That-A-Way

Commissioned Interlude 1 – That-A-Way and Pack (Summus Proelium)

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The following is a commissioned interlude, not part of the normal schedule. The next regular chapter will come out tomorrow as always. 

As his semi rumbled to a stop in the back of a nearly empty truckstop on the edge of Detroit, Aaron Jessup shut down the vehicle while letting out a loud yawn. Giving his head a firm shake to wake himself up, the man thought he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye, toward the passenger side of his truck. Snapping his gaze that way, however, he saw nothing more than the edge of the lot with the still-busy freeway beyond. He’d thought there was a shadow moving closer, but clearly, he was just so tired that his eyes were playing tricks on him.

Shaking that off, the man opened the door of his truck and started to step down. Just as his left foot touched the ground, however, with his right still on the step and his arm holding the bar, he felt something press up against his crotch. The sensation, naturally, made him stop suddenly.

“Good instincts,” the man heard from below him. Slowly and gingerly, he lowered his gaze before finding out what was pushing against his groin. Seeing it, however, did not make the man feel any better. It was a gun. The barrel of a sawed-off shotgun, to be specific. The weapon was held against him by a figure laying on their back half-under the truck. Even without the gun, the figure themselves would have been terrifying to behold in that situation. She wore a leather jacket that started out black at the bottom before gradually becoming green toward the top. The hood of the jacket was up to cover her hair, and she wore a featureless black mask with no mouth or eye holes, turning the area where her face should have been into a dark void. 

“Believe it or not, I really don’t want to shoot you,” the girl’s voice informed Aaron quietly while he stared where her eyes should be. “It’s not my idea of a good time. And I know it’s not yours. So we’re all gonna play nice and you’ll be just fine. I’ll get what I want, then you can call the cops and report the loss to your company and their insurance. Nod your head and say okay.” 

After the briefest of pauses, during which he felt that gun barrel push just a bit more against his most precious part, Aaron finally gave a quick nod. His voice sounded a little choked up. “Okay.” 

“Good,” the girl replied. “And my friend doesn’t want to hurt you either, unless you make him.” 

“Him?” Aaron echoed, only to hear the passenger door of his truck open before someone climbed in that side. Someone quite large and heavy, given the way the truck shuddered. 

“I’m gonna need you to not scream, not try to escape, not make any sudden moves,” the girl on the ground informed him in a very patient, yet commanding voice. “If you cooperate, he won’t hurt you, I promise. Just get back up in your seat and buckle up. Remember, no matter how much he freaks you out, he will not hurt you if you follow instructions. Can you do that for me?” 

Not trusting his voice at first, the man nodded weakly before managing a soft, “Y-yeah.” He very gingerly moved, pulling himself back up into the truck and away from that gun. Only once he had safely settled in the seat did the man glance over to see who was in the truck with him.

It was a monster. Literally. The enormous thing, taking up most of that side of the front seat, looked like a gorilla with lizard-like scales instead of fur. It was giving him a broad, toothy smile, one hand raised in a wave of greeting as though all of this was a perfectly normal thing. 

Whether he stayed still because he remembered the order from the girl to not move or scream no matter what he saw, or because he was frozen in terror, Aaron couldn’t rightly say. All he knew was that he was completely frozen in place, staring in shock at the figure beside him. 

“Good,” the masked girl praised while picking herself up. She put the gun away, apparently content that her monstrous companion would keep him in line. “But what else did I say?” 

It took the man a moment, before he very shakily reached out to catch hold of his seatbelt. Without taking his eyes off the thing beside him, he fumbled with it a bit before buckling up. 

Rather than speak again, the girl simply closed the driver’s side door, patted it briefly, then disappeared as she walked around the front before climbing in the open passenger door. Through it all, Aaron simply stared at the scaled gorilla, unable to take his eyes off it. 

“Okay,” the girl announced after climbing in, perching on her… pet’s lap, and closing the door. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll tell you where to go. Like I said, be nice and cooperate and you’ll get out of this without a single scratch, I promise. Oh, I’m Pack, by the way. Given your Maryland licence plates, I’m pretty sure you don’t spend much time around Detroit. 

“So… what do you think of the city so far?” 

*******

With the truck safely parked in the backlot of an old, unused hardware store, Pack watched as Twinkletoes and Mars Bar unloaded the electronics equipment from the back of the truck and transferred it into a waiting van. The truck’s driver was sitting on a nearby curb, being watched by Holiday now. The man showed no interest in trying to run away or fight back. Which was good, because Pack meant what she had said. As long as he cooperated, he’d be fine. Blackjack wanted this guy’s cargo, but there was no reason to be an evil cunt about it. 

However, things apparently just couldn’t go completely smoothly no matter how cooperative the driver was being. That much became clear as, just when Pack was about to offer the man a bottle of water, a warning screech came from up in the sky where Riddles was flying cover. 

Instantly upon hearing the warning, Pack spun. She’d taught her bird-lizard specific calls to give based on what the warning was. This one meant that a threat was coming from behind her. In mid-motion, the girl had the shotgun in her hand, extending it in time to see the threat appear right in front of her, snatch the gun from her hand, and toss it aside to clatter on the ground. 

“Well,” she announced to the newcomer. “That was rude. Not even a hey, good to see you?”

“We’re not on the same side this time, Pack,” That-A-Way informed her sharply. She had just teleported into place after hearing the warning cry from Riddles that told her she’d been spotted. “I told you I’d have to take you down if I saw you out doing bad shit again, no matter what we went through before. So what exactly do you call this?” She waved a hand to where Mars Bar and Twinkletoes had stopped moving boxes from the truck to the van and now stood watching.  

“Uh…” Pack considered that for a moment before offering, “Some early Christmas shopping?” 

Despite herself, and despite spending the past few seconds before making this confrontation telling herself to be firm and take no excuses or nonsense during this, That-A-Way wanted to smile. The answer was so absurd, and came out with such false earnestness, that a snicker almost escaped her. That was why confronting Pack right now was so dangerous. Not because the girl herself was so terrible, but because… because she wasn’t. Because That-A-Way actually liked the time they’d spent together the two times they’d been forced into being allies. 

She should have called in back-up. She knew that. Given her feelings and history, her first action as soon as she saw what was going on should have been to call in one of the other Minority who could help deal with this. But she’d frozen, torn between calling in help or… not. And through that hesitation, Riddles had spotted Way, forcing her hand. Now she was here, standing in front of Pack after disarming her and trying to tell herself that the other girl was just any other villain. She was robbing this truck driver. No matter how much That-A-Way enjoyed talking to her, she was a villain who needed to be taken down and brought in. 

“You’re right,” Pack agreed casually. “We’re definitely not on the same side. But wouldn’t it be fun if we were?” The tone of her voice implied the wink that couldn’t be seen through the mask. “Seriously, come on. I know you’re not some stuffy boring old hall monitor. You and me, we could have some crazy times out here. We don’t need to fight.”

“Are you insane?” That-A-Way demanded, voice rising a bit defensively despite herself. “In case it escaped you, I’m not a supervillain. And I’m definitely not going to hurt people.” 

Pack’s response to that was a simple shrug. “Who said anything about hurting people? Does that guy over there look hurt? Do you really think losing a few boxes of equipment like this is gonna hurt that big ass multi-billion dollar company? Trust me, they’ve got all this covered.”  

Slowly, That-A-Way shook her head. “Look, I’m telling you, we can do this the nice way. I’ll arrest you, take you in, then you sit in jail. Neither of us has to throw a punch. Maybe they’ll let you switch sides, Pack. You and your friends here, they could do some real good, instead of stealing things and hurting people. And you are hurting them, no matter what you think.” 

There was a brief pause then, as Pack seemed to consider. But in the end, the suggestion was apparently not what she was thinking through. Instead, she offered, “Tell you what. I’ll tell my buddies here to stay back and not intervene. Which means I won’t be using my powers. You don’t use yours. If you can take me down like that, no powers on either side, then we’ll all surrender and you can take us in. How’s that sound?”

“You’re serious?” That-A-Way blurted with a frown. “You want me to fight you without either of us using powers, and if I win, you and all your friends here will just surrender peacefully.” 

“Well,” Pack pointed out slyly, “we’ll have just fought, so I’m not sure how much you could call it peacefully. But other than that… yeah. You and me, right here, no powers. Think you can hand-” 

In mid-sentence, Pack was interrupted as That-A-Way took a swing at her face. She jerked back, twisting with a laugh. “See?” she blurted in mid-pivot as the fist went right past her nose, “you would make a pretty good villain with underhanded sneak attacks like that.” 

She quickly snapped an arm down to deflect the other incoming fist, before twisting once more so That-A-Way’s kick hit the side of her hip. It still hurt, but not as much as it might have. Before the next attack could come, however, she continued her pivot, putting her back toward That-A-Way as her elbow lashed out to hit the other girl in the face.

The impact made the blonde stumble a bit, but That-A-Way recovered quickly, both hands snapping up to catch Pack’s swinging arm as it came in for a hard punch. Gripping tightly to keep the girl in place, she lashed out with a kick toward her opponent’s side and was rewarded with a grunt of pain as she connected. But the leather jacket was clearly padded for protection.

Through all of this, the menagerie of lizard-creatures watched with a mixture of confusion and curiosity. That same curiosity was reflected in the face of Aaron the truck driver, as he too watched all of this. Together, they all stared as their owner and the girl she had previously worked with (and who had actually saved Holiday’s life) went after one another in a wild brawl.  

Taking the kick on her side while her extended arm was held by both of That-A-Way’s hands, Pack grunted before stepping in close, her free hand snapping out to slam the heel of it into the other girl’s shoulder. The blow was enough to loosen the grip Way had on her other arm, and Pack twisted free, pivoting in and around before driving her knee up into the girl’s stomach. 

Or at least, that was the plan. In practice, her opponent managed to catch her rising knee with one hand before slamming her arm into Pack’s face with a somewhat-wild swing. Pack did, however, manage to put a fist into the side of the elbow of That-A-Way’s arm that was holding her knee, knocking away her grip. 

Both girls yelped in pain, stumbling back away from each other for a moment. It had been a wild handful of seconds, with both landing a few blows but neither actually getting very far. They each moved, pacing in a slow circle around one another while watching for an opening as the breathed hard in and out. 

“Hey,” Pack announced with a slow pant, “I guess you Minority guys must learn how to fight without your powers after all. Kudos.” Her voice adopted a teasing tone once more. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could tell me what parts of that class you weren’t so good at?” 

“Nice try,” Way snorted before doing a quick step-in, feinting a kick while using her opposite hand to catch hold of Pack’s wrist. She quickly pivoted in and around, shoving the villain girl’s hand up behind her back before putting her other arm around Pack’s neck. “I was pretty good at grappling, I’ll tell you that much.” 

“Well yeah,” Pack agreed with a grimace, arm pinned behind her back as it was, “who wouldn’t want to let you practice on them? Have you seen yourself?” Using That-A-Way’s brief distraction at those words, she stomped down on the girl’s foot, then twisted her arm free before pivoting to punch at her stomach. Her fist, as expected, was knocked aside. But she was free, and both girls stumbled away once more. 

Their fight continued that way for another minute, neither gaining any real advantage as they avoided any use of their powers (which, in Pack’s case, simply consisted of repeating her order for the lizard-creatures to stay out of the way no matter what happened). Blows were exchanged between them, each taking a few bruises and bumps that they would feel through the rest of the night and into the next day. This whole thing was clearly more than a simple sparring match, yet also somehow less than an actual fight. They bantered, they teased each other, they… talked, to an extent. They were simultaneously taking it seriously and yet not. It was an impossible situation for either to explain. All the two girls knew was that… it was fun. They both wanted to win, that was for sure. Yet they also… didn’t terribly mind the idea of the other winning either. 

Finally, That-A-Way managed to slip behind Pack while the other girl was stumbling forward, off-balance. Before she could recover, Way lashed out with a kick into her back that launched her up against the back of the nearby truck with a yelp. It was the best opening Way had had through all of this, and she took advantage by grabbing the stay-down cuffs from her hip and lunging that way. She brought one cuff in toward Pack’s wrist even as the girl hit the truck. 

But Pack recovered faster than Way had expected. At the last possible second, she snatched her hand down, pivoting to catch the incoming handcuff. A quick twist of the metal and That-A-Way felt it snap around her own wrist. The other cuff was just as quickly attached to the handle of the truck’s rear door. Way lashed out with her free hand, but Pack stumbled backward just in time, panting heavily. 

“Whew,” the girl managed with a cough, “that was close.” 

Turning to face her, hand still cuffed to the truck, That-A-Way shook her head. “You still don’t have to be a thief, you know. You can stop this any time. It’s your choice.” 

“But I’m so good at it,” Pack replied easily. “And besides, what would I do otherwise? Be a hero?” 

“You could if you wanted to,” Way pointed out with narrowed eyes. “You and your friends over there could help a lot of people.” 

“See, I can help people without being a hero,” Pack retorted, though her voice was light. “But I don’t have to do it at the beck and call of a system designed to make the richer richer and smash the poor under its treads. What do you think I do when I see someone being hurt? I mean really hurt by real bad guys. There’s a difference between what I do and what they do.”

