want you to take on that sort of guilt, because no matter what you say, I know you’d feel guilty if you hurt someone like that. I’ve been out there, Pack. I’ve seen the survivors of that sort of situation. I’ve seen how they react, the hate they can have for the people responsible for hurting them, even if they weren’t a target. Even if it was an accident. The… the hate that those people feel, I don’t want anybody to feel that way about you. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life or what choices to make. I just want you to never be in that position. I know, maybe that’s dumb.” 

Pack seemed to consider that for a moment before shaking her head. “It’s not dumb, babe. I get it. But you’re right, they’re my choices. All I can say is, I’ll be careful. And if I do ever hurt someone like that, if I ever killed someone, I’d…” She trailed off before shaking her head. “I dunno what I’d do. I can’t predict the future. But I’ll tell you one thing. If that happened, I’d be glad to have someone like you around to help give me some direction and advice. And the kids over there.” She nodded toward Izzy and me. “Who, you know, are probably really hoping we shut up soon.” 

Fighting down the reaction at being called a kid, I made myself shrug. “Don’t worry about it. I just…  yeah, don’t worry about it. You guys can keep talking if you want. I’m gonna walk the tunnel one more time before Sunday, just to make myself feel a little less paranoid.” Pausing, I amended, “You know, before I inevitably end up coming back here tomorrow and walking it ‘one more time’ again.” My hand rubbed the back of my neck self-consciously. “But hey, if I’m lucky, it’ll only be those two times.” Another pause, then my head dropped a bit as I mumbled, “It’ll probably be more than those two times.” 

Izzy reached up to pat my back, her voice quiet yet still somewhat teasing. “But that’s still a no on the sleeping here plan?” 

Blushing under the helmet and mask, I huffed a bit. “I might be paranoid, but I’m not changing my mind about that being a bad idea. Anyway, anyone who wants to embrace the paranoia and walk with me, you’re totally welcome.” With that, I stepped past the others to the tunnel entrance and started to move down it. 

As planned, the tunnel was six feet high. None of us were that tall, so we could technically have gotten away with making it smaller. But we didn’t want to give them any help in narrowing down who we were, so six feet it was. It was also just wide enough for all of us to walk down it single-file with some elbow-room on both sides, or two at a time if we turned sideways and got close. The lights strung along the ceiling gave off just enough of a glow that we weren’t walking completely in darkness, making the whole tunnel pretty creepy. We had used a bit of that concrete from the bags that were piled up on the pallet to cover the hole in the floor of the room above, along with a wooden frame that Fred put together, to build a cement archway around the entrance to the tunnel itself, and in a few more places along the way, in order to brace it.  

Pack and Way (Izzy stayed behind to cover up the hole in the floor if anyone came by) followed as I moved through the winding, twisting tunnel. It went down repeatedly, gradually getting lower and lower through most of its length as we had been working to avoid running into pipes or anything else. Even with Wren’s device letting us know where they were, going deeper had been the best strategy for that.  Even so, the tunnel still wasn’t very straight. Among other things, we had been avoiding what the scanner pointed out as being ‘loose soil’, places where digging might have caused a cave-in despite our precautions. 

Above our heads, cars were passing by on the street. We were deep enough that I could barely hear the rumble, like some sort of dragon or other monster slumbering far away in a cavern. Which only added to the general air of creepiness, of course.  

It was a long tunnel, crossing the entire distance from the motel construction area, passing under the street, and through most of the parking lot of the mall itself. We had been incredibly careful as soon as we’d gotten that far, using Wren’s scanner to show us views of the ground for twenty feet ahead of us at a time before very cautiously maneuvering our way closer to the main building. 

If we had been doing this the old-fashioned way, we almost certainly would have taken months to get this far. But more importantly, we would have been caught. The sort of heavy digging and drilling that would have been necessary would have set off all sorts of seismic activity alerts that I was sure my parents had. Thankfully, with the pink paint, we barely had to pull at the dirt and rock to get it out of there. We weren’t making any more seismic activity than the cars passing by overhead. Probably less. Sure, it would have been faster to combine the pink paint and some heavy-duty equipment. But again, we were trying not to get caught. 

All in all, it had been a lot of long, hard, quiet work. But now we had managed to get the tunnel as close as we could. As I finally finished picking my way through that long, winding underground path, I found myself at the end of it. This spot, which we had widened out a bit more, similar to the entrance area, was where Wren’s scanner had detected metal walls ahead. Twenty feet ahead and fifteen feet down, to be exact. From what the scanner could determine, it was the very corner edge of a wall. It couldn’t tell us much more than that, but it did know what the wall was made out of, and it was far too heavy-duty to be some normal basement room. Not to mention being too deep. Yeah, this was definitely the place. Unless my family was sharing secret underground lair space with some other group. 

Everything seemed fine still, after several minutes of checking the scanner and putting my hand uselessly against the dirt wall. We weren’t going to dig any closer to the base until we were ready to go in, given how easy it would be for them to find the tunnel if it was right up against the wall. Twenty feet away and fifteen feet up was probably still too close for comfort, but that’s where we were. Sunday night we would dig the rest of the way in, get through the wall, and… and then hope that there was useful stuff in the place. 

“We won’t have time to look through everything,” Way pointed out from behind me. “It’s gonna have to be a grab and run. Just get everything we can see, throw it all in bags, and get out again before they bring in reinforcements. We can look through it for anything useful later.” 

Nodding, I murmured, “Yeah, no time for subtlety. Not when we know the sort of resources they probably have. We get in, split up to grab everything in sight. Especially hard drives. Grab all the papers, discs, hard drives, and whatever else we can find, then get the hell out. We don’t want to be in there any longer than absolutely necessary.” 

“Preaching to the choir, buddy,” Pack informed me with clearly put-on casualness. I could tell she was as nervous about all this as I felt. Well, maybe not as nervous. But still. “Get in, grab stuff, get out,” she continued. “And we compare notes about what we got once it’s all safe and we’re not in imminent danger of being disappeared by some super black ops team.” 

There was a bit more discussion about specifics, but eventually we made our way back out of the tunnel and rejoined Izzy, Riddles, and Twinkletoes in the room above. A bit of last-minute discussion followed before everyone split up. Way and Raindrop had their own actual patrol route to do before they ended up drawing attention for taking too long. 

Once they were gone, I looked over to where Pack was standing next to Scatters. The once-tiny lizard had grown into a full reindeer form. She could glow in the dark, but Pack wasn’t having her do that at the moment for obvious reasons. 

“Well, Paintboy,” she started while shifting the backpack (it was still linked to the cage with her other little friends) on her shoulders as she swung a leg up over the deer-lizard and into the saddle she had placed on her, “guess I’ll see you Sunday when we do this thing. Till then, keep it real.” 

With that, she gave a low whistle, and Scatters was gone. Seriously, she jumped thirty feet up and forward from a standing position to land on the roof of a bulldozer, then bounced off that to jump twice more in rapid succession, moving just as far each time. With those quick jumps, she landed against the side of a building, running along it with Pack clinging to her until she reached the roof. 

“Wow,” I murmured, shaking my head in disbelief at the sight. That looked amazing. Someday, I was going to convince Pack to let me give it a shot. 

I was about to head out when my phone buzzed. No, not my phone. Not even my Touched phone. It was the phone I’d taken from Wren’s, the one we’d used to call Irelyn. Blinking down at the unknown name and number, I frowned briefly before realizing that it could be Irelyn. Quickly, I hit the button on my voice changer to make it sound like a random guy, then answered. “Hello?”

“Paige Banners, please,” came a male voice. 

“Uh, sorry, who is this?” Was this a friend of Irelyn’s? Someone else trying to track her down using the number she’d called the woman with? 

There was a brief pause, then the voice came back flatly. “Give Paige the phone. 

“This is her father.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Oookay, so my dad, as Silversmith, wanted to talk to me. This was fine. This was good. This was okay. This was… was–oh boy. Yeah, I had no idea how this was going to go. But I couldn’t exactly refuse without causing even more suspicion than he might already have. And given who he was, I couldn’t even pretend that there was an emergency that I had to go take care of. I had no reasonable way to get out of having this conversation right now, much as I might’ve wanted to. And what really sucked was that if I hadn’t known the truth, I would have been incredibly psyched to have a conversation with Silversmith. But then, if I didn’t know the truth, a lot of things would’ve been different. And not for the better, tempting as it might’ve been to think otherwise sometimes. Knowing the truth was the right way to go in the long run. 

For a brief moment, I even wondered if this was really my father or not. But the thought vanished as fast as it had appeared. Of course this was my dad. They wouldn’t leave something like this to a minion or body double or whatever. Now that the speeches and all that were over, he’d probably excused himself from the table. Hell, for all I knew, that Eric Abbot guy was aware of the whole story. Actually, I was willing to bet he was part of the Ministry, if not a full on Touched himself. He clearly knew the truth. So yeah, this was definitely the real Silversmith. Which meant it was really my dad.  

Somehow, I managed to keep all the confusion and uncertainty out of my voice as I offered a shrug that I hoped was convincing. “Uh, sure, I guess.” Glancing to the others, I gestured for them to go ahead. “I’ll catch up with you guys in a minute.”

From the very brief look that Amber gave me, it was clear she wasn’t sure about leaving me alone. But it disappeared just as quickly, and she kept a straight face while calling for the others to keep up. Like it didn’t matter at all. Because we had to pretend it didn’t, or it really would. 

So, they kept going while I turned back the other way with a bright, “You wanted to talk?” Inwardly, I was telling myself that there was nothing to worry about. My father wasn’t going to try anything right now in the middle of a huge group of people. 

Of course, the moment I had that thought, Dad immediately announced, “Let’s take a little walk to someplace a bit more private, hmm?” His hand gestured around us at all the people. “Fun as it can be, it’s kind of hard to hear yourself think sometimes in a place like this, you know?” His voice was casual, but I could tell he was paying attention to everything I did. 

“Sure,” I made myself respond. I couldn’t let him hear any hesitation or fear in my voice. Well, he could pick up some nervousness. That was to be expected. It’d be weird if I wasn’t nervous. But it couldn’t be–yeah. I had to be careful with this whole thing. It could blow up in my face so easily. Saying the wrong thing, or even giving the wrong reaction, could make this go so very wrong. 

It was a thought that I had to push out of my mind while following after my father as he led me through the crowd. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I was doing my level best to breathe in and out as normally as possible in order to stay calm. Well, sort of calm. 

Thankfully, no one else was paying much attention to us, so I didn’t have to worry about someone else getting involved or being a distraction. Aside, of course, from the few people who complimented our costumes. No one actually thought we were the real deal. Why would they? Walking around an event like this was basically the perfect disguise. Which made me wonder how many real Touched were hanging out here. Hell, I already knew that there were at least two Fell-Touched disguised as different Touched in this place, and I was willing to bet there were probably others. I just had to hope that none of them were planning to cause trouble. 

Or maybe not hope that. Maybe actually hope the opposite. If there was trouble right now, I wouldn’t have to talk to my father about… whatever it was he wanted to talk about. If someone started a distraction, I could be saved from this whole thing. But no. No, I couldn’t let myself hope that something went wrong here, no matter how convenient it might be for me. The rest of these people didn’t deserve that. 

So, forcibly shoving the thought out of my head, I focused on my father just as he pushed open a semi-hidden door ahead of us and gestured for me to go through. This was my last chance. If I didn’t want to be alone in a private place with him, I had to do something now. And then live with the consequences. Yet which would be worse, the consequences of showing him that I knew more than I was supposed to by refusing to be alone with him, or of walking into that private place and… dealing with whatever came next? 

In the end, the only real choice (and it wasn’t a choice at all) was to go with door number two. Taking a deep breath as silently as possible, I stepped through the door, my senses keenly alert for anything out of the ordinary. I had, of course, been covering the inside of my costume with as much paint as I could manage this entire time. There were various-colored shapes all over me, though out of sight so my father wouldn’t know I was prepping. If things did go down right now, I was about as ready as I could be. 

The door turned out to lead to a small hallway with another door to the left before continuing straight ahead to another that was marked emergency exit. There wasn’t much room here, but I was able to walk most of the way to the exit before turning back, putting about six or seven feet of distance between myself and my father as he closed the other door behind him. Then, we were left alone in that much quieter space. The soundproofing was still incredibly good here, to the point that I could have believed we were the only ones in the building. Despite the fact that there were thousands of people just a few feet away, it felt like I was completely alone with my father, cut off from any outside interference. Which was a prospect that really shouldn’t have scared me as much as it did. 

And yet, here we were. I had no other excuses, nothing to stop me from having this face to face with my dad. Standing there, I made myself sound as casual as I possibly could, praying that my voice wouldn’t crack as I spoke up. “So, you wanted to talk? Please say you’re gonna let me borrow the Silvercruiser. Wait, you do really have one of those, right? I know they have a toy of it, but I’ve never been completely sure if that’s a real thing or not.” 

I could hear the amusement in my father’s (altered) voice. “A silver hovercycle that can turn invisible? Of course I have one of those. I mean, I’m not going to get into whether the toy or the real thing came first, but still.” I could tell he was smiling at me. “Those companies have pretty good ideas sometimes.” 

