That-A-Way

New Deals 13-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Things mostly calmed down pretty quickly after that. The Star-Touched adults had managed to regroup a bit and sent a couple of their people to help the Minority. By that point, the warring gangs had basically separated and gone to their respective corners, so to speak. So it was just a bit of cleanup.

The other Fell-Touched, like Janus, had managed to escape. But we kept hold of Suckshot and Landlock, eventually seeing them both hauled into the back of two separate special armored containment vans. 

Through most of that cleanup, I worked with Raindrop. I had the feeling that the people around us assumed we were about the same age. Actually, come to think of it, maybe she was an incredibly small sixteen-year-old too. Wouldn’t that have been just perfect?

Either way, she was pretty fun to hang out with once things calmed down a bit. She didn’t say a lot, but the things she did say tended to be insightful or just funny in a very simple, straightforward way. I would say something and she’d have a one or two word response, in a totally serious tone, that made me snicker. For whatever reason, it felt like I knew her a lot better than I did. We’d only just really met, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling like we’d interacted a lot more. It was weird. But then, maybe she was just one of those people who made friends easily. 

While we were doing that, I noticed some of the cops and reporters in the distance talking. I couldn’t make out most of what they were saying, but I did hear both of our names come up and saw some of them pointing our way. They were clearly talking about the fact that Raindrop and I were working together, but what… what were they saying? And why were some of them taking pictures? 

Eventually, That-A-Way approached and asked to speak to me privately. We stepped out of the way, over by a corner of the theater building while both of us watched the assortment of cops, reporters, and other Touched milling around. 

“Thanks,” Way murmured quietly. “You know, for showing up. You really helped turn things around.” She glanced toward me, lowering her voice even more. “I heard a few of those gang guys talking. This whole thing, it’s just a skirmish. Just the opening salvo. Apparently things are going to get a lot more heavy pretty soon. They’re going to war with each other.” 

Grimacing, I shook my head. ”If this was just a few opening shots, I don’t want to see what their idea of a full war is.”

“Neither do I,” she agreed, “but I have a feeling that we don’t really have a choice. This whole thing is gonna escalate really fast. And more civilians are going to be caught in the crossfire.” 

There was another brief pause while she clearly thought about her next words before quietly asking, “Those people you were talking about, shouldn’t they keep this kind of thing shut down? Seems like having a bunch of pissed off gang members at war with each other would be bad for business. If they really have that much control over every criminal in the city, shouldn’t they snap their fingers and make these guys back down? I mean, if there’s going to be one benefit to a group like that, you’d think it would be them stopping all-out war like this.”

Yeah, she had a point. I had no idea just how much my parents knew about this situation. But I refused to believe they were clueless. From everything I had seen, there was no way the gangs here would do something like this without at least mentioning it to my family, to the Ministry. Which meant they had to have at least partially approved this sort of thing. But why? What did they get out of it? Was it just not worth the hassle of trying to contain these guys constantly? Did they have to let them get their aggression out now and then before things blew up too much to control at all? I had no idea how that worked. 

With a sigh, I shook my head. “I dunno. But something tells me that if we want to find out how all this works, we need to get into that place. The sooner the better. There’s got to be some answers in there.”

Of course, there was also the possibility that those answers would lead toward my family. But that was a bridge I would cross when we came to it. I still had no idea exactly what I was going to do if and when Way and Pack, the people I had brought into this, found out that the Ministry was led by the Evans. I just… didn’t know. 

Way was looking at me again. “We have to come up with a plan and get in there,” she murmured quietly. “I’m pretty sure you’re right. That’s where we’re going to find answers. That’s where we’re going to…” She trailed off, grimacing for a moment before finding her voice once more. “It’s where we’re going to find out more about who we can’t trust.” There was a somewhat dark grimness to her voice, and it made me think for a moment about what all of this must have been like for her. She didn’t know who on her own team she could trust. She didn’t know which of her mentors she could look up to. What was it like from her side? Especially considering I wasn’t telling her everything I knew, a fact she was no doubt totally aware of. 

I started to agree with her, that we would get into that secret mall base as soon as possible. But before I could say more than a couple words, someone approached. It was, in no uncertain terms, the worst person I could think of to potentially overhear what we were talking about. Yeah, my dad, as Silversmith. He approached, offering each of us a nod while speaking up. “It seems we owe you another debt of gratitude, Paintball.” His hand extended toward me. “Thanks for stepping in and helping out today. Not sure how this would have gone without you.” 

Desperately fighting back the impulse to give any suspicious reaction whatsoever, I forced myself to accept the offered hand while shaking my head. “Way asked for help. I wasn’t just going to tell her to jump off a bridge.”  

He chuckled lightly, an encouraging sound that almost made me smile. How did he do that? How did he disarm me so easily when I knew who he was and what he did? Was it just because he was my dad? No, it had to be more than that. He was just that good at talking to people. He was just that good at convincing them that he was a friend, someone they could trust and confide in. It was scary seeing it from this side of things. 

While I was still fighting those reactions in my head, Dad put his hand on That-A-Way’s shoulder, squeezing slightly. “We owe just as much congratulations and thanks to you. Knowing when to call for help is important. Not trying to go at it alone, not showboating and getting people killed in the process, that’s what makes for a real hero. You did great today. All of you did.” 

“People still got hurt,” Way quietly pointed out. “Some still died. We didn’t save everyone.” 

Dad gave a short nod of agreement, as a long, heavy sigh escaped him. It sounded like he bore  the weight of each and every one of those injuries and deaths on his shoulders. Which was funny (in a totally not funny at all way), because I was pretty sure he really did bear the weight of them. He let it happen. He let this war get started. The Ministry allowed it. So yeah, the weight of it should have been on his shoulders. But he was still standing, and I was going to bet somehow getting even richer off of this whole thing. Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how, but the only thing I could think of that would make the Ministry allow something like this was if they were somehow making more money from it than if they hadn’t. Money or power, one or the other. Or both. I wasn’t sure of the specifics, not yet. But I did know that my father and mother had given the go-ahead for all of this to happen. They allowed it, so they were responsible. 

“You’re right,” Dad spoke up. For a crazy, horrifying second, I thought he had somehow read my thoughts. Then I realized he was responding to the girl beside me. “We didn’t save everyone. But you can’t always. All you can do is try. Put the effort in. Save everyone you can. Because, and I want both of you to listen to this right now, it isn’t about how many you fail to save. It’s about how many would have died if you weren’t there at all. And believe me, there would have been a lot more people hurt or even dead today if the two of you weren’t here. All those people in that theater, you saved them. You and Raindrop.” 

He said the last bit while stepping aside a bit and gesturing for the girl in question to join us. Which she did, moving up between Way and me while staring at my dad, at Silversmith. I couldn’t see her face, of course, hidden as it was behind that faceplate. But from the way she held her head, her body language, and everything else, I had the distinct impression that she basically hero-worshiped him. I had no idea what was going on there, but it was pretty obvious that she really looked up to him. Again, not surprising, considering how well my dad played the role of champion for the masses. He should have won an Oscar or two by now. Still, it made me feel sick in my stomach. Actually, the thought that he was fooling Raindrop in particular seemed to raise my hackles more than it really should have. I barely knew the kid. Maybe it was just because she was a kid? Maybe it reminded me of how much I had looked up to Silversmith before I knew the truth. 

Either way, Dad held his arm out, pantomiming looking at a watch. “Unfortunately, no matter how impressive you guys are, I have a feeling none of you can quite stop time just yet. And since everything seems calm enough now, I should get going. There’s going to be a lot of paperwork about all this. Be glad you guys only have to deal with a bit of that. And hey, you even get to avoid most of the reporters.”

Reporters… Oh damn, right, that dinner with the guy from the Times. It was getting close. No wonder Dad was making his excuses to leave. He congratulated us again, then offered to walk That-A-Way and Raindrop back to their base with the rest of their team. Way declined, saying she’d catch up after talking to me for a minute, claiming she still had to thank me herself. 

So, Raindrop headed off with him by herself. And I tried to figure out why the sight of her walking with my evil dad made me want to throw myself after them to stop it. Well, besides the obvious reasons. There was something else making it hit me more than I thought it should have. 

“It pisses you off too, doesn’t it?” Way spoke quietly with a glance toward me. “Seeing the way everyone loves him. Especially Rain.” She sighed, turning my way fully, as though to put her back to that whole thing. “I know you said you can’t say everything you know, but you made it pretty clear that he’s one of the ones that can’t be trusted. You said especially don’t tell him anything. So yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s one of your big conspiracy people. But he’s such… I mean…” She exhaled, slumping over a bit. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “fuck. Trust me, I know. It’s a whole thing. But you’re doing a good job of hiding it.”

She snorted at that. “You just couldn’t hear all the nasty thoughts I was having when he was here.” 

“Yeah, and neither could he,” I pointed out. “Look, we’ll get answers, okay? We just can’t rush it. They already know that I know some of what they’re up to. They just don’t know how much. Not even close. But they know that I know some of it. So we have to be careful.”

Way paused, then chuckled. “You know, the way you act about all this, sometimes I forget you’re younger than me. You seem a lot older than you should be.”

Shit, getting her off the train of thought was probably a good idea. But I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. So, I just shrugged. ”I’ve had to grow up quick lately. But if I don’t get out of here now, I’m going to end up grounded. Then we’ll see how grown up I am.”

With that, I excused myself and took off, using a shot of red paint to a nearby building to hoist myself out of there. Right, I hadn’t really been exaggerating that much. If I missed this dinner, Mom would never let me hear the end of it. She’d made it clear that it was important that we present ourselves as a family tonight. Which gave me a lot of other thoughts I felt like saying, but kept to myself for obvious reasons.

As I raced home, I did my best to push those thoughts out of my head. This guy was an award-winning investigative reporter. It would probably be a bad thing if I gave him a reason to be suspicious of my family. For him as well as us. He may have been a big shot, but I was pretty sure my parents wouldn’t hesitate to have him killed if it came down to protecting themselves and the family. And I was also willing to bet that my family’s resources trumped whatever he could come up with. 

It had, of course, occurred to me to try talking to the guy about everything. I had the random, crazy impulse to just spill my guts to him and have everything out in the open. He was a reporter, after all. But again, that would be stupid. He’d never be able to publish an article like that, not with the contacts my parents had. The only real option to get it out before they erased it would have been some kind of online thing, but that would probably be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Even if I was involved, I’d just be the rebellious kid. There was no doubt in my mind that my family could quash the whole thing. Hell, it wasn’t as though it would be anything all that new. People claimed enormous criminal conspiracies against the rich and famous all the time. A lot of it was even true. And this was one of those times. But it would be dismissed like all those others. No, if… when I went public about all this, it had to be perfect. I would only get a single shot at that kind of thing. I would only be able to take my family by surprise once. It was going to have to be a silver bullet situation. Proof. I needed proof of everything, and I needed to understand exactly how the organization worked, who was a part of it, who could be trusted and who couldn’t. I needed all of it.

Of course, the other big reason for not telling this Chambers guy the truth? For all I knew, he was on my family’s payroll. Yeah, he was all the way down in LA, but did that really mean anything? After all, Mr. Jackson had been in the UK for a long time. And it really would be within my family’s interest to have one of the best investigative reporters from one of the biggest news outlets on their side.

No, clearly for a lot of reasons, I couldn’t open up now. Not to anybody, let alone a reporter who may or may not be working for my parents on the down low. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head firmly, I focused on getting home. That meant changing clothes in a public restroom at the edge of a park and taking an Uber the rest of the way. I was cutting it fairly close, considering I still needed to shower and all. But at least I wasn’t late. 

Paying the driver after he stopped in front of the gate, I hopped out, grabbed my bag, and headed in. On the way past, I greeted the guard waiting there, who teasingly informed me that I’d better hurry. 

Mom and Dad were in the front foyer as I passed through the door. Mom stepped over, looking like she was going to embrace me, but thought better of it. She was already dressed up for dinner and wrinkled her nose a little at how sweaty I was. So sue me, running across the city was a bit of a work out, even with powers. 

She settled on gently touching the side of my face. “I’m glad you made it, Principessa. Thank you for remembering. Now please, go and get cleaned up. We will be eating in thirty minutes.”

“Yeah, kid,” Dad spoke up, “and see if you can help Izzy with whatever she needs? She should just be about done getting cleaned up herself. The clothes she helped pick out are on her bed.”

God, he really had no idea that I had just been talking to him a short time earlier. Hell, he didn’t look like he’d been out doing anything at all. I was sweaty and all that from rushing home. My hair was a mess from being under the helmet and mask.  But Dad? He was perfectly put together. Not a single hair was out of place and it looked as though the biggest workout he’d had in the past couple hours was pushing a few papers. 

Shoving that thought aside, I promised that Izzy and I would be right down. Then I headed up the stairs two steps at a time. Yeah, I’d go get cleaned up so we could get this whole thing over with.

Time to meet Lincoln Chambers and his family.

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New Deals 13-08 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: There was a commissioned interlude focusing on the Touched-Bees of Eastland, Oregon posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that yet, you might want to use the previous chapter button above. Thanks!

Also, if you’d like to see what the actual place that Cassidy is going through in this chapter looks like, check my author comment in the replies after the chapter.

When the Fox Theatre was built and opened almost a hundred years ago, in 1928, it had been the biggest, most impressive theater in the city with over five thousand seats. It had basically been the anchor of an entire chain of theaters owned by Fox, and a stunning wonder for everyone at the time. Over the following decades, it gradually fell into decline until it was restored in the late 80’s. Then it was upgraded and given a fresh life once more about ten years ago, around the same time that the baseball stadium across the street had been rebuilt. 

A lot of money had gone into restoring and upgrading this entire area of the city. Hell, a lot of money had gone into restoring the entire city in general. Yeah, I was fully aware that for quite some time through the end of the last century, the city had been spiraling down a hole. But I’d always experienced a Detroit that was on the rise, or even a full-on leader in development and manufacturing. We had one of the strongest economies in the world, and had for the past decade or so, with plenty of Touched who flocked here to build or benefit from Tech-devices. They couldn’t build neighborhoods fast enough for the people who wanted to move to this place. Even with the crime, even with the violence in the streets, you could still be successful here. 

But how much of that success was directly connected to the things my parents did? My family were villains, they helped criminals do bad things, helped them steal from and hurt people. That was completely true. And yet, it was also completely true that the city was better now than it had been for decades before Touched powers appeared. Would the city have been even better than it already was without this ‘Ministry’ directing things? Or would it be worse? Had they been responsible for pulling enough manufacturing and such back here? Or would there be as much growth and not as much crime if they weren’t stirring the pot? How much good had they done, and how did it weigh against the bad they’d done? And did any of that actually matter, morally?

All those thoughts and more kept playing through my head the entire time that I was moving toward the broken-in doors of the theater (covering my costume with various paint colors the entire way). But I shoved them down, with some effort, focusing on the real problem. That-A-Way and Raindrop were trapped in there, with civilians and bad guys. Beyond that, I had no idea what I was getting into, only that those two needed help. 

The lobby of the theater was fucking gaudy as hell. Seriously, the ceiling towered like fifty feet over my head, sloping upward with slanted golden walls on either side, brilliant red and gold pillars lined both sides of the massive room, with golden lamps hanging down to illuminate everything, and plush red carpets covered the floor. I’d heard people refer to its style as ‘part-Egyptian, part-Hindu, and part-Babylonian.’ It was a lot, to say the least. 

More important than the loud design choices was the fact that I wasn’t alone in the lobby. The second I entered, two guys dressed as Easy Eights gang members and three dressed as Ninety-Niners all whirled my way. One of the Easy Eights guys tackled the nearest Ninety-Niner, starting to wail on him with the butt of his pistol before the guy managed to get an arm up and the two struggled together. 

But I couldn’t exactly intervene with either of them, because the remaining three guys (one Easy Eights and two Ninety-Niners) apparently decided that I was the bigger threat. All three opened fire, even as I activated the picture of an orange shield I’d painted onto my chest before coming in here. At the same time, I triggered a pair of green swirly lines along my legs and hurled myself into an upward flip, using red paint shot toward one of the pillars to lift myself higher even as most of the shots passed by under me. A few struck home, but the orange paint reduced the bullets to a mere stinging annoyance. 

In mid-leap, as the red paint attached to my gloves and to the nearby pillar yanked me that way, I cut it off, flipping over in the air while hitting the pillar with blue. The second my feet hit it, I was launched straight down toward the men like I was being shot out of a cannon. 

They tried to react in time to shoot me again, but couldn’t adjust their aim fast enough. Between the green paint speeding me up and the blue sending me hurtling straight at them from above, the three guys were basically sitting ducks. And my orange paint was still active, so I just stuck both arms out, crashing into two of the men full-on. They hit the ground together with me on top of one, wind knocked out of them both. 

The third guy was whipping around to shoot (which probably would’ve hurt more from that range), but I managed to throw myself on my side and lash out with a foot to kick at his leg while boosting myself with the small purple stegosaurus shape I’d put on one side of my left arm. It wasn’t a huge increase to my strength, but it was enough that the solid kick knocked the man’s legs out from under him, dumping him onto his back with a cry. 

Rolling backward and rising to both knees, I saw the two men I’d knocked down both scrambling to grab their guns off the floor while still trying to suck in air. Even now, they were going to try to shoot me. Or possibly each other. I really wasn’t sure which. But it didn’t matter. Quickly, I hit the weapons with red paint, yanking them to my gloves before tossing them to either side with a blurted, “You’ll shoot your eye out, Ralphie!” 

While they were trying to react to that, I planted blue paint under my knees while pushing off, launching myself up and forward over all their heads. On the way past, I flipped over, hitting all five men (including the two who were still struggling with one another) with a wide spray of red paint from both hands. Then I landed in a roll before bringing myself to a stop. 

Covered in red paint, the five men all started to move at me as one massive rush. But, they came up short as I used white and a little bit of black paint to color in a bright, toothy grin across the front of my helmet. Unnecessary, but hey. Then I pointed both hands upward, drawing their attention toward the ceiling so far above. A ceiling where I had also taken the time to shoot more red paint. 

The curses started before I even activated the paint, morphing to screams as the five men were hurtled upward. I let it carry them about halfway there before cancelling the paint. Their momentum brought them even higher, nearly to the ceiling itself before gravity kicked in. Then they were screaming for an entirely different reason, as they fell toward the hard floor below. 

