Wren Donovan

Project Owl 14-09 (Summus Proelium)

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I was going to have to tell Pack something. Some of the truth, that was. She’d earned it. More than earned it. She and That-A-Way both had been there for me time after time. They knew about the Ministry and were still helping me. I owed them more than I was giving them. And at the very least, I owed them some explanation about what had happened tonight. 

But I also owed Paige. She trusted me. Trusted me to keep her safe and to find a way to fix her so she could wake up again. Wren was my best… my only idea of who might be able to deal with what had happened to her, but even that seemed like a long shot. Wren didn’t deal with… with whatever Paige was. What was I supposed to do? Who was I supposed to talk to? 

“Paintball? Earth to Paintball.” Pack’s voice interrupted my panicked and confused musings. “I said, what the fuck is going on? Who is this girl? Why’s she unconscious? What was she–” 

“Paige,” I interrupted, forcing myself to focus. “Paige Banners. And as to what’s going on, I… I can explain it, sort of. But wait until Way gets here. She deserves to hear it too, after what she…” I swallowed. “She saved my life. Our lives.” My hand gestured to the motionless blonde. “Once she gets here, after she’s done covering for us, I’ll explain everything that I can.” Everything I could, as opposed to everything. Because even now, I had to keep things to myself. 

Pack didn’t seem happy about waiting, but she didn’t push the issue too much. All she did was look past me to Paige for a moment before asking, “Doesn’t she need a doctor right now?”

“She needs a lot of things,” I murmured under my breath with a glance over my shoulder. Then my head shook. “But I don’t think any doctor can help. Trust me, it’s a long story, but there’s nothing we can do for her right this second. I… I don’t think she’ll get any worse, anyway.” 

“Any worse than… that.” Pack pointedly stared at the completely motionless girl who looked like she was sleeping. “Right. Look, I-I’m sorry I didn’t show up sooner.” There was guilt in her voice. “I was–fuck. I was busy with other things. Kind of in the middle of something and couldn’t get away. Couldn’t even check my phone. By the time things were clear enough for me to have some breathing room, you were already… shit. Just, I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.” 

“It’s not your fault,” I insisted, turning back to look at her. “I know you’ve got your own things. I’m just glad Way showed up when she did. I don’t… I don’t think we would’ve made it out if she wasn’t there.” 

“Yeah, she’s got some good timing,” the other girl agreed before glancing away. I couldn’t see her face through that full black mask that covered even her eyes and mouth, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t thinking about me or this situation just then.  

Her silence gave me a chance to look at Paige again. God damn it, what was I going to do? I’d promised I would find someone who could help her. Again, Wren seemed the best choice, yet even she probably wouldn’t know what she was doing with something this advanced. She didn’t work with… with cyborgs or… fuck, what was the right term? Biolem? Was Paige still a biolem like the others we’d faced, even though she was so much more advanced? 

“New look?” Pack finally asked after that moment of silence, nodding to my makeshift costume. “Going for something even cheaper-looking? Blackjack was already thinking of bribing you with a nice, cool new suit with all sorts of bells and whistles, you know. Go around like that and he may just give it to you out of pity.” 

Coughing, I gestured helplessly. “I didn’t have time to get back to my real costume. I had to make do with what I could scavenge real quick. And I don’t need a handout from Blackjack.” 

“Yeah, I told him you’ve got Trevithick to handle any costume upgrades,” she informed me with a very light chuckle. She had Tuesday on one shoulder and was lightly scratching him with her other hand. “I’m not sure that actually dissuaded him that much. He likes you, Paintball. I mean, that’s the impression I get anyway. Pretty sure he’d accept you in a heartbeat if you decided to switch sides.” 

“Does he like me?” I shot back. “Or did the Ministry tell him to put out feelers to find out if I could be pulled to that side? How much of what he does is him and how much is what he’s told to do? I already know he’s really connected to them. How much, I’m not sure. But still.” 

Yeah, I was probably still a little amped up after everything that had happened. Being ‘killed,’ however temporarily, waking up to find that video from Paige explaining all that and then saying she was going to kill herself. Racing across the city, fighting through the building, finding Paige, getting a few answers about what the hell she was and what her father was up to, fighting to keep her safe, fleeing with her through the building, and finally almost being blown up before That-A-Way saved us at basically the last second? 

It had been a bit of a day, to say the least.

Before too long, my phone buzzed. It was a message from That-A-Way, wanting to know where we were. So I gave her directions, and she showed up a few minutes later, skidding to a stop after super-speeding her way up to the parking lot. “Paintball, there’s bodies in that building!” she snapped abruptly. “What the hell was–” 

“They’re not real,” I quickly informed her. “I mean, they’re not–um, they’re not real people.” 

Yeah, Pack and Way exchanged obvious looks at that before turning back to me. Pack found her voice first. “Not real people? Come on, Paintball, I think you better explain now.” 

They were right. I needed to explain some of it, as much as I could. There was no way I was going to be able to help Paige without help. Besides, they’d more than earned an explanation. So, I carefully started to tell them what happened, starting with a… well, not quite a lie, but a very deliberately presented version of the truth. I told them that Paige had left me a message telling me that she was probably going to die because she was going after her father, who was the real threat. I told them about tracking her down, finding her in that building, and the whole biolem thing. I explained the part about her dad being a Tech-Touched and his plan, or what I understood of it. And about how Paige herself was apparently an incredibly advanced prototype version, who had to obey her father’s specific commands until she managed to turn on him. 

“But what does this have to do with–” Whatever Way had been about to say, she cut herself off, shaking her head. “I mean… are you sure she’s a umm…” Hesitating, the girl stepped over to where Paige’s motionless form was. “Are you sure she’s a r-robot? Or whatever she is.” It sounded like she was freaking out a bit. Which was pretty much completely fair. I was still freaking out too. 

“That’s what she said,” I murmured, “and I believe her at this point. After everything I saw in there… yeah. Paige Banners is–well, not a robot. She’s a biolem. Somewhere inside she’s got one of those little orb things with all her memories, personality, and everything else.” 

Way muttered a curse under her breath, staring in what looked like dull shock at the figure in the van. “Oh my God. But if she… if she was… and if…” Finally, the girl seemed to shake that off, focusing a bit to ask, “What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she waking up?”

Exhaling, I explained what Paige had said, that her father’s last-second countermeasures had forced her to shut herself down and that I needed to find a tech genius who could actually help fix her. 

“A tech genius like Trevithick?” Pack put in before reconsidering. “Except this might be over the kid’s head.” 

That-A-Way gave a brief glance her way at that. I could tell she had a laundry list of her own questions, but saved them aside from one. “Can she do something about this?” 

“I don’t know. I hope so.” Sighing, I gestured to both of them. “I thought Paige Banners was some kind of threat, but she was just a victim. We have to help her, have to find someone who can fix whatever her father did. We’ll start with Trevithick, at least see what she can figure out. If she can’t do anything, I… I’ll go from there.”

“This is a lot, Paintball,” Way muttered at me while still staring at the (essentially) unconscious Paige. “Seriously, are you sure about all this? Because I don’t–I mean…” She gestured helplessly, clearly fighting for the right words before being reduced to repeating, “It’s a lot.”

“Believe me, I know.” Grimacing with that reply, I hesitated before adding, “If we can help this girl and wake her up, we can get more answers. She said that all the biolems her father had would be drawn to that building, but she could’ve been wrong. So we have to be careful. Between that and the way the Ministry is gonna look into the whole thing, especially once they find the remains of the equipment in there and realize the bodies aren’t normal people…” 

Pack spoke up then. “Right, getting this chick restarted is a pretty big priority. You said she knows a bunch of stuff about this Ministry thing anyway, so add another tally into reasons to wake her up. But can I just point out, if she’s a robot–err, okay, not a robot. If her brain and personality is all… tied into a computer, one that her father built, what’re the odds of him just being able to control her and make the girl into a killing machine with just a few words? One pointed at us. I mean, don’t programmers usually leave in backdoors and stuff like that?” 

“I know what you mean,” I confirmed quietly, heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I know. But Paige already turned against her father once. She–” I was about to say that she had rules-lawyered her way around leaving me dead, but caught myself. “She went after his entire organization here. Look what she did to the plant where he was manufacturing all these things. She’s not on his side and she’s already figured out ways to sabotage him. Now we have to help her. We find someone who can get into her programming and remove her father’s control so we can wake her up. I don’t know if that’ll be Trevithick or not, but someone. Not just because she can help with the Ministry, but because we owe it to her. I owe it to her.” 

Despite saying all that, I still realized that my feelings for Paige were complicated. I felt resentment, even anger about the past few years. Some bitter part of me wanted to know why she hadn’t found a way to violate her orders at least enough not to hit me in quite such an emotionally damaging place. If she was my friend, she should’ve known that making fun of my… of how I looked was one of the worst things she could’ve done, shouldn’t she? Had her father’s orders really made her hit me that personally when the entire point had simply been to establish conflict to make her eventually snapping and killing me believable? Did she really need to say the things she’d said? 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t logical. But I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Paige, even after all these revelations. However, I did know that I owed her, and that if I was ever going to work my way through those feelings, it was going to have to be with Paige herself to get answers from. Besides, if I voiced any of my doubts about Paige’s personality, it would just lead to questions I couldn’t answer without revealing a lot more about myself. Too much about myself. 

“Right, so we take her to Trevithick,” Pack announced. “And try to figure out who else might help. You know what the obvious problem with that is, right?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, basically every Tech-Touched in the area reports to Braintrust, who report to the Ministry. So we’re kind of screwed that way. There has to be someone else, someone… I don’t know. I can’t think.” I sighed again, shaking my head. “It’s… been a long day.” 

“Tell me about it.” That-A-Way’s voice sounded almost as tired as I felt. “I have to get back to give reports before someone notices how long I’ve been gone. But I want to be kept in the loop about what’s going on with this, you two.” 

We both agreed to that, and she took off. Which left Pack and me looking at each other. “To Wren’s?” I offered. 

“To Wren’s,” she agreed, gesturing. “Let’s go. I’ll drive, since you look too wiped to get there your usual way.” 

“Yeah, I might leap into the side of a building,” I muttered before moving to climb in the van. “Let’s go see how much Wren can do with this.” 

*******

“Ummmmm, I can’t do anything with this.” The words came from Wren herself some time later, once Pack and I had brought Paige into her lab in the upstairs area of the old store. We’d set the seemingly sleeping blonde girl on a convenient couch. Then, to an increasingly shocked audience of two, had explained–well we’d explained some of it anyway, the parts about Paige being a biolem whose father wanted to do bad things while leaving details about the Ministry out of it.

 “I know it’s a lot,” I quickly assured the young Tech-Touched. “Believe me, but it’s just–” 

“No, I mean I can’t.” Her head was shaking, eyes wide. “That’s blood and flesh and a person! I don’t know anything about–I mean she’s–I make things go fast, things teleport, things fly. I can’t dig into a human living person! I’m not a doctor! It’s not–I don’t get a–I mean I’m not–”

Fred, who had been staring at both Pack and me like we’d sprouted new heads throughout this entire conversation, spoke up. “Even if the kid had any chance of working on the actual mechanical part, this orb thing you said is in that girl, getting to it without killing her… ahh, the biological part of her is still a big fu–freaking problem. You need a doctor for that. A really good one. You need someone who can work the tech side of things and someone to work the biology part. Probably at least two techs. Maybe Wren can help with some of it, but come on, this is too much to put on her.”

“I-if I mess up,” Wren tentatively pointed out, voice cracking as she stared at Paige. “I could… I could…” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know. I just–you’re right. We just don’t know who else to take her to. But I’ll find someone. I’ll find some people who can help. Can she… uhh…” 

“She can stay.” Wren’s voice was firm as she gave a quick nod. “I mean, umm, maybe I can look at her? I could maybe make a scanner or something to try to find where the orb is, exactly, so we can find out more about it. But I won’t cut into her. I won’t go that far. I can’t.” 

Pack spoke up then. “Don’t worry, kid, it’s okay. No one blames you for not wanting to risk something like that. It’s not your job, not your… power.” She shrugged. “You keep the girl here for now, Paintball and I can both reach out in our own way to find someone who might help.” She glanced to me, clearly reading my apprehension. “There’s gotta be Tech-Touched mercenaries from somewhere outside the city who might be able to do something. Though it’d probably cost a pretty penny.”

“We’ll worry about cost later,” I insisted. “Focus on being careful. No drawing attention. Don’t give details. And don’t–” 

She interrupted. “Don’t ask Blackjack about it, I know. I’m not an idiot. I’ll be subtle, Paintball, trust me.”

We talked a bit more, all four of us. It was obvious that Wren felt incredibly guilty about her immediate and firm refusal, but I tried to assure her that neither of us blamed her and that it was okay. Better she have a solid grasp of what she couldn’t do, than go for it and end up doing irreparable damage, or even killing Paige for good. 

In the end, we settled on coming back to figure out more later. Paige would be staying here at the lab for the time being, where Wren would do what little she could while we found someone who knew what they were doing. 

All of which left me heading back home after changing out of the temporary costume and into a pair of jeans and tee-shirt that I bought from the very surprised clerk in a small tourist-trap shop. Exhausted as I was, getting new clothes and making it home took about all I had. The only thing I wanted to do was take a long, hot shower and then sleep for about a week. 

Naturally, I had to go in and apologize for taking off early from Paige’s party and abandoning Izzy. Except she wasn’t there for some reason. Neither was Dad, but he at least I understood. According to my mother, Simon had taken Izzy out for ice cream and a few things. She made it clear I wasn’t in trouble, that they knew my going to Paige’s had been hard and they appreciated the effort I put in. But she also made sure I knew that leaving Izzy with other people like that without clearing it with them first wasn’t acceptable. And that I needed to make sure Izzy was okay with a situation like that. 

I promised to be careful in the future. And it was pretty obvious that Mom didn’t know how connected Paige was to the situation at the warehouse, because she was entirely too casual about the whole thing. 

In the end, I made my way upstairs, took that shower, and fell asleep while wondering what was taking Izzy so long to get back from ice cream. 

Unfortunately, despite my thoughts about sleeping for a week, I barely managed a few hours before my racing mind woke me up. It was the middle of the night, and I just… my brain was too active. All that stuff about Paige, everything I’d learned, it was just… too much. I couldn’t relax. 

It also felt like I couldn’t breathe in here. I needed some air. Making my way to my balcony after pulling on some shorts to go with my long tee shirt, I glanced around to watch the cameras before turning to point at the roof above me. A quick shot of red paint hauled me up there, where I would lay back and watch the stars. 

At least, that was the idea. But that idea shattered like glass as I landed on the roof, after being pulled that way by my red paint, as a voice from above me blurted, “Cassidy?” 

Spinning, I stared upward at a visibly damp Izzy, who floated there, hovering in mid-air. Both of us stared at the other for a long few seconds before blurting out loud, our words matching each other’s. 

“It’s you!”

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New Deals 13-06 (Summus Proelium)

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For a few long seconds, I just sat there, frozen from confusion. Pack saw two guys standing there talking to Blackjack. But I saw my parents. Was I being affected by some kind of power that made me see things differently? No. That didn’t make sense, did it? No one in here knew enough about me to make me see my family members over there. Plus, if it was some kind of ‘see people you know’ power or something, Pack wouldn’t just be seeing two random guys. 

Okay, so it wasn’t that. My flash of panic that someone in here knew about my identity and my family and was fucking with me only lasted a brief moment before I got it under control. There was another explanation, one that didn’t involve all my secrets suddenly being out, thank God.

“Dude.” Pack sounded confused and maybe a little exasperated. “Are you okay over there?” 