“You want to change the system and make people’s lives better?” Way blurted a bit incredulously. “Then do it inside the system! You want Star-Touched to really help people who need it? Be a Star-Touched and help people who need it!” 

There was a brief pause before Pack stepped closer. “You still see everything as being that black and white? Things aren’t that simple, babe. Though I will admit,” she added carefully while stripping off one of her gloves to reveal a dark-skinned hand that she gently touched against Way’s pale cheek. “Black and white does make a pretty good combination at times.” The words came in a soft voice, both girls staring at one another for a long few seconds. 

Abruptly, Pack stepped back, casually adding, “One, we both know you can teleport out of that cuff any time you want to.” 

Even as she said those words, That-A-Way was disappearing from the cuff. She reappeared a few feet away, mouth open to interrupt in one last plea for the other girl to just surrender. 

But Pack continued. “–And two, I just gave the stand-down order for Holiday to stop guarding her prisoner. Which means…” 

With a loud, somehow delighted and friendly rather than terrifying, snarl, Holiday the panther-lizard lunged out of the shadows to knock That-A-Way to the ground. They landed heavily, Holiday frantically licking all over her face and nuzzling up against her while the girl squealed in surprise. 

“She wants to say hello,” Pack finished with a small smirk. She let that go on for a few seconds before reaching down to take hold of Holiday, pulling her back. The two stood over the Minority hero, Pack offering a shrug. “Hey, you interrupted when we were only halfway done, so I guess we can call it a tie.” 

That-A-Way started to say something, only to look over from her prone position to see the van start up and drive off. “You weren’t alone…” 

“Never said I was,” Pack pointed out. “Don’t worry, Broadway’s cool. She would’ve held to the deal I made and let you take me in. Maybe you can meet her next time.” 

“Next time,” Way assured her, “I’m going to bring you in.” 

Walking backward away from the girl, Pack casually replied, “Maybe I’ll let you cuff me then! Could be fun!” 

She turned then, sprinting away while accompanied by her animals, leaving That-A-Way laying on the ground. As the girl watched the menagerie and their leader disappear into the darkness, her comm beeped. 

“That-A-Way?” Wobble’s voice came, “you okay? What’s going on?” 

Touching the comm in her ear to activate it, Way answered, “I’ve got the truck and the driver. Thief took off in a van, but I managed to interrupt before they took everything they wanted.” 

“Any bad guys to bring in?” her teammate asked. 

“… No. No bad guys this time. She got away.” 

“Shit,” Wobble muttered through the comm. “Eh, don’t worry. There’s always next time.” 

“Yeah,” Amber murmured in a soft voice, staring through the darkness where the other girl had disappeared. 

“There’s always next time.”

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Interlude 7A – Pack and That-A-Way

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With a flash of light and a pair of yelps, two figures appeared in the air in the middle of a large corridor and fell to the floor in a heap. They were tangled up there for a moment, lying on that hard stone floor. Each of them was equally disoriented and confused, almost violently pulling away from each other and scrambling backwards with their guards up as they stared wide-eyed at one another. 

“Pack?!” That-A-Way blurted out loud, her voice high-pitched and clearly completely lost in that moment. 

Pack’s own voice was just as baffled. “Way? What… what the fuck is— where the hell are we?!” Even as she said it, the girl was scrambling to her feet, looking up and down the hall. “Is… is this a fucking prison?”

It was. The hall they were in was lined with cells on each side. They were small, simple affairs with iron bars covering the front of a tiny room that had the metal frame of a cot bolted to the floor and a sink next to a toilet. Dozens of visible cells, visible as they looked up and down the hall, were the same. Heavy and clearly reinforced metal doors lay at either end. 

“Well fuck this,” Pack announced, already heading for one of the doors. “I don’t know what the fuck this is, but I’m leaving. You coming, Minority chick?”

After a brief moment of confused staring, That-A-Way jolted a bit, eyes widening. “Wait, I know what this is. I’ve heard of this guy, he’s newish.” She shot a look to the other girl, who had stopped to look at her. “Jailtime. He calls himself Jailtime. This whole prison, it’s… it’s in some isolated place… or completely created by his power or… or something. Anyway, he touches you and brings you here and you have to find your way to the exit. Then you get teleported back to where you were.”

Pack stared at her for a moment. “Are you serious? The hell kind of power is that? Just teleport people to one location and wait for them to leave?”

That-A-Way shrugged. “I think there’s more to it, but I can’t remember. Like I said, he’s really new. The Ninety-Niners pretty much just picked him up.”

Cursing under her breath, Pack tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling before muttering, “What’s with those guys and Touched who take you somewhere against your will like that? They’ve got Ringside too. And I’m counting Longhaul.”

Distractedly shaking her head, the other girl replied, “Maybe they put out a really specific want ad. All I know is we have to get out of here and back to help the others. So come on.” Even as she said it, the girl was heading past Pack to the nearby door. She was trying not to think about everything that could have already gone wrong back there while they were talking.

Pack exhaled, glancing around once more before following. “Can you just teleport us out the quick way?”

That-A-Way’s head shook. “I have no idea where we are, what this place looks like, what might be around, or anything. I need to have some vague idea of where I’m going if we don’t want to end up inside a wall or something. If it even works at all.” With that, she reached out to put her hand on the other girl’s arm. “But this way is south, so we can just walk right through…” While saying it, she turned herself and Pack intangible and went right through the door. 

Or she tried to. Despite the fact that the two of them were definitely intangible, the door held firm and they walked right into it with a pair of surprised grunts. 

Laughter erupted from behind them, and both reeled back while turning to find the guy who had brought them here. Jailtime, wearing his cliché black and white striped prison uniform with the number placard and simple mask, was doubled over laughing to himself. “Oh man, that was amazing! That was totally worth being quiet and letting you stupid bitches ramble for so long. Can you do that again, because I didn’t have my camera ready and you two really owe me for putting up with listening to you. Come on, maybe if you run at it really fast, you can get through! Give it the old college try! I mean, I know you’re both too dumb to ever go to college, but let’s just pretend. It’ll be great. I promise to clap.”

Glancing to each other silently, both girls suddenly threw themselves that way. It was north, so That-A-Way teleported past the guy to appear behind him, turning to grab him. At the same time, Pack launched herself into a tackle. 

Jailtime turned to smoke, floating into the nearby wall and disappearing just in time for the two girls to collide with one another. They went to the floor in a heap again, while his laughter filled the hall.

Pulling away from the other girl, Pack angrily lashed out with a foot, kicking the wall where the smoke had gone. “Get out here and fight, you fucking coward!”

His disembodied voice failed the hall. “Now why would I do that when we’re having so much fun this way? Well, I’m having fun anyway, and that’s what really matters, isn’t it? But if you bimbos really want someone to fight, never say I’m not accommodating to guests.”

Both girls stood up warily then, just as the heavy doors to either end of the prison hall opened and several large figures stepped through. They looked like prisoners, only featureless ones. They were men with no faces, only the vague shape on their bald heads where a face would be. No noses, no eyes, no mouth. They clearly weren’t real people. But their fists were real, as were the chains and knives that several clutched as they approached. Or, they were at least real enough to hurt, and neither Pack nor That-A-Way had any desire to see just how real they could be. 

Without missing a beat, Way grabbed the girl beside her, teleporting both of them behind the group to the north. As they arrived, Pack already had her shotgun out, and pumped a heavy beanbag round right into one of their backs, before turning the barrel slightly to shoot again into the next one. Both hit the floor from the force of the impact at such close range. 

That-A-Way, meanwhile, shoved her taser into the neck of a third one. It did nothing, the being just turning to smack the weapon from her hand before punching at her face. But she was facing south, so the girl went intangible to let the fist pass through her. Then she pivoted around him, facing east to activate her invulnerability while lashing out with as hard of a punch as she could manage. She didn’t have superstrength, but the invulnerability meant she could hit a lot harder without hurting herself. Her fist slammed into that featureless face, staggering the figure. 

Before it could recover, she slipped around the opposite side of him, activating her super speed as she grabbed the simulacrum by the arm and waist. With a grunt, she spun, using her speed to hurl the figure to the ground near the door. “Pack!” She blurted out loud, even as the figure was starting to pick itself up, barely dazed. If it was even possible to actually daze these obvious automatons. 

Pack didn’t need an explanation. Hopping over the outstretched arms of one of the figures she put on the floor, the girl raised her shotgun once more. A pull of the trigger sent the next heavy round right into the non-face of the figure Way had tossed. The shot completely caved in the front of the head, and the figure reeled backwards and fell. His body prevented the door from closing. Both girls lunged that way, throwing themselves through it just as the body disappeared and the door slammed shut behind them with a heavy clang. 

Out of that first hallway, the girls were now in a narrower one with no cells. It curved out and around, the corridor continuing out of sight. Behind them, the door was starting to open again as the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps from those things grew louder. 

Grabbing Pack’s hand, That-A-Way teleported to the end of the curve, as far ahead as she could see. The hall continued that way, a wide curve arcing away from the place they had just left. It was still generally north, so she teleported a couple more times, each as far as she could see. It would give them a little bit of a head start, assuming their captor didn’t just create new ones or teleport the ones he had around or something. 

At the end of the widely curved hall was a large set of bars, a heavy gate. Beyond that was a fairly small area followed by another barred gate that blocked an equally small room with a door. 

“Like an airlock,” Pack realized. “They open the gate on one side, make sure only the people that are supposed to go through get into that small area, close the gate on that side, then open the other gate.”

“Yeah,” the other girl agreed before heading that way. “Well, good thing we’re not waiting for anyone to let us through.”

The steady sound of many approaching footsteps from the direction they had come propelled That-A-Way to take Pack by the hand once more and teleport through both sets of gates to reach the room on the far side. Just as they arrived, however, that entire space was flooded with arcs of electricity. Both girls jerked away from each other with pained yelps before falling. They lay on the floor for a moment, dazed and out of it. Both knew they had to move, but the brief shock of electricity left them unable to focus even as the footsteps drew nearer. The by-then familiar sound of mocking laughter accompanied the footsteps. 

The gates opened, letting the faceless figures move through toward the prone girls. However, just as the nearest one extended its hand toward Pack’s masked face, there was a squeal of fury from above. All of the figures turned that way, as a grate on the ceiling came popping open and a small, scaled figure dropped through to land on the head of the automaton that had been reaching out. 

It was Tuesday. The monkey-lizard wasn’t that big, but was quite strong for his size and was currently motivated by the blinding rage he felt on behalf of his owner. Making his paws into fists and putting them together, he brought them down in a sledge hammer blow against the top of the automaton’s head.  It caved in, and the figure collapsed just as Tuesday ripped the arms from its sockets and use them to bash in the heads of the next two while dropping to the ground. They staggered back, and the others hesitated while the monkey lizard bared his teeth and chest, swinging both of the broken automaton’s arms menacingly. 

That-A-Way, by that point, had recovered enough to sit up and grab one of the arms from Tuesday. He hissed in surprise, but stopped upon seeing who it was, even as the girl stumbled to her feet and turned intangible while lunging toward a metal coil sticking out from the wall that was already starting to spark with electricity. She shoved the intangible arm through the coil and released it, hopping back as the arm solidified, destroying the coil and stopping that electricity. 

“Tuesday?!” Pack blurted. “How are—never mind.” Even as she dismissed it, the girl was snapping her shotgun up to pull the trigger twice more, knocking a couple automatons away to fall against their companions as she scrambled up. “We’ve gotta go!” Even as she said it, the girl lunged at the gate and shoved it closed, trying to hold it in place while not letting the automatons grab hold of her.

“Love to,” Way retorted while yanking fruitlessly at the heavy door. “But I can’t teleport through this without knowing what’s on the other side, and—”

“Through the vent!” Pack interrupted, still struggling to keep the gate shut while the automatons pushed against it. “Go up!” 

Tuesday went first, leaping straight back up through the open grate he had appeared from. That-A-Way, meanwhile, grabbed Pack by the arm and turned to put herself behind the girl, hands on her shoulders as the two instantly crouched together, dropping almost prone in order to fit within the space they were about to occupy. Behind them, the gate banged open as the automatons barged through. But both girls disappeared, teleporting up into the shaft through the tiny opening that Way could see.

There was almost no room up there, but the girls scrambled quickly along with Tuesday, moving through the shaft even as the metal under their hands and knees grew warmer by the second. Jailtime was retaliating against their narrow escape by heating up the shaft. It was already painful, making all three of them yelp a bit while scrambling toward the nearest next grate. 

Tuesday was in the lead, making pained yipping noises as he banged his fist down hard against the grate to slam it open before dropping through into the room below. The two girls were right behind him, cursing and yelping the whole way as they all fell into an undignified, but at least survivable pile. 

Now they were in a cafeteria of some kind, simple metal tables filling the room. At one end was the line of counters where food was handed out with a doorway into the kitchen. The other end of the room was the exit. An exit which was already open, as automaton figures pushed their way in.

“These motherfuckers don’t give up, do they?” Pack demanded while quickly reloading her shotgun with shells pulled from within her costume. Tuesday had climbed up to hang from her back while hissing at the intruders angrily. 

