Wobble

Interlude 12B – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Easy Eights are getting ready for war.”

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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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Interlude 2B – That-A-Way (Summus Proelium)

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“Paint powers, seriously?”

The somewhat dubious question came from Laki Sefo, the tall boy that most in the city knew better as Wobble. Though they wouldn’t have recognized him as he was now, lounging in a recliner in the Minority’s headquarters without his iconic emerald battle armor. They might recognize him as the boy who had led his public high school basketball team to become state champions as a junior the year before. He’d quit the team this year, earning as much enmity from the people who had cheered him on through three previous years as they had given him praise before. His fans were decidedly not happy about Laki’s decision to stop playing.

But it wasn’t as though he could tell them that he didn’t have time to play basketball with all the superheroing he was doing. Even if Amber would have liked to see the looks on their faces.

As for the dark-haired girl herself, she was sprawled over the couch on her stomach, with her chin resting on one end and her feet propped up at the other. Her eyes were fixed on the television several feet away that was facing the end of the couch rather than the front of it. A game controller was held tightly in her hands, while she focused on the screen. “Uh huh,” she replied to Laki, squinting a little in concentration, tongue poking its way out of her mouth briefly.

Amber and Laki were the only two current occupants of the Minority base as it was their night to be on duty. At the moment, being ‘on duty’ wasn’t so bad, since they were spending it in the lounge part of the base. The lounge amounted to a large room filled with several couches and chairs surrounded by televisions and game systems, with a pool table on one end and a foosball table at the other. A couple well-stocked refrigerators and a microwave were along one wall. They may constantly put their lives on the line, but at least they had entertainment and snacks.

Besides, it may have been only the two of them officially on duty, but if anything important happened, the others would be called in.

Anything, that was, beyond Amber’s seventh straight attempt at a particularly difficult fight in her game. Her fingers moved quickly over the controls, as she struggled to pull it out that time. “Come on… come on…” The music abruptly turned dour, and she cursed. “Oh, fuck you! Really? What kind of cheating bullshit is that?!” Muttering a few choice words under her breath, she looked over to the boy, who was waiting patiently with one eyebrow raised.

“Maybe,” Laki offered, “you need some more advice from Izzy?” He was referring, of course, to Isabel Amor/Raindrop, the youngest member of their team.

“I do not need advice from Izzy,” Amber retorted while pushing herself up from the couch. “I can totally beat that guy. I just need to clear my head first.”

“And you don’t want to admit that a twelve-year-old is better than you at a game,” Laki lightly teased while remaining in his relaxed position, one leg up over the arm of the chair.

Amber squinted at him, but ended up dutifully echoing, “And I don’t want to admit that a twelve-year-old is better than me at a game.” She stuck her tongue out at him then while tossing the controller back onto the couch, her expression quickly changing to one of eagerness. “But yeah, dude! Apparently he calls himself Paintball. Which is cool. We couldn’t really see much with that helmet and all, but I’m pretty sure he’s like… fourteen? Probably a freshman. Hey, maybe he goes to your school. You should keep an eye out for people that changed a lot, or keep skipping, or… you know, whatever. Just keep an eye out.”

Shrugging, Laki straightened in his seat finally. “Why? If he doesn’t want to join, he doesn’t want to join. We can’t force him. That’d be a bad idea anyway.”

“I know that,” Amber informed him. “I’m not saying force him to do anything. I’m not even saying go out of our way to figure out who he is. I’m just saying keep your eyes open. You know, cuz new Touched tend to not exactly be great at hiding their identities. And this kid really pissed off Janus. So he’s probably gonna piss off other people too. And if he’s not good at hiding, he might just get in more trouble than he can handle. We keep our eyes open and if we figure out who it is, we can help him if he gets in trouble. Right?”

“Right,” Laki confirmed, giving her a thumbs up. “That’s a lot of ifs, but sure.” Pausing briefly, he added, “You already went through everything in the debriefing, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah, this afternoon. Had to sit down with ‘Smith, Brumal, and Caishen and give them all the details we could remember.” Smith was the Conservator leader Silversmith, while Brumal and Caishen were the leaders of the state-level team of Spartans and the corporate-sponsored team of Ten Towers, respectively. All three adult teams took responsibility for training and preparing the Minority teens in exchange for having first dibs of recruiting them later, once they were eighteen. Laki had once joked that he couldn’t play basketball because he was already going to go through one draft once he graduated high school, and he didn’t want to do that twice.

