That-A-Way

Exhibition 25-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

It would’ve been nice if I could have called a time-out for a few minutes so I could explain everything that was going on, including the new power tricks I had figured out, to my newly-arrived friends. But something told me the bad guys here weren’t exactly likely to accept something like that. Especially not with the Minority people still in the middle of fighting those other two. To say nothing of how many random mooks they had helping them. Thanks to the flurry of chaotic motion, water, random bits of flying glass, and flailing energy coils, I couldn’t see how Fragile, Whamline, Wobble, Raindrop, and That-A-Way’s fight against Banneret and the goons helping her was going. And it was completely impossible to have any idea of what was going on with Carousel and Syndicate with Fogwalker. 

Unfortunately, we couldn’t check on them any more than we could call a time-out. Poise, Style, Calvin, Hobbes, Alloy, and I had our own immediate problem, in the form of Theory and Praxis, and their own thugs. I’d taken several of them down, and Alloy knocked down more with her arrival. But more were showing up, and they did not look happy. 

That wind blast from Praxis had knocked all of us flying, scattering our group across the grass. And even as I scrambled back to my feet, my eyes caught sight of the woman holding one hand out toward where Poise, Hobbes, and I were, while the other was pointed more toward the other three. My mouth opened to blurt a warning, just before twin blasts of wind tore into us. I tried to brace myself, but it didn’t help. Once again, we were picked up and thrown, tumbling end over end under the sustained barrage of wind. On the way, while I was crashing and rolling along the grass, I tried to shoot a bit of red paint toward the woman. Honestly, the mere fact that I could aim at her in the midst of that was pretty crazy. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. My paint was caught by her wind and tossed aside, scattering into useless droplets across the grass behind me. 

Okay, so I couldn’t shoot her with paint. But I could use it on myself. While the wind continued to throw me, I focused on making red paint appear on my hands and knees, then put more of it directly under me on the ground and activated all of it. The paint yanked me down and held me in place against the force of that rushing hurricane-like air. Thanks to the visor of my helmet, I was able to look that way without the wind tearing into my eyes. I could see Praxis focusing even more of her power on me, trying to force me to go flying again. But my paint held firm. To one side, I could see Alloy shielding herself, Calvin, and Style with a low wall made out of a couple of her marbles. Poise and Hobbes, meanwhile, were crouched behind a heavy tree. Even that was bowing sideways against the force of the wind. Most of the leaves were gone, and even a few branches had snapped off to fly away along the grass. I was afraid the whole thing was going to be torn out of the ground any second. 

Fortunately, Praxis’s power didn’t last forever. After those thirty seconds (which honestly seemed like a hell of a lot longer than that in the heat of the moment), the wind died down. She immediately shifted back to Theory, with his lab coat and goggles. Which we would’ve taken advantage of, but the instant that happened, a handful of those armed thugs took up position in front of him and opened fire with an assortment of guns. It happened so smoothly that I was pretty sure they had training and practice with jumping in to cover their boss while he took the time to set up new plans and powers for his partner. Which made sense. Of course they would’ve compensated for that sort of weakness. 

Seeing those goons jumping into position with their weapons raised, I quickly triggered an orange bullseye symbol across my chest, just before those first few bullets hit my arm and shoulder. It stung a bit, but I ignored that and scrambled to my feet. The others were protected by Alloy’s wall and that tree. But we still had to move quickly. Any second now, Theory was going to finish making his ‘plan’ and bring Praxis back out with a new power. The wind had been bad enough, I really didn’t want to think about what other dangerous shit she might come out with now that they were even more pissed off and had seen how we could defend against that wind. I had a feeling that whatever they came out with next would be even more dangerous, and very different.

To stop that, I planted blue under my feet and launched myself forward and up while shouting, “Rebound!” toward Alloy. 

Thanks to all the talks we’d had, she immediately knew what to do, positioning one of her marbles in a flat, wall-like shape in the air above me. It was angled just a bit toward the group of bad guys. Just before hitting it, I sent a new shot of blue that way while inverting myself in the air. My feet hit that spot, and the blue circle launched me off it like I was a ping-pong ball, sending me straight toward the gathered group. They were still trying to adjust to my rapid movements, most of their shots flying past me. 

The plan was for me to crash into Theory and take him down before he could bring out Praxis with new powers. Unfortunately, just before I would’ve hit the man with that flying tackle after rebounding off the marble wall, one of his minions threw himself in the way. I collided with that guy instead, and we went tumbling head over heels. I could hear him yelp and curse in pain. 

Seriously, these guys were both trained enough to immediately cover their bosses weakness, and loyal enough to throw some selves into the path of my flying body? How much were they being paid? Would it seem weird if I asked this guy if I could top it? 

While those thoughts were flying through my mind, I activated a purple unicorn shape on my arm before slamming my elbow into this guy’s face. His head snapped down into the ground, leaving him dazed for the moment. 

Meanwhile, from the corner of one eye, I could see Style driving her foot into the back of one guy‘s knee from behind while he was focused on me. Her hand caught the back of his neck as he started to stumble, and slammed his head forward into another guy’s temple as that one spun to see what was going on. Beside her, Calvin quickly dropped down next to the two fallen figures and snapped a pair of handcuffs on each of them to keep their hands trapped behind their backs. 

By that point, I managed to roll backwards off of the guy who had thrown himself between Theory and me. My foot lashed out to catch his chin as he started to blearily lift his head, putting him back down for the moment. 

Now that I was up and facing the other way, I could see Poise step smoothly between two guys while catching their extended arms as they aimed their weapons my way. Before they could react, she swung their captured arms around so the pistols in their hands slammed into one another’s faces hard enough to make them stagger backward. The guns fell, and Poise caught them in mid-drop, pivoting while firing one shot from each into the two men’s feet. In the exact same motion, as she continued pivoting, her foot came up to kick each of them in the face, one after the other, while they started to collapse from being shot in the foot. 

In the span of about two seconds, these guys had both gone from pointing their weapons at me, to having their arms grabbed, guns slammed into each other’s face, shot in the feet, and then kicked in the face in the exact same spot their own guns had hit. Needless to say, they both hit the ground and didn’t seem that interested in getting back up. 

Alloy and Hobbes were also doing something, but I didn’t have the chance to see what it was. After all, I was still standing in the middle of a large group of bad guys, who were reacting to my arrival by taking quick aim. They weren’t quite aware of what was going on to the guys on the outskirts, and it would take another couple seconds for the others to reach me. Seconds I wouldn’t have before these guys opened fire. 

Luckily, I had a plan for that. I just hoped it would actually work. Even as I was taking in what Paige was doing, I had been painting a new symbol across my chest, of a sword stretching from my waist up to my neck. At the same time, my hands snapped out to send a thin spray of paint at the semi-circle of thugs in front of me. They all recoiled reflexively, likely expecting to be yanked together or sent flying. But this time, it wasn’t red or blue. Each of them was hit, much to their probable confusion, by a tiny bit of the orange paint. It wasn’t much at all, just a thin line across each of them. They were clearly confused, yet didn’t waste time trying to figure it out. Instead, they opened fire. 

And that was their big mistake, because by that point, I had activated the paint I had put on my torso in that sword shape. The blade itself was orange, while the handle was pink. Praying that this would actually work, I had fed the pink power into the orange before immediately canceling it.

Normally, when I canceled the pink paint early, it made the spot that it was affecting very bouncy. Unfortunately, it only affected the actual spot it was touching, unlike the rest of my paints, which affected a larger area. Like, in this case, the orange paint, which would protect my entire body. But if I could use my newfound ability to combine my paint into new effects…

It worked. The temporary bounciness from the early-canceled pink paint fed into the protection from the orange. As these guys opened fire, their bullets rebounded off me much faster than they would’ve with just the orange protection. They went flying back the way they’d come. And since these guys were directly in their path, they ended up basically shooting themselves. 

That, of course, was why I had hit them with orange paint, so I wouldn’t turn into a killer. I didn’t give them enough to completely protect them, just enough that the bullets wouldn’t slaughter them. It was still obviously like being hit by dozens of baseballs or whatever. Enough that the assembled group in front of me hit the ground, cursing and groaning in pain. They had no idea what had just happened, only that they started to shoot me, and had suddenly been hit by a bunch of stinging pellets that would leave pretty solid bruises and possibly even a few broken bones. But hey, at least I didn’t let them actually take the full damage from being shot?  

I didn’t have time to think too much about that. I was already pivoting to catch sight of Theory so I could take him down. Unfortunately, just as my eyes fell on him, his form shifted again. Now he was gone and Praxis was back, with that same dark blue bodysuit and mask with white chestplate, boots, and eye lenses. Her powers, however, were obviously very different. A fact that was made rather obvious as she extended her arm, with electricity coiling around her finger. She sent it flying toward me, while I flinched reflexively. Thankfully, while the bouncy part of the canceled pink paint had gone away, the actual orange was still active. So I wasn’t completely destroyed by that shot of lightning. It still shocked me a bit, yet I was able to throw myself that way through the crackling line of electricity. 

“Hey!” I blurted while catching her extended wrist. I’d already activated a couple purple dagger shapes along my legs for added strength so I could yank her off balance. “Didn’t you know I already fought an electricity guy a few minutes ago?! You’re supposed to vary things up so the audience doesn’t get bored!” 

She was still trying to shock me, even as I kept hold of her arm. I could feel the electricity pouring into me, making my body spasm and jerk a bit out of my control. But, through sheer force of will, I kept my hands on her while rearing back to kick the woman in the stomach. I just had to hit her hard enough to make her stop trying to electrocute me before my protection wore off. 

Unfortunately, her new powers apparently weren’t limited only to shooting electricity. Just as my foot passed through the spot she had been in, the woman vanished with a burst of lightning and clap of thunder. I stumbled off balance, hearing another burst of thunder a short distance away, somewhere behind me. 

Pivoting quickly, I saw her appear behind Alloy, hitting the girl with a quick shot of electricity that knocked her to the ground, twitching and crying out. 

Poise was right there, already taking aim with one of the pistols she had stripped from those guys. Before she could fire, another burst of electricity shot from the other woman’s finger. Thankfully, Paige managed to throw herself into a sideways roll, letting it go right over her head. Belatedly, I realized that she had been acting as a distraction, giving Style a chance to hit the woman from the side. But just as she would have crashed into her, another lightning bolt appeared and Praxis was gone, leaving Sierra to crash into the ground where she had been an instant earlier. 

That time, she reappeared near Hobbes and tried to grab her, hands crackling with power. But Hobbes reacted faster, hand already extended toward Calvin as she snapped her fingers and activated the suit’s teleportation power. It was Praxis’s turn to have her plans foiled by someone vanishing right in front of her. 

Before anyone else could move, a voice shouted over the sound of fighting, “Praxis!” It was… Fogwalker, who was, as promised, a lynx. A gray-furred lynx with black spots, with some sort of metal collar around its neck. The animal was perched just on the very edge of the cloud of fog he had created. Fog that Carousel and Syndicate were apparently still trapped in. 