Oh boy were there a lot of things I wanted to say to that. But I pushed most of them aside and simply replied, “Maybe I can get some of them to push the idea of a Paint Buggy. You know, big four-wheeler thing with wide tires and this tank full of paint on the back that you can spray with a hose from the gunner position. If I can make it popular enough as a toy by the time I get my drivers license-err, how do they handle finding out if you can drive in your costumed identity without giving away your identity?” 

Something curious, my father asked, “Is that a legitimate question? I mean, do you really want to know?” 

Well, now I really did. So I gave a quick nod. “Wait, you mean there’s a real answer?” 

“Of course there is,” he assured me. “Believe me, you’re far from the first person to have that thought. It came up a long time ago, and they worked out a system for it, which allows them to verify that a Touched is drive-legal without exposing who they really are.” 

“Okay,” I admitted, “now I’m really curious. How can they manage something like that? And, you know, how secure is it really?” Not that I had any intention of following through, because no matter how secure the system was, I didn’t trust my family not to have some way of gaming it to work out peoples’ identities. Still, I was curious to hear what they’d done to make enough people believe it was safe. It had to be something pretty good. 

“Actually,” Dad informed me, “it’s an international system. Started down in California, if I remember right. And I usually do.” That bit was said with clear charismatic teasing amusement, and I made myself chuckle to avoid making the whole situation worse than it already was. Dad continued after giving me time to react. “In any case, if you look at the back of a driver’s license, you’ll find what looks like a serial number. It’s twelve digits. When you get your license, that number is added to a special international registry, and the only information it gets is the fact that you are legal to drive, along with any restrictions. At any point, you can go to a secure website and input that number on your license. It’ll send back a three word code. Something like Bear Sofa Clock, or Headphones Chocolate Paper. That’s all you need to remember.” 

“I get it,” I put in. “So if cops want to find out if you’re legal to drive, you give them your three word code. They put the code in the computer and it tells them whether you’re legal to drive or not.” 

“That’s right,” he confirmed. “The authorities don’t get the numbers from your three-word code, so they can’t check your actual identification. All they get is a ‘yeah, this is a licensed driver.’ And sure, it’s not a perfect system. There’s ways to game it, such as a licensed driver letting someone who isn’t use their code. But, you know, if you’re a Star-Touched, or at least a Sell-Touched trying to make nice, the hope is that you’ll play by the rules. Besides, once you have a code associated with you, if someone else uses the same one, it sends up red flags. Then you’ll have some questions to answer.” 

Offering a shrug, I replied, “Well, I’ll keep that in mind whenever it comes up. You know, if I actually survive this whole thing long enough for it to matter.” That last bit came out before I could even think about what I was saying, and I immediately regretted it. But it wasn’t like I could take it back. I was just glad that my father couldn’t see my face. 

Of course, I had something else to focus on almost immediately, as he lifted his head slightly to regard me. “Yes, well, as it happens, you surviving is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.”  

Do not react, I immediately practically shouted at myself. Do not react to that, do not give him any sense of fear or nervousness. Do not show anything. It took everything I had not to recoil or give anything away through my body language.  

Instead, I made myself tilt my head curiously. “Should I be worried that the leader of the Conservators wants to talk to me about whether I’m going to survive or not?” My voice was even, as I managed, if barely, to keep it from cracking. It had to sound like I was still totally casual about the whole situation. Even if, in reality, I was double-checking that every spare concealed surface had some form of paint on it. Okay, quadruple-checking.

Dad simply chuckled, head shaking. “That depends on how well you react to a, well, let’s call it a gentle reprimand.” He pushed on before I could react. “I know, I know, you don’t work for me, or for any of us. I get that, believe me. It may be hard to believe, but I understand the lure of working by yourself in situations like this. So yes, I know you aren’t working for me and I don’t have real authority over you. But Raindrop and That-A-Way are, and it seems that they’ve been doing a bit of… extracurricular work with you.” 

For a split-second, I had a positively terrified thought that he knew about the tunnel. I very nearly reacted badly. But, at the last possible second, I caught myself with the realization. He wasn’t talking about the tunnel or any of that. “You mean the whole thing with the Scions,” I managed, staring up at him. “You’re… you’re upset that they were involved with… with exposing Cup.” Saying that made my heart slow down a bit, so it no longer felt like I was going to need a quick trip to the hospital. Well, not just yet anyway. The jury was out on how well I’d feel once this conversation was over. 

My father nodded once. “I’m afraid so. We just need to have a quick little talk. As I said, I know you’re not subject to our rules. But believe it or not, we still care about what happens to you. And, well, Raindrop and That-A-Way are part of the Minority.” His voice softened slightly, as he clearly tried to keep what he was saying from sounding too much like a dressing down (while still maintaining its seriousness). “Finding out Cup’s real identity was a huge thing. Congratulations on that. But going by yourselves, not telling any adult what was going on, talking those two into leaving their team behind…” He was clearly staring intently at me from behind that silver helmet. “Tell me you have some idea of how dangerous that was.” 

Swallowing hard, I made myself nod. “I know, trust me. It was–if we hadn’t–it could’ve gone really bad. I mean, we didn’t know she was–” 

“I know,” Dad cut me off. “You had no idea who she really was. But you were still investigating something that you knew could set the Scions off if they found out about it. And you all went out without having real backup. If you had taken a couple adults with you, or even just–” He hesitated before sighing. “We could have captured Cup instead of just exposing her identity. We lost that opportunity, and she escaped.” 

Unfortunately, he had a point, and that realization made me flinch a bit visibly. Taking a deep breath, I hesitantly replied, “You’re right. If we’d had more backup, maybe we could have captured her. But…” Now I really hesitated. Did I really want to say this? “But as often as the Scions have found out when someone was coming after them, as much as it seems like they have inside information, do you really think it’s impossible that they might have gotten wind of what we were doing if more people knew about it?” 

Dad was almost deathly silent for a moment, regarding me intently before speaking very carefully. “Are you accusing one of our Star-Touched of being a traitor who works for the Scions?” His voice sounded as though it could have cut through glass. 

Hurriedly, I shook my head. “No. No, I’m not saying that at all. But you have a lot of support personnel. You know as well as I do that the moment some official thing went down the line about talking to a witness who might know something about the Scions, there’d be a whole bunch of red tape to go through. And every bit of red tape is another person who could spill the beans. For all we know, if we let it be an official operation, it could’ve turned into a trap against us. They could’ve put a bomb in the apartment and killed everyone the moment we went in. Or… or something. The point is, the more people who knew about it, the bigger chance of it blowing up in our faces. Uh, no offense or anything.”  

I could actually hear Dad snort quietly before he responded. “I suppose I can see where you’re coming from. You’re a very suspicious person, aren’t you?” His gaze seemed to bore right through me. “I don’t suppose there’s any particular reason for that you might want to get into?”

I was silent for a second, before he gently prodded, “If there’s any problems at home or anything. You know, any reason why you don’t tend to trust other people very much.” 

Yeah, he wanted to see if there was any chance I would talk to him about the Ministry. And, come to think of it, probably also wanted to test my reaction to find out if I knew about his connection to them. That’s what this entire conversation was about, at least in part. 

My head shook. “I guess I just prefer going my own way. Helps avoid that red tape I was talking about.” Belatedly, I added, “But I know it was dumb to go out there by ourselves when the Scions were involved. Even if we didn’t expect to run into them, especially like that. I promise, we–I’ll be more careful.” 

Dad seemed to regard me in silence for a few brief seconds before clearing his throat. “Good to know. And in the future, if you ever want to get help without going through all the official channels, feel free to call me. Believe it or not, I do know how to keep a secret.” He was extending his hand with a card in it. A card that had his name and a phone number on it. “This will get through to my cell any time of the day. If you need help, with anything at all, just ask.” 

After a very brief hesitation, I took the card and held it tightly. Somehow, I managed to make my voice sound casual. “Thanks. I mean, thank you, sir. I uhh, I’ll keep it in mind. You–you’ve always been my favorite hero, you know.” That time, my voice shook. But that was okay, it made sense for it to do so, even if he didn’t know the reason. 

I could hear the smile in my father’s voice. “Well, thanks. Glad to know an old fogey can still inspire the new generation. And like I said, you call that number any time you need anything. Now go on.” He opened the door and gestured for me to head through. “Have fun with the others. 

“Who knows, maybe they’ll be better than me at convincing you and your partner to join up with the team.” 

So, I thanked him again and went through the door, forcing myself not to look back. When I eventually made my way through the crowd to find the others, I saw that they had been joined by Syndicate, Whamline, and Wobble. All of them were in front of the entrance to the phase room, clearly waiting. When Raindrop saw me, she said something to the others and everyone turned my way. That-A-Way spoke up. “Hey, Paintball. Everything okay?” She was clearly trying to keep her voice casual and even to avoid sounding nervous about that whole thing, but I could see just how tense she was. Not to mention how tense Izzy and Peyton were too. 

“It was about the Scion situation, wasn’t it?” Wobble put in, a bit knowingly. “That’s why he wanted to talk to you.” 

Syndicate spoke up before I could respond. “Yeah, the boss wasn’t too rough on you about that whole thing, was he? I mean, yeah, we weren’t happy about finding out that you all went off and nearly got killed without telling us what was going on, but you still managed to find out who they really are. That’s more than, well, anyone else has been able to do.” 

“Couldn’t be that bad,” Whamline pointed out. “Not like he could assign the dude toilet duty or anything. He doesn’t work for him.” Pausing, he added, “You know, I’m starting to see the benefit of going solo.” 

Snorting despite myself, I waved both hands. “It’s fine, I’m fine. Silversmith just wanted to have a little talk about being careful, that’s all. We’re all good.” 

Clearly knowing that I didn’t want to get into all that right then, Izzy announced, “We let another group go ahead so we could wait for you.” Her eyes found mine as she added, “If you still wanna do it?” 

“Sure thing,” I agreed easily. “No way am I missing out on this. Then again, everyone keeps talking about how cool it is, like walking through solid objects is gonna change everything.

“But personally, I think it’s just a phase.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-09 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Boy was going downstairs a real shift. The difference between the rich people party on the upper floor, and what we walked into down there was like night and day. Alloy and I had followed the Minority people down some private stairway and to a door that was apparently in an unused corner of the room. As soon as that door opened, we were assaulted by a mix of light and sound. The whole place was lit up by hundreds of slightly too bright tube lights hanging from the ceiling of this enormous warehouse-like space. From what I had heard on the way down, there were booths filling almost every square inch of the place, and thousands of people making their way through to see exhibits, buy merchandise, and all the rest of that sort of thing. 

And yet hearing about it was nothing compared to literally hearing it. The place was a madhouse. I felt physically assaulted by the noise as soon as we opened that door. Thousands of people all talking at once, hundreds shouting for attention or trying to sell things, dozens of buzzers, alerts, whistles, chimes, and other noises. To say nothing of the like three different songs I could hear just from the entranceway coming from different areas. Someone was playing a guitar, another person appeared to be repeatedly breaking windows or something, somewhere off in the distance what sounded like a car alarm was going off, and a couple hundred feet to our right, a bunch of people were doing what sounded like incredibly loud tribal chants. 

“Yup,” Syndicate noted while slowly looking around from the doorway (having to raise his voice to a near shout even though he was right next to us), “pretty much the same as last year.” After a brief pause, he added, in an even louder voice, “Actually, I think they’re a little quieter this year!” 

The spot we were in was behind several large booths, blocking people from seeing us. There was a narrow pathway to the left and right leading to areas we could join the crowd and, apparently, blend in. According to the others, there were so many people in costumes here that we wouldn’t stand out at all unless we used our powers. They strongly advised not doing that, unless we really wanted to be mobbed and never be able to move anywhere. Which was a warning that had made Peyton push her remaining floating marbles into a ‘pocket’ in her armor for the time being. 

Fragile, the brand new glass-form Minority girl, leaned closer to peer out that way. Her voice was tentative. “This… this is quieter?” Realizing only a couple of us had heard her, she repeated it a bit louder. 

“Compared to last year, yeah!” That-A-Way confirmed with a glance my way. “If we all stick together, we’ll stand out more and people might wonder if we’re not cosplaying!” she called over the somehow even louder noise. “We should split up so we don’t attract attention!” Her head shook a bit. “Believe me, it might sound fun to have all those people know you’re the real deal, but it’s not!” 

“It doesn’t sound fun at all!” Peyton informed her, wincing a little. “I don’t need that kind of attention, thanks.” The latter bit was added a bit more quietly, so only I could hear her. 

After a moment of thought, Syndicate decided, “I’ll take a walk with Wham and Wobble. Way, Rain, think you guys can show your friends and the new girl around, uhhh…” Trailing off, he took a second glance at the glass figure as though only just remembering an important point. “Oh, you uhh, people aren’t gonna know you yet, but they will know that’s not a costume. How did–” 

“It’s okay,” Fragile assured him. Extending a hand, she showed us a small circular device, the size and shape of a coin, in her palm. It was red with a blue dot in the center. Once we’d all seen it, she closed her hand around it tightly. A moment later, there was a brief flash of light and suddenly a very different figure was standing there. She looked like an ordinary person with pale skin, long red hair, and green eyes. 

