That-A-Way

Winging It 19-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winging It 19-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – You can find the newest Summus Proelium non-canon, released over the past weekend, available for ALL readers right here.

Well, so much for an easy training day with my bird-dad. First I had joined up with him and Carousel to stop what was supposed to be a simple bank robbery, only for that to turn out to be far more complicated than it appeared when we had to follow more of the bad guys down a super-efficiently built tunnel underground. And because it obviously wasn’t enough that they would just be a few ambitious thugs with a tunnel-digging gun or something, it turned out that they (or the one who had escaped) had led us straight to Sandon and more of the Ninety-Niners. Who were now completely surrounding the three of us with their weapons raised and ready, because of course they were. This whole situation was just going truly swimmingly.

Even while we were absorbing all that and taking in the situation, one of the men sputtered about how we’d chased them all the way through the tunnel, how he barely escaped, and so on. He kept urging the rest of his gang to shoot us. My eyes centered on him, only to find a figure in brown pants, boots, a long brown jacket over a black shirt, and a brown helmet that left his lower face exposed while thick goggles covered his eyes. Oh yeah, and his hands were encased in heavy gauntlets with long metal claws on them, sort of like badger paws. He kept pointing those claws at us while stammering about how they all needed to do something. 

Yeah, I was getting the sneakiest suspicion that the men had not been using Touched-Tech to dig that tunnel. I had never seen or heard of this guy before, so he was clearly a new player. Or maybe he had come over from somewhere else. Either way, he was Touched himself in some way. Though whether digging was his power, or if he was Tech-Touched and the gauntlets were his invention, I wasn’t sure. There was too much we didn’t know. Which wasn’t great, since everything I had read and seen said going up against Touched whose powers you knew nothing about was a bad idea. 

“Undermine, shut up for a minute,” Sandon snapped, silencing the man instantly without even looking at him. Her gaze was locked on the rest of us as we stood there (well, Carousel and I stood there, while Lucent perched on my helmet). She seemed to be considering for a moment, even as the rest of her men kept their weapons pointed at us. They were clearly just waiting for the order to start firing. But wouldn’t do so without their boss’s direct orders. Lucky us. 

Even more lucky for us, one of the other men to one side tossed some kind of silver ball into the hole behind us. My gaze snapped that way just in time to see the ball give a popping sound before expanding into a concrete plug that completely sealed up the hole, blocking it.

Well, that was just great. So much for any plan involving jumping right back into the tunnel. Damn bad guys and their ability to look ahead and anticipate the most patently obvious things. 

My eyes drifted back from the digger guy (Undermine, apparently, which seemed like an odd name to give a subordinate) to Sandon herself. She looked the same as the last time I had been around her, back during the big fight for the vials. She had a modernized, sort of science fiction-ish suit of armor with a lion’s pelt attached to the back. There was no actual real head connected to it. Instead, Sandon’s helmet/mask was lion-shaped to function as the head of the pelt, with the open mouth surrounding a black-tinted visor. The visor itself even had metal teeth along the edges, to really sell the effect. Beyond that, I couldn’t see any details about what she looked like. I certainly couldn’t see the bones that were attached to the inside of her armor, built into it. Every bone she touched gave her the strength of the person that bone belonged to. And since she made a point of getting pieces of bone from every person with enhanced strength that she could find… yeah. Sandon was literally one of the strongest Touched in… well, the state for sure. And she was pretty up there in the national rankings. 

“You’re very annoying, you know that?” the woman informed us with a flat voice. While speaking, she rubbed at the visor where her forehead would be. “This was supposed to be a simple in-and-out. Make it look like a normal bank robbery on the outside while our new friend Undermine here takes a few men in to grab everything we need out of the vault. Wars are expensive, especially a war against people like Blackjack with his damn near unlimited funding. My people have mouths to feed. Wouldn’t even have hurt anyone, really. But then you three had to go charging in and complicate the whole fucking business.” 

“Ahem, language, please,” Lucent put in, his voice slightly chiding. “Just because we happen to be on opposite sides of this issue is no excuse for creating such a hostile verbal environment for the youth. We should, after all, strive to show them a better example than that.” 

I couldn’t see her expression through the black visor, but from the way Sandon stared in silence at him for a moment, I had the feeling she was trying to decide if he had completely lost his mind. Which was fair, considering I had the same thought. I truly had no idea what he was thinking, or why he thought chastising the woman for her language was a good idea. Then I realized he wasn’t actually that crazy. He was stalling, buying time. Not to mention distracting Sandon and throwing her off. 

“Yeah,” the woman finally muttered darkly while giving a look toward her crew, “I’ll be sure to watch my language while we decide exactly how fu–pardon, screwed the three of you are.”  That, of course, prompted a round of the derisive chuckles from the men, who were still pointing weapons at us, clearly itching to start this fight. They were watching for the moment either their boss gave the signal, or one of us made a move. I had the feeling that if I were to so much as lift my hand, they would instantly start shooting before I could give a thumbs up. 

“Are we though?” That was Carousel, her voice piping up into the silence that had followed those chuckles. She made a point of looking around, like she was searching for the bags that had been left in the tunnel beneath us. “Where’s your dough? This has been quite the show, but your funds are still low.” With an exaggerated shrug, she finished, “Perhaps there is mining equipment you can borrow. Like a dozer, trencher, or backhoe.” 

Before Sandon could respond to that, the Undermine guy blurted, “Fuck your rhymes, the second we’re done with you, I’ll open up the hole again and go right back down there to get the bags and my buddies. You got nothing we can’t deal with.” 

“Undermine,” Sandon half-snarled, “I told you to shut your mouth. Don’t make me say it a third time.” Her gaze snapped that way, the implication clear. She waited until the man gave a short, contrite nod before turning back to us. “Never let it be said that I can’t be reasoned with. I will give the three of you this one chance to walk away. Leave, and allow us to collect our spoils.” 

That prompted a low round of grumbling from the men who were pointing their weapons at us and clearly wanted a fight, but the woman that silenced that with a sharp look. Her words were flat. “Let’s just say I have bigger fish to fry than you. So take the offer. Turn around and walk away. Or fly, whatever you choose. Take the mulligan and try this whole fighting thing another time. Believe me, there will be plenty of chances for it.” Her chin rose as she focused on Lucent. “You know it’s a good offer, bird. You’ve got two kids here with you and I have you surrounded. We have weapons, I’m stronger than any of you, and you don’t know what Undermine is capable of. Walking away and fighting another day is the best offer you’re going to get.” 

Yeah, I couldn’t say that she was exactly wrong about that. I had been spending these tense moments painting the inside of my costume as much as I could. Between that and the paint that had already been there, if a fight started, I would be at least mostly protected for a bit. And Carousel still had some paint I could activate if it came down to it. We weren’t nearly as flat-footed as it might have appeared, even if this wasn’t the best circumstance. If a fight started, we wouldn’t be instantly taken apart. And yet, Sandon made some good points. She was stronger than any of us. My purple paint at its best probably couldn’t do much against her. And she had Undermine, who could–well, who knew what he could do besides dig a tunnel. Which by itself could be pretty nasty, if he could use that to, like, put the holes directly under us while we were standing there or something. Again, we had no idea what he was capable of. Which was all before you even brought in all the extra armed troops she had with her. Troops who were just waiting to open fire. Yeah, this whole situation was pretty… dangerous was a good word. It was pretty dangerous, preparation be damned. We might win a fight, but it wasn’t guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. 

And yet, if we walked away, we’d just be leaving them to take off with everything they’d taken out of that vault, and the other members of their gang we had left down there. It felt wrong to just let them win like that. Walking away without even trying to stop them? Yeah, the thought made my stomach roll a bit. But then, so did the idea of starting a fight right now. There were no good options, and it was clear that Sandon knew that. She wasn’t directing her men to attack or anything. She was waiting, giving the three of us a few seconds to really consider everything. Which itself made me wonder. Was she just as hesitant about being able to easily win a fight too? Or was she really just trying to save effort and resources by giving us a chance to walk away? She was, after all, in the middle of a war against two different Fell-Gangs. And probably had to pay my family for the privilege of conducting it. No wonder she needed more funds. 

Finally, I managed to find my voice. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to be the ones who walked away from this and let us take those stolen things back where they belong?” Looking back and forth between the troops and their leader, I offered a shrug. “No? Just checking.”  

Sandon took a step closer to me. I felt Lucent ready himself on my helmet, a sound of what I interpreted as a warning to the woman escaping him. She stopped, holding up both hands placatingly. “Easy, bird. No one’s starting anything. Not yet, anyway.” She focused on me then, voice lowering a bit dangerously. “You’ve had some success over the past couple of months, kid. Don’t let it go to your head. Hell, you helping expose Pencil and Cup? That’s some good stuff. They’re fu–pardon, freaking psychopaths. No one likes those two, or their sycophants. I enjoyed you pulling the rug out from under them. That’s one of the reasons I’m willing to let you walk away. But don’t push your luck.” Her gaze moved over all three of us as she very pointedly added, “All of you, turn around and walk, before I change my mind. You don’t want to see what happens if I decide you’re being too annoying.”

Carousel’s voice immediately filled the air on the heels of Sandon’s words. “They say the better part of valor is discretion. Leaving may cause some depression. But it is my greatest impression our soundest move is egression.” 

“Sure,” Sandon agreed with a small, humorless chuckle. “However the poet girl wants to put it. But any minute now one of your do-gooder friends is going to show up. Then everything gets complicated again. So let’s say you have ten–five seconds to make up your minds. Four, three-” 

“Ahem,” Lucent put in, “Your point is made. Come, little ones, we shall find our way out of this place and leave our friends here to… conduct their business. There will be other moments, other confrontations.” He was clearly staring at Sandon, who gave him a simple nod. I wondered how much history there was between them, because it seemed like there was at least something. Especially given the tone she used whenever she called him ‘bird.’ She clearly didn’t like him. And yet, she was still willing to let him, and the rest of us, walk away from this. 

That was exactly what we did. We left, walking backward to keep the troops in sight for as long as possible, just in case one of them decided to try something after all. But though it was clear that they were pretty unhappy about it, none of them made a move. Not with Sandon right there. They were obviously far too afraid of her to risk doing something stupid right then. 

As for the three of us, we didn’t say anything until we had stepped backward into an alley on the far side of the parking lot, getting out of their sight. Immediately, I pivoted toward Carousel, while Lucent flew off my head and toward the nearby roof. Reaching out, I took the other girl’s hand and launched us upward with a mix of blue and red paint. We reached the top of the building, and I released Carousel while blurting, “Are you sure we can’t take them? They’re right there, we can still–” 

“Easy, lad,” Lucent cautioned while landing on a nearby bit of machinery sticking out of the roof. “There is nothing embarrassing about walking away to fight another day. There will be other moments, better moments. You need more training before you’re ready to go up against someone like Sandon in a straight fight. As it is, she would demolish you in such a confrontation. Don’t forget, she is capable of holding her own in a fight against Cuélebre, and your success against that man hinged on running away from him.” 

Remembering what it had been like to catch just a portion of the lightning bolt he had summoned, and how terrifying it had been to run away from him to begin with, I gave a reluctant nod. “Yeah, I know. But… but they’re over there and they’re going to get that money back. Or whatever they stole from the vault. They’ll get the people we left down there, all of it. We might as well not have even been there if they just get away with all of it.” It was probably childish, but still. I didn’t like the idea of just letting them walk away with everything they stole. 

“Perhaps this is the best lesson you could have learned today,” Lucent considered, his gaze on me. “Oft times it is better to take the hit to your pride or sense of justice, if it means avoiding needless conflict that can only result in more problems. Twas nothing to be truly gained by engaging with Sandon and her people right then. What they have stolen may be recovered in other ways, at other times. And if it is not, all that has been lost is material goods. But if we were to fight that woman directly and lose… such could be disastrous in many ways.” 

Exhaling, I gave a slow, reluctant nod. “Yeah, okay, you’re right. But still, we could stop them if we had more help. Where is everybody? What’s taking them so long to show up? I mean, you told them what was going on, right? You’ve got that tracker thing on you, so they should’ve made it here by now.” I wasn’t trying to be judgy or anything, but seriously, we should’ve had help back there. We’d kept Sandon talking long enough for other members of the Seraphs or Minority/Conservators to show up. But there had been nothing. What was up with that? 

“Unfortunately,” Lucent replied, “It seems that all active patrols from various teams were too far away from the situation to step in. And they were… otherwise engaged in their own problems at the time. A case of poor luck and timing. Or generous luck, on the Ninety-Niners’ parts, one may suppose.” 

Right, generous luck called, ‘they probably paid off my parents to keep anyone who could stop them away.’ Because that was a thing the Ministry did. It was one of the main reasons they existed. Criminals paid them extra fees to push patrols away from what they were targeting. I knew that from that bit I’d overheard between my brother and that guy just outside the mall base. Obviously that was what had actually happened here. Not that I could explain it to the other two. Even if the idea of just blurting out the whole thing did jump into my head. 

While I was pushing that thought out of my head, Carousel spoke up. “I’ve sent a message of my own. Though she may show up alone, Way will be among us soon. Best she not come to high noon.” 

Right, yeah, Amber was on her way and it was probably a good thing that she wouldn’t be walking into a full-on duel. Especially if she was by herself. My mouth opened to agree with that, only to stop as I hesitated and blinked at the other girl. “Come to think of it, if there wasn’t any patrols nearby, how did you happen to show up?” I knew that wasn’t the sort of oversight my family would have made. If they had been paid to move patrols away from the bank, Carousel really shouldn’t have been anywhere near the place. At least, not officially. 

Sure enough, she shrugged. “I was not on any sort of patrol. In truth, I was out for a stroll. I saw you passing overhead, and though it could have been misread, it seemed you needed aid. Thus from my path, I strayed.” 

“Someday,” I retorted while pointing at her, “I’m going to find a way to make you say something that doesn’t rhyme. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but your poetry reckoning is coming.” 

I could feel the smile on her face as she casually replied, “You are not the first to make such a claim. Truly, I enjoy that sort of game. Yet I must disclaim, lest annoyance grow aflame, that it is not truly a fair fight. After all, with words I am quite erudite.” 

Opening and shutting my mouth a couple times, I leaned closer to Lucent and murmured, “I think I’m in over my head.” 

The exchange prompted a chuckle from the raven TONI, before he cleared his throat. “In any case, neither of you should feel poorly about what transpired. As I said, it is always better to walk away and find a better avenue for attack, than to let stubbornness force you into an uneven conflict. We walked into that without knowing who was on the other end of the tunnel. Facing one as powerful and dangerous as Sandon without any plan, while surrounded by her people and with an unknown Touched in play on her side? There was no shame in backing out of that conflict. That is what you should truly take away from this. Never be afraid to admit you are not prepared for something. Better to leave and try again another time, from a better direction, than insist on fighting right at the moment.”

He definitely had a point, as much as it has made my stomach twist itself to just walk away from that after everything we had done to try to stop them from getting away. Which made another thought come to me, as I looked at Carousel. “What about those cuffs? Are you gonna get in trouble for uhh, losing them?” I had no doubt that Sandon had a way to break them. Even if it only amounted to literally doing so. Those particular cuffs weren’t the ones rated for that level of enhanced strength. They would keep a certain amount down, but she was far beyond that. 

“When I present the whole story,” the other girl informed me, “of how they left my inventory, I’m sure they’ll understand why I have fewer cuffs on hand.” 

I was about to say something to that, when there was a whistle from nearby. The three of us turned, in time to see That-A-Way on the opposite roof. She was clearly warning us before just showing up, just in case we were still a bit tense (which was fair). As soon as we looked that way, she vanished from that roof and appeared next to us. 

“So,” the girl started while looking around. 

“What’d I miss?” 

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Interlude 18A – Flea (Summus Proelium)

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Irelyn Banners was having a very frustrating day. She had set several hours aside to track down the actual location of her parents and adopted sister, and none of her attempts were panning out. As far as anyone in authority was concerned, her family had simply gone on vacation over in Europe. After all, it wasn’t as though Aaron and Constance Banners going off on a retreat without much in the way of notice was exactly unusual. They did it all the time. If anything, the fact that they had supposedly taken Paige with them was the only part that stood out at all. 

Unfortunately, ‘my parents are being too nice to their adopted daughter’ wasn’t the sort of slam dunk proof the cops, or even other Star-Touched groups, were looking for. Especially when it was coming from someone who had been disowned by those same parents. She just looked like someone was jealous, even if that was wildly incorrect. But she could see why they would come to that conclusion, unfortunately. 

She could potentially have forced the issue by appearing as Flea and telling the authorities to look into it, but that would mean potentially exposing her identity to far more people than she was comfortable with. The bar to become a member of the police force was far too low for Irelyn to risk handing out that sort of information willy-nilly. To say nothing of how easily one of the local Fell-gangs could bribe them. No, worried as she was, that would be a bad idea. 

So, she was looking into the situation herself, without police help. Or official help, anyway. She still had contacts in the force who didn’t mind doing her a favor or two without asking too many questions. Unfortunately, none of that was actually leading anywhere. The only thing she had been able to confirm was that her parents’ private plane did take off with a flight plan for London on Paige’s birthday. It had not returned, and the exact number of passengers wasn’t clear. After that single point, there was nothing. Her parents and sister had gone completely off the grid, as far as she could tell. At least, from here. She was seriously getting to the point of requesting a sabbatical from her duties on the Conservators in order to take her own trip over there. She would start at the plane itself and find something about where the hell they had gone. 

Maybe she was overreacting to this whole situation. But Irelyn couldn’t shake the feeling that something very bad was going on. She needed to know they were all okay. Yes, she had her problems with her parents. Especially her father, demanding as he was. His reaction to her choosing to forge her own path rather than stay on as his dutiful daughter and use her powers in their own private security company had been to disown her entirely and go adopt a new daughter altogether, one he clearly felt that he could forge into the proper puppet he wanted.

Irelyn didn’t blame Paige for that, of course. There was… there was a lot she had always wanted to say to her adopted sister, but it never really came out right. She had the feeling that Paige thought she was, at the very best, just going through the motions. Or worse, that she actually blamed Paige for the way her–their parents had turned their backs on Irelyn. Which could not have been further from the truth. She really wanted to explain that, wanted to get Paige to understand that not only did she not blame her for any of what happened between her and their parents, but that she would be there for her if she ever needed to talk about her own situation. She wanted Paige to know that she wasn’t alone, that she could talk to her if she needed to, considering Irelyn knew exactly what it was like to be put under the kind of pressure Aaron Banners was capable of. 

Unfortunately, she was pretty sure that every attempt she had made at such bonding had been interpreted as attempts to remind Paige that she had been their parents’ daughter first. Her intention, of course, had been to make sure the younger girl knew that Irelyn sympathized with any problems she might have, and was there if she wanted to talk. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that Paige had instead taken it as some sort of, ‘I was their daughter first, not you’ warning. Which was a big part of why Irelyn had wanted to take the girl out for her birthday to begin with. She wanted to set the record straight. Now that Paige was seventeen and almost a senior in high school, it was more important than ever that she understand that she didn’t have to be the person their father wanted her to be, that she could make her own choices. More than anything, Irelyn wanted the girl to know that she didn’t have to be an obedient little puppet. 

In any case, all of that came down to the fact that they were far from the best examples of a family. But she still needed to know that they were okay. If all of this was for nothing and the three of them really had gone on a private vacation to celebrate Paige’s birthday, then so be it. But she needed to know for certain. And so far, nothing she found out was actually adding up. 

At the moment, she was just leaving the tower of the private airfield where her family’s plane had taken off from with them (supposedly) aboard, when her phone buzzed. She glanced to it, seeing That-A-Way’s name pop up. Huh. What could that girl need? As far as Irelyn knew, she wasn’t on duty at the moment. Still, it could have been important, so she stopped beside her car and lifted the phone to her ear. “Yes?” Her phone was already programmed to alter her voice appropriately whenever she was speaking to someone from her Touched contacts, or simply by pressing a button. 

“Flea,” came the quick, clearly somewhat uncertain response. “Um, oh boy. We need to talk.” 

Immediately setting aside her personal feelings about finding her family at the sound of the younger girl’s voice, Irelyn opened the door of her car and got in. “Way, what’s wrong? Are you in trouble?” 

“Just got out of it, actually,” Way informed her. “At least, out of the worst of it.” With that, she gave an incredibly brief explanation of what she, Raindrop, and that independent Star-Touched, Paintball (and his new partner), had been up to. A very brief, pseudo-explanation. Apparently they’d located the actual home of Cup, exposed her secret identity and that of Pencil himself, narrowly escaped being captured or killed for that, and were on their way back into the city. 

There was clearly a hell of a lot more to that whole story. That-A-Way had ‘explained’ in as few words as possible, just enough to make sure Flea understood the gravity of what was going on. And boy did she ever. All thoughts of finding her missing family fled for the moment, as she considered just how the Scions of Typhon would react to their leaders’ identities being exposed. They would not be happy, to say the very least. And they would act fast to disappear and destroy every single potential link to wherever they might go. To say nothing of what they would do to any civilians who might even consider accidentally being in their way. 