“What’d they say about this new guy?” Laki asked while moving to the other side of the lounge area, opening the fridge there to root around inside.

“We said,” Silversmith (fully dressed in his metal armor and helmet, as always) abruptly announced while stepping into the room from one of the doors, “that everyone should keep an eye out for him. If he’s this new to everything, he’s bound to piss off the wrong people. Which would be bad. So if you see him, try to convince him to at least come in and talk to us. Even if he doesn’t want to join, we can offer a lot of advice for rookies.”

Both teens quickly turned to face the man, Laki offering something resembling a salute. “Evening, sir. Is something going on?”

“Actually, yeah,” Silversmith confirmed. “We’ve got Adrian Perez and his siblings in a safehouse. Kriegspiel and a couple of the Spartans are keeping an eye on them. Flea and RePete are trying to track down where this Josh guy went from the bus station Perez dropped him off at. And Bokor’s got some of his zombies looking through the guy’s home since we cleared the gangs off it earlier. Dynamic’s still patrolling the street, but even with the other teams out there–”

“Things are getting nasty, aren’t they?” Amber quickly put in. “From the bounty.”

Silversmith nodded. “Yes. Whatever this thing is that got stolen, it’s got everyone going nuts. Especially La Casa. They want it back, bad. And they’re tearing up the streets to get it. Everyone’s tense out there. We’ve already dealt with half a dozen brawls just in the past couple days. And it’s getting worse. Frankly, I hate to involve any of you with this…”

“Anything we can do, sir,” Laki quickly assured the man. “You know that.”  

Offering the taller boy a clearly grateful nod, Silversmith looked to Amber. “Any time you need to leave, you just speak up. And we don’t want you working past eleven. It’s still a school day tomorrow. That said, thank you for the help. We’re going to call the others in. Except for Raindrop. She’s still young enough, I don’t… want her involved right now. Unless things get really desperate.” He sighed at the thought before pressing on. “Anyway, we’ll get the others to meet you both. We’ve got an area we need you to patrol. It shouldn’t be too bad, but things are tense and it’s a good idea to have some visible Touched presence out there. Hopefully that’ll be enough to calm things down. If not, try to control them as much as possible and call in backup.”

The two teens agreed before splitting up to head for their respective locker rooms in order to change into their costumes. Amber found her own labeled locker, barely sparing a glance for the picture of Gluegirl she had taped up there. She’d always had the hots for that chick. Not only was Gluegirl really hot, she was also constantly mocking and taunting her enemies. She treated the whole superhero thing like a game, refusing to grant the villains the respect they wanted by taking it seriously. It also helped that her dark blue and white costume looked like it was painted on. Which, considering it seemed to be made of the same adhesive stuff that she used with the rest of her powers, was probably pretty much the truth.

Actually, she seemed to have a decent amount in common with this new guy, though they were from totally opposite sides of the country. Gluegirl had started out with the Minority in Florida before eventually being taken in by the New York Conservators a couple years earlier. Either way, the powers were vaguely similar enough (Gluegirl created and manipulated purely different types and colors of adhesive rather than paints that provided different effects, but still) that Amber briefly wondered in that glance at the poster if there was any connection.

Probably not. After all, there were a lot of people with strength-based powers and nobody thought all of them were related. It wasn’t like this guy was her brother or anything. Even if getting to meet Gluegirl through her brother if he was would pretty much be the coolest thing ever, and– Focus, Amber.

Hurriedly changing into her purple costume before grabbing the mask that would change her hair from black to blonde when she put it on, as well as adjusting her facial features slightly, the girl headed back out to the lounge. Laki was already there, in his armor, helmet in hand. He and Silversmith were talking quietly.

“Hey, guys,” she quickly spoke up, drawing their attention. “Did I miss anything?”

“Nope.” Shaking his head, Silversmith gestured to the door. “The lift’s prepped to take you to the patrol area. Syndicate, Carousel, and Whamline should meet you there as soon as they get checked in. Remember what I said, just be a visible presence so people know you’re around. Anything happens, call it in and then try to defuse it. If it gets bad, withdraw and wait for reinforcements. No unnecessary risks, okay?”