Was I okay? Hah. Not really, considering the way my heart had just been trying to claw its way out of my chest so it could escape. “Sorry,” I quickly muttered, resisting the urge to stare at Blackjack and the people who were either my parents or looked exactly like them. “It’s been a long day.” And from the looks of it, getting longer by the minute. Wait, all days got longer by the minute. Fuck, I knew what I meant. “You were talking about those… guys.”

Guys, she saw guys. It had to be a power of some kind, right? My parents–wait, was that how they hid their identities? By appearing as different people to others–but why would I see them for who they were? Was I immune to the power or something? Why would I be–hold on…

“Like I said,” Pack was in the middle of replying in a low voice, “they came in to talk to Blackjack. I didn’t hear a lot before they went into the other room, but I heard a name. Tate.” 

That made me do a double-take, looking at her while seeing my mother and father still in the middle of what seemed to be an intense conversation. “Tate? You definitely heard that?” 

“Yeah, as in the name of that kid you were talking to Way about,” she confirmed. “What was it–Andy? Tate, that was right, wasn’t it?” For a brief moment, she sounded uncertain. 

“Anthony,” I corrected in a much lower voice. I still wasn’t comfortable here like this. “Anthony Tate, yeah. So those two came in and talked to your boss, and they said something about Tate.”

“I told you,” she reiterated, “I didn’t hear much. They went into the other room pretty quick. I heard something about Tate, and then something about someone’s father being dead.”

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “Someone’s father being dead? Whose?” 

Snorting, Pack retorted, “The fuck should I know? I wasn’t exactly in a position to ask for clarification, dude. They said something about someone’s father being dead–oh, I kind of got the impression this wasn’t something new. The way they said it, he’s been dead for awhile.” 

Someone’s father had been dead for awhile. Biting my lip, I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Which one of them said it? What’d they say, exactly? I mean, as much as you can remember.”   

The other girl took a moment, clearly focused on recalling as best as she could. “The guy with the red hair said, ‘The Tate situation was supposed to be over and done with. We put it behind us.’ Then Blackjack said, ‘At least the father’s dead.’ Wait. Wait, did he say ‘the father’ or ‘your father?’ Shit. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. He either said ‘At least the father’s dead’ or ‘At least your father’s dead.’ Then they went into the other room.” 

Sinking back in my seat, I thought about that for a few seconds. The Tate situation, my parents were annoyed because something about it was coming back to bother them after they thought it was handled. But what? Was it something about Paige? Paige had been erased from my memory around the same time that Anthony was, and I’d heard her talking about how whatever she was doing had something to do with him. She’d specifically said that my mom and dad had no idea where she came from or why she was doing… whatever she was doing because they hadn’t thought about the name Anthony Tate in years. So of course they were connected, but how much of that did my parents know? Was this whole conversation about the Tate situation not being over because of Paige, or because of something else? What prompted that? 

“You sure you’re okay?” Pack was asking, her voice clearly uncertain as she absently scratched one of her lizards. “Do you know those guys over there or something?” 

Boy, talk about being simultaneously very wrong and very right. For a moment, brief as it was, I almost considered telling her about how I wasn’t seeing those two the way she was. But that would’ve led to her asking who I was actually seeing. And even if I just described them instead of saying they were my parents, she’d definitely start looking into those details. And if that led her to who they really were… well, was that really bad? Did I think it was bad because it would put her in danger, or because it would put my family in danger? Which one was I really bothered more by? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Finally, after shaking myself, I nodded. “I’ll be fine. And no, I’ve never seen those two guys.” Hell, those words were the literal truth, I had most certainly never seen the two guys she was talking about, not even when I looked right at the two who were supposed to be them. 

And yet it was still a lie. A lie that made me feel like shit after saying it. Pack was a villain, but she’d also been my friend. She’d helped me, had gone out of her way to come save me from Pencil. She had put her lizards in danger to help me, and how was I paying her back? 

Fuck. This whole thing was just so complicated. Too god damn complicated. I had no idea how to make it better. I couldn’t tell her the truth. Not… not yet, right? But no matter how many times I said ‘not yet,’ it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was going to have to make that kind of leap at some point. Once I did, it would be a leap I couldn’t take back. And it felt like the longer I waited, the harder the fall after that leap was going to be. 

I couldn’t see her face, of course, but I had the feeling that Pack was squinting at me uncertainly. After a moment of that, she shook her head. “Well, keep an eye out for them. Sounds like they’re connected to this Anthony Tate thing you’ve been looking into. And…” She hesitated before offering a shrug. “And that other thing you were talking about.” Apparently even Pack didn’t actually want to mention the Ministry out loud right here in the casino. 

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I promised, before adding, “Thanks, Pack. Seriously, I know this whole thing is hard for you after everything La Casa’s done.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m not doing anything against La Casa,” she insisted firmly. “Just looking out for my own interests on top of that. I wanna get to the bottom of this whole thing. I–” In mid-sentence, she glanced over before squinting. “And there they go.” 

Sure enough, my parents and Blackjack were walking away together, heading for one of the exits. Not the one I had come through, of course. 

After we both watched the trio head off, Pack turned back to me. “Right, so, about this whole Trevithick thing. You want help getting Braintrust to play nice.” 

“I want to make sure they know that pushing any harder is going to end up being more of a pain than it’s worth,” I confirmed. “I know we can’t get away with telling them to fuck off completely. Not like that. But giving them something so they feel like they’re walking away the winners, while making sure they know they can’t get anything more than that without a bigger fight? That sounds doable. I mean, with help, yeah.” 

Pack was quiet for another few seconds, before she gave a short nod. “I like the kid. Not just gonna sit around and let her be exploited. So yeah, I’ve got your back. Just tell me when and where so we can make an impression.” 

Thanking her, I added, “Speaking of making an impression, you’ve gotta tell me. What does the new lizard turn into?” 

“Scatters?” There was sly amusement to the girl’s voice. “Oh, I’m not telling you yet. 

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

*****

I couldn’t just leave Wren out of the situation entirely, much as I might’ve liked to. That wasn’t fair to her, given the fact that the whole thing was about Braintrust wanting to use her talents in one way or another. She deserved to know what was going on and be included in this situation.

So, Pack and I went there next. Actually, we called to arrange a meeting the next day, but Fred said the kid tended to work through the night and sleep in the mornings (being home-schooled through the afternoon). So, we headed over right then. To keep things subtle and avoid drawing attention to the girl, we used her car (or at least, a car that La Casa allowed her to use), with heavily tinted windows, heading for Wren’s shop. 

The girl herself met us on the main shop floor, literally (with the help of her little winged jetpack thing) throwing herself clear from the elevator to the entrance to half-crash into the girl beside me for a tight hug while squealing, “Pack! You’re okay! Hi! Are the lizards okay?! Can I see ‘em? Are they sleeping? Can I pet ‘em? Are they hungry? Can I feed ‘em? Did you really get a new one? Is it a boy or a girl? Did you bring her? Wait, did you eat already? Are you hungry? We could get pizza. For us, not for the lizards. But I have crickets and worms and stuff for them just in case! Hey, maybe they could put those on a pizza!” 

The words all came in a rush, blurted out as soon as Wren thought of them, without any pause to allow Pack to actually respond. And through it all, she clung tightly to the other girl as if she was a long-lost best friend who had only just returned. It reminded me of the fact that these two had bonded for days while Pack stayed around Wren when the whole situation with the vials was going on. Pack wasn’t some criminal to Wren. She was a friend. 

Then again, she wasn’t some criminal to me either. It was a lot more complicated than that. More complicated than even she knew, really. I didn’t exactly have that much right to judge her given who my family was and the fact that I still hadn’t told anyone about it. Yeah, it was dangerous, but it was also… fuck. It was complicated. All of it was just so complicated. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I watched as Pack introduced Scatters to Wren, who basically lost her mind over the adorable little neon gecko. Pack pulled the rest of her lizards out of their cage and carried them to the nearby table, where they ate from the assortment of reptile-appropriate food that the Tech-Touched girl had provided. Wren, of course, asked the same thing I had, about what Scatters turned into. Again, Pack deferred for the moment, promising to show both of us after we talked to the girl about what we had to talk about. 

And then we did just that. Well, after asking for Fred (he’d been up in the apartment area) to come down so we could talk to both of them together. I laid out everything that happened with Braintrust, how they had approached me, their offer/request/demand, and why I thought it was for the best to appease them at the moment to avoid any problems. I promised that I was going to look into dealing with their group for good, but that that was a long ways off and I didn’t want Wren or Fred to become targets in the meantime. 

“I’m not making anything for them,” the nine-year-old blonde insisted flatly, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest while setting her chin. “They’ll hurt people with it. And I’m not helping them fix their own stuff.” 

“Yeah,” I replied with a glance toward Fred. “That’s kinda what I assumed. Which leaves the option of paying taxes to them for operating in the city. Pack and me are gonna go over there, find them, and let them know that they’ll get a small bit out of whatever you sell, and that’s it.” 

“But you can’t just beat them up and arrest them?” Wren sounded confused, staring at me with those wide sea-green eyes. “They’re bad guys, they do really bad… err…” She trailed off, glancing toward Pack as though only just realizing that the other girl was technically a villain.

Pack, for her part, sounded a little amused as she casually drawled, “Everyone’s got their reasons for doing stuff. And everyone’s got friends that do bad things sometimes. These guys aren’t your friends, and they’re demanding you give them money or toys to hurt people with.” 

“Yeah, what she said.” I agreed, before adding, “And I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to take on a whole gang of Touched-Tech-Enhanced supercriminals yet.” My fingers tapped the side of my helmet. “Not that I haven’t pissed off plenty of them already, but it feels like I should pace myself.” I did not point out that I didn’t want Wren and Fred to be targets. It felt like the younger girl wouldn’t take that very well. I wasn’t sure if she’d insist she could take care of herself, or be upset that I wasn’t fighting the bad guys just to protect her, or what. But I was pretty sure framing it as me having too much to take on right then without adding yet another gang of pissed off supervillains would play better with her.

From the way Fred looked at me, he understood the rest of what I wasn’t saying. The man offered me what was obviously a thankful nod, but let his niece do most of the talking. 

It worked. Wren still clearly didn’t like the idea of appeasing the bad guys, for sure. But she accepted that it wasn’t a fight we needed right now and that the best way to handle it was to hand money to them so they’d go away. At least until we were ready. She did, however, insist that she was going to work on ideas to deal with Braintrust while also reiterating that she was never going to build anything for them, no matter what. That was her firm line in the sand. 

After that was settled, Pack took Scatters and transformed the tiny, colorful lizard into her alternate form. Which, as it turned out, was an equally colorful large reindeer. Seriously, this thing was metallic blue along most of the body, its legs were darker blue, it had a black stripe running down the sides to offset the two blues, and its head and antlers were bright green. 

Wren lost her mind all over again, grabbing onto and hugging the incredibly beautiful reindeer-lizard while cooing about how adorable she was. 

Pack informed us that they were working on a saddle for Scatters, after helping Fred pick Wren up and set her on the animal’s back. The young inventor held on tight, squealing happily as Scatters took her for a short, slow trot around the inside of the shop. She was having the time of her life. Which made me wonder how much she’d love it if the lizard-deer could go out on the street and let loose. 

Someday, I told myself, I’m gonna show that kid how to have a really good time, without a bunch of stupid supervillain bullshit getting in the way.

Pack interrupted my thoughts about that by raising her voice to ask, “Hey, Wren, you think my new friend is cool, has Paintball over there shown you his new paint thing yet?” 

“New paint thing?” Wren, still perched atop the neon lizard-deer, echoed curiously while looking over at me. Fred, standing a bit out of the way, also looked interested. 

So, I showed them how the pink paint worked. That was as much of a hit as Scatters was, especially once I showed Wren how she could stretch her limbs out while they were pink. She thought that was the funniest thing in the world, and kept having Fred hold her hand in place while she ran the other way to pull her arm as far out as she could. 

Watching the kid goofing off like that while occasionally redoing the pink paint again, or shooting some random object she pointed out with it, I found my thoughts shifting back to what I’d seen at the casino. My parents except not my parents. They had been at the casino in some kind of… power-enhanced disguise? Except whose power? Maybe it was a Tech-Touched device. Right, that made sense. Some kind of… umm…illusion-generator that somehow didn’t work on our own family? Maybe so that they could keep track of each other and still see each other for who they–wait. 

Was that why I’d seen Simon out without any kind of mask or anything on? Was that why he’d been going around apparently without anything to protect his identity, because he was using one of those illusion devices? That made sense too. I’d wondered before about just why my brother could go around without a mask or anything to hide his face. If he was using that illusion tech, it would explain a lot. Even if it didn’t explain exactly where those illusion devices came from. At the very least, it made sense that my family would have access to them. 

Which might also explain how my father could be in two places at once, come to think of it. It could help explain how he could operate as Silversmith and appear as himself at the same function, if they used that illusion tech on someone else to look like him. That was probably part of it. 

“Hey, kid.” That was Fred, watching me curiously from nearby while Pack and Wren whispered about something over by Scatters. “You okay? Seemed kinda… lost there for a minute.” 

Forcing all those thoughts away for the time being, I made myself nod. “Oh, yeah. I’m good. I just found a couple pieces to a puzzle I’ve been working on for a long time.” 

Of course, this illusion thing meant it would be even harder for me to prove my family were the bad guys even if I found someone I could safely point that out to. What was I supposed to do, point at someone who, to everyone else looked like some random guy, and insist he was my mother? Somehow, I didn’t think that would go very well. To say nothing of all the other illusion-tricks they could pull. 

It was something, at least. As I’d told Fred, it was a couple more pieces to this puzzle. It didn’t solve the entire problem, but at least it answered a couple questions for me. True, none of those answers were to the question of what I was supposed to do with everything I knew. But hey, at least I was making progress. 

While lost in those thoughts, my normal phone buzzed in my pocket. Knowing that I had to check in case it was my parents so they didn’t send out a search party, I made sure no one was paying attention before tugging it out. It was an e-mail, and I almost put it away again before doing a double-take. The e-mail was an invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, just a few days away. That wasn’t that odd, considering how many birthdays and other things I got invited to regularly. The odd part was that it was for Paige. 

Now why the hell would Paige Banners invite me to her birthday party? 

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Pink 12-05 (Summus Proelium)

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I had a dozen texts and three voicemails from Wren once I tore my replacement phone out of its plastic packaging, set it up, and downloaded my old Touched phone data to it. Mostly they were a three-to-one mix of her being terrified of what had happened to me and her wanting to show me the stuff she’d been working on. Apparently she and Fred had already started moving stuff back to the old shop, and she had some spiffy new defenses she wanted me to see. 

So, I called her up to let the girl know I was on the way and that I was fine. Fine enough, at least, that she really didn’t need to know how sore I felt or how much my ribs hurt if I turned too fast or bent over. Yeah, I wasn’t going to make her even more worried. She was a kid, and was still trying to put her own life together. No way was I going to put something like that on her. 

Wren hurriedly informed me that she and Fred were at the old store right then, and I promised I’d be there soon. After that, it was just a matter of getting another ride over to that general area, using a random roof to (somewhat awkwardly) change into my costume (sans the helmet, which was still back with the damn Scions), then heading over to the pawn shop itself. On the way, I kept a sharp lookout for anything out of the ordinary. Yeah, people weren’t after the vials anymore and most knew that attacking a Tech-Touched on their own turf was a bad idea. Not to mention the fact that very few should have any idea a Tech-Touched lived there. But still, the whole idea made me nervous. I really wanted to tell Wren to give it up. Except this was her dad’s store. There was no way she would just walk away from it, no matter what the potential danger was. Getting her to create defenses was the best I could hope for. Well, that and hoping that if things were actually bad, Fred would insist they leave. 