I couldn’t just let them hit the ground, not from that height. Forty-plus feet wasn’t exactly jumping out of an airplane, but it could still potentially kill them. And as much as I felt like they deserved a few broken bones for putting uninvolved, innocent civilians in danger with their stupid fucking gangwar, that was too much. And it wasn’t my place to decide something like that anyway. 

So, before the screaming, flailing men hit the ground, I hit them with a spray of orange paint. Just enough that the fall still hurt, still left bruises and maybe a bit worse than that, without being lethal. They laid there, sprawled out and panting (along with a few whimpers). None looked like they were in any mood to fight right then. Or even move, really. 

I didn’t have time to play with them anymore. Damn it, damn it, I couldn’t have just moved past them and left them to shoot me in the back (even this felt like a risk, justifiable as it was), but still, it felt like I was wasting time. Running onward through the lobby, I called back, “Why don’t you guys take five, we’ll pick up from the top later!” On the way, I thought to hit each of their scattered weapons with small shots of red paint, yanking them to me before dumping the pistols in a garbage can I was passing. It wasn’t perfect. None of this was. But at least the guns were out of sight and the guys behind me were too busy getting over pissing themselves to worry about fighting right at that moment. It was the best I could do with the time I had.

If the lobby of the theater was crazy opulent, the main room with the stage was completely fucking absurd. There were fake stained glass windows that could be lit up or darkened at any point, and could have the actual design changed to match the mood of the play. There was gold everywhere, several tiers of seats, all of which were incredibly plush (and really easy to fall asleep in if you were a bored eleven-year-old who was dragged to the theater by your parents). There were more pillars, an incredibly beautiful vaulted ceiling, the works. The place was, again, large enough to seat over five thousand people. For some kind of reference, I’d asked someone before and they said a modern public movie theater sat between two hundred and three hundred people in a single screening room. 

So yeah, the place was fucking enormous. And, as promised, there were people in here. The moment I passed through one of the entrance doors, I could see a group of civilians huddled together ahead and to the right, cowering between some seats. It looked like there were several dozen at first glance, but I wasn’t sure because of how they were crouched down. 

Of more immediate importance was the reason they were all cowering. Namely, all the bad guys that were everywhere. Seriously, I saw a mix of Ninety-Niner and Easy Eights Prev thugs spread throughout the entire room. They were clustered up in small groups, but those groups were all over the place. They were brawling with weapons, a few had guns they were trying to bring in to play, and none seemed to care about the civilians they were endangering. Hell, I could see a few innocent people who weren’t with the main huddled group. Instead, they ducked where they were, hands over their heads as they tried to stay low. 

It was all-out chaos in the seating area, a brawl that was tearing this place apart. I could see where several of the opulent ‘windows’ and hanging lights had been destroyed, places where seats were torn out, and more blood than I wanted to think about.

Then there was the stage itself, straight down and across from where I entered. The enormous stage was where That-A-Way and Raindrop were. And they weren’t alone. Landlock, a short guy (just about five feet, four inches tall) who wore dark green and brown body armor with a football player’s helmet over a simple black face mask, was there. He was one of the Easy Eights, like Janus outside. His power basically made a fifty-foot diameter circle of ground or floor under his feet transform to stone wherever he went. It would change back as he moved away from that spot, but while he was standing there, it would be rock. No matter what hit him, he couldn’t be knocked outside of his circle, and he could make a bunch of rock constructs within it. 

The Ninety-Niner Touched he was trying to fight, meanwhile, was Suckshot. Yeah. While Landlock wore the football helmet, Suckshot was basically dressed like a hockey player, with that Touched name written on the back. His powers allowed him to create these black orb things about the size of a volleyball in front of his hands that could yank things (or people) toward them. Once they were close enough to touch the orbs, he could then launch them away at high speed. The orbs were also some kind of pocket dimension thing that he could store objects in as long as they were smaller than the orb. He kept objects in there and used them as ammo to shoot at people. 

And in the middle of all this, between those two, were That-A-Way and Raindrop. Way had both arms wrapped around her younger teammate, with her back to Landlock. Apparently her invulnerability power was active, because in the second that I watched, the Fell-Touched Made two large rocks float up out of the floor and fly at them, only for the rocks to shatter against her back. 

At the same time, Raindrop had one hand extended toward Suckshot. She was sending a torrent of water his way, a sideways downpour that would’ve allowed the kid to manipulate his gravity if she could get him wet. But he was sucking up all the water with his own power, making it disappear into his orbs. It was a stalemate. 

Well, not anymore. Taking a running start, I shot blue paint down to launch myself up and forward, catapulting over the line of seats. In mid-air, I shot red paint high over the stage to pull myself that way, before sending a few more small shots of red toward the brawling thugs below. I didn’t get anywhere near all of them, but I did hit a few. Mostly I tried to focus on the ones who were holding guns, nailing the weapons themselves with a bit of red before extending my hand back the way I’d come to hit the door with one more shot. Linking all of those together, I activated them and the guns (as well as a couple other weapons) were yanked out of the thugs’ hands. 

It wasn’t much, but it was something. Mostly I was hoping that if the Touched were dealt with, the rest of the guys would follow suit quickly, or at least retreat. 

And speaking of dealing with them, I flipped over in the air after canceling the red mark I was being yanked toward. Upside down as I passed over the stage, I shot two bursts of white paint, one at each of them. Unfortunately, the paint that was going toward Suckshot was, well, sucked right into one of his little black hole orbs. Fuck. I really should’ve known that would happen.

But the other spot of paint struck home, hitting the spot of Landlock’s chest right under his chin. Instantly, I activated it, sending a blinding flare right into his eyes that made the man stagger backward, the large boulder he’d been forming falling apart before he could launch it. 

Activating a bit of orange near my left leg on the hip, I finished flipping over and landed a short distance away from where the two Minority were. “Heard you all might need an understudy if this performance is gonna go on,” I blurted as everyone stopped what they were doing and snapped a glance toward me. At the same time, I hit Way with orange paint from one hand and purple from the other, before Suckshot could recover from my sudden appearance and start using his power again. Activating both, I snapped, “Get ‘em!”

The direction she’d been facing toward Suckshot in keeping her back to Landlock for protection had given her invulnerability. The opposite direction must have been super speed, because she pivoted away from Raindrop and, in a blur of motion, was suddenly directly in front of the man who had been launching boulders at them, punching him across the face with her enhanced strength. He had some measure of that himself, but the punch was still enough to put him on the stone-turned floor. 

For the next ten seconds, That-A-Way had the extra strength and toughness which, added to her own super speed, would let her deal with that guy. 

That left Raindrop and me to handle Suckshot. And I had the feeling that the suck part of that was going to be pretty apt. Whether it was my paint or her water, he could suck all of it up if it came anywhere near him. 

Just as I had that thought, the two of us were nearly taken out just like that as a handful of literal bricks shot out of those black orbs, straight at our heads. Fuck! 

But Raindrop was fast too. A swirl of water spraying up to catch the bricks, turning their gravity so they were launched up and over us to careen off into the distance. A metal pipe and another set of bricks joined them a second later. 

Yeah, the suck was definitely strong with this one. Good thing I had an idea. Lowering my voice to a whisper, I addressed the young girl nearby. “Dude, can you soak me, then when I say now, zero my gravity?” 

“Um, okay,” came the quiet, uncertain voice. It tickled something in my brain, but I didn’t have time to think about it.

Instead, I pushed myself forward even as I felt my costume suddenly get really wet. Raising my voice, I shouted at the man, “Hey, Suckface, lemme guess, you’re a Touched vacuum!” 

It definitely worked to get his attention. The man shot another metal pipe at me, but I popped the wheels of my skates out and slid under it, cocking my hand back as though I was going to throw or shoot something at him. Immediately, I felt the pull of his power as he focused it on me. I was yanked off my feet and sent that way, even as he took aim, clearly about to use me being off my feet and helplessly pulled toward him to take one final shot. 

“Now!” I called out while simultaneously activating every bit of green and orange that was still on my costume. 

Instantly, my gravity was zero. Which meant I was suddenly flying toward the man in front of me faster than he expected. Even better, the green paint I’d activated sped me up even more. In that instant, I was careening at the man several times quicker than he was ready for. 

He didn’t have time to correct it. I slammed into him full-bodied, with enough force to knock him clear to the floor, his orbs disappearing as he collapsed under me with a cry of pain and surprise. I, of course, was fine thanks to the orange paint. But it didn’t look like the guy under me was going to be in the mood to move anytime soon. 

Still, I produced a set of the stay-down cuffs I still had, hooking them around his wrists before rolling away. 

Sitting up, I saw That-A-Way doing the same to her guy. They were both down. We had them in hand. 

Even better, seeing their super powered members captured did, in fact, make the rest of the bad guys decide to cut and run. There was a rush toward the exits, the two rival groups still fighting each other as they fled like rats leaving a sinking ship. Meanwhile, the cowering civilians were starting to pick themselves up cautiously. 

Raindrop was in front of me, offering her hand with a blurted, “That was cool!” 

Again, her words made something in the back of my mind flash a bit. But what–never mind, I was just crazy and tired from all that, clearly. 

Taking the offered hand, I stood and breathed out a long sigh of relief while looking at her and That-A-Way. “Well,” I managed in between heavy panting, “if you guys really want, we could stick around and see the show tonight.

“But I hear it really sucks.”

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New Deals 13-07 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t a mistake, apparently. My name was written out and everything. Paige was inviting me to her birthday party. Or her (adopted) parents were making her. Or this was some kind of elaborate trap. Actually, the fact that I genuinely wasn’t sure if it was a standard mean girl school teenage bullshit trap or something more nefarious involving her supervillain father (not that I had any room to judge as far as that went) kind of said something about how my life was. 

So which was it? Assuming this whole thing was intentional, was Paige playing her bitchy shtick again, waiting for me to either come so she could pull something or not come so she could tell everyone what a snob I was? Or was it something worse she and her father had cooked up?

Complicating everything, of course, was the fact that I’d found out we used to be friends. Which was still something that I couldn’t wrap my head around, no matter how many times I thought about it. Paige Banners and I were friends at some point? The same girl who had been… who had made so much of my school life… who had… how were we friends? Why was she apparently so different now? It couldn’t just be memory loss, right? What was going on? 

In any case, two days (really a day and a half) after getting the invitation, I still didn’t know exactly what that was all about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a choice about going. Apparently Paige’s family (or the people who had apparently adopted her?) had also sent the invitation to my parents, making it an official sort of thing, and my mother had said that I needed to put in an appearance to avoid upsetting the Banners. It was a rich people thing. My family was rich, the Banners were rich, we had to play nice in some respects. I didn’t have to stay for long, but I had to at least show up. 

In any case, now it was Friday, which meant two things. First, we were supposed to have dinner with that reporter guy who was up from Los Angeles. And second, I was going out that night to meet with those two from before, Murphy and Roald. I actually had a plan for that bit, at least. I’d talked with Wren and she said she could use their help putting some stuff together. Extra hands and all that. 

So, that at least was something I could start them on. Honestly, I was just glad I’d come up with an answer to one of the questions I’d been thinking about the past couple days, even if it was the simplest one. As for the whole birthday thing and the wider Paige situation… yeah, I had nothing. My brain kept saying that at least I could use this chance to find out more. It was the best opportunity I’d been offered to get close to Paige (a thought that would have made me dry heave not long ago) without it being obvious that I was investigating her. She’d invited me, after all, whatever the reason. I could use that, maybe. 

To distract myself from all those confusing thoughts (as well as the fact that I had every reason to be suspicious about this party), I was taking a trip through the city as Paintball about an hour after school. Not really looking for anything in particular, just running and skating through the rooftops and across buildings to clear my head. I was going to have to head home for dinner eventually, but that wouldn’t be for another couple hours. We weren’t eating until seven, which gave me plenty of time to take a good run and hopefully get my brain on straight before it twisted itself into knots. 

Yeah, clearing my mind was obviously going super-well, given how much I was still thinking about that whole thing. Urgh. Giving my head a hard shake, I focused on where I actually was. The answer, in that case, was ‘skating along the very edge of a roof, using green paint for speed as I raced toward the far end.’ The building was a good twenty stories high, leaving the view immediately to my left fairly… precarious, to say the least. I ignored that, staring straight ahead as the wheels of my skates glided easily along the roof. The green paint meant I was ‘gliding’ at about forty miles an hour, so the far end was coming up pretty fast. That steep drop loomed. 

Spraying blue paint at the very edge of the roof just in time, I activated it, crouching at the last second before I was launched up and forward with a loud scream of adrenaline. Fuck, fuck! Say whatever about the stress of my whole situation, but I loved this part of my powers. It was so incredibly freeing. I literally hurled myself out into open air twenty stories up. If I fell, if I fucked up, if my powers dropped for whatever reason, if I made any real mistake, the consequences would have been catastrophic. It was terrifying but also so… so amazing. I loved it. I loved my powers, and how I could use them. 

Flipping over high in the air, I twisted my body until my feet were pointed sideways toward the side of the building I was flying at. The momentum from my launch carried me clear across the street that was so far below, until I hit that wall. Instantly, the pace-skates that Wren had put together shifted gravity so that being sideways against that building was the same as being right-side up for me. I didn’t even slow down, ‘landing’ hard against the wall before immediately continuing to skate, that time along the wall. My skates made clickety-clack sounds as they passed through the grooves of the bricks, almost calming in a way. Especially if you didn’t think about how high up you were. It helped. All of this was helping me feel better. 

Before reaching the edge of that wall, I retracted my skates with a quick command and simply ran the last few steps while focusing on the purple stars I’d previously set up along my legs. Activating them for the strength boost, I threw myself sideways off the wall. At the same time, I turned my entire arm and hand bright pink and heaved it out as hard as I could while activating that paint as well. My arm, suddenly rubberized, actually stretched a good ten feet out to catch hold of the ledge of another building. Between the purple and pink paint, I was able to grab the ledge and swing myself over that way, letting out another loud whoop of joy at the rush. 

Releasing the ledge as I managed to swing myself over, I cancelled the pink paint so my arm snapped back to normal. Now I was diving through the air feet-first, at an angle toward the side of a much lower building, only a few stories tall. 

Pointing my hands that way, I shot a spray of pink paint, activating both that and the orange sun image I already had on my back. The instant before I would have hit the pink paint, I deactivated it, shifting the pink to its secondary effect of making the target very springy for those brief few seconds. Which was all the time I needed before my feet collided with the wall, visibly denting it inward a bit before it snapped back to the way it had been to launch me back up and toward the opposite side of the street. 

Flipping over through that, I hit the wall of another building a couple stories up and glanced down to see a few people taking pictures from below, or even waving. A few called, asking for autographs, or even for a ‘ride’ through the city.   

I waved back, crouching a bit to slap my hand against the wall. The logo I’d made up for ‘signing’ things back at the Ten Towers headquarters appeared. Black oval with ‘Paintball’ written in white cursive letters, along with a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other. I made the logo large enough to see before throwing myself back into a run once more. I’d let the people down there have some time to take pictures of the logo before dismissing it so some poor guy didn’t have to scrub it clean. 

Yeah, that stuff seemed pretty silly and even arrogant if I thought about it too much, but I’d heard about how important it was to keep a good public image. I really didn’t have it in me to drop down there and talk to people while I was still trying to clear my head. But I could, at least, give them that little logo thing to show I wasn’t ignoring them. Besides, playing things up like that was fun. And I had to admit, the cheers as I ran along the wall before using blue paint to launch myself up and away were pretty amazing to hear. 

Just as I landed on the edge of another roof, the Touched-business phone buzzed in my pocket. Glancing down to see the people gathering up under the logo I’d painted to take pictures, I pulled the phone out and glanced down. It was the number That-A-Way had given me. 

“Hey, you busy?!” she immediately blurted the second that I answered. It sounded like she was out of breath. “Cuz we could use a little help over here!” 

Well, that got my attention. Quickly straightening, I asked, “Help over where, with what?” Tempting as it was to add a snarky comment about how she better not be asking me to help her move, I restrained the impulse. This sounded serious. She was definitely in the middle of something big, given the shouts and other sounds I could vaguely hear in the background. 

There was a brief pause while That-A-Way clearly dealt with something else, before she responded. “Fox Theatre on Woodward! Near downtown. You know where–what the fuck am I saying–the baseball stadium! We’re at the baseball stadium! There’s some big fight going on between the–Rain, get down! Some big fight going on between the Niners and the Eights. They’ve got the big guns a couple blocks north, but we’re catching the edge of it and could use a little–” There was a sudden loud pair of gunshots that cut off her words, and my heart leapt into my stomach until her voice came back midway through a sentence, “–of shit! Paintball?” 

“I’m on my way!” I blurted quickly, wanting the other girl to focus on what she was doing. “I’ll be right there, I’m just–I’m coming, just a few minutes out!” With that, I dismissed the logo on the building nearby before running to the edge of the roof I was on, launching myself upward. Fox Theatre on Woodward. That was the same street where the library that I’d eavesdropped on Paige’s conversation with her father was on, but a couple miles further south. And That-A-Way was right, it was also directly next to Whitaker-Trammell Field, the massive domed baseball stadium (for the Detroit Tigers) my father had helped fund the creation of to replace the former Comerica Park about ten years earlier.

In any case, I really was only a few minutes away. At least the way I traveled. Staying atop the buildings, I raced toward the theater as quickly as possible. My skates seemed to barely touch down before I launched myself again, urging myself to fucking move already. It didn’t matter how fast I was going. It didn’t matter that I was hurtling myself recklessly through the air while barely paying attention to my surroundings. It felt too slow. Go, go, I had to get there. If something happened to That-A-Way, or any of the others, because I was too slow to help… I couldn’t let that happen. I had to get there right god damn now. 

Actually, I really wasn’t paying that much actual attention to my surroundings. I was running along the side of buildings, jumping across billboards, popping my skates out to glide across the very edge of roofs, all while going way too fast to be judging all of this manually. It was like when I was navigating through those trees in the middle of the night. I just… knew where to go. 

Not something to worry about right then. Another example of my weird extra sense or whatever, but I didn’t have time to focus on it. The Minority. That-A-Way. I had to get there to help. Any other weirdness could wait until later. 