Just as the three braced themselves to deal with yet another attack from their relentless pursuers, there was a loud roar. A figure on all fours leapt over the kitchen counter, raced past the trio, and threw itself at the automatons. The initial collision completely broke one apart, before a hard swipe of one large paw took the head off another that had stumbled. 

“Holiday!” Pack blurted happily, already running that way to fire a shot at one of the automatons who was trying to grab the lizard-panther. Tuesday leapt off her shoulders to collide with another one. 

“I am so glad I saved that beautiful freaking lizard,” Way announced while using her super speed to dash that way, colliding bodily with one of the automatons with enough force to send it flying back against the wall. 

Together, with a lot of help from the vicious Holiday, the group demolished the automatons to the point where they could no longer function. Pieces of the things lay around them while they all slumped a bit and panted. 

Unfortunately, only a few seconds passed before Jailtime’s annoyed voice filled the cafeteria. “Fine, you wanna play rough? Let’s play rough.”

With those words, the sound of twisting, grinding metal filled the room. The girls looked that way to see the tables contorting and twisting themselves, reshaping into metal figures, each with four long bladed arms and six legs. On top of that, the figures began to glow bright red from the waist up, including those arms and blades. They were clearly incredibly hot, and were rapidly approaching, skittering spider-like on their half-dozen legs. On the way, faces appeared on the half-formed heads, just enough for mouths to gape open, revealing lines of jagged metal teeth. 

“Nope, nope, nope!” Pack announced, already pivoting to run for the exit. “Fuck that, not doing it, let’s go!”

The door slammed shut on them, but almost immediately collapsed inward as another figure burst through from the other side and loomed in front of them with a roar. 

“Mars Bar!” That-A-Way blurted. In that moment, she was as happy to see the enormous bear-lizard as she had been to see Holiday. “Pack, how are your—”

“Hell if I know!” the other girl interrupted. “But I’m not gonna fucking question it, let’s just get the hell out of here. I’m done playing this bastard‘s game. Go!”

Mars Bar stepped back, while the group joined him in the hall. There, they ran as Pack called, “You guys know where the others are?” Because if this many of her creatures were in the prison, the remaining two would be.

Her question was seemingly answered by a loud screech just as they reached a four-way corridor. That-A-Way pointed left, toward the sight of sunlight and freedom. “Exit!”

“Riddles!” Pack had already turned the opposite way, toward the direction of the screech. “Go, I’m not leaving my friends!” She and the rest of her creatures ran toward the screeching sound, leaving the other girl standing there for a moment. 

After only the slightest hesitation, That-A-Way launched herself after the others, racing to catch up. Together, they burst into an obvious visitation room, where Riddles was flying back-and-forth over the tables, avoiding dozens of pens, knives, balls, plates, and any number of other small objects that were being flung through the air at her by an invisible force. 

“Riddles, let’s go!” Holding the door open as she called to the bird lizard, Pack watched as the flying creature dove between several more flying objects before reaching the entrance. She slammed the door shut just as a handful of knives collided with it, before turning. Riddles had landed on Mars Bar’s head. “Okay, now–”

A sudden, incredibly violent and powerful force slammed into all of them. They were flung down the hallway and collided with the far wall before falling forward to the ground. As Pack looked up, she saw that Riddles, Mars Bar, Tuesday, and Holiday were all back in their regular lizard forms, having apparently been hit hard enough to knock them right back to normal. They all squeaked and scrambled over to her, climbing up the girl’s arms. She and That-A-Way picked themselves up, just as Jailtime appeared in front of them. 

“Okay,” the guy snarled, “that’s just about enough of that! Apparently it’s time to really scare you bitches. Maybe if…” He trailed off at the sound of Pack chuckling. “Why are you laughing?”

“Why?” she echoed. “Because when we were running through that hall back there, I found another friend. One that you missed.”

“What are y—” That was as far as the guy got before the nearby door was suddenly ripped off its hinges, seemed to hoist itself through the air, and slammed into the guy so hard he was knocked into the opposite wall with a squeal. He turned into smoke and dissolved back into that wall, just has the slightly bent door dropped to the floor and Twinkletoes appeared. 

All around them, the prison seemed to shake with rage, the walls and floor grew hot, and more automatons emerged from various rooms, all of them bent on vengeance.

“Twinkletoes,” That-A-Way blurted, “Jump on your mama with the others!”

The gorillizard understood, jumping that way while shrinking back into his normal lizard form to land in Pack’s outstretched hands. In the next second, while the floor under their feet grew too hot to stand on, That-A-Way wrapped her arms around the other girl and focused on the exit she had seen when they first got to that four-way intersection. The exit to the north. 

They teleported. Suddenly, That-A-Way and Pack, with the lizards clinging all over the latter, were right in front of the door. Sunlight and blue sky were in front of them. The two girls looked to one another briefly as an outraged bellow filled the burning hot prison behind them. 

Without wasting another second, they lunged for the doors and burst through together. The sweet sensation of open air washed over them for a moment. 

Then they were gone, leaving the prison, wherever it really was, behind. 

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Showdown 7-10 (Summus Proelium)

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“So that was how my night went,” That-A-Way informed Wobble and me a short while later, as the three of us stood just inside one of the store bathrooms. She and the other Minority Cape were watching carefully as I took the special suit off of Ashton. He had clothes on underneath, of course (none of us back at Wren’s place had wanted to have anything to do with putting the suit on him otherwise), which must’ve made wearing this thing pretty warm. Oh well. 

Wobble, taking up basically the entire doorway with his massive body and green medieval-like armor, stood with his arms folded. “Sounds like this Jailtime guy’s a real piece of work.” As he said it, the guy cracked his knuckles, each audible pop making clear, without words, just what he’d like to do to that particular piece of work. “Glad you made it out of his funhouse, Way.” 

I nodded. “Yeah, me too.” Unsnapping a couple of the clasps in the back of the suit after using the control box to retract the wires that were controlling Ashton’s muscles, I added, “You and Pack.” Maybe I shouldn’t have brought up the fact that, technically, another villain had been involved in that whole situation. But I was sore and both mentally and physically exhausted. Besides, That-A-Way had just finished describing all the ways being with Pack had helped get her out of there. 

Speaking of Pack, she and the rest of La Casa had left along with their boss. I was sure I’d talk to her soon (not to mention Eits, given… given what he now knew about me), but for the moment, no one on either side had wanted to exactly… push things. There was a brief truce to sort all this out, sure. Flea and Dynamic had both agreed to let Blackjack and his people go to avoid escalating things tonight, but had made it clear that the truce would not extend past that. Now they were outside with the rest of the Minority (aside from Raindrop, whose absence I still wasn’t quite clear on beyond her apparently needing a vacation), making sure all the civilians were okay and sorting out the members of the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners who hadn’t escaped. All the Touched were gone, unfortunately. Which made sense, considering how important they were. Of course people with powers would be the priority when extracting and escaping. Given Longhaul’s presence, it was probably somewhat more surprising that there were any regular guys left behind to be arrested at all, honestly.

Disconnecting the last of the suit, I pulled it down and off of Ashton, lifting his legs one at a time before taking the body part of the suit off and balling it up. Tucking the suit under one arm, I reached up, unclasped the helmet, and took it off his head with a muttered, “There we go.” 

As soon as the helmet was disconnected from the guy, he took off running. Yeah, we’d expected that. He got about three feet before stopping short as he saw Wobble standing in his way. 

“Hiya, Sunshine,” the large boy greeted him, before flicking a finger to send a small, lazy pulse of force that knocked Ashton back several feet and to the floor, where he landed with a curse. 

“That son of a bitch had me locked up, dumbasses!” Ashton blurted from where he was sprawled. “False fucking imprisonment, kidnapping! He and his friends locked me in a little room until they could build that thing, shove wires and needles inside my fucking body, and parade me all over town just to get stuff for one of the worst villains in the city! Fucking arrest him! Cuz I’ll tell you this much, I am going to press charges until he can’t afford to put shoes on his fe–ohhh… oh God.” In mid-rant, the man suddenly stopped. I could see very faint distortion waves in the air, going from Wobble’s finger. It wasn’t enough to knock Ashton down or anything, but he did abruptly turn, grab the nearby trash can, and throw up into it. 

“He’s right though,” That-A-Way put in a bit tiredly from where she was leaning against the wall. “I mean, not the arresting you part. But there is something you’ll have to do if you don’t want the whole… complicated issue of finally turning him in to come back and bite you in the ass.”  

Right, the detaining him thing. I’d known that would come up, but it was always sort of just pushed out of my mind. Now that it was here and Ashton was making a fuss (because of course he was), all I could do was blink at That-A-Way and slowly ask, “Something I have to do?” 

“Ahem.” Behind Wobble, a voice spoke up. “I believe I may be able to assist with this.” 

Wobble stepped out of the way and turned, revealing the woman in the doorway. She wore dark gold pants with black lines running down the sides to meet black boots. Her belt was black, and she wore what looked like a shirt of dark purple scale mail armor with a gold leather coat over it. Her face and head were covered by a black metal helmet with faintly glowing purple lenses where her eyes were. The voice that came out whenever she spoke was clearly projected, with a very faint electronic distortion that probably served to make it harder to identify.

Caishen. It was Caishen, leader of the corporate-sponsored Star-Touched team known as Ten Towers. As the three of us (four once Ashton looked up from the trash can he had been heaving into) looked that way, she used her thumb to gesture back the way she’d come. “They’re ready for Mr. Austin, if you two would like to take him out there? I’ll stay with Paintball and talk him through the detainment application process. Believe me, I’ve written enough of them to do it in my sleep.” 

“Uh, she’s got a point,” That-A-Way agreed with a shrug toward me. “The Towers do that sort of thing all the time. You should talk to her about it. She’ll help.” To the woman herself, she added, “But don’t make him fill it out right now, he’s suffered enough today and we’re all tired.”

With a soft chuckle, Caishen promised to be nice. She then moved, allowing That-A-Way and Wobble to pull Ashton up by the arms and escort him out. He was, of course, ranting the whole way about how we were all going to hate ourselves as soon as Blackjack killed someone again. Which might’ve been fair to an extent, but he didn’t have any room out on that moral ledge. 

Left standing there with the rolled up control suit under one arm and the helmet to it in that hand, I reached out to pick up my own broken helmet from the sink. “Uh, detainment application? Sorry, context aside, that kind of sounds like I’d be applying to be detained.” 

“I suppose it does, doesn’t it?” the woman agreed easily, offering me a very slight nod. “Actually, it’s the opposite. You see, as a recognized Star-Touched, you are, in your identity as Paintball, allowed to temporarily detain prisoners whom you have probable cause to believe committed a crime or were in the midst of doing so. You should know that much by now. Flea gave you cuffs for that very purpose, I believe.” 

When I nodded, she went on. “Now, where it gets a little complicated is in the question of how long you can detain someone for before turning them over. It has become remarkably clear over the past two decades of Touched actions that there are times when it is simply unwise or even impossible to immediately turn over a captured Fell-Touched or Fell-Adjacent prisoner to the authorities. There could be any number of reasons for this, from an ongoing and current threat making travel to the authorities difficult or even dangerous, to the authorities being ill-equipped at that particular time to hold the prisoner, to more… varied reasons. The point is, it was decided that each instance of such detainment would be judged on a case-by-case basis, so long as the one or ones doing the detaining were still in good standing with the local authorities. In other words, as long as the locals see you as generally good, you get a bit of leeway as far as exactly when you turn someone over. Normally this is only up to a couple of days on average, but there are extenuating circumstances that push it further. As I said, case by case basis. That’s where the detainment application comes in. You submit the paperwork explaining why you detained this Mr. Austin guy, detail your reasoning in why turning him in immediately would have presented a threat and that you turned him over as soon as reasonably possible. You’ll have to report in to explain to a judge that he was treated well, that he was not injured, starved, or anything else under your care and the judge will make the decision about whether it was proper.”

This was all really complicated. I’d never known that people out there doing the hero thing had to do all this other stuff too. I already knew from Flea that I’d need to go to court once a month to give depositions about the people I’d helped catch, and now there was this too. Not that it was a bad thing. Actually, in this case, the fact that they had a system like that set up to let independent Touched explain why they detained someone was indisputably a good thing. It was just… a lot to get used to. 

Apparently interpreting my brief silence as worry, Caishen assured me, “In this case, I’m fairly confident that you’ll be fine. The threat presented by the bounty against Mr. Austin made keeping him safe from gang reprisal or capture quite important. In addition, the possibility of Blackjack and La Casa becoming a much greater threat to the populace should his daughter’s medicine not be recovered, as well as the threat to the girl herself, are strong contributing factors. Just include all of that in your paperwork, tell the judge in person when they call you in, and you should be okay. I’m assuming you fed the prisoner and didn’t mistreat him?” 

I nodded once. “I–yeah, he’s fine. I mean, still kinda crazy and all because of… his friend dying and all.” Swallowing at the thought, I pushed on. “But still, he’s physically okay.” 