Stepping through the front door, I found the main floor of the shop looking about the same as it had the first time I was there. It was, of course, still an enormous open space about as wide as the school gym, with dozens of shelves scattered around that were filled with all sorts of seemingly random stuff, while the central third of the space was several feet lower than the rest, with various built-in steps leading down into that pit area. 

The same four glass counters formed the same rectangle around the space where the clerk worked. As I entered, both Wren and Fred were there, busy talking about something. The moment the bell dinged, Wren blurted my name (well, Paintball at least), slid off the counter she’d been perched on, and dashed my way. Two steps into it, the wings popped out of her metal backpack thing and she glided the rest of the way before landing right in front of me. Then I was being hugged tightly. Luckily, I saw it coming and popped an orange circle onto my back for defense so I wouldn’t crumple from the force of it. As it was, I had to grit my teeth tightly, managing a weak, “Hey, Wren. Sounds like you’ve been pretty busy lately, huh?”

Pulling back a bit, the little blonde nine-year-old squinted up at me, very obviously annoyed. “Pretty busy? Pretty busy? You go off and almost get yourself killed and all you have to say about it is that I’ve been busy?!” She gave a loud huff, folding her arms. “You’re in trouble.” Despite her words, it was obvious that it took a lot for her to sound as stern as she did. The kid was trying as hard as she could to be serious and let me know just how upset she was without too much squeeing and hugging. 

Still, I knew she was right, and had to wince at how much I’d obviously upset her. “Sorry. I guess Pack let you know what was going on then?” Obviously, just being scolded by That-A-Way and Pack herself hadn’t been enough. I had to have Wren and her puppy eyes sicced on me too.  

“I was trying to call you and you never answered,” she informed me in a sad voice, head shaking. “So I asked Pack if you were okay and she told me what happened.” Again, the girl squinted at me. “She said you got in trouble cuz you said you had help but you didn’t.” 

“That’s… about the size of it,” I confirmed while cringing a little bit. “I definitely learned my lesson, believe me. I won’t do something like that again. If I say I have help, I’ll have help.” 

“Good.” That was Fred, as the man approached. “Cuz I really don’t wanna have another night of sitting up with the kid until someone actually bothers to let us know that you’re okay.” 

“My phone was broken,” I mumbled helplessly. “And I had my own parents to–I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you worry, Wren. I’m sorry I made both of you worry. But seriously, I’m okay. And I really want to see what you’ve been doing over here. Are you sure it’s safe to be in this place?” 

“Don’t worry,” Fred informed me, “I told the kid we couldn’t come back here until she had a fool-proof way of getting us out if anything went wrong.” As he said that, the man waved a hand, showing me the watch attached to his wrist. “It’s a teleporter linking this place to the other shop. Something happens, just push the face in and say the command. Then poof, we’re not here.” 

Wren showed me her own watch, nodding eagerly. “And I’m working on one for you! That way if you get caught again, you can just teleport away.” Squinting pointedly, the kid added, “I’ll hurry and make it faster, cuz you get in trouble a lot.” 

She wasn’t wrong, but I still made a huffing noise. I would’ve stuck my tongue out at her, given my lack of a helmet, but that seemed a bit childish at the moment. “Just make sure you guys are safe here first. You can really teleport out as soon as anything happens?”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh! And there’s another defense too, you wanna see?” Even as the girl said that, I could see the mix of eagerness and mischievousness in her eyes. Apparently, whatever she wanted to show me was really funny. 

Glancing to Fred briefly, I waited until he gave a subtle nod before agreeing. “Okay, let’s see.” 

With an excited squeaking sound, Wren cleared her throat before loudly declaring, “Intruder defense Alpha-Zero-One engage, ninety percent.” 

As soon as she said that, I heard a weird… humming sound. It filled the room, and I started to look around. But then a blur went rushing past me. It was Wren. She went from standing in front of me, to the door behind me, to the counter, back to one of the other shelves, then back to me, then to a shelf on the far side of the room all in just a brief few seconds. 

The same thing happened with Fred, as he vanished into the elevator leading upstairs, then came back, then checked on something at the register, then came to me with something in his hands all before I could so much as raise my hand. He held it up, and I belatedly realized it was an analog clock. As I stared at it, the second hand spun rapidly. In the brief four seconds or so that I watched, about three minutes passed. 

Finally, I saw Wren open her mouth. The sounds she made came out in a rush so fast they didn’t sound like words. At least at first. But finally, humming sound stopped and I heard the tail end of her saying, “– and restore to default security measures.” 

Things were back to normal. My gaze snapped around quickly, as I blurted, “Wren, are you screwing around with time stuff?! Are we–we’re not–you didn’t–” 

With a giggle, the younger girl shook her head. “No, see, there wasn’t any time travel or anything. I mean, not like you’re thinking. The defense system targets intruders and makes them slower. Everything else was moving at normal speed. You were just moving and thinking really, really slow so everything around you seemed really fast. See, you were in there for fifteen minutes and to you, it was only about thirteen seconds. That way, if anyone comes in who isn’t supposed to be here and we turn on the defense, we have time to do basically anything. Even call for help if we need to.” 

As she finished explaining all that, Wren stared at me eagerly, eyes shining with delight as she blurted, “Isn’t that cool?!” 

I didn’t even have to exaggerate my agreement as my head bobbed. “It’s totally cool, Wren. You outdid yourself with this. Nonlethal and super-effective. How long can it keep going like that?” 

Squirming a little, the girl admitted, “Only about twenty seconds or so of slow-time. But we’re working on getting the time up and cutting the energy use. And that’s almost half an hour real-time, which is plenty for us to do a lot of things while any intruders are basically frozen, you know? Even if it’s just leaving.” 

“You’re right, a lot can happen in half an hour.” I gave her a thumbs up that made her grin happily before asking, “So teleporters to escape and this slow-down effect as soon as intruders get in. Can that be automatic or do you have to actually give the command like you did just now?” 

It was Fred who answered. “Either-or. Kid set it so we can set it off manually, or tie it to an alarm for whenever the shop’s not open. As long as no one else but us is supposed to be here, if anyone does show up, it slows them down and lets us know what’s going on.” 

“And there’s gonna be more!” Wren insisted. She was bouncing up and down with excitement. Which, considering her jetpack wings were still out, actually sent her up above my head, then back to the floor with each bounce. It was enough to make me snicker a bit before containing myself. Meanwhile, she was still explaining. “I’ve got ideas about Flingbeams, they’re–err, wait, I’m not gonna say it yet cuz they might change. Also they’re a surprise. But they’re gonna be cool! No one’s gonna break Dad’s store again. I mean, not without being hurt a lot and stuff.” 

“As long as you’re safe,” I agreed, glancing to Fred before adding, “I don’t think you being here is exactly common knowledge or anything, but you should still be careful. Especially with Braintrust out there and interested. If anything seems fishy, you jump out of here and worry about details later, okay? Call me, call Pack, call whoever you need to for help.” 

“Don’t have to tell me twice to look after our skins,” Fred assured me. The man gave a very slight self-deprecating smile. “Seriously though, what the kid said before, that goes for me too. You’ve done… right by us, even when I didn’t really deserve it. Don’t go getting yourself in hot water like that without help of your own. You uhhh…” He coughed, sounding self-conscious suddenly. “You’re a good one, so don’t be an idiot and get killed.” Belatedly, the man added, “Who’d bankroll the kid’s business without you, huh?” He sounded more comfortable then. 

Snorting, I gestured vaguely. “Silly me, I can’t die without making sure Wren’s Nest becomes the best tech shop in the city. Maybe one of you could write a note so I could give it to the next person who tries to stab or shoot me?” 

My reward for that was a poke in the stomach from Wren (luckily she didn’t jab higher or I might’ve yelped), as she countered, “What about a new helmet instead? Pack said yours got lost or something, and you don’t have a replacement yet.” Her hand waved toward my simple mask. “You weren’t gonna go get into another fight without something to protect your head, were you?” There was definite recrimination in her voice at that idea.

Quickly, I raised both hands while shaking my head. “Nope, no, ma’am. I just didn’t wanna make you wait anymore. I was gonna go get a new helmet after this, before I… umm, do the next thing on my list.” After defusing that quickly, I blinked before adding, “Wait, new helmet?” 

“It’s not super, super special like the boots,” she lamented. “I didn’t have time to do that much with all the stuff I was making for the shop. But it’s still something! And I’m totally gonna improve it later, in different versions, I swear.” With that, she turned and launched herself into the air and clear across the room, soaring over a dozen random shelves to reach the far side of the central counter, where she started digging through a few different bags. 

While she was gone, Fred glanced to me. His voice was quiet. “You seen a doctor about those ribs?” When I shot him a quick, surprised glance, he snorted. “You’re good at hiding things from the kid. But I saw how you reacted when she hugged you, and that poke. I’m not gonna scare her, just… you saw someone who could take care of it, right? If not, I think I can–” 

“I saw someone,” I hurriedly assured him. “A doctor, I mean. It’s–it’s a long story, one I can’t get into. But he looked at me and… and it’ll be okay.” Belatedly, I added, “Um, thanks. You know, for caring.” I knew the whole thing sounded awkward. It felt awkward. Still, it was the best I could do. 

Before Fred could respond to that, Wren was back. She had, as promised, a helmet in her hands. It looked almost identical to my last one, with the front part that could be pushed up out of the way while still leaving the secondary visor in place across my eyes. This helmet, however, had what looked like two small headlights built into either side of it, facing forward. It also had a little speaker grill bit built into the front (the part that could be pushed up out of the way when I opened the helmet). 

Wren quickly explained while handing the helmet over. “See the volume thing on the left side? You can push that up to project your voice really loud. You know, if you need to shout over people or call out to someone. It’s like a megaphone. And the lights are for when it’s dark and you don’t want to use the night vision.” 

Raising an eyebrow (which was dumb considering she couldn’t see it anyway), I asked, “Night vision?”  

The kid’s head bobbed up and down so fast I thought it might fall off. “Uh huh! Of course there’s night vision, what kinda amateur do you thi–never mind.” Giggling despite herself, she informed me, “there’s night vision and thermal vision, you just have to say ‘night vision engage or night vision disengage’ or ‘thermal vision engage and disengage’ while you’re wearing it. You can whisper it too. Or touch that button there right next to the main visor for three seconds, then let it go for night vision and five seconds then let it go for thermal vision. Then touch it again to go back to normal.” 

Turning the helmet over in both hands, I smiled like an idiot before managing, “Wren, that’s really cool. I didn’t–I mean I don’t–I mean thanks.” 

It was her turn to blush a bit, squirming in the air (she was hovering about a foot off the ground) before hurriedly explaining, “That’s not all. There’s one more thing. Put the helmet on and pull the front down.” 

So, I did as she asked. The helmet fit snugly in place, and I slid the front part down, making it lock in place before giving her a thumbs up. “All good so far.” 

“Okay!” With clear excitement, Wren explained, “Now say, ‘Map me, then give an address or a request, like ‘nearest McDonalds.’” 

Considering that briefly, I settled on, “Map me the Henry Ford Museum.” 

As soon as I said that, a few images appeared on the visor in front of my face. At the bottom, which I could only read by focusing my eyes that way, were the words Henry Ford Museum and an address. In the top right corner of the visor was an arrow pointing me in the right direction, along with a thing telling me how many kilometers away I was. 

Wren pushed on quickly. “The arrow appears on the side you need to turn to, or right at the top if you just need to go forward. You can say ‘dim map’ to make it go away so you can focus, then ‘raise map’ to bring back the same thing without asking directions again. Or you can say ‘end map’ to turn it off completely.” 

“Wren, this is…” Swallowing hard, I leaned over to hug the girl as tightly as I dared. “Thanks. This is awesome. Seriously. Between this and the shoes, you’re really decking me out.” 

With a clearly self-conscious giggle, Wren insisted, “It’s nothing big. I can do better. I will do better. You know, with more time, and… and everything. I’ll make it better.” 

“This is enough for now, I swear.” Smiling, I nudged the girl while releasing her. “Really, take care of your shop and all that. You’re just… you’re awesome. Thanks.” 

After that, I stuck around for another twenty minutes or so, just hanging out and making sure Wren knew how grateful I was. And, of course, reassuring her that I really was okay. With a promise to check in soon, I excused myself. It was time to go visit the Seraph base and hopefully find out just what the hell was in that file once and for all.

And hey, with this fancy new helmet, at least I wouldn’t get lost. 

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Fault 10-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Eits didn’t really find anything useful enough to share (other than letting me know he was still looking into it) over the next few days. Days that I spent doing things like practicing with my paint, getting accustomed to using my spiffy new wall-sticking shoes, and trying (failing) to figure out what the damn pink paint was used for. Aside from that last part, it went pretty well. I also spent some time helping Izzy get a new phone so she could call or text me. Or anyone else. 

So, I was doing okay on the whole practicing with the powers I knew about thing, still had no idea what was going on with the pink paint, was avoiding Tomas as much as possible without looking like I was avoiding him, and remained almost completely clueless about whatever the fuck was going on with Paige and her real father living on the inescapable prison island thing. 

The point was, pretty soon, it was Wednesday afternoon. I was going to visit the Seraph HQ in a few minutes. But first, I was determined to finish up at least one more of the pictures for the people who went to Amber’s party. She was waiting patiently for them, but I really needed to put a dent in the list. Not that that took too much time, considering how easy drawing suddenly was for me. But it took longer than it could have, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to use my actual paint on the pictures. No way would I risk leaving that kind of incriminating evidence about who I was. Instead, I had a pad that I was sketching the requested pictures in before inking them later. And coloring the ones for the people who requested and paid for that extra bit, eventually. 

So there was just one more I wanted to finish right now, a sketch of the guy in the picture (his name was Alan and he was a senior) doing a, ahem ‘sick flip’ on his skateboard off one of the castle-like towers of the Grand Army of the Republic building downtown (which was where I was now so I could draw it more effectively). Apparently he’d always wanted to do that but there was no way it would ever happen. So he paid for a drawing of it rather than do anything stupid like actually try. Which, well, kudos to him for thinking it through.

I was sitting cross-legged against the side of one of a nearby building’s brick chimneys. Yes, I was using my shoes to switch my gravity so that I could sit against the side of the chimney as though it was the ground, facing downward as I worked intently, drawing on the pad. With it in my lap, the pad seemed to be affected by the same change in gravity so it didn’t go flying away from me. Of course, I was in costume. Well, mostly. It was harder to draw with gloves, so I had those off as well as the helmet, with just the mask on underneath. I wasn’t sure exactly why I was drawing like this in costume rather than doing it at home or whatever, I just didn’t want to be home. Besides, I was heading to the Seraph base pretty soon. I just needed to finish this picture with a bit more detail on Alan himself as he came off the building. After all, what was the point of buying a picture of yourself doing something awesome if you couldn’t tell it was supposed to be you?

So intent was I on getting the boy’s face right, that the sudden sound and feel of my phone buzzing made me jerk in surprise. The pad fell a few feet to land on the roof below, and I quickly reached to my pocket. The call was coming in on my ‘work’ phone, so to speak. Taking a quick look to see who was calling, I said a few quick words aloud to make sure my voice changer was working right before answering. “Yo, Wr-I mean Trevithick. What’s up? Gotta say, these shoes–”  

Before I could say anything else, Wren quickly interrupted, sounding pretty wound up about something. “Paintball! Um, are you anywhere near MLK High? That place by Larned.”

“I know where it is,” I answered while hopping off the chimney to land lightly on the roof as I glanced over toward the nearby landmark building I’d been drawing a moment earlier. “I’m a couple miles away, by Grand River Avenue. Why, what’s going on? Are you okay?”   