“Time to go!” the lynx TONI called toward Praxis. When he spoke again, the voice was clearly coming from the collar itself. Apparently he wasn’t one of those that could speak normally. It always seemed weird that some ended up with the power to talk and others didn’t. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to wonder about that too much, as Fogwalker added, “Target’s near the west exit!” 

Without a word of question or protest, Praxis vanished in another burst of lightning. A couple more followed as she appeared next to Fogwalker before disappearing with him. Then she did the same with Banneret, who was still fighting the others. Her time with that power had to be about to run out, but it didn’t happen before all three of them were gone.

The fog vanished almost immediately, and I could see all four Syndicates alongside Carousel, staggering suddenly as they could finally see where they were. Meanwhile, Whamline, Wobble, Raindrop, and That-A-Way were spinning around to look for where their own opponent had gone. They were also moving slowly and clumsily, practically falling over as though they were very thoroughly drunk. That was obviously thanks to the assortment of those small, flag-like marks over their bodies, courtesy of Banneret. The weapons she had taken over with more of her markings had all hit the ground together the instant she disappeared.

“Hey, what the fuck?!” That was Whamline, almost falling over as the marking slowing him down vanished and he went back to normal speed. “Where’d that bitch go?!” Belatedly, he glanced toward Raindrop and Fragile before sheepishly amending, “Sorry, I mean, what happened?” 

One of the Syndicates managed to orient himself and look back and forth between our group and the rest of their team. “Everybody okay?” 

Alloy, picking herself up from the ground after being hit by that electrical blast, grunted, “Fine, just peachy. Wait, is it over?” 

My head shook quickly. “No!” I shouted despite myself. “They’re still after Inessa Sidorov! And they found her by the west exit!” I was already trying to orient myself that way to start running, even though I wasn’t sure what good it would do. Not with that group being able to teleport. Yet even as that thought filled my mind, I saw the other group. Or rather, Fogwalker and Theory. The two of them were running past a nearby basketball court. They hadn’t teleported all the way to their target after all. Apparently Praxis’s teleportation had been strictly line of sight, and now it would take time for Theory to give his partner another transportation power. Time that we could hopefully take advantage of. Where Banneret was, I had no idea. But there wasn’t time to think about that. Not when Theory could finish charging up new powers for Praxis any moment. 

“There!” I was pointing while starting to move. “We’ve gotta stop them before they can teleport again!” 

The others were already moving to follow me, our combined teams starting to chase after the departing trio. But, of course, there were still the remaining Prev goons, who had pulled themselves together and were moving to intercept us. Worse, now we knew where Banneret was. Namely, right there in the middle of the assorted thugs, several of whom she had already applied boosting powers to. 

“We don’t have time for this!” one of the Syndicates blurted, before looking at me. “Take your team and go, stop those two! We’ll handle these guys.” 

So, we split up. Alloy created another board for our team to hop on top of, before it flew open over the heads of Banneret and her minions. They tried to aim up at us, but the Minority hit them from below, taking their attention and giving us the chance to fly after the other two. 

“Why the hell are they so obsessed with going after this skater chick anyway?!” Murphy shouted from her crouched position as she clung to the handle Peyton had created for us. 

My head shook quickly. “Dude, I’ve got no idea!

“But something tells me we really don’t want it to happen!”

Previous Chapter

Exhibition 25-05 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

No answers about why these guys were after Inessa, or where she had disappeared to, presented themselves as Amber, Izzy, and I raced across the park together. Apparently the other main source of fighting was going on near a small baseball field that had been built in the past couple years. There had been a Little League game going on, and the thought of those kids being traumatized and attacked by a bunch of gang members really pissed me off. Seriously, what were these assholes trying to accomplish? Had my family actually approved this? That didn’t make sense. Why would they let something like this happen, no matter how much money was paid? Attacking a Little League game? What the fuck was up with that? 

On the way, I realized that my call with Eits had been disconnected. A surprisingly painful flash of worry shot through me then, but a quick glance at my phone revealed a text from him promising to contact me as soon as he could. He said something about Pack showing up and how they had to do something now that I had Raindrop and That-A-Way for help. And he wished us luck.

It was taking us a minute to get over there. This wasn’t a small park, to say the least. But it did give me a chance to get filled in on what was going on, and what we were running into.

Beyond this whole situation, there had apparently been a flare-up of fighting between some of the Easy Eights (or the Fantastic Fives or whatever they were calling themselves now) and Oscuro near one of the old malls. Neither Deicide or Cuélebre were involved, but things were still pretty heavy, which was what some of the other Star-Touched were dealing with. 

Even worse, it sounded like Jennica had chosen now to make a nuisance of herself as well. She was in one of the police precinct stations, using her control-gems to force several of the cops to attack the others. So my dad and a couple others had to go do something about that. What made it worse was that they apparently had no idea how many of the cops in the station had been affected, or where Jennica herself was at the moment. 

The point was, between those situations and the usual crime around the city, it was taking time for more people to show up here. Which, come to think of it, maybe that was the problem? Maybe my parents expected the hero types to show up and drive these guys off pretty quickly, before there was any real danger, but then this other stuff happened. Hang on, was that the problem? I was completely positive that Jennica didn’t clear any of her criminal activities with the Ministry, so they wouldn’t have known about her plans. And from what Amber and Izzy were saying in those few moments while we were running together, the gang fight by the mall had erupted naturally, just when a few members from each side ran into each other and started a shoving, cursing match. That had escalated into a full brawl including Touched. So yeah, I was definitely willing to bet that this was the only situation that had specific Ministry approval, and likely only because they were supposed to be interrupted and driven off or whatever. 

All those thoughts flashed through my mind in a couple seconds, even as I looked toward the baseball field. Right now, all I could see was a bunch of indistinct shapes, but they were getting larger and more clear with each step. “Tell me what we’re dealing with!” I blurted that with a glance toward Amber. I knew Janus and Juice, along with that Devil’s Due guy, had joined up with a brand new gang from out of town. Well, technically they had been recruited by Cuélebre and then traded to this new gang in exchange for their own Latino Touched. But either way, I had no idea who these other people were. 

Speaking quickly, Amber explained, “Banneret looks like a mix between a medieval knight and a biker! Any inanimate object she touches she can put a mark on that makes that object do what she wants. Any living animal she puts the mark on gets a boost if they’re on her side and a penalty if they’re not. Stronger, weaker, faster, slower, all of it!”  

Izzy explained the next one, “Fogwalker’s a lynx TONI. He makes these clouds that’re like air for his friends, but really thick and hard to move in for other people, like Jello! It’s like moving underwater! I mean, what that’s like for most people.” She added the last bit a little sheepishly. 

Finally, Amber put in, “Theory and Praxis are the last one!” She saw my glance and gestured while we continued running. “They’re like Janus! Two people sharing one body, only there’s just one of them physically present at a time. They shift back and forth!” 

Like Fisher and Price, I realized, though I wouldn’t say that out loud. Not out here right now. 

Amber continued. “Theory’s the guy. When he’s out, he’s planning. He’ll look at a situation, figure out what he wants Praxis to do, then switch with her!” 

“And what can she do?” I called, eyes scanning ahead of us. We were definitely running into a mess. That much was clear. I could see a bunch of people on the ground, though they didn’t look dead. It was like they had hit the ground and were staying there to avoid drawing attention or getting hit. There were also what looked like gang members, armed with a mix of shotguns, pistols, and more melee-oriented weapons, running from group to group. I was pretty sure they were checking their faces. Were they looking for Inessa? 

“Anything!” Amber answered, making my eyes glance that way. Her head was nodding. “Within reason! I mean, within Touched reason! If Theory wants her to lift a bus and throw it, she can do that. If he wants her to fly up to the top of a building, she can do that! If he wants her to teleport, she can do that too! She gets powers based on what he plans, and his plans can only last something like thirty seconds or so before they have to switch back again. Once he’s out, he has to focus and plan out what happens next! The more power he wants to give her, the longer it takes. That’s when they’re vulnerable!” 

“Could he just say, ‘I want you to punch that Abyssal and kill it in one hit’ and give her the power to do that?!” I demanded. “Cuz I gotta tell you, I’m gonna be really pissed off if that’s a thing they could do!” 

“The power isn’t unlimited!” Amber called back. “She can get ‘shot put a tank’ strong, not ‘punch out an Abyssal’ strong! And she can’t just snap her fingers and kill people or anything. We don’t know what sort of limits there are, only that she’s only got about thirty seconds per ‘plan’ and she can’t become a god or anything.” 

Right, well, that was good to know. I would’ve hated to try to go fight someone who could turn into a god. That didn’t exactly sound like my idea of a good time. Then again, even with their so-called ‘limitations,’ I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be easy. 

By that point, I could see Whamline, Wobble, and that new Fragile girl. They were facing off with what had to be Banneret. She really did look like a cross between a knight and a biker, with black leather over most of her body, a gleaming silver chestplate, leg and arm guards, and a helmet that looked like both those things at once. It had sort of a medieval design, but was shaped like a motorcycle helmet. The visor was painted on the front to look like a knight’s helmet visor, but was clearly transparent from the inside. She had half a dozen guns, and twice that many knives, all spinning around her, along with a bunch of other random objects that she had clearly taken over. It was all the three Minority members could do to keep up with her. Fragile was using a bunch of glass shards to intercept the incoming knives, or hit the guns to knock them off course. Between that and Whamline’s coils plus Wobble’s vibration waves, the three of them were barely able to avoid being torn apart.

I couldn’t see Fogwalker the lynx, but I could definitely tell where he was. There was a thick reddish-gray… well fog over on the infield, stretching about from home plate to just a bit past second base, and covering first as well. I could just barely make out third. Whatever was going on inside that fog, we couldn’t see it. But I was willing to bet that that was where at least some of the Syndicates were. Three of them could be intangible at a time. That had to help with moving through that fog, right?  

I was guessing Carousel was in there too, because I couldn’t see her either. But I could see the person who had to be Theory. He was black, and his costume made him look like a scientist, basically. He had a long white lab coat that was just a bit thicker than it should’ve been, making me figure it was armored in some way. Beyond that, he wore heavy combat boots, cargo pants with a lot of pockets (all of which had random tools, notebooks, and other stuff sticking out of them), and a gray and black checkerboard-pattern plaid shirt. His head was bald, and he wore heavy green-tinted goggles over his eyes and a fairly large portion of his face. 

For a second, I couldn’t tell what he was doing. Not from this distance. Then I realized. He was talking on the phone. His focus was on that, as he turned in a circle while gesturing wildly. It looked like he was yelling on the phone. Whatever was happening here, it wasn’t going perfectly. Probably because they still hadn’t found Inessa. 

And seriously, why the fuck did they all want to find Inessa?!

Whatever the reason, an answer wasn’t coming immediately. Especially since Theory noticed us. I could almost see his double-take and the way he cursed, still holding the phone. Then he shouted, and I barely caught the word ‘those guys’ while he gestured our way. 