As soon as she understood what was happening, and just what was at stake, Irelyn immediately gave the other girl an address to meet at so they could talk in person. But not before she took the address of where Cup was supposed to live. Which was apparently some petting zoo ten miles outside of town. The moment she knew that much, Irelyn told Way to meet her at an old motel that was being worked on, and disconnected. Then she started her car and peeled out while making a call of her own. That one was to Silversmith. He was on a hiatus for the week, something to do with personal matters. But this was more important than a vacation. 

On her way out of the parking lot, while listening to the phone ring, Irelyn pressed the button under the dash that made the flashing red and blue lights appear around her car’s regular headlights, as well as an actual siren. It made her vehicle look like an unmarked police cruiser, which was very useful for getting places faster. She even had identification referring to herself as such if she were ever pulled over, and would be listed within the official police database for anyone looking her up. All benefits of being part of the Conservators. And, of course, one of the reasons she was capable of investigating her parents’ disappearance with any degree of success at all rather than being laughed out of the room. She may not have been able to call in official police assistance, but she could use her own false connection to them in order to get some answers. 

And right now, she could use it to force traffic out of the way so that she could get to that motel as fast as possible. Even if she did have to lean on the horn to convince some asshole in a truck to take the siren seriously. “Come on,” Irelyn muttered in annoyance as the phone rang again. “Pick up. Pick up, pick up, pick up.” 

Finally, Silversmith did just that. There was a click and she heard his voice speak calmly. “What’s wrong?” Just like that, he knew something had happened. 

“Smith, you need to organize a group to check out this petting zoo,” Irelyn immediately informed him. Using even fewer words than That-A-Way had, she informed him of what those four had been up to, and what they had found out. “You need to get a team out there to stop the Scions from destroying everything. You know what they’ll do to any civilians in the way. And be ready for Touched-Tech defenses.” 

Smith didn’t even question any of it. Instead, he immediately agreed, “I’ll have a group there ASAP. I take it you’re meeting with our little friends to get more information?” 

“Yeah,” Irelyn confirmed while taking a sharp turn through an intersection, cutting off a couple annoyed drivers in the process. “I’ll be there in six minutes, and let you know about any other relevant details.” 

“Good,” he replied simply. “Make sure they’re all okay, and check them for traps or tricks the Scions might’ve left, just in case. Silversmith out.” 

With that, the man disconnected, leaving Irelyn driving as fast as possible toward the motel. She just hoped he and the group he pulled together could get to Cup’s place before the Scions wiped the place off the map. And that she could get some real information out of the trio she was going to meet. Because to be quite honest, she didn’t believe for a second that there wasn’t more to that story. They had not tripped over the true identity of the Scion leadership by accident. Something else was definitely going on, and she was going to get to the bottom of it.

On the way, while practically flooring the pedal, Irelyn reached out to open the nearby compartment between the driver and passenger seats. There was an affirmative beep as the pad there read her fingerprints before the thing opened. Nestled inside was what appeared to be a single piece of her costume, the metal, samurai-like mask with mandible protrusions in the front. With a quick glance around to assure herself no one was close enough to her vehicle to see through the already-heavily tinted windows, Irelyn touched the mask to her face. As she did so, the mask extended with a series of rapid clicks and the sound of sliding metal. Soon, it had transformed into a full samurai helmet, covering her head entirely. Once it was in place, she glanced instinctively toward the rear view mirror. As always, the distinct look of Asian eyes visible between the top of the plate covering the bottom three-quarters of her face, and the helmet itself, was a little surprising. The truth was, Irelyn was only about a quarter-Asian. Her mother’s mother was Japanese. Irelyn herself bore almost no physical resemblance, having taken heavily after her father in appearance (and her mother didn’t look all that like her own mother to begin with). At a glance, very little about the woman’s appearance gave any hint of her heritage. But with the rest of her face covered and only her eyes visible, the slight Asian features were isolated and exaggerated enough that anyone looking at her would picture someone very different under the costume. 

With the helmet on, Irelyn checked the road once more. She was two minutes from the on-ramp that would lead to the motel. A quick tap of a button on the steering column put the car into auto-drive, allowing it to follow the road toward her selected destination in the GPS. At the same time, the driver’s seat slid backward while the rear seat folded up. It gave Irelyn room to grab the rest of her costume from a hidden compartment in the floor and change clothes. 

Once she was dressed properly, the seat slid forward once more, and the woman took the wheel, turning the car to head through a nearby alley. The moment it was out of sight from the street, she touched a different control under the dash. This one shifted the car’s color from red to black, deactivated the lights, and changed the licence plate. Between those changes and a couple other minor cosmetic ones, it was a very different-looking vehicle that came out the other side of the L-shaped alley. From there, she pointed the car toward the onramp and made her way those last couple minutes toward the motel, taking that exit and sending the car practically screaming through the empty (save for a few construction vehicles and a lot of safety cones) parking lot. 

Stopping the car, the newly-dressed Flea stepped out and looked around. Her eyes were immediately drawn to an arrow that had been graffitied on the wall of the nearby building. It was big and blue, with the quite well-done image of her own helmet next to it just to make sure she noticed. The arrow pointed toward a space between the main office structure and one of the buildings with the various suites. There were vending machines and a narrow pathway with a gate. Next to the gate was a sign, indicating it was the way to the pool. 

Her eyes narrowed, but she could hardly fault them for being careful, given the situation. Still, she wasn’t allergic to being careful either. Rather than walk through the gate, Flea took a step before leaping upward. The lunge carried her to the top of the four-story building, before she paced along the edge of the roof looking down. 

Abruptly, the woman had to stop, finding herself face to face with what appeared to be a bronze sword floating in midair right in front of her. 

“Stop! Stop, stop, stop!” The frantic voice came from above, and Flea glanced that way to see a figure come gliding in on top of a literal silver surfboard. A part of her wondered if that was intentional, but she set it aside to focus on the figure itself. Or herself, rather. The girl gliding down on the flying board wore metallic purple armor with white across the arms and up into a full helmet. It was a different look than either of the costumes that girl had been reported as wearing before, but it was obvious who she was. 

“I’m sorry, he was just trying to protect me–us,” the girl hurriedly babbled, even as the bronze sword went floating over to her. It was joined by a black mace and a gold shield. 

“You’re Paintball’s new friend,” Flea noted coolly. “Different look today?” 

“Alloy,” the girl informed her before stammering, “a-and umm, sort of. I’m playing lookout and we thought maybe if I looked different anyone the Scions had out looking for us might not immediately recognize me, you know?” She was clearly blushing underneath that helmet, adding, “I know it’s not likely, but every little bit helps.” 

“Yes,” Flea agreed, “every little bit helps. And I’m glad you were on the ball.” Her eyes glanced toward the floating bronze sword before she added, “As was your friend there.” 

Was it just her imagination, or did that sword find a way to preen? 

Shaking that off, the woman focused on the situation. “Where are the others? Are they–” 

“We’re fine.” Way herself had suddenly appeared next to them, one hand on Paintball’s arm and the other on Raindrop’s as she brought the younger boy and girl with. “We’re all fine. Mostly.” 

Forgetting everything else for a moment, Flea stepped that way and put one hand on Way’s shoulder and the other on Raindrop’s. “You’re safe? You’re not hurt?” Her head turned slightly to look toward Paintball and Alloy. “You’re all safe?” 

There was a series of nods from all of them. Even in costume, they looked exhausted and like… well, like they had just discovered Cup and Pencil’s true identities and barely escaped with their lives. They were clearly jumpy, turning to look sharply at the sound of a semi passing on the distant freeway. 

“Good,” Flea informed them. “I’m glad you’re safe, that you’re not hurt.” She squeezed That-A-Way and Raindrop’s shoulders, wanting to embrace them but unsure of how that would be taken. Instead, she let them go and took one step back while clearing her throat pointedly. Her gaze slid over each of the group in turn, making sure they were all paying attention. “Now tell me exactly what happened back there. I need to know the full story.” 

“Um, not to object about that,” Paintball tentatively put in, “but are you sure you don’t want to, you know, go check out the petting zoo itself?” 

“Silversmith and some others are doing that,” Flea informed him. The boy seemed to recoil a bit at that news, and she immediately assured him, “They’ll be fine. Smith knows how to be careful. They won’t go blundering into any Touched-Tech traps or anything. Believe me, they’re the best group for the job.” 

That said, she turned her attention  back to the rest of the group. “But, I still need to know exactly what happened with all of you. Cup and the others aren’t stupid enough to hang around there. Our best chance at tracking them down is to hope our people got there soon enough to pick through any evidence that was left behind. And give their identities to all law enforcement so it’s harder for them to hide anywhere. Which is happening right now. But in the meantime, I need to know what happened, and how you ended up in that situation.” 

Paintball did most of the talking. He told her about the deal he had made with Deicide of all people, in order to get the vial back to save Blackjack’s child. Flea had… opinions about that, But she could hardly fault him for being willing to do risky things and make deals with bad people to save a child. 

In any case, the boy went on to tell Flea all about how the deal had been to find this Amanda girl as a witness to one of Pencil’s first murders, with the idea that she might know more about him. And boy did she ever. When Paintball and Alloy (accompanied by That-A-Way and Raindrop for backup) had tracked down Amanda, she turned out to be Cup herself. Not only that, but she revealed the truth about her power, that she was the one who kept building those Touched-Tech toys for Pencil. And, in fact, that it was one of those very toys that allowed her to paralyze Paintball and Alloy while they were talking to her, before That-A-Way and Raindrop interceded, grabbed them, and escaped in a van they had borrowed. Well, started to escape. That had led to a rousing car chase. 

“And here we are,” Paintball finally finished. “So what’s going to happen with Cup now?” 

“Now, we’ll do our best to track her and her brother down,” Flea replied simply. “Knowing who they really are under those masks, having their true identities, faces, all that, it’s…” She exhaled. “It’s a pretty damn big break. To say nothing of finding out what her real power is. They’ve managed to keep that secret for a long time. It’s a big deal. But you were all still incredibly reckless. Do you have any idea what those psychopaths would’ve done if you didn’t–if they managed to–” Her voice rose. “Don’t ever do that again, do you understand? Not just you two,” she noted with a glance to Way and Raindrop before turning her attention to Paintball and Alloy. “But you two as well. You might not be part of the Minority, but I can damn well make your life difficult if you keep running around doing dangerous things like that. And pulling these two into it.” 

Raindrop started to say something, but Flea raised a hand to stop her. “I get it. I do. You all did something incredibly important today. But it was also incredibly dangerous, and if it had gone wrong, you all could’ve–” She cut herself off, taking a deep breath to avoid going into a long rant that wouldn’t have helped anything. “Just call for help next time. Adult help. If you’d taken one of us with you, there might–we might have been able to…” God, she didn’t want to say that. If she told them taking an adult with them might’ve led to Cup being arrested, they’d blame themselves for any further deaths. Biting her tongue, Flea simply ended with, “Be smart about it, okay?” 

Raindrop hesitantly asked, “Are they going to tell everyone who Cup and Pencil really are? I mean, everyone?” 

“We’ll be informing every registered Star-Touched team in the state immediately,” Flea confirmed. “They’ll be on the lookout. And certain higher levels of law enforcement as well. As for the rest…” She paused before explaining. “That’s up to a judge. How much of a Fell-Touched’s identity is revealed to the public in a situation like this is determined by a judge at the time, based on a lot of factors. The danger they pose, the potential for rehabilitation, extenuating circumstances, any previous aid they’ve been, and so on. In this case, I think it’s safe to say everyone will know who they are by the end of the day. But it’s not our place to make that decision.” 

That all said, Flea added, “Now, I want all four of you to go home. You’ve done your part. I mean it, if I see you out working again today, I will find a way to slap you into a private detention cell for the rest of the night. Go get some rest. 

“God knows, you’ve earned it.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, so much for being free and clear. Just when I’d actually dared to think that we had gotten away from that whole… situation with the Scions, everything immediately blew up again. We were being chased in the van and shot at. Cup was there, along with who knew how many others. Way was stuck driving, not daring to slow down at all, and Raindrop kept peeking out the back window, calling out warnings whenever it looked like they were about to fire. Her warnings made Way spin the wheel one way or the other, sending the van skidding across the road. 

Sometimes, she couldn’t avoid the shots. Either there wasn’t room or time. But that was where Alloy came in. She had her marbles flying along behind the van, alternately transforming into various walls or shields to block the hits that Way couldn’t evade. Alloy couldn’t see enough to direct them for that, of course. But they were doing a pretty good job on their own just from the instructions to ‘protect the van.’ Which raised even more questions about how independent they were, not that I was going to get into that right now.

Either way, between Raindrop calling out when to evade, and Alloy’s marbles shielding the shots that she couldn’t get away from, we were avoiding the worst of what the Scions were throwing at us. But I had no idea how long that could continue. If we didn’t do something else fast, something was going to get through. Worse, if Way lost control of the van and we had to face the Scions in a straight fight…  yeah, I didn’t see that ending well. Especially considering the fact that three of us were still mostly paralyzed.  

Speaking of which, we were desperately trying to speed along our recovery so we could actually help. We could fairly regularly move our fingers, hands, and toes, but it was still not enough. Well, not unless the Scions wanted to settle this whole thing with a good old-fashioned thumb wrestling match. I was pretty sure I could win one of those. But then again, something told me Cup would find a way to cheat even at that, and I’d end up without a thumb at all. 

Oh, and we couldn’t call for help either. Yeah, we’d tried that, and the calls weren’t going through anymore. Not since I’d hung up with Deicide. Clearly, Cup was using something to block it. Probably her own invention, since she was apparently a fucking Tech-touched! 

“Hold on!” Way called back once more, just before the van jolted violently. It felt like we were running over the pockmarked dirt along the side of the road itself. The whole vehicle threatened to spin out of control, but she managed to keep it going mostly straight, cursing out loud. “Fucking– Box is back there, he keeps making rock walls appear in front of us!” 

Box, right. He was the guy who made those glowing orbs and could throw them before they turned into variously shaped and sized portions of fire, wind, water, or, in this case, earth. So at least two of the Fell-Touched for the Scions were back in that car chasing us. And I didn’t think we were lucky enough for them to be the only ones. Especially not today. Nothing was lucky about today. Well, unless we actually managed to get out of here with that information about Cup and Pencil’s true identities, and her real power. That would be pretty lucky.

Even as I had that thought, my arm rose. Slowly and a bit jerkily, but it rose right up in front of my face. Move. I could move even more than before. The paralyzation was wearing off faster. “Come on, come on,” I murmured to myself, bending and unbending the arm. It felt like an extreme version of having a limb ‘fall asleep.’ The numbness was incredibly weird. 

Come to think of it, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t completely helpless here, numbness be damned. Pushing my hand against the floor beneath me, I focused on spreading green paint through the vehicle. I couldn’t paint the whole thing, of course. I didn’t have enough paint or the right position. But I could help a bit. I could contribute, damn it. 

“Tell me when you need a green speed boost!” I shouted toward the front while slowly shaking out my other arm. From this position, I couldn’t see where we were on the road, what was ahead of us, or anything else. I was going to have to rely on Way for all that. 

Thankfully, she realized what I was talking about immediately. “Not yet!” the girl called. “Wait… wait…” She spun the wheel once more, the metal and wheels both squealing in protest. “Now!” 

So, I triggered the boost right then. Immediately, the van lurched to about twice its usual speed. I could hear the squealing of the tires as we shot forward, pulling a decent bit ahead of the car behind us. It gave our group a little bit of very desperately needed breathing room. 

Unfortunately, it was still just a van, and the Scion car was faster. Whether that was simply a normal fact, or one helped by Cup tinkering with their car, I had no idea. Either way, they were still hot on our heels. I boosted the van now and then, but there was only so much I could do. There was only so much any of us could do. We were still a long distance from the rest of the city and from any help. Unless Deicide happened to pass us on her way to the petting zoo, and again, we weren’t that lucky. No, we were on our own here. We just… had to survive. 

“Way!” Raindrop called. “Go straight for three seconds when I say!” She was peering out the small window, one hand on the handle. After a moment, she called, “Left!” Way spun the wheel that direction, and I caught the barest glimpse of a glowing energy beam shoot past the window on the right side as Cup took another shot. It was so close, the van shook from whatever kinetic force the beam was carrying with it. Which was fucking weird to begin with. 

The instant the shot went past, Raindrop shouted, “Hold steady!” She glared out that back window, focusing while pointing with her free hand. I heard the rush of water go flying that way, before the girl cursed. Which was still strange to hear coming from her. She quickly jerked back while blurting, “Right!” Which sent the van sliding across the road that direction just in time to miss another shot. 

“Shield,” Raindrop informed us while still clutching the side of the van to keep herself upright. “They’ve got some kind of forcefield around the car, I can’t… I can’t get it wet! I can’t move it, I can’t do anything!” Her voice was frantic, clearly freaking out a bit. Not that I could blame her. We were all freaking out. There had to be a way out of here, had to be a way to escape from those psycho fucks. God damn it, why wouldn’t my arms move properly so I could do something?! Straining as hard as I could, I managed to make them bend a little faster. The paralyzation was wearing off, but not nearly quickly enough. The most I could do was keep randomly speeding the van up, which helped a bit, but wasn’t enough to keep us away from those assholes for long. It didn’t even help us pull far enough away to make a phone call, damn it! 

With that rush of anger, I suddenly realized that I was sitting up. Alloy and Pack both managed to turn their heads my way, but I was the one in a seated position. Clearly Cup had overestimated how long her paralyzing ray would work. “I can move,” I murmured, before my eyes widened. “I can move.” Everything was still numb, of course. but I was mobile. Definitely not in the right shape to start a fight with the guys chasing us, and yet the thrill of adrenaline from realizing I could move had brought something else to mind. I knew where we were. I knew where we were. And that meant–

Twisting over onto my hands and knees, I crawled to the back, next to Raindrop. There, I crouched by the door and braced myself. “Way!” I called up, “get ready to shift to the passenger side!” 

“What?!” she shouted back at me. “Why the hell would I–” 

But I was already moving. Shoving the back door open, I saw the car racing up from behind us. Sure enough, Cup and Box were there, along with a handful of other Scion lackeys. My hand extended, shooting a burst of yellow paint at the road just as we passed, before activating it. The Scion car abruptly slowed to half its normal speed, and I immediately swung myself out, using red paint to yank myself up against the side of the van while calling for Raindrop to shut the door. 

There I was, crouched sideways against the van, as we raced at like seventy miles an hour along the road. Another quick shot of red yanked me to the front, and I opened the driver’s side door while blurting, “Over, over!” 

To her credit, That-A-Way did exactly that, throwing herself into the passenger seat while I landed where she had been, my foot finding its way to the accelerator before we slowed much. “What’re you doing?!” the other girl shouted while quickly belting herself in.

“Tell me the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving,” Pack snapped from the back. “I said, tell me the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving!” 

“Okay,” I replied, glancing at the screen on the dash that showed a view behind us through a camera on the bumper, “the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving. 

“He’s flying.” 

With that, I abruptly spun the wheel hard to the right with one hand while touching the edge of the dash with my other. An orange arrow appeared there, extending out over the hood. I activated it just as the van hit a small incline on the side of the road and, with the engine roaring, went airborne a good six or seven feet, slamming into and through a tree that was in its way. Behind me and beside me, I could hear the others screaming. 

The van was now running perpendicular to the street, racing across the wilderness. Scattered trees surrounded us, and I twisted the wheel sharply once to avoid a big one. It came close enough that the branches scraped loudly along the passenger side. Behind us, I could see the Scion car coming right back into view. 

“Paintball, get back on the road!” Way shouted. “Get back on the road, get back on the road!” 

“Road?” I quoted, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” 

“We need roads!” That was Alloy, her voice a frantic scream. “We definitely need roads!” 

But I wasn’t listening. Instead, I reached up, clipping the seatbelt into place. The van was cruising along the weed-filled ground, bouncing violently from each slight dip and bump. In the rear camera, the Scions were coming up fast. Once in awhile, they fired off a shot that was intercepted by one of the marbles keeping pace with us. 

“Paintball,” Way managed with a tight, worried voice, “I don’t know where you think you’re goaaaaaaahhhhh!” The scream was because we had just hit a bush, passing straight through it before the van dropped like… three feet to crash hard on a dirt path that had been packed hard by thousands of tires running over it. 

“Hah!” I crowed, twisting the wheel sharply to the left to send the van twisting ninety-degrees that way, narrowly avoiding a heavy boulder that had been directly ahead of us. “I knew this was the right area!” 