Saluting along with Laki (though hers was slightly more sarcastic), Amber headed for the hall, and from there to the transport lift that could instantly take them to various prepared spots around the city. On the way, she affixed the mask to her face, grimacing through the shifting of her nose and cheeks. It didn’t exactly hurt so much as it… mostly tingled. But it still felt funny either way. She’d never get used to it.

“So,” she started once the two of them were in the lift and waiting for the room to shift, “you think we’ll run into trouble out there?”

“Hope not,” Laki replied easily while putting his helmet on and fastening it into place. “I could do with a quiet night. Especially if it’s such a powderkeg. Any chance people might’ve gotten it out of their systems?” He barely paused before adding, “Yeah, I didn’t think so either.”

The doors opened once more, revealing an alleyway behind a local fast food diner. Stepping out of the unmarked building that would look, to any outside observer, like a random shed, the two glanced around for a moment to get their bearings.

“Right,” Amber (That-A-Way, she reminded herself. She had to think of herself as That-A-Way in costume) started, “Let’s just step out here and take a look around until the others show up. I mean, Smith did say to be a visible presence.”

The two costumed teens took a short walk to the nearby sidewalk, keeping the transport shed in view so the others would know where they were. There, they looked around. The street was still busy enough, even though it was almost nine o’clock at night, that they had a couple dozen people looking at them. A few waved, but no one approached. Civilians had long-since been conditioned not to immediately mob costumed Touched on patrol. It was too easy to end up in the line of fire, or be mistaken for a threat.

Not that being approached sometimes would be all bad, That-A-Way thought to herself while her eyes followed a couple of very attractive women who were walking past in clubbing clothes. She could totally enjoy a conversation with–

The women stepped out of the way, and That-A-Way found herself looking at the car idling at the nearby traffic light. A dark green Ford sedan. The same kind of car that had hit and killed her father.

It wasn’t the same car. She knew that. That car was long gone, the owner having it dismantled for parts because he couldn’t stand to keep it around after what it had been part of.

Greg Fardspar. That was the name of the man who owned the car that had killed her father. Amber knew that, because she had tracked the man down back when it happened. Grieving and lost after her father’s death, she had thrown herself into, as she called it, doing the cop’s jobs for them. She had interviewed people who had either seen the accident or lived and worked in the area (some would have called it stalking, threatening, and interrogating), had taken pictures, had run down leads. She worked for weeks, ignoring basically everything else to the point of breaking up with her girlfriend at the time.  

Then she had found him. She found the car in question in his driveway. It even had the damage to the front end. It had been all the girl could do not to… not to take matters into her own hands even more than she already had.

Justice. Her father would finally have justice. She’d called the police. They took her seriously eventually, and came to check out the house and the damage to the car there in the driveway. Then they had gone in to first interview, then arrest Greg Fardspar.

But then they released him. Because Greg wasn’t involved. His car had been stolen that night, and it was that person, whoever they were, who had caused the damage. Greg had an airtight alibi, plus a police report about the theft. The cops had even brought his car back a couple days later when it was found in an old parking lot.

She’d had nothing. Everything she had done to get justice for her father had meant nothing. There was no way of knowing who stole Fardspar’s car and took it for a joyride. A joyride in which they had killed a man, then driven off. They would get away with it. They would get away with it.

It was while she had been dealing (or not dealing) with that realization that Amber’s Touched-sphere had shown up. Then that she had heard the words ‘Summus Proelium’, and had gained her powers. And now… well, now she was still grieving for her father, even over a year later. But she was getting there. Except for times like this, when she was unexpectedly reminded in a way that struck her like a physical blow.

“Way?” Wobble’s voice finally penetrated the thick cloud that had surrounded her mind as she stared at the car, and she realized that he’d been trying to get her attention for a minute.

Her head quickly shook, just as the light changed at the sedan pulled away. “I–sorry, what?”  

Wobble was looking at her, and though she couldn’t see his face, she could tell he was concerned. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” she insisted, flushing a little bit from embarrassment. “Sorry, I just… zoned out.” Leaving it at that, she looked around. “Did I miss anything?”

There was a brief pause before Wobble replied, “No, no. I just wanted to make sure you were all right. You looked really freaked out there for a second.”

Swallowing, That-A-Way forced herself to smile. “Trust me, I’m cool. Or I’ll be cool, anyway.” Admitting that much, she offered her fist to the boy. “All good.”

“All good,” Wobble echoed, touching his fist to hers. The two of them continued to look up and down the street, watching for anything suspicious. There were a few things that stood out (it was a Detroit street at night, after all), but nothing that demanded immediate attention.