On the plus side, it didn’t actually take that long for me to get where I was going. And it took an even shorter amount of time for me to hear some of what was going on. There was gunfire, blaring horns and squealing tires from cars still trying to get away from being in the middle of it, screaming, and more. So much more. I was heading straight into a storm of chaos and violence. And, from the sound of what That-A-Way had said, this was just the edge of things. Just how bad was it further north, where the so-called ‘big guns’ were fighting? 

Pretty bad, clearly. But I had to focus on helping these guys. First, however, I had to see what was going on. My eyes scanned the street below frantically as I came to a stop at the edge of an office building across the street from the theater itself. Below me was the spot where the smaller Columbia street crossed Woodward. Columbia led straight through a couple large parking lots directly in front of the stadium. 

But baseball wasn’t the point. The real point were those two parking lots and the theater across Columbia street. There were people down there, spread all through the street, partially in the theater itself from the look of things, and in those parking lots. It was a mix of police, Prev gang members, Touched gang members, and the Minority. Not to mention a handful of civilians who were cowering on the ground, unable to get out of the line of fire. 

Judging from my quick look, what Way had said made sense. There were definitely two different gangs down there, a mix of Ninety-Niners and Easy Eights. It looked like some kind of massive fight had broken out, the cops intervened and were quickly outgunned, and now the Minority were trying to help. But they too were outnumbered. Luckily, the two gangs seemed more interested in fighting each other than in actually causing damage to the Star-Touched or police.

There. Janus (Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful) were standing at the edge of the nearest parking lot. They’d made their hands and arms massive, and were currently using them to lash out at the nearby Whamline. But the Minority guy kept launching energy coils that exploded to knock the incoming hands out of the way. He couldn’t do more than that, fighting a defensive battle, because there were two civilians huddled on the ground right behind him. Whamline was covering them, repeatedly knocking Janus’ hands out of the way. But with every grasp, the conjoined men kept getting closer to getting hold of him. They were using the fact that Whamline had to protect the prone civilians against him, almost like they were playing a game. Like a cat with a mouse. They were wearing him down. 

Using one shot of blue paint to launch myself that way, then another on top of the traffic light in the middle of the intersection, I flipped over in the air before shooting a spray of pink toward the tall lamp post about ten feet away from Janus, coating it as much as possible. Just before crashing into that same post (activating a bit of orange on one arm to avoid knocking the wind out of myself), I cancelled the pink paint while blurting, “I know you’re into this villain thing, but–” My full body hit the post, bending it all the way over in half before I threw myself off it to the side. “–I really think you should see the light!” As I said those last words, the lamp post snapped all the way upright and then continued over in the opposite direction, like flicking one of those springy doorstop things. The top of the lamp literally slammed into the top of their joined heads. “Up close and personal-like,” I finished from my crouched position, watching the men reel backward. Or forward, in Uncle Friendly’s case. Not that he looked all that friendly right then. They both seemed fairly annoyed with me, even as the lamp post snapped back to its normal position. But hey, at least I had their attention. 

Green paint, green paint, green paint! Activating the wide emerald wings I’d put on my back, I used the enhanced speed to barely avoid the truck-sized fist that Janus basically launched at me. Hurling myself upward and over, I landed on his extended wrist as that hand shot by right under me, shooting yellow down at that to slow them just a little. At the same time, I threw myself in a sideways flip, hitting the underside of their other arm, which was raised slightly higher, running along that with my gravity-defying boots.  

A few steps in and Janus clearly knew where I was, as the arm lifted up before abruptly slamming toward the ground. They were trying to squish me like a fly. And they might’ve managed it, if I hadn’t used that shot of yellow to slow them slightly. As it was, I barely managed to toss myself at the ground and away from the descending arm, tucking into a forward roll that carried me just out of the way as it slammed into the ground so hard I nearly lost my balance. 

Fortunately, the fact that I’d managed to get their attention so well wasn’t all bad news. It also meant that Whamline was able to regroup. Mister Harmful shouted a cursed warning, but it was too late, as the Minority Touched sent out four quick energy coils, which wrapped around Janus by all four limbs before quickly hurling him out of the way and across to the far side of the lot. 

“Go help Way and Rain!” he blurted at me, pointing to the theater across the street. “They’re inside, with hostages! I’ve got these guys!” 

My head snapped that way. I could see where the doors of the theater had been broken down entirely. That-A-Way and Raindrop were in there with bad guys and innocent civilians, apparently. Without pausing to think at all, I threw myself into a sprint that way, ignoring the screamed threat from Mister Harmful. He didn’t matter. Neither did his conjoined partner. The only thing that mattered was getting to That-A-Way and Raindrop. 

And hoping I wasn’t too late. 

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Interlude 12B – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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The first time that Izzy Amor had worn her official Minority costume, she had felt like a little kid playing dress-up. Largely because that was essentially what she had been. Eleven years old at the time, she’d had her powers for only a little over a week. A week since the night she had climbed out her window and onto the roof of their condo in the middle of the night to escape the sound of her mother’s tryst with some man she had never met. Izzy had been wishing for the chance to find her real father. Instead, she found one of the Summus Proelium orbs hovering there. In a daze, feeling like the whole thing was a dream, she had touched the orb. 

The week that followed had passed in a rush. Her mother had negotiated everything about Izzy’s joining the Minority. The rules stated that, young as she was, she had to have specific parental approval to join the team in the field. Usually, people under fourteen, even after being approved to be part of the team, did not participate in field exercises. They focused on training. 

But Izzy’s mother had believed that her daughter would only make a name for herself in order to join one of the good teams if she got started right away. She’d wanted Izzy to stand out, the same way an enthusiastic parent might push their kid too hard to make a name for themselves in their chosen sport in order to attract colleges and pro teams. So, she had signed contracts approving Izzy’s deployment into the field under controlled circumstances. Even with contracts, Izzy still couldn’t go out in costume by herself, of course. You had to be at least sixteen to do solo patrols, and even then you had to earn (and request) the privilege. 

In any case, Izzy had been eleven years old and approved, thanks to her mother, for supervised, team-centered field work. After several days of adjustments and tests, her costume had fit perfectly, yet somehow still felt too big for her. Standing in front of the cameras in that dark blue bodysuit with silver armor panels, a white cloak and hood, and a mirrored faceplate that completely obscured her appearance, Izzy had felt like a fraud. She’d felt as though any minute, one of the reporters was going to laugh at the idea of eleven-year-old Izzy Amor being some kind of hero. The fact they didn’t actually know her name or anything about her hadn’t helped calm her nerves. She had been a little kid playing dress-up with a costume that, by itself, had been more expensive than basically everything she had ever owned all put together. 

She’d gone out with the team over those few months, growing slightly more comfortable with what she could do. The others had helped a lot, keeping her calm, making her feel like part of the team despite her uncertainty and misgivings. Her power was helpful not only in combat situations, but for a lot of other uses. She could put out fires, could lift heavy objects off or away from people by getting them wet and then making them float. She could even help stop some entire fights in their tracks just by bringing an intense torrential downpour of cold water. A lot of the time, people who were soaking wet from heavy rain that kept getting in their eyes stopped wanting to fight. It was especially useful for breaking up random brawls on the street between Prev gang members. 

The point was, doing all that made Izzy feel useful. She had still felt as though she didn’t really belong in the expensive, incredibly cool-looking costume she’d been given. After all, she hadn’t done anything to earn her powers. She’d just gone up to hide on the roof away from the sound of her mother having sex with some random guy. The orb came to her and suddenly she had powers she had done nothing to earn. Powers she was pretty sure she didn’t actually deserve. 

But deserve them or not, she’d had them. And, for those few months (during which she had turned twelve years old), she’d gradually started to feel like she might be able to actually be a real part of something. She’d started to feel attached to the team… to her team. She’d even felt as though she might be able to make her mother proud of her, might be able to give her mom the better life that Izzy knew she wanted. Things were looking up. 

Then… then her mother had sold her to Oscuro. Her mother had sold her, had taken money in exchange for her, knowing that Izzy was going to be hurt. Worse than hurt, tortured. Her madre had sold Izzy to be tortured and trained, forced to do bad things for bad people just so she could have money. And not even that much money. The ultimate, indescribable act of betrayal, and her mother had done it for half a million dollars. Five hundred thousand for selling her daughter. 

Now, weeks later, here she was, a guest at the Evans’ obscenely spacious and well-adorned house. Playing video games with their daughter, eating at their kitchen table, sleeping in a bed that, like her Minority costume, was clearly worth more than anything else she had ever owned.  

And again, just like her powers, Izzy had done nothing to earn it. She didn’t deserve any of this, didn’t deserve to be treated like one of Mr. and Mrs. Evans’ children. She was just… Izzy. Why should she be in this virtual palace, being treated like some kind of… of important person? 

She didn’t. She didn’t deserve that. Which was part of what convinced Izzy that she had to go back out again as Raindrop. She didn’t deserve this kind of life at all, but maybe she could at least give some of it back by helping people again. Even if the thought of dressing up in that suit and playing hero made her feel even more like she was just pretending. She could still try. She could put the suit on, go out, and try to help as many people as possible. And if she did that enough, maybe someday she wouldn’t feel like such a fraud. 

That day wasn’t now, however. Izzy stood in costume, staring at herself in the mirror. She was in the bedroom she’d been allowed to use in the Evans’ house. Cassidy was at school, and Simon was off on some kind of family business. Still, the house was busy enough that Izzy had locked the door and stuck a chair up under the knob, just to be on the safe side. The blinds and curtains were also drawn across the windows. She was definitely alone, watching herself in costume while thoughts of her mother ran through her head. The mirrored faceplate stopped Izzy from seeing her own expression, but she already knew what it looked like. Small, pale, nervously biting her lip, her dark hair a mess. Eyes that perpetually looked too wide and too wet. Not brave. Not strong. Not heroic. Just Izzy. 

Abruptly, Izzy’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a knock at the door. She jumped, gasping reflexively as her gaze snapped that way in time to hear Mr. Evans call, “Izzy, you okay?” 

Finally breathing (a bit too rapidly), Izzy pulled the hood down and reached behind her head to undo the straps of the face plate, pulling that off as well as she blurted, “Sorry, Mr. Evans! Umm, uhh, is it just you?” The question came out awkwardly, making her flush a bit at the sound of her own voice.

There was a brief pause before the man answered, “Yeah, Izzy, it’s just me. Is everything alright?” 

Stepping over, Izzy undid the lock, pulling the chair away from the door before opening it for him. Both Mr. Evans and his wife knew all about her Touched identity. It was part of them allowing her to stay with them, as they’d had to know what they were getting into. But Silversmith had assured her that he trusted the Evanses and that she would be safe with them. 

Now, she stepped away from the door, in full costume save for the faceplate and hood, the former of which was held under one arm. She was also flushed from embarrassment. “Sorry, Mr. Evans,” she repeated, “I just didn’t want one of your… umm, people to walk in.” 

The man held a hand up to stop her, while stepping through. He closed the door behind him after checking the hall. “It’s okay, Izzy, I promise. You’re fine. Superhero or not, you’re entitled to your privacy, kid, believe me.” He paused before offering her a small smile that she supposed many would have found handsome and charming. “So, you’re about ready to go out there again, huh?” 

Even more self-conscious, she shrugged at the question while ducking her gaze. But something made her take a deep breath before looking back to meet his eyes. “Yes, sir,” she informed the man as steadily as she could. “I’m ready.” 

********

“Wham, Rain, the truck!” Syndicate (Or one of him, anyway) shouted a couple hours later, as his fist slammed into the side of a tatted-up Easy Eights gang member, knocking the guy staggering backward. The Prev lashed out with his knife, but that version of Syndicate turned insubstantial, allowing the blade to pass harmlessly through him. 

At the same time, a second version of the boy, on the opposite side of their opponent, turned solid and lashed out with a kick to the small of the man’s back. He was knocked forward just as the two Syndicates swapped solidity once more so the first could strip the knife from the stumbling man’s hand, tossing it aside. In that second, a third Syndicate took a running leap, turning solid in mid-lunge (as the other two turned ghost-like) in time to crash into the man and take him to the ground. 

Of course, despite her own self-assurances that she was prepared to back out on the streets, Izzy was still under sixteen. Which meant she still had to go out with a group. No solo patrolling. And that was just fine with her. Ready as she might’ve been to ease back into this whole thing and work to earn the things she’d been given (including her powers), Izzy didn’t want to do it alone. A part of her was still afraid of what would happen if she ran into any of the Oscuro people, people who had been ready and willing to abduct her right out of her own home. According to Silversmith, who had visited the Evanses shortly after her arrival there, Cuélebre and most of the gang had been unaware of what Handler was doing. He was, supposedly, working on his own. But that didn’t change much for Izzy, even if it was true. The emotions that came whenever she thought about those people… she was afraid of what she felt in those moments. 

But here, now? She was with her team, all of them. They had all wanted to come out for her first night back on the job. Which was apparently a good thing, as the six of them had managed to stumble across some kind of Easy Eights job. A group of Prev thugs, led by two Fell-Touched known as Juice and Pivotal, had been loading some kind of shipment out of a warehouse and into a couple semi trucks. A night watchman had managed to call out an alert, and Raindrop’s team was close enough to intercede. 

They had shown up in time to catch the gang right before they’d been about to pull out. Now, Carousel, Wobble, and That-A-Way were busy with Juice (a very heavy-set black guy wearing a silver, entirely featureless and smooth helmet that covered his whole head and a black tank top that showed off his arms with their stormcloud and lightning bolt tattoos whose powers allowed him to control electricity and granted him incredible strength), near one of the trucks. 

The other truck, as Syndicate had just pointed out, was rapidly speeding through the lot. It had just turned the corner around the nearest warehouse building when Izzy snapped her gaze that way. Out of sight. 

But not for long. Even as Izzy saw the taillights of the truck disappear, Whamline jogged to her, extending a hand. “Ready, kid?” he blurted, clearly ready to abort and go after the truck by himself if she declined. Because everyone here, all night, had been treating her with child-gloves, acting like she might break the moment anything bad happened. Even Syndicate had very obviously almost declined this whole situation the moment he heard it involved an actual Fell-Gang with powers. Not to mention the fact that, now that they were in the midst of it, the team had been going out of their way to make sure Izzy didn’t even get close to any bad guys. They were trying to help, she knew, surrounding her with as much protection as possible after what happened (they were aware that her mother had tried to sell her to Oscuro), but it wasn’t helpful. She wanted to prove, at least to herself, that she belonged here, not act like a little kid going bowling with the stupid rubber things in the gutters. 

Now, in this moment, Syndicate and Whamline were offering her that chance. In the midst of combat, seeing that truck about to get away, they had both either forgotten or dismissed the whole ‘keep Raindrop away from the action.’ They were giving her a chance to contribute. 

She took it, grabbing Whamline’s hand before he could change his mind. The instant she did so, the older boy extended his other hand, shooting off one of his energy-coils, which caught hold of the roof of the nearby warehouse. A second later, they were being yanked up toward it. 

They’d done this before, mostly in training, but part of Izzy was nervous about actually pulling it off in the field like this. Still, she shoved those doubts away and focused. An orb of water appeared in the air in front of them, soaking the two as they passed through it. And the second they were wet, she cancelled the effects of gravity on them, blurting, “Now!” 

Whamline’s coil disappeared, no longer yanking them toward the roof. Yet, thanks to the lack of gravity, the pair were still hurling up and forwards. Their momentum carried them clear over the roof, passing above the warehouse and to the other side just in time to see the semi-truck below heading for the street. 

There it was. Seeing it down there, Izzy focused on increasing the effect of gravity on herself and her teammate. They dropped like a pair of heavy stones, crashing straight down while she restrained the urge to scream. Trust. Trust herself. She had to trust herself and her partner. 

Whamline sent out two coils as they dropped, which latched onto the back of the truck and hauled them both that way. They were still dropping so fast Izzy’s stomach felt like it was somewhere up around her throat. Still, she waited, waited…

Just in time, at the last possible second before it would have been too late, she cancelled and then reversed the effect of gravity on them. Momentum carried the pair forward, until the reversed gravity worked to negate it. Izzy had practiced this enough that, while there was a slightly painful jerk, it wasn’t too bad. The reversed gravity and Whamline’s coils worked together to catch them almost like a parachute, just as the two landed on top of the speeding truck. 

“You got this?!” Whamline called, using one arm to hold onto Izzy while the other maintained one of his coils to hold them against the truck. 

“Got it!” she confirmed. All her fears, nerves, and everything else seemed to wash away as she focused on her power. Ahead of the speeding truck, a ball of water appeared. It began as an orb that was only a few feet across, but very quickly grew larger. By the time the truck hit it, unable to stop, the ‘bubble’ was almost as large as the truck itself. 

Izzy and Whamline threw themselves flat against the roof of the trailer, just as the truck crashed through the water. The instant it did and soaked itself, Izzy threw every bit of her power into cancelling its gravity. 

It worked. The truck floated up off the ground, leaving the engine screaming and tires spinning uselessly. They couldn’t go anywhere. 

Strong as her power might’ve been, it took effort to make it work over something as big as a truck. More effort than Izzy was capable of keeping up for long. Still, she didn’t have to keep it going. A couple seconds after making the truck lift a few feet off the ground, she increased gravity on the cab part alone. The trailer continued floating, while the truck itself slammed downward, hitting the pavement with enough force to crumple the hood and front-end and shatter the windshield. The truck definitely wasn’t going anywhere anymore. 

The doors of the truck were thrown open, as two figures launched themselves out of either side. One was a random thug with a gun, who landed on his side on the ground, already pointing his pistol up toward them. But Whamline was on top of that, one of his coils smacking the weapon out of the man’s hand while another lifted him up and threw him out of the way. 

The man who dove out of the driver’s side of the truck, however, was Pivotal, a small, thin guy in a green bodysuit with white highlights and a white ski mask. His power allowed him to designate any point of any non-living object as a pivot and make more of that object rotate or revolve around that point. Which he used right then by making a section of the ground rotate upward even as he jumped from the truck, landing on that vertically twisted bit of pavement. 

Izzy sent a geyser of water at the man, but he backflipped away from his raised platform while simultaneously making a larger section pivot upward to block the spray of water. At the same moment, the truck split in half under herself and Whamline as Pivotal obviously designated the spot beneath their feet as a pivot point and bent the trailer to the side away from them. 