Suddenly, the van was driving along a narrow ‘road’ (such as it was), with thick trees and rocks lining both sides. It was barely wide enough for the van, and full of dips and hills. We were on a dirt bike track that ran through the forest out here. I’d gone riding a bunch of times. Even broke my arm once. 

Hopefully this time went better. 

Of course, this wasn’t an ordinary, circular track. The whole thing ran for miles and miles throughout the wilderness, with multiple ways to go, several figure eights, intersections where you had to choose which direction to take, even a couple parts where the track was raised into a bridge that ran over one of the lower parts. It was basically the best dirt bike track in the entire state

On the other hand, it was built for dirt bikes, not for a van (or the car following us). The poor vehicle was taking a definite pounding as I floored the gas and sent the van flying along the track, gaining air repeatedly with each hill I launched it over, before coming down hard and violently shaking everyone around. The only reason it stayed together as much as it did was the orange marks I kept repeatedly painting along it whenever possible. 

Way was saying something, the others were shouting from the back, and I ignored all of it. My focus was on pushing the van as hard and as fast as it would go. We were flying along the track, straight toward a T-intersection. Ahead, past the edge of that intersection, was an enormous tree that would have turned the van into a pile of scrap parts if we hit it. At the last second, with Way screaming in my ear, I snapped the wheel to the left while activating just a bit of yellow paint that I had sent through the vehicle. It slowed us enough to make that turn, skidding to the left. Instantly, I threw the wheel to the right, sending the van sliding along the sudden opposite turn that came within a few dozen feet of the intersection. 

Behind us, the Scion car had to skid to a complete stop, backing up and then turning to get back on track. It was clearly faster and more maneuverable than we were. So, if we were going to lose them, I was just going to have to get creative. 

Getting creative, in this case, meant flooring the accelerator and trusting the mix of my memory, reflexes, and that weird, unexplained extra sense I had to get us through the track without completely destroying the van and killing all of us in the process. 

So, that’s what I did. I let myself go and just… trusted. The van’s engine screamed as I sent the vehicle rocketing down the track. There was a curve to the left coming up. I knew it. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it. At the exact right moment, I twisted the wheel. Left–now right, sharp right. Straight for four seconds, jerk the wheel right to avoid the deep pothole in the dirt, clip the trees there, it’s alright they don’t have any big branches. Left or straight here, but go straight because the left went to a dead end. Tree on the ground, veer left and boost to hit that little dirt ramp enough to clear it. Not fast enough. Green paint, boost now! Ignore the screams as the van went airborne. Orange paint for protection, then a hard right once the van hit the ground–no, count to two first, then turn. Slam! One… two–turn! Count to four then shift to the left enough to avoid the sharp boulder sticking out of the nearby overhang. Can’t turn sooner or you’ll hit the deep ditch on that side. One, two, three, four–twist left! 

Drive straight three seconds, turn left again. Four more seconds, twist right. Accelerate as hard as possible and use the green boost for a dirt ramp up ahead, then twist left. Right, right, straight, left, straight, right, straight, left, straightrightrightstraightleftstraightrightstraight!

Though all that, the Scion car kept falling further and further behind. I was pretty sure I could hear Cup screaming in rage, as she fired off a few useless shots that came nowhere near us, but did manage to knock down some trees. We were pulling ahead. But that wouldn’t last. As soon as we were back in open ground, they would catch up. Their car was more sustainably faster. I could boost for short periods, but they had the speed to catch us. We couldn’t just drive in circles along this track forever. We had to do something else. 

Luckily, I had a plan for that. 

“Alloy!” I called toward the back even as I followed my power’s direction and snapped the wheel to the right to send the van in a long skid, applying the brakes at the exact right moment. “Can you combine your marbles into one big shield against the back of the van to take a handful of shots so we can go straight for a bit?!” 

There was a brief pause before the other girl replied in a tight voice, “Yeah, but I don’t know how long they’ll last that way! Whatever she’s shooting at us, it’s got a lot of freaking power!” 

“Doesn’t have to be long,” I insisted. “Just do it when I tell you. Rain, when she does that, soak our car.” 

“Our car?” Raindrop echoed, clearly confused about what I was planning. Thankfully, she trusted me, belatedly calling out an agreement.   

Hands gripping the wheel tightly, I focused on taking us through three more sharp, sudden turns. “Soak the whole van, all of it. And when I tell you… make us float for as long as you can. Just keep us from falling, okay? Keep the van in the air.” Even while saying that, I kept one hand on the dashboard and focused on spreading as much green paint as I could, mixed with just enough orange to hopefully hold the thing together when it had to. I was really draining the bottom of the barrel with this one. I was pretty sure I’d be tapped out after this. At least for a minute or two. And that was basically an eternity in a situation like this. But that was okay. We were going to need the speed, and it was now or never. 

“Alloy, be ready to shield. Raindrop, soak and float on my mark!”  

Then, with a sharp right turn, we hit the straightaway. “Shield, Alloy! Full shield!” I shouted as we bounced along. “Just hold them off for a few seconds! Raindrop, soak it, soak the whole thing and be ready!” 

The other two followed my instructions. Summoned water soaked the whole vehicle thoroughly, like driving through a monsoon.  Behind us, I could hear the shots from our insistent friends rebounding off the marble shields as they immediately took advantage of the straight line of sight they finally had. 

“Can’t take very much more of that shit!” Alloy shouted a bit tensely after five or six of the blasts had struck her shield. “Whatever that bitch is shooting at us, it’s really fucking strong!”

“Just a little further!” I insisted, flooring the pedal as hard as I could. Still, I didn’t activate the green paint. Not yet. Even without the boost, we were careening down that incredibly narrow dirt track. Branches from trees on either side were scraping along the edge of the van, and smacking the windows as we shot down the path. Behind us, the Scions were clearly keeping pace, given the sound of gunfire and the repeated bangs from their car bouncing through the holes. At least they were having just as rough of a ride as we were. Not that that was too much of a consolation, given the whole situation, but still. 

Just when I thought I might have underestimated how far we needed to go, I saw the target up ahead. In that instant, I triggered all the green paint I’d managed to put over the van, and we rocketed forward. The ride, of course, got even bumpier. We had been going a good sixty miles an hour down that track. Now we were going over a hundred. The van’s body, shocks, every part of it screamed in protest. I was pretty sure the rest of us were screaming too. The others and me. I gripped the wheel so tight I felt like it was going to snap off in my hands. Still, I kept it steady, fighting the van’s attempts to jerk from one side to the other. With shots from the Scions still rebounding off the shields or flying off to either side, we were fucking flying down that path. Metaphorically, of course. 

And then it suddenly wasn’t as metaphorical. With one last scream toward the others to hang on, I sent the van right through the spot I had been pointing us toward. We hit a bit of dirt at the end there, and suddenly we were airborne. Like before with the ramps, but this was no ramp. No, I had just launched the van off the edge of a fucking cliff. The ground was a good hundred feet or so below us.  

“Rain, float, float, keep us up!” I screamed as soon as we hit the apex of the jump. 

I could hear the grunt of effort from the younger girl as she did just that, focusing on keeping the van in the air with the gravity part of her power while we continued to shoot forward. Glancing through the nearby window, I saw a ravine far, far below us with barely a trickle of water running through it. Beside me, Way made a weak little whimpering sound as she looked out her own side. 

It only lasted for five or six seconds, but those felt like an eternity. Then I called back, “Lower us down, down!” At the same time, I activated the orange paint to keep the whole van from falling apart around us on impact.

The van dropped a bit, gradually of course. A moment later, there was a violent jolt as we hit the ground once more. Or rather, as we hit the road once more. An actual road, with pavement and everything. Yeah, almost directly opposite that corner of the dirt track, there was the highway we had been driving on before. It curved around a hill at this point, with that sharp dropoff to one side that was blocked by a heavy metal guard rail. Some sort-of friends and I used to bike up to that little spot and sit there watching cars around that slow curve. A couple guys had made morbid comments about what it would be like if a car missed that turn, slammed through the guard rail, and went off into the ravine below. Which was why it had stuck in my head. 

As soon as the van hit the road, I twisted the wheel and pumped the brakes, making the tires squeal horribly as we left a bunch of rubber across the road. The vehicle spun out of control, going around once, twice, then a third time before finally skidding to a halt. 

A few brief seconds of silence followed while all of us went through a mental checklist to make sure we were in one piece before Pack found her voice. “What… the fuck… was that?” 

“That,” I informed them while using a violently shaking hand to shift the van back into drive and pull away once more, “was us getting the hell away from those guys. It’s like a fifteen minute drive the old fashioned way, just to get from the overlook to where we are now.” 

While the others coped with that, I picked up speed. The van was shuddering a bit, clearly not in the best of shape. But it kept going. 

“So, uhh, what do you guys say we wait til the coast is clear, then go back and do it again?” I offered, half-jokingly. Okay, maybe a quarter-jokingly. “You know, when we can enjoy it.” 

A slight pain filled my shoulder as Way punched me there. 

“Ow,” I muttered, “you could’ve just said no thanks, you know.” With that, I exhaled long and low. “Is everyone okay? We all in one piece?” 

Over the next couple of minutes, everyone agreed that they were okay and were starting to be able to move. I held the steering wheel tight and let out another shaky breath. “Okay, okay. We’re okay.” Saying it out loud helped me convince myself that it was true. After the terror of the past few minutes, which itself had been preceded by a few minutes of calm that had followed another long stretch of terror when we had found out the truth about Amanda, part of me was expecting another rush of adrenaline-filled panic any moment now. What was next, Cup and her people showing up in a fucking homemade helicopter? Hell, it didn’t even have to be homemade. For all we knew, they could steal one. 

But no, things stayed quiet. And within another couple minutes, we had driven far enough to see busier traffic on the freeway just ahead. The on-ramp was just waiting for us. 

“Paintball,” Way spoke up from the passenger side, her eyes on me. “Can you use any more paint? We need a disguise, just in case.” 

It took me a few seconds, but I managed to pull the van off to the side and stopped for a minute. Way hopped out and came around to the driver’s side to help me down on shaky, uncertain feet, and I got my first good look at the exterior of the van. It was pretty trashed. There were dents and scrapes in it from the rocks and trees, the paint job was basically destroyed, the wheels weren’t going to last much longer, it was… yeah. 

Still, I managed to paint the whole thing red, sort of covering up the damage of it and making it a different color just in case Cup or any of the other Scions had sent word ahead to watch for us. It wasn’t much, but it would maybe help a little. 

“Are we good?” That was Alloy, the girl standing behind us, hand pressed against the side of the van. “Please tell me we’re good. I don’t think I can… umm, I don’t want to do any of that again anytime soon.” She was trying to play it off lightly, but I could hear the trepidation in her voice. She was scared, obviously. And who could blame her?

“We’re good,” Way confirmed. “Come on, let’s get back on the freeway. I’ll call Flea and we can tell her what happened. Or, you know, our version of it. Oh, and I’ll drive this time.” 

“Go for it,” I replied, my voice cracking just a little as I made my way toward the back once more. “I think I… I need to lay down for a minute.”  

She moved back to the front to drive, even as Pack shakily stepped down and started up to the passenger seat. Meanwhile, I looked to Alloy, swallowing hard. There was a lot I wanted to say to her, a lot I just… didn’t know how to say or if I even should. In the end, all I managed was a somewhat weak, “Thanks for being here. You–if it wasn’t for your help, we… umm…” 

Shaking her head before putting out a hand to grab my shoulder so I would stop talking, Alloy interrupted, “That was pretty fucking scary, Paintball. It wasn’t just me. It was–none of us would’ve made it without the others. If That-A-Way wasn’t there, or Pack, or Raindrop, any of them, if any of us weren’t there, the others wouldn’t’ve made it. We’d be… they’d be…” She swallowed hard, clearly thinking about being back with Cup, given the woman’s reputation. 

Yeah, it was probably a bad idea to dwell on those thoughts. Quickly, I gave her a little push toward the back door of the van. “Come on, let’s get out of here and back to civilization.” 

“Yeah!” shouted Pack from the front, “let’s go before we have to have another chase scene! Everyone knows having two of those right next to each other is super-redundant and boring.” 

“Well,” I managed to retort in a flat voice, “the last thing we want to do is be boring. Heaven forbid. Guess we better get going.” 

So, the two of us climbed up into the back once more to join the thoroughly exhausted Raindrop. We shut the door, and Way began to drive again. In a moment, we were in the midst of freeway traffic, while she made the call to Flea and, in as few words as possible, told her a bit of what was going on and that we needed to meet her along the way. Needless to say, she had a lot of questions. But she agreed to talk about it in person, which… yeah, that was gonna be fun. 

Once we arranged a place to meet (at a nearby old motel along the freeway that was undergoing renovations), Way disconnected the call, before pulling off at the next exit. We weren’t quite to the motel itself yet, but close enough. She parked behind a fast food joint, near a large drainage ditch. There, the rest of us hopped out, leaving Pack in the van with her lizards. 

“Right, wish I could say it’s been fun,” the girl informed us after shifting over into the driver’s seat, “but, you know.” She coughed pointedly. “I’m gonna tell Blackjack what happened. And the truth about those fucks.” 

“Good,” I informed her, still a bit wobbly on my legs. But hey, at least I could actually (mostly) stand. “The more people who know, the better. Hunt those evil fucks down.” 

She gave me a thumbs up, shuddered a little, then began to drive away. From the way the van was protesting, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t get much further. Hopefully at least enough to get the other girl somewhere safe. 

Which left me standing in the parking lot with That-A-Way, Raindrop, and Alloy. “Right,” I announced, clapping my hands together once before nearly falling over. “Let’s go meet Flea then. 

“I can’t wait to explain this whole thing.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-09 And Patreon Snippets 21 (Summus Proelium)

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“Wh-what happened?!” Alloy was blurting, clearly in the midst of some level of panic attack. Completely understandable, given the situation she woke up in. “Who–where did–why can’t I–” 

I was on my back still, but now I was staring up at trees, and felt a few rocks poking into my back as I lay in the dirt somewhere outside of the petting zoo. Out. Out. We were out. We were safe and fine. Okay, well, not exactly fine just yet, considering I still couldn’t move. And from the sound of Alloy grunting and Pack cursing, neither could they. Which wasn’t surprising, considering it hadn’t been anywhere near the hour that Cup had said it would take for the effects of the ray to wear off. Assuming she had even been telling the truth. 

“Alloy, it’s okay!” I called over to her. “We’re out, we’re… safeish. Amanda was Cup–is Cup. But we’re out now. All three of us are paralyzed, but she said it would wear off in like an hour.” 

“An hour?!” Somehow, Alloy wasn’t too reassured. “Wait…” Abruptly, I saw her rise to a standing position. But it wasn’t like she stood up, it was more like she floated upward and set herself on her feet. And then abruptly fell down again with a yelp. “Damn it! I’m all… woozy. I think it’s making my marbles woozy too. Can’t focus on staying upright. It’s all dizzy and weird. Like trying to play a video game that keeps inverting the controls.” 

Oh yeah, her armor was made out of her marbles, and they could move. But apparently she was still affected enough that it wasn’t working very well. Which… was that what Cup had been referring to when she said that Alloy being knocked out made sense? 

“It’ll be okay,” I tried to promise. “It’ll wear off.”  

“Right, cuz the psycho supervillain said so,” she retorted, “and why are we taking her word for it?” 

“We don’t have a choice right now.” That was Way, her voice tight. “We still need to get out of here before that bitch calls in reinforcements.” Kneeling between us, she looked over to Raindrop. “Stay here with them. Keep an eye out for anyone, I’m gonna go grab the van.” 

“Hold on!” Pack blurted. “You can’t go back around there by yourself! What the hell do you–” 

“Pack, stop.” Way’s voice was firm. “We don’t have a lot of options right now. This should be far enough away that she can’t find you. But I have to get the van before they do. I’ll be right back.” 

I didn’t like that. I really didn’t like it at all. But it was like she said, we didn’t have much choice. Pack, however, apparently had other ideas. “Get my backpack off and put my hand in it.” 

That-A-Way only hesitated slightly before following her instructions. Lifting Pack up carefully to get the ‘empty’ pack off her, she unzipped it and placed the other girl’s hand inside. “Okay?”

“Twinkletoes, here boy!” Pack called, waiting until she apparently felt the little chameleon against her paralyzed hand. “Okay, boy. You know what to do. You remember, we practiced this. You can do it. Just like back in the parking lot. Okay… now go, get out of the cage!” 

“Uh.” Raindrop started to speak up before hesitating. “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?” 

“He’s transformed,” Pack replied. “And… just get us to the road. He’ll drive the van down it. At least I think he will. We practiced it for awhile just in case of an emergency. He should be able to follow the road, but I’m not exactly sure how good he is at getting out of the way of other drivers, and I know he doesn’t understand road signs or… yeah, we should get back to the road and keep an eye out. This could get a little messy. Or a lot messy.” 

I had seen a lot of weird things since becoming a Touched, but the idea that there was about to be a lizard-gorilla hybrid creature driving a van down the road kind of… reached its way up into the top ten. But again, we didn’t have a lot of options. Pack was clearly desperate to make sure Way didn’t have to go near the petting zoo by herself, and that idea didn’t appeal to me either. 

Now all we had to do was get to the road. Which actually ended up being fairly easy, since Alloy transformed her floating marbles into a couple fancy stretchers for Pack and me. Then she simply used those plus her own armor to make our group float that way. Raindrop and That-A-Way played escorts, keeping their eyes out for any Scion activity, just in case. We had no idea how long it would take Cup to call in reinforcements and whether they’d even go out into the surrounding area searching for us. But it felt better to be safe rather than sorry. We had to get out of there. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t that far to the road. Way could’ve teleported us, but we would’ve been much further north in the process. This was fine. Or at least, I kept telling myself it was. Really, my mind was still spinning wildly from everything we had just found out. Cup. Amanda was Cup. Which meant her brother Nick was Pencil. And something told me he wasn’t actually in Alaska. 

“You know he’s going to be even more pissed at all of us now.” Way practically read my mind while we were moving toward the road. “We know too much about him, and the rest of their group. And we hit his sister again. They’re gonna be targeting us any chance they get.” 

“They’ll move her first,” I pointed out. “They don’t know how long it’ll take us to get reinforcements, so they’ll focus on getting her and all her stuff out of there.” 

“Speaking of which, shouldn’t we be calling in those reinforcements right about now?” Alloy put in. “And who are we calling anyway, the… uhh, ones who call themselves actual heroes or the woman we were supposed to be doing this whole thing for in the first place?” 

It really was a good question. We were supposed to let Deicide know what was going on so she could go after Pencil. And I was damn sure she’d want to know about this. But on the other hand, it was also the biggest lead that anyone in the Star-Touched society could possibly have. We had uncovered the identity of Pencil and Cup. That was huge. The authorities could probably do a lot to try to track those two down from knowing who they really were, though I was sure they both knew how to disappear. It was something, a way of potentially stopping them from killing more people, if they were too busy keeping away from the authorities. 

“Both,” I abruptly answered. “We’ll let Deicide know what we found out, but we’ll contact the Conservators too. Flea. We’ll contact Flea. And Caishen. We’ll let them both know, let them come check this place out with the cavalry. The more people who know the truth about Pencil and Cup, the better chance of someone tracking them down. Maybe they’ll go on the run.” 

If she could have moved, I was sure that Pack would have turned to stare at me with an incredibly dubious look. “You don’t really believe that shit, do you? Seriously, come on.” 

I sighed heavily. “I don’t know. But every little bit helps. Like I said, the more people we have going after them, the better off everyone’s going to be. Someone might get lucky. And yes, I know it’s unlikely. But even the slightest chance that someone could maybe stop them is better than nothing. Plus, if they’re busy staying out of reach from the big guns, that’s less time they have to put into making innocent people suffer. It’s not much, but it’s all we’ve got right now.” 

By that point, our strange little convoy of stretchers and floating armor had reached the road. We stayed low, just on the edge of the treeline in case one of the Scions happened along. Then we waited. 

It wasn’t long before we heard a horn blaring, coming from up the road. Raindrop and Way looked at each other, then leaned out of the trees to stare that way. For about the eighty-seven thousandth time, I wished I could move to see for myself. The sound of the blaring horn got louder, joined by another, then a third. A car that was driving past in the opposite direction joined the chorus a moment later, and I saw it swerve off to the other side of the road. 

“Alloy?” I put in over the sound of the horns. “Could you–” 

She immediately lifted the stretchers and turned them to face the road so we could see. And what a sight it was. The van was heading toward us, swerving in and out of both sides of the street like some sort of incredibly drunk fat man. It wasn’t moving all that fast for a vehicle, barely reaching fifteen miles an hour. But the way it was swerving back and forth, every vehicle from every direction had to get out of the way. Not that there were that many, but still. The few who were there pulled off the road and honked, or just shouted out their windows. 

Raindrop quietly spoke up while she and Way both looked pointedly toward Pack. “I don’t think Twinkletoes should try to get his driver’s license anytime soon.”  