“Oh! Oh, they might be going that way,” the young Tech-Touched blurted. “It’s on the news, there’s this red sedan, these two guys just grabbed a girl that was outside the school and now they’re driving down, umm… Uncle Fred, where–Lafayette. They’re coming your way on Lafayette but they might turn! The cops were chasing them, but they used a sonic cannon or something that blew one of the cars like a million miles away so they don’t dare get close. I think they’re trying to call in Touched for help but if the car gets out of sight they could disappear!” 

It took me a second to put that all together, but I was already using red paint to yank my helmet up. “Red sedan speeding everywhere running from cops and trying to hide, got it. On my way.” Thanking the girl and promising to call back, I disconnected while stowing the drawing pad in my nearby bag, hiding it out of sight, and slipping my gloves on. Then I took a running start, leaping off the building with a bit of blue paint to launch myself forward and up. Red yanked me toward the next building, and then my feet hit it, the shoes allowing me to run along the side without having to worry about putting more paint down to stay there. 

I’d been grateful for the shoes already, of course. But they meant more now than before. Thinking about some girl being grabbed by guys for… whatever reason made me push harder, using my mix of red, green, and blue paints to race along the sides and tops of buildings while scanning the road below. It didn’t take long to reach Lafayette, and I kept going that way. 

The kidnappers were using at least one Tech-Touched weapon. That didn’t necessarily mean they were Tech-Touched, just that they had access to it. A sonic based cannon was one of those things that popped up in the news now and then, often enough that I knew it was a black market thing. Hopefully, whoever these guys were, they’d just bought their weapon that way. 

But why would people with the kind of cash that it took to get and keep one of those things be grabbing some random high schooler? Unless she wasn’t random. Or unless they’d just found the weapon somewhere? Whatever, there were a lot of options and guessing would get me nowhere.

Of course, while I was running, my other phone went off. It was my actual Cassidy phone. I would’ve ignored it, except I’d already set the phone not to put any calls through that weren’t from my important contacts. Sure enough, when I took a second while running along a roof to unzip the pocket and glance at it, it was Mom on the phone. 

Pausing briefly, I weighed my choices. But in the end, I didn’t want to give them any reason to wonder about me. So I quickly deactivated my voice changer and answered the phone before starting to run again. “Hi, Mom!” I chirped, trying to sound normal. 

“Cassidy,” came the warm response, “I wanted–are you running?” 

I leapt from the roof of that building, windmilling through the air while replying, “Oh, uhhh, yeah. I–” My hand snapped out, shooting a bit of red that yanked me to another wall I could run along the side of. “You know, just trying to stay in shape. Beside’s, running’s fun. Sorry, I–” I flipped sideways off the edge of the building, landing on top of a signpost before using blue paint to launch myself up and forward, “–didn’t forget something, did I?” 

There was a brief pause before the answer came. “No, no, you did not forget anything, dear. As long as you’re okay?” 

“Yup!” I replied as cheerfully and simply as I could, doing my level best not to let her know that, at that exact moment, I was flying through the air as my red paint pulled me to another roof. “You know me, just can’t sit still for very long. What’s–umm, what’s up?” I nearly misjudged that particular landing, stumbling a little before catching myself. I really hoped this wasn’t going to be a long conversation. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t. Mom just wanted to ask me if I minded dressing up and going out for dinner the next night, since there was apparently some kind of award show at the country club that Dad needed to attend. I agreed, she made me promise not to run too much, and I disconnected the call (turning the voice changer back on, of course). Then I exhaled. Talking to my mother while doing all this… Paintball running and jumping stuff was nerve wracking. It felt like she could see me while I was talking, even though she couldn’t. Shaking that off, I focused on the task at hand. Namely, finding that car before they managed to completely disappear.

In the end, I didn’t actually have to look that hard to try to find the car. All I had to do was look for the news chopper in the sky. They seemed to be staying well back, probably to avoid getting nailed by that sonic cannon. But it gave me a general area to look in as soon as I saw the chopper hovering above one of the buildings about a mile from my starting point. And sure enough, as I landed against a billboard and stared intently toward the road, I saw it. The red sedan came screaming around a slow-moving semi, racing my way with a squeal of tires. 

Okay, right, I could do this. I could do it. There was an innocent girl in that car, I had to get her out of there, even if the idea of throwing myself at guys with access to at least one extremely dangerous Tech-Touched weapon made me want to whimper. I had to forget about how dangerous it was, forget about how easily a weapon like that could probably maim or kill me, and just… jump. 

I jumped, pushing off the wall into a backflip just as the car got close. They clearly hadn’t seen me yet, and I used just a touch of yellow paint to slow my fall right before the end, timing it just right. Which, again, was something I didn’t actually think about. It was kind of like when I’d been racing through the dark forest to get to Paige the other day. I’d just stopped thinking and knew where all the trees and bushes were, even in the darkness. Just like that, I didn’t stop to think about how to time my drop to coincide with the car’s passing, I just… knew how to do it. 

It worked. With the help of that bit of yellow, I landed perfectly in the middle of the passing car’s roof, falling slowly enough at that point that it only dented the thing in a bit. Sure, they really knew I was there by that point, but at least I didn’t just go right through the roof entirely or cave it in completely. Red paint yanked my hands down to stay on the car an instant later as it swerved hard to one side. Yeah, they definitely knew I was up there. So, without thinking about it, I painted the image of a man in purple armor holding an orange shield on my chest, activating the latter part.

Rolling quickly toward the passenger side, I popped my head down near the open window. “Hey, do you guys have any idea how fast you’re going?!” Using that moment, I took stock of the car’s occupants. Three guys and a girl. The only guy in front was the driver, with two guys in the back on either side of the clearly high school-aged girl. She looked maybe fourteen or fifteen, slim with short red hair. The guys all looked… well, normal. They weren’t wearing any kind of costumes or uniforms linking them to any of the Fell-gangs in town. Both the guys in the back had guns out. Not the sonic cannon, at least. They held regular handguns. 

Before they could react to my blurted words, I quickly pointed both hands (using a tiny bit of red on my chest to keep myself in place), hitting the girl with a pair of paint blobs. One was orange, and I activated it immediately, just in case this went south in the next few seconds. Hell, I didn’t know what these guys might do, but taking away their ability to just shoot and kill her that easily felt like a pretty solid idea right then.

As it turned out, it was me they wanted to shoot at. Both men in the backseat pointed their pistols my way, opening fire. They were silenced (the good Tech-Touched silencers that made the gunshots sound like soft coughs), but being quiet made them no less dangerous. I quickly jerked myself up despite the orange paint, not wanting to get hit at all if I could help it. They adjusted quickly and were already shooting up through the roof of the car as I used green paint to speed myself up, rolling backward to get off that spot while several bullets passed through it. 

Since I was near the back of the car, I slapped one hand down with red paint to keep myself in place. The driver was swerving all over the place, and I would’ve gone flying without that. As it was, my legs slid off the side, and one of the men clearly noticed because a shot hit one of them. The orange paint was still active, so it just stung a bit, but still. This wasn’t great. 

With a grunt, I jerked my legs back up onto the roof. Then I shot two more quick red blobs of paint ahead of us to the buildings on either side of the street. Another bullet from the assholes inside the car popped through the roof and rebounded off my shoulder. Which, ow. That was starting to hurt. I needed to handle this, right now. Especially before I ran out of paint. 

With that in mind, I activated the other paint blob I’d shot onto the girl a few seconds earlier. The non-orange one. It was white, and the car was suddenly filled with a blinding flash. As the people in there reacted, the car jerking to the side, I let myself slide right to the back window while activating the purple paint of the armored figure on my chest. Then I swung one leg back and drove my knee in through that rear windshield. The impact knocked a hole in the window, and I quickly threw myself in that way while everyone was still blinded and confused. Landing in the narrow space just above and behind the rear seat, I snapped my hands out to slap against the arms of either guy there. 

They reacted quickly despite being blinded, their guns pointing my way. But I was faster, activating the red paint I’d just slapped onto both of them. Linking them to the two spots of red I’d shot at the buildings we were now just barely passing, I sent both men flying out through the mostly-broken rear windshield with a pair of twin screams. 

But things weren’t exactly free and clear yet. The driver, who, despite being at least half-blinded by the white flash, still managed to flip the car’s autodrive on. That autodrive was now taking the car down an alley while the driver himself grabbed something and turned. The ‘something’ turned out to be a high-tech weapon that looked kind of like a futuristic silver and green sawed-off shotgun with oversized barrels. The sonic cannon, probably. 

Whatever it was, I did not want to get hit by it. To that end, I threw myself off the window area and into the backseat, landing basically in the kidnapped girl’s lap while lashing out with one foot. The purple paint was still active, so my kick actually broke the driver’s seat when it collided, knocking the man forward into the steering wheel just as he was trying to aim that weapon. It went off, the sound utterly fucking deafening in those close quarters. The blast blew the passenger side front door off, crumpling it up and sending it flying. Meanwhile, the collision of the man with the steering wheel took off the autodrive and the car suddenly veered in the other direction, slamming hard into the wall of the alley. The car stopped, I fell to the floor, the driver rebounded off the suddenly triggered airbag, and the kidnapped girl bounced off the back of the front passenger seat before her seatbelt yanked her back down. She might’ve been screaming. We all might’ve been screaming. But the deafening effect of that sonic cannon made it a moot point. 

Before the man could fire that damn thing again, I forced myself to pop up, snatching it out of his dazed hand. I threw the weapon out the shattered back window, then grabbed the girl’s hand. “Come on!” I shouted, though I was pretty sure she couldn’t hear me. I couldn’t hear me. But she had the basic idea anyway, squeezing my hand like it was a lifeline as I kicked one of the back doors open and pulled her out. It was time to get this girl out of there, before the driver recovered or either of those guys I’d sent flying caught up. 

Or not. Because as soon as the two of us emerged from the car, we found ourselves facing a whole group of maybe twelve men. And these guys didn’t look like the random criminals the ones in the car had seemed to be. All of them were wearing militaristic dark body armor and full face-covering helmets with white lab coats, and they were holding what looked kind of like submachine guns. But I was pretty sure those weapons did more than fire bullets. Because these weren’t ordinary thugs. They were troops who worked for Braintrust.

Well, I didn’t have to worry about one Tech-Touched gun anymore.

Because I was facing about a dozen of them instead. 

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Private Affairs 9-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Please note that there was a commissioned interlude focusing on That-A-Way and Pack posted yesterday. If you have not seen that, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find anyone else that I could hit that night. I did run across a couple… situations, but by the time I got there, they were already well in hand by one Star group or another. I mostly watched while a few of the Conservators or Ten Towers people mopped up some bad guys here and there. In a way, it was bad for the fact that I didn’t get to hit anyone else (and I was really in the mood to hit things). But it was also cool to watch other Touched from a good vantage point when I didn’t have to worry about life and death problems. 

Okay, correction, I was worrying about life and death problems. But not immediate ones. 

Anyway, it was also a good thing because less crime meant less people being hurt. As much as I wanted to work some of my stress off, that much was undoubtedly true. And just what the hell was wrong with me anyway? What had changed so much in such a short time that I felt at least a little bad that I couldn’t find more violent bad guys to punch? Was that really the best way to deal with all the stress I was feeling because of the whole… every bit of my current situation?  

No, probably not. Undoubtedly not. Ideally, I should talk to someone about it and just vent to a live person. But who the hell was I going to talk to? Who could I tell… half this stuff to, let alone all of it? Telling anyone about who my parents were was just… it was either too dangerous or unfair. I couldn’t dump it onto Wren. I wouldn’t dump it onto Wren. She was a kid. A pretty great kid with an incredibly useful power, who was fun to talk to and all that. I trusted her. I liked her. That was why I wouldn’t tell her about all this bullshit. She didn’t deserve that kind of stress. 

In the end, I found a less violent way of working off my aggression. Specifically, I spent an hour or so skate-painting my way across the city. Jumping from building to building, running along walls, popping the wheels out to race down the side before hitting a blue patch that sent me rocketing back up to a nearby billboard, and so on. It was my own insane extreme sport and I actually noticed a few people here and there taking pictures and video recording. I might’ve hammed it up a bit for them just because it was a way of putting everything else out of my mind. 

So, while I couldn’t hit anyone, I did manage to… exercise a lot of my aggression out. At least enough that when I finally made myself go home… home to a house full of bad guys save for Izzy, I actually fell asleep very quickly. And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t have any bad dreams. Or any dreams at all. I was able to sleep through the whole rest of the night, and because it was Saturday, I didn’t even wake up until midway through the next morning. It was almost eleven when I finally dragged myself up. Apparently I’d really needed that extra sleep. Go figure.  

Yup, I was well-rested. Which was probably a good thing, considering tonight was supposed to be Amber’s big birthday party. And I was pretty sure she would hunt me down if I didn’t show because I was too tired. If I was afraid of nightmares now, the thought of Amber kicking my door in while I was napping through her party was even worse. Yeah, I was definitely going. 

And so was Izzy. I had no doubt we wouldn’t be going anywhere without the entourage that had ‘secretly’ followed us around when we went to the mall to pick up treats for that movie night. Which meant I was going to have to be super careful not to do anything that might give away my own secrets. Because I was positive that there were going to be a lot of eyes, my family’s organization watching to make sure that… whatever threat they were protecting Izzy from didn’t touch her. Or making sure that she stayed put and didn’t run away. Or making sure she didn’t–

Okay, so I still had absolutely no idea what that was about. Was my family protecting her? Were they keeping her prisoner, even if she didn’t know she was a prisoner? Some combination of both? Part of me wanted to drag the girl into a closet and get answers out of her about all that once and for all, but that… that would probably be a bad idea. A very bad idea. 

In any case, I spent those few hours I had before the party taking a trip out to see Wren. Making my way to the other girl’s hidden shop, I found her and Fred hard at work in the basement once the door buzzed to let me in. The two appeared to be converting the room where we had been keeping Ashton into some kind of metal workshop. Which probably made sense, given the fact it was already apparently soundproofed. Actually, Wren had said something about setting up that room for ‘little explosions and stuff’, which… come to think of it, should that kind of worry me?

Nah. I was sure Wren knew what she was doing. And if she didn’t, I certainly couldn’t be any help. 

“If you install a swivel chair that can turn around slowly,” I informed her while leaning against the doorway to watch her work, “I think I might know someone who can get you a fluffy white cat.” 

“Hi, Paintball!” she blurted, popping to her feet and pushing the welding mask she’d been wearing up away from her face. Her hands were covered in what looked like black soot. “I like fluffy white cats, but it’s not an evil lair. It’s a room for me to build things that could, um…” 

“Things that could damage the rest of the building if they aren’t contained,” Fred finished for her. He was just setting a heavy H-shaped metal beam thing down against a spot on the wall that had been marked out with tape to show where it should go. As he spoke, the man picked up an electric screwdriver sitting nearby and proceeded to start driving in screws through slots in the metal thing. Clearly, he was doing the heavy lifting part of this after Wren detailed what to do.  

“Well, it’s a good thing you have this room to contain anything like that, huh?” Stepping into the room, I asked, “Is there anything I can do to help? Even just grunt work. I need to take my mind off… things.” Why did I say that? Why did I even bring it up? Now Wren was going to– 

“What’s wrong?” Sure enough, the little girl immediately piped up with that question. 

My head shook quickly. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, really. It’s okay, if I need help, I’ll definitely ask.” Giving her a thumbs up in the hope that it would stop her from worrying about me, I gestured. “Like I said, I need a distraction right now. So, how can I help out around here, huh?”  