They fell, but Izzy lowered gravity, allowing the pair to land lightly, facing the large section of pavement (it was about nine feet high and six feet wide) blocking them from Pivotal. 

Whamline threw three quickly summoned energy coils at the raised ground, making them explode to send a shower of debris in every direction. Izzy was already sending a new wave of water that way, just in time to catch…

Nothing. The area behind the raised ground was empty. No one was there. Pivotal had disappeared. 

“The ground,” Izzy realized a second after she and Whamline had stood there in confusion. She pointed. “He lifted the ground out of the way to get down under it. Now he’s tunnelling… somewhere. He just umm, he just has to rotate sections of ground out of his way, see?” 

“He’s running,” Whamline muttered, looking in every direction. “Shit–I mean…” He coughed, turning in a circle. “Guess you don’t really think about ‘power to rotate things’ being that impressive, but…”

That-A-Way appeared beside them, teleporting into view before looking around. “What–Juice took off, what about you guys?” 

“Ours got away too,” Izzy admitted, folding her arms across her chest while adding an explanation of how Pivotal had escaped. 

“Well, we got most of the Prev thugs.” That was one of the Syndicates, approaching while still in his ghost-form. “And stopped them from escaping with the trucks. The Fell-Touched might’ve escaped, but they didn’t get what they were after. Which… what were they–” 

“Guns,” Carousel called, approaching with a shrunken object revolving around her. She sent it forward and let it resume its full size as an open crate that landed on the ground between them. “Guns by the tons.” 

She was right, Izzy realized. The crate was full of firearms. And all the crates that had fallen out of the split-open trailer nearby also had weapons in them. Guns, shields, ammunition, grenades of all sorts, explosives…

“God damn,” That-A-Way muttered, “what the hell is all this for?” 

“They’re prepping for a war,” Carousel noted, “but to even what score?” 

Syndicate swallowed hard, speaking up. “Let’s call it in and get people here to clean the place up before those guys come back with reinforcements to get all this stuff. But I think you’re right, Carousel. 

“The Easy Eights are getting ready for war.”

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Pink 12-08 (Summus Proelium)

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So, the other two told me about the ‘theory’ online. A joke theory that the real reason I wore a helmet in addition to a mask was because I was hiding a beak. Because my real dad was actually Lucent the raven. 

Once that much was explained, I stared at the two of them open-mouthed. I knew I should say something, but what exactly was I supposed to say? It was so absurd, I just wanted to laugh. So I did. I snorted first, then shook my head as the snort turned into a giggle fit. My hands pressed against the visor as I doubled over, unable to muffle the outright laugh that came next. A bird. People thought, or were pretending to think, that I was part bird. Somehow, in the midst of every bad thing I had to deal with, all the stress that came with figuring out how to investigate my own family’s underground crime ring, finding out more about this secret history with Anthony Tate and Paige that had been erased from my brain, the entire Pencil situation, all of it… all of it was just too much. And this stupid, ridiculous little theory made me start laughing until I couldn’t stop. I was laughing so much I was almost crying. And then I was crying. Only belatedly did I realize that the snickers and laughter had turned into tears. 

The fuck was wrong with me? I couldn’t even laugh properly without crying. God damn it. 

“Um.” Pack exchanged an obviously confused look with That-A-Way before asking, “You okay?”

Forcing down all of those feelings, I nodded quickly. “Right, yeah, sorry. We’re good. I’m good. We just–um, no beak here.” 

“Yeah, we’ve seen you without the helmet,” That-A-Way pointed out dryly. “Otherwise, totally would’ve bought that theory.” She was obviously trying to tease me a little bit, offering a slight smile of encouragement. “So, you wanna figure out this pink paint thing or what?” 

My mouth opened to agree, then I paused for just a second. Something about That-A-Way’s smile, it made me… feel like it was familiar somehow. But that was dumb. Of course it was familiar. I’d seen Way smile before, after all. God, my brain was weird sometimes. 

Shaking that off, I nodded. “Yeah, sure. Hope we have more luck with you guys.” 

“What’ve you tried so far?” Pack asked, setting Riddles on her shoulder to let the bearded dragon look around curiously. 

I shrugged at that. “I’ve kinda been distracted, so I haven’t tested it as much as I should’ve. Mostly I just put it against things, activated it, then tried touching them. Nothing happened. It doesn’t give mind-reading powers or anything, or disguise powers, or flight. I tried putting paint on my shirt and jumping up and down, tried walking through walls with paint on the wall or on myself… It feels kinda funny when you touch it but I can’t figure out what that means.” Flushing a little, I admitted, “I keep getting distracted by other things every time I try to focus on just the paint.” 

“You, getting involved in too much stuff?” That-A-Way made an exaggerated sound of disbelief and a dismissive gesture with one hand. “I don’t believe it.” 

It was a good thing I had a helmet on, because letting those two see me stick my tongue out at her probably wouldn’t have done a lot of good for my whole pretending to be a boy situation. Still, it made me feel better. As did kicking her in the leg to make the girl yelp. 

In any case, we really did need to figure this out. Because having my entire arsenal of paint was important if we were going to pull this off. So, the three of us moved up to the circle I’d painted on the wall, and Pack put her hand against it. “Turn it on? Or whatever you call it.” 

Shrugging, I did so, focusing on activating the paint. “You’ve got ten seconds.” 

“Well it’s not electrified,” Pack pointed out after running her hand over it. She tugged her glove off, revealing dark skin as she pressed her fingers back to the paint. “Check this out, Rosey.”

“Rosey?” I echoed blankly. 

She pointed to That-A-Way without looking. “Compass Rose.”  

“Wha–never mind.” Shaking her head, the blonde girl stepped closer, reaching out to feel the pink circle. “Huh, it–” Then the circle disappeared. “Shit. It definitely didn’t feel like the rest of the cement around it.” 

Pack nodded. “It’s not hot or cold. It didn’t turn anything invisible. I didn’t feel any different when I touched it. It wasn’t… hmm. I didn’t feel different, but that spot definitely felt weird. Not like the rest of it.” 

Way was staring at the spot where it had been, sounding thoughtful. “It felt more like… umm… softer? Yeah, it felt softer. Hey, try it again.” 

Spraying another circle, I watched as the two examined it once more. That-A-Way finally reared back her fist and punched the wall. When she pulled her hand back, there was a noticeable dent in the pink circle, a fist-shaped impression deep in the actual cement. 

“Um.” Frowning, I stepped over there and leaned in, just as the pink disappeared. The wall was definitely dented. The actual concrete had pushed inward, like it was made out of playdough or something. “I’m no expert, but I don’t think cement is supposed to do that.” 

That-A-Way put her hand out, running it along the fist-shaped indentation. “Holy crap, dude. What the hell did that stuff do, make the wall… soft? Your paint makes things soft?” 

Pack stooped, grabbing the wooden broom before holding it up. “Hey, paint this thing.” 

So, I did. Carefully spraying pink over the handle, I activated it and gave her a nod. 

Pack, in turn, gripped the broom handle from both ends and bent it in half. It didn’t break. It didn’t snap. The handle itself bent easily, as Pack basically tied it into a knot. “It’s… it’s like it’s made of rubber,” she announced, as the pink paint vanished, leaving a normal wood broom handle that was stretched out to be thinner than it used to be and wrapped around itself several times.  

“Are you telling me that paint makes things… what, rubber?” That-A-Way asked, taking the tied-up broom to examine it. “Some kind of soft rubber that you can bend and twist around?” 

“Hold on…” Curiously, I held up my own arm, focusing on painting not only my costume, but also my actual arm inside pink. Activating both, I took hold of the middle of my arm with my other hand and very carefully twisted, ready to stop if I needed to. 

It bent. My actual forearm bent. Not like, at the elbow or the wrist, but midway in between. It bent in half as if I had a whole other elbow there. Before even thinking about what I was doing, I grabbed tight and pulled at my arm. It stretched out like it was made of taffy. I twisted it around a few times and yanked it out in two different directions. It was silly putty. My arm was like silly putty. And it didn’t hurt at all. It looked really fucked up, for sure. but it didn’t actually hurt. Actually, it barely felt like anything at all except for maybe a little tingly. 

“Oh, my God!” I blurted out loud while staring at my pretzel-like arm. “That’s what the pink does. You have no idea how long I’ve been trying to figure that out.” 

“Goodie,” Pack muttered. “Excuse me while I go barf in the corner.” 

Of course, the real question was what would happen if my arm, or any body part, was bent and twisted like taffy when the pink wore out. Which was a thought that occurred to me about half a second before that very thing happened. The pink paint wore off, and my arm instantly snapped back to being the way it was supposed to be. It unbent and sort of… schlooped back in on itself just like normal. It was all really quick, almost before I could even think about how bad it might be. 

“Oh fuck!” That-A-Way blurted. “Did that hurt, are you okay?!” 

“Nope,” I replied. “Didn’t hurt. Felt a little weird, but it didn’t hurt. I uhh… guess I’m lucky the power works like that on biological things, huh? Might’ve been bad if it just… snapped or something.” Even as I said that part aloud, my face paled. God, that really would’ve sucked. I probably would’ve been on the ground screaming my fucking head off if my power didn’t put my arm back properly.  

“You guess you’re lucky it works like–” Pack started to echo before cutting herself off with an exasperated sound. “Rose, are you sure about this whole thing? Cuz I think we just got ourselves involved with a lunatic.” 

“Lunatic or not,” the Minority Touched insisted, “he knows more about the truth of what’s going on in this city than anyone.” She gave me a brief look, “And definitely more than he’s said so far. So I don’t think we have much choice right now.” Belatedly, That-A-Way added, “What else do you think that paint can do?” 

“Well,” I offered with a shrug, “let’s find out. I mean, if you guys want to help me some more.”

The other two looked at each other briefly, before Pack replied with a flat, “Duh. Playing with new powers is like… one of the best things in the world. Helping someone else play with new powers? That’s a pretty close second. So yeah, come on, let’s see what else you can do with it.”

Considering what to do for a moment, I held my hand up, painting it pink. “Hey, Way. Pull my f–” 

“If you finish that sentence,” she interrupted sharply, “I swear I will lock you in this shed.” Squinting at me pointedly, the girl carefully reached out to take hold of three fingers at once. “Just… tell me if it hurts,” she advised before gingerly starting to pull as I activated the paint. As expected, my fingers stretched out. Again, it was like pulling taffy. Or gum. I wasn’t sure what was going on with my bones inside, but it probably looked pretty gross. Hell, it looked gross just like this, as That-A-Way pulled those three fingers out until they were a good two feet long.

“Okay, hold up,” Pack quickly put in. “Where’s the extra material coming from? Cuz yeah, your fingers are a bit thinner than they would be, but not that much. That’s two extra feet of skin and… and…” Flailing a bit helplessly, she blurted, “How’s it stretching out that far?!” 

I started to say something, but in the next moment, the paint wore off. Instantly, the pink color vanished and my fingers were snapped out of That-A-Way’s hand with a schlooping noise before they shot back to my hand and into place, practically vibrating from the force of it. 

“Fuck!” That-A-Way jumped, head jerking my way as she looked at my now-normal fingers. “Are you okay?! Did that–are you–” Her gaze was riveted to my hand, voice quiet. “What the fuck?” 

“Nope,” I assured her, as well as Pack, who was also staring intently at me. “I swear, it didn’t hurt at all. Felt a bit tingly or whatever, and sure sounded weird. But it definitely didn’t hurt. I think the effect turns off pain receptors in it or something?” Belatedly, I thought about how useful that by itself could be. If painting something pink turned off physical pain… yeah, that could help a lot. Hell, I’d had that exact thought before, that being able to shut off pain would be great.

Opening and shutting my hand a couple times before pointedly wiggling my fingers, I looked to the others. “See? It’s all good. No problems.” That said, I tilted my head curiously. “You know, my paint affects other people too.” It was too bad I had a mask and helmet on, because it meant they couldn’t see the way my eyebrows were waggling. But I was pretty sure they could guess. 

There wasn’t exactly a rush to be the first to volunteer. Finally, Pack sighed and stepped over, gingerly extending a hand to me. “If this actually does hurt and you’ve been fucking with us,” she informed me, “I swear I will find a way to pay you back.” 

“Trust me,” I assured the girl, “I don’t have that good of a poker face. If that actually hurt even a fraction of what it seems like it should, I would’ve been crying and screaming. I swear, you don’t really feel anything at all. Cross my heart. Which, come to think of it, I might be able to do with this power, if I could twist my chest around the–never mind.” Realizing they were really staring at me by that point, I waved it off. “Here, the point is, it’s definitely not gonna hurt. And even if it somehow acts differently with you than me, we’ll go really slow and careful at first, I swear.” 

Suiting action to words, I painted her index finger pink. Then I very gingerly took hold of the end and watched her face while starting to pull. I heard her sharp intake of breath and saw a visible flinch when the finger started to stretch, and stopped short. But after a moment, she gave me the nod to continue. It had just surprised her. So, I tugged a little more, stretching the finger further. It was now about a foot long and, judging from the lack of screaming, didn’t hurt after all.

“Holy shit!” Pack blurted, head shaking. “Look at that. My finger’s just like–you’re right, it doesn’t hurt. Feels funky, but not really…”  She trailed off, sounding like she felt a bit sick. “Oh man, that’s fucking gross. Totally fucking g–” At that point, the paint wore off and the tip of her finger was snapped out of my hand to sloorp right back into its normal position and length. The suddenness of it made Pack yelp, stumbling backward while grabbing her hand. Then she stopped, staring at it, then up at me. “God damn, dude. You’re right, it just feels really weird.”  

We tested that a little bit more, with That-A-Way’s help too. Very carefully, I let both of them tie two of my fingers into a knot, just to see what would happen. I was ready to instantly paint them again if something went wrong, but wanted to see how my power dealt with that. Better in a semi-controlled environment like this than the middle of a fight, after all. 

As it turned out, there wasn’t a problem. When the paint wore off, my fingers sort of… schlurped in their still-boneless and stretchy forms to release one another before zipping back to their normal positions. The feeling and structure and all that didn’t return until they were back the way they were supposed to be. And no matter how much we tried to tie them up, they were able to go right back to normal. Which made me wonder what would happen if it was somehow physically impossible for a stretched-out body part to get back to the way it was supposed to be. But that kind of extensive (and dangerous) testing would have to come later. Right now, I was still getting the hang of the basics of this stuff. 

We did try a few other things. I stretched my fully-pink arm out and watched as That-A-Way hit it with that metal pipe. She started softly, working her way up to full on, two-handed slamming it into my pink arm. Each time, I didn’t feel anything and the arm just bent inward under the force of the hits. Again, it looked gross and awful, but didn’t actually hurt at all. And each time, once the power wore off, my arm returned to normal with no apparent ill-effect. I tried it with my leg too, with the same result. Everything I used the paint on turned rubbery and could be pulled, stretched, or twisted into new shapes as long as the paint was active. If the thing was biological (or close attached to something biological, like my clothes, I supposed), it went right back to normal after the paint wore off. If it was some random object like the wall or the broom, it stayed the way it had been twisted. 

That, of course, made me wonder how the paint knew which was which. I could see biological things going back to their normal shape as some kind of safety measure, but how did it know to put clothes back to the way they’d been? How did that work? 

Eventually, I even moved on to testing the paint on my lower torso. Painting the costume and my skin pink (Front and back, all the way around, of course), I let Pack take a turn with the pipe. She shoved it into my stomach end-first, and it just kept pushing that in and back. Looking over my shoulder, I watched as a pipe-shaped bit of my pink-painted costume torso started pushing back that way. 

“Oh gross, gross! Nope, I’m done, I’m done.” Pack quickly yanked the pipe away, a moment before my stretched-out insides snapped back to the way they should be. 

“Paintball,” That-A-Way piped up, gesturing to the wall, a blank section near the one that had the fist-shaped impression in it. “Try it over here again, on this part.” 

So, I did. Extending a hand, I shot a circle of pink about a foot across at the wall. As soon as I activated it, That-A-Way shoved both her hands into the wall hard. She was able to, with some effort, grab two handfuls of the rubberized wall and pull them out, yanking the playdough-like cement out, then pushed and molded it until there was a hole in the wall leading into the storage unit next door. 

“Holy shit, dude,” Pack blurted, “do you have any idea how easily you could use this to break into places and…” She trailed off, blinking over toward That-A-Way, who was squinting at her. “Umm… save… puppies and orphans and… something. Whatever.” 

Snorting, I shook my head. “You’re right about one thing. This will make it easier to break into places…

“Like, say… that secret base under the mall.” 

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Pink 12-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Owww, owwww! My head. Fuck, god damn it! Yeah, the next few minutes after I saw those words weren’t fun. I held my head, grimacing and whimpering through the pain, as flashes of… of something worked their way through my mind repeatedly. Flashes of a van? A van. Why was I seeing a van? 

Find Cassidy. Cassidy will help me. 

What in the living fuck was that supposed to mean? Why would Paige Banners say that once, let alone repeatedly? How did she… what… why would… Why? Just why? Once I’d recovered from the rush of pain in my head, that single question and variants of it echoed through my mind for hours, as I worked in a daze to clean up more of that room. I couldn’t just take off the moment I found that file, naturally. That would’ve looked just a bit suspicious (not to mention being wrong considering I was supposed to be working on this to make up for temporarily stealing from them). Still, I couldn’t actually focus on anything I was doing and just went about the work barely noticing the specifics of it. I felt even more lost.

Spending those hours dully and mechanically moving files around and scrubbing things while obsessively thinking about the Paige situation didn’t really help all that much. I still had no idea why she would have asked for me or what she thought I could’ve done. Or why she acted like such a… bitch to me the moment we supposedly met in middle school. Because this had definitely been before that. Paige Banners knew me before I supposedly met her in school. 

Finally, I figured I’d been there long enough and stopped working. By the time I got out to the front area, Tricia was there. The elderly woman greeted me happily, said she’d heard I had the chance to meet Lucent, and offered me a couple cookies from a tupperware behind her desk. I thanked her and said a few more words, but honestly I really wasn’t paying much attention. As soon as possible without being overtly rude, I excused myself and got out of there quickly. 