“You kidding?” the La Casa girl shot right back, “He’s doing better than a lot of the useless pieces of shit I’ve seen on the road back in the city. Look, he’s even signaling. Uh, sort of.” 

She was right, particularly about the sort of part. Somehow, Twinkletoes kept flipping the turn signals on and off randomly. It had no connection with which way the car was going, but still. He also kept turning the windshield wipers on and off. I had the feeling he was just randomly hitting things in there. Honestly, we were lucky he had his foot on the pedal and was keeping the van on the road, even if it was taking up the entire road in the process. He was a lizard in a partial gorilla body, so I was going to give the extent of his driving skills a break based on the fact that they existed at all. I had really had no idea that Pack could possibly make her lizards do something like this. It raised even more questions about how smart they were, or how well they could be trained. Questions that were obviously going to have to wait until later. After all, we had slightly more pressing things to deal with right now. 

Pack had Alloy lift her stretcher out into view so the incoming Twinkletoes could see her. He immediately stopped and managed to get his driver’s side door open. Not that we saw much. He was invisible, after all. Yeah, that was another thing throughout all of this. The van had been driving wildly down the road while apparently having no driver. We just saw the door pop open once the van was near enough, and a moment later the gorilla-lizard revealed himself by popping up right in front of Pack while making worried grunting sounds that were kind of adorable and endearing. He kept gesturing to her, then to the van while making those anxious gorilla noises. I honestly wasn’t sure if he was more terrified about what he had just done, or about what was wrong with his owner. Probably some mixture of both, really. 

Oh yeah, and meanwhile, the van was still moving. Yep, the lizard hadn’t actually stopped it at all, let alone put the thing in park. He just opened the door and hopped out. The thing was still heading down the road, already past us and continuing on, coasting entirely off momentum. 

“I’m on it!” Way blurted, her figure turning into a blur as she raced out of my sight. I heard the van door close a second later, and then the thing started backing up toward us once more. She parked it right nearby, then hopped out. She and Raindrop opened the backdoors, letting Alloy guide herself and the stretchers into the rear compartment. As soon as we (including Twinkletoes) were in, Way shut the door, hopped in the front, and started to drive off. No way were we going to sit around here talking about things. We need to get somewhere safe. 

Raindrop, meanwhile, stayed in the back with us. As Way was driving, I asked the younger girl to get my phone out of my pocket and use the number for Deicide that I had recorded in it. The phone was still connected through my Bluetooth, so I heard it ring in my ear a few times before the woman’s voice answered. Rather, that same booming feminine voice that was clearly being projected from the books she had nearby. Yeah, she still wasn’t talking in her own voice, even on the phone. So she was doing this whole thing on speaker? I still wasn’t sure why she talked like that. Was she incapable of speaking the normal way? Like, was she mute or something? 

Either way, the voice came through my earbud. “Do you have something for me, Paintball?” 

“Oh boy, do I ever,” I managed as my eyes reflexively rolled. “First of all, your intelligence is the fucking worst, lady. Also, the fucking best. Both, at the same time. I’m not sure how you pulled that off, but seriously.” Yes, I knew it wasn’t her fault, at all. But I had to say something.  

There was a brief pause at my words before her projected voice replied, “Pardon me?” 

So, I explained the situation. Very succinctly, I told her about Amanda’s real identity, what had almost happened, and what Amanda’s real power was. Yeah, that last one felt like something that some people might’ve kept a secret or only told the authorities. But fuck it. It was just like I had said, the more people who knew the truth, the more chance there was of actually stopping these guys. It was obvious that one of the biggest reasons Cup and Pencil had managed to stay off the trail of the authorities for so long was because they had no idea that Cup herself was the one building a lot of their Touched-Tech toys. Hell, knowing about that, maybe we could actually convince Braintrust to go after her for not doing her part to contribute to them the way they insisted all Tech-Touched do. Or even convince Sherwood to target them in retaliation for Cup building the devices in the first place, since they hated technology so much.  

Yeah, getting Sherwood and Braintrust to actually work together against the same target. Boy, wouldn’t that be pretty wild. But if any people could inspire such incredibly different enemies to be on the same side, it was definitely Pencil and Cup. Those two never played by any rules. Even the Ministry would obviously be fine with shutting them down. I had no doubt that my parents wanted the entire Scions organization taken out. 

By the time I finished explaining what had happened, my fingers were starting to twitch just a little. It wasn’t much, but I could feel them respond ever so slightly to my desperate orders for them to move. The paralyzation was gradually starting to wear off, though I was pretty sure it would still take awhile for me to be able to do more than make the ends of my fingers bend. 

Deicide was quiet for a moment after I finished. Finally, her voice returned. “That is surprising.”

Right, so apparently another of her superpowers was incredible understatements. “Yeah, tell me about it. You asked us to find this Amanda chick and tell you what she knows. We found her and… well, I think you can safely say we told you what she knows. Deal’s done, we’re even.” 

“Yes,” came the response immediately. “Your favor is repaid in full. You have done more than I could have expected.” There was a brief pause before she added, “I am… very sorry for sending you into that danger, Paintball. It was never my intention. If I had had the slightest inkling that you would have run into that sort of trouble, I never would have made that the favor.”  

She obviously didn’t have to apologize. But I appreciated it anyway. Taking a breath while coaxing my fingers to wiggle a little more, I replied, “Thanks. We’re safe enough now, anyway. And umm, and we’re calling the authorities too. They need to know the truth about those two.”

Part of me expected the woman to argue against that. Instead, she replied, “Give me the address. I can be there before the authorities. I’ll do my own examination and leave before they get there. I can…” She hesitated. “I can find out everything I need without moving anything.”   

Part of me felt slightly uncomfortable about that, but on the other hand, it wasn’t like I could object to sending a bad guy there, considering I was going to be doing the same thing when we contacted the Conservators. Okay, okay, I didn’t actually know that any of them beyond my own dad were actually bad. But still, the whole situation was incredibly gray. I might as well let Deicide do her own investigation on top of the one the authorities would do. 

With that in mind, I gave her the exact address about where she could find the petting zoo with Amanda’s apartment. That earned me a look from Raindrop, but she remained silent. 

“Got it,” Deicide replied. “I will be there shortly. You may feel free to contact the authorities. And Paintball… thank you.” 

If I could have shrugged, I would have. “Yeah, well, we might be really different people, but I think we can all agree, ‘fuck those two and their little gang in particular.’”

“Indeed,” she confirmed before adding, “though someday you may find that we are not quite as different as you believe.” There was something important behind those words, but I couldn’t read enough into what it was before she simply finished with, “I will see you another time, Paintball. With any luck, it will not be on the battlefield. I would hate to be faced with you.” 

Well, that was a little surprising. I expected her to say something like she would be sad to have to kill me. Before I could respond to her actual words, she disconnected the call. I was officially done with my favor to Deicide. 

Even better than that, when I finished telling the others that it was done, I was able to close my hand into a fist and then open it again. I could also make my toes twitch. The paralyzation was definitely wearing off. Which, thank God Cup had actually been telling the truth about that. There’d been a small nightmare working in the back of my head about it being either permanent, or needing some kind of exterior cure to turn it off. But, thankfully, it really was temporary. 

“So what now?” Alloy put in. I could barely see enough of her hand from this position to tell that she was doing the same thing as me, closing and opening a fist. “We call in the authorities and tell them where to descend to rain righteous legal hell on that place and look for clues?” 

“How do we explain what we were doing there?” Way put in carefully.  

I had been thinking about that this whole time, and finally exhaled heavily. “I think the best thing we can do is just say that Alloy and me were investigating something independently, and we called you for help, Way. You were out with Raindrop, so you guys came to see what was going on.” 

“Without calling anyone else?” Raindrop put in. “If we were going anywhere near the Scions–” 

“We didn’t know it was actually the Scions,” Alloy pointed out. “None of us did.” 

I agreed quickly. “That’s a good point. It’s the truth. We really didn’t know they were going to be there, only that it was a lead that might not pan out at all. We just tell the truth, as far as that goes. We looked into it and called you guys for help talking to who we thought was just a normal witness just in case she might respond better to someone from the official hero teams.”

Way hesitated slightly before shifting around in the front seat to look back at us through the window while still driving. “Yeah, I think we can deal with that. How’re you guys doing with that whole moving thing?” 

In answer, I slowly moved my head from the left, then to the right. It was almost painfully stiff, but I managed it. “Getting there. Call Flea and get the Conservators there. I’ll get hold of Ten Towers as soon as I can move my hand a little more.” 

“Yeah, I’ll–” Way started, just before the van abruptly jerked violently, almost skidding sideways off the road. All of us in the back were thrown to the floor. 

“Dude, what the hell?!” Pack blurted. 

Way was looking at the side mirror, her voice tight. “Hang on, guys. That was some sort of–” She suddenly spun the wheel, sending the van to the left just as a high pitched whine of something shooting past us on the right filled the air. “It’s Cup! And some others. They’re in a car and–” She spun the wheel back the opposite way to avoid another shot. 

Right, apparently we weren’t quite done with that whole escaping from the Scions thing. But hey, maybe if I was lucky, I’d manage to get myself fully unparalyzed before they killed all of us. 

Patreon Snippets 21

Arleigh

January 16th, two months before the start of the story. 

“Hey!” Arleigh Fosters pushed her way through a crowd that had gathered around the bottom of the long cement staircase in the outside courtyard of Cadillac Preparatory School. “Move, damn it.” There were too many people in the way, making the tall blonde growl under her breath in frustration. She grabbed the nearest guy by the elbow, making him turn to her. “What the hell is going on? Someone said Cassidy Evans was out here.” And god, she better be. If Arleigh had to go back home yet again and tell her dad she hadn’t had any luck getting close to the Evans kid…

The guy shrugged and nodded. “Sure, she’s right over there.” He stepped aside a bit, raising a hand to point over at the top of the long set of cement steps. 

The sound of wheels clacking rapidly across the cracks between concrete squares grew louder, as Arleigh looked that way just in time to see the girl in question. Cassidy Evans, daughter of the richest and most powerful (in more than one way) people in Michigan, reached the top of the stairs on her skateboard before grunting as she jumped the board up and turned so that it landed sideways on the metal railing running down the middle of the steps. With that, arms held high above her head, she rode the board all the way down to the bottom, jumped it before the very end, flipped the board over three hundred and sixty degrees in the air, then landed smoothly on the wheels before rolling to a stop. As the assembled students who had been watching cheered, she stepped off the board and popped it up into her hand before grinning as she took a bow. 

“Thank you, thank you,” the obscenely wealthy girl called out before focusing on one guy in particular, a senior who had been watching with folded arms. She held a hand out. “From the entrance all the way down the walk and off the railing. Isn’t that what you said would prove I wasn’t a poser? Now uhh, I think we bet something, didn’t we? Right, right, for me, it was a hundred bucks. For you, it was… what was it again?”  

“You know what, Evans?” The guy was practically baring his teeth as he snarled, “You’re just lucky you–” 

Taking that as her cue, Arleigh immediately stepped that way, putting one arm around the other girl as if they were BFFs. “Hey now, if you made a bet, you better honor it,” she informed the boy while wagging a finger at him. “You wouldn’t wanna be known as a welcher, would you?” 

The boy looked as though he wanted to argue, but finally just sighed and reached into his pocket before pulling out a pair of tickets, thrusting them out. “Fucking take ’em, whatever.” 

As he stalked off and the crowd started to disperse, Arleigh saw that the tickets Cassidy had taken hold of were for a concert the next night. Pretty good seats too. Perfect. This was perfect. If she went to a concert with the Evans girl, her dad would stop being such an asshole about making friends with her. 

“Oh hey, if you’re going to that concert, I could–” 

Cassidy, however, was already slipping out from under the arm that Arleigh had slung over her shoulders. “Nah,” she dismissively replied, holding the tickets out to some other girl, a sophomore. “Val’s the one who won them, Greg just convinced her he’d date her if she went to the concert with him.” 

The girl in question gave a relieved nod as she clutched the tickets to her chest. “But as soon as I let him hold them ‘for safe keeping’, he broke up with me and pretended he didn’t know anything about it. When I pushed it, he said they were payment for… looking at my ugly face.” She cringed. “I couldn’t tell my dad, he’d think I was just so stupid.” 

Arleigh’s mouth opened to tell the girl she was stupid for falling for something like that. But Val spoke again, addressing Cassidy. “Hey, maybe we could go together, since I don’t have anyone else to use this ticket for?” 

Stupid or not, the girl had just given her the opening she needed, and Arleigh immediately took it. “Yeah, I can get a ticket too and we could all go together. I could drive, so you don’t have to arrange anything. We could even go to dinner first.” Perfect, this whole thing was pe–

“No thanks,” Cassidy infuriatingly replied with a shrug. “Hey, you two should go together. Have fun.” She turned without another word, heading off with the skateboard tucked under one arm. 

God damn it! Arleigh fumed, watching the girl leave. Beside her, Val started to say something about arranging a place to meet tomorrow, but the older girl simply turned to stalk away without another word. Then she pivoted back, grabbed one of the tickets, and replied, “Five o’clock, front of the school right over there. Don’t be late.” 

Then she stalked off, ticket in hand. What the fuck was wrong with Evans? She was friendly enough, she stuck up for people she could have been much more popular than she was, even before you counted the whole rich thing. And she was… popular enough as far as school went. Some people liked her, some didn’t. She just… she had school ‘friends.’ As far as Arleigh had been able to figure out in the past several months since her father had started on this whole ‘make friends with the Evans girl’ kick, Cassidy didn’t have anyone from school who was actually close to her. She hung out in groups, she went to games and movies and stuff with other people, but there was no one she actually confided in or spent time with alone. 

“What the fuck is her problem?” Arleigh muttered to herself while mentally rehearsing what she was going to say to her father. 

Needless to say… she was going to be glad to get out of the house tomorrow night. 

*********

Plan Z

Jania Estrada, the sixty-six-year-old Panamanian woman who had worked as a maid in the Evans household for eighteen years, was humming to herself while running the vacuum back and forth across the carpet in one of the dens downstairs. More accurately, she was humming along with music playing through a single earbud. The music, humming, and vacuuming all stopped when a single buzz from the phone in her pocket informed the woman that she had a message. She turned off the vacuum and checked what had been sent to her, reading the message twice before leaving the vacuum where it was, pivoting to walk out of the room. Exchanging greetings with a couple other staff members, she made her way to the kitchen, where Chef Claudio and his two assistants were preparing lunch for the employees.

The moment she stepped into the room, the three of them looked up. Claudio started to say something about when their food would be ready, but Jania pointed to one of his assistants. “Christiana,” she announced while holding up her phone. “Mrs. Evans would like to have a few things picked up from the grocery store.” 

Christiana Diaz, a quite thin, young Latina woman with dark hair that was cut very short on the sides with a mop of curls on top, set down the knife she had been chopping with and politely excused herself before heading to the door. The two of them stepped away together, leaving the sounds of Claudio and Ethan picking up the pace in chopping vegetables. 

“Aunt Jania,” Christiana started once they were alone in the corridor. “What is it?” 

Seeing the two walk side-by-side, it was easy to notice the family resemblance in their faces, specifically their eyes and around their always-smiling mouths. Christiana was smaller than her aunt, standing only an inch over five feet. That, combined with her general youthful looks and hairstyle, made her appear to be closer to the end of her teens, rather than the twenty-seven she actually was. Or the twenty-two the rest of the household believed her to be, in her job as Claudio’s assistant.  

Not that that was her only job within the Evans household. 

In response to the question, Jania held up the phone for her to see. Indeed, it was a message from Elena Evans, asking her to send Christiana to the store to pick up a list of items. Anyone who glanced at the message would see nothing untoward about it. Certainly, they wouldn’t see the code buried in the list. Christiana, however, read the code as well as she read plain English. Or Spanish, for that matter. Her finger traced over a few key points, making certain she had translated it correctly. Then she took her aunt’s phone and sent back an answering response. To an outside observer, it would appear to be simply querying what prices were acceptable and if specific substitutes were okay, just in case. In actuality, the response included a separate code, which essentially repeated the gist of the assignment so that Elena could inform her if she had translated incorrectly or misunderstood anything. 

But no, as usual, she was spot on. The confirmation came back a moment later, and Christiana nodded to her aunt, passing the phone back to her. “Tell Claudio I’ll be back as soon as I run the errand,” she remarked, before turning on her heel, heading for the side door that led to the small employee parking lot, hidden out of sight from the front of the house for aesthetics.

Fifteen minutes later, Christiana parked a car in the underground lot of an office building. It wasn’t her car, but rather one she had borrowed from a grocery store several blocks away. No one would see her own car anywhere near this building. Rather than step out immediately, she took out her own phone, texting a totally different number from the one that Elena had used to contact Aunt Jania. Mrs. Evans’ rules. They divided these instructions and responses between multiple phones to make it even harder for anything to be traced back or decoded. The message she sent simply read, ‘You awake?’ After a few seconds, Elena sent back an emoji of a man in a business suit. Which was the last confirmation. Unless Elena sent a message to stop her, it was time to go. 

Tucking the phone away, Christiana focused for a moment. Her body shifted, transforming into a dark, mist-like shadow. Looking straight at her in this form, people would see only a pitch-black humanoid shape with a simplified face that would be impossible to recognize as anyone specific. She was clearly female, yet that was the only specific feature that could be determined. 

Stepping out of the car without opening the door, simply passing through the solid material, Christiana looked up while focusing once more. Her humanoid form shifted slightly, becoming even more of a shadow than a person, a human-sized bit of darkness. A moment later her shadow-form flew through the ceiling and into the building proper. She was in a corner of the main lobby, yet no one noticed. Anyone who looked that way would only see a notably darker section of the room, as if something nearby was casting a dark shadow there. And these people were too busy rushing back and forth to the elevators or the street to notice something like that. 

After making certain she hadn’t been noticed, Christiana moved even closer to the far corner of the lobby and continued her way upward. Floating higher, she passed through the ceiling and into what turned out to be a restroom on the second floor. Yet she didn’t stop there. One by one, she passed floor after floor, counting them to herself as she went. Finally, on the eleventh floor, she stopped. This too was a restroom, and she made her way forward through it, a barely visible shadow fog heading for the door. It opened just as she reached it, her dark figure hidden behind the door itself as a man walked right past on his way to the urinal. 

Christiana walked through the door as it closed, looking both ways in the corridor. People rushed every which way, calling out requests or questions from their cubicles while phones rang and managers worked to keep it all organized. They paid no attention to the dark shadow moving through the room. She was intangible, practically invisible, and they were distracted. 

On her way, however, she heard one man in particular snarling some very untoward things toward his clearly junior, female employee. The poor girl sat huddled in her seat, drawn in on herself while the man hissed hateful things about how terrible she was at her job as well as how useless she was in plenty of other aspects of life. He also made sure to mention at least three times that he was about to have a very important meeting with a couple of the vice presidents and if this girl knew what was good for her, she’d get him those files right now. Listening to him for only a few seconds, Christiana could tell exactly what he was. She knew his type far too well. Lording his power and authority over others, he knew the girl he was attacking here had self-confidence issues and reveled in his ability to make her miserable. 

Her job could wait for a moment. Turning to face the man, a simple shadow against the wall of the cubicle, she reared back before giving him a hard shove as hard as she could. 

He gave no reaction, of course, as her intangible hands passed through him. That was, he gave no reaction yet. Turning, Christiana stepped out of direct sight, waiting for the man to lead her back to his own small office along one side of the room. While he stopped in the doorway to say something to another middle manager, Christiana found the mug of coffee on his desk and gave it a simple push with one finger near the top. Again, there was no physical response, as her finger simply passed through. Then she swept her arm across the desk, through all the little knick knacks, before shoving both hands into the computer monitor. Finally, she turned and kicked the trash can next to the desk as hard as she could, aiming for the doorway. As always, none of these actions had any effect.  

By that point, the man had moved into the office and took a seat at his desk, clearly antsy as he waited for that important meeting. He kept glancing up at the doorway, leg bouncing anxiously. 

Standing in the corner of the room where her shadow shape would be all-but entirely invisible, Christiana watched as well. She saw the way the man’s eyes lit up when two older guys in much nicer suits began to approach. This was it, his meeting. He reached down, taking up his mug for one last sip. 

And that was when Christiana set to work. Focusing on the mug, she triggered the action she had used on it. When she had shoved her finger against the brim, nothing had happened. Now the mug reacted to that previous action, tipping over while he was sipping in order to spill all across the front of his shirt. 

While the man yelped and cursed at that, she triggered the response to her arm sweeping across the desk. All those little bits and pieces, the mug of pens, the stapler, the pristine and polished nameplate, everything went flying off to the side. A second later, she triggered the action on the computer monitor, sending that off to slam into the wall with a crash. 