“An Incogniter?” Whamline put in, sounding curious. “I’ve never seen one like that. They’re usually bigger.” 

The ‘Incogniter’ was apparently really good at its job, because it even showed Fragile blush. I had no idea how it managed something like that. She looked down, kicking the floor lightly before giving a short nod. “Silversmith gave it to me so I could… um, be normal in public.” 

“That’s not what you really look like though, is it?” Syndicate asked, giving a brief look toward Alloy and me. “I mean, not that everyone here can’t be trusted or anything, but–” 

“What the boss means,” Whamline put in casually, “is that just in case we do get outed and people in here figure out we’re the real deal, it’s probably better if they don’t immediately associate your real appearance with the brand new Minority member, you know?” 

Fragile, in turn, quickly shook her head. “Oh, no, it’s not the real me. Just a random thing. Um, there’s a random mode and a few set things, like… what I really look like. I mean, what I looked like before. I mean–” She cut herself off and offered a shrug. “It’s safe.” 

“Oh, good to know, I guess.” For some reason, Syndicate looked a little uncertain. Well, his body language did. The red hard-shell mask he wore covered all of his face up to just a bit before his hair. Either way, it only lasted for a moment before he shook it off. “Just be careful, okay? I’m pretty sure those things won’t protect you from someone feeling that there’s something different about you if they bump into you too much. People are pretty distracted and all, but still.” He offered her a thumbs up. “Wouldn’t want you to get knocked down and shatter again. It was cool–uhh, terrifying but also cool upstairs. Down here might be hard to explain. And it’d definitely make the Incogniter earn its keep.” 

Fragile promised to be careful before we split up, which led to Amber and Izzy leading Alloy, the new girl, and me to the right and out toward one of the openings between booths. Finally, we could see the actual people instead of just hearing them. And if things had been loud and overwhelming before, actually being out where we could see the crowd was even more so. It was insane. There were lines leading out from every booth, and even more people moving between them, just shuffling along taking a look at everything on display. About half were in some sort of costume, be it an original creation or an established Touched. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure I recognized some of the costumes as Touched from other states, so maybe there were no original costumes. In any case, we wouldn’t stand out. 

Seeing all those people made me shake my head. “Okay seriously, how have I never heard of this?!” I called over the sound of the crowd, which was even louder now. “How did I not know it was a thing?!” 

Alloy glanced to me. “Maybe it’s a big fight club! You know, you don’t talk–never mind.”

“You don’t go on the SPHERE forum very much, do you?!” Amber called while leaning in a bit for us to hear. “This is sort of their annual fuck you to the people upstairs! See, they know that the rich bigwigs have their meeting on this night, and they’re not allowed up there, so a few years ago a few of them got the bright idea to rent out the rest of the hotel where the conference was happening and throw a really huge party to screw with them. Some sponsors found out what they were doing and sent some tee shirts and toys to buy, and it escalated from there. Now the VIPs upstairs do their business in the upper floor of this convention center and the little people fill up the rest of the space with all this stuff. What started as a thread on the forums to bitch about rich people not letting everyone into their private parties evolved into… this.” 

“Giving a bunch of rich people even more money,” Peyton noted flatly. “You know a lot of what the mob here are spending goes straight into the pockets of the people they started this whole thing to protest against, right?!” 

Amber gave a ‘what can you do’ shrug. “They still have fun! But that’s probably why you haven’t heard of it. Not talking about it in public is kind of part of the… game or whatever. It’s like an inside joke that you don’t talk about it. They give it a codename on the SPHERE forum, so if you don’t spend a lot of time there you probably don’t recognize it. There was a pinned thread for ‘fishing trip.’ 

“I saw that!” Peyton confirmed. “But I uhh, don’t like fishing!” She squinted. “Damn, that’s sneaky.”

The currently hologram-covered Fragile spoke up. “I’ve read about it a lot! I never got to go though, cuz…” She trailed off before fidgeting. “Cuz my dad thought it was too dangerous.” 

Amber gave a quick nod. “The people can be a little wild, but they’re usually pretty nice. At least they were last year. I–” She blinked over at us as though doing a quick headcount. “I’m the only one here right now who’s actually been to this thing before. Weird.” 

Right, because Syndicate had walked off the other way with Whamline and Wobble. I certainly had never heard of this thing before. Which still struck me as a little odd, considering I would have thought I’d have heard of it at school. But maybe it just wasn’t that big there, or… something. After all, Peyton didn’t know about it either. Huh. 

Shaking that off, I looked around at all the people that were here. God, it was so insane. There were dozens and dozens of costumed figures just within my line of sight. They were dressed up like any number of well-established Touched from all over the place. Not to mention the people selling stuff. Straight across from where we were standing, a booth was selling this special silly string that would blow apart into confetti a few seconds after being sprayed, which would subsequently dissolve into nothing. Next to that was a booth where they were selling multi-colored candles that made music as they burned. 

Then, I saw it. Or rather, him. Some guy dressed up like me–err, like Paintball. He was about six inches taller than me, but other than that it was a pretty good likeness. He had the overall costume just right, and even a matching helmet. He also had a mix of random color splotches and actual designs across it, like a red horse over one shoulder and a purple sword across the chest. 

Yeah, I had thought that I was prepared for something like this, but seeing someone dressed up like me was more surprising than I’d expected. For a second, I just stood there, staring that way. A mix of emotions and thoughts were running through my mind. This was–it was–oh. Someone was actually dressed like me, imitating me, making themselves look like–pretending to be–oh. 

A hand found its way to my elbow, and I saw Izzy looking at me. I couldn’t read her expression through the mirrored faceplate, but I could tell she was concerned. Her voice was just loud enough for me to hear over the commotion all around us. “Are you okay?” 

I gave a quick glance toward Fragile, but the hologram-covered girl wasn’t paying any attention to us. She was looking up and down the aisle, expression filled with delight as she kept blurting out for us to see one thing or another. Seriously, it was like seeing a little kid at the circus or something. Everywhere she turned, the girl found something new to gawk at and point toward. Actually, it was kind of adorable, weirdly. Watching her like that, I had the strangest feeling she didn’t get out much. Maybe she was pretty sheltered. Which made her being allowed to join the Minority a bit… odd. But then, she had demonstrated that she could be shattered into pieces and then just reform, so maybe that helped. 

Finally, I gave Izzy a quick nod and a thumbs up. I wasn’t sure how much I meant it, given the rush of emotions that seeing someone dressed up as me was actually instilling, but still. I wasn’t going to let all that confusion bring me down, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let it affect everyone else. Forcing a bit of brightness into my voice, I replied, “Just feels a little weird, that’s all.” 

“Tell me about it,” she replied, looking past me. Her voice sounded a little strained. 

Turning, I saw another person cosplaying. This one was dressed up as her. Except–uhh, well, it was a version of her that was about six years older and much more developed. Seeing that made me do a double-take, eyes widening a bit behind the helmet. “Oh, uhh, wow.” 

Making a noise in the back of her throat, Izzy managed a weak, “Uh huh.” 

The whole thing was so much to take in. We started walking, keeping together as a group while trying to see everything we could, and it was just… a lot. There were more people dressed up like us, including several in Alloy-like armor, which really threw Peyton for a loop despite hearing about it ahead of time from Lucent. Apparently she hadn’t really believed him, because now she kept rambling about how she’d barely done anything and only just started so why would anyone have a costume of her already and so on and so forth. I could tell she was just as delighted as she was confused, continually looking that way while Amber informed her (with more than a little amusement) that it didn’t take people long to put together costumes when they put their minds to it. Especially when those costumes were either super easy (like mine) or very visually neat (like Alloy). 

“Besides,” I put in as we all stood next to a booth selling funnel cakes shaped like various Touched, “like Lucent said, you have multiple sets of armor, so if they don’t like one of your looks, they can always just use a different one.” 

Amber was nodding. “Yeah, and think of the merchandising. You could have a whole group of action figures just made up of the different versions of your armor you’ve used.” 

Snorting, Peyton waved that off at first. “Yeah, sure, like people would actually make action fig–what?” She gave a double-take, staring at That-A-Way. “What’re you–” 

“Come on.” Amber nodded for the rest of us to follow before starting to head through the crowd once more. “There’s some more you should see.”  

We all exchanged glances, before Izzy reached out to gently catch Fragile by the elbow to get her attention as the other girl had been distractedly watching a guy dressed up as Big Top (a circus-themed Star-Touched from Chicago) juggling while riding a unicycle around in a circle. Once she was with us once more, the four of us headed off after Way. 

“Hey!” Someone else dressed up like–well, me waved as he passed. The guy looked more like a version of me who had been hitting the gym pretty regularly. “Nice one, dude.” He gave me a thumbs up. “You almost look perfect. Helmet’s a little off though. The visor part should be wider, and the gloves are all wrong. But hey, super-close.” 

Having no idea how to react to that, I belatedly managed a weak, “Uhh, thanks, I tried to go as authentic as possible.” 

My taller, athletic male duplicate cheerfully replied, “Solid effort, dude. And hey, you even brought the sidekick.” His focus shifted briefly to Alloy with an approving nod. “If you guys get a chance, you should stop by the photo booth over there in like an hour.” He waved to the far side of the room. “We’re gonna get everyone dressed up like those two.” His hand gestured to encompass Alloy and me. “You know, take a big group photo and blow it up. One of the guys around here thinks he can get the real Paintball and Alloy to sign it. Wouldn’t that be wild?” 

Coughing despite myself, I gave a quick nod while thanking the fact that I didn’t have to try to keep a straight face. “Sure does, totally wild. We’ll try to be there.” 

As he headed off, I found myself looking at Alloy with a mumbled, “Pretty crazy, huh?” 

She, in turn, looked me up and down a bit before dryly retorting, “Do I know you? I mean, you can’t be my partner. Your gloves are wrong and the visor isn’t wide enough.” 

“Ha ha, hilarious.” Rolling my eyes, I pivoted back to where Amber was waiting. “What’d you wanna show us?” 

“This,” she replied before extending a hand. I had just enough time to see some sort of oversized glove of her own before a stream of liquid shot at me. No, not liquid. Paint. There was a button on the palm of the glove she had put on, and when she pressed it, blue paint shot out in a stream before hitting my chest. 

“What th–” Blinking down, I stared at the splotch of blue. 

“Don’t worry, it washes out,” Amber informed me, before pulling the glove off. “Right, Andy?” 

The man she was talking to was a few inches over six feet tall, though pretty scrawny. He had a long graying-blond beard and a nearly bald head. When Amber addressed him, the man gave a little nod. “That’s right. Don’t even need to scrub very hard, it’ll come right out with no stain. And it’s non-toxic. See?” He held up his own hand with one of the gloves on and squirted the stuff right into his own mouth. Which was… sure something. 

Grimacing after that, he admitted, “Doesn’t taste great. But it’s not poisonous. Believe me, that was our big thing if we’re gonna let kids run around with these. It had to be easy to clean up, and it couldn’t hurt them if they swallowed it.” 

“Uh, we?” I blinked at that, feeling slightly confused and overwhelmed by all this. 

Turning, the man gestured up at a sign hanging over his booth that read ‘Andy And Patsy’s Toy Box.’ After giving us a chance to read it, he added, “Lots of people in this line of work get a bit uppity when you call them toys, but we know what we’re doing. And we try to aim a bit lower with a lot of our stuff. That’s our rules, everything we put out has to be safe for a kid to play with. I mean, within reason, you know? We’ve got our toddler-line, but for the most part it’s about eight and up. Nice outfit by the way. Looks almost perfect, except–” 

“I know, visor’s too small and the gloves aren’t right.” Getting that out, I extended a hand toward Amber before checking out the glove as she handed it to me. “How’d you put this together?” 

“Check just inside the opening, under the little flap there.” Andy advised. I did, and found a half dozen slots holding tiny vials with different colored liquid inside. The vials were only about the size of somewhat large pills. As I was looking at them, he explained, “There’s only enough liquid in each of those vials for one spray unless you hook them up to this.” He showed us a small water bottle-like device with a clear plastic tube attached. “If you hook this onto your belt and run the tube up under your shirt and through your sleeve, you can attach it to the base of the glove right there, where the vials are hooked in. Then when you push the button on the palm, it’ll pull water up through the tube, color it with whatever vial you’ve got it set to, and shoot for as long as you have water and anything left in the vial to color it. Pretty neat, huh?” 

My mouth opened and shut a bit before I gave a slow nod, staring at the glove in my hand. “Really neat.” Shaking off the confused feelings, I looked up once more and continued. “Seriously, that’s cool.” 

The man beamed with delight. “I just wish I could get hold of the guy himself so I could make these things be certified.” 

“Certified?” I echoed. “Oh, that’s where the Touched it’s umm, based on or whatever signs off on it, right?” 

His head bobbed. “Yeah, see, these things can be bootleg, which means no one’s approved them. Most people won’t buy bootleg, and you can get in trouble. They can be registered, which means the authorities know about it and they’ve passed safety inspections and all that, which means some of the proceeds go toward the Fund.” 

The Fund, of course, was money that went toward rebuilding places and people damaged by Touched battles, especially Collision Points. Every country who had a member within Armistice contributed to it through taxes (especially those on Touched merchandise) among other things. 