Once I was out of the Seraph place, I made my way to the roof of a building and just sat down, took my helmet off, and put my still-masked face against my hands. Fuck. Fuck. What did all this mean? What did all of it mean? Why was Paige asking for me? Why did she think I could help her? Why did she suddenly hate me after we met at school? What did all of that have to do with that Anthony Tate kid? Why did Bobby have a secret code on those toys that led to a file all about Paige Banners being found in an alley in some kind of catatonic state or something, next to three dead bodies? How did all of it fit into my lost memory? What picture was this puzzle? 

Right, okay, I could work out some of it if I just stopped freaking out so much. Take the whole thing one step at a time, right? I’d been focused on the shocking revelation that Paige Banners asked for my help, that she’d basically pleaded and begged for them to contact me. Because there was no way that was just some other Cassidy. That would be too much of a coincidence. 

The point was, I’d been reeling from that and stopped really focusing properly. I just had to take this whole thing from the top. First, Paige clearly knew me before I remembered us meeting. The only two possibilities for that I could think of were A: she knew about me enough to ask for me but we’d never met, just as I’d always thought. Or B: I knew her before I remembered knowing her, but that memory had been erased from my mind just like Anthony had been. 

It had to be B. Honestly, that was really the only option that actually made sense given everything I knew. A was technically an option, but I only included it in my thoughts to be thorough. But I shoved it aside for the time being to focus entirely on option B. And then I just sort of let the realization of B’s implications wash over me for a few silent moments, still keeping my face against my hands while sitting alone on that roof in the early evening sunlight. 

I knew Paige before, just like I’d known Anthony. That was the only real answer. I knew her. And not only did I know her, she knew me well enough to tell the authorities that I could help her when they found her catatonic surrounded by several dead bodies in an alley. She’d wanted my help. She’d begged them to have me help her. We had been… we had to have been… friends? 

Fuck. That was the part that made all of this so hard for me to accept. Friends? Paige and I had been friends? Close enough friends for her to beg for the authorities to find me back then. But how? How could I have been friends with Paige fucking Banners when we were children?

Obviously, my friendship with Paige (I just had to accept that it was a thing and move on) had been erased, just like my friendship with Anthony had been. For whatever reason, everything I knew about both Anthony Tate and Paige Banners was erased. To figure this out, to really understand and get anywhere, I was going to have to accept that fact. I had been friends with Paige at some point and my memory of being friends with her had been taken away from me. 

Okay, with that accepted at least tentatively, what next? Paige. This whole thing had happened five years earlier. Both her being found and asking for me and the death of Anthony and his parents happened five years ago. That wasn’t a coincidence either, and it almost certainly meant those two memories, of Anthony and of Paige, were erased for the same reason, right?

I didn’t think that was a stretch. Both incidents being five years earlier and my memories of both being erased… yeah. I’d ‘met’ Paige shortly after that, in the seventh grade. That I remembered. I definitely remembered how much she’d obviously hated me from the very start, how she’d made fun of me for looking like a little boy. Not helped by the fact that I had been skipped forward past the first grade. So in seventh grade, I should have been in sixth. And I would’ve been small for a sixth grader. Which meant… yeah. Paige had basically been the ringleader of kids who taunted me about all that from the very first day we (supposedly) met. 

But why had she acted like we didn’t know each other? Why had her attitude about me changed so thoroughly between the time that she begged for the authorities to find me just months earlier, and when we ‘met’ in the seventh grade, after she had apparently been adopted by the Banners? Was it for the same reason that I didn’t remember her? Did her memory get erased too? Or did she think that I was suddenly ignoring her? Had she spent all this time not knowing that my memory was erased and I had no idea who she was? Was she pissed off because I didn’t help her when she’d needed it, because I hadn’t been there when she asked for me? 

No. No, that didn’t make sense, right? Either her memory was erased or she knew that mine was, otherwise she would’ve approached me. She would have asked me why I wasn’t there for her, why I’d ignored her or whatever she might’ve thought happened. She would have brought it up. If she remembered me and thought I abandoned her or whatever, she would have used that as part of her reasons for why I sucked. And it wasn’t like she would’ve had a hard time convincing people of it. I was a little rich girl. She easily could have used me supposedly ignoring her when she needed help to turn people against me, even if she didn’t give specifics. 

But it never came up. She never even implied that we’d known each other before, as far as I could remember. Not that my memory was exactly the best witness in this whole situation, but still. She didn’t make a thing out of it. Which didn’t make sense unless she either lost her memory too, or knew that I had and deliberately chose not to remind me of it. 

The problem was, I had no idea which of those was right. Why would she not talk to me about any of what happened if we used to be close enough friends for her to ask the authorities to find me. And not just ask, but repeatedly ask. According to that file, asking for my help was basically the only thing young Paige would do. 

I’d used my phone to scan the papers in the file, so I could look through it later. But honestly, I didn’t know what else I could get out of it. Not without knowing more. Maybe the names of the Ten Towers people who had found Paige to begin with could be useful? But even if I tracked them down, what was I supposed to say to them? What was I supposed to ask? That was a whole conversation that I had no idea how to even start. 

So yeah, I was still really confused. And I had to get home, because I didn’t want my parents to start to worry about me. I was going to have to play this easy and safe over the next few days. Especially considering I was planning on seeing if That-A-Way and Pack could meet the next evening to talk about… all that stuff. 

Right. Time to go home for now. I could figure all this out later. Hopefully. 

********

“Okay then!” The two words were accompanied by the sound of a heavy rolling door being shoved upward along its track. That-A-Way, gripping the handle as she held the door up just above head level, gestured. “You wanted privacy, so here’s some privacy.” 

It was the next evening, after Tuesday family dinner with my parents, Simon, and Izzy. I’d managed to contact both Pack and That-A-Way, arranging to meet here at this old storage yard away from prying eyes and ears. Apparently That-A-Way knew the owner and that the cameras in this back area hadn’t worked in months. He didn’t have enough customers to fill up these sheds, so he hadn’t bothered to fix the security for them. As long as we stayed back here away from the management office, we’d be safe. Especially inside one of the storage units. 

Maybe it was a little bit of overkill, but for the things I needed to talk to these two about, I was totally cool with being too paranoid. If there even was such a thing in this kind of situation. 

Standing a bit to the side with her cage full of lizards at her feet, Pack gestured for me to go ahead. “This is your show, Paintboy. So you first. I’m not exactly jumping for joy about sneaking around behind the backs of the people who’re supposed to be part of my team. But if you’re right about some mysterious secret society skimming money off the top, I wanna know about it.” 

Taking a breath, I nodded before stepping into the storage unit. Pack and That-A-Way followed me in, before the latter pulled the door shut. We were in darkness for a moment, then Way found the light switch and flipped it on. Now we were alone in this almost empty unit. There was a broom, a random metal pipe, and a few other bits of trash lying scattered along the floor in this place. But it was about as close to completely alone and safe as we were likely to get. 

Turning to the other two, I told them about the mall base again. I explained about how I’d noticed someone I recognized from the night I’d gotten my powers (leaving out that the person in question was my brother) and followed him to that door. I mentioned distracting the guy guarding it, and how I’d gotten into the hallway, seen the security pad on the inner door, then hid before listening as the guy I’d recognized had the spat with that other guy about being paid. I explained the details about the whole ‘Ministry tax’ as far as I understood it. 

“He said they pay ten percent of the take from any job done in the city,” I informed the other two. “Just for permission to operate in the city. Then it’s another twenty percent for the patrol schedules of heroes in the city for the day of the job. Apparently it’s more than that if the Ministry directly intervenes. The Ministry guy said that they knew exactly how much whatever these biker dudes took was worth, and that thirty percent was forty-six thousand.”

“Wait, a biker dude?” That-A-Way frowned. “Was he like this big, heavy guy with all these tattoos on his arms. One of them was like a… umm, like an eagle with a headband.” 

“Eagle with a headband!” I quickly blurted, nodding while pointing at her. “Yeah, he definitely had that. It was up on his bicep here.” Gesturing to my own arm, I added, “You know that guy?” 

“We’ve met,” the other girl informed me dryly, rubbing her own fist. “I know what that job was too. They stole a couple classic cars. We weren’t supposed to be in the area, but there was this kid with a bike that–never mind. The point is, they got away with a couple vehicles from that museum on Piquette.”

“Piquette–you mean the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant?!” I blurted, my voice rising a bit. “They stole cars from that place? Which ones, did they hurt any of th–” Belatedly, I realized the other two were staring at me, and stopped myself, flushing. “I mean, I didn’t hear about that.” 

Squinting at me, That-A-Way murmured, “Uh huh. Car guy, got it. Anyway, the point is, I had a thing with that guy. He’s lucky he got away.” Pausing then, she frowned intently. “Or maybe not lucky. We were going to chase them, but got called off by Silversmith. He said we were supposed to cut them off on this other route, but they never even went that way.” Her voice was troubled, to say the least. After saying that much, she looked up to me. “You said not to trust anyone on the Conservators, not even Silversmith.” 

Meeting her gaze, I nodded. “I know what I said. We have no idea who they’re working with on the Star-Touched side. But if they have all this power and information, if they can actually influence patrol routes? That’s gotta be pretty big, right. So yeah, don’t trust anyone else. Not now. Not until we know more. Like I said before, this isn’t something you can just put back in the box once it’s open.”

“And part of knowing more is getting into that mall base you were talking about,” Pack pointed out. She’d taken one of her lizards (I was pretty sure it was Tuesday) out of the cage and was rubbing his neck. “So how do we do that without immediately broadcasting who we are? Cuz if both our leaders are in on this,” she gestured between herself and That-A-Way, “they’re gonna know who we are.” 

“I was thinking about that,” I confirmed. “You guys can’t go there in your normal costumes. You’ll need alternate disguises. And you can’t use your obvious powers.” 

“Us?” That-A-Way pointed out. “What about you? If these guys are as big as you say…” 

I shrugged. “They already know I’m investigating them. I mean, they saw me save that Paige girl. What they don’t know is how much I know. But still, we have to be careful. I’d rather avoid having any confrontation if we can help it. So we go in the middle of the night, hopefully after everyone’s gone.”

“And how do we get past that locked door you were talking about?” Pack demanded. “Cuz you know it’s alarmed. Not to mention all the other security measures they’ll have.”

“That’s why we have to find a guy who works in there, wait for him to leave, then…” I hesitated before pushing on. “Then grab him and use his pass key to get in once everything’s locked down.” 

They were staring at me again. That-A-Way managed, “You want to abduct a guy who works in that secret basement and use his passkey to get in?” 

“That’s about the size of it, yeah,” I confirmed. “I can’t think of any other way to do it, can you? We need proof about what they’re doing down there. The whole reason they’re leaving Paige Banners alone is because she has mutually assured destruction material. We need our own. We need to know more. Which means we need to get in that basement, get pictures, video, whatever. I’ve just been flailing around in the dark here. If I’m gonna get anywhere, I have to take some chances.”

“We,” That-A-Way corrected gently. “We have to take some chances. But you’re right. And you’re also right that Pack and I need to hide who we really are. At least until we know more.”

“And speaking of knowing more,” Pack put in, “how about you explain everything your paint is capable of so we know what we can all do? And by paint, I mean the pink one. Because there is a whole thing on Sphere about what paints do what and no one can figure out what pink is. Unless it really does hide the beak.”

That made me do a double-take. “Hide the what?”    

I could’ve sworn she was smirking at me from behind that full face-concealing black mask. “Never mind. But you might want to check out your thread in that place. It’s… right, yeah, never mind. The pink?” 

That made me shrug helplessly. “I dunno. I haven’t figured it out. Here.” I pointed at the nearby wall and sprayed a pink circle onto it. “When I activate it, nothing happens.” 

“Well, good thing you’ve got help now,” That-A-Way informed me. “Trust me, it took awhile for me to figure out how my direction powers worked. Between the three of us, we should be able to crack this little mystery.” 

“Yeah,” Pack agreed. “And if all else fails, we could always ask Paintball’s bird-daddy.” 

“My what?!” 

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Ready 11-06 (Summus Proelium)

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We met up with Skip and Broadway shortly after that, so I promised Pack and That-A-Way that I would talk to them about the whole mall thing later. I was tired, sore, mentally exhausted, and really just wanted to crawl into my bed and sleep for about a million years. But I was also terrified about what was going to happen when I got home. It was late, and my phones completely didn’t work so I had no idea if my parents had noticed me being gone for so long. If they’d been trying to get hold of me, if they’d panicked and called the cops… this could get complicated. And I was so done with everything right then, I was afraid of what I might say. 

The car that Skip showed up in was actually a van. Apparently she’d damaged the Scions’ car enough to leave it undriveable and then abandoned them. Given his immunity to practically anything, there was no way that she could keep Pencil contained long enough to try to call in the authorities. Especially with Cup there and the possibility that they had called in other Scion reinforcements at some point in all of that. The best thing to do was to get out of there while we could. None of us wanted to take the risk of Pencil getting the upper hand again. He’d almost managed it even with all of us there and Skip’s own selective immunities. 

Besides, I was just… again, exhausted. Falling into my seat in the van, I let my head rest against the window while listening to That-A-Way telling Skip what road to take to get out of there, and to Broadway saying something about how she would watch for anyone behind us. 

The next thing I knew, the side door of the van was being slid open and we were in a brightly lit area. I jerked awake, heart thudding its way through a Lars Ulrich drum solo while I looked around wildly, instant panic making me imagine any number of horrible scenarios just then. 

That-A-Way was right there, hand on my arm while she quickly assured me, “It’s okay. It’s alright, Paintball. Hey.” Moving a bit, she gestured to show me that we were just in some kind of illuminated parking garage. “We’re back in Detroit, it’s okay. You’re safe.” Pausing to look at me, the other girl looked for a moment like she was going to say something important. In the end, however, she just carefully asked, “Are you okay? You were… you were shifting around a lot.”

Flinching at the thought of what I could have mumbled, considering the state I was in, I gave a short nod. It took a second to come down off my panic-high, but I finally found my voice. “Y-yeah, I’m good. I’m fine. I mean I’m not fine, but I’ll get over it. You…” Biting my lip, I looked to her. “You guys really saved me. I would’ve been dead without you. I would have died.” Just saying that out loud, even now that I was safe and totally out of that situation, made my heart beat faster while my throat went dry. The memory of Pencil pointing that weapon at me… I shook a bit, shoving the thought down into the basement of my mind before locking the door.

That-A-Way gave me what I knew was a practiced reassuring smile, the kind she used for making civilians feel better about a situation without scaring them. “I’m just glad we were there,” she informed me, before her eyes narrowed. “And as soon as you feel better, I’m hitting you again. Don’t you ever do that, got it? I will not be used as an excuse to let you go off on your own and get yourself killed. If you do, I’ll find a way to bring you back just to kick your ass.” 

Quickly, I held up both hands in surrender. “I know, I know. It was stupid. In my defense, I had no idea that the Scions were involved at all. I wouldn’t have–yeah, I know. It was still stupid. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want anyone else to get hurt because of me. I didn’t want to be–ow.” The last bit was because That-A-Way put her hand out to flick my forehead with one finger. It hurt. 

“Just don’t do it again,” she flatly insisted. “You need help, ask for it. That’s why I gave you my number in the first place.” Pausing briefly, the girl added in a slightly more subdued voice. “Seriously, Paintball, I’m glad you’re okay. I don’t know what…” She shook her head. “Just don’t be that stupid anymore. I really don’t want to find out you got yourself killed after all this. Especially if that thing you were talking about…” Stopping herself, she gestured. “Come on, let’s go.” 

Sliding out of the van after her, I looked around. We were, sure enough, in one of the parking garages downtown. I could see Skip off in the distance, wearing a backpack over one shoulder and talking to what looked like a security guard while Pack and Broadway stood off the other way next to the former’s cage full of lizards. As soon as Pack saw me get out of the van, she approached, leaving her teammate with the cage. “Good,” she started, “you’re awake. So what are we gonna do about everything you said?” Lowering her voice to being barely audible, she added, “Cuz I don’t know about Compass-Power here, but I really wanna know more. Especially if it involves my team.”

“And my team,” That-A-Way agreed, arms folded. “But we can’t really talk about it right now.” 

“Yeah, there’s not time,” I pointed out after stifling a yawn. “My parents are already–” Cutting that off quickly, I blanched before settling on, “I’ll meet both of you later this week, I promise. Just let me recover from all this and we’ll talk about what I know. We’ll figure something out. Especially about that… thing I mentioned with the mall.” Saying those last few words mostly under my breath, I gestured. “But seriously, like I said, don’t tell anyone.” I looked to That-A-Way. “No one on your team, none of the adult heroes. Not even the leaders. Not Caishen, not Brumal, and especially not Silversmith.” 

That-A-Way was squinting at me. “What do you mean, ‘especially not Silversmith?’ He’s not… no.” 

I met her gaze intently. “I’ll explain more later, I swear. Just… just don’t do anything you can’t take back. Telling anyone about this is gonna open a box that none of us can close again. The more people who know about it, the worse it’ll be. Later we can figure out who to trust, but right now, just…. don’t.” 

“And especially not Silversmith,” That-A-Way repeated pointedly, her gaze still locked on me. 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “especially not Silversmith. Like I said, I’ll tell you more later. I just can’t deal with this right now. Don’t talk to anyone about it. Please. This is just a lot to put out there right now.” Looking to Pack, I added, “Check on Eits for me? Make sure he’s still getting better. And I’m sorry about… about everything.” 

Pack promised to do so, before Skip approached. The Ten Towers Touched spoke in that same eerily calm voice of hers that actually helped calm me down, all things considered. “Steven won’t tell anyone we were here. I trust him to be discreet, he has been very helpful before.” Looking to me, she added, “How are your injuries? Will you be able to make it home?” 

Everything hurt, that was for sure. But the fact that I was alive and in one piece right then after everything that happened was honestly such a freaking miracle that it felt like I could’ve danced home. Okay, not really. Ow. Still, I’d get home. I didn’t really have much of a choice, even if the idea of trying to explain to my parents where I’d been was terrifying. “I’ll make it,” I confirmed. 

We said a few more things. I thanked all of them for going the extra however-many-miles to save my stupid life from Pencil. Then I left them. We all separated, and I headed out of the parking garage and out onto the street. Honestly, right then the last thing that I wanted to do was start jumping and running around. But I had to get back home, and first I needed to get to the place I’d stored my clothes on the way over to see Pack and Eits in the first place. 