They were only waiting for about five minutes before the shed opened up again, letting their three teammates out. Well, six counting the three ghostly duplicates that accompanied their leader.

“Hey guys,” Syndicate greeted as he, Carousel, and Whamline approached. “Looks like you didn’t start the party without us.”

“Technically, they did,” Whamline pointed out with a snicker in his voice. “You know, cuz a party is a group of people, and since they were already-ow.” He stopped, rubbing his leg where one of the ghostly Syndicates had briefly become the solid one just long enough to kick him.

“Ahem,” the first Syndicate, returning to his solid form once more, continued, “things look pretty calm so far.”

“Calm things may appear,” Carousel chimed in, “but very tense, I fear. Everyone around here is very upset. Many would grab that bounty in a net.”

That-A-Way nodded. “She’s right. Things are calm enough right now, but there’s a whole lot of gasoline on this pile of wood. If something sets it off…”

“So let’s see what we can do about making sure no one throws any matches,” Syndicate announced. “You know what Silversmith said, be a visible deterrent. How about we split up. Two groups. Two of me will go with That-A-Way and Wobble since you guys were supposed to be on patrol to start, and the other two can go with Carousel and Whamline. We’ll take a long walk in opposite directions and then circle in to meet a few blocks over. Then go from there.”

They agreed, before heading out. As she walked with the two insubstantial versions of Syndicate and Wobble, That-A-Way thought one more time about the paint-based Touched they’d met earlier. It sure would be nice if he ended up joining the team after all.

Though it would’ve been even better if he’d been a girl instead of another guy.

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Interlude 1 – The Minority (Summus Proelium)

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“Would someone here mind telling me who would be stupid enough to try robbing a bank that belongs to La Casa?”

The man asking the question was Lieutenant Harold Dabber, of the Detroit police department. He was a short, somewhat heavyset man with a gray walrus mustache, long stringy hair, and the face of someone who had been in a lot of fist fights. He looked more like a bum off the street than a thirty-year veteran of the police force, particularly with his beat-up brown raincoat and checkered shirt. The people he was addressing were the roughly thirty-odd officers who were helping to secure the main entrance of the bank in question.

The bank, named Prime International Enterprise, didn’t advertise that it was owned by what amounted to a Touched version of the mafia, of course. But it was understood. Blackjack, the leader of La Casa, controlled several banks in the city, even if the authorities lacked the ability to prove that fact. It was an open secret.

The point was that trying to rob the place was tantamount to suicide. And yet, that was apparently what had just happened. There was a group that had gone into the bank to actually steal from La Casa. Which had led to the bank’s own security, backed up by at least one of the La Casa Fell-Touched, attempting to deal with the situation on their own, to send a message. The first group had fought back just effectively enough to gain a foothold on one side of the bank’s massive lobby. Now there were hostages on both sides, caught between the rival gangs.

One of the uniformed officers responded, ”Witnesses said it looked like a few of the Ninety-Niners, sir. No sign of any Touched on their side. Just rank and file troops. Might be new guys trying to make a name for themselves and move up.”

Dabber grunted, muttering a curse. “They’re gonna make a grave for themselves. Which I might not even complain about too much if they’re that fucking stupid, except that they’re going to drag a lot more people into those graves with them.”

“Don’t worry Lieutenant,” a new voice announced, “we won’t let that happen.”

Turning, the man saw exactly who he knew it would be. Standing before him and the other cops was a group of teenagers. Touched teenagers, in full costume.

They were called The Minority, the official team throughout the country for Star-Touched who were under eighteen. Teens who were training to be heroes. Some would be taken on by the Conservators, while others would be picked up by groups like Ten Towers or the Spartans. Once they were old enough, each group who was interested would extend an offer of membership and benefits.

The boy who was talking was called Syndicate. He was their current leader, who had held that position for under six months at this point. Syndicate was a tall black boy, fairly thin in a wiry way. The lower three quarters of his face, aside from his temple and hair, was covered by a hard shell red mask of some kind. It look like a full head-covering helmet that the top had been cut off of. His black hair stuck up through the opening in random spikes. Most of the base of his costume was red as well, with gold accents and armor pieces. It seemed to tread a middle ground between protection and sleekness.