The thugs who had been going around from civilian to civilian all looked up, before focusing on us. Which meant the good news was that those people weren’t going to be harassed for a bit (or anymore at all, hopefully). The bad news was that now we had trouble, of the ‘lift their guns and start pointing them at us’ variety. 

“You guys go!” I blurted, activating the green and orange paint I had put on Raindrop and That-A-Way while we were running over here. “Help the others with Banneret! I’ll do something about our new friends!” Even as I said that, my eyes were scanning for Alloy or any of the others. The last text I’d gotten said they were coming and would be here soon. I just hoped it was soon enough

There were seven Prev thugs coming our way. Or rather, my way, once Izzy and Amber took off running toward Banneret and the others. Two of the approaching guys had shotguns, one had a long chain with some sort of blade attached to the end, another had a simple knife, two more had bats, and the last one had a pistol. That last guy was already lining up a shot, but I trusted the orange barbells I just activated on both of my arms to protect me from that. Not that I was going to be sitting idle anyway. Even as he was taking aim and starting to pull the trigger, I sent a shot of red paint that way while activating a bit of blue under my feet to send myself upwards. As the red paint hit his chest, I activated a bit of matching red on the bottom of one of my shoes. I was yanked that way in a Kung Fu-style wirework thirty-foot long jump kick that ended with me colliding with the man foot-first. He hit the ground, having only been able to let off a couple shots, which rebounded off my costume like hurled pebbles. 

At the same time, I put both hands out to either side, hitting the two baseball bats that the nearest guys had with red paint. They were already in mid-swing, but the paint yanked them toward one another rather than into the back of my head. The bats slammed into each other, and before the guys could actually let go, I took advantage of them being right next to each other by slapping the ground at their feet to make a blue circle. And this time I tried something else. Thinking about how I’d mixed white and green as well as red and green, I tried something similar here. First I made a quick empty circle of yellow, then I filled it in with blue and sort of… focused on both being connected. Then I activated them at the same time. 

It worked. The two men were launched into the air, but after they reached the first few feet off the ground, their flight slowed dramatically. They were still flying upward, but it was in slow motion. And more than that, they were flying higher than they normally would have. Like twice as high, actually. The entire effect was slowed down but also extended dramatically. It took them longer to reach the normal height, they went up twice as high anyway so that was even longer, and then they had to come back down. Which was also slowed. 

Well, at least they wouldn’t hurt themselves when they landed. And that little show even worked to distract the other guys here. While they looked that way reflexively, I hit the nearby shotgun with a bit of pink right around the middle of the barrel, while simultaneously activating a set of green wings on my back. With that burst of speed, I reached up to twist the barrel around so he couldn’t fire the gun. Not unless he was very stupid, anyway. Unlike when I used the pink paint on living targets, inanimate objects stayed the way I left them. 

Boy, between this and using the pink paint on that lamp post earlier, I really was turning into a cartoon, wasn’t I? 

The man cursed at me and dropped his weapon while trying to grab my arm. At the same time, the other shotgun guy was trying to slam the butt of that weapon into the side of my helmet. I supposed he didn’t feel great about trying to actually shoot me with it while I was so close to his buddies. Which, of course, was one of my main reasons for closing the distance the way I had. 

So one guy trying to grab my arm and the other trying to hit me with the butt of his shotgun. I certainly wasn’t going to let either of those things happen. Fortunately, I still had the green speed, so I was able to snap my arm out of the first guy’s grasping fingers before using a set of purple dart images across my leg to boost my strength enough to grab his wrist and twist it. He cried out and stumbled, before my foot collided with his knee, making him collapse fully. 

Oh, and the other guy, the one who had been trying to smack me from the side? I did something special for him. First, I made an orange smiley face appear on my helmet, right where he was aiming. The orange face had a blue mouth for a smile, along with blue sunglasses. Blue with orange. I focused on the former feeding into the latter.

In this case, when the butt of the gun hit that paint, I expected to be protected while the man was knocked away. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, the instant the impact happened, I was fine, but the man himself jerked his head a little with a yelp of surprise, turning to look behind him. It was like someone had smacked him in the– Wait. Oh. 

Right, feeding blue into orange didn’t simply make it repel an object and protect the thing it was on. It protected the thing while also rebounding some of the damage back into the person responsible for it? I was guessing that the amount of damage returned had to do with how much blue I included. Either way, orange paint protected from damage, and blue-infused orange paint sent a portion of that damage back. 

Well, that was sure something. But I didn’t have time to focus on that now. Even as the guy turned his head away from me to see what had popped him, I was lashing out with my elbow into his stomach. It made him double over, before I caught the collar of his shirt and shoved him forward so he crashed into the guy whose leg I had kicked out from under him. They both went down in a tangled heap.

Before I could focus on the others, one of Alloy’s marbles flew in and transformed into a long, wide bar to slam into them. As I went down, my gaze snapped over and up. Sure enough, the girl herself was there, along with Style and Poise on one side of the long, wide board three of her marbles had turned into, and Calvin and Hobbes on the other side. 

They landed next to me, with Peyton asking, “Hey, are we late?”

In that moment, I caught a glimpse of Theory in his mad scientist getup walking our way. In the mid-step, his body transformed. No, he didn’t transform. He switched places with his partner. Now we were facing a woman in a form-fitting dark blue bodysuit that had a white chest plate and white boots. Her face was covered by a blue mask that covered her entire head, with white lenses over her eyes. 

Just as I took that in, the woman extended her hand and a blast of powerful wind erupted from her palm. It caught our entire group, picking us up and throwing us a good ten or fifteen feet. 

As we hit the ground and rolled, I called, ”Nope, I’d say you’re right on time!”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Exhibition 25-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Well, assuming my intention had been to piss off a whole group of people who could kill me, then mission highly successful. All of the guys with guns who had been standing guard over the hostages immediately turned their weapons my way and opened fire. At the same time, Juice sent a blast of electricity into the area he clearly thought their gunfire would send me dodging into. But I had been pretty sure that was exactly what would happen. So, instead of throwing myself into that open space, and therefore right into the lightning, I trusted my orange paint to keep me alive. It still wasn’t fun, considering being hit by all those bullets felt like being in a hailstorm. I would definitely have a few bruises. But they didn’t penetrate, and that was the important part.

In the midst of all that gunfire, my hand touched the lamp post I was perched on. All the way down the length of it, the lamp turned pink. They noticed just as Juice’s lightning bolt went flying off a bit to my left. Before they could react, I hopped backwards, quickly activating and disabling the paint at the same moment to turn the lamp post into a springy surface. My hands caught the end of it, yanking it backwards and down with me. The pole bent all the way over, like in the cartoons when they pull a springy tree. And just like in those cartoons, when I released the pole, it snapped all the way back up and over in the opposite direction, slamming down into two of the gunmen before they could react. They were knocked sprawling down into the pit with the hostages, guns cluttering along the cement. Meanwhile, the pole snapped back upright as if nothing had happened.

Janus, by that point, were sending a massive fist the size of a Volkswagen right at the spot where I had landed. From that and the large amount of cursing they were doing, I was starting to think they didn’t like me very much.

I wanted to use yellow paint to slow the fist down, and the rest of them by extension. But I was pretty sure I was running very low on available paint at that moment, after all of it I’d used while quietly taking down those other guys coupled with turning that entire pole pink just now. I had to wait for a few seconds. Instead, I activated another couple spots of green along my legs and ran forward. Just before the fist would’ve collided with me, I activated a couple blue stars on the bottom of my shoes. It launched me upward into a flip before I came down on the men’s enormous arm. They were still reacting to that while I raced along it. “Hey guys, I think I really–” My knee slammed into one of their faces. The Mr. Harmful one, as it happened. “–kneed you!”

My momentum, combined with the fact that I had activated a picture of two crossed purple baseball bats along my arms, were enough to snap their head backwards despite their enhanced strength. I didn’t think it actually did that much damage, but still. Their right arm was still extended and shrinking back down, but the left snapped upward to grab me by the head. Before they could do that, I threw myself backwards, planting both shoes against Harmful’s face to launch away from them. “If I’m too close, I’ll put a couple feet between us!”

Juice had pivoted by that point, taking aim at me once more as I went into the air. However, before he could hit me with his second lightning blast, I pointed with both hands. One shot of red hit his extended wrist, while the other hit Janus in the shoulder. I could tell that would be the last of my paint for now, but it was enough to yank the man’s arm down just as he unleashed that blast. The lightning slammed into Janus, drawing a pained and furious cry from both of them. They stumbled backward and down onto one knee, clearly needing a moment to pull themselves together.

Juice, on the other hand, didn’t need a moment. And he was pretty damn pissed off by that point, as was the one remaining guy with his gun. That guy came charging forward, pulling the weapon up as he shouted something about me being a little son of a bitch. He opened fire, but despite all the stuff that had already happened, the ten seconds of my orange paint protection still wasn’t up yet. Three or four bullets rebounded off my helmet even as I grabbed a piece of broken cement off the ground. It was about the size of a ping-pong ball, and I pushed it against my palm while raising my hand. Before the guy knew what was happening, I activated the blue circle that was already on my glove there. The rock was launched out of my hand and smacked right into the middle of his forehead. He dropped his gun and staggered with a cry.

Meanwhile, Juice had abandoned trying to hit me with electricity. Or maybe he only had so many shots he could use in a limited time. Either way, he was running at me. And that was kind of terrifying, considering his powers didn’t just let him use electricity for lightning blasts. He also used it to make himself stronger and faster. I saw a shower of sparks from the same lamp post I had used before as he sucked the energy out of it and came running right at me like a runaway freight train. He was a huge, muscular black guy all on his own, and now he was empowered to the point that he could probably literally run right through me as if I was a squirrel and he was a truck. And my paint reserves weren’t ready to do anything yet. Fortunately, I had prepared for all this, and still had an assortment of paint scattered across my body. And, as it happened, on things other than my body. 

So, tempting as it was to stay crouched there and stare at the incoming man like a deer in headlights as he reared back his fist, I pulled out those two rocks I had painted green and white earlier. Holding them tightly, I waited as he ran, telling myself to hold off until the last second. Finally, just before he would’ve been on top of me, I activated two more small spots of blue paint on my heels. Thanks to the position my feet were in, I was sent backwards and up slightly, as the man let out a screaming curse and swung at the spot where I had just been. At the same time, I threw both of those rocks up toward his face. The second I activated them, the white paint I had covered them in went off in a quick, incredibly bright flash. 

Wait, what? That was actually a lot stronger than I’d expected, or seen up to that point. Every other time I used the white paint, it just made objects glow. My thought had been to throw white glowing rocks into his eyes to maybe distract him or whatever. The green paint had been to make them fly faster, but… Actually, come to think of it, the rocks didn’t continue to glow afterwards. It was like they had expended the full effect of the paint at once. Had I somehow put the entire ten seconds worth of light into that single flash? Wait, when I put the green in there, the two colors sort of ran together. Did the green imbue its speed into the white to make the effect faster, but more powerful? Was that something it could do?