Despite what I’d said about being okay, I was limping as I left the garage. Fuck. Shit. That hurt. Everything hurt. Getting knocked out by whatever that dart had been was bad enough, but the chase through the woods, getting hit with whatever that gun had been? That was rough. If I hadn’t had my orange paint on when that gun hit me the first time, what kind of shape would I be in now? Would I even be alive? I definitely wouldn’t be walking like this. 

Then again, the only reason I was even still here at all was because of Pack and the others. The four of them had gone out of their way to save my life. The fact that Pack and That-A-Way had put aside any differences they had to save me was enough on its own, but I barely knew Skip. I’d exchanged a few words with her, that was it. And I didn’t know Broadway at all. She was there because of Pack, of course. But still. The four of them had totally saved my ass. Without them, I wouldn’t be alive. I’d be dead. Dead. The thought kept reverberating throughout my mind while I used a bit of red paint to yank myself up to a roof so I could get out of sight. 

Dead. Without them, I would have been dead. Pencil would have killed me. Everything I’d done, and absolutely none of it would have mattered anymore because I’d just be… gone forever. I was only alive because other people had come to save me. People who I still didn’t trust with all my secrets. Or even most of them. 

Was I resisting telling anyone the truth about myself and my family to protect them, or to protect myself? Or worse, to protect my family. Was I so against letting anyone know what my family was because I was still keeping their secrets? What I somehow instinctively still siding with my family even as I outwardly sided against them?

Those thoughts bothered me as I walked across the roof. My hand was rubbing my chest where I had been hit. One of my ribs felt really bad, making me flinch and wince when I touched that spot. It did, at least, distract me from all those troubling thoughts about my motivations. 

Taking a breath, I used blue paint to launch myself out toward the next building. And I instantly regretted it. A shooting rush of pain went through my side and leg, and I basically ended up falling in a heap on the next roof, sprawling out gracelessly before curling into a ball with a groan of pain. Owwww.  

Right, this might have been worse than I thought. I really needed to get home, but running and jumping just wasn’t going to cut it. So, instead, I just used red paint to pull myself from roof to roof and orange paint to ensure that I didn’t land too roughly. Even simple landings that I never would have used the orange paint for any other time needed it. I was basically limping from roof to roof just to get to the spot where I had hidden my clothes. That was all I needed. I would change clothes and then call for an Uber. 

Wait. Call. My phones were both busted as far as getting a signal went. Sighing hard when that thought popped into my head as I hit another roof, I stumbled and half bent over. Nausea welled up in me and I had to fight the urge to throw up or pass out. Or both. After catching my breath, I took out both phones to check them again. Sure enough, still no signal. I was in the middle of town and yet there was no signal. Pencil had definitely not been exaggerating about what his little toy had done. 

Okay, still not the end of the world. I would change clothes and then use the phone at a gas station or something. I’d get a ride home and come up with some kind of excuse for how late I was if it came down to it. Considering it was about four in the morning at that point, I was relatively terrified about how my parents would react if they actually knew I wasn’t in bed. 

At least I had a couple people to help me with the mall problem. I’d had no idea how I was going to get into that secret underground place to find anything else out by myself. But with That-A-Way and Pack, maybe we could actually pull it off. And maybe I would actually manage to think of how much I could tell them. I’d already taken several huge risks with all that and they had come through every time. Pack had come to save me even when she was mad about Eits. She risked her life and the lives of her beloved lizards to save me. That-A-Way had willingly worked with villains to come help me. At what point was I just going to trust them with all of this, with the whole story? What was wrong with me? Part of it, of course, was genuinely wanting to protect them from the things my family could do. But by this point, how much of that was just an excuse? And who was I protecting more, them or my family? I was kind of afraid of what the answer to that actually was. 

Finally, I reached my hidden bag and looked around to make sure things looked clear before starting to change. And damn was that just the worst clothes changing experience of my life. Everything hurt so much. Just lifting my leg to put it into the hole of my jeans made me practically whimper. It felt like I was contorting myself into a pretzel simply by pushing my arms through the sleeves of my shirt and jacket. And I had to do it quickly, because the absolute cherry on the top of this shit day would have been someone spotting me standing on the roof in my underwear and bra. 

Hiding the bag with my costume once more, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk taking it home when I didn’t know what the situation there was, I got myself to the ground. After managing that without dying somehow, I did one thing with my personal phone to help sell any story I came up with before walking out to look for a phone to use. Thankfully, the guy in the nearby gas station didn’t raise too much of a fuss, and I was able to call a taxi. Then, while waiting for it, I noticed a guy skating past. An idea popped into my head, so I quickly flagged him down before offering him a hundred bucks for the board and another fifty for his helmet. He took it and, once he was gone, I stepped into the alley and slammed the board against the wall a couple times until I managed to almost snap one set of wheels off. I hit the helmet a few times too. 

Giving the driver instructions to an address a short distance away from my house, I slumped into the seat and exhaled while trying to think of a story I could tell that might actually help. 

Once again, I fell asleep almost immediately. The next thing I knew, the driver in front was clearing his throat and trying to politely wake me up. When my eyes opened, he nodded. “All set.” Pausing then, he added, “You sure you’re okay, kid? You look like someone threw you into a blender.”

Somehow, I managed a slight smile while paying him. “Just need to sleep.”

He gave me a thumbs up while I was getting out. “Well, you get on home and take a nap, son.”

Son. Yeah. Because that was really what I needed right then. Mumbling something but I didn’t even follow myself, I shut the door and shoved my hands into the jacket pockets before walking off. Son. Boy. God dammit. Yes, I had much worse problems than that. That was basically a pebble in my shoe compared to everything else. And yet, it hit me at just the wrong time. I was tired and sore and so much else had happened. Dropping my head as I shuffled along, I forced back the tears. No, they weren’t tears from what he had said. I’d been mistaken for a boy plenty of times. So many people thought I was a rather pretty thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy instead of a sixteen-year-old girl that it should not even have registered anymore.  

No, the tears were mostly about everything. Getting captured, nearly dying, seeing that picture and realizing that the dead boy had obviously been a friend of mine, all of it. Even the fact that I’d clearly missed Bobby by just minutes and now had no idea where else he could be contributed. All of it contributed, until I could barely keep the tears shoved down where they belong. God dammit, I was a girl, but I wasn’t some little baby. I was not going to start sobbing again. Not now. I was going to suck it the fuck up and keep going. 

On the plus side, I was very quickly distracted from any thought of crying. On the negative side, that distraction came because I turned the corner and saw both of my parents standing out on the front walk past the security gate. There was a uniformed police officer and several people in suits standing with them. All of them were in the midst of a really intense conversation.

A brief thought popped into my head that I should try to eavesdrop. But I just stood there, too tired and sore to do anything else by that point aside from dropping the skateboard and helmet off to the side on the grass. Spying could come later. 

Mom was the first to see me. She glanced away from the man she was clearly giving orders to, spotted me, and let out a loud, startled gasp. I saw the men turn, hands going quickly to what were obviously their weapons, while my dad looked up as well.

Then they moved, and just like that, both of my parents were right in front of me. Dad had me wrapped in a tight embrace that he immediately released when I yelped. Mom, who looked as though she was about to pull me to her, came up short at that, her eyes widening. “Cassidy?” As she said my name, her hand went out to gently touch my face with trembling fingers. It was like she was convincing herself I was really there. Dad had one hand on the side of my head, I could see his chin quivering a little before he got himself under control. It was clear that both of them were barely holding themselves in any sort of order. And the only reason they hadn’t already crushed me was that quick yelp when Dad had tried the first time. 

“Cassie,” Dad started then, his voice cracking a bit. Are you okay? What happened? Where have you been? You never came home after dinner, and… and you didn’t answer your phone.”

“Yes, Cassidy,” Mom agreed, looking as though she was torn between hugging me until I couldn’t breathe or choking me to achieve the latter effect immediately.

“What happened to you?”

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Ready 11-05 (Summus Proelium)

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To their credit, Pack and That-A-Way didn’t expect me to start talking immediately. They even waited when I asked them to while I went inside and grabbed those toys that I’d seen before. I wasn’t sure why they gave me such a strong emotional reaction, but I did know that I wanted them. So I put the toys in my pocket, then started out of the cabin before pausing. Turning my eyes away from the broken doorway, through which I could see the others waiting, I looked back over the room. Given everything I’d heard and figured out about Robert–Bobby, I had to assume he wasn’t stupid enough to leave clues about where he could be going when he clearly knew there were some really nasty people after him. When he’d cleared out of this place, even as quick as it had to have been, he wouldn’t have left anything behind that could point to where he was going. Still, just taking off like this without looking closer felt wrong. But we didn’t have a choice. Skip was only going to keep Pencil busy for so long, and if he and his equally psycho sister came back while we were still here, we’d be in the same position we’d been in before. It was time to get the hell out of here. 

So, I headed out, telling the others I was ready to go. Broadway was already gone, apparently making her way through the woods first to give us a little privacy and also to make sure their rendezvous point was clear of any problems. If she ran into trouble, she’d make enough noise to let us know. 

And with that, we started moving quickly through the forest. Pack’s lizard animals were all around us for potential protection and warning, Riddles keeping an eye on things from up above just in case. It was dark enough that the other two were using flashlights they had apparently brought with them.

After a few minutes of walking, Pack was the first to break the silence, her voice pointed and clearly angry. “So, now that you’re safe and all that, which I’m really glad about, for the record, I’m going to go ahead and call you a stupid fucking jackass, okay? And if you ever pull something stupid like that again, I swear I’ll kick your ass myself. You and me, we’ll throw down and I’ll beat your ass cuz I fight dirty. Never, ever fucking do anything like that again, you got it?” 

I cringed through her words. Because she had every right to be angry. Going off by myself had probably been stupid. But what other choice did I really have? I couldn’t tell them everything. I just couldn’t. My family was… it was too complicated, and involving them that directly would just be dangerous. They didn’t deserve to have the weight of all this on their shoulders. At least until I knew more about how my family’s business worked, until I had some idea of how to stop them, I couldn’t offload that responsibility onto other people. And I definitely couldn’t tell them the whole story. That would involve letting them know who I really was, and that… was a bad idea.

But maybe I could tell them some of it. They deserved to know some, at the very least. Hell, they deserved to know all of it, the whole thing. But I just… couldn’t. That was a box I would never be able to close again once I opened it, a Pandora’s Box that was full of all sorts of dangerous evils that would escape if I wasn’t careful to keep the thing shut absolutely tight. 

Some of it, however… I could explain some of it, the bits that might lead them in the right direction. Exhaling, I started with, “I–thank you. Thanks, guys. Both of you, and Broadway. And Skip too. I don’t know how she got involved, but if it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead. I–I’d be dead. No question. You saved my life. I owe you guys. I owe you–” The words stopped as I choked a little before getting myself under control. “I owe you everything. Definitely more than I can give you right now.

“But… but I can tell you something. First, I want… I need you to trust me. I need you guys to promise to keep this all secret. All of it. You can’t tell your teammates.” I looked to Pack, then That-A-Way. “You can’t tell Blackjack, and you can’t tell the heroes you work with. No one. You can’t tell anyone. Not a single person.” 

I saw the way both of them exchanged looks, That-A-Way speaking first. “Excuse me? Okay, I know doing this job can make anyone really paranoid, but seriously? Why wouldn’t you want me to tell the Star-Touched about any of this? I mean, sure, Pack works for bad guys. I can see that, but–” Cutting herself off, she looked over to see the girl in question clearly squinting at her through her featureless black mask. “Oh, stop, you know what I mean. You work with a lot of bad people. Sure, Blackjack has his reputation for keeping his word or whatever, but that doesn’t make him a good person.” 

“Yeah,” Pack retorted, “and a lot of psychopathic jackasses who get off on legally stomping on people who can’t fight back join up with law enforcement to get their kicks. Having a badge, or whatever equivalent you people get doesn’t automatically make you a moral paragon.” 

“It’s not about any of that!” I blurted, trying to stop this whole thing from being totally derailed. “I just–it’s personal and I’m hoping you’ll be able to know the whole thing soon enough. But for now, just promise me you’ll keep everything about this secret, please.” I tried to stress just how important it was both in my voice (as much as the changer still attached to my ear would convey it) and my stare.  

Again, the two of them exchanged looks. I couldn’t tell what either of them were thinking, or what they were communicating to each other in those looks. But whatever it was, they both seemed to come to the same decision, turning to me with the lights aimed roughly toward one another so I could see them better. 

“Okay,” Pack started. “I won’t talk to Blackjack or the others about it. Unless it turns into something I have to talk about. If this starts affecting my people, I’m not gonna lie to them.” 

That-A-Way nodded. “I don’t like it, but if it means helping you when you’ve got someone like Pencil pissed off at you? Yeah, fine. Unless it turns into something that we need help with, or like… people are going to die if we don’t call in the big guns, I’ll keep it between us.” Her voice softened then. “Come on, Paintball, you almost died back there. You need help. Stop being so stubborn and stupid about this.” 

“Ah, little tip, superhero?” Pack put in. “People rarely react well to being called stupid.” 

“It’s okay,” I quickly interrupted. “I know what she meant. And she’s right, running off on my own like that after I… well, implied to you that I was going to ask for help was really stupid. I didn’t know the Scions were involved, but it was still stupid.” 

“And that’s another thing,” That-A-Way pointed out. “If the Scions are involved, do you really think we can keep this quiet? More to the point, do you really think it’s not just as stupid to keep it quiet? If they kill more people just because we didn’t say anything…” 

“You can definitely tell people then,” I immediately agreed. “The second we see Pencil or the other Scions again and they get involved, you can absolutely call in all the help you guys have to stop them. No question. Just… I…” 

Pack stopped walking then. Stepping in front of me, she turned the flashlight so that it was aimed up between us. “What?” the girl demanded. “Damn it, Paintball, you ask Eits for some kind of favor that makes some guys beat the living shit out of him. Those guys turn out to be working for Pencil. Then you lie to me–and don’t you fucking hedge about what you specifically said, you lied and you know it. You lied to me about getting help from Minority-girl over there just so I’d let you run off on your own, got yourself captured and nearly killed by that fucking psycho, and you’re still fucking holding off on us? If we’d caught up with you a minute later, a minute fucking later, you’d be dead! You would be dead, Paintball. So knock it off. Yeah, if we can keep this secret, we will. If it’s the best way. But you need to start talking. You need to explain what the hell is going on, what that cabin was, why the Scions are involved, what that fucking address was supposed to be for, and everything else you can possibly fucking explain about this situation. Because I, for one, am tired of being left in the dark about all this.” 

“What she said,” That-A-Way put in immediately, “only pretend I said it a little more eloquently and nicely. Right now I’m too mad at you for nearly getting yourself killed to think that straight.” 

“I know you guys are upset. You deserve to be,” I admitted a bit weakly. “I just… this is harder than you know. I can’t…” Biting my lip under the mask, I thought about it briefly. “I’ll tell you some of it. I can’t… tell you all of it. I just can’t. Not yet. But I’ll tell you as much as I can.” 

“I still can’t believe you want to keep secrets after…” Trailing off as she clearly realized just how little headway she was going to make, That-A-Way settled on simply waving a hand vaguely. “Yeah, yeah. If it’s so important that you can’t talk about everything even after all that… I guess we’ll have to take your word for it. So what can you tell us? How did you get involved in something that involved the Scions, exactly? Can you explain enough about that, at least?” 

“I’ll try,” I muttered. The truth. They deserved at least as much of the truth as I could manage, as much as I could give them. To that end, I slowly announced, “It started the night I got my powers. When it happened, I was… I saw these guys… execute a couple people in a motel.” 

Both of the other girls (and Holiday, who was pacing around us) gave a short doubletake. “I’m sorry,” That-A-Way started in disbelief, “you saw what happen? Are you… you’re serious now.”

“Super serious,” I confirmed before gesturing. “Come on, we should keep walking. Anyway, the guys saw me, sort of. They didn’t get a good look before I ran away. While I was hiding from them, I got my powers. Then I was… hiding while I heard them talking. I found out they worked for something called the Ministry.” I was mixing around the details of when I found out what to leave out my family’s direct connection. I had to do that, for now at least. As I said the name, my gaze snapped from one girl to the other, looking for a hint of recognition in either of them. I saw none. Neither That-A-Way nor Pack seemed to have the slightest clue what that was.

“What, like some kind of cult thing?” the lizard girl demanded while her hand went out to rub along Twinkletoes’s side. The lizard-gorilla seemed fine now after shrinking down and then being returned to his large size once more. The same went for Mars Bar. Something about Pack using her power on them again healed the damage that had been done. Which was a relief. 

Shaking my head, I kept walking in silence for a few seconds before forcing the next words out. This was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do, just getting myself to say what I needed to say. Pack and That-A-Way may have both been on opposite sides of the law, but they’d put that aside to come and save me. They deserved to know about this. “Look, I know you’re both going to think I’m crazy. I know. But I need you to listen. What I’ve heard about this Ministry, it’s… they’ve got their fingers in both sides. Star-Touched and Fell-Touched. It’s like they work behind the scenes. They’ve got people working for villain groups and people on the heroes’ side too.” 

Pack looked at me like she was about to say something, but That-A-Way spoke first, blurting a quick and very baffled, “Bad guys working for the heroes? How hard did Pencil hit you, again?”  

“Oh, yeah,” Pack put in, “that’s bound to make the poor guy want to keep talking about something that he was clearly reluctant to even start on in the first place. Act like he’s crazy.” 

“That’s not what I–” That-A-Way snapped defensively before catching herself. “Damn it, I wasn’t…” She trailed off, sighing. “Sorry. I guess we should at least hear you out.” Even as she said it, however, the girl still sounded reluctant and defensive. Which I couldn’t blame her for. 

“I know, I get it,” I quickly assured both of them. “It’s a lot to throw on you guys and expect you to believe any of it instead of just thinking I’m a raving lunatic. Why do you think I didn’t want to actually tell you? Because I know it sounds like crazy bullshit. But seriously. The way they were talking, and other things I’ve heard since then… that’s why I didn’t want to join the Minority.” 

“Because you thought we worked for these… Ministry people?” That-A-Way was staring at me, almost walking into a tree before Pack reached out, caught her arm, and tugged her away from it. She gave the other girl a quick look, a nod of thanks, then stared at me once more. “Really?” 