I spent the next couple hours just helping them fix up that room. There was a lot to do to get it ready for all the stuff Wren wanted to build and experiment with, And the more she talked about all of that, the more excited she was. Not that I really followed what she was saying that well, but her eagerness was infectious. It really did help me take my mind off all my stuff, thankfully.

When we were done, at least for the moment, Wren beckoned for me to follow her into the main room. She moved to a box and produced what look like the same shoes I was wearing. “Ta da!” 

Grinning behind the helmet, I teased, “Hey, they look just my size too. If this whole Tech-Touched genius thing doesn’t pan out in the end, you could probably make a killing as a cobbler. Mmmm, cobbler. Now I want pie. Do you think shoe cobblers want pie a lot? I bet someone at some point heard ‘shoe cobbler’ and got very confused about people’s tastes.” 

“You’re weird,” Wren informed me with a giggle before tossing the shoes to me. “Try them on! Come on, come on, I wanna see!” She was bouncing up and down with obvious excitement. 

Chuckling despite myself, I moved to sit down on the nearby couch. While Wren (And Fred, who stood in the doorway and looked pretty curious himself) watched, I took off my own pace-skates and pulled the new shoes on. As expected, they fit just fine. Perfectly, really. Lacing them up, I stood and walked back and forth across the room a couple times. “Yup, they feel great.” 

Literally bouncing up and down eagerly, Wren urged, “Say, ‘Wheels-Out’.” 

Readying myself, I did so. Of course, the wheels popped out. The phrase ‘Wheels-In’ brought them in. According to Wren, the skates would only respond to the code being spoken by the person wearing them, which was nice. It meant I could make them work even if I wasn’t using my voice changer thing, without asking her to program my real voice into it. Part of me wondered just how much of a coincidence that actually was. Did she, like Blackjack, know I was using a voice changer and simply wasn’t pushing to find out why? 

“But I didn’t just reinvent the same pace-skates,” Wren excitedly informed me. “That’d be boring. They’ve done that already. These are special! Check it out, when the shoes or the skate wheels are against something like a wall or a ceiling, they’ll stay there unless you pull them away yourself.”

“But the wheels still roll and everything?” I asked, certain she knew better than I did how to make something like that work, but still curious about the specifics. 

Sure enough, her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, uh huh. See, they don’t… ummm… they don’t really stick like your red paint does. It’s more of a… a gravity thing.” 

Blinking, I asked, “Gravity thing?” 

So she explained. “See, whenever the shoes or the wheels are pressed against something, they project a sort of… umm, okay well the simple version is that they change your personal gravity depending on the orientation of the thing they’re pressed against. If you’re walking on the ground, your gravity is normal. If you put them against the wall, it’ll change your personal gravity so that it’s coming at you from the side instead of above, see? And if you’re upside down with the shoes against the ceiling, it’ll reverse gravity so it’s coming at you from below to keep you up there. No matter which way you’re facing, the shoes will make the gravity bubble around you act like you’re standing right-side up on solid ground!” As she finished explaining that much, the kid was (understandably) beaming. 

“Holy shit, Wren,” I muttered in amazement. “You do good work on short notice.” 

She shrugged at that. “Not really short notice. I was working on the gravity thing for my own stuff, and started sketching ideas for your thing right after we met. Getting your size was the last part and that was just to buy shoes to put the equipment into. It–” She hesitated, biting her lip with obvious apprehension and uncertainty. “You really like it? I thought it’d help if you could get around like you do without using as much paint.” 

“Like it?” I echoed, stepping over to hug her tightly despite myself. She gave an eep of surprise and then returned it with a giggle. “It’s amazing, Wren. I mean damn. This is ridiculous. Come on, let’s see…” 

Letting her go, I stepped over, lifting my foot to press it against the nearby wall. Then I lifted the other foot and put it against the wall too. Sure enough, I just sort of… stood there, sideways, with my feet against the wall. It was kind of disorienting, but not hard at all. There was a brief twisting sensation in my stomach as my own personal gravity reoriented, but nothing too bad. After that, it was just like Wren said, I felt as though I was standing upright on the ground.

Standing like that for a few seconds, I started walking up the wall. Whistling casually, I walked all the way to the ceiling, put my foot up to that, took a breath, and then put my other foot up. That twisting sensation came back as my stomach briefly protested gravity adjusting the way it did, before I was suddenly crouching against the ceiling. Crouching against the ceiling with no paint. Holy shit. Holy shit. This was…

From below, Wren called, “You can jump to get down, but be careful!” 

Taking her advice, I pushed off with both feet. Gravity swung up and around into the proper position again, and I felt a rush while flipping over. I didn’t exactly land completely smoothly, stumbling a bit to the side. But still, it was pretty good. 

Popping back upright, I grinned. “See, I knew partnering with you was gonna be awesome. I just didn’t know it was gonna be this awesome this quick.” I was smiling broadly like a goofy idiot. She was right, I’d be able to move around as Paintball a lot more easily like this, traveling the way I liked to without using up red paint to stick to walls. That would free up paint for a lot more things. 

“I’m gonna make more!” Wren promised quickly. “More fun things that’ll be even better for you, I swear. I’ve got lots of ideas, and I think you’ll really like them. But they take time and work and stuff. But I–” 

Stepping that way, I embraced the girl. “It’s okay, Wren. These are amazing. Seriously, thanks. Every bit of paint I save from not having to use it to stick to walls will be paint I can use other ways, to help people. I can move faster like this. You’re amazing, and so are these.” 

“Superkid’s right,” Fred put in. “You did good work. But you know the rules, what we said.” 

She nodded, glancing to me, “Gotta do homework, not just fun work.” 

Chuckling, I rubbed the top of her head. “Good. I’ve got things to do too. But I’ll put these things through their paces, I’ll tell you that much. Thanks for making these so fast, Wren. 

“Something tells me they’re gonna come in handy real soon.” 

*****

Of course, hopefully that real soon wouldn’t apply to tonight. Because it was time to go to Amber’s party. I changed into my street clothes before stopping by the mall on the way back to look for a present that she might like. In the end, I grabbed her some new AirPods and an iPad that I thought she’d like, along with a box of chocolate candy, and had them all wrapped there. 

Yeah, part of me still felt bad about using what was obviously dirty money from my parents to buy gifts for some girl at school. But the truth was that that money was already there. Whatever had been done to get it was over. It wasn’t like ignoring it would make whatever bad things that happened to get it just… disappear. Making my parents contribute to some random girl’s birthday was a hell of a lot better than a lot of other ways the money could be spent. 

Besides, if I didn’t spend money to buy Amber a present, it would look awfully strange at this point. Mom and Dad knew we were going to a party, knew Amber was a close enough friend that we’d brought her home to see that movie, and so on. If they noticed me not buying her something nice, it’d attract attention.

All of which were things I told myself repeatedly while picking out those gifts. It didn’t help entirely erase the guilt about that whole situation, but it was something.

Catching an Uber ride home, I found Izzy and the two of us headed out to where Jefferson, the driver, was waiting. He led us to Henlein (Jefferson’s favorite black BMW, named after the guy who invented the watch), and we were off. 

On the way, I glanced to the girl beside me. “Here.” I offered her the package with the AirPods. “Those can be from you.” 

Blinking in surprise, she looked at me with a frown. “But I didn’t help–I mean I never–I didn’t even… what?” 

“Don’t worry about it,” I assured her. “Just help me with something now and then and we’re totally even. I mean, technically my parents bought the gifts, so you might as well get as much credit as I do for one of them.” With a wink, I glanced out the window to watch as we passed other cars on the road, adding, “Oh, that reminds me, Dad said I should give you your allowance card. He said as long as you’re living with us, you should get the same benefits Simon and me do.”

“Um. Allowance card?” The other girl was clearly baffled. “What’s an allowance card?” 

Digging into my pocket, I came out with the thing, handing it over. It was a debit card with her name on it. “Dad said he’s starting you out with a thousand a week, but if you end up needing–”  

“A thauuuuuwhat?!” Izzy blurted, jerking in her seat as she dropped the card as if it had burned her. “What? A what–he’s giving a–what?” 

Reaching down, I plucked up the card, holding it out to her again. She eyed it like it might be a snake. “A thousand a week. You should be able to get whatever you need with that, but like I said, if you need more, Dad’s usually good with fudging it and adding extra to the account.”

Now she was staring at me like I’d grown three extra heads. “Why would I need more than a thousand a week? What–how do you–what bills do you even have?!” 

First I giggled reflexively at her reaction, ignoring the pit in my stomach. How bad was it to get Izzy involved in this whole thing by handing her dirty money? But as with the whole gift thing, Mom and Dad would really notice if I didn’t give her the debit card and tell her about the allowance. Then I’d have a lot more questions to answer. I had to act like the money didn’t bother me. 

Again of course, giving it to Izzy was another way of putting at least a little bit of that dirty money to better use. Even if it was just like bailing water out of a sinking boat with a teaspoon. 

“Just have fun with it tonight,” I urged. “Play whatever games you want. Buy games for other people too. It’ll be great.” 

Izzy was still staring at me open-mouthed, as I put the card back in her hand. “I guess so… all this stuff is… you know how weird this is, right? That’s a lot of money for most people.”

“Yeah, I know.” Looking back to her, I replied, “I mean, not personally, but I kinda get it. But seriously, it’s okay. If this freaks you out, you should see where Dad wants to take us for vacation next time.” 

Flatly, the other girl replied, “Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was Mars.” 

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted with a grin. 

“Like he’d take us to the same place two years in a row.”  

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Friends and Enemies 8-02 (Summus Proelium)

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We didn’t end up presenting our project that day after all. Not that we weren’t ready, but Mr. Dorn didn’t end up picking us. Privately, after class was over, he told me that all of us looked so tired he didn’t choose our group because he was afraid we’d pass out in front of the class. Which was fair, considering I kept half-dozing off while watching other people present theirs. 

On the other hand, I had no idea why Jae and Amber seemed so tired. Amber in particular kept jolting a bit every now and then, as if she’d actually drifted unconscious before catching herself. Maybe she’d gone to a party and taken Jae with her? That was probably it. People liked Amber. 

Oh well, it worked out well enough for me. I wasn’t planning on getting into anymore Touched business at least until my body stopped being quite so sore and my costume was fixed. I had to spend some time getting a new helmet and probably a new set of coveralls altogether. I didn’t have much of a chance to go over the old suit with a fine-toothed comb the night before, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to salvage much of it after that near-direct lightning strike.

Near-direct lightning strike. I’d been almost perfectly hit by one of Cuélebre’s lightning bolts and walked away a few minutes later. Sure, it hurt like hell. I still hurt, even with the orange paint that had saved my life. But regardless of how sore I happened to be, I was alive. I survived. And somehow that fact kept hitting me more today, at random points during school, than it had last night. I’d just be sitting in class or walking down the hall and it would suddenly hit me just how close I came to being killed. Once, that fact hit me hard enough in the middle of class that I had to run to the restroom and throw up, with the called back excuse of stomach problems. Which, of course, prompted a couple remarks about my finally reaching puberty. Ha fucking ha. 

Anyway, the day went on like that. I had lunch with Tomas and the two of us talked about music for awhile. It was kind of nice, actually. I didn’t think about Touched stuff for a few minutes, like about how close I’d come to dying, or the fact that Eits now knew I was a girl, or any of that. I just focused on talking about random British punk bands and how Tomas wanted to start something up here in Detroit. He wanted to know if I had any idea who he could try to recruit, which… pffft, like I had a clue. The best I could do was point him in a general direction. But even that was still fun. It was relaxing, simple, and… inconsequential. After everything that happened the night before with desperately fighting to get those vials, inconsequential was pretty nice. 

We were just dumping our trays and walking to the lockers as Tomas remarked, “So, remember that supper thing we talked about? My parents would like you to come over tomorrow night.” He glanced toward me, adding, “They know you’ve got your whole family meal thing tonight and all that. So, you know, tomorrow. If you’re not busy. And I really hope you’re not, cuz Mum’s planning something pretty special and if I tell her she has to push it back…” He whistled long and low, head shaking as if awe at the storm that would cause. “So please with the RSVP.” 

I was about to respond, when another voice spoke up. “Oh, hey, guys.” It was Paige Banners, a tall, blonde girl with perfect hair, a perfect smile (when she chose to use it), and according to every guy in our grade, perfect everything else. Her family was the second richest one in the city, and I don’t think she ever forgave me for that. She was also the one who started joking about male cheerleaders when I’d been on the team back in junior high and had been the first to make that puberty comment earlier when I ran to the restroom. Her smile now was like a viper, as she gave a tiny, insincere wave. “So what’s going on? Are you two starting up a boy band?” She gave a casual nod toward the guitar case held loosely in Tomas’s hand before adopted a faux understanding tone. “Or were you waiting for Evans to hit puberty first? If so, have I got great news for you.” 

“Well, you know,” I replied shortly, “for some of us, puberty is a long-awaited, beautiful and patient biological process that makes us all the individuals we’re supposed to be. And for others, it’s a plastic surgeon in the islands who never quite got over losing his job as a Barbie designer.” 

Oh boy, Paige didn’t like that one little bit. That was for sure. A snarl twisted that perfect face, as she snapped back, “You think your family’s so perfect? Well guess what, you–” 

Tomas stepped in, moving between us with a pointedly cleared throat. “Okay, I think that’s about enough. Let’s keep the claws in and go about our days. Nice seeing you, Paige, as always. We’ll have to catch up later. Just make sure your broomstick and cauldron are nice and put away so nobody trips over them, yeah?” With that, he pulled me by the arm past the glaring girl. 

“Well, that was fun,” I muttered as we reached his locker. “Aren’t you glad you came back now?” 

Snorting, he shook his head at me while opening the locker. “You know the worst thing? She’s not that bad to everyone else.” When my mouth opened, he held up a hand quickly. “I know, I know, she’s the wicked witch of the west and all. I get it. I’m with you. I’m just saying, call her an evil Barbie all you want, she’s not an awful person with other people. I’ve seen her around when you’re not there. She’s even stood up for some guys that were being pushed around, believe it or not. It’s just…” He offered a helpless shrug. “I dunno, something about you sets her off. And that’s totally her problem, not yours. I just wish I knew why she’s always hated you so much.” 

“So do I,” I muttered under my breath, frowning as unwanted thoughts about my own family bounced through my head for a moment before I shoved them aside to look at him. “Anyway, I was about to say, sure. I can come over tomorrow for dinner. Wouldn’t want you to have to tell your mom she’s doing all that work for nothing. Especially if she’s near any sharp objects.”

Laughing, Tomas shook his head. “Okay, she’s not that bad about it. Still, good. They’ll be glad to see you, Cassidy.” He offered me that winning smile once more, the one that made my knees weak and drove my heart up into my throat. “I think they’ve missed you even more than I did.” 

“Gee, thanks,” I muttered, blushing a little while kicking his foot lightly. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be there for dinner. I better get to class now though. You know, before that nice, sweet, oh-so-helpful Paige tells the teacher that I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Eswatini or something.”  

“Oh, right, you’ve got another class with her.” Wincing, Tomas offered a weak, “Good luck with that?”

Murmuring a thanks, I headed off to class, stopping by my own locker just long enough to grab the right book. On the way, my phone buzzed. My actual phone, as I hadn’t retrieved the one that Eits gave me. If I didn’t trust the boy enough to have it in my home, I certainly wasn’t going to bring it to class with me. No, it was still safe in its hiding spot for the time being. Eventually I would get my own new burner and return that one to him with a word of thanks. He had saved me from exposing my little secret to his boss, after all. That was… worth something. Worth a lot.

In any case, the text on my actual phone was from Dad. He was letting me know that our own family dinner would be one hour later than usual because there was some big important meeting that he absolutely couldn’t get out of, but that we should definitely be ready for it.