By that point, the man had bolted upright, his eyes wide. “What the fuck?!” He shouted those words just as the two higher-ups came into the doorway. And in that moment, Christiana triggered both the shove into the man’s back and the kick against the trash can. Simultaneously, the man staggered forward while the can itself was sent flying over, literally smacking into one of their heads. 

And then it was done. The man was left standing there beside his desk where he had stumbled, monitor broken against the nearby wall, random junk from his desk scattered across the floor, while his trash can had just hit one of his bosses in the face. From the fresh stain on his shirt, it would appear to those men as though he had spilled his own coffee and violently overreacted. Even the stumble forward from being pushed combined with the flying trash can looked like he had lunged that way to kick it.

With a small smirk, Christiana stepped backward through the wall into another office, leaving the man to explain that whole situation while the yelling started. 

Satisfied with her own moment of justice, she moved through several more offices, finding the one she was looking for. A heavyset, very tall man sat at the desk there, reading through a few files. Christiana took the time to ensure that this was the right man, before holding one hand out as she stood behind him. A thought made a knife appear, while she solidified herself into a more humanoid form. Then she gave a low whistle. 

The man jolted, turning to face her. As soon as he did, Christiana stabbed the knife into his throat. He yelped, jerking backward before falling to the floor. But, of course, the knife had done nothing. Not yet, anyway. 

“Do you know who I am?” she asked, standing there over the suddenly terrified man while he clutched his perfectly-fine throat. 

“Y-you… you work for them. Z. They call you Z,” he stammered. 

“Plan Z, to be completely accurate,” she informed him. “Then you know how this works. They’ve asked you for the files twice. This is the third time. The last time. You have one hour. Deliver the files, then they will call me and tell me to call it off. If I don’t get that call by that point, I will trigger the effect. Your throat will be slit. If you go to the cops, I will trigger the effect. If you tell anyone, I will trigger the effect. No one else can save you, no one else can stop it. Nobody. If I trigger that knife I just put in your throat, you will die. Deliver the files and you’ll be fine. You have fifty-eight minutes now. Do you understand?” 

He tried to plead with her, and she simply repeated, “Do you understand? Fifty-seven minutes and forty seconds. If I was you, I would hurry.” 

That was all it took. The man lunged to his feet, blubbering a bit as he bolted for the door while saying something about getting the files out of storage. Christiana watched him go, then simply turned and stepped through the nearby wall, floating down along the outside of the building before reaching the street. There, she made her way back to her own car where it was parked several blocks away, resumed her normal form, and took out a different phone out of the glove box to text to yet a third phone number, ‘Got the tickets, you still wanna go to the game?’ 

‘Let me check with the old lady’ came the response. 

And there it was. Christiana only had to wait now. If the response came back affirmative, that the supposed person at the other end of the line was allowed to go to the game, it meant their target had delivered the files as instructed and she could cancel the knife attack. But if it came back negative, that the ‘old lady’ had denied them, it meant he had not followed instructions. In which case… he wouldn’t be making any other decisions again. 

Reaching out, Christiana turned on the car to listen to music. 

And then she waited. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Hostile Witness 18-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

I couldn’t move. Whatever we had just been hit with, it paralyzed us. All I could do was lay there.

Okay, to take stock, this… could have been going better. I had spent so much time focusing on being afraid that talking to this Amanda girl would somehow attract Pencil’s attention, from him seeing her as a potential loose end, that it hadn’t even occurred to me to ever think that she could be an actual threat. And I sure as hell had never expected anything like this. 

Amanda was Cup. The girl we had come to talk to, the one who had been a potential lead to a way of stopping Pencil, was his sister–wait. That meant the guy who was supposed to be in Alaska, Nick, he was… he was… oh. God damn it, why did I never even think about that? 

Well, obviously, because there was a video of Pencil himself with the young Amanda and Nick tied up while he manipulated their parents into killing each other. Deicide had shown it to Alloy and me, though she stopped it just before the gunshots. What–how would that even–what? 

A giggle interrupted my racing thoughts. My attention was dragged right back to Aman–Cup herself, as she straightened while still standing over me. “Isn’t this fun? You came back! And you brought friends this time.” Her gaze moved to look over toward Pack and Alloy, before pausing. “Hold up.” Moving that way a few steps, she leaned closer to my new partner for a moment before audibly sighing while straightening back up, her voice full of annoyance. “Great, it knocked that one unconscious. I thought it was supposed to just paralyze!” She paused, then gave a little giggle. “Ohhh right, yeah that makes sense. Never mind, we’re all good. I mean, I’m good. You’re all still kinda fucked.”  

Alloy was unconscious? I supposed that explained why her marbles weren’t going psycho attacking Cup right now. But damn it! I was supposed to keep her safe. I’d–this was first thing we were doing together  in the real world, and it had all been fucked up this badly. She was unconscious and paralyzed in the home of one of the leaders of the fucking Scions of Typhon, for fucks sake. I screwed up. I screwed up badly, and if we couldn’t get out of here, Alloy would… no. Don’t think about that. I couldn’t think about that. If I did, I’d spiral into a hopeless nightmare. I had to think.

After her little giggle fit, Cup shrugged. “Oh well, two out of three staying conscious ain’t bad. And we can still play.” 

“You wanna play, cunt?” the La Casa girl countered in a growl while still laying motionless. “How about Connect Four? I’ll shove every single one of those plastic discs up your–” 

“Not on the first date, silly!” Cup interrupted, tutting while giving Pack a light, almost playful kick with her foot. “Besides, I have much more fun plans in mind than a dumb board game. I’ll just have to do most of the physical stuff myself, since that paralyzing ray won’t wear off for awhile. And, you know, that new best friend of yours is still asleep. Gotta do something about that…”

Through the bluetooth in my helmet, I heard That-A-Way. “Paintball, we’re on our way in!” 

Right, right, because we hadn’t actually been completely stupid about this whole thing. We had backup. Backup that would come in and help deal with Cup before she had time to call Pencil or any of the other Scions. She was too busy gloating in front of us to even think about moving fast. And why not? As far as she knew, she had all of us trapped here. We’d even told her that no one else knew we were there when we came in. She was in no rush. She wasn’t even…

“No!” I suddenly blurted out loud as a thought jumped to mind. “Don’t… don’t come any closer.”  

Tilting her head, Cup stared down at me. “Aww,” she all-but-purred, “is the little hero boy scared now that he’s back here?” She squatted down close to me, tapping the visor of my helmet. “Don’t you worry one little bit. Auntie Cup’s gonna take excellent care of you, yes she is.” 

“Paintball,” That-A-Way’s voice came through the earbud again, “if you were trying to tell us to wait, say something that ends with the word ‘Scion.’ And you better have a damn good reason.” 

I did. At least, I hoped I did. Taking a breath, I stared up at Cup’s eager face. At least, the part I could still see with that white mask covering the lower half. God, how had I completely failed to realize that the girl we had been talking to was her? Seriously, now it was obvious while looking at her eyes. Sure, she was pretty good at pretending to have all her marbles, but I should’ve recognized her. I should’ve paid more attention. I should’ve been more on top of things.  

Forcing those thoughts away, I quickly spoke up. “So you’re really part of the Scions.” 

“God damn it,” Way snapped, clearly upset about the whole situation. Which, fair. “This better be a real plan. If you’re just trying to play noble sacrifice or something, I’m going to kill you. We’ll wait for a minute, but you need to make it clear what the hell you’re doing or we’re coming in. And when you do want us to come in, end a sentence with the word nuts.”   

Cup, meanwhile, chuckled a little while shaking her head. “Still catching up with that, huh?” She gave me a kick that wasn’t nearly as gentle as the one she had given Pack. “Poor boy. You know, I haven’t forgotten about that whole nasty business at the cabin. You and your…” She turned, giving Pack herself a second kick, this one as hard as mine. “… friends hurt me! Threatened me, made poor Pencil all mad too. Oh, but he’s gonna be really happy when I bring you to him. Think I’ll find a big red bow and stick it right on your head. Won’t that be great? And wait til I tell him how you came strolling right in. Ain’t that the funniest shit?” 

Okay, okay, I had to be careful with this if the plan that had jumped into my head was going to work. This was incredibly dangerous, and maybe stupid. But it was the best chance we had to actually get somewhere with the whole Scions thing. Yeah, there was still a chance of doing some real damage to them, and not just from knowing Cup’s identity. Given how many stolen Touched-Tech toys Pencil had, and the fact that Cup had already demonstrated having this place wired with stolen tech that was able to paralyze us? I had no doubt that she had a way to teleport out of this place to safety the second Raindrop and Way got here. She certainly had methods of escaping, so we couldn’t even count on catching her with help from those two. Especially not while Pack and I were paralyzed and Alloy was unconscious. No, if those two burst in, at best they’d just be able to make her flee. Then we’d be back to square one. Which, to be fair, was a hell of a lot better than being at square ‘captured by the Scions,’ but still. 

To that end, I took a moment to collect my thoughts before speaking again. “That was some pretty good acting back there. I really felt sorry for you.” I was careful to keep my tone a mix between forced lightness and fearful. I wanted Cup to see me as terrified but trying to hide it. Shockingly, that wasn’t a hard thing to pull off, given the actual situation we were in.

“Paintball,” Pack snapped in my direction, “I really don’t ask for that much, but could you pretty please refrain from complimenting the evil fucking psychopath who wants to torture and kill us?”  

“Aww, you really liked that, huh?” Cup was ignoring Pack, her gaze focused on me. “And see, I didn’t even expect to see you today. Pulled that whole performance out of nowhere, just like that. Can you believe I lost the lead in the school play to Bethany Dane? Not that she had much of a chance to enjoy it.” Her tone with those words sent a terrible shiver down my spine. 

“Actually,” I made myself reply, “I wasn’t talking about today. I mean, really, kudos there too. No, I was talking about the video. The one of you and… what was his name, again? Your brother. I mean, his real name. Nick? Right, Nick. I was talking about the video where you and Nick were all terrified because your parents were about to be killed. Err, sorry, were about to kill each other. You two seriously looked scared. I really thought you were innocent victims. That’s the performance that really should’ve gotten you the lead over that Bethany Dane chick.” 

There was a brief pause while the girl seemed to be considering my words. I held my breath, waiting to see if she bought into it. Then, she chuckled lightly. “It should’ve, huh? That was the role of a lifetime. I mean seriously, how many people get to pretend they’re sad that their parents just had to shoot each other because they thought they were saving them?”

“You’re completely fucked up,” Pack put in from where she was still lying on the floor. “And honestly, I’m not sure if I mean you or the idiot over there trying to butter you up!”   

She sounded completely pissed, but I knew Pack fairly well by now. I was pretty sure she’d already figured out that I actually had a real reason for all this. She knew I had a plan, and was backing me up on it by being openly antagonistic. The bad cop to my good cop, so to speak. 

Casually, Cup remarked, “Oh, don’t worry. I know exactly what he’s doing.” My stomach clenched, before she went on. “He’s hoping if I talk long enough, that paralyzing ray will wear off and you can all escape. But it doesn’t really matter. See, it’ll take another… oh, hour or so? Unless I use the counter ray. But you know, I really don’t see myself doing that anytime soon.” 

Oh man, she’d figured out my cunning plan to trick her into talking long enough for the paralyzing beam to wear off so we could escape. What was I going to do now? Woe is m–oh right, that wasn’t my actual plan. But cool for her for thinking she’d caught on. 

Still, I made myself hesitate a little as though her words actually had an effect before pushing on. “But seriously, how? I mean, did your brother just kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” 

There, that ought to do it. 

“Kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” Cup’s voice radiated annoyance. Yup, my words had done the job. “Are you that fucking stupid? Of course we didn’t–I mean… kid, he is the real Pencil. The one and only truly original. That guy was just a stupid patsy, he was dead before he ever left the house, like five minutes after the camera stopped rolling.” 

“W-wait.” Again, it wasn’t hard to inject fear into my voice. I had the subtlest impression that she got off on scaring people, so she’d react better to that than fake awe or respect. Trying to play up to her ego wouldn’t work, but pretending everything she said scared the crap out of me? Well, I wasn’t really pretending so much, but either way, that was how I could make her talk. “You mean you guys didn’t just… wa-wait, I thought you were just… just so broken after what he did that you turned bad then. Like, he made you bad?” Yeah, saying it like that sounded ridiculously childish, but again, that seemed like the best way to get the crazy bitch talking. 

“Made us bad?” Cup’s taunting laugh was enough to make my teeth grind a bit. “Oh, you sweet, sweet little boy. No, no, no. We pulled him in, hired him. He was an actor, little puppy. Just a dumb wannabe like so many others. A poser. He played his role just the way we scripted it.” 

“Oh come on,” Pack put in, clearly getting all the way into her role as the bad cop of this whole thing. “You expect us to believe a couple teenagers did all that? Who was your boss? Who’s the one who really put all of it together and recruited you? I wanna know who the real power is.” 

From the corner of my eye, I could barely make out Cup’s form as she moved to stand over Pack. Her voice was dangerous. “Is that right, lizard girl? You want to know who the real power is? I think we can accommodate that. Give me five minutes, you’ll know who has the power.” 

Okay maybe that was a little too far. Cup was clearly right on the edge. We didn’t want her to immediately call Pencil or the others, but if she started… getting involved like she clearly wanted to do with Pack right now, that would be bad too. Quickly, I blurted, “It was the powers, right?” Feeling Cup’s gaze on me, I continued. “Some people think they can make you evil. That must’ve been what happened to you guys. We can get you help, there’s some doctors who think they can reverse the psychological effect of the sphere and make you normal ag–” 

That did the trick. A little too well, actually, as there was an abrupt rush of movement before her foot collided with my stomach. Thankfully, I’d painted a bit of orange on the inside of my costume, so I barely felt it. Still, I gave her the yelp of pain she was clearly itching for. 

“Now you listen to me, you little fuck,” Cup snapped. “Nothing changed us. Nothing made Nick and me what we are. We’re in control. We did all that before we even had powers. That’s right, we didn’t get powers until right after that happened. Those little spheres showed up and gave us these gifts because they were so impressed. They knew we deserved them after what we managed to do. Just think about that for a second.” Her foot came down on my stomach, not hard but just sort of resting there with a little force. “We talked our own parents into killing each other, and we did it through a fucking proxy. We talked a moron sucker into playing the big bad role on camera so everyone would think he was responsible and feel sorry for us, got him to talk our parents into killing each other, and then killed him ourselves. Myself. I did it. Now everyone thinks Pencil is the guy who did all that. You know who’s not a suspect and will never be? His first poor, innocent victims. That’s what we pulled off. That’s why the orbs came and gave us our rewards. Because they wanted to see what else we could do. They were proud of us.” 

Oh boy, was there an awful lot I wanted to say to that. But I stuck to my original plan and simply replied (in a voice that was still shaky from the terror I wanted her to hear), “Th-the orbs gave you power as a reward? I–I don’t… Is that why they gave Pencil such a bigger reward than they gave you? Because all that stuff was his idea and he’s the one in charge?”  

There was a very slight pause before Cup crouched over me. Her gaze seemed to bore through the visor and straight into my eyes as she very dangerously murmured, “Excuse me?”

Right, I had to be careful about this. Hesitating slightly, I offered her a confused, “I mean, because he’s invincible. He’s like, completely invincible to everything and you… uhh, you make people freeze for a couple seconds?” Yes, I was deliberately downplaying it. I figured with any luck, I could maybe get her to tell us any weaknesses Pencil might have just to counter my claim that he was completely invincible. Measured against her own power, complete invincibility to everything seemed wildly unfair, and I figured that would twist her buttons a little. Maybe just enough to get the girl to retort that Pencil wasn’t actually totally invincible. Sure, it was a longshot, but it was the best chance we had of getting real information while we were here. 

Cup gave a low chuckle of amusement while roughly tapping my visor a few times. “You think that’s all I do? Boy, you really are as stupid as the others, aren’t you?”  

“What?” Pack put in, “you gonna try to say that making someone stop to think about whatever ridiculous nonsense question you make up is better than literal invulnerability? Face it, babe, you’re a far distant second behind the kind of power your brother has. Hell, not even that. You guys recruit some good powers. Maybe you’re like… third or fourth? Seriously, it’s not even close. With his power, it’s like he’s Superman, and you’re… just that bad guy with the stilts.” 

There was a low growl from the crazy girl before she retorted, “First of all, you’re mixing comic universes. Superman’s DC and Stiltman is Marvel. Get it right. And second…” She trailed off, tapping my visor a couple times indecisively before straightening. “I’ve got some news for you.”

Wait, was this actually about to work? Was she about to tell us something secret about Pencil’s power? The whole thing had been such a crazy reach, and yet, it sure sounded like that. 

But no. The next words out of the girl’s mouth weren’t some big secret about Pencil. Actually, it wasn’t about him at all. Instead, she picked up that remote she had been using earlier, the one that triggered the paralyzing ray. “You think my power just makes your brain freeze up? It lets me borrow your brain, stupid.” She tapped the remote pointedly against my visor. “I ask you a stupid, nonsensical question and while you’re stuck trying to figure it out, I get these ideas. Ideas like this thing.” She waved the remote in my face. “I know how to build things, anything I want. But I only get inspired when I get to borrow other people’s brains for it. I use my power, their brains lock up, and I get ideas for my inventions. Different people give ideas of different… flavors. That’s what’s so fun about this. The paralyzing ray? You gave me that idea. I used my power on you back at the hospital and it made me think about a big colorful beam that could make things stop moving. That’s what Pencil used on you at the cabin. Then I built an upgraded version here in my home sweet home that lasts longer and hits everyone I want instead of just one person. Once I mix the portable version and the more effective one together, it’s gonna be useful as hell.”  

Okay, that was unexpected. I’d set this whole thing up to find out a secret about Pencil’s power, and ended up getting a secret about Cup’s. What the fuck? Her power was–wait a second. 

“That’s how you guys have all those Touched-Tech things,” I blurted in surprise. “Everyone thinks you just steal them from others all over the place, but you build them yourself?” 

She offered a smirk my way. “Well, some of them. We steal enough that those Techie geeks whine about it, which makes everyone assume that all the toys we have come from that.” 

Before I had time to even start processing that, there was a soft groan from nearby. Alloy. “What–” she started before giving a yelp. “I can’t move! What the–why–hey!” 

“Oh, sorry, babe.” Cup teasingly called over that way. “Pencil only really cares about punishing these two. We don’t actually need an extra.” Her hand moved to push something on the remote. In that second, a gold marble flew out of nowhere, transforming into a baseball bat before slamming into the girl. She was sent colliding into the wall. But not before she managed to hit the button. It wasn’t another paralyzing ray. Instead, three different very lethal-looking gun turret things dropped into view from the ceiling. 

“You’re nuts!” I screamed, just as the guns sighted in on Alloy. They made loud humming sounds as they began to charge up to fire some sort of beam that way. 

But That-A-Way was faster. She appeared along with Raindrop right in the middle of the room. While Cup was jolting to her feet and spinning to face the new arrivals, Rain hit her with a massive wave of water powerful enough to send the evil bitch right back into the floor with a squeal of surprise. More importantly, the tidal wave washed across the ceiling, and with a grunt, the younger girl made the entire roof of the building tear itself off. Yes, the entire roof. It ripped its way upward with a scream of protesting metal and a shower of sparks and bits of debris before flying off through the air, taking the turrets with it just as they opened fire. 

By that point, two more turrets had popped out of the floor and were swiveling around to take aim. Fortunately, Way had used that time to throw herself down across the three of us. Her foot touched my waist, she was laying over Pack, and had stretched out her hand just enough for her fingers to brush Alloy’s arm. Raindrop fell backwards on top of her, and I heard Cup scream something in a blind rage. 

Then Way activated her power once more, and we were gone.

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Hostile Witness 18-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“A petting zoo, seriously? Couldn’t this chick live somewhere that stinks less, like an outhouse?” 

The complaint came from Pack just over three hours later, after we had followed all the leads that we could. Kayla Dugan’s list had had a few that crosswe ed over with the list we had gotten from Deicide, so we checked on those first. But in the end, it had taken every single hint we got from the original list as well as what Kayla and a few other people had been able to give us. 

Not everyone was willing to talk to us, of course. Some slammed the door in our faces, or just claimed they didn’t know anything. Others we weren’t able to track down at all. But a few talked, and a few of those few had actual information. A lot of it was the same as others, but helpful nonetheless. For those few hours, we trekked back and forth across the city, tracking down every lead we could. It involved a lot of waiting, a lot of duplicated names, and a lot of talking.

But, in the end, we had what was supposed to be the address that Amanda Sanvers was currently living at. And yes, it was at a petting zoo. Or, to be precise, an apartment above a petting zoo. According to the information we’d managed to collect, she had been living there for about seven months or so. Honestly, as we sat in the van with the windows open, I couldn’t imagine how she’d lasted more than a week. The smell of the goats, sheep, ponies, pigs, rabbits, and more was just awful. They even had cows and a couple regular sized horses. Seriously, this girl must either have no sense of smell at all, or the apartment was really good at filtering out the scent. 