“I didn’t know any of you,” I pointed out. “And I still don’t know most of you. I mean, look at it this way. Pretend the Ministry is real and you don’t have any doubts. Just for sake of argument. Pretend there really is this secret organization that has agents on all sides, people who report to them. Do you really think they’d put people on the heroes’ side who couldn’t blend in well?” 

That-A-Way briefly looked like she wanted to argue with that, but stopped herself. Instead, she was quiet for a minute, walking through the woods with us like she was lost in thought. Finally, I saw her head give a tiny nod. “Okay, I’ll… pretend and go with that, I guess. If this Ministry thing worked like you said, they’d be good at putting people in under cover. Maybe even people who really thought they were doing the right thing by reporting stuff to this secret group. Hell, they might not even know that this Ministry works for both sides. Maybe they think they’re reporting to a secret group of Star-Touched people, you know? Like Internal Affairs or something.” 

“You mean an even more secret group of heroes inside the group of heroes.” Pack snorted. “Yeah, that sounds about right. If a group like Paintball’s talking about existed, they could totally make some do-gooders think they were part of the super-special secret club like that.” 

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, that’s kinda what I mean. Anyway, like I said, this Ministry has people on both sides. From what I can tell, they run some kind of protection racket or something. You know, letting bad guys operate in the city in exchange for part of the money they take in from jobs. I heard them talking about getting the patrol routes for different Star-Touched teams for a higher percentage take, and direct intervention, whatever that entails, in exchange for even more. I’m pretty sure they have at least one person on every hero team to give out patrol routes, hero’s schedules, other things like that. And more on the police force, the court system, all those things. They’ve been around for a long time, you guys. Like I said, they’ve got their fingers in everything. They run things behind the scenes, and they’re really not happy that I know anything about them at all. Except they’re not sure how much I know, if anything.”

“So if what you’re saying–” Pack corrected herself, “If you’re right about what you think, then Blackjack’s gotta know about this, right?” 

“Sure, it sounds like all the big Fell-Touched players in the city know about it,” I confirmed. “They work within the system the Ministry created. I’d be fall down shocked if Blackjack wasn’t totally aware of the whole thing. But he’s not gonna tell a brand new member of his group that kind of secret.” 

“I’m still not sure about this,” That-A-Way admitted. “But I’ll keep going along the hypothetical ‘this is all true’ route for now. That said, what does that have to do with Pencil and the Scions? Or that cabin?” 

This was the big one. Even bigger than getting them to believe the bit about the Ministry. I had to be careful how I explained this. “I followed some of those Ministry guys the other day when they kidnapped a girl and tried to kill her. Apparently she had some kind of secret information or proof about the Ministry or something. Anyway, I saved her and she ran away. Then I found her later and listened to her talking to… umm… someone on the phone. She called him her dad, but…” I shook that off. “Anyway, the point is, there was something about the girl and her dad wanting revenge against the Ministry for someone named Anthony Tate. I looked into it. He’s a kid who used to live here, then moved to Texas and died in a car crash. Supposedly.” Ohhh this was getting so close to secrets I really shouldn’t talk about. The thought made me cringe inwardly. 

That-A-Way spoke up into the brief silence. “Okay, wait, wait. Who’s this girl? And that Anthony Tate, who’s that?” 

“LIke I said, a kid who used to live here before he supposedly died in a car crash with his parents in Texas.” I offered a shrug. “I don’t know how he was connected to that girl… umm, Paige Banners.” 

That-A-Way dropped her flashlight and tripped over a rock, cursing as she almost fell. It took her a moment to scramble across the ground to find the light. “What–who?” 

“Paige Banners,” I repeated. “She’s the girl I saved, I found out her name later. That’s one of the names I had Eits look into,” I admitted to Pack. “I thought her dad lived here, but apparently she’s like… adopted or something? I don’t know. Point is, she was on the phone with someone she called her father, and they were talking about getting revenge for that kid dying or… something. Anyway, Eits looked into it, found out this guy Robert Parson was a bodyguard or something. He was in the car with the Tates too, but he survived. So we were looking for his address. That’s the address you got from him, the one those assholes wanted. I guess Pencil and his people got the address from Eits’ phone, cuz they got to that place too.” 

“But what did they want with this guy?” That-A-Way demanded. She sounded like she really needed to sit down. Which was another thing I could definitely sympathize with. 

“I guess he pissed Pencil off somehow,” I replied, shrugging once more. “I really don’t know the details. All I know is Pencil wants this guy dead, so he’s in hiding. Which means I can’t get answers out of him about this Ministry, or Anthony Tate, or this Paige girl.” 

That-A-Way was silent for a few long seconds, staring ahead as though deep in thought. Finally, she exhaled long and loud. “This is a lot to take in, dude. I don’t–” She cut herself off from whatever she had been about to say, correcting it to, “I’m not sure what to… say, you know? If I’ve got this right, you’re claiming that there’s a secret underground group that manipulates heroes and villains everywhere in the city, and that this random schoolgirl, whatever her name–” 

“Paige Banners,” I reminded her. 

“Right, Paige Banners,” she nodded. “This Paige Banners and her dad, who isn’t the dad who lives here in town with her because she’s adopted or something, are coming up with some secret plan to attack and hurt the Ministry as payback for this Anthony Tate dying. You looked into Anthony Tate, found this Robert Parson guy, went to his address, and got jumped by Pencil, who is also after him?” 

“And the Scions also beat the shit out of Eits to get that address,” Pack quickly put in. 

“Yeah, and Eits got hurt,” That-A-Way acknowledged, turning to shine her light at me. “Is that about it?” Her voice was a bit dull from the shock of taking all of this in. 

“Ummm…” I winced. “Did I mention that it sounded like that girl’s real dad is in Breakwater?” 

“Breakwater,” That-A-Way echoed. “The inescapable supervillain prison. He’s just… calling out of that.” She stopped walking, putting one hand against her face with a long, heavy sigh. 

“This is kinda why I didn’t want to dump all this on you guys,” I managed a bit weakly. 

“I get that,” she murmured, finally moving her hand to look at me. “Look, I don’t know how much of this is true–okay, hold on. What I mean is, I believe you believe what you’re saying, but I don’t know how much power this Ministry actually has. But, I’ll keep quiet about it for now. I want to… investigate it for myself, okay? I’ll do it quietly, I swear. I won’t bring up the actual name or anything. I just want to find out more.” 

“Same,” Pack agreed. “I’m morbidly curious about these people. Especially if part of my money is going to them.” 

After a moment of hesitation, I slowly offered, “Well, if you guys really want to find out more about this group for yourselves…

“I know a pretty interesting secret about the mall.” 

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Ready 11-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Laying on the floor of Bobby’s cabin, still paralyzed by whatever that thing was that Pencil hit me with, all I could do was watch helplessly as the man looked at That-A-Way, standing over me, and Pack at the door with Mars Bar towering behind her. Holiday the panther-lizard was there too, somewhat between all of us with the paralyzing gun held in her teeth as she snarled angrily. 

No, no, no. What was going to happen now? Why were they here? How did they find us? I knew I should have been grateful to see them, and a big part of me was. Okay, most of me was. But another part was terrified that something bad would happen to the two of them. Paralyzed as I was, I was helpless to do anything to help, which was beyond terrifying. And it wasn’t like Pencil was just some bad guy. He was one of the nastiest Fell-Touched I’d ever heard of. He was immune to basically anything anyone could do. What the hell was going to happen here? How would they actually stop him, considering that entire experienced hero teams had set out to do that and failed, some dying in the attempt?   

That was what scared me the most. It wasn’t suffering and dying right here with Pencil enacting his revenge for hurting his sister. It was being forced to see him do that exact same thing to Pack and That-A-Way. Because they were only here to help me. If they died, it would be because of me. Because I couldn’t handle my own problems. Because I was weak. 

For his part, Pencil didn’t exactly look all that concerned. His gaze took in the panther-lizard  who had stolen his weapon, before moving to look at the others. I could practically see the thoughtful expression on the face behind the mask. When he spoke, his voice was curious. “Now, what exactly could have made the three of you such close friends that you’d come all the way out here like this?” He raised a fist to his chin, contemplating. “Oh, was it really that bit at the hospital? Was it? I’m really gonna blush if it turns out I’ve inspired the brand new besties bond you’ve all got.” After a second, the man added in a conspiratorial tone, “Really, don’t tell me you two see your pal here as a little brother. Because trust me, we all know where that goes. Him in love with both of you and you not seeing him that way because you’re just such good friends. And no one wants to live through that kind of cliche. It’s 2020, let’s try to move past triangles, people.” 

As Pencil said those words, the rage that had been clear in his voice when he had come after me a moment earlier for hurting Cup had been replaced by what sounded like genuine amusement at this new situation. It was like being hit with something this unexpected, instead of pissing him off, actually intrigued him. Apparently he just enjoyed being surprised that much. So much that he forgot about that whole being pissed at me for Cup thing. In any case, whatever was going through his mind right then, I was pretty sure that none of us wanted to know about it. 

“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” Pack informed him. Her words were punctuated by matching growls from Mars Bar and Holiday. “I’m going to step out of the way to that side of the door. My big buddy here is gonna step the other way.  Then you are going to walk out of this building and get the hell out of here before this gets any worse. Everyone walks away to fight another day.” 

“Or,” That-A-Way put in, “you can push it and see if being immune to damage helps you very much when it comes to a giant grizzly-lizard sitting on your psychotic fucking ass until the authorities get here. After all,” she added, shifting her weight a little, “We don’t actually have to hurt you. We just have to stop you from leaving. I’m pretty sure you don’t have super-strength.”  

For a moment, the monster in the mask said nothing. He simply glanced back and forth at all of us, adopting a thoughtful posture before eventually speaking up. “That is a very fine point you raise, young lady. A very fine point indeed. You’re probably right, I’d be… hard-pressed to budge your personal Yogi over there, if push came to shove.” He gave a tip of an imaginary hat toward Mars Bar. “And yet, I find myself with one very important question. While your bear is sitting on in this hypothetical scenario, what… precisely would your invisible gorilla-lizard be doing?” Even as he said that, the man was abruptly pivoting on one foot with a snapped, “Let’s ask him.” 

With those words, Pencil’s hand snapped out. A knife leapt from his sleeve before being driven into what looked like thin air. Thin air that drew a thick line of blood and a squeal of pain. 

“Twinkletoes!” Blurting that name, Pack threw herself that way while the formerly invisible figure appeared, a deep gash through his side as he collapsed to the floor, moaning. How had Pencil known he was there? Was it just a guess? How had he known exactly where to aim the knife? 

As Pack lunged to the fallen Twinkletoes’ side, Mars Bar and Holiday leapt to the defense of their partner. With a cabin-shaking roar, the bear went after Pencil like a runaway freight train, while Holiday tossed the gun aside and added her own roar while lunging from the other side.  

Far from being intimidated however, Pencil simply pivoted once more. His foot lashed out in what looked like an awkward, gangly kick. Seriously, I thought he was about to fall over. It was like a clown kicking someone, all wild flailing and no coordination. But despite that, there must have been decent force and skill hidden behind the deceptive appearance, because Holiday was immediately sent crashing to the floor with a yelp from the impact against her nose. 

At the same time, his hand, with the already-bloodied knife held tightly, lashed out and backward. It cut through part of Mars Bar’s descending arm and drew even more blood than the first swipe had drawn from Twinkletoes. Wherever he had hit the lizard-bear must have been important, because the roar turned to a pained squeal and that massive arm fell uselessly against the power-mutated animal’s side, as if the limb was as paralyzed as I actually was. 

The bear’s arm being out of the way gave Pencil room to duck and twist, throwing himself behind the suddenly-stumbling creature. His every motion looked goofy and awkward. It looked like he should fall flat on his face any moment. But I was already certain all of it was an act. He was like a clown or something, his motions purposefully intended to look goofy and uncoordinated while actually being very precise. He clearly had an incredible amount of athletic and combat skill. He was just hiding it behind what looked like bumbling actions. 

Just as that thought came to me, That-A-Way sprang to the aid of the others. Or, she tried to. Suddenly teleporting almost directly behind him and to one side, she produced her stun baton and swung it. Pencil, however, was not taken by surprise. He doubled over backward, almost like he was going through an extreme limbo contest. Laughter, mocking and derisive, erupted from the man as the baton passed just over his head. At the same time, he pressed some kind of hidden button on the knife. Instantly, a cloud of dark red gas shot from a hole at the edge of the knife hilt, right next to the blade itself. The gas went straight into That-A-Way’s face, and she stumbled, squealing and coughing while the baton fell from her grip. Pencil, still bent over backward, caught the falling baton in his free hand, hurling it with what looked like contemptuous ease toward Pack, who was just looking up from Twinkletoes. She took the baton to her chest, yelping and collapsing on top of her gorilla-lizard from the burst of electricity. 

No, no, no! This was exactly what I’d been terrified of. Everything was going wrong. Pack was twitching and yelping on top of the already-injured Twinkletoes. Mars Bar was stumbling, one arm useless. Holiday was still picking herself off the floor. That-A-Way was down, coughing and sputtering while flailing blindly from whatever that gas had done. Everything was going wrong and it was all my fault. They were here because of me, here to help me, and I was too paralyzed to actually do anything to help them. Move, I ordered myself. Move right fucking now!

It didn’t help. Straining as hard as I could, I still couldn’t push past the effect of that stupid weapon. They were going to die, they were going to die and it would be my fault. Damn it, damn it! 

Then, just as my panic and terror hit the breaking point, something totally unexpected happened. The sudden blaring of a car horn from outside filled the air, stopping Pencil in mid-step. At the same time, bright headlights abruptly flared to life, shining in through the window.  

As the sound of the horn was fading, a familiar figure in a black-blue bodysuit with an attached short-sleeved white robe and hood appeared in the doorway. Skip. She stood there, regarding the whole situation seemingly impassively for a moment before addressing Pencil flatly. “By all reports, you are protective of the one called Cup. If so, there is a situation outside that you will be interested in resolving. Unless those reports are wrong, in which case…” Trailing off, she looked to us, then to Pencil before simply turning her back to him to walk out of the doorway and away from the cabin. 

In that moment, I was pretty sure Pencil completely forgot the rest of us even existed. He went through the door an instant after Skip disappeared, fairly sprinting that way. Because Skip was right. For all his murderous psychotic evil bullshit, he actually genuinely cared about Cup. His sister… his lover… whatever she was, he cared about her. I knew that first-hand. 

I also knew that if he had the chance, he would skin every single one of us alive and watch us spend hours screaming for even insinuating that she could be in danger. This could blow up in all of our faces really easily. 

Pack was back on her feet, hand already outstretched to grab That-A-Way and pull her up. She had Twinkletoes and Mars Bar (newly returned to their normal, uninjured lizard forms) on either shoulder, while Holiday stood guard at the door. Both of the girls were looking at me with obvious worry written through their body language. 

And then, then my constant attempts to start moving finally paid off. My fingers twitched, and a sharp gasp of air escaped me as I jerked upright with a suddenly violent cough. The paralyzing effect was gone. I could move again. 

Just in time for That-A-Way to kick me none-too-gently in the leg with a muttered, “Idiot.” Then she turned to run for the broken doorway. 

Pack, meanwhile, grabbed my hand to haul me up. “What she said. But I’ll wait and kick you after we get out of this.” 

Quickly, I joined them and the three of us ran out to the porch in time to see Pencil standing about thirty feet away. The man was brightly illuminated by the headlights of a car. Standing next to the car was a figure in dark purple body armor with speakers along the sides and a helmet with a wide V-shaped visor that had multi-colored lines flickering across it. 

Broadway. It was Broadway, another one of Pack and Eits’ teammates.

Just as we made it to the porch, the headlights turned off and the light inside the car flipped on. That revealed Skip, sitting in the driver’s seat. More important was the figure sitting next to her in the passenger seat, bound and gagged. Cup. 

As soon as he saw her, Pencil took a step that way. But he stopped at a sudden blaring of the car horn when Skip used her free hand to hit it while simultaneously extending a hand through the open window with some kind of large container. She gave it a toss, and it came tumbling across the dirt to land near Pencil. Immediately, I recognized both the look and the smell. Gasoline. It was a mostly-empty gasoline can. 

Broadway gave a kick then, sending another can tumbling over to join the first. “Heya, Fuckface. You see Cup there? The eeeentire inside of that car is totally drenched in that gasoline. You give her any reason to, any reason at all, and Skip is gonna use that lighter she’s got to flame on. Then she’ll drive away. Cuz, you know, the fire won’t affect her. But it’ll sure as hell affect Cup. So she’ll light her on fire and then she’ll drive away. We’ll see how far she gets down the road before the car explodes. Are you a fast runner? Maybe you can get to her before she suffers too much. Maybe you could even do something about the flames. But here’s the thing. Even if you do save her, your lady friend there still gets to suffer horrifically first. Maybe she dies, maybe she doesn’t. But she definitely suffers. And the longer it takes you to get to her, the longer she suffers, the more likely she dies.” 

She bent, picking up the end of a rope that was lying there before tossing it over to the man. “So here’s what’s gonna happen. The other end of that rope is tied to the back of the car. Skip’s gonna pull out and start driving slowly down the road. You’re gonna hold the rope and follow until you’re all past the gate. Then she’ll teleport back up here and you can get the lady out of the car. You try to come after any of us first, Cup goes fwoom. You try to get closer to the car than the length of that rope, Cup goes fwoom. You pull anything, Cup goes fwoom. And maybe you can take all of us down. You are magically immune to everything, after all. Maybe we can’t take you. But what you’ve gotta ask yourself is, just how much would Cup suffer in the meantime? Would she even survive? What kinda shape would she be in? Take the rope, follow the car all the way down to the gate. Or push things right now and see how the girl there likes being a superhero for once. Specifically, the Human Torch.”

For a moment, Pencil didn’t say anything or move. He seemed to be studying Broadway as though gauging how serious she was, how likely it was that she and Skip would actually follow through on that threat. I was staring at them too. Jesus Christ, that was hardcore. Not that it was exactly surprising, given the kind of people Pencil and Cup were. If you were going to threaten them, you had to go for the gold. And I was pretty sure the threat being specifically against Cup was the only thing that made the man take it at all seriously. He cared about her. She might be the only thing in the world he did care about. But still. I had to ask myself if they’d really do it. Which, I supposed, was the exact same thing Pencil was asking himself at that point. 