All those thoughts jumped into my head as I came down back on the ground and rolled along the cement. Juice was bellowing loudly as he reeled and waved his hands in front of his face. Yeah, he had been at least temporarily blinded. Which was better than I had expected this to go. I was really—

A giant hand wrapped around me from behind, hoisting me off the ground while squeezing tight enough to hurt. 

Oh, right, there was still that other problem. 

Janus, who had apparently recovered, were taking themselves off the ground while holding me even tighter. If they squeezed any more, I was pretty sure something would start to break. Uncle Friendly was the one facing me, but he didn’t look all that friendly in that moment. They stepped closer, maintaining their grip while I grunted in pain. His voice came in a low snarl, teeth clenched. “Now, see, you just can’t leave well enough alone, can you? You really think you’re enough to rescue all those people by yourself, you stupid little shit?”

Grunting a little as he kept squeezing, I took a moment to force the words out. “You might be right about me being a… uggnn…. stupid… little shit. Maybe that’s why I’m confused right now. Since you’re, ugggnnn… so much smarter than me, could you maybe answer one little question?” Pausing just a bit, I made the next words come out pointedly, while they leaned a bit closer to hear me better. “Rescue what people?” 

The skating pit was to their left, out of sight of both of them. With a confused noise, Mister Harmful turned their head so he could see it… and realized that the pit was empty, save for the two disarmed and thoroughly pummeled thugs I had knocked into it. Throughout the past few moments, while I was playing distraction, the hostages had all clambered out the opposite side and were running off across the park. 

While they were distracted by that, I activated my secret weapon, the thing I had prepared ahead of time for something just like this (yeah, I was expecting them to grab me at some point). I had painted my entire body under the suit pink. I activated that paint now, and the force of their hand squeezing me instantly made my body squirt down both of their grasp. It was a very weird sensation, to say the least. My head inside the helmet stayed intact, but the rest of me was basically like an old tube of toothpaste. Well, more like my body was the toothpaste itself and my costume was the tube. Either way, I went schlooping down out of Janus’s hand, landing on the ground under the massive fist while deactivating the pink paint. Since I had done so before the ten seconds was up, my body was instantly very bouncy, so I managed to spring backward away from them as they brought that hand slamming down into the spot where I had just been with a loud curse.

Oh yeah, and Juice had recovered from that temporary blindness by that point. So they were all up and pissed at me. Which was… fun? I really hadn’t thought much further than this. Carefully and quietly taking care of all the wandering thugs and then distracting the big guys long enough for the hostages to escape was basically my plan. Except now I was stuck here facing a couple very pissed off and powerful Fell-Touched, who probably wanted to play table tennis with my head. And I was pretty sure I still wasn’t quite ready to start using new paint yet. This uhh, this could be a problem. 

“Hey guys?” I started a little weakly after standing up. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in a lit-aaahh!” That last bit came as the two figures launched themselves at me. I activated the last bit of green paint I had, before launching myself forward in a roll that carried me just underneath their outstretched hands. I was pretty sure the only thing that saved me in that moment was that none of them expected me to move toward them rather than away. Janus had actually been extending their arms, anticipating my retreat. The fact that I moved forward into that diving roll between them caught everyone involved (even me, to an extent considering the terrified screaming some small part of my consciousness was doing) off guard. Before they could recover, I kept going, popping my skates out as I dove down into the pit. My wheels caught the cement ramp partway, and I went rolling halfway up the embankment on the opposite side. 

From the corner of my eyes, I could see Mister Harmful facing me, even as he sent one of their gigantic fists my way, their arm extending a good thirty feet in the process. Just before it would have collided with my very fragile body, I leapt off that side of the concrete embankment, landing sideways on the railing of one of the short bridges people could use to walk over the pit. My skates grinded along that railing while I shouted, “Can we talk about this?!” 

Judging from the lightning blast that Juice sent my way, which I barely managed to dodge by dropping off the railing back into the pit, the answer was no. They really did not want to talk. Though maybe they just wanted me to not be able to talk, or breathe for that matter. 

I, on the other hand, quite enjoyed my ability to do both of those things. So I breathed a sigh of relief at the feeling of my paint returning. The tanks were refilled. And none too soon either, as I was barely able to send a shot of red against the cement half-pipe in the distance to pull myself off that spot just before the Janus jerks crashed down right there. They tried to grab my foot, extending their arm after me, but I twisted around in midair and shot a burst of yellow right into their incoming hand. It slowed them down enough that I was able to land. Or rather, hit the cement and rebound off it. Because I’d put blue paint on my shoes right before impact, so it simply launched me upwards and back the way I’d come. 

A thought occurred in that instant, as I went flying back toward Janus, feet-first. Lifting my head, I quickly extended both arms to point toward them. One fired off a shot of red, while the other hit them with green. Both shots of paint hit the same spot simultaneously. Like before, with the rocks, the two colors sort of melded together in a swirl pattern. At the same time, I made the same green-red swirl pattern on the bottom of my shoes, activating all of it together. 

Okay, holy fuck. The world was suddenly a blur as I was hurled that way. The green paint definitely sped up the pull from the red. I went from being yanked in that direction to being shot like a bullet. It also made the red paint immediately vanish, but still. The momentum was already there. I barely had time to start to scream while activating an orange elephant symbol on my back. 

Uncle Friendly, the one who had been facing me, made the faintest noise of disbelief before both of my feet collided with his face. All that momentum I’d built up, from yanking myself one way with red paint, then rebounding backward and up with blue, and finally speeding myself up with that weird green-red combined pull, every last bit of it went into that impact. Even with the orange protection I had, I could still feel it. And they definitely felt it. Janus hit the ground, blood flying from Friendly’s nose and mouth. Not that I had much of a chance to notice, as I landed in an awkward rolling tumble, falling end over end along the concrete before coming to a sprawled heap. 

Boy was I glad for the orange paint. Not to mention my helmet and knee and elbow pads. That definitely hurt. But hey, I had managed to put Janus down, and they weren’t moving very much. Which gave me a chance to just lay there for a second, eyes wide behind my mask and helmet. Holy shit. Holy shit, that was something new. Green made the other paints work faster but also wore them out immediately. That was–

Oh shit there was still– A large orange hammer appeared on my chest and reactivated my protection just before a blast of electricity slammed into me. It felt like getting a nasty static shock after rubbing my sock-covered feet on the carpet and grabbing a doorknob. Not fun, but definitely not the kind of damage Juice had clearly been going for. Unfortunately, it was still enough to stun me for a moment. Which gave him a chance to grab me off the ground by the throat, still channeling more electricity into me.

Spasming as he held me off the ground and squeezed tighter, I tried to grab his hand to pry his fingers off my throat, to no avail. I was pretty sure that even if I painted my entire body purple, it wouldn’t beat his strength. But maybe if I used the new green-boosted-purple? Unfortunately, with the continued shocks running through me, I couldn’t actually focus enough to paint myself properly. Every time I tried to do so, another shock hit me. It still wasn’t doing nearly as much damage as it should have, but the jolt was enough to stop my concentration. 

This could be really bad. I only had a few more seconds of protection before he’d be able to do some real damage. I had to focus, had to force myself to push past the shocks and get… myself… 

“Hey, jerk!” A voice shouted those two words from the side. As Juice turned his head that way, he was hit in the face by a firehose-like concentrated blast of water. The force, suddenness, and (I was guessing) coldness of it made even him recoil reflexively. His grip on me loosened, just as someone appeared next to me. I felt hands grab my shoulders before I was suddenly a good twenty feet away. Twenty feet north, of course. 

“You okay?” Amber, now dressed as That-A-Way, asked as we both pivoted back in time for me to see Izzy, also in her own costume as Raindrop, facing Juice. He’d recovered from the initial shock from that blast of water, and was trying to hit her with an electrical shock. But she had half a dozen park benches and chairs from the audience floating between herself and him, and whenever the man tried to blast her, it was intercepted by one of those obstacles. 

Oh yeah, and Juice’s situation was further complicated by the fact that he was floating up off the ground. Izzy had reversed his gravity, or removed it, or whatever the term was. He was going up, anyway. 

Shaking off the last of the lingering effects of being repeatedly shocked, I started to nod. But before I could say anything, Amber pivoted so she was facing east, while putting herself in front of me. At that moment, Juice shot off another electrical blast, this one in our direction. But Amber was invulnerable in that position, and blocked me from getting hit. 

“You little fucks!” the man was shouting while still shooting off one blast after another. “You think you’re hot shit?! You think making me float up here is gonna accomplish anything?! You got no clue, you fucking neurodivergents!” 

Except he definitely did not call us neurodivergent. The word he used started with R and should have resulted in whoever his mother was washing his mouth out with about seventeen bars of soap. 

We didn’t have soap. But Izzy had water, and she used it to spray him down thoroughly once more, while he recoiled and spun in the air. Before he could recover from that, she called, “Why do you guys always forget the second half of my name? It’s Rain–

“–drop.” And with that, Izzy must have dramatically increased the amount of gravity on Juice, because he wasn’t floating anymore. He went slamming hard into the cement with enough force to crack it all around him. Even with his enhanced strength, he was out. 

Looking from his unconscious form over to the still-barely moving Janus, I slumped in relief. “Thank God. I am so glad you guys managed to… uh… wait, how did you… you know, change?” I kept my voice low. 

Amber, also whispering, replied, “Wobble brought the costumes. He and the others are on the other side of the park, with the rest of your team. There’s more of these guys and a bunch of their lackeys, looking for that Inessa chick. They’re tearing the place apart.” 

“I am so confused,” I admitted, already starting to move. If the others were still in the middle of a fight, I wanted to be there. “Why the hell are they after some random celebrity skater?!” 

Izzy joined us in running that way, while Amber shook her head and replied, “You know what, dude?

“That’s a really good question!” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 12 – Amber and Dani/That-A-Way and Pack (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The following is a special commissioned interlude that is not part of the main schedule. It IS canon, but takes place shortly after where the story is right now.

Standing at her locker at the end of a long day of school, Amber O’Connell stared down at her phone, but she wasn’t really paying attention to it. Her actual focus lay on listening to what several students just down the hall were saying. One, a boy named Ricardo Esteban, had been going on for the past few minutes about some party that he and his parents were going to the next evening. A costume party, with a Touched theme. You didn’t have to show up as any specific Touched, though that would probably get you more points in the contest. Ricardo was bragging about the Hefesto (a Spanish Tech-Touched hero) costume his parents had gotten personally commissioned for him, and how it was going to blow everyone else’s out of the water. 

Amber, naturally, didn’t care about any costume contest. She was, however, laser-focused on something else the boy had said in the course of bragging to his audience. Well, two things, actually. First, there were no phones allowed on the floor. You had to check them with your coats. Something about the hosts not wanting people to be distracted. And second, a man named Derek Meyers was going to be attending the party. Ricardo had name-dropped him as one of his parents’ personal guests for the evening. Of course, the whole ‘name-dropping’ thing had only worked once he explained to his friends exactly who Derek Meyers was. And even then they hadn’t cared all that much. After all, why would they find it so fascinating that some random detective on the Detroit police force was a friend of Ricardo’s parents? Even hearing about the litany of impressive arrests the man had made didn’t really sway them that much. Sure, it was kind of cool and all, but they wanted to hear more about the costume. 