Just as before, the rest of us were in the back of the van while Pack sat in the front, talking to us through the little window thing. When she made that comment, I replied, “I just hope she doesn’t think seeing all the cute little animals would make Pencil change his mind about doing terrible things. He really doesn’t strike me as the type to stop and coo over the cute little lamb.” 

With a snort from her seat next to That-A-Way, Raindrop darkly pointed out, “Maybe she thinks he’ll be so distracted hurting and killing all the adorable animals, it’ll give her time to escape.” 

“Ew,” Way managed, shaking her head. “Let’s not think about that right now, okay? Whatever her reasoning is, you guys just need to go in there and talk to this girl. Try to get her to open up, convince her to tell you what she knows. Rain and I will be listening the whole time, right?” 

“Right,” I agreed, waving my Touched-business phone in one hand. “I’ll have this thing on and connected to your phone. You guys will be able to hear everything we do. You know, just in case something goes wrong. Which is clearly a ridiculously unlikely scenario.” 

My words were greeted by a unified doubtful, ‘Uhhhh huh’ from literally everyone in the van. Even Alloy. If the lizards in their cage in the front seat had been capable of it, I was pretty sure they would have added to the chorus. I’m sure they were in spirit, anyway. 

“Anyway,” Pack put in, “The three of us go in together. These two stay outside for backup. We get every bit of info this chick’s got, tell her she should probably lay low somewhere else until Pencil’s dealt with just in case he hears about us looking for her, and get out of there. Then we send that info to Deicide and let her handle it. And somewhere in there we find a way to cope with whatever extra problems pop up.” Her gaze turned to me, staring intently through the mask she had put back on. “You know, as ‘unlikely’ as those problems are.” 

“Sounds like a plan,” I confirmed with a slightly exaggerated thumbs up before looking over at my new partner. “Ready to go see what this girl knows?” 

“I’d feel a lot more comfortable if she was connected to one of the other bad guys in town instead of this one,” she informed me, squirming a bit with clear unease. Then she took a visible breath to steady herself, focusing on me. “But yeah. Yeah, I’m ready, I guess.” 

“I’m ready, I guess,” I echoed with a firm nod. “Sounds like as good of a rallying cry as we’re gonna get for this. So let’s head over there.” Looking over to Way and Raindrop, I added, “Just be ready to jump in the second it sounds like something’s wrong, okay?” I may not have been accustomed to having actual backup from people who knew what was going on, but I was definitely going to take advantage when it was right here. 

They agreed, and I took a moment to call Way’s phone. We made sure there was a good connection and that those two could hear everything. Then it was time to stop stalling and go talk to this girl. No matter how crappy I felt at the thought of making her relive what that fucker had done to her family. God, seriously, how shitty was it going to be for us to show up at this girl’s doorstep asking her to risk her whole life just to tell us everything she knew about the psychopath who had tormented and tortured her family, and made her parents kill each other? I just… yeah. No wonder none of us were exactly eager to get down to business. 

But, in the end, this was what we had agreed to do. And it was clearly the right thing. Pencil had to be stopped before he destroyed any more lives. At least this way we weren’t actually facing the man himself. So, Alloy and I slid out the back together before looking around. The petting zoo wasn’t actually in town. Instead, it was off a section of road about ten miles west, and fairly isolated. Probably because nobody wanted to be their neighbors. 

The van was parked in a small area behind a few trees just a couple hundred yards from the fence that surrounded the place in question. And yes, the smell was bad from here. I was seriously considering asking Wren to add a scent filter into the helmet she had made. 

Actually, come to think of it, having some kind of gas filter built into this thing was probably a good idea, smell or no smell. But Wren had a lot to deal with already, and after the lengths she’d already pushed herself to just so she could get that VR machine ready for helping Paige, I was going to back off a bit and let her work on other things for the time being. Still, it was something to keep in mind. 

Pack joined us, and I immediately noticed that she was wearing a small green and black backpack just like one you’d take to school, which was in no way big enough to carry her lizards, or the cage that had been holding them back on the front seat of the van.

“Oh, you like it?” she asked, making a show of modeling for us by spinning in a circle. “Newest gift from the boss. The bag and that cage in there are linked. I reach in here, and I can grab one of my buddies from there. Makes it easier to run around and still have everybody I need.”

After exchanging a brief glance with Alloy, I replied, “Well, good to know he’s got spiffy rewards for you.”

“Employment benefits,” she slyly informed us. “Which, both of you could totally get if–” 

She was abruptly interrupted by a knock on the back of the van from the inside. Then the door popped open and Way called through the crack, “Would you please stop trying to recruit heroes for your villain gang and get on with it!” 

“Don’t worry, babe!” Pack called that way, “No need to be jealous, your offer is still the best one! I made sure to really talk you up when Blackjack went over all the different welcoming packets we could hand out.” 

Snorting despite myself at that and Way’s sputtering reaction, I started to move. “Come on, both of you should probably focus a bit. This is supposed to be important.” 

Through the bluetooth thing in my ear, I heard Way mutter a retort of, “Oh I’m focused, I’m totally focused. Just make her focus.” There was a brief pause before she added a little more quietly, “And be careful. Make sure you’re all careful.” 

“We will,” I murmured, before turning to look at the other two. “Okay guys, I know this mission really stinks, but let’s try to get through it. Just remember, the worst isn’t the pigs and horses, it’s the goats and cows. You might say we’re walking into some real dairy air.” 

I was met with two staring figures, Pack demanding, “Have you got all that out of your system now?” 

Painting a broad smiley face across my helmet, I retorted, “Probably not, but I’ll be good for now.” Yeah, soon, when I got nervous I made jokes. It helped me focus. And right now, I was definitely very nervous. This whole situation was making me incredibly antsy. But I tried to shove all those feelings down, focusing on moving through the wooded area up toward the fence around the petting zoo. Neither the smell, nor my nerves, improved along the way. 

Before long, we reached the fence and could see through it. Where we had come up (quite intentionally) was right near the actual main building, visible through cracks between the tall wooden boards. To the right a bit was a chicken coop, which was doing nothing to help the scent we were all dealing with. And further beyond that was the pen for the goats, and that was clearly giving the chicken coop a run for its money. Yeah, this whole place was farm animal central, and the pens were close enough to the main three-story house that my earlier assessment had to be right. Either the people who lived there really did have no sense of smell, or the building was set up with very good filters. No way could they sleep at night like this. 

There were also a few people scattered around, a couple obvious employees helping take care of the animals, and what looked like two or three different families of tourists wandering around to see and pet anything they could. Not to mention getting pictures with them. 

“Let’s try to get inside the house without being seen,” I murmured quietly. “If we’re really doing our best to make sure Pencil doesn’t find out about this, waltzing right in past a bunch of tourists with cameras seems like it might be a little bit counterproductive to that.”  

“Yeah,” Pack snorted, “maybe just a little. So how exactly do you want to get in there if we’re not attracting attention?” There was a brief pause then before she amended, “You know, that sounded like I was being dismissive of the idea, and I’m definitely not. Not attracting attention that ends up getting all the way to the Scions is a very good thing in general. But still, how?” 

Before I could respond, Alloy pointed a bit to our left. “Over there,” she whispered. “There’s a little gate hidden between some bushes. I think it leads down to a well or something near the stream. It’s next to the toolshed on the inside. The gate’s locked, but we can hop over.”

“Wow,” I remarked, “good eyes. How’d you see all th–wait, did you get actual information from your little marble buddies? Can they scout for you now? See, this is why this whole thing isn’t fair. You get marble buddies and she gets lizard buddies. Where’re my paint buddies?”  

Clearly blushing a bit beneath the Sentai-like helmet she wore, Alloy shook her head. “No, I uhhh, I sort of came here with my mom a few months ago. She was on this kick about spending time together, and that’s cool and all, but I was trying to figure out if this girl liked me or not so I brought her with us. Then Mom was being all weird, so we snuck away to find a place to hide so we could talk. We found that gate and climbed over it. I sorta ripped my pants a little bit.” Waving off that memory, the girl added, “Anyway, we can probably get in right there. It’s hidden enough that if we watch until nobody’s looking, we can go right to the house.” 

Exchanging a glance with Pack, I shrugged. “Good enough for me. Better plan than I could have come up with, that’s for sure. Come on, let’s get over there. Maybe it won’t smell as bad.” 

“It’s like thirty feet away, Paintball,” Pack hissed as we started to move quietly and stealthily along the edge of the fence. “There’s being optimistic and then there’s just being delusional.” 

Through my bluetooth earpiece, I heard Way murmur, “Told you we should’ve stopped long enough to get those scented lip balms to rub under your nose before we came all the way out here. See what happens when you’re in a rush?” 

“You might’ve been right,” I whispered, waving a hand dismissively at the other two when they looked at me curiously. “Feel free to rub that in my face when we’re done with this. But while you’re at it, could you also rub a bouquet of flowers or something in my face too?” 

By that point, we’d reached the little gate that Alloy had mentioned. Sure enough, it was easy to climb over. I used a quick shot of black paint to silence the gate so that it wouldn’t rattle as we did just that. Quickly, the three of us dropped into a crouch in the bushes next to the tool shed. To the right off in the distance, we could see people still walking around with the animals. But this area seemed to be for employees, and none of them were over here. At the moment, it was clear. Well, mostly clear. There was one young couple, maybe in their very early twenties, who were having a conversation and could have seen us if we darted across the space to the house.

Hoping that more people wouldn’t wander over, we crouched there and silently urged the two to hurry up and move on. But they just kept standing there. Finally, I whispered an idea to Alloy, and she nodded before sending her bronze marble flying low to the ground that way, keeping the thing out of sight. It went past the couple, into the nearby pig pen, and sort of… firmly poked one of the pigs there. It was enough to make the pig jerk around and oink loudly, which made the couple turn to see what was going on.  

We immediately took advantage of that, darting quickly across the space to the house. There was a door there, but we didn’t use it. Instead, I shot red paint up toward the balcony of the third floor, where we knew Amanda’s apartment was supposed to be, and let it yank me that way. Behind me, Alloy turned two of her marbles into a flying platform to lift herself and Pack. We got all the way up, dropping down onto the balcony itself before anyone saw us. At least, I hoped we did. At the very least, nobody seemed to react, and a glance down showed everyone acting normal. We’d made it. We were here, right outside the girl’s apartment, without attracting attention. So far, so good. Now if only our luck would actually continue. 

As soon as the three of us were convinced nobody had seen us get up there, we turned our attention to the sliding door. Or, more accurately, through the door. I was ready to quickly try to reassure Amanda that we weren’t a threat if the woman was standing right there, but there was no sign of her. We were looking into a small, cluttered living room that looked like it hadn’t been picked up in months. There were no food containers or anything gross like that, it was just… cluttered. There were blankets and pillows everywhere, a TV tray stand with a bunch of toys scattered across it, random flashlights and other electronics, books, and a few bottles of various types of glue, a bunch of boxes with who-knew-what in them (I could see a stack of magazines practically spilling out of one), and more. It was a mess, with a narrow path leading to the very comfortable-looking armchair seated in front of a fairly decent television. 

“This chick definitely doesn’t care about keeping her place tidy,” Pack murmured. She leaned forward and looked down before coughing. “But she does care about her security.” 

Following her gaze, I saw what she was talking about. There was a very elaborate and advanced-looking alarm attached to the door. If we slid it open, it would go off. And since that was there, I was pretty sure the glass itself was probably alarmed too. To say nothing of the windows and every other entrance. This was going to be complicated. Not that I could blame her at all. If I had gone through what she did, I’d make sure every inch of my home was protected from invasion too. Honestly, I’d be surprised if she didn’t have some Touched-Tech that she’d bought added into the mix. Not to mention guns. Or even Touched-Tech guns. Good ones were expensive as hell, especially to have someone come out and maintain them, but something told me this Amanda girl would see having the extra protection as worth it. 

“What if she’s not home?” Alloy whispered, reminding me of an option we really hadn’t put too much consideration to, somehow. “How long do we sit here waiting for her? Because I’m pretty sure those guys will eventually look up. And the three of us? We don’t really blend in.”

Yeah, she had a point. Grimacing to myself for a moment while thinking intently, I finally shrugged. “I guess the best we can do is knock and see if she responds,” I whispered back. 

So, that was what we did. While the other two kept an eye below just in case, I reached up and gave a light knock against the sliding door. When that prompted no response, I knocked a little louder. Again, there was nothing. So, I knocked one more time, even louder, though hopefully not enough to attract attention from below. It was a hard balance to strike. We wanted the woman inside (if she was there) to hear, but not the people below. 

I was about to suggest that we think of somewhere safer to wait for the woman, such as the roof, when movement from inside caught my attention. I looked that way in time to see the girl in question standing in the doorway between the living room and some other place, staring at us. She was just like the pictures I’d seen in a few of the houses of the people we’d visited, a girl around eighteen or nineteen, with long dark hair and features that most probably would have called gorgeous. Brilliant blue eyes with a sort-of smoldering look, a figure that would’ve made any guy turn his head, all that sort of thing. All the stuff I wasn’t. 

But then again, I hadn’t had my entire family destroyed and torn apart by a psychotic monster. 

I could see the surprise on the girl’s face. She looked visibly taken aback, standing there with her mouth open. So, I reached out to touch the glass and made words appear there, reversed on our side so she could read them. 

‘It’s okay, we’re not here to hurt you. Please, can we come in? It’s safe, we promise.’ 

See her lips move as she read those words. For a moment, her head tilted, as though considering them. There was a momentary strange expression on her face. It almost looked like amusement before she shook it off. Probably just didn’t know how to react to something like three Touched showing up on her balcony asking to come in. 

Finally, the woman moved over by the door. She opened a little pad there and hit a few buttons, before unlocking the door and sliding it open. She looked at us crouched there, quietly asking, “This is about that psycho, isn’t it? You’re here about… him.” The girl shuddered visibly, her gaze a bit haunted. 

I nodded quickly. “We’re really sorry to bother you. We just… we have to ask you a few things. We were careful, we made sure no one saw us come in.” 

“You’re sure?” she pressed. “You’re absolutely positive that nobody else knows you’re here?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah. It’s safe.” 

“Safe…” she echoed the word, biting her lip before stepping back. “Okay then. 

“Come on in.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-05 (Summus Proelium)

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So now we were, sort of and tentatively, on the same page. Sort of. Okay, we were at least in the same book, which was something. Sure, Pack and Alloy didn’t know the whole story, but we’d made it clear that we were holding some stuff back. We didn’t lie to them about that. As for what would come later or how much they’d end up knowing before all this was done… I’d take that as it came. For now, at least they knew enough for us to all work together. Not only for finding a way to get into that secret base under the mall, but for checking out this Amanda chick too.  

And yet, as much as I told myself that having more help was a good thing, a not-insubstantial part of me kept screaming that involving other people was a horrible idea. Not because I didn’t trust them, exactly, but because I didn’t trust what might happen. Ignoring the whole situation with my own family for the moment (as if I ever really could), we were trying to get answers that could potentially hurt Pencil.who Yes, I wanted that to happen (oh boy did I ever want it to happen), but if he found out what we were doing, things could get really bad. If that fucking psycho decided he needed to focus on stopping us and really put his mind to it, I had no idea what could happen. 

Yes, I knew I needed help with this. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, and that having others with me wasn’t a bad thing. I knew it was their choice to be involved. But knowing that and being able to accept it and push away all emotions were two entirely different things. If anything happened to these guys because I brought them along, if Pencil or any of the other Scions got hold of them, I wouldn’t… I didn’t know what I’d do. The very thought of it was enough to make me freeze up. Oh, and practically dry heave from the way my stomach flipped itself over. 

But I had to push all that aside, all those doubts and worries, everything that was turning my stomach in knots. I had to shove it away and focus, because Izzy, Amber, Alloy, and Pack were involved. They were going to help, so what I had to do was focus on making sure we all got through this without giving me anything to feel guilty over. That meant we all had to keep our eyes open and be ready for any problem. If the Scions happened to be keeping an eye on Amanda for whatever reason and saw us talk to her, things could get nasty pretty fast. 

Which, of course, meant that step one of the plan had to be finding a way to sneak into the woman’s home without being seen by anyone. If we were going to avoid attracting the very wrong kind of attention, we had to talk to her without anyone else having any idea we were there. Either any of the Scions themselves, or any of her neighbors who might feel like reporting to him. Yes, we had no real evidence that they did that sort of thing, and no real reason to think he was spying on her to begin with, but as far as Pencil went, we weren’t taking anything for granted. A lot of people died when they did that. So, we were going with the sneaking in thing. 

Or rather, Alloy, Pack, and I were going to be sneaking in. Raindrop and That-A-Way would wait in a safe place, ready to jump in to help if everything went utterly sideways. Our hope (and it was really the best we had) was that if the Scions did show up after all, they wouldn’t expect those two to be back-up. And if it came right down to it, Way would simply use her teleport power to get us all out of there. Hopefully we wouldn’t have to go to that, but it was best to have the option. Better than getting into that situation and ending up trapped, anyway. 

Of course, before we could sneak into Amanda Sanvers’ place, we needed to find out exactly where that place was. Deicide hadn’t actually given us her address. All she had was a list of potential locations and people we could talk to who might know where Amanda was living. So, before we could stealthily talk to the girl herself, we had to stealthily talk to a bunch of others. Yeah, this whole thing could get unbelievably complicated and dangerous really fast. Even more so than it already was. We were going to try to try to get the information for Deicide without sticking our heads into a Scion hornets nest, but I had a lot of twisted feelings in my stomach about how it would actually play out when things really got going. That was okay, though, since my twisted, nervous feelings about this specific situation would probably fit in pretty well with my twisted, nervous feelings about my entire life in general. 

All of which was what had brought us to the back of Pack’s van, staying out of sight while the girl herself drove up front. It was one of those vans with a divider between the front and back, so she could drive with her mask off and we wouldn’t see her face. We could, however, peek out through heavily tinted windows in the back to watch the houses passing by as the other girl drove toward the first house on the list. It was apparently a home in the same neighborhood where Amanda and her brother had lived when their family had been attacked by Pencil toward the very start of his career, long before he’d built the Scions as a group. No one even knew if Cup was around back then. Apparently he broke into this normal family’s house and made the mother and father kill each other to save Amanda and her brother. It was all on video. 

So yeah, it was pretty doubtful that the girl would be living anywhere near the house where all that had happened. But according to the information we’d gotten from Deicide, a woman who had been their babysitter when they were younger lived at this place, and had been in contact with Amanda before for sentimental reasons. We were hoping she still had an address. And, well, that she’d give that address to us, of course. That was another reason we were starting with this address. The woman here knew Amanda and her brother when they were little, so it was doubtful she was some kind of secret contact and spy for Pencil or the Scions. 

“At the risk of sounding like an incredibly impatient ten-year-old on a road trip,” Way spoke up from where she was sitting in the corner while texting intently on her phone, “are we there yet?” 

“Wouldn’t that just be a ten-year-old in general?” I pointed out while glancing that way. “I mean, come on, impatient ten-year-old? You might as well say, ‘wet rain’ or ‘buff football player.’” 

“Or boring football game,” Alloy put in, before holding up both hands defensively when everyone looked at her. “What? It’s true and you know it.” Belatedly, she added in a mumble under her breath, “Soccer’s better anyway. Real football. Talk about running around all the time, not stopping every four freaking seconds to grope each other and make faces.” 

Exchanging a glance with Way and Raindrop, I shrugged at them exaggeratedly. “Don’t look at me, I didn’t know mentioning football was gonna make her go off. I’ll make a note of it though.” That said, I looked back out the window as the van turned. “But yeah, I think we’re pretty close.” 

Sure enough, we’d only gone another block before Pack slid open the little window that divided the front from the back. She’d stuck a piece of cardboard or something in the way to block our view of the space where she was sitting, but there was enough of a crack on the right-hand side to see the passenger seat where the cage full of lizards was sitting, and we could hear as the girl called, “Okay, this is the street! If your friendly neighborhood gang boss isn’t full of shit, it should be right up here on the left. Figured out what you’re doing yet? Because something tells me it’d probably be a bad idea if my friends and me went up and knocked on this lady’s door.” 

Yeah, she probably had a point. If we wanted to convince this lady to tell us what she knew about Amanda, sending a known member of La Casa up there wasn’t the right way to go about it. Granted, they weren’t nearly as bad as the Scions. Not even remotely. But Fell-Touched were Fell-Touched as far as a lot of the general public were concerned. They were the bad guys. I knew that was the way I had thought for most of my life. Obviously, things were a bit more complicated than that. This lady hadn’t had the same kind of experiences though. We needed to put her mind at ease, not make her too paranoid to give us the info we needed. 