“Excellent,” Caishen replied simply, “then there shouldn’t be an issue. The threat to his life was obvious, the threat his actions presented to both the city as a whole and to Blackjack’s unidentified daughter is well-documented, and you turned him over in good condition. Just fill out the form and turn it in. Ah, I’m assuming you don’t have the form itself handy. Come to the Ten Tower offices first chance you get and one of our people will have a stack for you. If you like, someone will even help you fill it out.” 

“Why would you do all that for me when I don’t even–” I hesitated. “I mean, when I’m not even working for you or anything. Hell, I just barely met you and I don’t actually have any kind of history with your people or–” 

“I like to cultivate positive relationships with important people,” she interrupted. “Or people who could become important. And from what I’ve seen, you’re well on your way. Look what you’ve done in just the past couple of weeks. And at the people you’ve managed to annoy. Like Cuélebre.” For a moment, the woman paused as though considering before adding, “So, let’s just say I believe in helping to raise up and encourage people who are going to do good for this city. That’s just good business. The more stable things are, the better it is for the companies that Ten Towers represents. They make money. We make money. Everyone’s happy. Instability is bad for business, and bad for profits.” 

“That’s… good, I guess.” Biting my lip behind the mask, I asked, “So just show up and someone will know what I’m talking about?” 

“I’ll make sure of it,” she confirmed. “But for now, I suggest you get home. You look dead on your feet, and I’m pretty sure you have school tomorrow, wherever you go. And hey, good job tonight. You may not know just how much, but you saved a lot of people by heading off that little gang war.

“And on another note, you should really think about applying to Ten Towers when you’re old enough. This whole painting stuff across your costume thing would be a gold mine for advertisers.” 

********

Right as Caishen might have been about me being tired, I didn’t go home after leaving the scene at the store. Instead, I made my way back to Wren’s place. No way was I just going to go home and crash without talking to the others first. Not after everything that we’d all gone through. Besides, I still had to give Wren back the suit and helmet so she could extract the Seraph thing from it. Then I’d return it and this whole thing would be over. 

Except for the part where Eits knew I was a girl. Yeah, we’d talked it through and he promised not to use it against me or anything. And I was almost positive I could even trust him to do what he said. But it… it still made me nervous. Was that bad? Was I bad for not just… completely and one hundred percent believing him even after we had that whole conversation in the car? I did believe him. I did. Mostly. But that tiny hint of doubt that sat in the pit of my stomach was just… I couldn’t stop poking at it. 

My parents lied to me my whole life about what kind of people they were. Could I really trust Eits to not just change his mind and end up using what he knew at some point? Was it dumb to keep dwelling on it when I couldn’t change anything? What else was I going to do about it besides hope that he was telling the truth and didn’t change his mind? 

Shaking off those thoughts as I landed in the parking lot of Wren’s place (after making sure no one was following me this time), I headed in. The door buzzed to unlock as I approached, and I opened it. 

Wren and Pack were down there. I could hear Fred in the room we’d used as a cell for Ashton, apparently cleaning it out. As I appeared at the bottom of the stairs, Wren flung herself at me, hugging tight. “You did it!” she blurted. “You got all the medicine!” 

Coughing, I returned the hug before releasing her to step back with a look toward Pack. “So, it’s all good then?” 

She nodded. “Blackjack’s got all the vials and he’ll be keeping them right at home now. The girl’s gonna be fine. And ahhh, he said this was for you.” Reaching into a bag at her side, she pulled out a black fanny pack-sized pouch and tossed it to me. 

Catching it, I looked inside. Cash. A hundred thousand in cash, just as he’d promised. At least, I was assuming it was a hundred thousand. It was all in a mix of fifties and hundreds, and I wasn’t going to stand there and count all of it right then. From everything I’d heard and experienced, Blackjack was a man of his word. If he said he would pay a hundred thousand, I believed him. 

Holding the pouch in one hand, I managed a very faint smile as I looked to Pack. Her lizards were all in a cage nearby. “I guess this is it then, huh? At least until I catch you doing something bad out there.” 

“Yeah, then we’ll just have to fight for real,” she replied casually. “I’ll try to take it easy on you, since you’ve been pretty cool.” 

“Gee, thanks,” I retorted, shrugging one shoulder. “And I’ll do my best not to let the cuffs hurt too much when I put them on.” Pausing then, I grimaced. “This is gonna be awkward when it comes up, isn’t it?” 

“Probably,” she agreed easily. “Guess we’ll take it as it comes.” To Wren, she added, “Good luck with everything, kid. Err, sorry, guess I should call you Trevithick, huh?” Sobering, she nodded seriously. “Good luck. I’ll see you around.”

With that, Pack picked up her lizard cage and headed out. I watched her go, listening to the sound of the door opening and shutting before looking to Wren. “Maybe she’ll miss all this and get tired of being a bad guy. But hey, we did good anyway.”

“Really good!” Wren agreed enthusiastically. “They got the vials and… and the suit worked. And you didn’t die!” 

Chuckling, I murmured, “That last one’s definitely a bonus. Anyway, here.” Extending the suit and helmet to her, I informed the girl, “Extract the thing whenever you can. I’ll get it back to the Seraphs first chance after you do that.” Even as I finished saying it, an audible yawn escaped me. It had been a long evening. 

“Sounds like Wren isn’t the only one who needs to get some sleep,” Fred noted as he emerged from the other room with a mop in one hand. “I hate to pull the adult card given my track record, but isn’t it about time for that?” 

“Yeah, I’m on my way,” I agreed before opening up the pouch once more. “But first…” Carefully, I extracted some of the bills from the pouch. About ten thousand dollars for an emergency fund, just in case. I would put it somewhere safe. The rest of the pouch I tossed to Wren. “Should be about ninety thousand in there. That’s your sixty percent plus my first investment.” 

“Ninety… ninety thousand dollars?” For a moment Fred looked like he might faint, stepping over to look at the pouch in Wren’s hands. 

“Like I said, we’re in this business together,” I reminded them. “Use that to start getting set up. I know it’s not like… unlimited funds or anything, but it should help get off the ground a little bit. We’ll figure out what you can put together that we can sell and go from there.” 

“You… you really believe what you said,” Wren murmured in an awed voice that cracked just a little as she looked up to me. “You just… you just gave us all this money because you think we can really do it.” 

“I know we can,” I corrected. “I know you can. It’ll be great. Just… worry about it tomorrow. For now, Fred’s right, we need to get some sleep.” 

After exchanging a few more brief pleasantries, I headed out. Leaving Wren’s place, I looked around before finding a nearby alley with a loose brick. Pulling it out, I hid the phone that Eits had given me in it. I… mostly trusted him, but taking a phone that a guy who could manipulate technology had given me back to my home felt like a bad idea in general. Just in case, I wasn’t going to risk it. So, I hid the phone there for the time being, to deal with later. I’d have to get a real new phone of my own. 

But for the moment, I simply stepped out of the alley, stood by the street, and breathed in. 

It was over. Well, for the most part. Ashton was with the authorities. Blackjack had his vials so his daughter would be safe. And sure, Cuélebre was definitely even more pissed off at me, I still didn’t know enough about my family’s evil empire to do anything about it, I still owed Deicide that favor, Eits knew I was a girl, I wasn’t sure why Izzy was living with us, I was going to have to prove to a judge that I’d done the right thing in keeping Ashton locked up… and probably something else I was forgetting. 

But that was stuff to worry about another day. For the moment, I was going home, where I was going to fall into bed and sleep for… oh. For a few hours, apparently, considering there was still school in the morning. School where I would have to somehow be conscious enough to give my part of that big project Jae, Amber, and I had been working on. And that was something I definitely couldn’t miss. Mostly because I’d never be able to explain to the other two why I wasn’t there. 

But it was kind of fun to imagine the looks on their faces if I tried. 

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Showdown 7-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Citing exhaustion after everything that had happened, which wasn’t exactly a stretch, I let Eits drive me back to the store where all that fighting had happened. The two of us sat in that car, staying quiet for the first part of the drive before he looked to me. “You believe me when I say I won’t tell anybody about you, right?”

I shrugged a bit. “I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? My black paint only lasts ten seconds, and I can’t exactly follow you around constantly reapplying it just to keep you quiet.”

He gave me a brief look, coughing once. “Why do I feel like you actually considered that for a second back there?”

Flashing under the mask, I retorted, “I was panicking, sue me. My identity is kind of sensitive.” With that, I turned a bit to stare at him. “So when you promise you won’t tell anybody, you really have to not tell anybody. I mean it. Not even Pack. Nobody. Don’t even write it down. It could… it could get both of us in deep trouble.”

Because I was pretty sure if my parents found out who I was and even suspected that I knew about them, they’d work to shut up anyone else who might know. That included anyone who had found out any hints of my identity. They wouldn’t take chances.

Eits looked uncertain for a moment, but finally nodded. “I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I think I’ll just take your word for it. Like I said, I’m not going to tell anybody about you. And I won’t write it down or anything. I’ll even try not to dream about it if that helps. No promises on that front though, subconscious Eits kind of has a mind of his own.”

Another moment of silence passed before he offered, “I guess we both know more about each other than we intended, huh? Funny how that works when you’re not even trying.”

I nodded. “I haven’t done anything to try to find out who you are from that whole baseball thing. Now, I guess we both sort of have power over each other. We don’t look into each other‘s pasts or identities, right?”

“Right,” he agreed readily. “Just… I swear this isn’t me trying to pry, but when you talk about how dangerous it would be if anybody found out who you were, it doesn’t sound like you’re talking in general. You’re afraid of someone specific. So, I just want to ask… are you okay? Sorry, you don’t have to talk about it. I just… yeah, if you need anything or whatever…”

Blinking in a bit of a surprise, I quickly shook my head. “I’m okay. I mean, you’re not wrong about it being dangerous, but it’ll be fine.” Pausing, I added a somewhat awkward, “Thanks. But you know what? This is going to make having to come after you once we’re on opposite sides again really awkward.”

He shrugged. “Like we said, you have ways of finding out who I am if I go too far looking into you, or give away any of your secrets. Besides, I am fully prepared to cool my heels in a cell if you grab me doing something bad. It’s not like Blackjack won’t get me out.” 

He paused then, head tilting. “Err, did that sound like I was taunting you? Cuz I wasn’t trying to taunt you. It’s just… uhh, yeah. La Casa look after their own. Blackjack has these strict rules about how much force we’re allowed to use if we’re actually caught, depending on by who, the situation, and everything else. The point is, we play nice and spend a little time in jail if we have to until the others resolve the situation.”

“So what you’re saying is,” I started slowly, “you’re not going to start screaming about me being a girl the second I catch you breaking into someone’s system and lock you down for the cops.”

He gave me a serious look then. “Like I said, your secret is safe with me. I’m not gonna tell anybody. I mean, I wouldn’t exactly be happy about it, but I trust Blackjack. Besides, if you catch me breaking in somewhere, I deserve to be caught.”

Snorting at that, I retorted, “Pretty big words for someone who had to call me for help to get him off a roof, dude.”

He was clearly blushing a little while waving that off with his hand. “A crazy fluke. Totally not gonna happen again.” Sobering a bit then, the boy looked to me once more. “You and me, we’re good. I know the risks of what I’m doing, and I’m ready for the consequences if they come. You catch me fair and square, I’m not gonna say anything. I swear. But you do have to catch me first.”

Hesitating, I took a breath before pointing out, “You could always just stop being a bad guy. Seriously, you seem really cool. It’d be a lot easier to avoid any problems if you weren’t stealing things anymore.”

He sounded honestly regretful while replying, “Sorry. I owe Blackjack, not to mention the rest of La Casa.  Without them, I’d… let’s just say I’d be in much worse shape.” Shrugging, he added, “Besides, I hate to tell you this, but stealing things is kind of a rush. Beating security systems, finding a way around the guards, even dealing with Star-Touched like you. Some of the other Fell take it way too seriously, or they’re just fucking monsters. Me, I just want to see if I can do it. And, like I said, I owe Blackjack more than I could ever describe.”

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I wasn’t sure how to phrase it. I also kind of wanted to ask the boy if he knew anything about a secret group who were paid by villains for the right to operate in the city. He was probably one of my best ways of getting more information about my family’s organization. But I couldn’t bring that up yet. I didn’t want to endanger him if he went looking for information, and I still wasn’t exactly positive about how much I should tell him anyway. I wouldn’t be able to unring that bell once I brought it up, and I was pretty sure he would be able to figure out that there was a connection between me talking about how dangerous it was if someone found out too much about me, and this random mysterious shadowy organization. He could put two and two together. 

So, I just stayed quiet as we pulled into the back lot behind the store. There were a lot of people there. Mainly I saw La Casa troops of both the Touched and Prev variety grouped up on one side, and the four Minority people on the other. There was obvious tension in the area, and I hoped things didn’t boil over. Quickly getting out of the car with a last look back toward Eits, I moved to Carousel and the others. “They’re not back yet?”

Syndicate (or the one of him who was standing there) spoke up. “No. According to those guys, this Jailtime asshole takes you into his own private prison and you have to find your way out.” He paused before muttering under his breath, “Way better get out of there.” 

Unable to help myself, I asked, “So where’s Raindrop? I figured she’d be with you guys, or at least show up by now.”