Andy was still talking. “And those who get the actual Touched in person to approve it have the stuff certified.” 

“Which means that Touched gets a percentage of the proceeds too,” Amber informed us. “Usually like fifteen percent, same as the Fund gets. We Minority people have ten percent go to our college fund and get to keep five as part of our salary.” 

Andy started to nod, before giving a double-take. “Wait, we Minority people? Hang on–are you–wait–” He was starting to realize. 

“It’s pretty loud in here,” I put in. “Why don’t we take a little walk, Andy? I’ve got a friend who’s really into building some neat stuff.

“And I’m pretty sure she would love to get some advice from you on how to sell it.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Dad’s speech didn’t go on for very long. Which made sense, he was kind of an expert at reading a room and knowing just how much to talk. This audience consisted of a bunch of people who were all important in their own rights, and were also waiting to eat. If he had gone on too much, he would’ve annoyed them. So, he just propped up their egos a bit with a few words about how special they were and how wonderful it was that they gave so much back to the city. And, of course, a bit about how vital the Seraph’s work was when it came to protecting the hospitals. Soothe the sense of self-importance the rich people in this place had by talking about how the city was only doing as well as it was because of them, and then make it clear (in a subtle, encouraging way) that the Seraphs and other Star-Touched teams were largely responsible for keeping the city safe so the investments these people put into it could pan out.

He said all that in very few words, while somehow making it sound and look as though he was talking to each person individually. He didn’t call anyone by name, but he met people’s gazes and gave that… that special smile that made it seem like he knew everything about you, like you were both sharing some sort of private moment even though there were plenty of other people around. The room was full of men and women who were accustomed to being the most important people around, yet my father’s speech, short as it was, made them feel it in a totally different way. And he did it while actually being the richest person in the room himself. 

I had seen my father’s speeches before, but never exactly like this. Not from this perspective, and not… not knowing what I knew. It made the whole thing even more impressive somehow. My father wasn’t just obscenely rich, he was also one of the most powerful Touched in the country and ran an organization that controlled all crime in one of that country’s biggest cities. He was, inarguably, the most powerful man in the room. But no one would know that just from listening to the way he spoke just then. He made everyone else seem important without putting anyone down. He built people up, he–yeah. No wonder my dad was such a successful businessman.

In any case, the point was that he didn’t talk for too long. Soon, there were waiters going around asking what people wanted to eat, while the band started up in the background. A few couples started to dance, but mostly people got ready for food. Especially at this table. Not that we saw very much of each other. As the waiters began to spread out and take people’s orders, privacy screens rose around us. There was the main privacy screen, a square that rose up around the table blocking any of the other people from seeing us, while remaining transparent from our side so that we could see others. Then there were also the individual privacy screens that rose up around each of our spots so we couldn’t see each other and could eat without giving away our identities. They were like the ones back at Caishen’s place, extending back a bit off the table on either side. You could put the screen back down if you wanted to, or combine them so that the people immediately surrounding you who knew your identity already were included. Obviously, I left mine up. Then again, I also didn’t remove the mask entirely. I just slid the front of the helmet up and pulled the mask high enough to uncover my mouth so I could eat. 

Call me paranoid, but I wasn’t going to take that sort of risk around here. Not with my parents and undoubtedly plenty of their minions in the room. And that wasn’t even counting anyone else who might have interest in finding out people’s real identities. 

Beside me, Peyton didn’t totally uncover herself either. She looked around a bit and considered, before simply reshaping the helmet around her face so that her mouth could be seen. Then she leaned closer to me while whispering, “They aren’t gonna serve food with like fifteen different forks and then tar and feather us for not knowing which one goes with the salad, are they?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” Dynamic spoke up from where she was sitting, hidden behind her own screen, “we’ve been going to plenty more of these than you and we still don’t know which fork goes with what. But the secret is, they’re all too afraid of us to actually speak up and say anything about it.” 

Clearing her throat a bit, Brumal put in, “I believe the more important thing is that they can’t see how you’re eating, so there’s no complaint to make. But either way, don’t worry about it.” Her voice softened slightly, as I saw just enough of the top of her head to know that she was looking toward Alloy and me. “No one who matters is going to give you a hard time about what utensils you use.” 

“And if they try,” Amber put in, “just tell them where to shove it.” 

“Please don’t tell the financial backers to shove anything into any place,” Brumal pleaded, her head turning to give a look toward That-A-Way. “They are not that hard to ignore without causing a scene, believe me.” 

By that point, the waitress had arrived at our table (standing far enough back that she wouldn’t be able to see anyone’s face over the screens) and listed what was available. She proceeded to take everyone’s order, and even spent a minute explaining what different foods were past the fancy names for the benefit of the others. And technically mine too, since I wasn’t supposed to know what they were either. I tried to play as clueless as possible, asking easy questions. 

Once everything was ordered and the waitress had stepped away, the conversation turned toward the gang war. It seemed like everyone sitting there had a particular story to tell about something bad that had happened through it. They had saved plenty of people, of course. But there were others who had died or at least been injured, had their property destroyed, and so on. Every Touched sitting at that table had a story about watching someone lose, if not their life, then things that mattered deeply to them. 

Peyton and I glanced toward one another. I had lowered the screen between the two of us, since I still had most of my face covered anyway. Our eyes met, and I could see how troubled she was. It probably reflected back from my own gaze to her. We were both thinking about the Ministry, and how they could stop this war if they really wanted to. And about Pack. Yes, she was right about the fact that she couldn’t do anything to stop the war, but she also helped participate in it. Even if she personally avoided hurting innocent people, how much did her teammates? How much–urgh. Between her and Eits, I felt very uncomfortable about the whole situation. Hell, even Broadway. From what I’d seen of the girl, I liked her. That was my biggest problem with this whole situation. So many of the people I would have thought I was adamantly against were more likable than they should have been. It was my problem with my family, with Blackjack and the rest of La Casa, even with Deicide. 

It was all just so complicated. If only they could all be more like Cuélebre. At least I could be pretty sure that he didn’t have some special backstory that would make me sympathize with him or anything. Although, now that I actually thought that, it would probably turn out that his entire criminal Empire was built up to take care of a hospital full of injured orphan puppies or something.

Okay, yeah, that wasn’t very likely. But still, I was starting to think that everyone had their own understandable reasons for being involved in bad stuff. Well, except for the Scions. I was pretty sure there was no amount of tragic backstory or mitigating circumstances that could come close to excusing the things they had done. 

By that point, the waitress was coming back with a tray of drinks. As she approached, the privacy shield extended up and over our heads making it totally cover the table so she couldn’t see anyone’s face. Which made me wonder briefly how she would put the drinks down without dropping them, but maybe there was some sort of… thing? Curious, I stood a bit and looked down. Sure enough, the table was visible. The screen specifically only scrambled the appearances of people within it. Looking at the table itself was a bit like looking through an actual window screen. A bit distorted, but still plenty visible. But when I looked over at Peyton, her face (with the helmet still covering most of it anyway) was incredibly blurry and smudged. 

“Is everything alright?” A familiar voice spoke up nearby, and my head snapped that way. Immediately, I realized two things. First, this was not the same waitress who had taken our order. The one who would come with the drinks was different. And second, I knew her. Actually, I knew her fairly well, considering I saw her practically every day. 

Christiana Diaz. The thin, young Latina woman who worked as one of Chef Claudio’s assistants. I’d recognize her anywhere, considering one of the things we had in common was our height. She was only an inch taller than my five foot zero. And that wasn’t the end of our similarities. Christiana had the same ‘look younger than she really was’ thing I did, given she was actually twenty-two but looked more like she was in her late teens. She wore her hair short on the sides with a mop of curls on top. 

So, I recognized her instantly. A rush of thoughts went through my mind, and it took basically everything I had not to blurt her name in surprise. Boy would that have been hard to explain. But somehow, I managed to shove the reaction down and simply put all my surprise into a gasp before giving a sharp exhale that turned into as much of a laugh as I could manage. “Oh! Damn, sorry. You uhh, you sure you’re not a ninja? You kinda snuck up there.” 

There was a very brief pause before Christiana giggled and shook her head. “No, no, sorry. It’s my fault. I keep saying I should put some little bells on this outfit.” With a wink, she added, “Can I help you with anything, sir?” 

The lower half of my face was exposed. She could see my mouth. Did she know my face well enough to recognize me from not? No, of course not. That was ridiculous. And yet, I almost couldn’t stop myself from reaching up to pull the mask down. That would have been even more suspicious, of course. But it was still almost impossibly tempting. 

Shoving that impulse down as hard as I could, I gave a quick shake of my head. “Nah, nah.  It’s all good. I was just seeing how the–you know, what the screen–what it looked like.” I was babbling, and I was saying too much. I needed to stop talking. The more things I said, the more likely she would figure out who I really was. I had to give her as little to work with as possible. So, my mouth snapped shut after saying all that. Then I reached out. “Oh, uh, I’ll take ours.” 

There was a brief pause before Christiana nodded, carefully turning the tray and extending it so I could take the glasses meant for Alloy and me. Mumbling a thanks, I sat down and gave my partner her drink. 

Peyton, of course, was staring at me. “Are you okay?” she asked in a whisper that was barely audible. “You seemed a little… uhh, not.” 

Taking a gulp of my drink, I quickly shook my head. “It’s fine, I’m fine. It’s just … different being in a place like this, you know?” 

That seemed to do the trick. The other girl achieved a sigh while nodding almost frantically. “Believe me, I know what you mean. It’s so weird being here with all these rich people who wouldn’t even notice if they ran over me in the street.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat, and I winced at Peyton’s choice of words. But I couldn’t exactly explain why it was the wrong thing to say. Instead, I simply replied in a low voice, “Some of them would notice.” 

That started even more discussion around the table, centered around celebrities and rich people they had worked with, saved, or whatever. It was a mix of horror stories and nice ones, even a couple bits about celebrities who I thought would be real pains in the ass ending up actually sounding pretty cool. Which didn’t exactly prove they were nice to everyone, given who these people were, but still. 

Honestly, once I got past my surprise of being served by Christiana (she also brought our food), and the fact that my parents were on the other side of the room, it was… nice. I was able to just sit there and listen to more experienced Touched tell stories and exchange inside jokes. Sure, I didn’t get all their references, but they tried to explain it as much as they could. And even aside from that, it was just cool to sit and listen to these guys talk about fights they’d been in, people they had saved, villains they fought, it was… it was actually one of the first times I really felt like a part of this community.  

That wasn’t exactly a good thing, of course. I wasn’t a part of their community. I couldn’t be. I couldn’t trust all of them. For all I knew, half the people at this table worked for the Ministry in one way or another, even if they didn’t really know it. No matter how welcoming they seemed, I couldn’t let myself forget that fact. I could talk with them, even work with them, but I couldn’t entirely trust every single one of them. And that meant I couldn’t entirely trust any of the people here aside from Peyton. 

Well, and aside from Amber and Izzy, of course. They were a different story, and I was incredibly lucky that I had them as a connection to the Minority. For a brief moment, I tried to think of how this whole situation would have played out if I didn’t know who those two really were. It wasn’t a very fun thought. Actually, come to think of it, I might have been too paranoid to even come if I didn’t have those two helping. 

In any case, I was silent through most of the rest of the meal, content to simply sit there and listen as the others went on. And from the looks that Peyton gave me once in awhile,  she was enjoying herself too. We both sat there listening to the stories, feeling a bit like we had been given a backstage pass or something. Which was weird, given we were technically, like, one of the bands, to stretch the analogy. But still, it was just different somehow. Sitting here, listening to the far-more-experienced people trade war stories, made the whole thing more real. 

It helped that the food was pretty good. Or, if you listened to Peyton go on, it was completely amazing. She finished off her entire plate, and then a second one when Christiana came by to ask if anyone wanted more. It honestly just tasted like the food we had at home, but then, I supposed that made sense. If Christiana was here, maybe Claudio was too. He had, after all, been the head chef of a five star restaurant before my parents snatched him up. 

As dinner was winding down, we had another speech to sit through, but this one I didn’t mind too much. It was Radiant, standing right up there on stage to talk about how important Detroit and its Touched-Tech factories were to the nation at large, and how proud everyone here should be about how much the city had been turned around in the past couple of decades. It was no secret that Detroit hadn’t been in the best of shape before the whole Touched thing came around, but now we were one of the strongest, most economically sound cities in the country. Not to mention one of the fastest growing, to an absurd degree. The people who had come to the city and invested in that growth had a lot to do with that, and most of them were sitting in this room. Radiant basically told them to give themselves a pat on the back for that. 

At least, that’s how it started. And clearly it was where the rich people in the room expected it to stay. But before long, the woman shifted her focus a bit. She went from talking about these important, wealthy people giving so much to the city to talking about the city itself, and the people in it. And almost before anyone realized the subject had changed at all, suddenly Radiant was talking about how the people in the city were the ones who really changed it. The people here had benefited a lot, and their influx of money helped give the place the jumpstart it needed. But no amount of money-fueled jumpstarts would have accomplished anything if it wasn’t for the people who lived here, the ones out on the street doing the work every day. 