To his left was a muscular boy in what looked like an army camo suit save for the fact that it was black and brown, with a ski mask and heavy gauntlets, and a much smaller girl who looked as though she was barely twelve, wearing a dark blue bodysuit with silver armor panels and a white cloak, the hood up over her head. Her identity was concealed by a mirrored faceplate that reflected her surroundings.

Whamline and Raindrop, respectively.

The other three members of the teenaged team were to Syndicate’s right. There was a Caucasian girl in a dark purple bodysuit with white arrows drawn randomly all over it that pointed in every direction, and a domino mask, her blonde hair fashioned into a ponytail. There was also another girl whose ethnicity was impossible to determine, as she wore a jester’s mask and full robes and hood that completely covered her. All were made in a gold, silver, and purple color scheme. And there was another boy, this one the tallest of all. Actually, he was even taller than any of the police officers, standing at over six and a half feet. His suit made him look like a medieval knight, though the armor and helmet were emerald green.

The two girls were That-A-Way and Carousel, and the armored boy was called Wobble.

Syndicate, Whamline, Raindrop, That-A-Way, Carousel, and Wobble. The Detroit team of the Minority.

“No offense, kid,” Dabber replied after taking in the side of the group. “But I was kind of hoping we’d get one of the varsity teams out here for this.”

There had been a time, not so very long ago, when he would have objected to teenagers having any involvement in this whatsoever. This was a hostile situation. Any time before the previous decade or so, he would have raised holy hell. He had done so, in fact. But in these recent years, he had seen teenagers with powers be thrown into far more dangerous situations than this one. And he had also seen what happened when those teenagers weren’t properly experienced. This may have been something that would have been utterly unthinkable more than twenty years earlier. But things had changed in those past couple of decades. The threats in the world required solutions that he didn’t have. People with powers had to be stopped by people with powers. Especially when an Abyssal got going. And the only way they were going to get the training they needed to face those threats was by facing smaller ones. Real field experience, like this situation.

Still, as he’d said, he really would have preferred having one of the adult groups here, with the teens running cleanup.

Syndicate shook his head. “Sorry, there’s a brawl going on uptown between Oscuro and Braintrust. It’s all hands on deck right now. They’re going to be busy for a while. But don’t worry, we can get the hostages out of there and calm this whole thing down.”

Beside him, Carousel gave a quick nod that sent the bells on her jester’s mask ringing. “That’s a fact. We’ll make it a pact, to set things right, and call it a night.”

Yeah, Dabber had no idea why the girl made everything rhyme all the time. It was just kind of her schtick, along with the whole jokester motif.  

After a brief back-and-forth to establish the situation, the team of teens focused on the occupied bank. Syndicate turned to the side, where three blue-gray ghostly and transparent duplicates of himself stood. Two of those ghost-copies ran off to either corner of the building. Then the main boy looked to the youngest member of their team. “Raindrop, there’s a skylight in the roof. If the rest of us play distraction, can you get the hostages up and out that way?”

There was a brief hesitation, as the little girl seemed afraid to answer. Finally, however, her head bobbed up-and-down in a quick nod as she set herself. “Uh huh. I um, I’ll do it.” She sounded nervous, but determined.

With that, Raindrop pointed above her head, creating a small cloud that poured water over top of herself. Once she had been soaked down (her cloak acting like a raincoat), the girl quickly floated up off the ground, heading for the roof. She was more than simply a powerful hydrokinetic. The kid could also manipulate how gravity affected anything that was wet.

Syndicate pointed then. “That-A-Way, Wobble,  take the far left window there, where that me is. That should put you right by the loan offices where the Ninety-Niners are holed up. Carousel, Whamline, you guys are with the me on that other side, where the La Casa and security guys are based. As soon as I go in the front door and draw attention of everyone in there, the groups on both sides go in and hit them from behind. While they’re distracted, Raindrop pulls the hostages out through the ceiling. Any questions? You got that, Drop?” For the last bit, the boy’s head turned a bit as though he was listening to something in his ear before nodding and satisfaction. “Good, let’s do it then.” He looked to Dabber. “Sir, if you’d like to send your men over and have them wait at either side, as soon as the hostages are clear, they can head in and mop things up. We’d sure appreciate it.”

Dabber agreed, sending several officers with both groups, along with orders to wait until the hostages were out of danger before moving in. Then he took his own pistol from its holster and looked to the leader of the Minority. “I’m going in with you.”