Syndicate quietly answered, “She’s… on vacation. She needed a break.”

Okay, there was definitely something more to that, but before I could think about it too much, Carousel looked to me. “Seems like you went many miles. Tell us you got the vials. All the danger this has fraught, it’d suck to be for naught.”

Wobble nodded, the huge guy looking to me. “She’s right,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “if we went through all this and those vials are still out there…”

“Almost,” I assured them. “We’ve got all but one of them. And that last one… well, it’s with Pack and That-A-Way.” Looking back to the spot where the two had disappeared, I quietly added, “So I guess that’s another reason to hope they make it out.”

Whamline spoke up. “You’re a pretty hard little guy to figure out, you know? You’re obviously trying to help people, but you’re also on friendly terms with villains like Blackjack and Pack. Not to mention that Eits guy. You’re not a villain, but you say you don’t want to join us either. So what’s the deal? Do we have cooties or something?”

Turning away from where he had been staring at the La Casa people, Syndicate agreed. “Yeah, we’ve been trying to figure out why you’re so adamant about staying on your own. I mean, you’ve seen how dangerous it is out there. Look at your helmet. That was Cuélebre, right? He nearly killed you. And let me guess, you still don’t want to join.”

Blanching a bit out their interrogation, I gave a quick shake of my head while holding the broken helmet tighter. “I’m sorry, guys. I’m just not a team player right now. You’re right, I’m not a bad guy. I just want to help people. But I have my own way of doing it. I don’t mind helping out, I just can’t join up with you.

“And I was helping Blackjack save his daughter. That’s it. I don’t agree with the guy or anything. I just don’t think his kid should pay for what Blackjack does. I get why Ashton is pissed at him. But he took it too far.”

The four of them exchanged looks, a silent conversation of some kind passing between them before Syndicate looked back to me. “I guess that’s fair enough for now. But we’ve still got a lot of questions. Sorry, I’m just pretty sure there’s still something more behind your whole situation than you’re saying.”

Inwardly, I blanched while trying not to show any reaction in my body language. How could I just tell them to leave well enough alone without piquing their curiosity even more? If I acted like it was a big deal and tried to warn them, they’d definitely dig deeper. And that could be really bad for everyone, considering my supervillain/hero father was basically their boss. 

So, I just did my best to shrug it off, deliberately changing the subject. “Are you guys gonna be okay after all this? I mean, you were technically fighting alongside La Casa tonight too.”

Carousel was the one who replied. “They’ll just have to let us explain. With that kind of danger, we couldn’t abstain.”

“What she said, only less rhymey,” Syndicate agreed. “At least for tonight, the truce was the best way to go. Two other gangs to fight, nobody’s going to blame us for not jumping straight into fighting La Casa too. And like you said, in this case it was about saving a little girl. Even if she was the daughter of a supervillain.”

Everyone stopped talking then, because the car with Blackjack himself had shown up. He stepped out of it, glanced over to us, and then said something to his men. After a brief back and forth, he approached, watching our reactions before speaking. “I owe all of you a debt of gratitude for what you’ve done tonight, and the risks you took to secure my daughter’s medicine.”

Wobble quickly asked, “Don’t suppose we could all trade in those debts of gratitude and get you to turn yourself in?” After a brief pause, he shrugged. “It was worth a shot.”

Chuckling in what sounded like genuine amusement, Blackjack nodded. “It certainly was. But no, I’m afraid tonight will not be the time you manage to talk a Fell-gang leader into surrendering. Given what I’ve seen of you all, however, I would hardly be surprised to see you manage it at some point. I’ll even wish you luck, given how my own organization could profit from such an event.”

He was still nervous. I could tell that much just from watching the man. He was trying to play things off, but there was a certain tenseness to him. Probably because he was so close to finally saving his daughter. There was only one vial left, and he could do absolutely nothing about getting it back. He just had to stand here and wait to see if… no, when Pack and That-A-Way got out of there. They had the last vial, and his daughter wouldn’t be safe until they were here. But he could do nothing to influence it and clearly felt completely helpless. I knew the feeling. 

Before anyone else could say anything, there was a rush of motion from above and to the side, I quickly looked that way with the others, just in time to see Flea come leaping down to land between the Minority Touched (as well as me) and Blackjack. She was joined a second later by another female figure in a purple and white skin tight suit with a helmet not too dissimilar from mine. Dynamic, the Conservator speedster who could temporarily drain the powers from people she ran past in order to create energy constructs. She came skidding to a stop beside the other woman, both of them standing with their attention fully centered on Blackjack. 

“Problem here?” Flea asked flatly, her voice full of warning. She had a sword in one hand, though she hadn’t actually raised it. The tip was pointed at the ground. But her intent was clear. 

Syndicate quickly spoke up. “It’s okay. Nothing’s changed since we reported in a few minutes ago. We’re still waiting for That-A-Way.”

Blackjack gave a slight nod. If he was at all intimidated or worried about the two adult Star-Touched, he gave no sign of it. I even saw him suddenly wave his hand back to motion for his own men to stay away. His voice was as calm as possible given the situation. “Your protege is correct. We have all held to a truce this evening to focus on more important matters. I hope that can be maintained through these last few minutes.”

Flea made a noise of curiosity. “Few minutes? The way I understood it, we have no way of knowing when our people will get out of that prison. Unless you’re privy to something the rest of us aren’t?”

She was trying to find out if his words had anything to do with his power, I realized. No one knew exactly how it worked, or how much information the guy could get. 

From the way he chuckled, the La Casa leader was just as aware of what she was doing. He bowed his head, seemingly in acknowledgment and approval of it before replying, “Let’s just say I have a certain level of optimism. Assuming our disagreements can wait until later?”

Dynamic spoke up, her voice bright and cheerful. “Oooh, by disagreements, you mean the fact that you’re a super villain who keeps robbing and hurting people and we’re supposed to take you to prison? Those disagreements?” She gave him a clearly embellished thumbs up. “Sure, we can wait to bring you to justice. It’s not like you’re suddenly going to disappear. Though, you know, that would probably be the best super villain move ever. Just completely vanish so no one ever finds you? I wonder if—” 

She stopped as Flea nudged her. I didn’t know a lot about Dynamic, except for the fact that she was the youngest member of the Conservators. She’d been part of the Minority only a year earlier. Not our Minority, but the one in the Utah/Wyoming area. On graduation, she’d been picked up by none other than Silversmith himself. 

Did that definitely make her one of the bad guys, or was I just being paranoid? Dad would obviously want good Star-Touched in the city, or he wouldn’t have anything to threaten people who didn’t pay up with. But was she just a good recruit to have, or actually part of the shadow organization? Having a loyal person on the Conservators besides himself, and one who could actually drain people’s powers at that, would be really useful for him.

“Paintball?” With a start, I realized that Flea had been trying to get my attention. When I looked that way, she gestured to the broken helmet in my hand. “Are you okay?”

“I…” Pausing, I swallowed before nodding. The brief memory flash of that lightning made my throat dry. I was really trying to focus on anything other than that. “I’m fine,” I claimed in a voice that I was proud to say was only shaking a little bit. “I just need a shower and a nap.”

With an audible giggle, Dynamic blurted, “Tell me about it, little dude. After all the shit that’s been going around tonight, I could use a spa day.” She didn’t seem nearly as tense as Flea was for standing in front of Blackjack. A sign that she was part of my parents’ organization after all, or just her personality? I wished I knew for sure. 

Belatedly, I looked to the two Conservator Star-Touched. “I… I saw Silversmith fighting Cuélebre. Is he–I mean, are they still–” God, how stupid was this? My dad was an actual secret supervillain and I was still worried about his safety. What was wrong with me? 

For her part, Flea simply offered me a short nod, clearly having no idea what was behind my question. “He’s fine. Cuélebre escaped, but I promise, Smith made him regret coming out tonight.” 

With that, she turned her attention to the La Casa leader. “It sounds like you treated these guys right.” She nodded to the Minority and me. “So thanks. Still, I have to say, this truce only lasts until you get that vial and get out of here. We see you again tonight, this whole thing is gonna go differently, got it?” 

Blackjack started to respond, but before he could say anything, there was a sudden flash of light nearby. Everyone’s eyes snapped there, as the light began to resolve into a figure. Or two figures. That-A-Way and Pack. The latter had all her lizards clinging to her arms and shoulders. 

As everyone stared, both girls staggered and stumbled a bit. They looked pretty haggard, worn out, and generally like they’d been through a lot. Finally, they looked up to find everyone watching. 

“Oh, hey, boss.” Pack’s words were light, though she was clearly barely able to keep standing. “Special delivery?”

Then she held up the final vial. The last one. She held it out, letting her employer take it from her with a somewhat shaking hand. Clutching it, he turned and nodded to someone. A moment later, Ashton was brought out and sent stumbling to me. 

It was over. Blackjack finally had what he needed to save his daughter. After all that, we’d actually pulled it off. 

And you know what, whether Dynamic was a secret bad guy or not, she was absolutely right about one thing. 

A spa day sounded really fucking good right about now.

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Showdown 7-06 (Summus Proelium)

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That saying ‘all hell broke loose’ didn’t apply here. Not because violence didn’t erupt, but because those words in that order utterly failed to really portray just how much violence erupted and just how quickly. Hell didn’t break loose, it was a meteor that suddenly and apocalyptically slammed into the Earth. Followed by several more meteors that came slamming in behind the first because they just couldn’t stand to miss all the fun.  

Honestly, the best analogy I had for it was one time when I had needed to ask Simon something a few years back. I’d gone into his room to find him lying on his bed with his headphones on. Next to the door was his wall-to-wall sound system, so I’d just reached out and hit a button with the headphone symbol on it. Pretty dumb, I know. It turned off the headphones, and suddenly the entire room had been flooded with screaming, earsplitting metal music. It had, with the touch of a button, shifted all that music from being pumped through his headphones to being pumped through the dozen different high-end speakers he had scattered throughout all of his rooms. My ears had practically been ringing for days after that little mistake. 

That’s what this was like. Not that it had been exactly peaceful before, but when the Ninety-Niner and Oscuro troops had surrounded Pack (and her pack), Eits, That-A-Way, Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, Carousel, and me, the violence had at least paused. Mostly because we really hadn’t stood the slightest ghost of a chance in that position, against those kind of numbers. But now that Blackjack and more of La Casa had, in turn, surrounded the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, everything just sort of exploded. Violently. 

For me, ‘violence exploded’ was pretty apt, considering basically the same instant everyone started fighting, just as I dropped my phone back in the pocket that hadn’t been cut open, something hit me. It was Cuélebre’s tail. I saw it coming from the corner of my eye, just in time to activate a bit of the orange within the image I’d painted across my costume. Even then, the tail still struck me with enough force that I was lifted clear off the ground and sent hurtling through the air with a belated scream. Flailing, I failed to actually right myself properly before colliding with a dumpster near the corner of the loading dock behind the store. The orange paint meant I didn’t end up with any broken bones (or worse), but I was still dazed, slumping to the asphalt with a low groan as my vision went a little blurry for a moment. 

The fighting, of course, didn’t stop for me. Gunshots and more filled the air, even as I groggily lifted my head to stare in that direction, trying to blink the daze away. Two Ninety-Niner thugs with shotguns were hoisted off their feet, slammed into one another, and hurled away in opposite directions by a couple of Whamline’s coils. Those same coils exploded in front of Coverfire, the concussive force knocking him away from That-A-Way while he was still trying to grab her. An instant later, there was a sharp whistling sound and a narrow distortion in the air slammed into Whamline. It was Silbón, a guy from Oscuro with a dark wide-brimmed hat over a dark gray face mask that left his mouth exposed and ragged clothes. 

Silbón was joined by a couple Oscuro thugs firing guns. They were set upon by Twinkletoes and Holiday. One of the Syndicates was on the ground. Another was shot at several times, but the bullets went through his semi-translucent body. The guy who shot at him was hit by one of those electric shopping carts directed by one of Eits’ mites (going faster than I thought those carts were capable of), just before one of the La Casa troops dove into him, both thugs rolling across the ground as they each fought for leverage against the other. 

Violence. Fighting. More than I could possibly hope to follow. Double Down, Blackjack, Cardsharp, and another member of La Casa named Hardway (a guy who manipulated inertia and motion of himself or things around him) were fighting Cuélebre and Sandon. The latter wore a modernized suit of armor with a lion’s pelt over the back, its fake ‘head’ functioning as her helmet and mask. They were all fighting in a jumble of motion and violence. Everyone was. It was all blurred movements, gunshots, powers flying off, the roar of animals and screams of both anger and pain. By the time I dragged myself off the ground, half the people there were down for one reason or another. Some would be down for much longer than others, but either way, the violence was taking its toll. This was too many people with too many powers and weapons in too close of quarters. Even as I took a step that way, my eyes caught sight of Pack and That-A-Way, bumping up against each other just as a figure loomed up behind them. It was another teenager, though definitely not part of the Minority. He wore the completely cliche ‘inmate’ outfit of a black and white striped prison suit with a black burglar mask and one of those prisoner numbers written across the front of the striped shirt. I had… no idea what his powers were. But before either That-A-Way or Pack could react, his hands grabbed each of them by the shoulders and all three disappeared. The ‘prisoner’ guy as well as both girls vanished. 