In most cases, Amber would’ve been in about the same boat. Why would she care if one detective or another wanted to go to a party? Yet this one mattered. This specific name was one she had read about for over a year now, and had been intently researching ever since she had found out about the existence of the Ministry. He was connected to them, she just knew it. Obviously, the Ministry had police in their pockets, and Amber was convinced that Detective Derek Meyers was one such asset. 

He had been the lead investigator on her father’s case, the man responsible for determining what had actually happened to her dad. And, as far as Amber could determine, all the evidence had gone through him. If there was a cover-up, if the Ministry had given her father’s killer a free pass, it almost certainly had to have come from Derek Meyers. He had hidden one piece of evidence or another, had intentionally ignored something important, had done something to make sure the investigation didn’t find the actual culprit. She knew he had to have done something. A random person just stealing a car, hitting her father, and getting away without leaving any fingerprints or hair or anything they could use to find him? Especially these days? It didn’t make any sense. There had to have been something, which meant someone had hidden it. Meyers was her biggest suspect, since he’d had the most control over the investigation. 

And now he was going to be at that party, distracted by all those people, with his phone stowed away in a back room. She would never get a better chance than this to look at his contacts, his messages, all of it. Even if he didn’t actually keep records of what he had done on her father’s case on it (and she would’ve been very surprised if he did), she could find something connecting him to the Ministry. And from there, she could… well, she didn’t know, exactly. Find a way to make him tell the truth without giving away who she was? That part was shaky, at best. 

But the fact was, she couldn’t just give up on it. She’d figure out the details later. For now, she just had to get that information. She had to get proof that he worked for the Ministry, then she’d work her way through an actual plan of what to do with that. She’d take his phone, get the battery out of it, then take it over to ask that Wren girl to help her get into it. Or maybe someone else. The point was, getting the phone was the important part. 

“We should go to that thing.” 

The voice made Amber jump a bit. She’d been so intently focused on thinking her way through this rather haphazard plan (it was more of a goal), that she hadn’t noticed Dani come up behind her. Turning that way, she blinked a couple times. “What?” 

Arching an eyebrow, the black girl nodded past her toward the group nearby. “That party thing he’s talking about. We should go to it. I mean, why not? My aunt says I’m supposed to ‘spend time with the class of people I’ve been brought into,’ whatever that means. Me going to this party will score major brownie points. And if I’m going with you, it won’t even be that bad.” 

Amber felt a slight flush cross her neck and cheeks, but most of her attention was on the idea itself. Of course she wanted to go to this party, that was her entire plan. Well, that and getting into that back room. She’d had no idea of exactly how to invite herself into that group to go, and knew that attending by herself would probably stand out. Sure, it wouldn’t be hard to get an invitation, but just showing up alone would have made people wonder about her. It would have made people notice her, and she didn’t want that. But this? Dani had just come up out of nowhere and offered her the perfect cover and excuse. Amber practically could have kissed her. 

Okay, now she really was blushing. Clearing her throat, the girl offered a shrug while managing to keep her voice as casual as possible. “You asking me out on a date or something?” 

“Don’t start planning the wedding already, O’Connell,” Dani teased. “I just thought it’d be fun. If you don’t wanna do it, I’ll see if that Melody girl has anything going on.” 

Shaking her head while doing her best to not sound too eager about the whole situation, Amber replied, “Nah, I’ll go. Sounds like it could be fun, I guess. It’s better than going by myself, that’s for sure.” She took a moment to glance at the other girl, judging her reaction before adding, “Are you sure you don’t have anything else going on? I mean, a girl like you has to have a pretty full schedule.”

Dani, in turn, smirked just a little. “I think I can clear my calendar for it.” She grimaced then, as though something had just occurred to her. “They’re gonna want us to dress up, aren’t they? You going in costume?”

Oh boy, did that question have implications that Dani couldn’t possibly have known. Resisting the urge to cough at that, Amber tilted her head as though considering it. “I mean, I guess I could throw something together. Maybe I can find something simple at the mall.” No way in hell would she go as her actual Touched identity, of course. While very vaguely tempting in a dangerous sort of way, it was an incredibly bad idea. Even if she went with her own hair color and everything rather than turning it blonde, she would still look far too close to the real thing. Thanks to, well, literally being the real thing. She needed to keep as much distance between Amber O’Connell and That-A-Way as she could. Letting anyone’s thoughts drift toward connecting the two was a recipe for disaster. Though, granted, this whole idea was also a disaster recipe, she could at least do her best not to make it even worse. She would find a costume that was both simple and very different from her real secret identity. 

With that in mind, the two of them talked for another couple of minutes about what they were going to do, before promising to text each other more plans for the next evening. They agreed to keep their costumes a secret so the other person could be surprised when they met up for the party. Then they separated, with Amber walking away from her locker while smiling to herself about how she had ended up with the perfect cover to hide her true intentions for being at that party. 

She had no idea that, as Dani watched her go, the other girl was thinking the exact same thing. 

*******

“I thought you were into that Minority chick.” Several hours later, KD made that comment while she and Dani were looking through an assortment of costumes in an old shop. Outside of her Touched identity as Broadway, KD was a pale girl with bright blue hair tied into pigtails. She stood barely five feet tall, another thing separating her from her costumed self, given the Broadway suit boosted her height a fair bit. With all that in mind, it was doubtful that anyone would ever connect her to the La Casa Touched. 

The two girls were keeping their voices low, though it didn’t really matter considering the elderly lady who ran the place was engrossed in watching television at the front counter. “You know, the one you keep flirting with.”

Dani, flipping through several possible outfits hanging on the rack, replied easily. “Sure, she’s great. But I can’t exactly ask her to go with me like this, can I? And I definitely can’t ask her to go with me as Pack. I think she might have a few questions about what I’m actually doing there, and she might get all goody two-shoes about it. 

KD scoffed under her breath. “Come on, it’s not like you’re going there just to steal things. You have legitimate business in that place.” She lowered her voice even more, pointedly adding, “Jennica business.” 

Giving up on finding what she wanted on that particular rack, Dani nodded at her friend. “Yeah, but I’m not sure Way would see the good side of stealing your sister’s social worker’s keys so we can get into her office and find Jennica’s file to figure out if there’s anything in there about where she might hide. That’s a lot of stealing and breaking and entering for someone on the Minority.” She paused a little before adding a bit more quietly, “And I’m not sure I want to get her involved in that.” 

KD put a hand on her arm. “You’re worried about Jennica hurting her, aren’t you?” 

With a sigh, Dani moved to the next rack to check through the clothes there. “She’s already got enough to deal with. I don’t want to throw her into Jennica’s sights. I know she’s trained and all that, just–” She hesitated before giving a soft sigh. “If she did get involved in this whole thing and then got hurt, I’d feel like shit. I already feel like shit because Jennica’s your sister and you–fuck. You know what I mean.” 

“Yeah,” KD murmured. “It’s pretty screwed up. I guess I can’t blame you for not wanting to get her involved.” She looked that way, adding, “But you’re okay getting this other girl involved?” 

Dropping the suit she had been examining back onto the hook, Dani looked at her intently. “She’s not going to be involved. The two of us are gonna go and hang out a little bit there, then I’ll disappear for awhile to get what we need before finding her again. She’ll never know anything was going on. It’s just gonna be a nice, normal, ordinary date. Nothing weird.” 

Raising an eyebrow at the declaration, KD shrugged. “Sure, babe. If you say so. I’ve just got one question. She was at the top of your list to take with you to this thing, so you obviously like this girl too. But which one do you like more, the one who knows you as Pack, or the one who knows you as Dani?” 

The question was met with silence, as Dani frowned. Who did she like more? It was an impossible thing to answer. That-A-Way knew one side of her, but Amber knew another side. She knew Way liked her, in plenty of ways, even if she didn’t approve of all the things Pack did. But then, Amber had no idea she was a criminal. She knew Dani the girl from school, not Pack. Amber or That-A-Way, That-A-Way or Amber? One girl knew her costumed self, one knew her civilian self. 

“You know,” she finally muttered, “It’s too bad I can’t find a way to squish them together.

“I’m pretty sure that would be my perfect girl.” 

*******

It was five o’clock the next evening when Amber and Dani met just in front of the school. That wasn’t where the party was being held, but it was an easy place for the two of them to join up before heading that way. The two of them looked each other up and down for a moment, taking in their costumes. 

Dani, for her part, had settled on wearing what amounted to Caishen’s costume. Black boots with dark gold pants that had black lines running up them, along with a dark purple scalemail-like shirt, and a gold leather coat. The real Caishen had a hard metal black helmet with glowing purple lenses over the eyes, though Dani’s was clearly plastic. Decent plastic, but still. The costume looked expensive, if not incredibly so. There was even a bluetooth device built into the helmet for phone calls.

Amber, meanwhile, wore dark green pants with what looked somewhat like fish scales running down them, with a gold-scaled long sleeve shirt and a simple pair of goggles. It was a cheap version of a costume belonging to Freedive, a water-based Star-Touched from California. Her costume came complete with tall metal-looking boots that were close approximations of the real thing. Not that she had really cared all that much about being accurate, but there was another reason she’d wanted to have the boots. 

Giving a low whistle, Dani added a thumbs up. “Boy, am I glad I didn’t go with that Melody girl.” 

Feeling her blush deepen, Amber waved that off. “Yeah, yeah, you look great too. So, are we heading over there, or would you rather just stand here and stare at each other a little longer?” Even as the words left her she was regretting saying them. She’d meant it to sound teasing, but now that she’d actually gotten it out…

From the way Dani leaned back on her heels, it was obvious she was trying to decide exactly how to react. There was amusement in her voice as she looked the other girl up and down briefly. “Well, to tell you the truth, I’d be just fine with another couple hours of this. But, I suppose we should probably head over there. Don’t wanna make the poor people at the party miss out on all of this.” She waved her hand down herself and then over toward Amber. “That’d be a real crime.” With that, she turned to gesture toward the car she had driven up in, given her date had been dropped off by an Uber. “Your carriage for the evening, milady?” 

Smiling just a little, Amber gave a little bow before stepping that way. She still hoped she would be able to get into that back room and find the detective’s phone. But even if she couldn’t, this date might not be a waste after all. 

Dani, watching the other girl get in the car, had quite similar thoughts. She closed the passenger side door, glanced to the sky while thinking about the other things she needed to do that night, then walked around the other side to get in the driver’s seat. 

Whatever came next, one thing was for sure. This was going to be a date she would remember for a long time. 

*****

The party itself was actually being held at a local hotel, in one of the large banquet halls. After parking in the underground lot, the two of them made their way up the elevator before following the posted signs to the room in question. Not that they really needed signs, considering there was a small flood of other people in costumes heading that way. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go. 