A big meeting that Dad couldn’t get out of on family dinner night? Wow. It wasn’t exactly unheard of to have a late dinner as long as we actually had it any time they weren’t out of town (or ‘out of town’ as I’d recently figured out), but still. It wasn’t common. Something big must’ve come up to keep Dad busy. I wondered if it was an actual business thing, something to do with his Silversmith hero work, or something to do with his evil psychotic monstrous villain work. Christ, my family was complicated, weren’t they? And I really had to find out just how this whole ‘running the city’s villainy’ thing of theirs worked. But how? I knew they had a place under the mall, and there was probably something in one of Dad’s offices (both the ones at home and the ones I knew he kept in the city itself) that might point me in the right direction. And… and I didn’t know. The problem was that I was terrified of my parents finding out or even suspecting that I knew what kind of things they were up to. The only advantage I had right now was that they didn’t know I knew anything. If they did…

“Hey!” Paige voice cut through my musings as she stood impatiently nearby, gesturing until I realized I was standing in the doorway. “I know you think your family owns this entire school. But could you maybe let other people use it still? If it’s not too much to ask.”

Sighing, I headed into class with a dismissive wave. “Sure thing, Princess. Knock yourself out.

“With a bat, preferably.” 

******

After taking a little nap once school was out to recharge my batteries, I took an Uber ride to the mall and picked up a new burner phone. Yeah, I was probably being overly paranoid about what Eits could’ve done to the other phone. Okay, I was definitely being paranoid. But still, I got a new phone and transferred the numbers into it.

I also walked past that door that lead into my family’s… what? What was down there? I had no idea, aside from the fact that it was a place where they apparently did business. I had to get a look inside, but how the hell was I going to pull that off? Unless the pink paint offered me some kind of shapeshifting or shape copying powers…

Wait a second…

Ten minutes later, it was official. The pink paint did not offer me shapeshifting or copying powers. I had tried spraying it on myself in the bathroom and thinking really hard about looking like someone else, and nothing happened. I’d also sadly sprayed someone else who came into the bathroom on their back, only for nothing to happen then either. Which, come to think, it was probably a good thing the paint wasn’t some kind of dissolve your enemies stuff. 

In any case, minor wishful thinking brainstorm proven wrong, I still had no idea what the pink paint did. And I still had no way of getting into the mall basement. So I was basically just striking out all over the place. 

Thankfully, I didn’t have problems with my next two errands, which amounted to buying a new helmet that was almost identical to my old one from a sporting goods store and a couple more coveralls. As before, I covered the purchases by also picking up other things like a whole bunch of painting supplies with the coveralls and some motorcycle maintenance stuff with the helmet. Along with other things to keep it looking as mundane as possible. Of course, in both places I was able to pay at the self checkout, so I didn’t even really matter that much. But still, paranoia was the name of the game. 

That done, I had something approaching a normal costume again. So, after finding a private place to pull the new costume and helmet on, I threw myself into the air, used red paint to hit the top of the building, and lost myself in a quick run across the city. I doubled around a few times and kept an eye out for anyone watching before slipping my way through a couple alleys to reach the store. And only part of that was because of how much I enjoyed using my paint to get around. 

Nearing Wren’s place, I went into that little hiding spot in the alley to retrieve the phone that Eits had given me. There were a few missed messages on it, which I read through. There were a couple from Wren, mostly checking to make sure I was okay after last night, and something about needing to talk to me something but that it wasn’t an emergency. There were also a couple from Eits of about the same variety, along with reassurance that he wasn’t going to tell anyone about my grandmother’s recipe. Which was a pretty good way of hiding what he really meant, as far as that kind of thing went. 

First, I sent a message back to him, letting the boy know that I would tell my grandmother she didn’t have to worry. My thumbs hovered over the keypad indecisively for a second before I added, ‘is the kid ok?’

I was just about to let Wren know I was on my way in, when the message from Eits came back. ‘All meds good. Boss says owes u.’

Shaking my head, I sent back a quick message that he’d already paid, then sent a message to Wren saying I was basically right at her doorstep.

As soon as I walked in and down the stairs, Wren jumped up from the couch where she had been watching cartoons. “Paintball! Hi, I… oh, hey, you got a new costume.”

Giving her a thumbs up, I replied, “Sure, can’t go around looking all ripped to pieces, can I? What would people think about the Paintball brand?”

Snickering a little, the girl agreed, “Yeah, I guess you did look kind of scruffy last night. But a good scruffy. A triumphant scruffy.”

“Triumphant scruffy, huh?” I echoed with a smile she couldn’t see. “I’ll take it. But hey, you said you wanted me to come over? And where’s Fred?”

“He had some things to do,” she replied easily before adding, “He wants me to do school stuff again, so he’s picking up some books. He said he was a bad student and he’d be a worse teacher, but that he can at least follow the instructions in the book. Except he said it with more curse words and stuff.”

Shaking that off, she pressed on more excitedly, “But yeah, I wanted you to come over because I need your shoe size. And all your other sizes too, while we’re at it. You know, because I’m gonna be making things for you.” Her grin was wide and contagious. “Right now I had ideas about your skates, so that’s what I’m gonna focus on. If that’s okay?” At the last bit, her smile faltered, as if afraid that I would object. 

“Dude,” I replied, “you do what sounds best to you. I’m sure it’ll be great.”

Her smile returned in full force, and she grabbed my arm to pull me. “C’mon, I sorta need to take plaster casts of your feet. Having the sizes is all well and good, but I need casts if they’re going to fit perfectly.”

So, with a silent thanks that I wasn’t wearing any toenail polish to muddy the waters, I let the kid take casts of my feet with my socks on and socks off. It felt weird, but hey, if I was going to get new Tech-Touched skating toys out of it, I wasn’t going to object. 

Eventually, that was all done and I excused myself. Now that I had a functioning costume again, it was time to pay a visit to Ten Towers to see about picking up that detainment application thing before the judge in Ashton’s case got too annoyed with me. I just hoped Caishen had meant it when she said someone would help me figure out how to fill it out, because the last thing I wanted to do was screw something like that up. 

Anyway, I made it to Towers Plaza. Originally, it was called Three Towers Plaza, back when the founding group was known as Three Towers. Three major international companies who had decided back when Detroit first began to get a name for itself as a major Touched manufacturing city that they would work together and invest into a group to protect their assets from Fell-Touched. Tocher Pharmaceuticals, Saito Automotive, and Autry Media Technologies. They were the founding trio, the companies who constructed the original plaza, consisting of three massive office buildings surrounding a large central… well, plaza. One building housing each company.

But more companies had signed into their deal over the years. Patterson Insurance, the Konners And Bell law firm, Rheese Technologies, Gallop Fuel, Fetchings Grocery, En Route Delivery Services, and Aether Airlines. 

Ten companies. They didn’t build more office buildings for each additional company, of course. The other companies just took up residence in various parts of the established buildings as their local headquarters, buying out entire floors from the original founders. And the name went from being called Three Towers Plaza, to Four Towers Plaza, then Six Towers, and finally they gave up and just went with Towers Plaza. 

That’s where I was, standing on the street staring up the three giant office towers set up at the three sides of this place. The plaza itself was enormous all on its own, with a dozen different well-maintained walkways leading in various directions, a tall black memorial in the center with the names of all fallen Star-Touched from the past twenty years, a restaurant for employees and guests, a small square where street performances were put on, and more. 

Taking a breath, I shoved aside my nervousness and stepped off the sidewalk, officially entering Ten Towers territory. 

I just hoped this wouldn’t take too long, because it was family dinner night. And while I may have been okay with driving Cuélebre into a frothing mad rage, I did not want to face my mother if I was late to that. 

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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 7-08 and Patreon Snippet – Izzy (Summus Proelium)

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There was a buzzing of panic in the back of my head that wouldn’t go away. My mouth opened and closed a couple times as I stood there, face still covered by the mask while the broken helmet was held tightly in one hand. The buzzing turned audible as I managed a low, “Uhhhhh…. n-no, I—”

And that was when my panicking brain had the incredibly genius idea to make Eits stop talking by shooting black paint at him. I didn’t even know what that was supposed to accomplish other than keeping him silent for a few seconds. What was I going to do, follow him around forever constantly shooting black paint at him so he couldn’t tell anybody? What was my endgame there?

From the look on what I could see of his face after he tried and failed to say something, Eits was just as dubious as to the long term validity of this plan as I was. He stared at me, arms spreading apart in a ‘really?’ gesture that made me blush. 

Finally, I canceled the paint and stammered, “Look, you can’t— I mean, don’t… I’m not… you—”

His hands raised while he shook his head quickly. “Stop, just stop. I’m not telling anybody. Are you kidding me? After you helped me get my ball back and all that? You saved my ass. I’m not gonna throw you under the bus, geez. I was just surprised, that’s all. I just…” Trailing off, his head tilted to the side. “Blackjack’s coming. Gimme your phone. That’s what you’re using to change your voice, right? Let me see, quick.”

I didn’t have much of a choice, so I passed the phone that way. He took a quick glance at the damaged device while pulling another phone from his pocket. I saw one of his mites jump into my phone, then slip over to the other one. Then Eits past the new phone to me. “Plug it into your mic, hurry.”

Without wasting time asking questions, I paired the new phone with my microphone (that was what was actually changing my voice, it just needed the phone for the software part to work properly) and tried talking. “Hello, hello. Good?” It worked. My voice sounded like it should have again. My mic had kept the same settings. 

And just in time, because a nondescript blue car screeched to a halt a short distance away. Blackjack and a couple of his armed people stepped out. The man himself looked around briefly before his eyes centered on the two of us. And you know what? I had to give him credit, because despite how terrified for his daughter the man had to be, the first words out of his mouth were, “Are you two okay?” Belatedly, he ordered his men to spread out and watch for trouble. 

Eits was quiet, so I spoke up. “Cuélebre’s gone. I… um, lost him, I guess. But I got this back.” Holding my hand up, I showed the man the vial held tightly in it. 

As soon as it appeared, I saw a load of tension, though not nearly all of it, slip from his shoulders. He exhaled and stepped that way, reaching out for the vial. I let him take it, and only once it was secure in his own pocket did the man speak. “The others?” 

“Pack has one with her, and my… my friend has the other in the car,” I replied, hesitantly looking toward Eits. “Which is…” 

“I lost track of it,” he admitted. “But so did everyone else. I was kind of focused on leading all the others away, and on finding you after that whole lightning thing. I’m pretty sure they got the car out of sight.”

I had no idea what he was thinking, what his opinion was about what he had just found out about me. And there wasn’t exactly time to ask at the moment. Instead, I said, “I’ll find out. Just…” Then I paused, realizing a problem. I couldn’t call Wren without the number in my phone. But the real phone was broken.

“You should call them,” Eits urged,  giving me a brief, yet significant look. Clearly, that mite of his had copied all the number data out of the old phone. So it was probably a good thing that I wasn’t keeping deeply personal information in it. That phone was intended as my Touched thing, so I kept my personal stuff off it.

Sure enough, when I opened the phone, I found the right number in the contacts. Giving Eits a slight nod, I hit it and brought the phone to my ear. I could see Blackjack standing there, watching me like a hawk with tension still visible in him. It was clear that he would not relax until he had every vial. And after seeing how far his rivals were willing to go to get the things for themselves, I really couldn’t blame him. 

The phone rang a couple times before Wren answered. “Hello? Who—”

“It’s Paintball,” I cut her off. “I’m okay. I got one of the vials back from Cuélebre, but there’s one still on the car. Please tell me you still have the car.”

There was a burst of noise from the other side, as the younger girl clearly turned to tell someone else, no doubt Fred, that I was the one on the phone. Then she was back. “Paintball! Why are you— never mind. Yes, we’ve got the car! There were a bunch of bad guys, and then there were a bunch of other red cars and I think they were trying to help. But there were still lots of bad guys trying to stop us— I mean the car— so I hid it behind a building and I don’t think anybody knows where it is. But they keep driving past looking for it and I don’t know who’s bad or good anymore. Where’s Pack? She’s not answering her phone either. What—”

Wincing, I quickly interrupted. “I’m working on it. Just keep it there and I’ll come get them. And hey, thanks. That was some really good driving. Just hang on a second.”

With that, I muted the phone and looked over to Blackjack. “We’ve got it. The next vial’s in the car and I can go get it. But what about Pack and That-A-Way? They were both taken by that weird prisoner guy, and Pack’s got the last vial. Plus, I mean… I know the Minority aren’t exactly on your Christmas card list, but—”

It was my turn to be interrupted, as the man spoke. “I owe the girl no particular ill will. Particularly given the current situation. Intentional or not, she’s helped me secure these vials. And as far as that goes…” He exhaled. “The boy calls himself Jailtime. From what I understand, there are two aspects to his power. The first allows him to selectively cancel movement-based powers, such as teleportation, within an area.” 

“Which is why That-A-Way couldn’t teleport,” I murmured. 

“Correct,” he confirmed. “The second use of his power allows him to take anyone he’s touching to some kind of abandoned prison somewhere. The boy has some kind of power over the prison to create simulacrum beings and to control things within the prison itself, everything except the people he brings in. If you can get to the exit, you get transported back to where you left from. Other than that, we have no idea where this prison is. Or if it’s even a true physical place that can be reached.”

“So we just have to wait until they manage to get out of there by themselves?” I winced after saying it. “I mean, at least Pack has her animals and… I… I guess we just… oh God, I hope they’re okay.”

“As do I,” the man agreed quietly, and I knew it wasn’t just because he wanted that last vial, even if that was a big part of it. Hell, I knew it had to be taking everything he had not to scream at me to just get the vial in the car, but Blackjack controlled himself. His voice was mostly calm. “But in the meantime…”

“I’ll go get the next vial right now,” I assured him before pausing. “But uhh, maybe I shouldn’t go the fun way with Cuélebre still pretty pissed off out there.”

Eits promptly took the hint, speaking up. “I’ll drive him over to grab the vials. Then we’ll come right back.”

I could see the objection in Blackjack’s body language. He didn’t want to let me out of his sight until he had all the vials, particularly if I was about to go grab one. But he relented with a slight nod. “Go. I need to check in with my people, but I’m not leaving this spot. Get them and come back.” His words did not invite discussion or disagreement, only obedience. 

I let it go. The guy was stressed. I mean, he was also a supervillain with a horde of minions at his beck and call who was clearly accustomed to giving any orders he wanted. But in this case, he was also understandably stressed. The fact that he hadn’t snapped at me and was even willing to let me leave his sight to get the next vial for him said a lot more about his patience and control than anything else. I wasn’t going to childishly demand he say please or anything stupid like that. 

Instead, I just looked over to Eits. “Car?”

No sooner had I said it, than a station wagon pulled up to the curb. The boy gestured to it before looking to his boss. “We’ll be right back. What about the other attacks?”

“Distractions,” Blackjack replied. “Hit and run techniques meant to keep us busy. They did the same thing across the city to occupy the Star-Touched. I’m checking in on our other people now, just to be sure. You grab those vials, then we’ll secure them and all of this will be over.” His gaze flicked over to me as he added, “And I will owe you more than I can ever repay.”

Rather than respond to that, I stepped down into the station wagon. Only when Eits had gotten in the other side and pulled away from the curb did it occur to me to weakly ask, “Oh God, this is stolen, isn’t it?” 

“Borrowed for the emergency,” he corrected. “As soon as we’re done, I’ll fill it with gas and put it right back where we found it. Scout’s honor.”

I probably should’ve said something else to that, but all I could think about was what he now knew. I fell silent, chancing a glance that way. He was looking at me rather than the road. Then again, he wasn’t actually physically driving anyway. One of his mites was, so Eits didn’t need to watch the road. 