It was kind of amazing to sit there and watch, because it wasn’t that she insulted or demeaned the rich people in the room. No, she propped them up just fine. She gave them their dues. But she also pulled other people up, putting them on an equal level with the millionaires and billionaires (and even the Touched) in this room. She lifted everyone up, noting the importance of each contribution. She wasn’t denouncing the rich people while making some stand for the little guy. She had started by propping up the people in this room, making it that much harder for them to disagree or be offended when she brought the rest of the population up to the same level. 

Leaning a bit closer to Peyton without taking my eyes off the woman on stage, I whispered, “If I was the type of person to be interested in someone older than me, I might be in love.”

“Oh, believe me,” she replied in a hushed voice, also without looking away from Radiant, “you’re not the only one.”

With a chuckle, Wobble spoke up. “Sorry, you guys. We’re pretty sure she’s already spoken for.” 

Amber was nodding. “We’re not sure by who, but we’ve seen her with a wedding ring. So, you know, you’re kind of late for that train.” After a brief pause, she added, “And I don’t think you meet the age requirement.” 

After Peyton and I both made a show of snapping our fingers in disappointment, our attention turned back to the woman in question as we listened to the rest of her spiel. She made it clear through all of it that the people in this room needed to keep contributing to the overall benefit of the city if they wanted it to continue to thrive, pointing out the forces that were already trying to drag it down. She talked about how Star-Touched chose to use our powers to help people, and that those with resources like these people possessed had the same responsibility. And yet, it wasn’t like she was shaming them or anything. The way she phrased it made it sound as though she was proud of the opportunity these people had, going on a bit about how they could have everything they wanted while still contributing to raising the standard of living for everyone in the city. 

It was more than a little impressive, made even more so for how relatively short it was. She didn’t talk for very long before simply promising that she would be keeping an eye on things here to see how California could incorporate the incredible ideas that they came up with, and bring some of those ideas…. and the people involved, to projects in her own state. 

So there it was, the biggest crux of her speech. She wasn’t just praising these people for the work they could do here, she was essentially saying that she would be keeping an eye on the city and the people she liked would get her recommendation for all-new projects in California. How much money would that be worth? A lot, to say the least. Without actually shaming anyone, Radiant told these people that she expected them to look after the regular population, and that those who did would be rewarded with enormous new contracts. 

As she left the stage and the music picked up, we watched more couples move to the dance floor. Including my parents. I was focused on staring at them while trying not to look like I was staring at them, when Amber reached over to touch my hand through the privacy screen. “Hey,” she started, “you wanna go down with us to check out the convention floor? I’ve gotta see if there’s more people dressed up as you or Whamline. 

“And it better be you, or I owe him fifty bucks.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, okay then. Apparently there was a new member of the Minority. A pretty young one from what I could see. As murmurs came up all around the room, I stared a bit more intently at the girl in question. She wasn’t hiding her face or anything, but then again, it probably would have been hard for someone to mistake her for some other girl made of glass. The detail was incredible, even from here. She looked like an ice sculpture that had been carved by the best in the world. Well, if ice sculptures were capable of looking around, her eyes clearly shifting to scan the crowd. Again, the parts that were ‘skin,’ like her face and exposed hands, were clear, like regular glass or ice. The parts that were supposed to be her clothes were like stained glass. It was a pretty neat effect, especially the fact that she was very clearly alive and moving around. For a brief moment, I found myself caught up in just staring.

“Another child.” The voice was a murmur just above my head, and I belatedly realized that it was Lucent, muttering those two words with what sounded a bit like disappointment. Or possibly dismay. He didn’t elaborate further, however. Instead, he gave my helmet a very slight peck for attention before adding, “If you will pardon me, I have a few people to speak with. Do enjoy the party and I hope to see you soon.” Giving a short look toward Hallowed, he launched himself off my head and flew over to another side of the room. His motions got some people’s attention, but when they realized who it was, they just turned back to their business. Well, their business of staring at this new Minority girl who had so dramatically introduced herself. 

After those few seconds had passed, Silversmith raised his hand for attention before speaking up once more. “As always, we are incredibly grateful every time we are blessed with another addition to our young team. One of my greatest honors in this life has always been to see the way the youngest among us can grow and become truly remarkable heroes, protecting the innocent and vulnerable. Having this opportunity to watch their growth, and guide them into the type of stalwart champions this world deserves, is truly one of the most gratifying and humbling aspects of this job. Each and every one of these Minority kids are very special. They put their time and gifts toward helping to protect this city. And they risk far more than they have to.”

He let that hang in the air for a moment before speaking again. “But, I’m sure you’ve all heard me ramble on long enough. Well, for now anyway. I promise, you’ll be hearing more later. So much it might make some out of you consider withholding the donations you’ve pledged until they give this job to one of the other team leaders we’re fortunate enough to have with us tonight.” 

Once the scattered chuckles to that had died down, he continued. “Our new friend here has made it clear, in more than one way, that she would like to introduce herself. So, why don’t I just give her the chance to do that.” Stepping aside, he raised one hand as though to gesture for her to go ahead. At the same time, he turned a bit to look out into the crowd, and I followed his gaze before finding my parents. Yes, including my father. They were both sitting at one of the tables near the front, along with Kent and Mills Jackson, Tomas’s parents. Oh, and that Eric Abbot guy I had been introduced to right before I’d gotten the call from Pack to tell me that Eits had been attacked for looking into the name I’d asked him about. He was there too, though he didn’t have anyone else with him. All five were sitting at the table, watching what was going on intently. 

Well, that clearly answered the question of whether my dad was really in the Silversmith armor, at least. Though I still wondered if he was projecting his voice to it somehow, or just having someone else speak for him. It really could’ve gone either way. 

The urge to interrupt them and cause a distraction, just to see if anything happened to the Silversmith on stage, was incredibly strong. But somehow I doubted I could get away with that without causing suspicion. Besides, they had almost certainly already planned for anything that might take my father’s attention off his other self. I’d risk exposing myself for no real benefit. 

By that point, the new girl, Fragile, had stepped up to take center-stage. As she did so, a small tornado of glass emerged from behind the nearby curtain, flying up in front of her before transforming into a podium, and a small set of stairs for her to step up to it. So she wasn’t just made of glass, she could also manipulate it, and turn it into new things. It wasn’t like the glass shards were just vaguely in the shape of a podium. She had literally transformed them into a solid structure. 

“Wow,” Alloy murmured beside me, “that’s pretty fucking cool.”  

Her words made Hallowed, who had apparently been just as caught up as the rest of us, start a bit. I was pretty sure he had briefly forgotten that we were there in the first place. With a quick glance our way, he whispered something about showing us where to sit, then gestured for us to follow him as he started to move. Alloy and I glanced at one another before following. Meanwhile, Fragile was talking into the microphone, her voice filling the room. “Hi, everybody! It’s so cool to see you guys, and be here! Seriously, you have no idea how awesome this is. I have superpowers, isn’t it neat?!” With those words, the glass podium reformed into the shape of a horse that she was perched on top of. “And now I get to make my own pony, so I can stop bugging my dad!” That made a few people chuckle, before she shook her head. “But you know what? Horses are kind of lame. Alligators are better.” And sure enough, the glass horse transformed into a large alligator underneath her, its head swinging back and forth as its mouth opened and shut repeatedly to reveal large dagger-like teeth. 

The display of her powers made everyone clap a bit. And by then, Hallowed had led Alloy and me through the room. We were seen and recognized by a few people, who gave us whispered greetings, or just waved, to avoid interrupting. We waved back, a bit awkwardly, while keeping up with our guide. 

Soon, we found the table we were being led to. It was on the far side of the room, up closer to the stage but half-hidden by the orchestra pit. I knew it was where we were going because there were a bunch of other Touched already there. Unlike most of the tables, this one wasn’t circular and meant for only a few people. Instead, it was one of the long, rectangular tables, large enough to hold like thirty people. The Minority (or at least everyone aside from Carousel) were seated at the table, as were most of the Conservators and Spartans. 

As we approached, I could see every member of the Minority, especially Raindrop and That-A-Way, staring very intently at the girl onstage. But they weren’t the only ones. The Conservators and Spartans were pretty focused that way too. Something told me this was as much of a surprise for the people here as it had been for everyone else. Which seemed a bit odd to me. Did my dad really just put this girl on the team without telling any of the other Star-Touched in town until just now? 

Not just odd, actually. Suspicious. But… she was just a kid. She couldn’t be working for the Ministry or–fuck, I was really getting paranoid about this. Or maybe I wasn’t paranoid enough. I seriously couldn’t tell. 

When she saw us approach, Izzy whispered something to Amber before nodding subtly toward a couple seats across from them. Amber openly gestured for us to come that way. So, Alloy and I did just that. We took a second to thank Hallowed for the invitation, before moving over there. I took the seat across from Amber, while Alloy sat next to me and across from Izzy. The seats on our opposite sides were both empty for the moment. The way the table was set up, the Minority people (and the rest of us) were at one end, while the Conservators were at the other end on the side the Minority were seated on, and the Spartans were at that end on the other side (the one Alloy and I were seated on). Well, three members of the Spartans were, anyway. Brumal, Skin-Head, and Versed were there, while the large, rock-formed Boulderdash with his big armadillo/turtle-like shell was seated on a special reinforced chair at the very end of the table. He wouldn’t fit sitting in a normal seat like the others. 

Meanwhile, the Conservators who were here consisted of Dynamic, Kriegspiel, RePete, and Bokor. Four members of the Spartans and four of the Conservators were attending this thing. Also Silversmith, of course, who was still standing back on the stage to watch that Fragile girl. Or at least, the person posing as Silversmith was. Or my father’s empty armor with a voice–never mind. It was complicated. 

Either way, as soon as we sat down, I met Amber’s gaze and gave a little wave. “Looks like you guys have a new teammate, huh?” 

It was Syndicate (or at least the one who was physically sitting here) who spoke up from his spot two down from That-A-Way. “I’d say good because we need the help, but she looks a little young.” He glanced down the table toward Raindrop before adding, “Uh, no offense.”  

Whamline, seated between him and Amber, reached around the girl beside him to pat Izzy on the back. “If she’s anything like our Raindrop, our team just got a huge upgrade. The kid’ll be saving our butts in no time.” 

Wobble, seated on the far side of Syndicate, looked toward Alloy and me. “I think what my teammates are trying to say is hi, glad you could make it. Sorry, I guess we’re just a little surprised by this whole thing.” He nodded toward the stage, where Silversmith was just stepping up by Fragile to put a hand on her shoulder and guide her down off the stage. And, as it happened, toward the rest of us. The audience was applauding, while several photographers took a few pictures. The same photographers noticed Alloy and me sitting with the Minority and snapped pictures our way too. Peyton immediately made a noise deep in her throat and turned away as though afraid of being recognized, before clearly remembering that her face was covered. I felt her embarrassment and put a hand on her arm before giving the girl a quick nod, trying to be encouraging. That was probably the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

By that point, Silversmith and Fragile had reached the table. He kept his hand on her shoulder, looking at the rest of us. “Ah, sorry for the little ambush about all this. It felt like a fun surprise at the time, but in hindsight, maybe we should have let you guys meet in private.” With a self-conscious cough (or at least a put-on one), he gestured. “Anyway, everybody, this is Fragile.” To the girl herself, he added, “Fragile, meet your new teammates. And the others you’ll be learning from.” One by one, he introduced everyone on all three teams by name, while guiding the girl around to sit next to Izzy. “I’ll let you guys all get acquainted. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other away from here. For now, just ahh, have a good time.” With that, he patted the glass-girl’s shoulder once before stepping away to go back up on stage, where one of the city’s politicians was already starting to give a speech of his own. 

Now I was getting a closer look at her face, and it was even more detailed than I had thought it was before. That really shouldn’t have surprised me, of course. Seriously, her body was literally made out of glass. Why wouldn’t it be detailed? It was her face. Still, it was kind of fascinating to see. Especially when she turned a bit to look straight at me and offered a bright smile. “Hi! You’re Paintball! You’re so cool. I was gonna ask to join your team, but I didn’t know if you were hiring or anything. Is hiring the right word? I dunno, but you’re not really open to new membership, and besides, my dad really wants me to be on the Minority, cuz he says they can keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t get in trouble. He said you have a habit of finding your way into trouble you shouldn’t be in, which is silly cuz I think the trouble really finds you. But I said that and he said that didn’t really change the point that you and trouble are really close and he wants me to be here instead, I mean on the team with–” 

In mid-sentence, she turned to look at Izzy sitting next to her, then leaned over to see the rest of the Minority watching her. “Hi, guys!” She gave a happy wave once more. “Sorry, that was probably pretty rude, huh? I didn’t mean I didn’t want to be on a team with you guys. I just meant that–uhh…” A slight red tint came over her clear glass face as she tried to find the right words.

“It’s okay,” Amber immediately assured her. “Trust me, we know how cool Paintball is. Maybe with you onboard, you can help us try to recruit him and his new partner over to the team.” She offered me a wink while saying it. Of course, Amber had to keep looking as though she was trying to get me to join. It would have been suspicious otherwise. And the last thing we wanted to do was make the Ministry at all suspicious about what she knew.