There was a man standing by the entrance to the banquet room. Like all the other serving staff at his event, he wore a crisp white coat, blue pants, and a blue mask that covered most of his face. He was the person responsible for checking invitations. As expected, neither of the girls had had a hard time getting one. They presented them, waited for the man to scan the invitation with his handheld device to make sure they were real, then waved them in. On their way past, they heard the man informing people behind them that if they needed masks or other costume pieces, they would be provided for them. 

The door didn’t open straight into the banquet room itself. Instead, there was a small entryway with a desk to one side where the coat and phone check woman sat. She took Amber and Dani’s devices, put them in small boxes with their names, then took them into the room behind her before giving them a couple receipts. Both girls watched that intently, neither noticing the attention of the other. 

In any case, once they had their receipts for their stowed phones, the two headed through the next door into the actual banquet hall. This was where the party was, where they would be spending most of their time for the next few hours. 

And boy was it an impressive room in that regard. Or rather, three rooms. The banquet hall, such as it was called, was three enormous chambers linked together through several doorways at either end. The room they entered first was the central chamber, shaped like a half-circle with the door they had just come through at the center of the flat line, while the curved side opposite them was taken up with a stage where a live band was playing. Most of the rest of the room consisted of a dance floor for couples, along with tables to sit and rest to either side. There was a series of enormous floor-to-ceiling curtains against the walls, either to muffle how much sound reached beyond the room, or for some decorative purpose. Perhaps both. A full-service bar waited to the right, while the tables of punch and other nonalcoholic drinks were to the left. 

The door on that left side led into a quieter room where people could sit at an assortment of circular tables to have real food and listen to the music being piped in from this room, while the door on the opposite side led to a room with card tables, billiards, and more. Only adults were allowed to gamble at these things, of course. But Amber and Dani could wander through and watch if they wanted to.

“What a place, huh?” Amber finally remarked, after the two of them had taken all that in for a few long seconds. 

“Oh, it’s definitely a place,” Dani agreed, before grabbing the other girl’s hand. “Come on, let’s show these rich old fogeys how to really dance.” 

She had a job to do, of course. But that would come later, once things had settled in, and everyone who was going to attend the party was here. Then the coat and phone-check girl would sit down and relax, giving Dani a chance to get in there and find what she was actually there for. 

But at the moment, this was a perfectly fine way to spend the next hour or so. 

It felt a little surreal for Amber to be dancing out on a floor full of people dressed up in costumes of other Touched, including several examples of her teammates and mentors. To say nothing of how it felt when she saw a couple people who were dressed up like her. Well, her Touched identity anyway. Seeing someone who looked just like That-A-Way was… weird. It was like going through one of those weird movie plots where the person meets themselves in order to have some grand realization or something. Only in this case, the other versions of herself had no idea she even existed. Which was, in some ways, even more weird. 

On the other hand, she didn’t have much time to think about that. Not with her particular dance partner. Dani was very intense, and clearly didn’t care about attracting attention. It was fun, but it was also exhausting. Amber was very glad for her years of cheerleading practice, followed by over a year of work with the Minority. The two of them danced together, ignoring everyone around them save for the slightest effort to avoid running into anyone. But for the most part, Amber and Dani’s full awareness was focused on one another, and how they were moving. The music in the air, the excitement, the rush of motion, of being the center of one another’s attention, it… it was a lot. But it was also good. It was fun. It was… nice. 

She did, however, pay attention to the doors where everyone was coming in. So, she noticed when Detective Derek Meyers made his way in. The man wasn’t hard to spot, even in costume. He was tall and somewhat heavyset, with long red hair that was currently tied back in a ponytail. He wore a simple costume of a black suit with a green coat and a domino mask. Amber wasn’t sure who he was dressed up as, or if it actually was anyone in particular. But either way, he was here. Which meant his phone was here. 

Dani, meanwhile, already knew her own target was here. She’d actually passed the woman in question on her way in. The social worker whose keys she needed to borrow was working the front phone-coat check alongside a couple other people. Dani had handed the woman her phone (well, one of them anyway) and even told her to have a nice evening. 

Finally, in a break between songs, the two of them make their way off the dance floor. There were a few scattered bits of applause from people nearby who had apparently been taken in by the display. But for the most part, the space filled up again quickly, as the others went back to dancing. Dani and Amber stepped over by the refreshments table, each taking a glass of punch while looking around at the people surrounding them. 

“Boy,” Dani remarked, “you rich people sure know how to party.” 

Rolling her eyes, Amber retorted, “You know, from everything you’ve said about your great-aunt, I’m pretty sure you’re richer than I am.” 

“Not me,” Dani pointed out, “my aunt. I’m just sort of taking advantage of her assets or whatever. Not like it’s my money.” 

Gesturing at that, Amber replied, “I mean, then you’re basically the same as ninety-nine percent of the ‘rich’ kids at that school. They’re all there on their family’s money too.” 

Mouth opening behind her plastic helmet, Dani paused to consider before giving a nod of acceptance. “You know, that’s fair. But that doesn’t stop a lot of them from acting like they personally made that money with their own sweat and blood. Not that most of them would have any idea what it’s like to sweat.”

Snorting to spite herself, Amber glanced around the room to take in all the costumes once more before speaking up. “You know, I think I need to visit the little rich girl’s room. Would you mind seeing what they have on the menu tonight? I bet it’s something decent.”  

Dani, who had been trying to think of how she was going to separate herself from the other girl to do what she needed to do, tried not to sound relieved. “Oh, yeah, I guess I could do that. If you don’t need company.” 

“I think I can manage,” Amber replied dryly. “Don’t worry, I’ll find you. Your costume stands out.” 

“So does yours, babe,” Dani shot back while pointedly looking her up and down. “But then, you don’t need a costume to stand out.” 

Amber quickly turned away to hide her blush while making her way through the crowd. She still really wanted to get into that coatroom to find the phone so she could figure out exactly how much that detective guy knew, but she actually was having a good time so far. A small part of the girl wondered if she should just put that plan out of her mind and focus on having a good time with her date. But even as that thought came to mind, she saw her father’s face and felt a wave of guilt wash over her for even entertaining it. His murder still wasn’t solved, the person responsible for his death was running around free. There was no way she could let that go. No, it didn’t matter how much fun she was having with Dani. She had to get in there and find out if Derek Meyers knew anything he wasn’t putting in the official report. 

To that end, she made her way to the restroom as promised, stepping into the stall at the end of the room before locking it behind her. Crouching to make sure she was alone in this place, she carefully stepped out of the metal boots, revealing dark slippers, before positioning the boots so that anyone glancing under the stall would think someone’s feet were there. It would do for the short time she planned on being away, in any case. But now she had to move quickly, before Dani started to wonder where she was. 

Pushing both of her gold-scaled sleeves upward, Amber watched as the shirt itself lost the scales and turned black. The sleeves easily pushed all the way up to the shoulders, seeming to vanish in the process so her arms were left bare. A touch of the belt buckle turned her dark green pants black as well. From there, she simply tugged the That-A-Way mask out of her pocket and exchanged the goggles for it. The mask would change her hair color, facial features, and voice. If anyone did see her snooping around, she would make an excuse about investigating something. The most important part was that she definitely didn’t want to get caught using That-A-Way’s powers while wearing a costume as Amber O’Connell. Her plan was to not be seen at all, but better safe than sorry. 

Amber had actually come into this place a few hours earlier while people were still setting up to look around and to get the lay of the rooms so she would know exactly where to go. Now, she turned to face the wall behind her. The coat room where she would find that cell phone was to the north from this spot. Which meant her teleportation was in play. 

Focusing on the far rear corner of the room in question, which she had seen while innocently looking around earlier, Amber instantly vanished from the restroom stall, and reappeared in that dark area. Rows and rows of coats and shelves full of locked phone boxes lay around her, and she could hear muffled voices from the people up front. It was late enough by this point that there weren’t many people arriving to have their stuff put away, yet too early for others to start leaving. Which was the point, of course. Amber knew she had to be careful about the timing here. And, well, careful about everything else as well. 

Taking her extra phone out after peeking to make sure the door leading up front was shut, Amber turned the light on dim and began to check all the names on the cell phone lock boxes as she searched for the one she needed. Meyers, Meyers, where was the one labeled Meyers? Come on, she had to look faster. 

Unfortunately, she’d barely started to look before a sound made Amber’s gaze snap toward the door. The knob was turning. Fuck, someone was coming in! Quickly, she ducked back behind the furthest shelf. Hopefully, they would just toss another box or phone into the room and then leave again. She really had to get done with this and go find Dani. 

******

Dani, meanwhile, had also checked this place out earlier. But she had not focused on the restrooms or their relative position. Instead, she made her way into the game room, where people were sitting around playing cards or pool. The din of conversation, clinking glasses, and the clack of balls bouncing around the felt table top was incredibly familiar for the girl given she spent so much time in La Casa’s base. But still, she couldn’t let that lull her into a false sense of security. What she was doing here was very dangerous, and she had to get in and out quickly before anyone noticed. And, with any luck, before Amber started wondering where she had gone. 

So, walking through the dimly lit room, Dani moved to the far corner. There were more heavy, floor-to-ceiling curtains here as well, and she glanced around to make sure she wasn’t being watched before slipping behind one of them. Once she was safely out of sight behind the curtain, Dani quickly stripped the gold coat off and flipped it inside out. The interior of the coat was white. When she pulled it on and zipped the thing up, it matched the jackets the staff of this place were wearing, at least close enough for casual inspection. 

From there, the girl ran her hands down her gold pants until she found the small buttons on either side of her pockets. At a touch, the pants shifted until they were blue, also matching the wait staff uniform. It hadn’t been hard to get color-changing clothes in that costume shop. It was, after all, one of the best-selling Touched-Tech clothing in the city. Especially with Paintball around. The only real difficult part had been getting the woman they bought the costume from to understand that they didn’t want a bunch of random colors or wild designs like most people who were trying to imitate the boy in question. They just wanted simple gold to blue. 

Once her clothes were properly changed, Dani plucked the helmet off and hid it there behind the curtain. She couldn’t put that in her pocket, but it should be fine here for a few minutes. Then she took a mask from her pocket. At a touch of the button on the side, it expanded outward to match the ones the staff were wearing. Now, as she stepped out from behind the curtain, she would look (at least to most who didn’t inspect her too closely), like she was just another servant there to help the party go smoothly. 

As she expected, the uniform practically made her invisible. Which wasn’t as good as if Grandstand had just come in here with her own power to make people not pay attention to her, but apparently she had her own thing to deal with. Besides, there could have been various bits of electronic security that would identify an extra person who wasn’t supposed to be there. 

And, of course, Dani still wasn’t sure she trusted the woman. Better that she or KD do this part, and she’d had an easy way in. 

Speaking of having an easy way in, the girl made her way through the crowd to the front desk in the main room. Everyone else ignored her, even the other servers. The two women in charge of the coat and phone check barely glanced her way as she walked over holding a phone up. “Someone missed theirs, got another box?” 