Syndicate nodded, before he, his remaining ghost-duplicate, and Dabber himself headed carefully up toward the front entrance. There was a man there with a rifle. He wore the uniform of bank security and gave them a hard glare, shaking his head to warn them off. This was a situation that the bank wanted to deal with themselves.

The main Syndicate stopped right alongside Dabber. But his ghost kept moving, walking straight through the locked door. As the man reacted to that, the Syndicate on the inside suddenly turned solid, while the one standing beside Dabber became insubstantial. That was the boy’s power. He existed in four places at once, four separate bodies. But only one of those bodies could be solid at a time, while the remaining three were basically ghosts. They switched which of them was solid at any point.

The newly solid Syndicate took the man by the door down in short order before unlocking the door to let his other self and Dabber inside.

As soon as they were through, a voice called out from behind one of the desks. “Lieutenant, Touched kid, you’re gonna want to leave. This doesn’t concern you. It’s an internal matter, and the bank won’t be pressing charges.”

Dabber looked that way, catching sight of a man in a dark chauffeur’s uniform and a white facemask. Spades, one of the La Casa Touched. His power made him quicker, faster, and stronger than any normal person. It also gave him a nearly unmatched reaction speed, and the ability to heal quickly.

“Sorry,” Dabber called back. “I’m gonna need you and everyone else in here to stand down. And while we’re at it, why don’t you stick around and answer a few questions about some other problems you’ve been involved with?”

His answer came in the form of a gunshot from the direction of the loan offices, where the Ninety-Niner thugs were holed up. The shot was either fired by someone who had no intention of hitting him, or an intentional warning. Either way, it hit one of the nearby pillars, before a voice from that direction shouted, “You heard him, get the fuck out, pig! This ain’t your business!”

Syndicate’s two nearby selves looked to one another before the one who was solid spoke up loudly. “Okay, guys. If you’re not going to surrender quietly, we’ll just have to now.”

Though the boy seemed to interrupt himself with that single last word while not changing his tone at all, it was clearly a signal. Because a lot started happening all at once. The solid boy grabbed Dabber by the arm and yanked him to the floor, while several more gunshots rang out from both sides.

At the same time, That-A-Way and Wobble appeared by the offices, the former teleporting the two of them right into the middle of the group that had set up there. The men spun to fire, but achieved little. Wobble sent a wave of vibrations through the air that knocked several of them into the ground, while others were simply left dazed and nauseous from the effect. A couple more shot at That-A-Way, but the girl had switched from moving north to moving east, which meant that her power had changed from teleportation to being invulnerable and unstoppable, allowing her to simply run straight at the men without being affected, crashing into them and knocking them to the ground.

One of the other thugs managed to roll over and aim his gun at the girl’s teammate. But he was now to the west of her, which allowed That-A-Way to use her superspeed to reach the man, taking the gun out of his hand before he could fire. He swung at her wildly. Unfortunately for him, his new position made it so that he was to the south of her. Which meant that taking a simple step toward him made the girl intangible so that his fist went through her.

It was weird. Dabber had no idea why someone’s powers would be dependent on the compass direction they were moving. But that was how hers apparently worked. She had superspeed, teleportation, invulnerability, or intangibility based entirely around whether she was moving west, north, east, or south, respectively.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Whamline had smashed a hole through the wall using his own power, which allowed him to create and mentally manipulate energy rope/tentacle things that were incredibly strong and could explode in a burst of kinetic force.

Several of the boy’s floating energy ropes quickly moved to wrap around Spades, trying to catch the quick man, who was having none of it, somehow managing to dart between all of them before one exploded close enough to knock him down.

At the same time, Carousel was focusing on the rest of the men there. A couple tried to shoot at her. But their bullets were caught by her power, which pulled them in to spin in orbit around her. And it was more than just the bullets. The nearby chair and desk, a picture, a few chunks of random debris, and a fire extinguisher were all yanked into orbit around the girl. What’s more, every object that was pulled in by her power immediately shrank down to about the size of a matchbook. Shrank, that was, until the girl sent the object flying away from her. Then, it regained its full size the instant that it left her orbit. Such as the desk that she sent flying into three of the men.