No! No, no, no! Where were they?! What– then I realized that Pack’s creatures must have been linked to her or something, because all of them disappeared a second later too. Hopefully, whatever prisoner boy had been doing, he hadn’t planned on that. 

But I didn’t have time to think about it. I didn’t have time to think about anything. Suddenly, just as I saw the group vanish in front of my eyes, a guy grabbed me from behind. It was just some random Ninety-Niner thug. I smelled awful alcohol breath as he yanked me off my feet with an arm around my waist, his other hand groping down my side toward the unruined pocket as he snarled, “Okay, kid, where’s the other vials, huh?! Where are they?!” 

That was what it took. Up to that point, since the moment Cuélebre’s tail had knocked me thirty feet into the dumpster, everything had taken on a bit of a dreamlike quality. My ears had been ringing, and I’d just sort of been staring at all this fighting in a daze for the past few seconds, as if I wasn’t really there. It was like I was watching all of this on television rather than interacting with it. But this guy grabbing me, that was enough to snap me out of all that and make me remember that I was actually involved.

As the guy groped over my leg looking for my pocket, I quickly turned that part of my pants blue and activated it, sending his hand snapping up and back. At the same time, I drove my helmeted head backward into his face. The combination of both made him drop me with a yelp, and I turned while landing, sending a shot of red paint into his chest while my left glove turned red as well. Activating both yanked him toward me, just as my other hand turned purple and decked the guy. He hit the ground and didn’t move. 

Another guy was coming for me, but I painted my legs green and my feet purple, using that to leap up and over him, twisting in the air before coming down right on top of his shoulders. He collapsed under my weight, and as we both fell to the ground, I snapped my hand to the side, shooting a spray of yellow paint at a group of bad guys who were going after Wobble and Carousel. They suddenly slowed dramatically, giving those two a chance to deal with them while I rolled forward off the guy I had just dropped onto. 

Unfortunately, that put me right at the feet of the Oscuro Touched with the wide-brimmed hat. Silbón. His power involved whistling, of course. Basically, any time he was whistling, he was almost entirely immune to damage. He would absorb that damage, and could then expel it through a whistle. When he did, his whistle would take on the same traits as the damage he had absorbed. He could whistle to absorb bullets, whistle again to absorb lightning, and whistle a third time to absorb fire. After that, he could, at any point, use the kinetic force of the bullets, the electricity from the lightning, or the heat from the fire in his whistles. Using a damage type spent the charge of absorbing it, but he tended to have absorbed a lot. 

Just as I ended up basically half-sprawled in front of the man, staring up at his black mask under that wide hat, he pursed his lips. Eyes widening, I slapped my hand against his foot and put black paint there. 

No sound came. I’d muted him. He had a moment to somehow look surprised despite me only being able to see his lips before I twisted around and drove my foot up between his legs with a bit of purple-paint boost. Then he wasn’t interested in trying to whistle anymore. But I still kicked him a couple more times just to be sure. 

Scrambling back to my feet, I snapped my gaze over to the fighting. It was… uhh… wow. Chaotic. Still. A couple random thugs were coming for me, but I blue-launched myself up and back, flipping in the air to land on the edge of the metal awning over the loading bay. Activating a bit more orange meant that the bullets they shot up at me just made me stagger a bit before I managed to yank their guns away with a shot of red. Before they could react to that, I took a few steps back out of their line of sight, tossing the pistols away to either side. And then I sort of… doubled over and tried not to hyperventilate while hugging myself. The shouting and screaming coming from everywhere, being shot at, nearly being hit by Silbón, all of it just… just… it was too much. It was too fucking much. And what about Pack and That-A-Way?! Were they okay? What was going on? Where were they? What could I do? What–

Nothing. I couldn’t do anything for them, not at the moment. I just had to hope they were okay, and focus on what was going on right here, right now. I could do this. I had to do this. I couldn’t abandon them down there. I had to help get that vial back. 

That settled, I took a deep breath before running forward, using a mixture of purple and blue paint to launch myself into the air. Between the two, I was sent really high and really far. Sailing over the battlefield, I helped out the best way I could. Namely, I first used yellow paint to slow my own descent, then used all the time I had while passing over the fighting to hit bad guys with more yellow paint and good guys with a mixture of green, purple, and orange. Mostly green and orange, as I couldn’t expect them to suddenly know that they were strong. But being faster and tougher would help regardless. As would their opponents suddenly being much slower. 

It helped so much that, by the time I landed on the far side of the lot, dropping into a roll, most of the random Ninety-Niner and Oscuro Prevs were down. Between the four Syndicates, Wobble, Whamline, and the La Casa people, they dealt with their unpowered opponents neatly. Unfortunately, that didn’t solve the issue of the guys who did have powers. Especially Sandon and Cuélebre. And that situation had gotten worse, as I saw Hardway off on the far side of the field trapped inside Ringside’s bubble. The two of them were fighting sans any powers as Ringside had apparently elected to remove Hardway’s at the expense of her own, and both were really good at that. They would be busy for awhile. 

Meanwhile, the remaining three La Casa people were fighting the leadership of the two rival gangs. Blackjack’s power wasn’t exactly suited to straight up and prolonged confrontation, but he had Double Down and Cardsharp for that. And they were definitely earning their keep. 

As far as Sandon went, the Ninety-Niners’ leader had been around long enough that her powers were pretty well known. They revolved around bones. Yeah. Basically, touching a bone gave her access to all of that person’s strength and general toughness. If they were a Touched with enhanced strength, it gave her a portion of that as well. Of course, touching bones from multiple different people gave her each of their strength together. And the inside of her suit was apparently completely lined with little pieces of bone. She was one of the straight-up strongest people in the city just because whenever someone with super strength showed up, she made a point of hunting them down and taking a piece of bone from them if possible. Which was eeeuuuggh.  

So yeah, between Sandon and Cuélebre, there was a lot of strength on the bad guy’s side. Double Down’s ability to absorb any kinetic force that hit him and Cardsharp’s power to alter her own physical properties to make herself tougher helped deal with that somewhat, but they couldn’t actually hurt the bastards enough to put them down. The best they could do was let Double Down absorb enough kinetic force to send right back at the Oscuro and Ninety-Niner leaders, while Blackjack used his own power to watch for the right moment and target. I kept seeing him randomly using a pistol to shoot at Cuélebre’s tail for some reason. Then I noticed that every time the tail was struck, a bit of electricity shot off of it. Like it was fizzling. 

Was Cuélebre’s tail how he summoned lightning? And was Blackjack shooting it to disrupt his attempts to do so every time? Was that why he hadn’t just fried everyone already? 

Well, that and the fact that he didn’t know where the other vials were, beyond the one in his hand. That was probably why he wasn’t just throwing lightning around everywhere, beyond Blackjack stopping him from using calculated strikes. Hell, maybe that was why Blackjack was able to stop him, because it took more time for him to carefully aim or something. Enough time for Blackjack to hit that spot of his tail. 

Whatever the answer, I was just glad we weren’t fried. Because we already had enough problems. As I crouched there, trying to present as small a target as possible while watching for an opening in the midst of their busy fight, I saw it. The vial was still in Cuélebre’s hand while he was fighting. It was right there. 

Unfortunately, just as I prepared myself to try and take it from him with a careful application of red paint, there was another interruption. This one came in the form of a figure who appeared in the middle of their fight. He was a tall guy in a dark red hood and cloak over a white bodysuit with a collar that extended up over the lower half of his face. Longhaul. That was Longhaul. 

The second he appeared, the man used his power to send Blackjack, Double Down, and Cardsharp to the far side of the parking lot, while looking at his leader. “They found the car that took off, it’s on the far side of Campus Martius Park. Still no driver.” 

Wren. She was remote driving the thing to get it out of here. 

Sandon was already looking to Cuélebre, who smiled. He was looking right at me. He read my body language. “The vials. That’s where they are.” 

Blackjack was coming. So were the others. But Cuélebre bellowed a deafening, “Do it!” At the same time, his wings came slamming down, as he launched himself upward. 

And then a woman’s voice called, “Ladies and gentlemen!” At that, my eyes, as well as basically all of those attached to anyone on our side in the immediate area, snapped over to see a woman in a sexified version of a ringmaster’s outfit sitting there on a motorcycle. Where had she come from? It was Grandstand, Cuélebre’s second-in-command. Even as everyone looked that way, she smiled. “Follow the leader.” Then the motorcycle kicked into motion, peeling out and swerving around before tearing out of the lot. 

After her. We had to go after her. Everyone else was already rushing that way, leaping into action to catch up with the woman. But just as I went to follow, intent on using green and red paint to catch up and maybe stop her, a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back. It was Eits. He shook me violently, yelling something about Cuélebre at me. But who cared about Cuélebre when–wait. 

Grandstand’s power faded a second later as Eits shook me violently once more. I snapped out of it in time to see everyone else disappearing as they took off after her. After the distraction. 

“Cuélebre!” Eits shouted at me. “He’s getting away, what do we do?!” 

“How did you–” Then I realized it was probably the fact that his focus had been split between his own mind and all of his mites. That had saved him from Grandstand’s power. And there wasn’t time to worry about it anyway. 

“Close your eyes,” I blurted, grabbing onto Eits. He had time to yelp before I launched both of us into the air through a combination of blue paint at our feet and a red paint yank at the nearby building. We went up and over the roof, while I informed the boy currently holding on for dear life, “There’s a demon trying to catch a car, and we’ve gotta catch him first.”

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Showdown 7-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently the Minority communications worked despite the jammer. Probably because they were all within the same area the jammer was affecting or something. Either way, the Syndicate with us was able to talk with the rest of his team outside, including his other selves. They coordinated what was about to happen, doing so with what amounted to a thirty second explanation. And given that we were about to have Cuélebre and Sandon dropped on our heads, even that felt like too long. We needed to get the hell out of here right freaking now.

First, I had to go grab Ashton. Vaguely tempting as it might’ve been to leave him here, I wasn’t going to do that. Instead, I moved up to where I’d left him in the ice cream aisle. He was… uhh, yeah, definitely losing his mind. When he saw me, his wild eyes focused and he shouted something that was muffled by the currently transparent visor. 

“Let me guess,” I dryly replied, “you need to scratch your nose like a son of a bitch.” Even as I said it, my hand was pulling the remote out and I quickly hit a couple buttons on it that Wren had told me about. “There, you can move now. But before you try running away, there’s a couple things you should know. First, there’s a whole bunch of guys out there from two different gangs who would love to torture you if you can’t convince them that you don’t have what they want. Or just for fun, because you wasted their time. Not to mention the fact that one of those gangs is the one whose people you used to piss off La Casa in the first place. And second, you definitely can’t get that suit off without Wren’s help, which means that anytime I hit the recall button, you’ll come marching right back to me anyway. I’m not going to unmute you, because we really don’t have time for any more bullshit. But I’m not leaving you here either, so come on.”

There was the briefest of hesitations, before he seemed to deflate a little bit and moved to follow me. I led him to the back of the store quickly, while giving him a brief explanation of what we were going to do. If he had any input on the plan, his facial expression and body language didn’t really depict it. Not to mention the fact that after all the times that he had said he was fine with a little girl dying for his revenge, I wasn’t really interested in his strategy ideas anyway. 

The two of us reached the back storeroom, passing a bunch of heavily-laden shelves before finding the others. As soon as we came into view, Pack put a hand on Mars Bar and pointed to Ashton. “See him? He stays with you. If he tries to go anywhere else besides with you until I say otherwise, rip one of his arms off and try beating him with it.”

While the bearguana growled, Syndicate cleared his throat. “Can we avoid openly discussing criminal acts like torture for a little while? I know I said we’d catch you guys another time, but you really shouldn’t go out of your way to make me regret that. And who are you anyway?”

“He’s on vocal timeout,” I replied. “But this is Ashton Austin, the guy behind that bank robbery that you guys have all been looking for. When this is over, you can have him. So, you see? You’re not getting out of this totally empty-handed after all.”

He looked back-and-forth between us briefly before simply noting, “If we get out of it. And if we do, we’re gonna have a lot more questions for you.”

“If we do, I’ll see about answering them.” With that, I looked over to the nearby closed loading dock doors. “So, are we doing this, or what?”

Syndicate nodded. “Remember the plan. All we need to do is get everyone to That-A-Way and she’ll teleport us out of here. We don’t need to stay and fight. We don’t need to win anything. We just need to get out. And we need them to know we’re gone so they leave everyone in the store alone. We make a break for it, go through any forces we need to, and teleport away. That’s it.”

Eits gave him a thumbs up. “Yeah, trust me chief, some of us aren’t interested in fighting at all. Running away sounds pretty good.”

For a second, it looked as though Syndicate was going to say something about that, before he just shook his head and asked, “Anything else?”