Finally, he turned to look straight at me. His hand rose, giving what looked like a casual wave. But I knew there was far more behind it. He would never let this go, not for any of us. I’d directly pissed him off more than once now. I’d hurt his sister. And now the others had threatened her life, had threatened to kill her in a gruesome, horrific way. All of us had made this personal to him, and he was not going to forget or forgive that. This might be put on pause now, but it wasn’t over. 

“So long, kid,” Pencil announced while the eyes behind that mask practically bore a hole straight through me. “I’ll catch you later.” And boy did those words have a hell of a lot more meaning behind them than that phrase normally did. 

With that, the man stooped, grabbing the rope. Immediately, the car started up and Skip pulled it around slowly to point it back toward the road before heading out just high enough speed that Pencil had to lightly jog to keep up. While we all watched in silence, the car and attached psychopath both gradually vanished down the road out of sight. 

Finally, once the car and Pencil were gone, Broadway exhaled audibly and slumped over. “Hoooly shit, dude. Tell you one thing, I am super-fucking glad that didn’t go wrong. I mean, yeah, it still could. But I think we might actually pull this off. Thanks for playing distraction in there while we set things up.” She turned to me then, waving. “Hey there, nice to finally meet you, Paintball.” 

“I–” I started to say something, before blanching. Pivoting away from them, I sprinted several feet before collapsing to my knees by some bushes. My hand pried up the mask enough to let me throw up. It all came out in a rush, while Broadway made disconcerted sounds in the background. To their credit, the others all stayed away while my mask was up. All they saw was my back. 

Finally, it was done. My whole body was sore and I was still a bit woozy. Plus my throat hurt from hurling. But there was nothing left for me in my stomach. Awkwardly, I tugged the mask down with one hand, making sure the hidden mic was still in place before pushing myself up and turning. 

That-A-Way and Pack were standing there, arms folded as they looked at me. Broadway was on the other side of the clearing, watching the road. 

“Are you okay?” That-A-Way asked a bit pensively. “Seriously, are you…” 

“I’m okay,” I managed, biting my lip. “I mean, I… they didn’t do anything that bad. He was saving it for later.” 

“Good,” Pack put in, sounding relieved, like a sudden weight had lifted from her shoulders. Then she added, “I’d say a lot more, but it’s time to get out of here. We’re supposed to meet Skip on a little service road down the other side of the forest, that way.” She pointed off behind the cabin. “There’s another car parked there waiting for us.” 

“It’s a bit of a hike,” That-A-Way noted. “But it shouldn’t be hard. 

“And on the way, you can explain just what the hell is going on.” 

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Ready 11-03 (Summus Proelium)

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I was in trouble. Yeah, that was a fucking understatement. I was on the far side of a fence, not even out of earshot from a pissed-off Pencil and two of his psychotic Prev minions. At my feet was a dazed, barely conscious Cup, and all around me was a nearly pitch-black forest. To top it all off, my hands were cuffed behind my back, making this whole thing even more complicated than it already was. And if Pencil caught me again, I was pretty sure him just straight up killing me was the best I could hope for. More likely, he’d make me scream for a few hours first. 

That wasn’t just speculation either. It was, in general, the gist of the threats I could hear coming from the fence area in between Pencil ordering his man to finish disabling the electricity and alarm. That was why he didn’t just ignore the shock himself, given that it wouldn’t actually hurt him, I realized. He didn’t want to set off the alarm, because… because he didn’t want to alert Robert that we were here? Was he really actually afraid of what Rob–never mind. Seconds. I had seconds before those three would be right on top of me. 

Using one finger, I turned slightly to shoot a bit of black paint at Cup, just in case. The last thing I needed right then was her managing to orient herself enough to use her power on me. If she did that, I was basically dead. I wouldn’t snap out of it before Pencil managed to catch up. 

There was no time to do anything else. I couldn’t even try to get my hands in front of myself. It would have taken too many of the precious seconds I didn’t actually have. Pencil was already vaulting the fence. I could hear it rattling. Quickly, I turned, activating another small portion of purple paint on me before lashing out with a kick to Cup’s face. She stopped her silent groaning and fell flat. Unconscious, for the moment at least. Stooping, I grabbed her hands and gripped them tightly. Casting a quick look over my shoulder, I saw Pencil dropping off the fence and turning to sprint our way. He probably couldn’t really see us from there, not with the shadows of the trees added to what was already a pretty dark night. Still, he was coming straight for us, with the two minions right behind. I had to move, now!  

Silencing myself as well, I took off running while dragging the unconscious Cup behind me on her stomach. With the purple paint, I barely felt her weight. And as long as she was with me, conscious or not, the cuffs wouldn’t force me to the ground. I could do this. It was awkward as hell, running while literally dragging a full grown woman behind me with my hands cuffed like that. But what else was I going to do, let Pencil catch up and do any of the horrific things he had in mind? Running blind through the dark forest while dragging Cup was the only option I had. 

Except it wasn’t… really like running blind, was it? Because just like my last time traveling through the woods at night, I wasn’t stumbling nearly as much as I should have been. Sure, it was a bit unwieldy, running with Cup like this. But it definitely wasn’t as bad as I would’ve thought it would be. I instinctively knew when to duck from branches I couldn’t actually see. I gave a little hop now and then, passing right over thick roots or low bushes that would have sent me sprawling. Most people running through a nearly pitch-black forest in the middle of the night with their hands cuffed behind their backs probably would have eaten dirt within a few seconds. But I just… didn’t. I knew where and how to move to avoid hitting anything, even though there was no way I could have seen any of it in time. Particularly given I was running flat out, with a good portion of my attention centered on listening to the sound of pursuit. It was just… instinct of some kind? 

Whatever, I wasn’t going to question it. I didn’t have time to question it. All I knew was that I had to keep moving. The sound of Pencil’s pursuit faded somewhat as I gained ground on him, but I could still hear the psycho and his two minions not too far behind. All three had flashlights they were shining around, the beams flickering wildly back and forth as they searched for me. 

Briefly, I worried about one of them opening fire before realizing that they wouldn’t risk hitting Cup. They still hadn’t been able to get a good look at me and were simply following the trail I left in my wild flight. So maybe it was time to do something to make following me a bit harder. 

First, I renewed my own purple paint once more before using my grip on Cup’s hands to put a bit more black paint on her. Keeping her silent was just as important as anything else right now, and I didn’t trust her not to wake up at some point in this and immediately use her power to put an end to my escape. As long as I could stop her from talking, she’d be a hell of a lot more manageable. I just wished I’d had the time and materials to actually tie her up, or do… anything other than dragging her along by the hands. 

Fortunately, for now, she was still knocked out. But I kept the black paint going just in case. Then, keeping my grip on her hands, I moved one finger to point at a tree we were passing and shot a spray of white paint at it. While continuing to run, I put a whole line of white paint down, trying to judge when I only had a small amount of paint left. Then I stopped spraying, but kept running. Behind me, the sound of the three thoroughly pissed off pursuers grew louder from my hesitation. They were close. Too damn close. If I waited any longer, they’d be right on top of me. Then I’d either be dead, or just wish very badly that I was. 

But the worst thing about all of this? I missed running through the dark forest with Paige. At least she hadn’t been dead weight who would also have tried to kill me if she was awake. That was how far I’d fallen. I missed Paige Banners. What in the seventeen hells was my life? 

At least I didn’t panic. I focused on the sound of the men running. I judged where they were, all while also sprinting through the dark woods. How? How could I run like this, drag this unconscious girl behind me, navigate a totally unfamiliar forest in the middle of the night while also listening to my pursuers and accurately judging exactly where they were in those same unfamiliar woods? How? 

It was ridiculous. I shouldn’t have been able to. But I did. I knew, without question, exactly when the men reached the spot where I had left that line of white paint. Which meant I knew exactly when to trigger it. 

I’d left enough paint right there that, as it activated, that whole area of the forest briefly lit up. It was incredibly bright. Knowing it was coming, I had closed my eyes just in case and was faced away. But I still saw a bit of the flash. Being right on top of it would have been utterly blinding.  Which, given the sudden new litany of screaming curses coming from back there, it really was. And it was more than a flash, actually. The light continued on for a full ten seconds, making it even harder for my pursuers to see where they were going. 

But that was just step one of plan ‘lose these assholes.’ The second the flash triggered, I also painted the boots on my feet bright blue and triggered the last of the purple paint that I had prepared on the inside of my costume. With the added strength, I leapt as hard as I could, triggering the blue paint on my way down. The impact from the jump against that blue paint rocketed me up and forward. With Cup held tightly, I went flying through the trees, breaking through a handful of branches on the way. Coming down, my feet landed for an instant. But the blue paint on my boots was still active, so I was launched upward again and kept flying. 

For the next ten seconds, I kept essentially bouncing my way through the forest. Each blue-and-purple-paint assisted leap carried me a huge distance, while my weird and unexplained subconscious knowledge of where all the trees and such were meant I could safely make those leaps without slamming headfirst into an obstacle. In the brief time that my pursuers would have been blinded, I put as much distance between us as possible. It would be a lot harder for them to track me accurately with so much space between landings. They couldn’t easily track my footprints when those footprints were at least sixty feet apart. 

Finally, I had to stop. Partly because I felt Cup starting to shift in my grip. She was waking up. So I dropped both of us down, releasing the bitch before hitting her with more black paint. Then I pivoted to face her. 

Yeah, she was awake. She wasn’t happy or fully coherent, but she was awake. Her eyes blinked at me blearily, barely visible through the moonlight that cut through the trees. Even with the white mask covering the bottom of her face, I could tell she was trying to speak, only to freeze when no sound came out. Even as dark as it was, I could see the hatred and anger in her sudden glare. Yup, she was becoming more coherent by the second, and was definitely pissed off. 

But guess what, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about this whole situation either. Given the choice, I would’ve left her there. But the cuffs meant that I didn’t have that choice. Instead, I had to keep dragging her around with me. 

Or did I? Wait a second. Thinking quickly, I pivoted and used my cuffed hands to shoot a bunch of red paint over the other girl. She flailed, and was already shoving herself to her feet when I pivoted back the other way, shooting one bit of red toward the nearby tree. As Cup made it up, hand grabbing for something in her costume, I triggered the paint while diving out of the way. With a silent yelp, she was hauled through the air, slamming face-first into the tree. Oops not oops. 

Of course, the thing Cup had been grabbing was a gun. It fell to the ground as she was yanked through the air. I heard the thump of it landing and saw the outline of it right at my feet. Quickly, I kicked it off out of sight before moving to the psycho currently held tight against the tree. She was struggling, and I heard her voice start to cut in just in time for me to hit her with a quick shot of black paint. 

Ten seconds. I had ten seconds before the red paint would release her. Which meant I couldn’t exactly be gentle or careful about this. Instead, I shoved my back right up against hers, pinning her even more fully against the wood. My cuffed hands frantically felt up her pants for pockets while I found myself muttering, “Sorry, sorry, I know you’re a fucking psycho, but sorry.” One by one, I shoved my hands into her pockets, searching them as quickly as I could while trying to ignore the unfortunate… positioning and circumstances. 

Gum, a notebook, a pen, a switchblade, no key, no key! Damn it, please don’t say it fucking fell out while she was being dragged back there. If it was lying somewhere in the woods, I was screwed. 

Finally, shoving one hand inside her back pocket (and really trying to ignore how awkward that was), I found it. The key. It was there. My fingers closed around it, and I jerked away from her, half-stumbling before pivoting back to face her. Unlocking the cuffs behind my own back wasn’t exactly easy, but I had a trick. Namely, I brushed my finger over the cuffs until I found the keyhole. Then I shot a tiny dot of red paint into that keyhole. With my other hand, I found the tip of the key, painting that red as well. 

With that done, I just activated the tiny dots of red paint on both, and the key was immediately yanked straight into the hole. I pivoted, grasping for it with my fingers. Just as I got hold of it, Cup fell backward off the tree. The red paint had worn off, which meant the black had definitely–

“How many–” 

That was as far as I let her get. Still holding the key with two fingers, I lashed out as hard as I could, kicking Cup in the back. It was enough to stop her from talking, knocking her forward into the tree with a yelp. Using the bare couple of seconds that gained me, I twisted the key. The cuffs popped open, and I let them fall to the ground with a clatter before quickly shooting black paint at Cup once more. That shut her up again, just as she was trying to talk. 

The black paint did not, however, stop her from turning and diving at me. I went down hard with the older, bigger girl on top of me, landing on my back while her fist slammed into my chin. Her eyes were wild in the moonlight, her fist colliding with my face so hard I almost saw more stars in front of me than were visible in the sky through the trees. Fuck, I missed my helmet.

Then she hit me a third time, and ended up regretting it. Because I didn’t have my helmet, but I did have orange paint. That time, her fist didn’t hurt me at all, while she made a flinching motion. Adding purple paint, I shoved her off me, lashing out with a kick into her stomach that doubled the crazy bitch over. Before she could recover, I quickly kicked out again to knock her legs out from under her. It was Cup’s turn to fall on her back. 

It was also her turn to wear those handcuffs. Before she could recover, I grabbed the cuffs from the ground, linking them around her wrists. They clicked into place, just as a flashlight beam swept nearby. My gaze snapped over that way, and I saw them. My pursuers were coming fast. I didn’t have time to do anything else. But hopefully dealing with Cup would slow them down. 

“Later,” I whispered, patting her on the back before tucking the key in my pocket. Then I painted the outside of my costume completely black, activated the silencing power, and took off running. A bit of green on my shoes lent a bit of speed, letting me haul ass away from that spot. 

Go, go! My hands were free and I didn’t have to lug Cup around anymore. Plus, they wouldn’t be able to get her out of there very easily without the key that I was carrying. This was my chance to get to the cabin ahead of them and warn Robert. I just had to keep fucking moving!

So, I did. With my hands freed, I was able to move much faster, using a mixture of blue and red paint to bounce and yank myself from tree to tree, with added green for speed. Ignoring the darkness entirely, I practically flew through the unfamiliar woods. Cabin. I needed to find that cabin, but how? The road. Look for the road. But even that didn’t help too much. The road could be anywhere, considering how I’d blindly fled through the forest with Cup earlier. I had no idea where I was now in relation to that road even before adding in how much it could have wound its way through the forest. 

In the end, I realized I was being stupid. Height. I needed height. At the next tree, I yanked myself to the top, dropped blue paint on the final sturdy branch, and launched upward over the canopy to get a better view of things. 

There. Lights. There were very clear house lights off in the distance. That had to be it. Dark as the forest was, those lights stood out like a beacon. Instantly, I yanked myself to the next tree over and full-on raced that way. I had to get there ahead of the Scions. No matter what happened, no matter what it took, I had to warn Bobby! 

The cabin really was isolated in the middle of nowhere. It was a two-story affair that looked like it had come straight out of some storybook, with a perfectly cut and stacked woodpile on the porch beside the front door, a path leading down to the nearby stream, a cozy little handmade swing, the works. The road went right up to the lot, and I could see fresh tire tracks, but no vehicle. 

Hurriedly, I red-painted myself all the way across the clearing to the front door, knocking on it rapidly while calling, “Mr. Parson! Mr. Parson!” Looking over my shoulder, I muttered a curse and then used purple paint to shove the door in. “I’m on your side! You’re in danger, you–” 

Then I stepped in, and saw no one there. The interior of the cabin was pretty simple, and open enough that it was clear no one was there. There was the main room with a bed in one corner to the left and a living area to the right, with a television, computer on a desk, and an attached kitchenette. Across from the entrance was the bathroom, the door open to reveal that it was as devoid of occupants as the rest of the place. 

He wasn’t here. No one was here. But the lights were on. And there were fresh tire tracks. Quickly, I turned to leave. Then I saw it. A shelf on the wall next to the door, where you might drop your keys, wallet, or whatever was in your pockets. There were no keys on the shelf. Instead, I saw three small objects. Two were toy planes, one an air force jet fighter while the other had started out its life that way but had been painted bright pink with little purple lightning bolts on the wings, and an additional pair of wings that were glued to the bottom of the first. Beside both toy planes was a small action figure. 

I stopped breathing when I saw the toys. My hand covered my mouth and I felt like throwing up. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t… understand why. What was wrong with me? What was wrong with me?! Staring at those toys, my breathing grew louder, more labored. It felt like something was sitting on my chest, like… like I couldn’t breathe. It felt like… I was… cold. I was so cold. I was scared. Why? Why was I so scared? I was even more afraid, in that moment of looking at those toys, than I had been out in those woods. It was a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t–couldn’t–

The sound of someone at the door snapped my attention that way. I saw the sackcloth mask. I saw the raised gun. I covered the chest part of my costume in orange paint. 

It didn’t help that much. Whatever that weapon was, it hit me with some kind of invisible force that launched me off the ground. It felt like being kicked in the chest by a horse, even with my orange paint. I was sent flying, crashing hard into the wall before falling to the ground. 

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t–my hands wouldn’t–

Pencil kicked me hard in the side, then again to knock me onto my back. He was standing over me, his powerful weapon (it looked like a futuristic shotgun with a spiral-shaped barrel) pointed down at me. “Hurts, doesn’t it?” His words were taunting. “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to move again in a couple minutes.” 

I saw the way his eyes narrowed. “Course, you hurt Cup. So you won’t live long enough for that to matter. And this time, kid, no tricks. No games. You hurt my little sister. You hurt my Cup. No one does that.” 

That was all he said. That was all he was going to say. He was through playing games, through hamming things up. Through playing, in general. He was just going to pull the trigger… and end me, while I lay completely paralyzed at his feet. After everything I did to escape, after everything I’d done… period, I was helpless. I was trapped. I was alone. 

I was going to d–

And then the window just above my head exploded. A dark shape went flying over me with a terrifying roar, colliding with the weapon in Pencil’s hands before tearing it from his grip. The shape continued on past, sliding across the cabin before whirling back to face us while snarling. 

Holiday. It was the lizard-panther, Holiday. 

In the next second, an explosion of debris was accompanied by a deafening roar, as Mars Bar announced his presence by slamming his way through the front door. 

Just as suddenly, a figure appeared over me. “Hey, asshole!” That-A-Way snapped. 

Pack, next to the towering lizard-bear at the front door, finished with, “Get the fuck away from our friend.”

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