While all that was going on and the teen Touched were dealing with the bad guys from each side, Dabber looked toward the center of the lobby, where a dozen bank employees and customers were huddled. They were all looking up as water fell on them. Water from a cloud that had appeared near the ceiling. Raindrop was up there, her small figure barely visible floating near the now open skylight. As soon as all of the hostages were thoroughly soaked, they suddenly floated up off the floor, some yelping. But there was nothing that either gang  could do about it even if they had noticed, busy as they were with the other Minority members.

The instant that the hostages were being floated up through the open skylight, Dabber hit his radio and sent the order for the rest of the troops to come in. There were no more civilians in the way, so it was time to end this.

*******

“Dude, how cool were we? No, seriously, how fucking cool was all that? We went in there all, ‘bam, we gonna rock you!’ And they were like ‘what’, and we were like, ‘yeah, what do you think of this?’” That-A-Way bounced ahead of the rest of the group of teen Touched as the six of them walked (or skipped in her case) through the alley between the police station downtown and the attached parking garage where the cruisers and other vehicles were kept.

“Jeez, calm down, Amber,” Whamline replied. “How many energy drinks did you guzzle before we got there?”

Nudging the boy firmly in the side, Syndicate reminded him, “We’re in costume and outside. Don’t use real names.” Even as he said the words, the currently solid version of the boy sent a thought to his other three selves in their ghost-forms. Everything okay?

All good, Armadillo, Puma reported from the corner of the police lot. No one followed us.

Rabbit and Colt reported the same. Armadillo, Puma, Rabbit, and Colt. When the four had been trying to decide how to differentiate themselves amongst each other, since they were far more than just duplicates, they had settled on using animal names. Or rather, Armadillo, Puma, and Rabbit had. For the first six months or so of doing this, since he’d become a Touched, there had been only three of him. He’d called himself Trilogy. Then a fourth one had appeared, and Trilogy no longer made sense. He’d thought about Quad, but if a fifth version of himself showed up, he’d have to change again, and it would get old. So he’d gone with Syndicate.

That had been a year and a half earlier, and no other versions of himself had appeared. Two years of this, four months as leader of the team. He was seventeen, about ready to graduate high school. And then he’d have to see what adult teams were interested in recruiting him.

Meanwhile, That-A-Way/Amber was spinning in a circle while replying to Whamline breezily, “I’m just happy. I can be happy, right? Because we got all those hostages out, and caught all those bad guys. With help from the cops, o’course.” In mid-spin, the girl gave a bow toward the police station. She even tipped an imaginary hat before spinning back to the others. “Oh! And there were cameras there. So we’re probably going to be on the news. I hope they got my good side.” She held up for the second before clapping her hands once and laughing out loud. “Isn’t this awesome!?”

“You’ve gotta admit,” Carousel put in, “her cheering’s infectious. Given time, they’ll even respect us.”

“Barely counted as a rhyme,” Wobble informed her. “I give it a four out of ten.”

Whamline’s head shook. “No way, man. You’ve got to factor in difficulty, and she just rhymed something with infectious. That’s gotta bump it up to at least six or seven.”

By that point, the group had reached a blue metal door at the far end of the alley. It looked utterly unremarkable, save for the fact that there was no handle on it, and only a single stenciled word reading utility. Pausing with his hand halfway to the door, Syndicate looked back at the others with a soft sigh. “You guys know we’re trying to get her to stop rhyming all the time, right? You scoring her work doesn’t really help with that.”

“I don’t mind the score,” Carousel replied, “but you should open the door. I could verbally soar, yet it becomes a chore and I find I can never ignore a call for encore, so please I’ve got rhymes here galore but I must ever implore, if we go to war, let’s keep our rapport as we stand in the gore to show them what for, til peace we restore.”

A solid four or five seconds of silence followed that, before Wobble looked at Syndicate. “Just open the damn door before she starts in again.”

Pressing his hand it to the seemingly blank brick wall beside the door, Syndicate activated the button there that made a hidden pinhole camera scan his eyes. A moment later, there was a click, and the door slid open. He gestured. “After you guys.”

They stepped through the door, into a small, featureless room that was just large enough to hold them and maybe a few more people (including the three ghost-like Syndicates who had followed the others in). The door closed, and the group waited together. As they stood there, That-A-Way reached up to her domino mask, unlatching the secure hook in the back before pulling the thing off. Instantly, her supposedly blonde hair turned to its real shade of black, and there was a very faint, subtle shifting of her cheekbones and nose. Just enough to make her look sufficiently different with her eyes uncovered. The mask was the work of a Star-Touched from Texas named Facade, whose invention-based powers focused around disguises and illusions. He sold his work to Touched throughout the country to help them maintain their secrets.