I quickly spoke up. “Yeah, this.” Raising my hands, I shot some orange paint at everyone in turn, including the lizard creatures. Two at a time (one with each hand), I hit everyone with a circle of the paint. “There, as soon as I activate this, which I will once we get out there, you’ll be tougher for about ten seconds. Bulletproof tough. And here.” For good measure, I added a spot of green paint to everyone as well. “Now you’ll all be faster too. Again, just for ten seconds. You’ll be faster and tougher than they expect. Just use it to get to That-A-Way.”

“Dude,” Eits intoned in what sounded embarrassingly like awe. “Support classes kick ass.”

Flushing under the helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal, really. If we had more time, I’d do more, but we’re sort of pressed right now.”

Syndicate looked like he might say something to that, but in the end he just snorted and used his com. “We good out there? Okay. Other me going on three, the rest of us hold until he’s got their attention at the front. One, two, three.”

Even knowing it was coming, I didn’t hear anything at first. I was listening for the reaction and there was nothing. Which made sense, we wouldn’t get anything overt until he made them think he was—

Aaaand the gunfire started. Suddenly we could hear all those guns coming from outfront. It was like someone had unleashed a swarm of monsters from hell. And those monsters were really pissed off. 

“Wait,” Syndicate cautioned, holding up a hand. “Wait for it. Wait for them to really commit to it. He’s in the store. Now they’re trying to break through that security shield. They’re breaking it, and… and they’re in! They’re moving through the front! Go, go!” 

We went. Eits had control of the security system, and he instantly opened the sealed doors. As planned, he opened all of them, the big rolling doors on all of the loading docks, and the regular-sized doors as well. They all opened as one, and we booked it through the loading door furthest to the left. We weren’t going to take the time to go through one of the regular doors. This way, we could all flood out and run for it. Hopefully, that way this would be less of a shooting gallery for the guys facing us. 

The second the doors were up and we were moving, I hung back just enough to let the others get ahead of me, and activated the orange and green paint I had to put over everyone. Suddenly, we were all moving even faster than our fear and adrenaline had been managing to make us move already. Which, honestly, was saying something. 

It was safe to say that the guys out back were pretty surprised by our appearance. They had been looking around toward the sides at the sound of gunfire from the front, when we suddenly came pouring out of the now open door right in front of them. Only a few of the many who were there managed to start firing immediately. And for that, the orange paint did its job. I saw several of the others take a couple hits that did little more than sting them thanks to the paint. Mars Bar by himself, probably thanks to his size and sheer intimidation factor, was hit a good six or seven times in those first couple seconds. He barely reacted, aside from opening his mouth to give a loud, pants-wetting roar while slamming into three guys at once. They went flying like bowling pins, while a fourth guy tried to open up on the bear with a shotgun. But Mars simply snatched it out of his hand, crumbling the gun like it was made of tissue paper with one paw, before grabbing him in the other and sending the man flying a good twenty or thirty feet with a dispassionate shove that way. 

Holiday grabbed a guy’s leg and ran off with him, dragging the poor bastard along with her as he screamed. Two other guys tried to shoot at her, but Tuesday and Twinkletoes wrecked them pretty thoroughly on their way past. One was walloped in the back of the head by a nearly invisible gorilla-lizard, while the other took a small, yet really dangerous monkey-lizard fist to the privates. The former was left completely unconscious, while the latter just really wished that he was. 

The first thing I did upon emerging and taking all this in was shoot a spray of blue paint as wide as I could make it around the feet of the group in front of us. Activating it sent them flying in every direction with a collection of screams. Which worked nicely to clear the path of the guys that Mars hadn’t already trampled through. 

Ashton was just behind the bear, apparently having taken Pack’s warning to heart. Or maybe he really didn’t want to be left to deal with all the angry Ninety-Niners after he’d used them in his revenge scheme and figured being behind the giant beast was his best shot. Either way, he was sticking really close to Mars Bar. 

Two guys with guns popped up toward the right. Both were taken down by Syndicate with a quick flurry of motion that I couldn’t even follow that left them on the ground, disarmed. On the opposite side, a guy who popped up with a rifle raised was literally run over by a car that came screaming through the lot, accompanied by the familiar sound of one of Eits’ mites cackling. The car proceeded to spin around, hitting another guy with its tail end during the skid. 

Just ahead, on the far side of the small rear lot where they had been able to crouch out of sight, That-A-Way appeared with another Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, and Carousel. Not Raindrop though. Maybe she had the night off. Those five, however, were right there, and the path to them was clear for the moment, thanks in large part to the blue paint flinging the vast majority of people out of the way. Unfortunately, just as they came into view and I had a second to think this might be easy after all, there was a blinding flash of light. It faded quickly, but what didn’t fade was the new group of combined Oscuro and Ninety-Niner troops that had suddenly appeared. Long Haul. That had to be Long Haul, the Ninety-Niner Touched teleporter. He’d just dumped a bunch more problems right in front of us. 

Get to That-A-Way. Get everyone to That-A-Way. That’s all we had to do. Two guys who had recovered from their paint-assisted trip were picking themselves and their guns up and turning our way. I sprayed blue again, this time at my own feet, to launch myself up and forward. Twisting in the air just as the pair finished rising and turning, I passed by over their heads. One arm pointed down and one pointed up and back, I sprayed red paint from both. The first hit both men, while the other hit the back of the store we’d just left. Activating it sent them flying up and toward it with a couple screams, just as I landed in a crouch behind where they had been. 

Only then did the green paint run out. And we were almost there. Eits was just reaching the spot where I was, while his mite-controlled car ran down yet another guy that was coming around the corner of the building. I hit him with another bit of green to help him keep moving. “Go, go!” I blurted, hitting as many of our side as I could with orange paint to keep them safe while scanning the lot. Ashton was right there with Mars Bar. The Syndicates who were out here were fine, working together to disable a couple more guys who didn’t even know what hit them. More people were shooting, but the orange paint was doing its job. It meant we could focus on moving instead of fighting. Move instead of fight, that was the entire point.

Most of the people Long Haul had sent in after us were dealing with the Minority. There was a rush of motion and fighting I couldn’t even follow. One of the new arrivals took deliberate aim at me, but I dropped to the ground just before he fired, throwing my hand out to send a shot of white paint onto his arm. Activating it to blind the guy, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, shifting purple onto my arms as I slammed into him to take the guy to the ground. A quick smack to the face knocked him out of the fight. 

But that was just one guy. What had started as a quick run to That-A-Way was quickly devolving into total chaos. I could see the girl herself, trying to help Wobble, Whamline, and Carousel.

Another flash of white announced the arrival of more bad guys. One was directly behind me, and I spun that way just in time to duck the bat he was swinging at my head. A quick shot of yellow at his chest, accompanied by activating part of the green I’d already prepared on the portrait across my uniform meant that he was suddenly a lot slower, while I was a lot faster. And, thanks to a bit of purple that I also activated, stronger. My hand snatched the bat from his grip in mid-swing, tearing it away from him while my foot lashed out to kick his leg. It was enough to make him start to stumble, before I drove the bat into his stomach and put him fully on the ground. 

Damn it, damn it, just get to That-A-Way! This shouldn’t be that hard, right? We’d cleared the way, we had the advantage of surprise and a distraction up front. All we had to do was get everyone across the parking lot to meet up with her and she could teleport us the hell away. And it was close. Pack and her animals were all-but there, crashing right into the back of the group of newcomers with Ashton on their heels. Eits was using his borrowed car as his own bodyguard to clear a path. We were almost there. Almost there! 

Which, of course, was the moment that something dropped from above. A lithe figure with great eagle-like wings slammed down behind That-A-Way. Yahui, the Oscuro woman who mixed and matched various animal parts. Apparently she’d decided to throw herself into the fight instead of just watching. 

In addition to the eagle wings, she also had a scorpion tail, which lashed out toward That-A-Way. But it went straight through the Minority girl, who was moving south and was therefore intangible. Unfortunately, that didn’t help Wobble, who was smacked by the tail moving sideways and thrown to the ground. And given he stood six and a half feet tall, that tail had to be pretty damn strong to knock him down that easily. Yahui tried to follow up by driving the blade of the tail down into him, but Wobble snapped his hand up and I saw a distortion in the air as he sent a wave of vibrations into the tail that knocked it out of the way. That was followed by two of Whamline’s energy ropes, which wrapped around her arms, flinging her into the air before exploding with a burst of kinetic energy that flung her senseless to the ground somewhere off on the other side of the lot. She was down. 

Carousel, meanwhile, had managed to disarm basically all the guys in our path, yanking the guns from their hands as she passed close to them. She also had two cars (miniaturized by her power) floating in orbit around her, which she sent flying at them. The cars regained their full size just in time to crash into the group, scattering everyone that remained. 

Clear, we were clear! 

“Go!” I blurted, sending a wide spray of red paint at all the bad guys I could see, before activating it so they were all slammed into one another, crashing into one big heap. Long Haul? Where was Long Haul? I hadn’t seen him at all, aside from the troops he kept sending in. But whatever, he didn’t matter, we just had to get the hell out of here. That’s all, we just had to go!

“Grab on!” That-A-Way was blurting. There, we were there. Everyone was there. We’d made it. The bad guys behind us were still picking themselves up, and we… everyone… yes, everyone was here, even Pack’s creatures. We all grabbed any part of each other we could, my left hand finding Eits’, while my right was grabbed by Ashton. The latter looked at me sharply, fear and relief in his eyes. I knew the feeling. But at least we were…

Nothing happened. That-A-Way was there, we were all holding onto each other and her, but… nothing happened. She frowned. “Wait, hold on. I–” 

“Did you truly think it would be that easy?” The voice. It was familiar. It was terrifyingly familiar. Cuélebre. He came floating down out of the air on his wings, gliding in to land with disconcerting grace considering his enormous fifteen-foot size. “Did you think I wouldn’t have prepared for a teleportation escape after the way you insulted and embarrassed me last time?” He made a tutting sound, while more of the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro troops, both of the Prev and Touched varieties, appeared on all sides of our suddenly surrounded group. 

Before I could move, before any of us could move, that bladed tail lashed out. I had time to yelp, just before it cut straight through my pocket. The vial and my phone fell out. I grabbed the latter, but the vial was caught on Cuélebre’s tail and smacked right into his waiting hand.

“No, no, no,” the giant demon taunted with the vial held gingerly between two massive fingers.  “You’re not leaving this time. We have too much to talk about.” 

“Talk about?” another voice echoed, and everyone spun in place to find Blackjack, surrounded by an assortment of his own people (Touched and Prevs alike). 

“I think we’re pretty much done talking.” 

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Showdown 7-03 (Summus Proelium)

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We waited until after dark to go out with Ashton. That was just the easiest way to avoid as many issues as possible with people seeing what we were doing. Of course, we tested it on him first, getting him into the suit (against his will) and getting him to walk to various places in the room by asking him to think about the couch, or the television, or his cell, that kind of thing. He wasn’t happy, which he made very vocally clear in the course of cursing us out. Especially once it became apparent that the suit actually worked and that he couldn’t stop himself from walking to the thing we used the control box to tell him to think about. The suit wasn’t fast or anything. He kind of walked at what felt like a snail’s pace, though that was at least partly my impatience. 

In any case, it worked. After that, we just sort of hung out until well after dark, when things had settled down as much as possible. We didn’t want to wait too long (not that we were running out of time just yet, it was just very hard to sit still and be patient when we were so close), so as soon as we felt like it was late enough, we started suiting Ashton up again (we’d taken it off him while waiting so there would be less chance of him being able to damage it somehow). It took me using purple paint along with both Pack and Fred to get it on the guy without hurting either him or the suit itself too much. Tempting as it might’ve been to be rougher, we couldn’t do that.

Finally, I pushed his leg down into the thing while Fred zipped it up in the back. Once the suit part, which still looked like thick thermal underwear, was securely on him, I nodded to Wren. She pushed a button on the control box, and I heard the snapping sound as dozens of tiny needle-like wires poked through his skin to find his nerves and muscles. It sounded awful the first time I saw it, but Wren had promised that it would only feel like a series of little pinches for him. She’d even put her own arm in the suit and let it clamp down on her to show that it wasn’t that bad, and all she’d done is gasp a little when it happened. I’d tried it then, and she was right. It wasn’t super-fun or anything, but it definitely wasn’t like getting dozens of shots. You could barely feel the wires. The suit did some kind of numbing process when it poked you. So yeah, there was absolutely a series of pinches all the way through the suit, but nothing that bad. 

Not that that stopped Ashton from bellowing and cursing like we’d literally set him on fire, of course. He jerked, struggling to free himself while ranting about how we were torturing him and what kind of hero did I think I was. He also did a whole chorus about how my helping Blackjack meant I was just as much of a villain and that every person he killed or helped kill in the future would be my fault because I encouraged him by saving his daughter and yada yada yada. 

“Dude,” I reminded him once the suit was attached and linked up with him, “I told you before, you have no high ground here, none. You want to let an innocent little girl die just to hurt her dad. That is the opposite of the high ground. You’re under water, down in the Marianas trench.” 