The two of us stared at each other for a minute, as I rested the broken helmet in my lap. It was obvious that neither of us really knew what to say. But we had to say something.

In a minute, anyway. Right then, I remembered Wren and quickly unmuted the phone. “Okay, heading for the car. Where is it, exactly?”

She gave directions, and I passed them to Eits before letting the girl know that we would be showing up in a station wagon so she wouldn’t freak out when she saw it on the car’s cameras. I stayed on the line with her the whole way just in case something happened. And, of course, because it gave me an excuse not to get into the inevitable awkward conversation with Eits. 

It also gave me a chance to explain what was going on with Pack. Wren, of course, wasn’t exactly happy about the fact that we couldn’t do anything but wait. I couldn’t blame her for that, considering how annoyed I was by it. Yet there was nothing else for it. We just had to be patient and hope the two of them (plus the lizard buddies) could get out of that prison without our help. 

Finally, we pulled up around the back of the building in question. The car was waiting there, and I had Eits wait while I went over, opened the door, and reached in. There it was, the vial. We had the vial, meaning there was only one more out there. The one Pack had. Please, let her and That-A-Way get away from that Jailtime guy.

Clutching the vial from the car, I looked up to the sky and murmured a silent prayer before  bringing the phone back to my ear. “Got it. Pack’s got the last one, as soon as she… Wren, you… you did great. Seriously, this wouldn’t have happened without you. That girl survives all this, it’s totally because of you.”

Promising to let her know the second I found out anything else, I disconnected, reaching the car just as something else occurred to me. Eyes widening behind my mask, I grabbed the door and got in while blurting, “Wait, what about Ashton? I just left him back there when we took off after Cuélebre.”

“I guess Blackjack’s probably got him,” the boy replied before physically wincing. “I really don’t see that ending well for him after what he did.”

And I would have to do something about that. Going silent for a moment, I waited before glancing to Eits. “I guess you probably have a lot of questions, huh?”

He hesitated before shrugging. “It’s pretty self-explanatory, actually. Maybe not specifics or anything, but posing as the gender you’re not makes it harder to identify you later. It’s a pretty good—” In mid-sentence, he suddenly stopped, making a kind of adorable horrified noise. “Errr, did I just do to you what people kept doing to me? I mean, are we both… are you…”

My head shook as I quickly assured him, “No, no, I’m not trying to transition or anything. It’s really just a disguise.” Belatedly, I hit the button to deactivate the voice thing and spoke normally. “I guess you could probably take offense to that, huh?”

His response was another shrug. “Not really. It’s a disguise, you’re not mocking anything. Context kinda matters. I just… I mean… I guess I’m still just a little surprised. Okay, a lot surprised. It’s a pretty good way of hiding your identity though, if you’re the kind of girl with a body type that can pass for a boy and oh my God I just realized I said that out loud.” The last bit came all in a rush as he lowered his head to bang it against the steering wheel, making me glad again that he wasn’t driving the normal way. 

My face flushed under the mask, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. There were a lot of people who could have said something like that and basically ruined my night. Or, they could have a while ago before my priorities got pretty reorganized. Still, the reminder that at best I looked like a girl who had not made it very far through puberty sent an embarrassed twinge through me. At least it could be worse. 

“Sorry,” Eits was saying. “I’m really not trying to pry into your identity or anything, I swear. But how long are you going to be able to pull this charade off? I mean, once you get a little older, people might notice… changes.”

It was worse! It was worse, definitely worse. Oh God!

My face went bright red, feeling warm under the mask as I dropped my head into my hands and groaned. “I’m not a kid.”

“Oh,” Eits started, “I wasn’t trying to say you—”

“I’m not a kid,” I interrupted. “Let’s just say I’m closer to college than middle school. The puberty fairy’s already made it pretty clear that her ideal look for me is ‘vampire turned when she was thirteen.’ At my sixteenth birthday party, we celebrated that I finally crossed five feet. I—” Then I stopped myself, realizing that for all he’d talked about not prying into my identity, I probably still shouldn’t hand him so much information like that. I probably should have stopped talking sooner, but I was just so flustered. And it had been a long night. 

Eits was looking my way, waiting for me to fall silent before he spoke. “Sorry. That was a really dumb assumption and a stupid thing for me to say. I was trying to help things and… well, yeah. You see how that turned out. Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl under that costume. what matters is who you are, right? And who you are is the guy—sorry, girl who really helped me out of a jam, and accepted who I am pretty much instantly. You’re the girl who risked her life to save the daughter of a supervillain, and who is going back there right now to talk to said supervillain about not hurting the guy who almost killed his daughter, about letting the guy go without taking his revenge. So personally, I think you’re pretty brave, cool, funny, and accepting. Those are the things you can change. Anyone gives you shit about the things you can’t, fuck ‘em.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of my mouth. “I’m not entirely sure ‘fuck ‘em’ is really the best way to handle my body image issues.”

Before Eits could really recover from his reaction to that, the car stopped right back where we had started. As promised, Blackjack was there. He’d been joined by more of his troops, including Cardsharp. When I got out of the car (taking a second to make sure my voice changer was on again), the La Casa leader’s gaze snapped to me, and everyone seemed to freeze. 

At first, I didn’t say anything. I simply steeled myself and looked to him. “Pack’s got the last vial.” I held up the one that I had retrieved. “As soon as she gets away from Jailtime, you’ll have everything you need to save your daughter.” 

A bit of weight seemed to slip from the man’s shoulders, as he murmured, “Pack…” Looking to one of his men, he ordered, “Make absolutely sure that spot is clear and safe when they show up. And–” He glanced to me before adding, “Let That-A-Way go unharmed, along with the rest of her team. The truce stays so long as they don’t attack any of our people.” 

His man acknowledged that and moved away while speaking into a phone, and I started again. “You have Ashton. You also said that if I got you the vials, you’d owe me a favor.” Stepping over, I extended the one I had to him before adding, “I’ve helped you find them. Assuming Pack gets out of there okay, I want two favors.”

Only once he had the vial in his hand and confirmed it looked right did the man speak. “Two favors?” 

From the way his voice cracked, he would have granted fifty. But I wasn’t going to get greedy. Instead, I nodded once. “Yeah, two. First, I want you to let me take Ashton to the cops, and then you leave him alone. He’s grieving for his friend and he did stupid things. He was wrong and he was psycho, no matter what his reasoning was. No tragic backstory gives him the right to do what he tried to do. But let him go to prison for it.”

Without giving any indication of how he felt about that, Blackjack simply asked, “The second?”

“You put up a bounty of three million dollars,” I reminded him. “I decided I want you to follow through. Only send it to the children’s hospital that was just attacked by the Scions. All of it except one hundred thousand. I’m going to use that to help people in another way.” Namely as seed money to dump into Wren without my parents noticing any large sums disappearing. 

“Three million to the children’s hospital,” Blackjack echoed, his voice clearly carefully even. “One hundred thousand to you. And let you take Mr. Austin to the authorities. Is that all?” 

“That’s it,” I confirmed. “I know with Pack having the last vial, that means you already have what you want, but everyone says you’re a man of your word, so–” 

“Done,” the man interrupted. “The hospital will receive the full reward, with a small compensation of a hundred thousand going to your… efforts. And you… may take Mr. Austin.” The last bit was clearly the hardest for him to say, anger still turning his words brittle. “But should he remind me of his existence again…” 

“I know.” It was the best I could have hoped for. Hell, for all I knew, he’d just wait for Ashton to be in prison and then have him killed. But I’d try to make sure the authorities knew how much danger he was in. Other than that… well, it could’ve been worse. 

Blackjack interrupted my thoughts. “Now, we need to go and wait for the missing girls to return.”

I nodded quickly. Because I was going to be there when Pack and That-A-Way got out of that weird prison thing Jailtime had apparently sent them to. Not to mention check on the rest of the Minority who had shown up to help, if they were still around. And I was pretty sure Eits and I weren’t done talking about… about what he had found out. We’d managed a lot. Blackjack’s daughter was… well, almost safe. But I wasn’t going to celebrate just yet. Not until I knew for sure that Pack and That-A-Way had made it back with that last vial. Then the girl would be okay. She’d have all her medicine. Once that was assured, I’d have to actually take Ashton to the authorities, let them know what was going on and… and… everything. All of that, of course, assumed that Pack returned with the vial. After all this, it was down to her and That-A-Way to bring that last one back. 

Yeah, as long as this night had already been and as much as we’d accomplished, this night still wasn’t over yet. 

 

*******

 

Patreon Snippet – Izzy

 

The tiny, somewhat huddled figure ran through the dark alley before reaching a heavy green dumpster. There, she looked around quickly, while the sound of approaching footsteps grew louder. The young girl looked over her shoulder, seeing bouncing lights draw nearer to the mouth of the alley. Then she turned back, eyes settling on something in particular before she gave a small nod of decision. 

A few seconds later, two flashlight beams lit up the area where the girl had just been, revealing empty space. The source of the lights, two men holding them next to their pistols, grew brighter as the pair advanced into the alley. Their voices were hushed. “You see anything?” one man asked. 

“Nothing,” the next murmured, slowly panning his light over the collection of garbage around the dumpster, across a few old wooden pallets, and onto a moldy mattress against the opposite wall. “You sure the kid came this way?” 

“That’s what they said,” came the response, as the first man advanced cautiously closer to the dumpster. “Paola saw her in the rearview, crossing the street over on Beckards, but they couldn’t turn around in time to catch up. She was heading this way.” 

The second man kicked the mattress, leaning over to check in the space between it and the wall before shaking his head. “We gotta grab this maldita puta before she gets her powers back, or before she finds a working phone and fucks all of us over. You know how screwed we are if that kid gets away and tells anyone?”

Advancing toward the dumpster, the first man peeked around it to the spot where the girl had ducked earlier. His gun was raised and ready, but he found nothing but a smell from abandoned rotten food on the ground that made him gag a bit. “Uuuuggghh, tell me about it,” he muttered under his breath while leaning back and turning his head a little to press his nose against his shoulder for relief. 

After recovering a bit, the man took a step back to be out of easy reach before taking a knee to peer under the dumpster. His light illuminated the small space there, and he saw… nothing. Rising, he cast his light across the tall wooden fence at the back of the alley. “Shit, man, there’s nothing here. Maybe she got over that somehow?” 

“Or maybe she never came down here,” his partner replied with a shrug. “Whatever, let’s check in. Maybe someone else picked up the trail.” He gave one last look around with his light before turning to leave the alley. “Come on, smells like shit back here.” 

The two of them left the alley, muttering to each other. A few seconds after they were gone, the moldy mattress shifted, jerked against the ground, and then a hand emerged from the far side of it. Izzy Amor hauled herself out of the mattress. She had spotted a hole in one side of it and had managed to tear it open enough to shove herself inside. It wasn’t that hard, given how much of the interior of it was missing. There, she had curled into a tight ball in a space barely large enough to hold her small form, using her hands to keep the hole in the mattress closed while the men talked. She’d thought she had been caught when the man kicked the mattress, but all he’d done was shift it a bit to look behind it. 

Kicking her way free of the dirty, disgusting mattress, Izzy crouched there. Her arms folded tightly around herself as she stared toward the mouth of the alley. The girl’s face was still stained wet from tears, but she forced them back while slowly rising to her feet. There were people yelling back and forth to each other, beams of light occasionally flicking past the alley. They were out there, looking for her. She had no phone, no communicator, no costume, and she couldn’t use her powers without horrific pain. Not yet, anyway. That Handler guy’s power hadn’t worn off. 

Six more blocks. The nearest entrance to the Minority base, using one of the dozen or so spread across the city (entrances which all accessed the same building thanks to the Ten Towers Tech-Touched known as Switchshift), was six blocks away. Six blocks. She could get there. She… she could…

Mom. The thought wormed its way into Izzy’s mind, and she cringed as those same tears threatened to overwhelm her once more. Mom. Mama. Her mother… her mother had sold her, had literally sold her to the bad guys to be tortured and trained into… into…

Covering her mouth with a hand, Izzy restrained the horrified sob of anguish and grief. Bottling up those feelings, she pushed herself to her feet and carefully made her way to the wooden fence. With actual time now, she climbed up and over it, dropping into the alley on the opposite side before quickly crouching in the corner as an Oscuro car drove slowly past, more men leaning out the windows, scanning the streets for her. 

Six blocks. She could make it six more blocks. Taking a breath, the temporarily powerless girl made her way swiftly to the end of the alley and looked around. The Oscuro car was turning the corner, while two men at the opposite end of the street walked around the other way. She had an opening, and took it, darting out and running to the next alley over. 

Six more blocks. Stay low, stay quiet, keep moving. 

And don’t think about Mama. Push it down. Shove it down. Focus. 

She almost made it. Almost. Just as Izzy was crossing the last street, eyes centered on the building she needed to get to, there was a sudden screech of tires as a dark sedan came screaming up to block her path. Several Oscuro troops were inside, pointing their guns at her as the driver (whose side she was facing) snarled, “Hey kid, going somewhere?” 

Stumbling back, her eyes darted around, but there was nowhere to go. She was out in the open. They were pointing guns at her, she… she… had to use her power. The very idea made her nauseous. Not just because of the pain, which had… probably worn off by now, but because she was exhausted. She’d used it so much all night long to put out the fires at the hospital. She was tired, she was sore, she’d been up for too long, had used her power too much, and now… now she had to use it again. She had to, even if the thought of even trying to summon up more of it made her want to curl into a ball and throw up. 

“Aww,” the driver with his sawed-off shotgun pointed at her taunted, “what’s the matter? Is the little bitch gonna cry cuz we–” 

In mid-sentence, a giant silver hand, bigger than the sedan itself, burst out of the ground at the front of the car. A second appeared at the back. The two hands took the front and rear of the vehicle between giant fingers and ripped it apart with a scream of tearing metal. The inhabitants were dumped to the ground, crying out and cursing. One man tried to shoot at Izzy, but the two hands had already broken apart, reforming into a single wall between the girl and her attackers. 

A figure dropped from the building above before landing lightly on his feet. He straightened up, and Silversmith stood there, just beside the wall he had created. “Gentlemen,” he started flatly, “throw down your guns, and–” 

Several of the men opened fire. The bullets did nothing to the Conservator leader’s gleaming metal armor. They didn’t penetrate, but nor did they ricochet away. Ricochets would have potentially endangered other people. Instead, as the bullets struck the strange, Touched-summoned metal, it rippled slightly, almost like water. Tiny tendrils of liquid-metal encompassed each bullet where it struck, holding onto it to arrest its momentum before letting it go so the bullet would fall harmlessly to the ground. It all happened in a millisecond, impossible to see with the naked eye. Each bullet would start to penetrate the liquid-like spot of armor, get caught by the miniscule tendrils, and was then pushed out to fall onto the pavement in a shower of metal. To the naked eye, it looked like the bullets were hitting the man and simply falling to his feet. 

“Okay,” Silversmith said simply as the men interrupted his attempt to offer them a chance to surrender. His hand gave a dismissive wave, instantly sending a dozen small balls of liquid metal at them. The first six orbs reshaped into blades, solidifying just in time to cut through the weapons the half-dozen men were holding. Their guns were sliced in half, falling uselessly to the ground. Just behind those, the remaining six metal balls of metallic liquid formed into handcuffs. They snapped around each man’s wrists at once before hoisting them off the ground. With a collection of screams, the six Oscuro troops were hurled backward by the cuffs and suspended ten feet off the ground by their wrists against the wall of the nearby building. 

He turned to Izzy then, his voice softening. “Are you–” 

Izzy threw herself at him. Her arms went around his waist, and she clung to the man, unable to hold back the blinding, inescapable tears that poured from her eyes as she openly sobbed. Her body shook violently, while she tightened her grip. She was awash in an ocean of grief, and the man was her only life preserver. 