Without the mask, That-A-Way’s real name was Amber O’Connell.

Whamline took off his own ski mask before tucking it into his black-and-brown camo suit, revealing a freckle-faced boy with curly, dark red hair. Next to him, the enormous Wobble cracked open his emerald helmet, pulling it off to expose a clearly Samoan ethnicity, his skin darkly tanned and handsome. Just past the six and a half foot mark despite being only sixteen years old, the boy was often mistaken for an adult.

As civilians, Whamline and Wobble were Jerry Meuster and Laki Sefo, respectively.

All four Syndicates reached up to unlatch their helmets and pull it off, though only the solid one really needed to. Beyond the animal names that the four versions of himself referred to each other as, their shared real name was Damarko Myers. Each thought of themselves as the ‘real’ Damarko, and they took turns living the normal part of his life while the others either ‘slept’ (during which time they would fade entirely away until they woke up) or wandered around doing what they could as a ghost. They could appear in that blue-gray ghost form, or become almost entirely invisible aside from a distortion in the air when they moved. They were also able to communicate mentally with one another, and whoever was solid could summon any or all of the other three to themselves.

Holding his helmet under one arm, the black boy rubbed a hand over his cheek while looking over to Raindrop.

She had pulled down her own hood, and was taking off the mirrored mask. Beneath it was Isabel/Izzy Amor, a small Hispanic girl with wide eyes and a trembling lip, who always looked as though everyone around her was one mistake away from kicking her down a flight of stairs. She was jumpy and constantly apologizing for the smallest thing. But she also tried hard, and was wickedly powerful. Her issue was self-esteem.

Then there was the last member of their group. Carousel stood still for a moment before reaching up, tugging her hood down, then pulled off the jester mask. Doing so revealed the reason her own identity was so thoroughly covered. She was, for one thing, albino. Which would have stood out anyway, with her very pale skin, pink eyes, and almost white hair. But she was also Asian. An Asian albino in Detroit. Covering her entire face, head, and hair was important if she was going to maintain anything resembling a secret identity. Her jester mask even contained dark lenses.

Her real name was Jae Baek, and the moment her mask was off, the girl’s entire posture and demeanor changed. She seemed to shrink in on herself, holding the mask against her chest while looking at the floor. As Carousel, she was loud, outgoing, and constantly rhymed everything thanks to an incredible vocabulary. As Jae, she was quiet, shy, barely spoke (and didn’t do so in rhymes), and rarely initiated eye contact.

It was… probably a bit worrying just how different she acted as Jae and as Carousel, like they were two entirely separate people. She even tended to talk about each side of herself as if she were a different person.

By the time all of them had taken their masks and helmets off, there was a soft ding. The door they had just come through a moment earlier opened. This time, however, it revealed a much larger room rather than the alley they had just come through. Their base, clubhouse, training quarters, whatever else it could be called. The room they had entered was one of about a dozen spread over the city. A dozen they knew about, anyway. They were designed and built by one of the Ten Towers Touched, another technology-based superhero called Switchshift, whose gifts revolved around creations that could transform, change position, or in the case of these rooms, switch places. It allowed people to enter a room in one location and instantly appear somewhere else as the room changed places with its counterpart elsewhere.

A man was standing there, waiting just inside the lobby of their base as the group filed out. Silversmith, the leader of the Detroit branch of Conservators. His face, as always, was hidden behind his helmet. As far as any of the teens were aware, no one knew who Silversmith really was. He kept his identity secret even from his own team. Not that he was the only one. There were other Star-Touched who did the same, though none on this Minority team.

“Heard you did well at the bank,” Silversmith announced, his tone proud and impressed. “Good job. Come on, I’m sure you’re hungry, so I had pizza sent over. You can eat, and tell me everything from your point of view.”

“Are you going to eat, sir?” Amber asked, a not-very-subtle attempt to see something of the man’s face, even if it was only enough to tell his ethnicity. It would still be more than was publicly known.

For a moment, Silversmith didn’t say anything. His head cocked a little, giving the impression despite the featureless helmet that he was smiling at them. “Maybe another time,” he finally replied, his tone lightly amused. “For now, I’ll let you guys have the pizza to yourselves.

“Because if I spoil my appetite, my wife will kill me.”

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