“And what about all the people it could save?” the man all-but spat at me. “If Blackjack loses his nerve, if losing his kid makes him think about all the other people he’s hurt, what if that makes him stop being an evil piece of shit, huh? What about all the people that might survive if he stops being a villain? Isn’t that worth losing one little kid if it saves a bunch of others? What–” 

Whatever he was going to say next was cut off, as Fred of all people punched him in the face. His head rocked backward with an audible yelp, and I saw blood coming from his nose. He also had a bit of a bruise under his eye. Fred, meanwhile, was rubbing his hand and wincing. “Shit, ow,” he mumbled, walking over to the bathroom to run some water over his knuckles. 

Pack and I looked at each other before shrugging. I looked to Ashton. “You had that coming. Now shut up, before someone else loses their temper and hits you. I can’t promise it won’t be me.” Reaching down for a box of tissues on the nearby table, I used a few to wipe off his face as gingerly as possible. Yeah, he was a dick, but I knew what had driven him to be like this. Even if I didn’t agree, I could still somewhat sympathize with how losing his friend had broken him. 

Pack and I put the helmet on him, securing it in place. Again, Wren hit the button on the control box, and there was a snapping sound as the helmet linked into his brain. The bit inside the helmet was the most important part, the one we’d taken from the Seraphs. Ahem, the one we’d borrowed from the Seraphs and would absolutely be returning once this was over. Yeah. 

Fred came back, looking embarrassed by his outburst. “You about ready to take this jackass out and finish this so we can all move on?” He muttered the words, clearly about as done with this whole situation as I was. We had to get those vials and then turn Ashton in to the police for everything he’d done. I still didn’t know how Blackjack was going to handle Ashton being in police custody. After the guy endangered his daughter, could he possibly just let him sit in prison?

I had my doubts. But I would just make sure to warn the authorities that Blackjack would want to kill him. After that… well, I’d warn them, that was all I could do. 

“We’re ready,” I announced, holding out a hand for the control box. Wren passed it over, and I smiled at her for a second before remembering that she couldn’t actually see the smile. Nor could she see the subsequent blush, as I quickly spoke aloud. “Thanks. You guys gonna monitor things back here?” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly, and she held up a cell phone. “Stay in contact, Paintball. Tell us everything that’s going on.” 

“Soon as we get started,” I assured her before nodding to Pack. “Okay, let’s do this.” With that, the two of us guided Ashton up and out of the basement. He couldn’t just go on his own for a couple reasons. First, we definitely didn’t trust him with knowing where this place was. There was too big of a chance of him ending up talking to a bad guy about it. So, his helmet was also currently blinding him. That made it somewhat harder for us to expect him to be able to walk anywhere. Plus, the suit wouldn’t actually let him move very well on his own. It severely limited his range of motion so he couldn’t just run off or attack us. 

Similar to the special staydown cuffs, however, if other people were guiding him, he could move slowly. So I led him up the stairs, announcing each step on the way so he wouldn’t trip, while Pack followed behind to help with that. 

On the way up, the man kept talking. His voice, muffled by the helmet, alternated between pleading and threatening. I really don’t think he expected us to take it this far. But what else were we supposed to do? I refused to let a kid die just so he could stick it to Blackjack. If that meant strong-arming him to this extent to force him into showing us where the vials were hidden, so be it. Yeah, it made me a bit uncomfortable. But I’d take feeling uncomfortable over letting a kid die just so he could spite someone he hated. How justified that hate happened to be was irrelevant when it came to letting a child die, period. To paraphrase a certain cop show I’d seen before, having a cool motive to murder was still murder.

To give us some peace and quiet without Ashton bitching the whole time (and also to make sure he didn’t try to play any games with alerting passersby or claiming we were abducting him, Wren had included a mute function in the helmet. It wouldn’t let any sound escape. I enabled that, silencing the man before we reached the parking lot. 

Once there, Pack and I looked around, making sure the lot was still empty before I murmured, “I guess keeping where Wren’s place is secret from you kind of went down the tubes awhile ago. But still, I hope–” 

“I’m not going to go blabbing about it,” she informed me flatly. “I like the kid too, Paintball. Blackjack isn’t in the habit of forcing anyone, let alone kids and even further Tech-Touched, to work for him. It’s a seriously bad idea on several levels. But even if he was, like I said, I like the kid. She’s safe, okay?” 

“Okay.” I felt like I could trust Pack by that point. Especially when it came to something like that. She might’ve been okay with stealing from people, but hurting kids was totally beyond her level of villain. And, for that matter, I thought she was probably right about Blackjack. 

Letting it go at that, I asked, “Got your friends?” 

“In the car.” She nodded toward the nearby red sedan that Wren had apparently fixed up for her to use. The lizards were in there, apparently. I saw the one I recognized as Riddles the bearded dragon sitting up on the dash, staring at me through the window. I waved, before the other girl and I guided Ashton that way. It took a few seconds to get him situated in the back seat, then I took the front passenger side (Riddles dropped down into my lap and I scratched her head), while Pack took the driver’s side. A moment later, we were pulling away. 

The spot we drove to wasn’t too far away, but we did drive for a longer time than we needed to. In order to throw off any chance of Ashton being able to figure out where Wren’s place was, Pack took a few random turns, drove in circles a bit, doubled back, went through a few parking lots, stopped in the middle of an open street (when no one was behind us) as if waiting for a stop sign or traffic light that didn’t exist, and so on. When we finally stopped, it was technically only a few blocks from where we’d started, but we took about ten minutes or so to get there. 

Pulling Ashton out of the car, I disabled the blinding effect and let his visor turn clear once more. His eyes were wide as they darted around, taking in his new location. We were in the parking lot of a self-serve car wash. Actually, at the moment we were actually in the car wash. It was a good way of being out of sight for the moment. 

Pack and I put a long coat on him to cover up the suit. Then I nodded to her. “Right, I’ll keep you updated,” I promised, looking over at our guide for the evening. “Let’s do it.” 

She got back in the car, already calling Wren. A moment later, my own phone buzzed, and I accepted the conference call. I already had the phone linked to the mic I was using to alter my voice, so that was all set. “Wren, you good back there?” 

“Trevithick,” she informed me. Before I could ask what the hell that meant, the girl amended, “My name. You should call me Trevithick. If everyone else gets a cool codename, I do too.” 

Blinking at that, I looked over to Pack, who shrugged at me. “Err, sure. Does the word mean something, or…” 

There was a giggle from the other end of the line, before she explained, “Trevithick was the name of the guy who created the steam locomotive. He basically invented the train. Plus, it’s a funny name. And he was really cool. He said that people called him insane and that he deserved to hang for what he created, but that even if that was the only reward he ever got from the public, he’d still be satisfied by the pleasure and pride he felt just from knowing that his invention would push everything forward so much. He said no matter how poor he might end up being, no one could take away the honor he felt at being useful.” 

“Wow.” I blinked again, that time from being impressed rather than confused. “Okay then, Trevithick it is. You ready back there?” 

“All good,” she assured us. “Right, Fred? He nodded. He has chicken in his mouth, so he can’t talk. I don’t think I was supposed to say that. Oh, right, just, uhh, keep telling us what’s going on.” 

Snickering despite myself, I nodded to Pack, then looked to Ashton. “Right, dude, here we go. See, walking all over town with you would take too long. So we’re going to shortcut this whole thing.” To that end, I first told him exactly where we were, the address and a description of the area just in case he wasn’t that great with directions. Once he knew the location, I took the control box, hitting the button. “Now, think of where the nearest vial is.”

He was clearly struggling not to. But it was no use. Wren did good work, and he immediately turned to start walking out of the car wash. I gave Pack a thumbs up, heading after the guy while she got back in the car. “Okay,” I announced for both her and Wren over the phone, “he’s heading… south on Rosa Parks. Making the jump.” 

Using the control box, I told Ashton to stop. Then I put one arm around him, gave myself a bit of extra strength with purple paint, and used my other hand to shoot a spray of red paint off toward the roof of a building across the street. With a grunt, I let it yank both of us up that way. Once we were in almost there, I cancelled the paint before shooting another bit toward a metal bit that stuck up further onto the roof and let that yank us the rest of the way.

After landing, I did the same thing across the next couple rooftops, going about six blocks that way while keeping the others updated. Once I saw a decent, mostly empty parking lot behind an old apartment building, I brought us down. Then I used the control box and told Ashton exactly where we were before repeating the order to think about the same vial he’d been focused on before. 

Again, he began walking immediately. And again, he clearly wasn’t happy about it. But I was done pleading with him to do the right thing. So, we were doing it this way. 

I kept doing that, narrowing down just where this first vial was by going several blocks at a time, setting him down, and seeing where he started walking next. At one point, we overshot, because he started walking back the way we’d come from. Which narrowed it down even more. It was like playing hot and cold, sort of. 

Eventually, we ended up in front of an old coin operated twenty-four hour laundromat. There was no one inside, so Pack pulled in and we had Ashton lead us right in. He went to one of the machines before I stopped him. Then Pack and I searched around the thing for a couple minutes until she found the vial duct taped to the back of it, up underneath a bit. 

“Another one down,” she announced, holding it up with what sounded like a grin behind her featureless black mask. “Blackjack has two, this makes three. We’re halfway there.” 

“And we’re getting the rest tonight,” I murmured with a glance toward Ashton. “See, we can do this just like we got that one. Or you can make the whole thing easier by just telling us where the rest are. Then we can be done with this. You hurt Blackjack, man. You scared him. Give it up now.” 

I unmuted him, and he stared at me for a few long seconds. His mouth stayed closed, but his lips kept moving, like he was working himself up to reply. But in the end, after waiting through it, all he said was, “Fuck you.” 

“He said no, didn’t he?” Wren’s voice asked through the phone. 

Sighing, I nodded. “Yeah, he said no. So, we keep going.” 

And we did. For the next couple hours, I took Ashton all around the freaking city just to get two more. He’d hidden the vials as far as he could while staying within Detroit, it seemed. They were all in out-of-the-way spots that he could easily get to at any time of day. 

Finally, we only had to get the last one. Pack had one of the vials in the car jockey box and the other in her hand, toying with it curiously, as we stopped in front of what was apparently the last place. It was a supermarket, one open twenty-four hours. Apparently the last vial was in there somewhere. Pack and I looked at each other while standing at the back of the lot next to the car. “We could wait until no one’s there,” I pointed out. “It’s not that busy now. We hold off for like an hour, it’ll be empty except a few employees. Then me and our buddy here can go in and grab it.” 

She started to nod, then looked past me and cursed. “Motherfucker. Isn’t that–shit!” 

“What?” I blurted, confused. “What–” Reflexively, I whipped that way, just in time to see movement in the sky across the street. A figure there was flying away out of sight, carried on enormous wings. “The hell was–” 

“Yahui,” Pack replied shortly, already shoving the vial she had into her pocket before yanking out a different phone from the one we were using to keep in contact with Wren. “It was Yahui. She was watching us. Probably been following us for awhile.” 

Yahui. That was one of Cuélebre’s people, one of Oscuro. She had the ability to manifest basically any animal part on herself at any point, mixing and matching as much as she wanted to and gaining the abilities related to those particular animal parts. If she was following us, she could have seen or heard anything depending on what animal eyes and ears she was manifesting at the time. This was bad. This was really bad. 

“Go!” Pack gave me a shove. “I’m calling in reinforcements. Go get the vial.” 

“I’m coming!” Wren called through the phone. 

“No!” Quickly, I shook my head, using the control box to order Ashton to go to the vial before addressing Wren again. “Stay there, we’ll get this and get out of here. Just wait. We’re almost done.” 

Rather than let Ashton stall by walking, I grabbed him and painted us right up to the store. A guy coming out stopped and stared, while I shoved Ashton through. “Sorry, sir,” I blurted, “but I really suggest you get out of here, fast!” That was called over my shoulder while I dragged Ashton through the front of the store, pausing just long enough to see where he started moving before dragging him again. 

We attracted attention. Because of course we did. But I managed to get to the ice cream aisle, finding the vial itself hidden way in the back, taped up under the top shelf. Yanking it out, I felt a surge of triumph. 

Then I heard Pack through the phone. “Problems,” she informed me. “More problems. A bunch of Oscuro vans just pulled up. I barely got out of sight. I’m working on getting my pals in fighting shape.” 

“How long til your other friends get here?” I asked. 

“That’s another part of the problems,” came the terse response. “Double Down says one of our main safe houses just got attacked by other Oscuro troops, right out of the blue. Oscuro troops and Ninety-Niners, working together. And… yeah, some Ninety-Niners just showed up outside here. They’re talking in the lot. Definitely working together. And… shit. There’s people in the back too. They’ve got you cut off and pinned in there. And–” 

“And your people are busy,” I finished, thinking fast. “Hold on. I’ll call back, just wait.” Disconnecting, I quickly fumbled through my coveralls until I found the card That-A-Way had given me, frantically dialing the number on it. 

“It’s That-A-Way,” the by-now familiar voice greeted me a couple rings later. “I always love saying th–” 

“This is Paintball,” I quickly interrupted. “Our old trucy ally and me, we’re at the Huey’s on Park West. Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners are about to come in guns blazing to get the stuff Blackjack’s been tearing apart the city looking for. So, you know, I don’t know if you’re busy or anything, but a little help would be great.

“And, uhhh, you probably better hurry.” 

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