“Shhh,” Silversmith murmured, sinking to one knee before taking the girl into his arms. “It’s okay. You’re safe. 

“I’ve got you.”

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Showdown 7-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay. Okay. So, what was my current situation? Well, I was inside a grocery store with a few random customers and employees. Pack and her lizards were outside, working on shifting into a more combat-capable force. Also outside were a combined force of Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, who had apparently banded together in an attempt to hurt Blackjack and the rest of La Casa. Meanwhile, the bulk of the La Casa people were under attack by more of those combined forces to keep them busy. Which would also undoubtedly draw the attention of any authorities and Star-Touched who were out to keep them busy as well, so the guys here would have… privacy. 

I’d just finished my terse explanation to That-A-Way and was waiting for her to say something when the line suddenly went dead. Blinking at it, I saw there was no signal. Someone out there was using a jammer, just like the Scion people had back during the party. What the hell, did they start handing out those things as prizes in cereal boxes or something? 

Abruptly, the phone buzzed in my hand with a call coming through, despite having no signal. It surprised me so much that I almost dropped the damn thing, and actually gasped. The ID on the screen said it was Wren, so I answered it. “Wren? How are you calling me, there’s–” 

“No signal, I know,” she interrupted. “I had to use the signal booster I built into the suit Ashton’s wearing. It’ll only work within a few feet, so don’t get too far away yet, okay? Plus I’m not sure how long it’ll last before that jammer overloads it. Are you…” 

“I’m fine, so far,” I replied, looking to Ashton himself. He was standing there, looking torn between fear and delight. Fear at what might happen to him, of course (particularly given the fact he was frozen), along with delight because he thought we wouldn’t get away with the last vial now. “But those guys are gonna start coming inside any minute, as soon as they’ve got this place surrounded. And call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure they’re not here to pick up milk and bread.” 

“Crap, crap, crap!” Wren blurted. “I should’ve put that teleport marker on the suit so I could pull you guys out! I meant to, I did, but I was so excited that it was done, and we wanted to get–” 

“It’s okay, Wren,” I interrupted while dragging Ashton with me toward the end of the aisle. I peeked out. The front of the store looked clear. None of the bad guys had come in yet. But I kept watching. I needed to get out there, but first things first. “What about the car? Can you, I dunno, use any kind of security feature to keep those guys out of it, just in case? One of the vials is still in there.” 

“I can drive the car out with remote control,” she quickly informed me. “But I’m not–” 

“Do it. Take the car and the vial out of here, Wren. Keep it safe. Pack and I can handle this and keep these guys busy until That-A-Way brings reinforcements. We’ve got it, I promise. But I have to go now. There’s other people in this store, and those guys are gonna break in any second. We’ll deal with this. You focus on getting that car out of here with the vial, okay?”

Reluctantly, she agreed, making me promise to be careful. I did so before disconnecting,  hoping that everything I’d just said wouldn’t end up being wrong. Because despite all my assurances to try to keep the other girl calm, I had no idea what was going to happen here. Pack and her friends were still outside, and there was no way of knowing how long it would take That-A-Way to get anyone here. For the moment, Ashton and I were basically alone in this building, aside from all the innocent people those guys would plow through in order to get to us.

Just as I tucked the phone and vial deep in my pocket, zipping it shut, one of the store employees came into view. “Uh, hey, something’s going on outside.” 

And here it went. Glancing to Ashton, I hesitated before dragging him back a few feet down the aisle out of sight. Then I simply told him, “Hang out here.” As if he had a choice, given the suit wouldn’t let him move. But at least I didn’t have to worry about him running off. The suit worked as well for that as stay-down cuffs would have.

Quickly turning to the store guy, I walked that way while asking, “Those guys outside, the gangs, what’re they doing now?” Reaching the end of the aisle, I peeked toward the front doors once more. Nothing. Aside from several customers and employees standing there staring out at something. 

His head shook quickly. “Nothing, not yet. They’re just standing out there, but they’ve got guns and… and there’s Touched with them. But there’s two different gangs, and they’re not fighting.” 

“Yeah, cuz we’re a more popular target right now,” I muttered, before looking back to him. “Look, grab those people there, and anyone else you can find, somewhere safe to hide for awhile, like the manager’s office or something. Lock the doors and stay there until the cops come. Go!” 

It must’ve been the costume or something, but the guy actually listened. He ran off toward the front, saying something to those people, who quickly followed him. Meanwhile, I looked down at myself, summoning more drawings in various colors to the suit. Over the next brief handful of seconds, the images appeared. Images of two guys fighting with swords across my torso, with mountains in the background and a bird flying through the sky overhead. A coiled snake wrapped around a spear decorated my left leg, while a man with a javelin riding a motorcycle took up the right one. My arms were covered in multicolored flames and lightning bolts. Every image had multiple colors involved, multiple paints I could activate when the time came. An entire involved mural of images stretching across my suit. 

By that point, I had walked all the way to the front of the store, where the civilians had been watching from. Sure enough, through the doors I could see a bunch of vehicles out in the lot, blocking the way through. Dozens of gang members stood out there, mostly normal guys armed with guns, but with several Touched mixed in. When the group saw me, they stiffened a bit and a few said something to one another. A couple brought their guns up. Other than that, none of them moved or tried to come after me. They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone.

Pack was probably lying low for the moment, waiting for a good chance to show herself. Letting out a breath, I took a few slow steps that way, watching the guys outside as they stared at me. The door whooshed open when I was close enough, and I stopped there, lifting my chin while watching for anyone who looked like they were about to shoot. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I had to focus for a moment to stop my voice from shaking too much.

“Hey guys, you think you could have your tailgate party somewhere else? I don’t think this store really appreciates you blocking their entrance that much. Kinda scares off the customers.” 

Two figures stepped forward, one guy and one girl. The man was instantly recognizable with his red trench coat and welding mask. Coverfire, the guy who had come to Wren’s place before. The woman was another obvious Touched that I recognized from news reports. She wore a costume that consisted of a gray bodysuit with black armor panels and a black metal mask covering the bottom half of her face. She was part of the Ninety-Niners, named Ringside. As I understood it, she was a super-strong and tough Touched (A Brawn-Touched, as Flea had taught me) with a twist. Basically, her power allowed her to summon these glowing red rings and throw them. If they hit a person, they would be teleported close to Ringside herself, and both she and the target would be surrounded by a domed forcefield cage of sorts. Within the forcefield cage, Ringside’s own strength depended on how much of their own powers she allowed her opponent to have. She could weaken their powers, remove them, or leave them the same. The weaker or more non-existent they were, the less strength she had. If she left them with all their powers, she would stay at full-strength too, and for her, that was enough to bench press a small car. But even with people who were much stronger than she was, locking them in the ‘ring’ with her and cancelling all their powers meant they couldn’t rely on any of it. 

Ringside was part of the Ninety-Niners. So I supposed these two were representing each of their groups. Two groups that, as far as I knew, didn’t exactly get along all that well. Unfortunately, I probably wasn’t lucky enough for them to start fighting each other right now. 

“Seems to me you keep ending up in this kind of situation,” Coverfire informed me flatly, his voice somewhat muffled by the welder’s mask. “Should we bother telling you to surrender?” 

“I’d do it if I was you, kid,” Ringside put in. “Otherwise, soon as the bosses show up, you’ll wish you had. Cuz I don’t think their leader’s gonna be in the mood to play around.” 

Their bosses. That’s why these guys hadn’t charged in yet. They were waiting for their respective leaders to arrive. Hell, the gangs probably didn’t trust each other enough to start something without Cuélebre and Sandon (the Ninety-Niner leader) around. Though I had no doubt that if I tried to leave, they’d get over that really quick. For the moment, they were content to stand out there and just make sure I didn’t go anywhere. But when their leaders showed up…

Swallowing at the thought of just how pissed off Cuélebre was at me, I forced myself to reply, “You know, if it’s milk you guys are after, I’m pretty sure they’re having a great sale at the place just three blocks down. But you better hurry before it’s all gone. You know how crazy everyone in this town gets over milk sales.” The fuck was I even talking about?

“The fuck are you even talking about?” Coverfire demanded. 

“Language,” Ringside snapped primly. “There’s no need to be crude.” To me, she added, “Tell you what, you surrender to me and I’ll make sure that these goons and their psychotic master don’t tear you apart. I’ll even go one step further and promise that when we get what we want, you can go completely free. Scout’s honor.”

Growling angrily at that, Coverfire glared at her. “We have a deal, remember?”

She gave a short nod, dark eyes flicking to him as she calmly replied, “Our deal is to work together to hurt Blackjack and La Casa. Personally, I don’t have anything against this kid. Not yet, anyway. Besides, watching him make your boss chase him all over town for nothing was pretty funny.”

Coverfire flared up his force field briefly at that, but didn’t make a move toward her. I had an idea to maybe try saying something that could make them argue some more or even fight, but before I could, the automatic door suddenly closed between us. A second later, the metal security shield came down. 

For a second, I just stared at it, wondering what the hell was going on. I could hear the guys shouting on the other side that some dinky little metal door wouldn’t stop them, just before a voice came over the intercom system. 

“Paintball, get to the security office. Hurry, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time.”

It was Eits. Oh God, it was Eits! Spinning on my heel, I ran back through the store, looking around until I saw a sign pointing to the employees area. Booking it that way, I saw Holiday pop her head out of a doorway and look at me, so I headed there. 

Sure enough, Eits was there along with Pack and her animals. They were all in the rather large  security office, and as soon as I entered, Eits turned from the computer screen to stare at me. “Whoa, you fancied up your costume. That’s a pretty cool— wait, that’s all your paint stuff, isn’t it?”

I stared at the boy. “How did you get here so fast? Hell, how did all of you get in the store?”

Pack answered. “I texted him as soon as we saw the bitch in the sky. We’re, uh, let’s just say we’re not too far away from his place.”

Eits gave a short nod. “I made it over here and messed with the lights on a couple cars in the back to distract the guys back there long enough for the lizard gang to deal with them so we could get in through the loading dock.”

Brightening at that, I asked, “Great, so we can get everyone out that way?”

He winced, gesturing to the nearby security screen where I could see a view of the back lot. It was full of bad guys. “Turns out they had reinforcements. A lot of them. We just managed to get inside. And now we’re stuck here with you.” As soon as he said it, the boy instantly began fumbling over his words, “I mean, not that being anywhere with you feels like being stuck, or like it sucks, or… I mean, that wasn’t—”

Raising a hand to stop him, I interrupted. “Believe me, dude, being offended is basically the last thing on my mind right now. What about all the customers and employees?”

“Manager’s office,” Pack replied. “They all locked themselves in there. It’s kind of cramped, but I don’t think they’ll go anywhere anytime soon.” She looked to me then. “What about That-A-Way? You were trying to call her, right? Tell me she’s got cavalry on the way.”

“I dunno,” I admitted. “We got cut off before she could say anything after I told her what was going on. Hopefully. But either way, it could take them some time to get here, especially if all those guys are really causing so much trouble in the city. And our friends right outside are just waiting for Cuélebre and Sandon to show up.”

Pack cursed. “Right, so the only reason they haven’t come in yet is because they’ve got two of the biggest of the big guns heading here to finish the job themselves. And we can’t go anywhere because they’re all standing guard. At least the car took off with the other vial. That had to be the kid, right?”

Confirming that, I exhaled. “So, we’re stuck in here, waiting to see who shows up first, our help or theirs. And call me crazy, but that’s not exactly a bet that I’m super eager to make. Not when losing means facing down a giant demon dragon thing with lightning powers.”

Pack shook her head. “Unless you’ve got a teleporter in your pocket no one bothered to tell me about, what else can we do? Make a run at them wherever there’s the least amount of Touched, break through the line, and run for it?” 

Eits grimaced. “I uhh, don’t think that’ll work. I’ve been watching these guys on the cameras and they are amped and ready to go. No way we break through one line before the rest dogpile on top. Not without some kind of distraction.” 

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Then we distract them, by getting them to come in here after us.” They both stared at me like I’d lost my mind, while I pushed on. “We get them to come in before their leaders get here. We get them to break the line and try to catch us in the store. Then we get out, and we make sure they know we got out so they chase us and leave the people here alone.”

“Fantastic, as long as the random civilians will be safe while we’ve got half the members of two different gangs chasing us,” Pack muttered darkly. “If you don’t stop making me do heroic shit, I’m gonna get hives.”

Eits looked back and forth between us briefly before asking, “How do we get them to come in here and break their little line before their leaders show up? Cuz I don’t think we’ve got much time.”

I was about to confess that I wasn’t really sure, when a figure abruptly stepped through the nearby wall. Everyone spun that way, Pack snapping a new shotgun up while Eits also produced a pistol. The lizard creatures were up and moving too. 

“Wait, wait!” I blurted, belatedly recognizing the figure. It was Syndicate, leader of the Minority. Or one of his four bodies, anyway. 

He turned solid once it was clear no one was going to shoot him. Or maul him, in the case of the animals. His voice was tense. “Way said you needed help.” He glanced to Pack. “And that you helped at the hospital. She didn’t say anything about him though.”

“He’s helping and we need him,” I said flatly. “Are you guys really…”

He nodded. “We’re set up outside, just beyond the lot. Most of us, anyway.”

Pack asked, “Why isn’t That-A-Way popping in here? No offense, she’s just a lot nicer to look at than you. And, you know, she could just teleport us all right on out of here, problem solved.”

Syndicate shook his head. “She and the others came in from the wrong direction. This place is south of them, she can’t teleport, or use speed. She was going to try to work her way far enough around and down, but I told her to wait, because I wanted to see what was going on in here myself. And on the way in, I heard a couple of the guys out there saying that Cuélebre and Sandon should both be here in ten minutes. So, more explanations can come later. I also heard you talking just now about luring them in and then booking it. You think they’d break ranks if they thought the thing they were after was about to disappear? It’s those supersoldier vials, right? You’re trying to stop the war on the streets from getting worse by getting them back for Blackjack. I get it, whatever. The point is, we make them think they’re about to lose their chance. They didn’t see me when I came in, but if they saw another of me come running, especially if I pretended to say something in my comm about getting the vials…”

“They’d chase you in,” I realized. 

He nodded. “I can have the other me come in through the front entrance. The others are around the back. Soon as the guys out front break ranks and chase the other me in, my team outside and everyone in here all hit the ones in the back from both sides and book it. With the guys out front already coming into the building, there’ll be confusion all over the place about what’s happening. At least for a few seconds. Should be enough chaos to get everyone to Way so she can teleport. Then we’ll be gone, and they won’t have any reason to stick around here, so the civvies’ll be safe.”

“I’m surprised you’re not insisting that we stand here and fight the bad guys,” Pack observed.

“Two gangs including their leaders are about to descend on this spot,” Syndicate reminded her. “Having a fight here would be stupid both for us, because they’re a lot stronger than the group we can put together, and for the civilians in this store who would be caught in the crossfire. The smartest thing to do is get the thing they want out of the store, make sure they know it’s not here anymore, and get away.” 

Eits, who had been silent up to that point, raised a hand. “Uh, just one thing. Once we get out of here, we get to leave.” He gestured to himself, Pack, and the lizards. 

“Yeah, don’t worry,” Syndicate assured him with a note of sarcasm, “I’m sure we’ll catch you another time. But right now, we don’t have much left before the situation gets a hell of a lot worse. So, are we doing it or what?”

Glancing to the others until they nodded, I turned back to the boy. “Okay then. 

“Let’s do it.”

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Showdown 7-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And, uhhh, you probably better hurry.” 

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