“Sorry,” I replied as casually as possible, “still just a lone wolf over here.” At a cough from Peyton, I shifted and amended, “Or a duo wolf. Dual wolves? Actually even that’s not true. We uhh–we’re a very small pack. A–never mind. Hey, look at it this way, being separate like this means that we can play back up for you guys. And vice-versa. Trust me, we’re gonna need your help a lot.” 

Syndicate focused on me. “Hey, that’s right. Way was saying that you came up with your own new team or something? Even had a name.”  

“Is that right?” The new voice was Dynamic, speaking up from further down the table. She had turned a bit to face us and was giving a little wave our way. “Hey there. Good to finally get to talk in person. I mean, after all the stuff you’ve been into, I feel like I should be asking for your autograph.” 

RePete, seated beside her, raised a hand as well. “Hey, me too. My niece would kill for a Paintball autograph, especially if it was a signed picture. Actually, I’m pretty sure she’d kill me for one, which makes me a little jealous, cuz I used to be her favorite.” 

Their words had attracted the attention of the rest of the adults down there, and now we had both the Conservators and Spartans looking at us. Which made me want to squirm a bit uncomfortably at all the attention. It was one thing to be out on the street showing off for crowds, in or out of costume. I was accustomed to doing crazy (even stupid) shit for the hell of it. But here, sitting at a table with a bunch of costumed heroes who were all looking at me like I was one of them? That was a lot to take. Beside me, I was pretty sure Peyton was feeling pretty much the same, if not worse. Probably worse. But I pushed the thought aside and embraced my role. Paintball wouldn’t be embarrassed here. 

“I’ll trade you any autographs you want, one for one,” I quickly found myself replying. “But believe me, I’m pretty sure yours is worth a lot more than mine. So really, I’m making out like a bandit.”  

That prompted a couple soft chuckles, and some actual official introductions were passed back and forth. The adults at the table were all pretty laid back, though Brumal remained a bit standoffish. Or maybe that was just my impression. She didn’t say very much and seemed distracted. But the rest of her teammates who were there made up for it. Skin-Head, Boulderdash, and Versed were all really friendly and quick to make jokes. Boulderdash in particular had a very distinctive roaring laugh that he had to muffle a few times when people from other tables shushed him because people on stage were still talking. 

And that was another thing. There were important people up there. Important as far as the city went. They were giving long speeches about donating money to the Seraphs and their related organizations, basically patting themselves and each other on the back for all the good they were doing. But no one at this table was actually paying any attention to them. We were all talking amongst ourselves (albeit in whispers) and basically ignoring that whole situation over there. It wasn’t what I had expected when we came here, but I wasn’t going to complain either. I would much rather talk to a bunch of Touched than listen to self-important rich blowhards. After all, I’d been doing the latter since… well, basically since I could talk. 

The others all wanted to know what was up with our supposed new name and all that too, so Alloy and I exchanged glances before I put my hand out onto the table. As they watched, I made the name appear there in bold red letters, just like I had on the wall of Wren’s shop. Avant-Guard

“Okay,” Versed announced while pointing to it. “That’s a cool name. You’re not accepting new members after all, are you?” She was clearly teasing, and grunted as Boulderdash nudged her. “What, I didn’t say I wouldn’t take you with me, big guy.” 

Snickering despite myself, I held up both hands. “Before any of you get eager about jumping over to this side, I should probably point out that we don’t exactly offer a salary or benefits.” 

Versed immediately made a show of grumbling. “Oh, well in that case, I think I’ll stick to this team.” She looked around, frowning. “Huh. I was going to tell the boss that he’s lucky, but he’s not here. As usual.” The last bit came in a muttered voice that made me blink that way. It sounded as though she was a little annoyed with Silversmith, which… huh. 

It also made me think of something else, and I quickly asked, “How come not everyone’s here? I mean, where’s Carousel? And uhh, Flea and Trivial. Are they around here somewhere?” I had noticed that both the Spartans and Conservators had a missing member earlier, and this felt like the best time to bring that up. 

“Flea had some personal business to take care of out of town,” Kriegspiel informed me. “She’s on leave for a few days. Not the best timing, but you know. Shit happens when it happens. Ah, sorry, stuff happens when it happens.” 

“I’ve heard the word before, it’s okay,” I assured him, before giving a double-take toward Raindrop and Fragile. “Oh. Right. I’m not the only one sitting here.” 

“I’ve heard it too,” Izzy put in, her voice dry.

“Anyway,” Brumal announced with a short clearing of her throat. “Trivial took a little time off as well, to help out with Flea’s situation. And I’m sure if they need anyone else, they will ask for it.” That was said in the direction of Skin-Head, who had started to say something. Clearly, that was a bit of a long-standing argument between the two of them.

“And Carousel just stayed home tonight,” Wobble informed me. “She needed the night off to spend with some friends who came in from out of town or something. So, you know, she’s just chilling out, playing games, while we’re stuck here watching…” He gestured up to the front. “This.” 

“I don’t know about you,” Amber corrected him, “but I haven’t been watching it for about twenty minutes now.” She looked down the table toward Fragile before adding, “And that was some entrance.” 

Giggling, the girl shifted in her seat. “Yeah? Sorry, I didn’t tell Silversmith about that, or my dad, or… anyone. I just thought it’d be cool to see everyone’s reactions.” 

“Well, it was definitely an exciting introduction,” Wobble confirmed. “I don’t think anyone will forget about it anytime soon.” 

And then it was time for yet another rich, important blowhard to talk. Specifically, my father. As the others continued to chatter, I noticed him get up from the table, give my mother a brief kiss, then start up to the stage. My eyes followed him, and I sat up a bit reflexively. 

There was a strong impulse to stand up and shout out questions about how he divided his attention between his regular business pursuits, leading the Conservators, and being the leader of the secret organization that ran all crime in the city. I didn’t do that, of course.

But boy, was it tempting. 

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Kith And Kin 20-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had… friends. 

I had a team.

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Kith And Kin 20-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, the next day at school was awkward. I kept wanting to talk to Tomas, but had no idea how to start with all that. I needed to ask about Maki, clearly. Tomas was my best chance to actually find out what was going on with that situation, yet the whole thing was just… so complicated. Seriously, even if Tomas had no connection to the Ministry and didn’t know anything about them, which I was seriously doubting, how was I supposed to press him for information about his new boyfriend without looking like I was jealous or something? 

And yes, being mistaken as being jealous was basically at the bottom of the list of priorities, but still. I couldn’t just start pressing Tomas for answers without likely looking at least somewhat suspicious. I had to be careful and delicate about the whole thing. Which wasn’t helped by the fact that every time I started to think about going up to the boy and talking to him, a lump formed in my throat and I felt like I was going to throw up. Not really because of the new boyfriend thing, but because of my increasing thoughts that he was somehow involved in the Ministry stuff. It sucked, but I couldn’t make my brain shut up with its paranoia that Tomas had only been dating me to keep an eye on me or something. Just the thought that any part of our relationship had been a product of my parents’ meddling was awful. 

To that end, it wasn’t until I was walking out of school at the end of the day and I saw him ahead of me that I finally actually did something. Taking a deep breath, I picked up the pace to move alongside the boy. He glanced my way and smiled, making my heart clench in on itself. “Hey there, Cassie,” Tomas greeted me with a completely unfair wink. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I know, it’s weird, huh?” It wasn’t the best segue, but I continued with, “And let me guess, you’re running off to spend time with your mysterious new boyfriend?” 

The words made Tomas almost double over, snorting with amusement. “Dude, Maki is a lot of things, but mysterious? Nah, he’s basically an open book.” Glancing my way once more, he slyly added, “But then, you probably know a lot about him, after getting ice cream over there.” 

“You know about that?!” I blurted unthinkingly, before flushing deeply. “I mean, of course you do. Dad’s kinda–and he was–and we were–” My blush was even worse. “I swear I didn’t know who he was when Dad said we should go there. I wasn’t trying to check up on your–I mean I wasn’t–I mean–” 

Snickering at my reaction, Tomas patted my back. “Easy, easy there. I know, but it was worth seeing your expression. God, Cass, at some point you’re gonna have to get more of a poker face. You gotta figure out how to hide things a little better, you know?” 

The fact that I managed to keep a mostly straight face in response to that proved him wrong. Well, not exactly a straight face. I covered my reaction by exaggeratedly rolling my eyes and giving him a goofy expression. Was it cheating to deliberately have such an over-the-top reaction that there was no way to pick out the subtleties of it? Whatever, it was enough to hide how I really felt, and that was what mattered. “Yeah,” I managed, “I’ll get right on that. Maybe my dad can show me how he bluffs people at work.” Despite everything, I made sure to keep an eye on the boy’s expression when I mentioned my father’s work. But either he didn’t know anything, or he was really good at the poker face thing he had just been talking about. Whatever it was, he didn’t give any reaction that I could read. 

“Anyway, Maki’s cool,” he went on with a shrug. “We really should hang out sometime when he’s not at work. I think you’d like him.” His voice softened a little as he rubbed the back of his neck a bit awkwardly. “But, you know, if that’s too–I mean…” 

“Sounds good,” I made myself say. No matter how I felt about it, having this open invitation to talk directly to the boy again and possibly find out more about what was going on with his (or her/their) situation with the Ministry was too important to pass up. My family would have no reason to wonder why I was spending time with Maki if it came through Tomas. “We’ll hang out sometime. I’ll umm… yeah, just lemme know. I’ve got stuff to do today, so I suppose you’re free to spend time with your boyfriend by yourself.” With those teasing words, I nudged his shoulder. By that point, we had reached the front of the school and I saw Jefferson there with the car. “Text me about it!” 

Tomas agreed casually, as I started heading off. Before I could reach Jefferson, however, someone else fell into step beside me. It was that new girl, Dani. She was already speaking casually. “Heard you like skating. Actually, I heard you’re pretty good at it.”  

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” My head bobbed quickly. “I guess. I do it enough, anyway. Why?” 

She offered me a shrug. “Oh, you know, I’m just trying to put something together. A bunch of us are hanging out at that skatepark on Grand River sometime this weekend. Still working out the details. But somebody said if I want to get a lot of people there, you’re the one to talk to.” 

That made me stop and blink at her. “People don’t care where I go,” I replied with confusion. “Why would me being there have anything to do with how many people show up?” 

Dani shrugged. “I dunno, babe. I think it has something to do with people wanting to see what crazy stunts they can get you to do or something. Whatever, the point is, it could be pretty cool. I’m ahh, not a bad skater myself. Be kinda fun to see what Miss Rich Girl can really do.” 

Snorting despite myself, I replied, “Yeah, maybe. Give me a text whenever you figure out when it’s actually supposed to be, and I’ll see what’s going on.” I gave her the number of my regular phone, before waving as I headed off to join Jefferson at the car. 

“Was that something important?” he asked once I got in the back. 

“Just an invitation to hang out sometime, I guess,” I replied with a shrug, leaning back in the seat. “Sorry for taking a couple minutes, I should’ve told her I’d talk later.” 

There was a brief moment of silence from the front seat, before Jefferson turned a bit to face me. He wasn’t an especially tall man. Actually, everything about him was unassuming. He had a very plain, pale face, thin glasses, and average cut dark blond hair. He didn’t stand out in a crowd. Hell, he barely stood out all by himself. 

“Miss Evans,” he began after that brief pause, “I am aware of my reputation for preferring punctuality. It is one I encourage. But I do not fault you a moment after school to speak with your peers. Time is allotted for that before we pick up Miss Amor. There is a marked difference between lagging behind in the morning and being late for school than there is in taking a few minutes to speak with your… friends when classes are over. Do not… feel that you must apologize for that. It is never my intention to force you to abandon all social niceties to placate my desire for haste.” 

That was all he said. And honestly, it might have been the most words I’d heard him say in a single go the entire time I’d known him. I was still sitting there in silent surprise as he turned back around and began to pull the car away from the curb. I had no idea what to say to that. Finally, I managed a somewhat weak and awkward, “Thanks.” 

From there, we picked up Izzy and headed home. It had been tempting to simply say that we didn’t need a ride so I could go straight to working on that whole tunnel thing finally, but I didn’t want to give my parents any reason whatsoever to think anything was up. They had just gotten home the day before, so I was going to play things as cool as possible. We would go home, make an appearance for my mother, and then make our exit with an excuse about hanging out somewhere. That was the best way to handle this, no matter how much I just wanted to jump into it. 

On the way, I talked to Izzy about completely innocuous things. Mostly about how her school stuff was going. Apparently, she was settling into classes pretty well. She said that she’d already made some friends there, which didn’t really surprise me considering how cool she was. It was just too bad her mother didn’t give her the chance to show her that. 

With effort, I pushed that thought out of my head and focused on keeping things casual. Even disregarding the whole secrecy thing, pretty much the last thing Izzy needed was me bringing up her mother right then. Or any time, really.

Soon, we made it home, and the two of us were met at the front door by my mother. She’d had snacks prepared by the kitchen and wanted to sit with us out in one of the gardens. There, she talked to both of us about how our days went, and her own as well. At least, as much as she was actually willing to tell us. Obviously, she didn’t get into any of the Ministry stuff. Though I had to admit, that would have been a good way of completely shocking me into giving something away if she ever wanted to. As far as Tomas’s earlier mention of poker faces went, I definitely wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face through my mother just randomly starting to talk about this stuff. 