“I’ll go in with Alloy,” I announced. “It looked like there was an alley just behind the house. Pull through there, let us out, and we’ll go in the back where the big cedar fence is. Better if it’s the two of us. If you guys,” I nodded toward That-A-Way and Raindrop, “come in with us and she does happen to rat us out to Pencil, he’ll know you’re involved.” With a shrug, I added, “I know, slim chances, but still. No reason to risk anything. Or, in this case, everything.” 

The two Minority Touched didn’t exactly look incredibly happy with that, for obvious reasons. But they also couldn’t really argue against it. After giving each other a brief glance, they nodded. Way pointed at me. “Okay, but just be, you know, subtle? I mean, as subtle as you can be when dressed like that, with your reputation, going to talk to some lady about a girl she used to babysit who might have secret information about the leader of the Scio–look, just be careful.” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded while giving her a thumbs up. “We’ll keep that in mind.” Then my gaze turned toward my new partner. “You ready to go talk to a lady about a girl?” Pausing as those words worked their way through my own mind, I grimaced. “Yeah, that was supposed to sound all chill and reassuring, but I think I drifted all the way over into totally vague.” 

Alloy, in turn, gave a slight snicker before choking on it. She was obviously (and understandably) nervous about this whole thing, and I had the feeling she was afraid that if she laughed at anything surrounding it, the universe would retaliate by making everything go to hell. I was very well-accustomed with that fear, because I kept pushing it down myself. 

By that point, Pack had found the alley. She told us to text when we needed a pick-up and that they would be close, but not too close. On her word as the van came to a stop, That-A-Way slid the side door open, letting Alloy and me hop out together. The second we were out, the van pulled away smoothly and continued down what turned out to be a slightly narrower alley than I’d expected. It was just wide enough for the van on one side and the two of us beside it with a few inches of clearance before we would run into the wooden fence that surrounded the backyard of the house in question.

Actually, all the houses here had tall fences surrounding the yards. It was one of the reasons I’d felt safe being let out here. People in this neighborhood valued their privacy. Also, I could hear at least three different lawnmowers from distant houses, plus a chainsaw somewhere. 

It always felt strange to me to see houses that were so close together. Yes, I absolutely knew that was normal, the real way ninety-nine percent of people lived. Well, that and apartments of course. Which meant they were stacked even closer together. I was spoiled and given a completely abnormal childhood, growing up the way I had. Still, sometimes (like right now, standing here) I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to live in a place like this. What if my parents were just… middle to upper-middle class? What if we had a house like this, with a regular-sized backyard, neighbors on either side so close we could throw a ball into their property, a garage with two cars, and Dad did his own yardwork? What would that be like? 

“Uh, Paintball?” Alloy spoke up, breaking me out of being lost in my own thoughts. “You okay? Are we going in there, or what?” She sounded equal parts confused and nervous, glancing around quickly. The marbles surrounding her head were also bouncing anxiously, looking like they were trying to see over fences to check for anyone who might’ve been spying on us. 

Quickly, I shook off all those feelings and gave a quick nod. “Yeah, sorry. I was just–never mind.” It wasn’t like I could explain what I’d been thinking or why. So I just gestured to the fence. “Let’s get in there, and try not to scare the hell out of an innocent lady in the process.” 

The gate was secured with a padlock, and we didn’t want to break anything. So Alloy just made one of her marbles form a small platform to slide under our feet and fly us up and over. On the way, I glanced around. There were people working in their yards, but no one was looking directly at us. Quickly, we hopped down into the backyard. 

The woman we were heading in to see was named Kayla Dugan. According to what we’d been able to find out, she wasn’t married or anything, and lived alone here in the house she’d inherited from her deceased parents. Hopefully she wouldn’t have any guests today, or this could be even more awkward than it was already going to be. 

After taking a second to make sure no one was crying out or drawing attention, Alloy and I jogged across the incredibly tiny backyard (seriously, you could barely play catch back here, let alone an actual ballgame), hopping over a small flower garden to reach the wooden patio. There, I gestured for the other girl to wait and stand back in plain sight before reaching out to knock on the sliding glass door. I could see a kitchen (also tiny) through the glass and hear a television from somewhere else in the house. I tried to knock loud enough to be heard, but without being intimidating or sounding like I was trying to break the door down. It was a pretty fine line to walk. 

It must’ve been loud enough, considering a woman who matched the picture we’d seen poked her head around the side of the doorway. She was in her late twenties and had dark hair with just a hint of a red streak through it. Now, she was peering into the kitchen with a look of confusion. That expression turned to one of shock when she saw me standing there, and she jerked back reflexively. Then she poked her head back, this time with a phone in her hand as she stared, clearly ready to call 911. 

Trying to look nonthreatening, I waved and called out, hoping to be heard through the door. “Hi! Sorry to bother you, can we talk for a minute? Everything’s okay, I promise!” 

There was a moment of understandable hesitation as the woman clearly internally debated. She was holding her phone tightly. Finally, she called out, “Prove you’re really him!” 

Yeah, that was fair. Holding my hand up so she could see, I put my palm against the door and created an instant image there. There was a lawn of green paint, a black mailbox with a red flag thing, a house made of yellow and white, with as many details on the siding and door as I could manage, a black roof with a red chimney (including tiny bits of white lines to outline the bricks), and a giant green dragon with red eyes perched on top of that roof. With a thought, I made the red and orange fire emerge from the dragon’s mouth, before making that disappear, then the dragon itself disappeared, replaced by a man standing where it had been, wearing a green suit. Then I made the man jump down from the roof in a very crude stop-motion thing where I kept making his image disappear, reappear an inch or so away, then repeated that until he was down on the white sidewalk in front of the house. Three more stop-motion bits made the man wave, before he turned to the door of the house and disappeared. 

Finally, I made the whole image vanish. And that was clearly good enough to convince Kayla, because she quickly moved across the kitchen, setting the phone down. She was wearing an aerobics outfit, and between that and the fact that there was visible muscle to her stature, I was reminded that her day job apparently involved being a fitness instructor. Also, she had a towel around her neck. It looked like we had interrupted morning exercise. 

There was a momentary hesitation as she started to reach for the door, before she seemed to give herself a short nod of encouragement. Then she flipped the lock and pulled the sliding door open, stepping back. “Uhh, you–you’re Paintball. You–uhm, what?” Seeing Alloy, her eyes widened even more. “Oh my God.” 

“Oh sure,” I quipped, “I just get ‘oh, you’re Paintball’ and my new buddy here gets ‘oh my God?’” Painting a winking face on the front of my helmet, I gestured. “This is Alloy. Say hi, Alloy.” 

“Hi,” came the response before the other girl stepped up beside me to add, “We’re really sorry to bother you, ma’am.” 

Kayla shook her head, seemingly reflexively. “No, it’s okay. I mean, I think it’s okay. I mean, is it okay? What’s going on? Why–what–huh?” Belatedly, she stepped back. “Come in, come in. Wait, you’re not like, being chased by that big demon guy again, are you?”  

“Trust me, he’s not polite enough to wait to see if you let us in,” I assured her before stepping through the door. “I promise, no one is after us. I mean, obviously there’s some bad guys out there that aren’t too happy, but they’re not here or anywhere close, as far as I know. I’m just gonna shut up about that and move on now.” 

“This is going super-well,” Alloy noted, giving me a double-thumbs up before focusing on the woman. “Don’t worry, Miss Dugan. What he’s trying to say is that we’re not here about anything bad happening right now. It’s more about someone you used to know.” 

“Someone I used to know?” It took Kayla a moment before her eyes widened. “Wait, you don’t mean–” 

Sending silent thanks that way for the assist, I nodded. “Yeah, sorry. It’s about Amanda Sanvers. And technically her brother, though we heard he’s working in Alaska. So mostly it’s about Amanda.” 

“You’re here about–” Kayla abruptly lowered her voice to a whisper, clearly instinctively avoiding saying the name loudly, “–Pencil. You’re here about that sick fuck, aren’t you?” As soon as she realized that, the woman shook her head. “You need to leave that alone. You both need to go stop a car thief or a murderer or something. Stay away from that monster.” 

“Don’t worry,” I tried to reassure her, “We’re not here to go after him ourselves. We’re just collecting information for people who are a lot better qualified.” Sure, I was leaving out that we were collecting it for another villain, but we didn’t really need to get into those details. 

So, I simply tried to carefully explain what we’re doing without mentioning that much. I told her that we needed to find Amanda so she could give us information that might help other people deal with him. 

When I was done, Kayla exhaled, slumping back against the counter. “That–what happened back then, it messed Amanda up. Both her and her brother. Neither of them were the same after that. It was just–they never recovered.” 

“Pencil has that effect on people,” I muttered before looking to her. “That’s why we’re gonna send people who can stop him, Miss Dugan. I promise. We just need to find Amanda. We heard she’s been in contact with you a few times.” 

“I don’t… know exactly where she is,” the woman tentatively replied. “But umm… but maybe I can give you some ideas to check up on that could help. Just… promise you won’t let that son of a bitch anywhere near her again.” 

“Absolutely,” I confirmed as firmly as possible. “You have our word. 

“We’re going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure Amanda never even sees Pencil again.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-04 (Summus Proelium)

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The non-canon chapters are out right now! You can find the Summus Proelium noncanon right here and the Heretical Edge noncanon right here

Talking to Paige about the Irelyn thing was going to have to wait for the time being. I wasn’t ready to go asking the girl why she hadn’t mentioned having an older sister who would start sniffing around. That was all just… complicated. I needed to deal with something else first.  

The next morning, we finally got an official update about Simon and my parents. Supposedly, they would be back in the city by Tuesday. It was now Saturday, so apparently whatever they were so busy with was going to keep them occupied for another three days. Part of me wondered if they were in that secret mall base at that very moment, and I almost wanted to go there and pink-paint my way straight through the door to ask them what was going on. That would have been unfathomably dumb, of course. And it would have accomplished basically nothing. But I still had the impulse, as much as I pushed it aside. 

In any case, worrying about what my parents were up to could wait, as we had more immediate things to focus on today. Namely, the fact that we were going to check out that Amanda girl, and hopefully come out with some information that would actually help stop Pencil and the Scions. 

Also important was the fact that this would be the first time all of us worked together in the real world, rather than in virtual reality. Much as that had seemed realistic, this was still a big step. To say nothing of the fact that it was my first time working with Alloy after telling her (most of) the truth about the Ministry, and the first time I’d be doing anything with That-A-Way after both of us had found out each other’s identities. Oh, and we were going to be letting them know that Raindrop knew what was going on and would provide back-up alongside Way if needed. Which was also bound to change things one way or another. Really, the only relationship that hadn’t changed in some way was the one with Pack. And even that wasn’t quite true, considering Way now had to hide the fact that she knew my identity from the girl she obviously liked (and that entire situation was already complicated enough as it had been). 

As far as the household staff knew, Izzy and I were going to spend the day shopping and hanging out in town. The two of us made a big deal about talking up how cool it was going to be, with Izzy making sure to ask me if I knew Simon’s shoe size so she could buy him something for his rapidly approaching birthday. Which was apparently something she really did want to do. She had some idea about buying him running shoes to go with a private joke between the two of us (oh, and Amber now too) about how he should get used to running away because we were going to stop them. Yeah, it was silly, but hey. Whatever helped her (and the rest of us) amuse ourselves a little bit sounded good to me. 

We accepted a ride from Jefferson and let him drop us off at one of the other malls. Thanking the man, the two of us made a point of walking inside together so the man could see it happen before he left. I didn’t think any of the staff were suspicious at all about what we were doing, but still. Best to be on the safe side. Besides, we actually were going to meet Amber here. 

But we were also going to be safe about the whole thing. To that end, the two of us walked through the mall and pretended to shop for about twenty minutes. Well, I pretended. Izzy actually did buy a pair of those shoes she had been talking about and carried them with us as we made our way to the arcade. Amber was already waiting there at the Skee-Ball game, but there was a younger boy actually playing on the next lane over, so we moved to the other side of the room, where the pinball machines were. Those were empty, and the three of us had a brief, whispered conversation. Even then, we didn’t say anything completely obvious. We used a lot of insinuation and talking around the actual specifics while making sure all of us were ready to head out and meet up with Alloy and Pack. 

Once outside, the three of us cut across the parking lot and found our way to the back of an old liquor store that was closed at the moment. The street was a hundred feet away, and there was no one anywhere in sight. Finally, we could actually talk.

“You doing okay?” Amber asked Izzy, while putting both hands on the younger girl’s shoulders. “You and me, we’re going to take it easy today and make the other guys do the legwork, right?” 

With a small smile, Izzy nodded. Her voice was a murmur. “I’m okay. I–I’m more than okay. I get to help. I mean, if something goes wrong I get to help.” She shot me a quick, apologetic look. “I don’t think it’s going to go wrong.” 

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Trust me, I’m just glad we have both of you sitting in the background waiting to jump in. I mean, yeah, I hope this goes fine and we just get the information from her. But if something blows up, I feel a lot better knowing you two have our backs. Makes the whole idea of going in there a lot less terrifying.”  

“And I feel better knowing I’ve got Izzy next to me,” Amber put in. “Helps when we can split the weight between our shoulders.” With a wink to the other girl, she added, “That reminds me, I told Syndicate you and I would do the north-east patrol tonight so all of him could cover Whamline’s route down south, if that’s cool?” 

With a quick nod of agreement, Izzy curiously asked, “What’s Whamline doing?” 

Amber, in turn, shrugged. “I dunno. Something about another commitment that came up in his civvy life. He said he’d make it up later, but I don’t think anyone’s really worried about it except him. From what Syndicate said, he wouldn’t stop apologizing about flaking on a patrol.”  

While they talked a little more about that, I excused myself and stepped to the hidden alcove where the back door leading into the liquor store was. Sliding the backpack off my shoulders, I took a minute to change into my costume. Hell, on top of all the other advantages, it turned out that having someone (or in this case someones) who knew my identity made it convenient to have them play lookout while I changed. Which had always been a fairly nerve-wracking prospect to do by myself. 

In this case, however, I was able to change without worrying. Then I stepped out next to Amber and gave Izzy a chance to change as well, while the other girl and I watched for any interruptions. 

And there she was. It certainly was far from my first time seeing Izzy as Raindrop in general, and I’d even been around her a few times in person. Most notably when I’d run into that theater to help her and Amber/Way deal with Suckshot and Landlock. But I hadn’t really known who she was. I’d had no idea that the little girl I’d been spending so much time with at home and had already started to care about, and the badass water-gravity manipulator I fought beside, were the same person. This was really my first time being face to face with Izzy as Raindrop while knowing exactly who she was. 

For a moment, I just stared at her, looking the other girl up and down. She looked the same as Raindrop always did, in her dark blue bodysuit that had those gleaming silver armor panels, and the white cloak with a hood. Her face was hidden behind a helmet with a mirrored faceplate that just showed me my own reflection staring back at me. She was Raindrop. But she was also Izzy. And that was a weird feeling for me to try to cope with. Which made me wonder just how she felt about the situation from her point of view. She was seeing me up close as Paintball too. 

“You two okay?” Amber asked, looking back and forth between us. “You’ve been staring.” 

Both of us shook off our internal thoughts and confirmed that we were fine. So, Amber muttered something about how weird all this was before taking her turn to change while we kept watch. 

And then we were all dressed. For like the first time, the three of us were heading out together while we were all on exactly the same page. These two, they… they knew the truth. They knew about my family, the Ministry, all of it. And they had my back. Boy, was this a really different feeling or what? Seriously, I was accustomed to stuff being shoved onto my shoulders, not taken off it. This was weird. 

At least it was going to be a long time before I ever had to worry about the weight on my shoulders entirely disappearing. As evidenced by what we were about to do once we met up with the others. Going out of our way to seek information that would piss Pencil off immensely if he even had an inkling that we were trying to get it. As if he wasn’t annoyed with all of us enough as it was. And now I was dragging Izzy into the situation, when she hadn’t been on his radar before? Oh, right, there was that weight again. Like an old friend settling right back into place. This one just happened to be named guilt rather than responsibility. 

Yes, I knew it was dumb to think that way. Logically, I knew Izzy deserved to make her own choices, and that I was only a few years older than her anyway. I also knew I would be dead in the water (and maybe dead literally) without help from people like her and Amber. But no amount of firmly telling myself that would entirely erase the pit in my stomach that got bigger every time I thought about getting people I cared about anywhere near any situation involving that psychotic fucking piece of shit. He made me nervous, I couldn’t help it. 

At least the three of us could move pretty openly together whenever we were out like this. If anyone asked, Amber and Izzy would just say that they had run into me and we decided to do a little patrol together. They could even play it up as if they were trying to convince me to join. So, we would be covered there. As far as today went, meeting up with Pack would be when things got a little more complicated.

But at least for now, we were fine. And we made fast progress, considering we had deliberately set our changing point south of where we were meeting the other two. It meant Amber could grab both of us and teleport from roof to roof basically the whole way. It was even faster than my typical way of traveling, even if she could only do it in one compass direction.  

“You know,” I started while Amber was taking a breath when we were almost to the meeting point, “I could get used to this sort of traveling. Maybe bring along a lawn chair and a book so I can kick my feet up and catch up on some reading.”  

Rolling her eyes, Amb–Way. I had to think of her as That-A-Way while we were all in costume, or I was going to screw something up badly. Way rolled her eyes and retorted, “The only book I’ll let you get away with reading is our European History textbook for the next project for Mr. Dorn. And since we don’t have one of those yet, I guess you’re just going to have to suck it up and stand while I teleport with you.” 

Snickering, Izz–Raindrop spoke up. “You guys should probably get all that ‘talking about things that give away your secret identities’ stuff out of the way now, before we go any closer.” After that little bit of teasing, she sobered visibly before somewhat nervously adding, “Are you sure about the umm, about what we’re gonna tell them for, you know, me?” 

Way and I exchanged brief looks before the other girl nodded to Izzy. Her voice was gentle. “Yeah, Rain, it’ll work. Trust me, they won’t question it too much. Okay, Pack will probably give you a little crap, but most of that is just going to be screwing with you. She likes to do that just to get a reaction for the hell of it. And part of it will be a test, just in case you were a spy or something. A very young spy.” She paused briefly to consider before frowning. “Also, she might try to recruit you. Possibly repeatedly. Just uhh, laugh it off.” A thought abruptly seemed to strike her, considering the way her eyes widened. “Oh. If–listen, if she does make a crack about that, don’t take it seriously, okay? I know–I mean, that whole thing with…” She trailed off, clearly uncomfortable as the thought of how the younger girl might react to someone teasing her about joining a villain gang after what her own mother had done clearly came to mind. 

Raindrop, for her part, was quiet for a moment before giving a slight nod, her voice as firm as I had heard it. “It’s okay,” she insisted. “I… know the difference between a joke and what… and what happened before. Even a ‘haha, totally joking unless…’ sort of joke, you know? I don’t know her, but you guys do, and if Pack was like that, I don’t think you’d have anything to do with her. She’s not like that, and I don’t think that Blackjack guy is either.” From her voice, it sounded like she was giving us some approximation of a smile from behind that mirrored faceplate. “I guess there’s bad bad guys, good good guys, good bad guys, bad good guys, and like… every level of every kind. I just—I’m okay. I’m not gonna freak out just cuz she makes a joke about joining her team.” 

I may not have known much about Izzy’s mother, but I did know one thing. She had truly, royally screwed up for not recognizing just how awesome her kid was. What a bitch. 

From the look that Way gave me, I had the feeling she was thinking basically the same thing. But we didn’t say it. Instead both of us nodded to the other girl. No one said anything. Raindrop and I just joined hands with Way once more, and we all made that last teleport jump. Instead of landing on another roof, this final teleport took us inside an old gas station garage that had been directly across the street. The place had closed down a few months earlier and no one had bought the property yet. Apparently there had been some kind of meth gang trying to set up shop here, but the Minority chased them out only a few days earlier, which was how Way and Raindrop knew about it. This was where we were going to meet the others. Being in the garage would keep us safely out of sight so we could talk about everything in complete privacy. 

The others weren’t there yet, probably because we made sure to get there about half an hour early just so we could already be waiting when Pack and Alloy showed up. Then the three of us killed time by once more going over exactly what we were going to say about Raindrop being involved in the situation now. 

Pack was the first to arrive out of the other two. We heard a van pull up behind the building, and That-A-Way stepped over to push the button that made the rolling door go up so the La Casa Touched could back the vehicle  into the garage. The door was lowered once more while she got out, hopping down to the cement and brushing her hands off. “You people really need to–” 

Only then did she look up, seeing Raindrop standing a bit behind Way and me. Cutting herself off, Pack tilted her head and stared. Her expression was, of course, hidden behind that blank black mask. “Sorry, I didn’t know we were bringing friends. Maybe I should’ve brought one of my own? Eits and Broadway both looked pretty bored this morning.”

Coughing once, I shook my head. “Sorry, this was–uh, yeah. Pack, this is Raindrop. Raindrop, Pack.” 