Taking the time to absently pass one of the lock boxes her way, the woman in charge, who happened to be the very woman whose keys Dani needed, mumbled something about making sure she put the right name on it, then went back to the conversation she was having with her partner. Just in case, Dani carefully wrote out a name on the side, but she was pretty sure she could’ve completely ignored that part and the chicks wouldn’t have noticed. A moment later, she slipped past them and walked right through the door to ‘put the box away.’ Given how distracted they were, she would have all the time she needed to find where Sue Pascal, the woman right outside, had hung her coat. The coat she apparently always kept her keys inside of. 

It had taken a good bit of research to figure out exactly what sort of security they were dealing with, and how to bypass it. The agency took privacy very seriously, and the only way to enter that office (without getting a whole lot more help than they wanted to ask for), was to actually physically have the key. It wasn’t just a bit of metal, it had a special piece of electronic something or other in it that would both get them through the door and prevent various alarms from going off. Alarms which would, in turn, transfer and wipe the very information they were trying to get. 

Again, they took privacy very seriously. These were the type of people who arranged adoptions for the very rich, and very private. 

But give her just a minute in here, and she would find the coat and the keys. She already had a fake one ready to exchange it for, which would give them plenty of time to get in the office, find what they needed, and get out again before Sue even noticed anything was wrong when she went in the next day. 

*******

Even as the other girl came into the room to start looking around, Amber was silently cursing. She couldn’t see the person very well in the dimly lit room, but it was obvious that she was looking for something. Did someone come back to ask for their stuff back already? Never mind, never mind. This couldn’t take that long. And this was a large party. If Dani wondered where she’d been, she would just tell her she’d gotten lost and they must’ve missed each other. 

Unfortunately, things didn’t get any easier or less complicated. Just as she saw the shadowy figure start to lift up a coat that had been hung in one corner, there was another sound, this one coming from the far side of the room. It sounded like a low creak. As she, and the girl in the corner, both turned that way, one of the shelves there literally slid aside. Seeing that, Amber shoved herself even more firmly back into the corner. Weirdly, she could see the other figure duck down as well, clearly hiding. 

Well, maybe not so weirdly. If she was a staff member for this place, seeing someone come in through a hidden door would probably make her hide too. At least long enough to see what was going on. 

********

Dani was cursing under her breath as she hid behind one of the shelves, squinting out between a couple boxes at the sight of the male figure coming into the room. A secret door? What the hell? If she’d known there was a secret door, she wouldn’t have gone through all this trouble. And what was this guy doing? 

What he was doing, apparently, was talking on the phone. His voice was low. “Yeah, he said they’re all in position. Trust me, we are definitely gonna make an impression. Give it another hour, and this place won’t be more than a memory.” He chuckled then. “A very hot memory.” 

Oh, what the hell? Was this asshole planning an attack on this place or something? What did he mean by something or someone being in position? Was he with one of the other gangs? This definitely wasn’t a La Casa job. It didn’t fit anything like what Blackjack would do with that ‘hot memory’ comment, and she would’ve heard about it. 

Sure enough, the man kept talking. “All ten of them. Yeah, he said they’re hidden real good. In the walls and floor.  I’m just gonna finish up here, then I’ll get out of this place before it goes boom.” 

Okay, no, Dani couldn’t let this happen. She might’ve been a thief, but she sure as hell wasn’t just going to let this piece of shit blow up a building full of people. Even as she had that thought, the girl reached down into her pocket and started to straighten up. Her fingers found Holiday in her tiny skink form, while she focused on her power. 

*****

Bombs?! Fucking seriously? Before the man had even finished saying those words about the place ‘going boom,’ Amber was already using her phone to text the Minority base for help. Or she tried to. The message went undelivered, and she managed to glance down at her phone, just to see that she had no service. Great, just great. Obviously, this guy was blocking calls beyond his own phone, or something. Well, all she had to do was get that phone. And, if it meant hitting him a few times, she was good with that. 

With another thought, she vanished from where she was, and reappeared behind the man, already pivoting. Facing south like this would make her intangible, which she planned to take advantage of by making him jump through her. So, she quickly began to blurt, “Hey ass—” 

But in that moment, something else showed up right in front of the man. He started to turn at her words, yet the thing that jumped out of the shadows demanded his attention much more thoroughly and immediately. it crashed into the man and both of them went straight through Amber, making her spin that way as the man yelped out loud, his phone dropping from his hand. 

In a panic about what the hell had just happened, Amber started to grab for the shadowy monster that had just tackled the man, only to stop short, hiss-blurting, “Holiday?!” 

Sure enough, the panther-lizard pivoted, front paws still firmly holding the man down, before leaning up to purr and lick at Amber’s face. 

“Way?” That was Pack herself, coming out of the shadowy corner. That was the girl Amber had seen coming to the room. She was dressed up like one of the servants, with the same blue mask covering her face. That had to be how she got into the party. “What’re you doing here?” 

“I– I had something I had to do,” she found herself stammering, only to catch herself. “Wait, what are you doing here? You–wait.” This wasn’t the time. It really wasn’t the time. Instead, she dove to the floor and grabbed the man’s phone. Dammit, it had gone to the lock screen, and needed a code. Quickly, she moved to the man and grabbed his hair. “What’s the code for your phone?! How do I call out? Where are the bombs?” She spoke to Pack without looking that way. “Pull the fire alarm, get these people out!” 

The man, a guy in his late forties with short blonde hair and a thin mustache, gave a little chuckle. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you. Unless you want my buddy outside to trigger those bombs as soon as he sees people take off.” His eyes narrowed at them. “People start leaving, he’ll set them off. He gets any sign that the cell blocker is disabled, he’ll set them off. He hears or sees cops or Touched start coming, he’ll set them off. So, ya know…” He sneered. “Maybe you two should just run for it. Two of you, one that can teleport? I bet you can get out in time.” 

Amber wanted to ask who this guy was, why he was doing this, who his partner was, and plenty of other things, but none of that seemed to matter at the moment. The most important– the only important thing right then, was taking care of the bombs themselves. So, grabbing the man’s collar, she held it tightly while demanding, “Where are they? How do we disable them?” When he simply scowled at her, she leaned back and spoke flatly. “Pack, would you tell Holiday to bite one of his fingers off?” 

The man started to scoff, only for his eyes to widen as Pack gestured and the lizard-panther grabbed his hand in her teeth. “Okay okay! Look, the passcode for the phone is four four two one, but it won’t help you get your friends involved. It can only call my partner outside, that’s it. I don’t even know where he set up, just somewhere he could see the entrance. But if you unlock the phone, open the ‘find boom’ app right there and it’ll detect the bombs. The–fuck, the person who made the bombs gave us that shit to control them if we had to. You get close enough with the phone and you can disable them, okay? Just tell this thing not to bite my fucking fingers off, fuck!”

“Why don’t you just tell us where they are?” Pack demanded, putting a hand on Holiday’s back while the lizard kept the man’s hand between her teeth threateningly. 

The man hissed before sighing. “I dunno, okay? I paid someone else to put them in cuz I couldn’t get them through security. He works with the security team. You’ve just gotta track them down yourselves. Ten bombs, you got…. fifty-two minutes. You can make that work, right?”

“You better hope we can,” Amber informed him, already reaching out to grab a nearby scarf from a hanging coat. “Cuz if we go up in flames, you’ll be right there with us.” With that, she tied the man’s hands, gagged him with another scarf, and hauled him back to the corner of the room. Seriously? Bombs? There were fucking bombs in here? How–what–no. No, she couldn’t panic. She couldn’t freak out. Not right now. Later. She could freak out later. Right now she had to stop the bombs and save all these people. And… and she couldn’t do it alone.

With that in mind, Amber straightened and looked at Pack. “Look, I don’t know why you’re here, or what you were here to steal, but I don’t care. Would you please help me find these bombs?” If the guy who had brought these bombs in worked with security, there was no way she could even contact them to do something. Whoever he was, he’d hear about it and set off the bombs. She couldn’t contact the authorities, couldn’t even get help from anyone in here. It was up to her and the La Casa Touched who… who she felt very complicated about. 

“Like you had to ask.” Pack had already picked up the man’s phone, taking a cord from her pocket. “Blackjack gave me this for… something else, but it should work. Here.” She plugged the cord into that phone, then into her own before waiting a moment. There was a ding, and she yanked the cord out. “Okay, now I’ve got the same app our friend there was talking about. So we split up, find all ten bombs, and disable them without causing a panic, right?” Even as she said that, the girl had already started to shrink Holiday back into her normal form, catching the skink to put into her pocket. 

Amber hesitated, then gave a quick nod, looking down at her own phone. “Right, and we’ve got forty-nine minutes to do it. So we better hurry.” There were a lot of other things she wanted to say at that moment, but she settled on, “Thanks. And be careful.” 

“Forty-nine minutes to find ten bombs?” Pack waved that off. “We can do it. 

“At least, I really hope we can.” 

******

After leaving That-A-Way for the moment, Pack made her way out of the coatroom and hesitated. Part of her wanted to start warning people immediately. But that wouldn’t do any good. It would just start a panic and make everyone run for the exits, which would make the guy outside set off the bombs. No, she had to find and disarm them with this little phone app thing. So, she began moving through the crowd, glancing down at the screen in the palm of her hand. Unfortunately, within twenty seconds, three different people had asked her to do different things for them. It was the uniform. They thought she worked here, which was just going to make this whole thing take even more time. Time she didn’t have. So, the girl went back to those curtains and switched to her first costume. Now at least she would blend in with the rest of the guests.

She had no idea why That-A-Way was here to begin with, or why she had been hiding in that room. Or, for that matter, why she wasn’t dressed as herself aside from the mask. She was dressed all in black, like some sort of… well, thief. 

It raised a lot of questions, but she wasn’t going to get answers to any of them just yet. The bombs were more important. Fortunately, this app thing didn’t seem hard to use. As far as she could tell, any time she got near one of the bombs, it would light up with a red circle in the middle of the screen. Then all she had to do was get close enough for it to turn green, and she could press ‘detonate’ or ‘disarm.’ It really was a bomb app for dummies. There was even a little number ten in the top right corner to tell her how many were left. Why it didn’t just have a single button to disarm all the bombs at once from anywhere… well, that would’ve been too easy, wouldn’t it? 

There, the light was flickering. She had to move closer to the–

“Dani?” 

Oh shit, it was Amber. Quickly hiding the phone up her sleeve, Dani turned that way. Sure enough, her date had just emerged from the crowd. “Oh, hey. There you are. I was… looking for you.” Fuck, she wanted to warn the girl to get out, but… but… fuck. She just had to disarm the bombs. There was no way to warn her, not in a way she’d understand. 

******

Shit! Of course Dani had to be right here, the way the bomb detector was telling her to go. Amber cursed inwardly. Could she find a way to tell the other girl she should take off? No. No, even if she could make her leave casually, that might still make the guy outside get antsy enough to set off the bombs. And… and… fuck. Okay, she just had to play it cool. Just had to keep moving and disarm the bombs without letting Dani know what was going on. 