Actually, that was something to think about. At some point, my parents probably were going to want to start telling me about this stuff. I wasn’t sure when, but it would happen. And what was I going to do when they did? How was I going to react? How was I going to pretend that I didn’t know what they were talking about? How much could I think about any of that without making my reaction seem rehearsed? Would it be a long time from now? God, would it be soon? How much of the whole Paintball situation would have changed by then? 

Of course, I had to force myself to focus mainly on actually carrying on a real conversation so my mother didn’t get suspicious. Thankfully, she was a busy woman and couldn’t sit with us for too long. We were only out there for about twenty minutes or so before she got a call and had to excuse herself. Which left Izzy and me sitting together out at the table, surrounded by gorgeous and exotic flowers, with a small fountain burbling away next to us. 

Clearing my throat, I glanced to her. Just in case Mom had anything nearby that might overhear us, I simply said, “Hey, you wanna go hang out at the mall?” 

“Sure,” she replied easily, pushing herself up. “We could probably get food there too, huh?” 

Making a show of snickering, again just in case, I nodded. “Yeah, we can do that. Come on.” I was already pulling my phone from my pocket to text the kitchen staff so they’d know not to worry about dinner for the two of us, then I ordered an Uber. 

Soon, we were close to the alley that led to Wren’s shop. The two of us found an isolated area to change into our costumes out of sight, and then quickly made our way to the store itself. It was really Izzy’s first time there, but we had both agreed that the time had come to stop tiptoeing around this whole thing. I’d called ahead to make sure Wren was okay with me bringing Raindrop. Given the loud squeal of excitement that came through the phone, I was assuming she was fine with it. 

Someone was waiting for us by the back door as we approached. Seeing her, I immediately reflexively took a step back, only to belatedly realize it was Alloy. She wore a new set of armor made out of her black and purple marbles. This one had a purple base body-suit-like structure that ran from her toes all the way up over her head in a ski-mask sort of thing. It was fairly thin. Meanwhile, the black marble had turned into armored plating around her chest, knees, hands, and across her face. 

“Wha–oh, jeeze, hey, warn me next time you’re dressed up in something new,” I managed after that initial reaction. Beside me, Raindrop had tensed up as well, only to turn slightly to blink at me. 

Alloy, for her part, made a chastised sound and stammered, “Ahh, sorry. Sorry, I forgot I wasn’t–I mean I was–I mean… sorry.” Seeing the other girl with me, she quickly stepped forward and extended her hand. “Hi again! I mean, hey. Nice to see you without the, you know, whole life and death Scion situation going on.” Belatedly, she seemed to realize just how different she looked in her new armor and stammered a quick, “Oh, it’s me! It’s Peeeaaaaayntball’s assistant. Partner. Friend. Sidekick. Alloy. I’m still Alloy, just a new costume. I like to switch it up.” In a quieter voice, she half-hissed, “I have your action figure.” 

It was clearly Raindrop’s turn to blush, though it was hidden behind her reflective mask. “Uh, hi.” She accepted the other girl’s hand and shook it somewhat awkwardly, as if uncertain how to go about this whole thing in meeting another Touched who was also apparently a super-fan. “I’m umm, uh, glad you’re okay.” 

Shaking my head at the two of them, I looked to Alloy and quietly asked, “How’s Hobbes doing?” 

She gave a heavy sigh and offered a weak shrug. “She’s still with Calvin and his family. They’re taking care of funeral arrangements and… and all that. Or trying to. Do you have any idea how expensive something like that is if you don’t want them to just dig a hole in the woods somewhere and drop them in? Seriously, it’s like ten thousand dollars. They’re setting up a crowdfunding thing, but you know, who really cares enough about him to help with that? People don’t even know him. All they know is–” She stopped, clenching her fists. From behind her, the other marbles rose up into view, contorting themselves into boxing gloves as though they wanted to hit something too. “Never mind. People suck. It all sucks. There’s some other fundraising going on and they’ll get part of it, I just–I wanna do more, but I can’t. I can’t do anything. I can’t help her. I can’t help any of them.”

Reaching out, I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. “People will help,” I insisted. “Don’t worry, they’ll get the money they need for the funeral.” Even if I had to make sure it happened myself. I couldn’t do much to help Murphy with her pain and loss, but I could damn sure get the money for the funeral and all that. 

Izzy and I exchanged brief knowing looks, just before another figure appeared nearby. It was That-A-Way. She popped into view near the wall before turning to us. “Hey. I guess I’m not late, huh?” 

My head shook. “Nope, you’re right on time. And you definitely beat–” 

Before I could finish that sentence, a loud squawk interrupted. We all looked over to see Riddles fly down from above, landing on a nearby dumpster. She squawked at us again, clearly informing everyone that we should wait.

We didn’t have to wait long. Within the next thirty seconds, a van came into view through the alley. It rolled to a stop, before Pack stepped out. She had her lizard backpack with her. “Fancy seeing you guys again. Think we can avoid a running gunfight with the Scions this time?” As she spoke, Riddles flew down to land on the backpack itself, perching there while giving a watchful look all around. 

“Let’s hope so,” I muttered. “We’ve got enough to deal with. Now come on, let’s get in there.” With a look around at the rest of the group, I exhaled before reaching out to grab the door. One by one, the other four filed inside before I brought up the rear and let the door close behind me. 

We had been in the shop for approximately two and a half seconds before a loud squeal of excitement filled the air. Wren–or Trevithick, as she was in the same costume she’d worn when Lion had visited, the black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels over her arms, legs, and chest, with a black helmet and pink visor. Her rapidly-moving dragonfly wings were buzzing as she flew straight down from the ceiling to land right in front of Raindrop, talking a mile a minute. “Ohhh you’re here you’re really here I can’t believe you’re really here and you made it and it’s really you and you’re so cool I watched you on the news forever well really only a few times cuz the news is boring but you’re not boring you’re awesome and I saw you fight that mean Janus guy and the other guy with the big hammer but you said I don’t think so and made it float away and you hit him with a tidal wave and I have a hat with your name on it but I couldn’t find it and Uncle Fred said it might be at the other shop but we didn’t have time to go over there and I have a backpack too and that’s over there and it’s got your picture on it that’s why I said I had a backpack and I made a birthday cake I mean Uncle Fred did but I helped and it had all the Minority on it and you were my favorite piece and–” 

Coughing, I quickly stepped in and put a hand on the brilliant little girl’s shoulder. “She’s pretty awesome, yeah. You both are. Raindrop, this is the awesome Trevithick. Trevithick, this is the awesome Raindrop. It’s about time we all started working together to deal with the real problems around here. Which means getting everyone on the same page. Almost everyone else is already. Just uhh…” I hesitated, then looked to Wren. “Where’s Fred? I need to talk to both of you about something important. That’s why we’re all here together. It’s why I brought Raindrop too.” 

“Did someone say–oh.” That was Fred himself, coming out of the doorway leading to the stairs. As he saw everyone, the man came up short. I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he gulped before stepping forward. “Ah, well, I guess it’s ahh, yeah. You’re all here.” 

Introducing Raindrop to him, and vice versa, I gestured. “Would you and Trevithick mind sitting down?” After a brief hesitation to gather myself, I added, “There’s some really important stuff we need to talk about. Secret stuff that you need to know. It’s time.” 

Fred and Alloy gathered a few chairs and everyone took a seat. Everyone except me, anyway. For my part, I stood in front of them and let out a long breath before focusing on Fred himself. “I don’t mean to single you out. I’m sorry for that, for this. But I have to, right now, in front of everyone. You know what you did before was a mistake. But what I’m about to tell you and Trevithick is a lot bigger than anything else. It’s… it’s big, and you could f–screw over all of us, everyone, if you wanted to after I tell you about it.” 

Fred, for his part, was quiet for a moment. He saw everyone looking at him, but didn’t react. He stared at the floor, then shifted his weight to meet my gaze. “I’m not that guy anymore.” His voice was firm. “I–I did–what I did before, trying to get money the cheap way, the illegal way, that’s not–I won’t do that again. I don’t know how to promise that any better than–than just saying it. I give you my word, I swear. I won’t screw you over.” 

I had to believe him. If this whole thing was going to go on, he needed to know the truth. They both did. We needed Wren’s help going forward. Which meant getting everyone on as close to the same page as possible. Scary as the whole prospect was, it was time. The encounter with Simon and that whole situation had convinced me of that much. 

So, after taking one more deep breath to brace myself, I launched into the whole thing. The others piped up now and then to give their own perspective, but mostly it was me. I explained what the Ministry was, and how much control they really had over everything. And I explained how that related to what had happened to Murphy’s brother and those other people who had died. 

By the time I was done, Fred had stood up and was pacing back and forth, listening while covering his face with his hands. Once in a while, he muttered something about how much sense that all made. But mostly he was quiet. 

Wren, meanwhile, absorbed it all in silence, aside from shifting a bit in her seat now and then or asking a clarifying question. She seemed far more mature in those moments than her actual age and appearance would have suggested. 

Finally, in the end, she asked, “What… what are we gonna do about it?” 

“What are we going to do?” I echoed, glancing to the others. “We have a plan. I mean, not a full plan. But a start. We have an idea of how to get into one of the Ministry’s bases, to get more information. That’s where we’re going to get our friend upstairs the info we need to find her a new body. And it’s where we’re going to find out as much as we can about how they operate and any more of their secrets we can get a hold of. That much we can do. But if we’re going ahead with this, if we’re actually going to go up against the Ministry, we… I need help. We all do. I know it’s a lot to put on you, Trevithick.” 

“Wren.” She pulled off the helmet, facing the others. “I’m Wren. And… and yeah. Yes. I wanna help.” With that declaration, she straightened up, fists clenched. “They hurt Hobbes. If… if you think you can find out where that bad guy went by breaking into their secret base, then I’m gonna help.”  

Giving one short nod, I replied, “And you, Fred?” 

He, in turn, continued to face away from me for a few seconds before turning to face us. “I can’t do much. Just watch over Wren there, really. Maybe drive a car if you need it. Be an innocuous face. Fetch things. But if that helps–whatever you need. I’m… I’m in. I’m in for whatever this is, wherever it goes.” 

“Good,” I managed after a moment. 

“Then let’s talk about what we need to get this tunnel started.” 

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Winging It 19-07 (Summus Proelium)

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We split up almost immediately after that. Lucent had to cut our practice time short so he could go back and report in about what had happened. And Carousel went off with That-A-Way to tell her teammates the story while heading in to give her own report. Because of course it made sense for Way to go with Carousel, at least at first. She did shoot me a look before heading off, mouthing for me to meet her here and that she would be right back. Clearly, she still wanted to get into whatever she’d sent the earlier message about, before all this happened. 

I did have one thing to do while she was gone, though. Heading back to the bank, I helped the cops in the lot release the guys I had trapped with pink paint. Not that the would-be robbers were exactly happy about being arrested, but hey. At least we hadn’t completely failed to catch everyone.

Once that was done and I had sent in a statement about what happened with the Ten Towers Doephone app so it would be officially logged, I went back to the other roof and took a seat with my back to one of the air conditioning units. I needed a moment to catch my breath after everything that had happened. Part of me really still felt like shit for just letting those guys walk away with the stuff they stole, no matter how much I told myself that Lucent was right. Not getting into a brawl right there had been the right call. No matter how much the whispering voice in the back of my head went on about it being a mistake. 

But no, backing off had been the right call. Maybe, maybe we could’ve handled the regular thugs who were surrounding us. Carousel might have stopped the bullets and even pulled some of their guns away. And I had my protective paint. Maybe between the three of us, even surrounded like that, we could’ve taken the Prevs. A group of ordinary guys with weapons against the three of us? We probably could have handled it. Probably. 

But Sandon’s presence threw all that out the window. She was right there close to us, flanked by all those armed troops while already being one of the strongest and toughest Touched around. We just didn’t have anything that could have straight-up hurt her. And while we could’ve gotten creative, having to deal with her and her men was a bad combination. And that was before you added in the new Touched. Between the armed thugs, Sandon, and not knowing much of anything about the new guy’s power… yeah, starting a fight while surrounded by all that would have been one of the worst ideas imaginable. It would’ve gone horribly. 

And yet… Yeah, I couldn’t shut out my traitorous little voice, no matter what sort of logic I tried to silence it with. Which made a heavy sigh escape me. 

“Letting them get away sucks, doesn’t it?” That-A-Way spoke up while approaching from the other side of the roof. Clearly she had heard my sigh. “Believe me, I know what you’re feeling right now. And it never really goes away. I mean, it shouldn’t, right?” By that point, she had reached the spot where I was sitting, and plopped down next to me, drawing her legs up while looking out over the neighborhood below. “It should always feel wrong to let bad guys leave with what they stole, no matter how many times you tell yourself it was the only way.” 

Snorting despite myself, I shifted a bit to look over at the other girl from behind my helmet. “Yeah, I guess you’ve probably been in that position a few times before, huh?” 

I could see a very slight, humorless smile cross her face briefly. “Once or twice. The fact is that sometimes we’re outnumbered or outpowered, and we have to walk away. Silversmith always says–” She caught herself, face twisting into a slight grimace before pushing on. “Yeah, I know, but he’s not wrong here. He always says that it’s better to fight another day. Especially when all they have is material goods. If they kidnapped someone or whatever, it’s usually a different story. But if all they’ve got is money or something like that? Yeah, just let them go if you need to. He says money can be replaced, but we can’t be.” 

My father’s advice, delivered through Amber, made a lump form in my throat. It wasn’t any different than the advice that my bird-dad had given. And yet, I just… somehow the thought of why he would be fine with letting bad guys escape with what they stole made the whole thing feel worse. 

“I didn’t exactly help with that, did I?” Way was grimacing as she looked at me, shaking her head. “Sorry. I just… I’ve looked up to him for a long time. And like I said, he’s not wrong here. Even if he might have some ulterior motives sometimes about letting them walk away, it’s still not wrong. You guys made the right choice. Sandon would’ve chewed you up and spat you out. You’re not ready for her. Hell, I’m pretty sure I’m not ready for her. That’s… she’s too strong. And that’s coming from someone who can be invulnerable a quarter of the time and intangible another quarter.”

Finally finding a slight smile, I reached out and squeezed her arm. “Thanks,” I murmured before adding, “I just… you know, she outright said that they stole those things to help fund this gangwar. So every bit of fighting that goes on now, I’m going to wonder if it happened because we let them get away with the money to pay for it. If anything happens to Pack–I mean… La Casa are the ones fighting the Ninety-Niners, you know? If anything happens to her because they took the money I let them get away with to keep the war going…” 

I could hear the way the other girl gulped. Her hand found mine, squeezing it firmly. “I know,” she murmured in a soft voice. “Believe me, I think about that a lot. Not just when it comes to this thing today. I think about it all the time.” Her tone made it clear that was an understatement. “But it’s her choice, and she puts herself in that position. She chooses to do this stuff, just like we choose our own way, you know?” She gave a long, heavy sigh before adding in an even softer voice, “Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t try to make sure she doesn’t get hurt if I get the chance.” 

With my face hidden, I watched the other girl for a moment. There were a few things I almost wanted to ask about her whole thing with Pack, but I held off on the basis of it not being any of my business. Instead, I simply replied, “Sorry, I… I know you’re right. But knowing that doesn’t really… umm, help, you know? Doesn’t matter how logical it is, everything the Ninety-Niners do from now on, as far as this war goes, I won’t… I won’t be able to stop thinking ‘they can do this because I didn’t stop them from stealing the funds they needed to keep this whole thing going.’”

“I know,” she murmured, giving a heavy sigh. “I get it. It would be a hell of a lot easier to talk her out of being on the bad guy’s team if we didn’t already know for a fact that there are bad guys on every team.” Pausing, she grimaced before amending, “Okay, maybe it wouldn’t exactly be easy. She does like her money and freedom. But still, maybe like.. a Sell-Touched? Wait.” Her expression shifted as thoughts of that ran through her mind. She was obviously considering whether it would be a good idea to suggest that Pack become a Sell-Touched as a sort-of midway point between her current villain alignment and something better. After all, Sell-Touched could play both sides of the field, as Cavalcade had made clear. It just took a little extra work. 

Both of us thought about that for a minute, before I offered a hesitant, “I’m pretty sure she has friends over there that she wouldn’t want to walk away from that easily. Unless you’re thinking about–” I coughed, giving her a look of realization. “You’re not thinking about her walking away from her friends, you’re thinking about her taking them with her and making La Casa lose like… several Touched all at once.”  

“It would be a pretty big deal, huh?” Way opened her mouth and then stopped, heaving a sigh. “But, if I bring it up, it’ll just make her think I’m trying to get credit for taking a bunch of La Casa Touched away all at once. I mean–I thought about that but it’s… it’s backwards, you know? I don’t care about that sort of credit–I don’t even… “ She closed her eyes and drew her legs closer to her chest, going quiet for a moment before murmuring, “I just want to know she’s okay. If she gets arrested, if she goes to prison for everything, I just–I mean I should want that, right? She’s a thief, she’s a villain. Outside of these deals we have, I should want her to get caught. But every time I think about what I would do if it came down to choosing to take her in or let her go, even outside of our whole situation with the Ministry, I just… I can’t figure it out. I try. Believe me, I seriously sat there for hours trying to figure out how I would react if we didn’t have to deal with this Ministry stuff and I had to choose whether to take her in or not. Part of that whole… ‘figuring out how I feel’ thing. But I just can’t extricate it like that. It’s–damn it. You know.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “I know. I mean, even without anything else, she’s… she’s a friend.” There was clearly more to it than that, but I didn’t want to make assumptions or push the other girl to admit anything she didn’t want to. “You care about her. And it sucks to think that someone you care about might need help. And–oh, uhh, Jae might need help.” It clearly wasn’t the best or smoothest topic shift, but the thought had just popped into my head while talking. 

Giving a sudden double-take at that, Amber cough-sputtered a bit. It was kind of a weird reaction to have to something like that, if I was being honest. But maybe the sudden topic shift had thrown her off more than I thought. Or maybe she just wasn’t used to me bringing up civilian stuff while we were in costume. Which was totally fair, given how weird that whole thing was. 

Either way, she gave me a sharp look, asking, “What do you mean? When did you talk to Jae? When did you even see Jae? She hasn’t–I mean, when did she–what did–what?” Yeah, definitely a weird reaction. 

Setting that aside, given I had no idea what was going on there (maybe Jae really didn’t know about Amber being Touched and she felt guilty about that?), I simply told her what I had seen back at the grocery store. I explained the whole interplay between Jae and her step-adopted mother (or whatever the proper term for that would be), the welcome home party for her adopted father, all of it. 

“It’s just father, you know,” Amber informed me. “Once someone is adopted, you don’t have to stick the word on the front as a qualifier. He’s her father. She’s her stepmother. Her siblings are her siblings, not her adopted siblings. They’re a family, like any other.” 

“Right.” Coughing, I gave a little nod. “Got it, sorry. I just–yeah. The point is, I think Jae might need a friend today. Plus, you might want to make sure she’s really okay after that close call.  Like I said, you don’t have to tell me if she actually knows about you being… you, but if she does, you can tell her that you heard about what happened from me and, you know, figured out who she was from the description. Or… whatever. I just mean you should check on her.” 

“I will,” Amber assured me, without getting into any details. “Pretty sure she’ll be alright, but I’ll go over there later, before my patrol with Syndicate. And–” Abruptly, she snapped her fingers. “I can tell you about that thing now! Okay, no more distractions or interruptions. You’re not allowed to have some huge thing come up and take up all our attention for the next few minutes.” 

“Uh, I’ll do my best?” I offered a bit weakly while glancing around. “I mean, I don’t see anything coming up, and I’ll try not to answer my phone or anything. But I really can’t–never mind. Ahem.” Shifting, I faced her directly. “You have my full and undivided attention. Go ahead.” 

Giving me a look as though half-convinced that she was going to be interrupted anyway, Amber still hesitated before launching into an explanation. She told me about how a little while back she had been out jogging and saw some Asian people arguing outside of a sedan. There was one girl, around her age or maybe slightly older, who had been having an argument with the other three, older people. Maybe her relatives. They were all yelling in their own language, so Amber couldn’t tell what they were saying. And just when Amber had been thinking about stepping in, another car had shown up. A car with diplomatic plates. Yeah, it was Tomas’s father. At the time, Amber hadn’t actually known there was anything wrong with the man. She just thought it was strange that he was there. He had talked to the Asian people, calmed down the situation, then had the younger girl get in his car with him. 

“And that’s where it got really… uh, different,” Amber informed me. “She became he. I mean, just before the girl got in the car, she shifted. Her hair, her face, her whole body. She turned into a boy like it was nothing. Just that easy, that casual. Believe me, I know transitioning has gotten easier with Touched-Tech, but this was more than that. She–I mean they’re either a shapeshifter, or a…. maybe they have their own personal Touched-Tech disguise, or–I don’t know. But I thought it was weird at the time, and now that you told me about Mr. Jackson, it–it feels even more weird. Something… strange was going on with that, you know?” 

Nodding slowly as I ran that through my head, I tried to think and came up with nothing. “Yeah, I don’t know. I never heard my parents talking about anything like that. At least, I don’t think so. It doesn’t ring any bells. And I don’t– huh.” Frowning, I thought again before heaving a sigh. “God, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll find out more once we dig that tunnel to get into the mall base? Which, you know, having that Undermine guy’s power would sure help out a lot with that.” 

Snorting, clearly despite herself, Amber retorted, “Sure would. All you have to do is go convince him to help. Shouldn’t be that hard, right? I mean, you can trust a total stranger, who happens to be an active villain and not in any way a friend with all your secrets. Easy peasy.”

My eyes rolled and I covered the front of my helmet with my hands. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m just saying, if they’d been using a tech thing, we could’ve grabbed it. Would’ve made it easier. But hey, we don’t get to do things the easy way. We still need to do them. At least we’ve got help.” 

“Yeah,” the girl agreed, “it’ll be easier with Raindrop and Pack there. And will your minions be there too?” The last bit was said teasingly as she nudged me, clearly going for a reaction. 

“Uuuughh,” I groaned, shaking my head. “Don’t even–I don’t know. Maybe… maybe if I tell them we need to dig a tunnel somewhere but we can’t really tell them why or let them know where it is? I don’t–that doesn’t sound very fair, does it?” 

“They’re minions,” she pointed out, “they’re probably used to not being treated fairly or being given all the information.” A small smile played across her face before she focused. “Anyway, the other option is that you tell them what’s actually going on. I mean, maybe not your real identity if you don’t want to. But about this Ministry stuff. At least then they’d be going into it–all of it with open eyes and all. They could choose to walk away before they end up getting in the sort of trouble that the Ministry could put them in just by working with you.” 

Blanching, I shifted back and exhaled long and low before admitting, “Right, yeah, you have a point. I just don’t know if it’s a good idea to tell them more than–to tell them–I mean…” My face, still hidden, twisted a little as I tried to sort through my thoughts. “You’re right. I know you’re right. If they get involved in this and get hurt specifically because they didn’t know what they were getting into or how to protect themselves from it, I’ll never forgive myself. Hell, by that standard I should make sure Fred and Wren know the whole story too. I should–” I swallowed hard. “There’s a lot of things I should do. I’ll think about it. I’ll think about how to talk about it and how much I can tell them.” Pausing, I murmured, “Or if I should just tell them not to have anything to do with me. But something tells me that won’t come off very well. They’re already working with Wren. I–I gave them a chance. I told them they could have real jobs, and a chance to make their lives better. I can’t take that away from them. Maybe I could have them only work for Wren and have nothing to do with me, but you know that won’t work. If bad things go down, it isn’t hard to connect Trevithick to me. I just–it’s so intertwined and complicated.” 

My eyes had closed by that point as I slumped backward against the air conditioning unit and let a heavy sigh escape me once more. “I have to think about all that. But I will. I’ll figure it out.” 

“I know, it’s a pain in the ass,” Amber sympathized before adding, “And uhh, I’m probably not about to make it any better. Which–sorry. But I just want to let you know next I’m going to be looking into something else while we’re searching for information about the whole Ministry thing. More than just general information. It’s–it’s important.” Her voice cracked a little as she said that, making it clear how much of an understatement it was. “I just–I have to know.” 

After looking at her briefly, I realized, “Your dad. You want to find out if they had anything to do with the guy who hit your dad getting away. You want to know if they accepted money from him to disappear and that’s why no one ever found out who–” Grimacing, I shook my head. “You know that could all be completely normal. A lot of hit-and-runs go completely unsolved. Especially with a stolen car, and–” 

“I know!” the other girl blurted, before giving me an apologetic look. “I know all that, believe me. But I got the idea stuck in my head and now I can’t let it go until I know for sure. I have to find out if your parents deliberately let my father’s killer walk away. I just–I have to know for sure. Whatever it takes. So I’m gonna be looking for anything that has to do with him. My dad, I mean. They might’ve kept files or… or some other record, or someone else might’ve known and–and… Ugh. Someone will know the truth. I have to check. I just… have to.”

It was my turn to reach out and squeeze her arm. “I understand. I… I’ll help any way I can, I promise. But be careful, okay? Just–be careful. And don’t do anything drastic. We’ll figure it out.” 

She murmured what was something close to an agreement, before the two of us sat there in silence for a minute or two. A minute or two which felt much longer, as we gradually turned away to look out over the neighborhood once more, lost in our own thoughts. 

Finally, I pushed myself up. “Thanks for talking me through all that. I–it’s good to have someone to talk to.” Boy was that ever an understatement. I had no idea how I would’ve even kept as sane as I was right then without having her and Izzy. It really made a difference. 

Rising after me, Amber offered a small smile. “Any time. I uhh, guess I should head back in now. Like you said, I should check on Jae and make sure she’s okay.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed before turning to start walking to the edge of the roof. “And I need to get over to Wren’s to see how they’re doing with Lion. Can’t let my employees have all the fun. Besides, it’s probably about time I had a talk with Paige. 

“I really need to ask her why she never mentioned that she has a sister who would come looking for her.”  

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