“We’ve met a couple times,” Pack replied dryly. “You know, at work.” The way she said that made it clear that two of them had fought on opposite sides. But, she did at least follow that up with a shrug. “It was fun. Hope Twinkletoes didn’t toss you too hard. I told him to be gentle.” 

Clearly flushing a little behind her own mask, Raindrop murmured something under her breath before more audibly adding, “It’s okay. I hope the umm, bear wasn’t too scared about floating.” 

“Mars Bar,” Pack informed her. “And he doesn’t do great with heights, but he’s fine. And now that all those pleasantries are out of the way…” She looked to Way and me. “What’s she doing here?” To Raindrop, she added, “No offense. Just… what?” 

Checking the text that had just come in on my phone, I replied, “Alloy’ll be here in a minute, we should hold off and explain it together so we don’t have to do it twice. But uhh, the short version is she knows about the Ministry and she’s gonna help.” 

“She knows about the Ministry, huh?” Pack’s voice made it clear that she didn’t think it was impossible that even someone as young as Raindrop could be some kind of spy. “Interesting.” 

Yeah, we definitely needed to explain what was going on. At least, as much as we could. If we were going to work together, Pack couldn’t be focused on being suspicious about Raindrop. Especially if we were going to do anything that even remotely involved the Scions. That was too dangerous to screw around with. 

As promised, Alloy arrived just a minute or so later, coming up to knock on the side door. As I let her in (wearing the purple-silver Sentai armor version of her costume), she was already talking while panting heavily. “Sorry… Mom… wanted some help… groceries… had to…” She trailed off, having spotted Raindrop. “Uhhh…” 

“Yeah,” Pack put in, “that’s basically what I said.” 

So, without wasting any more time, Way, Raindrop, and I launched into our explanation of what had happened. Obviously, we didn’t want to outright lie too much to these two people we were supposed to be working with. To that end, the very first thing we said was that we were going to be a little vague and twist things a bit to protect certain identities, but that this was the overall gist of the situation. We were right up front about the fact that it wasn’t one hundred percent of the truth, sort of like when a news report or true crime show said that certain details were changed to protect people. And we admitted that some details were twisted more than others. 

In any case, the story we told was that Raindrop’s family had attempted to sell her to Oscuro through that Handler guy. She escaped that situation but was almost captured again before Silversmith stepped in and rescued her. From there, she was sent to live at a safe house. 

All of that, of course, was one hundred percent true, if lacking in a couple key details. 

From there, we basically just said ‘and then stuff happened that we can’t get into because there are a lot of secrets involved, but Raindrop found out about the Ministry existing and got worried that the whole thing with her parents and Handler might’ve had something to do with them, so we had to tell her more details before she snooped around on her own and ended up getting in trouble.’ 

Yeah, there was a good bit of skipping over or outright avoiding details. We yada yada’d Raindrop finding out about the Ministry in the first place with the explanation that saying how she found out would risk revealing secrets we couldn’t reveal. That-A-Way implied that it had to do with her own identity, to protect me. Without actually saying that, of course. It made enough sense, given they were on the same team. Yeah, that skirted the line of outright lying, but it was the best we could do to avoid exposing who I was to the other two, and I just… wasn’t ready for that. Good as it felt to have Way and Raindrop know the truth, I barely knew Alloy (and was already trusting her with a lot as it was), and Pack was still technically a Fell-Touched. I wasn’t ready to go as far as sharing my identity with them just yet. 

“And you’re sure she’s not a plant?” Pack flatly demanded, before looking at Raindrop. “Again, no offense. But seriously, come on, guys. How do you know she’s not a mole?” 

“She’s not,” I replied. “I just… I know it’s hard to take something like that on faith, believe me, I know. And I can’t really explain it. But just… trust me. If she was a mole, we’d all be locked up right now. She knows everything. There’s nothing for her to be a mole about anymore. If she was really just spying for the Ministry, she could’ve had all of us taken in already. I mean come on, it’s not like they have to catch us in the act of anything. If she was reporting to them, we’d already be in the black van with the hoods, or whatever they do.” 

Shifting her weight back and forth a few times as though considering that, Pack was clearly staring intently at the girl in question. Finally, she reached into her pocket and produced Holiday the skink. “What do you think?” She held the lizard out that way, allowing Holiday to almost touch Raindrop’s reflective faceplate. When the skink put a foot against it, Pack gave a nod of satisfaction. “Good enough for me.” 

Exhaling, I looked at Alloy. “You okay?” 

She, in turn, shrugged. “Dude, I’m brand new to all this too. If you say she’s okay, who am I to say you’re wrong? But… that story about what happened, I know you said some of it’s twisted a little for identity protection, but the bit about… about her family…” She looked at Raindrop directly. “Was that true?” 

Raindrop, in turn, gave a very short nod. Her voice was quiet. “It’s true.” 

“Fuck.” Clearly swallowing hard, Alloy added, “Sorry. I mean… sorry.” 

“Yeah, that sums it up,” I agreed. “The point is, she’s involved, but we have to be really careful about using her so the Ministry doesn’t find out she knows anything.”

“Right…” Thinking about that for a moment, Pack finally shrugged and looked at Way. “Guess you’ve got someone to talk to while you wait around to see if we need backup, huh?”

“That’s the plan,” Way agreed. “And speaking of plan, we should probably get into ours. 

“Cuz boy I just can’t wait to go poke the Scions with a stick. This is gonna be nifty.” 

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In Like Flynn 17-11 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The monthly non-canon chapters were posted over the weekend! You can find the chapter for this story, Summus Proelium, right here and the one for Heretical Edge right here

I had definitely experienced bigger shocks in my recent history. Certainly much worse ones. Everything that had to do with my family and what they really were totally beat out this moment, no question about it. And yet, standing there right then, staring at the girl across from me, still ranked pretty high up there. The sudden revelation that the Minority-Touched I had been working with so much, and the girl I spent time at school with were the same person sent me reeling, both physically and mentally. A series of noises escaped me, but they weren’t coherent or even vaguely decipherable as words. They were only sounds, filling the air meaninglessly. Somewhere in the middle of that, I plucked my helmet off and held it loosely in one hand (I hadn’t put the actual mask back on) so I could stare bare face to bare face with the other girl. I just… I had to see her straight on, with nothing between us. Not that I was entirely sure how it would help, but still. 

“Now you know how I felt back at… your house,” Amber informed me dryly while arching an eyebrow pointedly. “And I had to jump right to it and keep trying to fight that son of a bitch. At least you’ve got downtime to process.” 

After a very momentary pause, she visibly winced at the words that were about to come out of her mouth before asking, “I mean, it is you, right? That wasn’t actually some trick you and the kid programmed in to distract that guy if anything like that happened, just in case?” It was clear that she didn’t think that was in any way possible, but still wanted to cover her bases just in case. And really, who could blame her? This entire situation was pretty fucked up. 

Before I could answer, Raige, whom I had forgotten was standing there with the shock of this whole revelation, spoke up almost cheerfully. “Oh no, it’s really her. And it’s a pretty good disguise, if you think about it. I mean, who’s ever going to think that Cassidy Evans is willingly posing as a little boy? Especially after everything my doppelganger over there put her through.” 

“Shut up,” Paige muttered, her face slightly flushed. She was looking at me the whole time, voice softening slightly. “I didn’t have a choice. My–” She glanced at the identical girl nearby before belatedly amending her words. “Our father set the rules about that very clearly.”

A brief start of realization, Amber looked back and forth between us. “Oh my God, your dad has some huge grudge against the Evans, so he made you treat her like an enemy all this time? What the hell did that accomplish?” she demanded, sounding exasperated with the whole thing.

“She was supposed to do more than just antagonize me for years,” I informed her without taking my gaze away from Paige herself. “Back at her birthday party, she was supposed to kill me.” 

While Amber gave a double-take at that, Paige and I took turns explaining, with a little ‘help’ from Raige, exactly what was supposed to happen that day, along with what had actually happened. We filled in the blanks about that whole situation so that Amber knew the full story. At least as far as that went. There was a hell of a lot more story to fill in for everything else. 

Which was made perfectly clear when Amber let out a breath. “Okay, I guess I understand that day and all that, but what about everything else? How did you get powers? Why did you start going out as a boy in the first place? What do you know about these Ministry people, and how? What does any of that have to do with Paige’s father? Why does he have some big grudge against your parents, and what–” Abruptly, she trailed off. Her eyes widened dramatically with realization as she snapped her gaze to me. “Oh my God! It’s them, isn’t it? The Ministry. Your parents are connected to the Ministry. That’s how you found out about them, and…” She slumped back on her heels, head shaking. “That’s why you’re so obsessed with hiding your identity. It’s why you won’t join the–” Once again, she interrupted herself as a different realization jumped to mind, making her blurt a sudden, “Oh God, Izzy! I mean–”  She cut herself off, blanching as though she had said too much already.

“It’s okay, I know,” I assured her. “And I’m pretty sure those two know everything about the Minority.” I said that while looking toward the twins. “They’re pretty well-informed, after all.” 

Sounding pretty cheerful and amused by the entire situation, Raige nodded easily. “Oh yeah, we know all your identities. Parts of the benefit to having a backdoor in with the Ministry. Okay, maybe not an entire door. But at least a window. Enough to know some pretty juicy secrets.”  

“Secrets we don’t talk about,” Paige snapped pointedly, before adding, “And you two should get out of here before they send someone in to check on you. I mean, you can have this whole conversation somewhere better than this place, right?” For a brief moment, she looked as though she was going to say something else, before stopping herself. I had the feeling she actually wanted us to stay even longer, and pointing out that we should leave was her way of ripping the Band-Aid off. 

But she also had a point. We had to eject before the guys outside freaked out and came in after us. They would obviously give us a little leeway, but I didn’t want to push that even further. So, biting my lip, I focused on the blonde girl who had antagonized me for so long. “I’ll come back and check on you when I can.” Belatedly, I glanced toward Raige. “I’ll check on both of you, I mean. So try not to antagonize each other too much while we’re gone. Like I said, just go to your own corners of the world if you have to. Whatever it takes to play nice and get along until we can separate you.” 

“What he–I mean she said.” Shaking her head a bit at her own correction, Amber continued. “Seriously, just leave each other alone if you need to. We’ll both come back and check on you whenever we can. And we want to find you both without all these bruises, so no more fighting.”

“Hey,” Raige replied easily with a shrug, “I was just following orders before. Now that Daddy made it abundantly clear what he thinks of loyalty, I don’t have any reason to fight with that one over there. I mean, as long as you work on getting me that new body so I can go off and live my own life far away from all of you. Just do that and everything’ll be totally hunky-dory.”

Exchanging brief looks, Amber and I both replaced our mask and helmet respectively. Really, I wasn’t exactly sure why we did that. It wasn’t like whether we had them on or not would affect our bodies in the real world. Maybe it was just a psychological way of telling ourselves that we were going back to being That-A-Way and Paintball for the time being. 

In any case,  I watched intently as her facial features shifted slightly along with her hair turning blonde. Touched-Tech, obviously. Which again, made perfect sense. It had always seemed a little odd that the adults behind the Minority would let her get away with only hiding her identity behind a little domino mask. The fact that it did so much to actually change what she looked like solved that question.

Once we were suitably disguised, I glanced over to the twins to promise one more time that we would check in on them. There was more I wanted to say, but it would have to wait. I really didn’t feel like talking to Paige about all the issues we had while in front of an audience. Even if I was now aware that I knew That-A-Way much better than I had thought. And yeah, that would be a whole thing in and of itself. The two of us were clearly going to have a long chat. Between that and the fact that I definitely still needed to talk to Peyton about some of the stuff she’d heard in here, I had several of those ‘important conversations’ coming up in my near-future.  

For the moment,  Amber and I simply spoke the code to eject ourselves from the simulation. Again, my vision was filled with the kaleidoscope of lights, colors and all the random sounds. Seriously, at one point it sounded like one of those old World War One fighter planes had flown practically right through me. To say it was disorienting was a massive understatement.

Finally, there was that reddish-purple fog from before, accompanied by the sensation of falling straight down on a roller coaster. I had thought I was ready for it this time, but a yelp still escaped me. Then I was conscious and aware, jerking a bit against the seat I’d been perched in. Nearby, I could see Wren watching anxiously, even as I heard Ambe–no, That-A-Way jerking in her own seat on the opposite side of the machine. We’d made it, we were back in the real world. Quickly, I pulled the sunglasses and special gloves off before fixing my mask and helmet. Only then did I push myself up and give an almost dog-like shake. My body felt weird and tingly. Probably a side effect of sitting for so long while my brain thought I was actually moving. “Wow, that’s some nifty gizmo you got there, dude,” I informed Wren with an only slightly shaky thumbs up. “Seriously, that French guy you got this prototype from really knows his shit. And you put it together, just–maybe see if he wants to collaborate on something, cuz you two do good work.” 

Wren proceeded to blush deeply, hopping off the edge of the table she had been anxiously perched on. “You’re okay? You’re all okay? It took you awhile to come out of it, longer than the others.” Even as she said that, the girl was looking over to the corner of the room, where Pack and Alloy were clearly exercising/playing with the lizards. They had both straightened up when That-A-Way and I had emerged from the machine, Pack standing with two of her lizards (Twinkletoes the chameleon and Holiday the skink) perched on either shoulder, while Scatters the tiny Neon Day Gecko was settled right on top of her hooded and masked head. “You two good?” she asked, though her attention was more on That-A-Way than me.  

“We made it,” Way confirmed while casting a brief glance back toward me before her attention shifted to Wren. “And he’s right, that was a lot more realistic than I expected. Hope your French guy gets it up and running so I can talk the bosses back at the Clubhouse into buying one for the rest of the Minority to use in training. Seriously, just being able to practice stuff and have full-contact sparring without worrying about hurting anybody would be pretty amazing.”  

Alloy, who had picked herself up from the floor while holding Riddles in her small bearded dragon form, abruptly spoke up. “Are we seriously just being this casual right now after what happened in there? Who the hell is Paige’s father and how did he send some… some virtual copy of himself into her computer brain thing and oh my God I sound like a nutjob.” 

“Welcome to the club,” I replied, reaching out to squeeze Wren’s shoulder briefly before leaving the girl to walk over to where Alloy herself was. “Seriously, welcome to the club. There’s a lot of stuff to talk about. And I will, I promise. You’ve earned some answers. And maybe I should have talked about it with you before. But I just… it’s hard for me to get into all that. I’m sorry. You deserve more of an explanation than you’ve gotten so far. Especially after you went in there with us. I really don’t know what we would have done without your help.” 

“Damn straight,” Pack put in. “You were the MVP in there. So if he doesn’t treat you right and start giving you answers, I can talk Blackjack into a really good signing bonus for you.”

Letting out a clearly exaggerated sigh, That-A-Way protested, “Seriously? Could you at least wait until I’m not in the room before you start trying to recruit for your criminal boss?” 

“Sorry, babe,” Pack replied casually and without any actual regret, “You know what they say. Always be hustling. Especially when your boss offers such attractive bonuses for anyone who recruits a good Touched to begin with.” Slyly, she added, “Speaking of which, do you have any idea how much bank you and I could make if I bring you over to the shady side? Huh, huh? We could have a lot of fuuuun.” She intentionally and pointedly drawled out the last word. 

Visibly flushing a little behind that mask, Way shook her head. “Sorry, not interested in anything Blackjack has to offer. You’re just gonna have to do without. Why don’t you try robbing another bank to make up for it,” she added while rolling her eyes. Even as the words were out of her mouth, however, the girl was already frantically trying to verbally back up. “I mean, not that I–” 

It was too late, as Pack raised both hands triumphantly over her head, playing that whole thing up for all it was worth. “And there it is! You all heard it. I have carte blanche to rob a bank, given straight from a prestigious and, dare I say, truly stunning member of the Detroit Minority.” 

“Sorry,” Way retorted while giving a dismissive wave of her hand. “You forgot to get it in writing, so I guess you’re screwed and you’ll just have to go to jail like the other bank robbers. Oh, I know, how about you have a total redemption moment and come over to the sunny side?”  

Pack, in turn, shot back, “Tell you what, as soon as the kid over there joins you guys, so will I.” She was nodding in my direction, of course. Considering how clear I’d made my unwillingness to do that, as well as (at least partially) why, Pack obviously felt safe making the bet.

Before they could banter back and forth any more, Alloy abruptly blurted, “Oh shit, I need to get home.” She was looking at her phone before wincing while glancing up. “Sorry, I didn’t realize what time it was. We were in there for longer than I thought. I umm, I really have to go, before Mom has a coronary. Uh, thanks for inviting me to that… crazy thing, I guess?” Looking to me, she added, “I really do want answers about what’s really going on and all that. And about what that guy wants and how he’s ‘trying to end death’ or whatever. But you know, Mom comes first.”

“Oh, believe me,” I assured her immediately, “I know exactly what you mean. And yeah, we’ll definitely talk later, I promise. Just go do what you need to. And Alloy, thanks. Seriously, I wasn’t just saying it before. I really don’t know what we would have done in there without your help.” 

Obviously embarrassed by the attention, she made a few noises about it not being a big deal and headed for the elevator to leave. Just as it started to descend, she called out that she would text me sometime the next day so we could meet up again and have that conversation.

Once she was gone, the three of us who were left gave Wren an actual update about what had happened. Alloy and Pack had given her the CliffsNotes, but they had been waiting for us to get into the whole story. So, over the next few minutes, we explained what was going to happen. Unsurprisingly, as soon as we got to the part about needing to find another body, the Tech-Touched girl was immediately apprehensive. Her head shook, insisting she couldn’t build anything like that. But I assured her that we already had some leads about how to possibly find one of Paige’s father’s prototype storage places. All she would have to do was look it over, and possibly help us compare it to Paige’s body to see if we could figure out what was different. 

“Plus,” Way pointed out, “since Raige isn’t actively fighting her anymore, she can probably talk you through some of this stuff herself. You know, with that communication thing you built. Hell, if it’s about getting her own body working, I bet Raige would help out too. You three could all collaborate to figure it out. You’d just be their hands. You know, in a manner of speaking.” 

That calmed the girl down a bit, and eventually Pack said she needed to go as well. After a little more teasing back and forth about what kind of crimes she was off to commit, she headed out. Meanwhile, Wren was yawning and trying to hide it, leaving Fred in the corner of the room giving us meaningful looks. He’d been downstairs before, but came up as Pack was on her way out. Now, the man was basically doing everything up to pantomiming that we should leave so he could get Wren to go to sleep. Yeah, after all the work she’d done to get that machine working in such a short time, the kid definitely needed to get some rest. Even if she was trying to hide exactly how exhausted she was. Any minute now, her head was probably going to hit the table. 

Without even needing to look at each other, That-A-Way and I both said we needed to get out of there. We thanked the kid one more time before taking the elevator down and heading out. Both of us were completely silent the whole way through the store, and even once we got outside. Together, we walked silently through the alley behind the shop, before Way caught my arm and looked meaningfully to a nearby roof. When I nodded, she teleported us up there. 

Once we were on the roof, the girl looked around to make sure we were alone before taking off the mask. As her hair and face shifted to normal, she stared intently at me. It looked like she was taking a moment to try to find the right words. While she did, I slowly pulled the helmet off and set it on top of the nearby air conditioning unit. Then I took off the mask. And boy did that ever feel weird. It made me feel naked, standing there with my face exposed. Finally, I plucked the Bluetooth device out of my ear and put it, and the mask, next to the helmet. And then I just stood there, looking at the other girl in silence for what felt like an eternity. There were several times that one or both of us started to say something, before stopping. Neither of us knew exactly what to say. 

Finally, I let out a long breath and looked to her while trying to clamp down on the nerves that were making my heart want to beat its way out of my chest. There was no point in holding back right now. Amber knew who I was. She was way too close to things for me to push her off, and quite frankly she’d earned the truth. So, that was exactly what I was going to give her. “Okay,” I announced, “I’m gonna tell you what happened the night I got my powers. And everything that came after that. I’ve only told the whole story once before, and that was to Izzy.” 

Amber blinked at that, hesitantly asking, “You mean Izzy really does know about you? How… how much does she know, exactly? And for how long?” 

“All of it,” I informed her. “I told her everything. And she found out the night we had that whole thing with Paige in the first place. When I got home after all that, I guess I wasn’t really thinking too clearly. I ended up going up on the roof, and she was already up there. She saw me use my paint and I saw her floating. That kind of forced us to talk about everything.” 

“Like you’re gonna talk about everything now?” Amber pressed, folding both arms as she watched me intently. 

“Yeah, like–wait a minute, she knows who you are, doesn’t she?” I suddenly realized. “She–boy, she really is good at keeping secrets.” After processing that realization, I shook my head before focusing on the matter at hand. “Okay. Well, here goes. 

“It started when I was pretending to drive one of my family’s cars, and my brother came into the garage…” 

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