Forcing a smile to her face while adjusting the goggles she had put on after changing into the old costume since she hadn’t wanted to draw anyone’s attention by wearing the mixed That-A-Way and blatant thief outfit, Amber shrugged. “Oh, well it’s a big place. Big crowd. Come on, let’s uh, take a walk so we’re out of the way.” Yeah, that didn’t make much sense, but she had to keep moving. To her relief, Dani didn’t question it. The two of them began to move through the sea of people. Every once in awhile, Amber managed to glance down at the phone she had hidden partway up her sleeve. They were getting closer. It was flickering…. there, it was green. Her thumb quickly moved to hit the disarm button, and she let out a silent sigh of relief when the number in the corner switched from ten to nine.

“Uhh, so, having a good time?” 

*******

Nine? That-A-Way must’ve disabled this one. Quickly turning, Dani scanned the rest of the room. Was the other girl anywhere in sight? She had to be, but would she still look like she had in the coat room, or–

Shaking that off, she forced a casual shrug, trying her best not to sound like there were nine more bombs she was trying to disarm before they killed her and everyone else in the building. “Sure, I guess. You know, the dip’s pretty great.” What the hell was she even saying? She was distracted, trying to subtly glance at her phone to see where she should try to maneuver the other girl to next. 

“Oh, really?” Amber sounded genuinely intrigued, weirdly. “I haven’t seen any yet. Ahhh, you wanna grab some?” 

Thank God, a ready-made excuse. Jumping on that, Dani nodded. “Sure, I’ll get the dip and find you. Uhh, keep heading that way.” She gestured toward the gambling room before starting to slip away. Right, now all she had to do was–

***** 

Keep looking for those bombs. With Dani out of the way, Amber could search for the next one without worrying about the other girl seeing her constantly checking a phone she wasn’t even supposed to have at the moment. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t hard to find the second one. Within two minutes of making her way through the crowd, she had already gotten the green light and disabled it. Reaching up to stick an earbud in, she used her own phone rather than the piece of shit bomber guy’s to call Pack so they could check in. Outside calls were still jammed, but within the same general area they could use what amounted to a short-range radio signal. 

The phone rang three times before the La Casa Touched picked up. “Hang on… There.” On the asshole’s phone, Amber saw the number tick down to seven, even as Pack spoke. “Three down?” 

There was something about the other girl’s voice, but Amber couldn’t focus on it. She started walking while checking the phone again. “Yeah, and I think I’m getting close to another one. We’ve got thirty-eight minutes to find seven more.” 

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got the timer going too,” Pack replied. “Look, assuming we get through this, you’ve gotta tell me–wait a minute.” 

There was a pause, before the number on the phone ticked down to six. Amber heard a hiss of triumph from the other end of the line. “Fuck yeah,” Pack murmured. “Another one down. When we get through this, you’ve gotta tell me what you were doing in there.” 

“Sure, right after you tell me what you were doing,” Amber shot back, before giving a polite smile to the man who glanced her way curiously. “And how much it’s being fenced for.” 

******

Scoffing as she made her way down one side of the refreshments table, Dani spoke smoothly into the bluetooth built into her plastic Caishen helmet while keeping her voice low enough not to carry to others in the crowd. “Babe, I’ll have you know, I’m here for… okay, not entirely legitimate reasons, but pretty good ones. We’re still looking for Jennica, okay?” 

There was a brief pause before That-A-Way sighed. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t just assume, I just–” 

“Don’t worry about it,” Dani promptly interrupted. The light was flashing again, very faintly, so she tried going one way, only for it to stop flashing. Wrong direction. Turning back the other way, she kept moving. “I’m a thief and there’s a bunch of rich people here. I don’t blame you for… you know, adding two and two.” 

Okay, okay, just a bit further this way and… shit, not that way. Turning slightly, she started to move forward only to run into two heavyset guys loudly talking to one another. When gesturing for them to step aside didn’t work, Dani made a point of shoving her way through them, ignoring the annoyed curses that prompted. She didn’t have time to worry about them. Six more bombs, they had to disarm six more. And then maybe she could try to salvage the rest of her actual mission and this date with Amber. 

Oh shit, speaking of Amber, there she–

*****

“Hey!” Trying not to sound surprised as she quickly disabled the bluetooth in her ear and tugged it out in one smooth motion, Amber stepped up to where she had just seen Dani. “Uhh, no luck with the dip?” God, she was a dip. There wasn’t time for this. Why didn’t she just tell the girl to… to… what? What could she tell her? Nothing, there was no way to explain it, and no time to try. 

“Yeah, the guy with the tray must’ve moved,” Dani replied, turning a bit to look around. “I swear he was right here, but uhh. Wait, I think he’s over there. You stay right here, I’ll get it.”

“Oh, right, yeah.” Already thinking of an excuse she could have for not staying right there, Amber gestured. “M-must be pretty good dip if you’re chasing this guy down for it.” God damn it, why did she say that? Was she trying to make the other girl give up on finding it? What the hell was wrong with her? 

Sure enough, just as she had been afraid of, Dani hesitated and turned back to her. “Look, I’m not trying to avoid you or anything. I mean–” 

“It’s okay,” Amber quickly put in, trying not to think of the ticking clock. Half an hour for six bombs, she could do that. With Pack’s help, she could do it. Fuck, had the other girl already found another one? She couldn’t look at the phone to check. “I promise, it’s all good. We don’t have to be attached at the hip to be here together, right?” 

“Right.” Giving her a thumbs up, Dani seemed to be smiling behind that helmet. “Lemme chase this guy down, then we can dance again or something.” With that, she disappeared into the crowd once more. 

*****

As she moved away from Amber, Dani touched the button on her helmet to unmute her call. “You find any more yet?” Her gaze glanced down to the phone, only to see it still said five out of ten, after she’d managed to disable the fifth one surreptitiously while talking to Amber. 

“Not yet,” came the response after a moment. “I’m uh, I’m looking, one second. Think I’ve got another one right–” And then the number ticked down to four. Dani could hear the relief in the other girl’s voice, tinted as it was with continued worry about the rest. “Six down. We’ve still got time.” 

“Yeah, we’ve got time,” Dani agreed, following the intermittent flashing light in the app to track down the next one. “But… if we run out, what–” 

“We won’t run out,” came the immediate response. “Four more, we can do this. Just… just keep looking. And–” There was a brief hesitation. “And thanks.” 

“Not like I want to see a bunch of innocent people… you know.” Dani didn’t want to say that out loud, even if she was pretty sure no one was close enough to hear, or understand. “Just keep looking, we’ve got thirty minutes to find four more.” 

So, they continued to search the rooms, following the flashing light on the app. Dani found another relatively soon, then That-A-Way found two more over the next fifteen minutes. With about ten left on the clock, they only had one bomb to find. Unfortunately, that one proved to be the problem. Time was ticking away, and there was no sign of it. That little number ‘one’ continued to flash in the corner of the screen, while the minutes rapidly vanished. 

“Where the fuck is this thing?” Dani had stopped worrying about what Amber was going to think. She’d think about how to apologize to the other girl for seemingly ditching her once she made sure everyone survived the next few minutes. 

“We can’t do this,” came Way’s response over the phone. “We’ve gotta take the chance to start teleporting these people out.” 

“There’s no way,” Dani immediately put in. “Look, even when this whole thing started, you couldn’t have–hang on. Wait.” There had been a very faint flicker from the app. She stopped, turning until it flickered again. Looking up, she saw a stairwell access door and muttered a curse. “It’s upstairs, I got it.” Quickly, without even bothering to look around to see if anyone was looking, she moved through the door and began to run up the steps, looking at the phone the whole time. The flickering light was getting brighter. Just a bit more, a bit closer, and she’d be able to–

As she passed a stairwell, someone, a dark shape, stepped out of the corner to one side. Before Dani could finish registering what was going on, a taser was shoved into her side and triggered. She cried out, as the linoleum came up and smacked her. Fuck, fuck, her body wouldn’t cooperate. She could feel Holiday squirm out from under her, but she had to focus to make the lizard grow. 

A man in a security uniform stood over her. “Knew someone was disarming those fucking bombs,” he snarled, holding that taser in one hand and a pistol in the other. “Should’ve known it was a hero wannabe.” 

A hero wannabe? Oh, this guy was so dead. Snarling, Dani rolled over, trying to force her body to stop twitching so much. “Y-you wanna see–” 

“Uh uh,” he interrupted. The guy was tall, several inches over six feet. His skin was dark, with a shaven head. “You move again, I’ll put a bullet in your head. I don’t think that plastic helmet’ll save you, whoever you are. Now–” 

Behind them and down the stairs a bit, the door banged open, as someone came through. The figure stopped short abruptly, clearly staring that way. “What–” 

****

“–the fuck?” Amber had heard Pack cry out, and ran for the stairs access. Now she stood there, seeing the man standing in front of a fallen figure she couldn’t see very well up on the next stairwell. It was Pack, it had to be. She was lying on the floor with this piece of shit standing over her with… with a gun. Immediately, Amber forgot about everything else. She forgot about hiding her identity, about… about all of it. “Get the fuck away from her.” 

“Oh, you think you can tell me what to do, bitch?” The man snapped those words testily, already raising the pistol. “You think you matter? You think she matters? Lemme show you how much she matters.” His finger started to pull the trigger. 

No. No! Amber wouldn’t let that happen. Only one thought filled her mind. She was facing west. Instantly, she hurled herself that way. The whole world slowed down, as her super speed kicked in. She was up the stairs before the man had finished pulling the trigger. She dove, catching hold of the girl lying there. The impact carried both of them in a slide across the floor of the stairwell. 

The gun was silenced, but she still heard the ping of the bullet ricocheting off the linoleum. Before the man could adjust his aim, Holiday was suddenly full-sized, roaring as she leapt that way to tackle him down the stairs. 

On top of Pack but not looking at her, Amber scrambled around, her gaze snapping that way. Holiday had the man down. His gun was already several feet away from him, as the panther-lizard kept the man’s throat in her mouth without biting down. He, in turn, was remaining very still. 

But as soon as she saw that that was in hand, Amber looked at her phone. She was talking to Pack, not caring about the fact that she wasn’t in costume. She wasn’t even thinking about that. The clock was ticking down to almost one minute. Yet the light was green. With a sigh of relief, she hit the disarm button, not daring to breathe until the one flickered and then switched to zero. 

“We did it,” she murmured. “Holy shit, we did it.” 

“Uhhh yeah,” came the response from the figure under her, the figure she had used her superspeed to save. It was Pack, of course. But her voice…. her voice was…

Slowly, Amber turned her head to look at the figure in the slightly dented plastic Caishen helmet, voice catching in her throat. Her thoughts… stopped. No… wait… could… could…

Raising her hand, the pinned figure pushed the helmet aside to reveal Dani’s face staring up at her. 

“Holy shit pretty much sums it up.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next 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 / Next 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.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter