Arleigh Fosters

Exhibition 25-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Thankfully, the curfew had been relaxed somewhat. Now we were able to stay out until nine pm without getting in trouble. I wanted to think that that was because the streets were safer now, but honestly it was probably the product of a lot of people and businesses complaining about losing money by having to shut down so early. There was no way Deicide was going to let this gang war end like that, and between that and this whole Scions business, I had absolutely no doubt that things would get a whole lot worse before they got better. But for now, there was nothing any of us could do about it. Besides, it wasn’t like we didn’t have our own situations to deal with.

And speaking of situations to deal with, Paige and Sierra weren’t done editing those pictures to their satisfaction by the time the evening rolled around. So, after sending them a text to let me know if they wanted to meet up later to look at their work (not that I would’ve been able to contribute anything more than an encouraging thumbs up), I went to the park with Izzy. The two of us left without letting my parents know where we were going, mostly because none of them, Simon included, had been home at all the whole day. They were busy, apparently. Something told me it had to do with the attempted attacks on Fragile as well as Carousel and Syndicate. Which, good, the Ministry ought to do something about that. Or maybe it had something to do with whoever had planted those bombs at the party Amber went to. She’d told me about that too, though it felt like she had been leaving something out. 

Either way, we were here now. I had my board with me, because there was no way I would be able to resist the urge to get some of my own skating in either before or after watching the master. And I definitely wasn’t alone with that. As Izzy and I walked through the park toward the main attraction, I could see at least half the onlookers had boards of their own. 

There was also a stand near the road selling both full boards as well as separate wheels, trucks (the metal t-shaped piece that goes on the bottom to keep the wheels attached), and decks. Most were the usual tourist trap garbage marked up to get suckers. But there were a few good ones in there. We stopped and I looked over the selection to help Izzy find a board that would work for her to start out. I had her take a couple options out to roll along the pavement to see which one felt the most natural. Once she settled on something, I picked up the board to look at it. The deck was pretty cool. The centerpiece was a dark-haired angel, with one of her intricately-detailed feathery wings spread out over the bottom half of the board, while she held a gleaming sword out over the top half. 

Izzy tried to pay for it, but I stopped her. It was my idea for her to try this out, so I gave the guy a couple hundred for the board, plus another hundred for the protective gear, and we started to walk away. Just as we were turning, however, I heard a guy nearby snort, “Stupid chicks, man.” 

Looking that way, I saw a guy about an inch or two under six feet, with a thin blond goatee and long hair. He looked to be maybe two years older than me, and was wearing a black tank top with dark baggy shorts. A couple other guys were around him. 

“What?” I asked, unable to stop myself. 

Looking me up and down, the guy gave a soft, derisive laugh before shaking his head. “Nothing. You go have fun pretending you know anything about real skating. I’m sure your TikTok fans think you’re totally cool.” 

I blinked a couple times. “Dude, what the fuck are you talking about?” 

The guy had started to turn back to say something to his friends, and now seemed annoyed that I had asked any follow-up questions. He gave me a dirty look. “Look, all you babes are the same. You see Inessa getting famous cuz she’s like the one fucking chick in a million who knows which side of the skateboard goes on the ground, and you want in on it. You roll around on a board for a few minutes, do some slick editing to make it look like you’re not total ass, and put it online so all the simps out there can drool all over it and throw donations at you for doing jack squat.” 

Absorbing that for a moment, I retorted, “Well, when it comes to things that are total ass you are probably the expert.”

“Oh fuck off, kid,” he shot back. “What’re you, like thirteen? Mommy bought you a skateboard instead of an Easy Bake Oven and now you think you’re cool? Every little bit of space we guys have, girls think they have to barge in and take over. How’d you like it if we started barging into your spaces?” 

The words blurted out of me before I even thought about it. “If our spaces includes the shower, I think everyone stuck in your immediate vicinity would be A-Okay with you spending some time there.” 

Yeah, the guy didn’t like that. He snapped, “Why don’t you come back and talk again once you figure out if you’re a guy or a girl.” 

That… that made me rock backward on my heels, confusion flooding me. Wait, he didn’t know about–wait. “What?” I managed, feeling Izzy touch my back. 

His hand waved, gesturing to my head. “Long hair on one side, short hair on the other. Are you a girl or a guy? At least in a few years once you grow more than bumps there you won’t be able to pretend anymore.” 

His words, especially as he gestured toward my chest, made his buddies snicker. I was already balling up my fist and starting to move, when Izzy caught my arm somewhat subtly, stepping next to me. “We should go,” she murmured before adding, “Looks like you scared him enough already.” That was added with a not-so-subtle gesture downward. 

“Scared? Who’s sca–what?” The guy looked down, his eyes widening as he saw the large wet spot across the front of his shorts that Izzy had just surreptitiously put there while everyone was distracted. His hands moved to cover it, even as the others around him, including his buddies, started laughing. “That’s not–fuck–shut up, I didn’t piss my–fuck you!” 

Izzy and I both used that opening to leave, even as the guy’s words about me choosing to be male or female played through my head. He was an asshole and a moron, obviously, so I should’ve just ignored him. There were always going to be people like that. It didn’t… it didn’t mean anything.

“Thanks,” I murmured toward Izzy. 

She hesitated, then just squeezed my hand. “He had it coming.”

Thankfully, I was quickly distracted as we slipped through the crowd by the sound of a gasp going up around us. It made my whole body tense as my gaze jerked around to see what was wrong. My brain immediately leapt to all sorts of possibilities. Including the not-so-terrible thought that the guy back there had just spontaneously combusted. 

In this case, however, there was no threat. Instead, I saw Inessa emerge from the crowd. Seeing her, my heart leapt. God, she was so cool. Even now, walking through the crowd full of people staring at her, she was cool. And the way she grinned when she saw me was just… god, what was wrong with me? Was it weird that I just wanted to stand there and giggle like an idiot when she smiled at me like that? 

Well it definitely would’ve been weird if I didn’t say something pretty quick. So, I forced myself to take a step that way while speaking up. “Hey, Inessa. This is Izzy, my sister.” I gestured that way before adding, “We were just getting her a board.” 

“Izzy, hey!” Inessa stepped over to join us. “You mind if I take a look?” 

Wordlessly handing it over, the younger girl looked at me. Her mouth opened like she was going to say something, but then she stopped and just stared. The look she was giving me made me think I had done something weird. Maybe she just noticed how I was acting around Inessa. Stupid fangirl instincts. Yeah, she definitely noticed something. But what was I supposed to do? It was Inessa Sidorov! I couldn’t just ignore that! I couldn’t–I–it was Inessa Sidorov!

Speaking of whom, the woman in question finished looking over the board and then started to talk to Izzy herself about how to take care of it, how she should start learning about riding, and all that stuff. There had to be a couple hundred people standing around, craning to look at her, but Inessa was solely focused on talking to Izzy about learning how to skate properly. It was like Izzy was the only person in the world for her right then. She even convinced the younger girl to give her her phone number so she could call and check in. Then she talked to me for a minute, sharing a couple jokes with both of us (and the crowd) about the first time she started to learn how to skate in her own backyard back in Ukraine and how stupid she had been for not wearing protective gear until she broke her wrist. Then she took it seriously. She made Izzy promise to wear all the right equipment every time she did anything on the board. And got me to double-promise to make sure we both did. 

After that, she made sure we had the tickets to get into the ‘backstage’ tent, then headed off into the crowd once more, talking to someone else she had met. The group moved with her, since the people, thankfully, still didn’t know who I was. I had a lot of problems with what my parents were and what they did, but the fact that I was able to be anonymous in this crowd still meant a lot. Looking at the way everyone followed Inessa around, at how famous she was amongst other skaters and all that, it was just… it made me think about how different my life would’ve been if my parents didn’t make sure I could live my life as normally as possible. 

Finally shaking my head, I turned to ask Izzy if she wanted to get a drink, only to stop as she was still staring at me. Outside of the distraction when Inessa had been talking directly to her, I didn’t think she had stopped staring. But I didn’t understand why. She’d been looking at me weirdly for the past few minutes, basically ever since I introduced her to Inessa. But all I’d said was–

Oh. 

Eyes widening a bit, I blurted, “Uh, right, sister. I said you were my sister. I mean–I’m–that wasn’t–I wasn’t trying to assume you–I mean I know you really aren’t sure if you–I–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted, though she sounded a bit confused. “You weren’t… trying to pressure me or anything, I get it. You just said it. Like you weren’t even thinking about that.” 

My head shook quickly. “Yeah, I definitely wasn’t thinking, you’re right on that one. I just–I don’t wanna push you or anything. I was distracted because it’s Inessa Sidorov and I wanted to introduce you guys and–uhh, yeah.” My face was a bit flushed. “Are you okay?” 

Thankfully, now that she’d had a moment to recover from what had obviously been a surprise, Izzy seemed more amused by my reaction than anything else. She smiled just a little before nodding. “It’s okay, Cassie. You just… I wasn’t… it was new.” 

Part of me thought I shouldn’t push things, but the impulsive part took over and asked, “New, but maybe not terrible?” 

There was the slightest moment of hesitation as Izzy considered that before she smiled once more and agreed, “New, but not terrible.” She leaned closer, lowering her voice. “You really like her, huh?” 

“Inessa?” I felt my blush deepen while shifting on my feet. “She’s been my hero basically forever. I mean, the non-Touched hero.” My face darkened a little. “Let’s hope this one turns out better than my favorite Touched hero did.” I had told her about the whole Silversmith thing and how much I’d liked him before finding out the truth. It was still a bit of a painful thought. Especially when I considered the Silversmith sheets and pillowcases I’d had, and the action figures, and the–yeah. Boy, how had my dad really felt when I’d asked for all that stuff as a kid? 

Izzy seemed to read the expression on my face and changed the subject to talk about the board she had just done. Together, we walked over to one of the open skating areas and I walked her through a little bit of early practice. Before we were done there, Amber joined us. She wasn’t a huge skater herself, but she did know a few things. Together, the three of us messed around by one of the ramps. I showed them a couple simple tricks, they acted like it was a much bigger deal than it actually was and made a show of cheering just to make me blush even more, that sort of thing. It was fun. It was… nice, and it had nothing to do with any Touched stuff. I could almost pretend I was a normal person again for a few minutes. 

Okay, that wasn’t right. I didn’t want to be normal. I had no desire to be average. I loved my powers. I loved the freedom they offered, the… I loved being Paintball. But the stuff about my family, the stress over what they were and what they did, that part wasn’t exactly fun. It was nice to just shove that out of my head for a little while and focus on something normal and dumb. Even with people like that jackass back there, who really deserved a good kick in the–fuck, no, I was pushing that out of my mind and focusing on fun things. 

Of course, that couldn’t last forever. Though in this case, the reminder of my other life wasn’t exactly the worst. It came in the form of Ryder. I caught a glimpse of the boy standing off to the side, next to a much worse reminder of everything, Arleigh. He didn’t exactly look comfortable being there, and hadn’t noticed me yet. Instead, his focus seemed to be on Errol, who had just come into view through the crowd holding a couple corndogs, one of which he offered to the older boy.

Seeing Ryder had reminded me of what happened the night before, and the fact that he now knew who I was. Seeing Errol, on the other hand, reminded me of the whole Scions situation. My family had to know Errol was the one Pencil and Cup were looking for, right? So how many of the people around us were secretly guarding him? 

Aaand so much for not thinking about my family situation. That had been a pleasant few minutes. 

Still, I shook that off as best as I could. There was nothing to be done about it right now, and assuming my family did have people watching him, they might wonder why I was staring that way so intently when I was supposed to be here relaxing and having fun. So, I forced my gaze away and walked with Izzy and Amber toward the tent. Halfway there, we were met by Dani, who emerged from the crowd before stopping as she noticed the girl beside me. “Oh, hey… guys.” 

Clearing her throat, Amber shifted her weight. I could hear the uncertainty in her voice. “Hey, Dani. What’s uhh…” She coughed, again sounding strange. “What’s going on?” 

Yeah, something had definitely happened between the two of them. Maybe they kissed and now it was all awkward? That was the only thing I could think of. It definitely made sense, considering the way they kept flipping between avoiding eye contact, then seeking it out, then avoiding it. Between that and the fact that they’d clearly started to develop a thing for each other since Dani joined the school, it made sense. 

Of course, I also knew about the other complication to this situation. Pack. Pack obviously had a thing for That-A-Way. She’d made that abundantly clear. So no wonder Amber was confused about the whole thing. She probably felt guilty about having a thing for Dani too. Dani was the safe option, since she wasn’t an active criminal. But having feelings for Dani made Amber feel guilty about having feelings for Pack, and vice versa. That had to be hard to sort out. 

Boy, wasn’t it good that I didn’t have any problems like that? I might’ve had every other possible complication on the planet, but my love life was just completely nonexistent. Go me. 

It turned out that Dani had a backstage pass too, so the four of us made our way into the tent. There were refreshments, coffee, iced tea, and other stuff laid out along a table, as well as comfortable chairs to sit in facing the skating area where Inessa would be giving her show. And if that wasn’t enough, there were huge television monitors to either side providing footage from people on the sidelines, and a couple drones. So you could see the whole show from multiple angles instead of just what was right in front of you. 

Inessa was back here too, joking around with one of the event organizers. She was making a point of talking up all the dangerous tricks she was going to do, including a lot of hand gestures to show off spins and flips. I could almost see the terror in his face as he thought about what would happen if Inessa Sidorov got hurt during an event he had helped put together. Then they were joined by, of all people, Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who had given me the tour. Which, I supposed made sense. They probably had a good bit invested in this event, now that I thought about it.

Mornes was clearly easing the event guy’s nerves, while also joking back and forth with Inessa. He was good at his job, that much was obvious. He was wearing a different Hawaiian shirt than I’d seen him in before. This one was purple with yellow suns and black palm trees. 

Turning away from that whole thing, I joined the others in finding our seats, putting my skateboard on the floor so I could rest my feet on it to stop the thing from rolling away. Then I turned to Izzy, Dani, and Amber and started to regale them with one of my earliest memories of watching Inessa’s videos back when I was seven years old. It basically involved scrolling through YouTube on my tablet while laying inside a blanket fort on the outside patio, looking for something fun to watch. 

“It was funny,” I was saying, “cuz when I first saw the video list, I wasn’t even gonna click on it, but then…” I trailed off, my voice going silent. But my brain wasn’t. I knew what I was about to say. The words that had been on the tip of my tongue. ‘But then he told me to look at them.’ 

He. Anthony. The name wasn’t there, not inside that particular memory anyway. It wasn’t that specific. But I knew it had to be him. I had a fuzzy memory of a boy who had been laying with me inside that blanket fort reaching out to poke at the screen, insisting I should check out the video I had been about to scroll past. I saw his hand, heard his voice. I heard myself joke that he just didn’t want me to look at another rollercoaster video. My head, in my own memory, turned to say something else to him. I saw his face starting to come into view. 

Suddenly, I was doubled over in real life. A sharp, shocking rush of pain was filling my head as I groaned aloud and clutched it. Izzy and Amber were both saying something, but I couldn’t hear them. All I could focus on was the blinding pain that left me almost whimpering. 

It was gone as soon as it arrived. I found myself blinking a few times before looking up. Izzy and Amber were there, the latter kneeling on the ground right in front of me. Dani was looking over from her own seat, seeming just as concerned, and there were a few other people paying attention. 

“I–I’m fine, sorry.” Shaking my head, I swallowed. “I just need to get some air. Maybe some water. You want some water?” Even as they asked questions, I pushed myself up, waving off the concern. “Just a little migraine, it’s gone now. I’ll get some water and be right back.” To demonstrate that I was fine, I did a quick little spin with my arms out. None of them looked all that convinced, but I waved them off again and headed out of the tent. What was I supposed to say, that every time I started to get memories of Anthony back, my head felt like it was going to explode? 

Well, I could’ve told Amber and Izzy, but Dani was right there and she wasn’t involved in any of this. Plus someone else might’ve overheard. So that would have to wait. Instead, I took a short walk, passing the regular refreshments table inside the VIP tent to instead walk out to one of the vendor trailers near the parking lot. There, I stood in line, got a tray with a few bottled waters and a large plate of nachos for all of us to share, then started to head back. No way did I wanna be late for the actual show, headache or no headache. 

Unfortunately, I was only about halfway back to the VIP tent, making my way through the crowd, when a frantic shout from the sidelines made my gaze whip that way. I was just in time to see an enormous pair of hands, each bigger than the semi-trailer they were covering, lift that trailer into the air and hurl the thing toward a group of assembled onlookers. The people scattered in every direction while the trailer slammed into the ground there and went tumbling side-over-side. 

“We didn’t get our invitation!” the Uncle Friendly side of Janus shouted as their massive arms went back to normal size. The literal two-faced man (men?) stood there, accompanied by the large black man I was going to guess was Juice, given the electricity he was projecting into a ball between his hands. He was wearing a different costume than I was used to. This one was mostly black armor, with several gold lightning bolt-like designs randomly across it, and a metal bullet-shaped helmet with gold lenses over his eyes. 

“Yeah,” Juice was saying, even as a couple dozen other guys with a mix of guns, chains, and knives spread out from behind them. “But don’t worry about entertaining us. 

“We know how to make our own fun.” 

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Schooling 24-13 (Summus Proelium)

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Unsurprisingly, there was clearly a lot running through both of our minds. Not to mention a lot we needed to say as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to get into it. Even as I saw the boy open his mouth, I put my hand up to stop him. My voice was a hissed whisper. “Not now. They’re gonna figure out we’re missing really soon. I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly want to start explaining to Arleigh and her brothers why we’re hiding up here in their dad’s office.”

A visible blush crossed his face and I saw his mouth open to say one thing, but he thought better of it and simply gave a short nod. He kept his own voice below as well, barely a whisper. “We’ve got to get back down there, without letting Micah see us. Hang on.” His head tilted a bit as though he was–oh, he was seeing through one of his mites. “Okay, he’s in his room and the door is mostly shut. The plants are still taken care of–” He saw the look on my face and explained quickly. “They’ve got cameras and plant spies in here. The cameras aren’t any issue, but I’ve been working on the plants for awhile. They were a problem until I got this stuff from a… friend.” In one hand, he held up what looked like a small pocket-sized spray tube of perfume. “It makes those plants, uhh… hallucinate is the best word. Mostly it makes them see what they’ve been seeing recently instead of what’s really there. So if they’ve been seeing an empty room–” 

“They keep seeing an empty room,” I finished. “That seems pretty specialized. And probably expensive. Where–never mind.” Interrupting myself, I shook my head. “Later. So it’s still working? And just how many plants do the Sherwood people have spying on this house?”

For a brief moment, he looked confused. “Wait, you don’t–” It was his turn to interrupt himself, shaking that off. “Right, no time. Here.” Standing up, he moved to the door leading into the hallway and carefully poked the bottle through the doorway before giving it a quick spray. Then he counted to ten before opening the door and stepping out. “We’re good,” he whispered while heading through.

On our way out of there and back downstairs, the boy kept glancing at me. I could tell he wanted to say something else, or maybe a lot of something elses. But as we had both established, there was no time. All that would have to come later. Instead, we quickly made our way back down and split up. He went into the kitchen with the others first, and I heard them start teasing him about getting lost. 

I waited another fifteen seconds before heading in after him, making a show of saying goodbye to my mother before shoving the phone into my pocket. Then I looked up and rolled my eyes. But I didn’t talk about anything she supposedly said to me. I thought about it. Hell, I thought about coming up with a whole story about what my mother had said. But honestly, why would I talk to Arleigh about a phone call with my mom? There was no way that wouldn’t come off as making up a story. So, I left it at the rolled eyes and looked toward Inessa before asking, “How long are you in town for? And please tell me you’re doing another show. I have got to be there.” 

The blue-haired girl offered me a grin. “Well, if what Arleigh here has been saying is true, perhaps I should invite you to come up with me to help make the show even more impressive. It sounds as though you could teach me a thing or two.” 

A deep flush crossed my face, for more than one reason. First, I didn’t really need to think about Arleigh talking about me at all, and I definitely didn’t want her to talk about me being a good skater. That was just… yeah, I didn’t want that to be on her mind. Letting Ryder/Eits find out my real identity was one thing–and yeah even that was freaking me out pretty bad right now. But the very thought of goddamn Arleigh finding out about me was enough to make me want to vomit. I could barely handle having to play nice with her as it was. If she had that sort of leverage, there was no way I would survive for very long. Or possibly no way she would. One way or the other, one of us wouldn’t get through it. 

And yet, I still had to play it cool. This was my skating idol talking about me going to a show with her. No, not just going, actually performing with her. It was like a rock star inviting one of their biggest fans up on stage with them. What kind of person wouldn’t jump at that? Even if it did mean letting Arleigh act like she had done me some sort of favor. A favor I would owe her for. 

Again, I felt the urge to vomit. But I kept it down, and simply offered a weak giggle, as though I was totally overwhelmed. It wasn’t exactly a hard thing to fake. Actually, I wasn’t really faking it at all. “Oh, haha, uhh, no, I–I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I could ever teach you.” Even as I said that, I could see Ryder staring at me from the corner of the room where he had moved to get a soda. He was out of sight from everyone else, so they couldn’t see the way he was staring. But I could, slightly. It made my blush deepen a bit, which I played off as just being about the Inessa thing. “You’re like, the best in the world, dude.” My voice cracked a bit embarrassingly with that. 

A cheerful, charming laugh escaped the older girl, which sent a tingle through my stomach for some reason. She gave me a wink before replying with that clear Eastern European accent. “Trust me, nobody is so good at something that they can’t learn from somebody else. That’s something I figured out a long time ago. Actually, I’m pretty sure I learn something new from every big skater I talk to. And if Arleigh is to be believed, you are a very big skater.” 

“I’m not a big anything,” I immediately pointed out reflexively. My blush was back and wouldn’t go away. I honestly couldn’t figure out whether it was more from her praise, or the way Ryder was looking at me. He wasn’t being completely obvious about it after sitting back down at the table, but since everyone else’s attention was on us, he had an excuse to stare a little bit. Under all that attention, I shifted in my seat before coughing. “Seriously, it’s no big deal. I just like to skate. And I learned a lot of it from watching you. So, you know, I’m pretty sure anything I could teach somebody would be what I learned from you.” 

For her part, Inessa seemed to consider me briefly while taking a bite of pizza. Then she nodded and spoke casually. “You should definitely come to my next show. It’s tomorrow night at the park on… what was the street?” 

“Riverside.” That was actually Errol. I’d almost completely forgotten the boy was there until he piped up right then. “I mean, the Riverside Skate Park on Jefferson. It’s a really cool pla–” He started to say something else, before jolting a little. 

“Eat your pizza,” Arleigh, who I realized had just kicked her brother under the table, ordered before turning back to us. “So you’re going tomorrow, right, Cassie?” 

Some part of me was tempted to say that I had way too much to deal with right then, but that would have made her ask what I could possibly need to do that was more important than going to a live performance from my idol. An idol who happened to be sitting right there looking at me. Though, to be honest, I did consider what it would be like to outright tell Inessa my secret and get help from an international skating star, the part of my brain that wasn’t completely enamored with her knew that was incredibly stupid. Even if I could talk to her about all that without Arleigh being around, what on Earth was she supposed to do about it? Yeah, she had been my hero for a good portion of my life. But, in the end, she was just a skater. I couldn’t dump something like the Ministry on her, nor did I want to. 

And, when I got right down to it, there was no way to know for sure that I could even trust her. It was a painful thought to have, but if I couldn’t trust my parents, there was no way I could just blindly trust some superstar skater I happened to like. It couldn’t happen. 

That was, obviously, just a fleeting thought before I pushed it out of my mind, a wild and completely ridiculous impulse. Maybe because I’d already exposed myself to Ryder? Was that why the idea jumped into my head? Whatever, the point was, it couldn’t happen. 

So, I forced myself to look back at Arleigh while casually replying, “Oh believe me, if I have any say in it, I’ll totally be there.” 

With that, we went back to eating. I hung out with them for another hour or so while trying not to look or act as though my entire world had been upended. I could not look like I was panicking or freaking out. Calm. I had to pretend I was calm. Hell, I had to pretend I was having a great time. Which–yeah, to be fair that much wasn’t hard. Arleigh would probably never be someone I voluntarily hung out with (though I was starting to think her older brother and possibly her dad were a really big influence on how she acted), but Inessa more than made up for that. It was just so cool to be there, eating dinner and talking to her as though she was a normal person. And yeah, I knew she really was, but this was… it was special for me. Even if I did have that voice screaming in the back of my head to panic about the real situation. 

I had to talk to Ryder. I had to make sure he wasn’t going to tell anybody. Yeah, he’d kept my secret about being a girl, but this was even bigger. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to pull him aside without being obvious about it. And I had Jefferson coming to pick me up. Hell, even if he wasn’t coming, Ryder and I couldn’t exactly go somewhere else in this neighborhood to chat. Not with the Sherwood spies all over the place. 

To that end, before the dinner was over, I got a text on my phone. It was from Ryder himself, giving me an address elsewhere in the city, followed by a time, ten pm, and a question mark. He was asking if I was good with meeting up then and there. Hesitating slightly, I glanced across the table that way. Obviously he wasn’t using his phone. He could control it with one of his mites without even taking the thing out of his pocket. Our gazes met briefly, and I gave a short nod without actually responding on my phone. That, I slipped back into my pocket. Then I turned my attention back to Inessa and tried to postpone freaking out until later, after all this. 

And hey, at the very least, Ryder was probably the least terrible person in this house who could’ve found out my secret. Except maybe Errol, he seemed cool. But I wouldn’t want to shove this sort of secret on him. He already had enough to deal with, having Arleigh and Micah as siblings. Inessa–yeah I couldn’t even imagine having her find out the truth about me. She didn’t even live here. How would I deal with some international star knowing my secret identity? Probably panic all the time. Even more than usual. 

The point was, if Micah or Arleigh had found out who I was, my life would basically be over. This whole thing could’ve been so much worse. 

Now all I had to do was wait until ten pm, so I could talk to Ryder and find out just how bad it was. 

*********

I ended up having to promise Inessa that I would be there for her show the next evening. She gave me a couple ‘backstage’ passes (there wasn’t really a stage or anything since it was at a skatepark, but there was a VIP area that would be roped and curtained off for privacy) for me and any friend I wanted to bring. 

But all that was something I would have to think about later. For now, I was in costume and perched on the side of the building across the street from where Ryder wanted to meet. I’d thought about bringing Izzy with me, but that would have required me to tell her exactly what happened. Which I didn’t want to do until Ryder and I actually talked. How could I expect him to keep my secret if I went and blabbed about his immediately? 

I’d also tried texting Amber just to see if she was available to play backup if something went wrong. But there was no answer. I had belatedly remembered she was going to some special costume party with Dani tonight. Hopefully she was having a good time there. Or at least a less crazy one than I was having.

Shaking those thoughts off, I watched as a figure emerged from the stairwell access door. It was hard to make out in the darkness, but I spoke quietly. “Night vision engage.” Immediately, my Wren-provided helmet switched my viewing mode so I could see better. Sure enough, Ryder was standing on that roof, also in costume as he nervously fidgeted around. 

Obviously, I wasn’t stupid enough to jump right over there. I looked around from where I was, scanning every area I could see. I didn’t expect to find out that he had told the Ministry or Blackjack, just because… well, if my parents knew my identity, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t show that with an ambush in the middle of the night like this. And it didn’t seem to be Blackjack’s style, if he’d even do anything with it at all aside from possibly use it to force favors out of me. But I wasn’t going to take that for granted. I checked for any sign of an ambush for the next couple minutes, letting Eits wait for me. 

Finally, I couldn’t put it off any longer. As certain as I could be that he was alone, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, landing a few feet away from the boy as he jumped at my arrival. 

“Hey, Eits,” I managed to sound vaguely casual while turning that way. “What’s up? Read any good books lately? Seen a fun movie?”  

He, in turn, coughed and looked embarrassed. “Hey, Paintball. I mean…” Pausing, the boy kicked the roof before meeting my gaze. “Are we good? I mean, good to talk for real.” 

I knew what he was asking. He wanted to know if we could talk about our identities, or if I had someone watching. Meeting his gaze, I asked evenly, “We’re good on my end. Are we good on yours?” 

The question made him pause before he nodded once. “I’m alone, I swear. I haven’t talked to anybody about it. Hell, I haven’t talked to anybody about any of that. Nobody even knows I’ve been going into Sherwood territory at all. It’s kind of my own private investigation.”  

Private investigation? Well, I definitely wanted to know more about that. Why would he be investigating Arleigh’s house? Pushing that out of my head for the moment, or at least to the back of it, I gestured. “Stairwell’s safe, right? I don’t really wanna risk people looking out windows.” 

He confirmed it was safe, and we went through the door he had come out a few minutes earlier. Now we were standing in the stairwell, with no cameras or witnesses. This was as safe as we could possibly be. Reaching up, I hesitated very slightly, then pulled my helmet off, followed by the mask. My fingers were shaking a little bit as I did so, but I forced myself to look at him straight on. “Hi.” 

Eits reached up to take the X-shaped mask off his own face, slipping it free. Then he was just Ryder again, holding the mask in one hand while staring back at me. “Hi.” There was silence for a moment, before he finally offered a weak, “This is awkward, isn’t it?” 

“Little bit,” I agreed, dropping my gaze briefly. Then I took a breath and looked up again. “Thanks. You know, for not telling anyone about me being a girl before. I’m pretty sure if you had said anything to anybody, it would’ve gotten around by now. Even Pack doesn’t know, and I… I know she’s your friend. So, yeah, thanks.”

“I’m not gonna tell anybody about this either,” he assured me quickly, his eyes staring right into mine. “I won’t tell Blackjack, or Pack, or anybody else. I just–I won’t say anything, I swear.” 

“You know, I… I believe you,” I slowly replied. “You kept me being a girl secret, now this is just sort of… the next step?” Shrugging self-consciously, I sighed. “I won’t tell anybody about you either. I mean, yeah you’re sort of… a bad guy?” Even that felt wrong to say. The lines between good and bad were so blurred they seemed practically nonexistent sometimes. “My point is, I won’t use this to help anyone catch you, or follow you to find out any secret La Casa bases or plans, or… or anything like that.” 

He offered me a faint smile. “I’m pretty sure if you were the type to do that, you could’ve followed Pack one of those times. Even if you… don’t know who she is?” His voice turned questioning. 

“I don’t,” I replied. “Trust me, that whole situation is already awkward enough as it is. I don’t know who she is and I’m not trying to find out. You…” Oh boy was there still a lot I needed to say. “Look, before we get into anything else, I just… I know you just said you wouldn’t tell. And like I said, I believe you. But you really can’t tell. You can’t even let anyone know that you know. You can’t hint. You can’t–” My eyes squeezed shut as I tried to think of how to make sure he understood how vital this was. “It’s… it’s more important than you know. I mean, life and death important. You have to keep it a secret. I can’t– I can’t get into why it’s so–” 

“Because of the Ministry, right?” the boy immediately put in. 

“And because your parents are the people in charge of it.” 

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Schooling 24-12 (Summus Proelium)

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I had been through a lot of surreal things in the past couple of months. But I really couldn’t think of anything more surreal in that moment than making dinner in Arleigh’s kitchen alongside her, Ryder, and the skater I had been fangirling over since I could walk. 

Well, obviously there were things, like going into a virtual reality controlled by the girl who had apparently once been one of my best friends turned enemy because her psychotic supervillain father reprogrammed the computer her computer-brain and– yeah, the list of crazy things was actually pretty long. But, the point was, this was completely about my civilian life. It had nothing to do with being a Touched. If you took out all the Paintball situations, standing in the kitchen helping Arleigh, Ryder, and Inessa make pizza for dinner while we talked about skating was definitely pretty high up there. Even better, there was no real danger about it. This was a weird situation, but it wasn’t a life and death weird one. Well, there was danger of wanting to stab myself for spending more time in this particular house, but still. I could resist that urge. 

Obviously, Arleigh didn’t know anything about the skating scene, either board or blades. But, equally obviously, she didn’t want to admit that. She kept talking like she knew everything there was to know, and just made things up when she had to. Whenever any of us made it clear we didn’t know what she meant, she just waved it off as having learned ‘different terms’ when visiting places like California, and claimed that ‘the coast people talk different.’ Because God forbid she just say she didn’t know something and listen to others who did. 

I could see Inessa roll her eyes a couple times as she glanced toward me. But she didn’t speak up too directly, and neither did I. I guess because neither of us wanted to be rude inside Arleigh’s own house. That and I didn’t particularly want to give her even more reason to talk. 

Ryder, for his part, seemed equally clueless. But he was far more willing to admit that fact. He kept asking questions and seemed genuinely interested in what we were saying. And not just for Inessa either. He was interested in the stuff I was talking about too, as far as skating went. And, even more amazing, so was she. They both actually listened to my stories. Inessa freaking Sidorov listened to my stories about skating! It was like I’d died and gone to some sort of paradise. I honestly wasn’t sure which of their attentions made me blush more. But either way, it helped make up for the fact that I was stuck here in this particular house. 

Before the pizzas were done cooking, but after they had started to smell good, Errol came wandering down. From the way his mess of blond hair was sticking in every direction, I would’ve thought he had just woken up from a nap or something. But apparently this was just what he looked like all the time. I was pretty sure Arleigh was going to tell him to go away, but before she could, Inessa started chatting with him cheerfully, and mentioned missing her own brother with all these long trips she kept going on. Obviously, Arleigh did a complete one-eighty and started talking at the boy as though they were really close, and how he was just the best little brother anyone could have. None of us were buying that, of course, but I wasn’t going to give her any reason to stop treating her brother like a human being. 

Beyond that, I also found out that Ryder was apparently a vegetarian. He just spoke up about it to make sure we had a pizza that didn’t have any meat on it. Surprisingly, Arleigh didn’t say anything bad about that or even seem annoyed. When he brought it up, she immediately confirmed that they had a pizza that would suit him, and even asked, unprompted, if he had any other dietary needs. It was unexpected, to say the least, but still, good for her. It was one of the very few times that I noticed her act like a real human being who thought about others without it being forced or fake. For just a moment, I actually forgot about what sort of person she was. Then, of course, she had to go and ruin it by very clearly and obnoxiously faking interest in the video game her little brother mentioned, just because her special celebrity skating guest showed actual interest in it. Arleigh was a lot of things, but a good actress was not one of them. Given her apparently genuine acceptance of the food thing, it was even easier to tell when she was putting on an act. Or maybe she didn’t care enough to put in an actual acting effort. Either way, she clearly didn’t want to hear more about the game, yet (poorly) pretended she did just to impress Inessa. Which made me wonder why she bothered. I knew she didn’t like skating, so why would she care about a celebrity skater? Was it just the celebrity part, or did her father push for her to show off for her? But if he cared that much, why wasn’t he here? What was keeping him too busy to show up for this? And was I just being paranoid again about that whole thing? Yeah, I was probably just being paranoid. So, with some effort, I tried to push that thought aside. Whatever Trey Fosters was up to, it didn’t affect me. 

With Inessa’s suggestion, since Ryder was vegetarian, we dug through the large fridge and managed to put together something akin to a decent salad to go with the pizza. Arleigh didn’t seem interested in that sort of thing at all, but Errol knew enough to find the dressing to go with it. We chopped up some tomatoes and cucumbers to go with the fresh spinach leaves, and even found some pepperoncini on the door. In the end, it was a pretty decent salad. Nothing that even would’ve come close to matching anything Claudio or his assistants could make, of course. But then again, we weren’t Michelin Star-rated chefs. At least, I wasn’t, and I was willing to go out on a limb and say Arleigh, Ryder, and Errol weren’t. On the other hand, as talented and incredible as Inessa was, it really wouldn’t have surprised me to find out she actually did have that sort of skill. 

Finally, the food was ready. No sooner had we set it all out on the table and began to take plates and forks for the salad, than their other brother showed up. Micah came in through the back door, having apparently either been outside the whole time, or he just walked home and came in that way. Whatever it was, he grunted an uncaring greeting to us, reached out and shoved his sister none-too-gently out of the way so he could take the plate she had been about to use right out of her hand, and loaded it with pizza before grabbing a beer out of the fridge as he headed upstairs to his room. I could see Arleigh grimace painfully while rubbing her shoulder a bit where she had hit the wall from the hard shove, and felt a wave of confusing feelings pass through me. If that was an example of how her own big brother treated her when there was company around, especially famous company, who knew what he was like when they were alone? Was this the sort of environment she had grown up in? Weird thoughts passed through me about what that would do to a person. If he was that casually cruel in front of us, the things he could get up to in private… eesh. Yes, obviously she was still absolutely terrible to hang out with, and not exactly a caring person herself. Especially to her own younger brother. But now that it seemed like there was a reason for that, it felt a little different. Hell, maybe the fact that her dad wasn’t even here for any of this was another indicator of the environment she had grown up in. Yeah, my parents ran the Ministry and all that, but I had never gotten the impression they didn’t care about me. Even Simon had made it clear, despite the teasing and everything, that he cared about me. This whole thing was just… wrong and uncomfortable. 

I could tell the others felt the same way, especially Ryder, who sat next to me and kept glancing toward the doorway where Micah had gone. Something told me he was tempted to go after him and say something, but stopped himself. Which was a good thing, because I was pretty sure the older boy could have pounded him into a thick paste, and this probably wasn’t the best time or way to show off my fledgling self-defense lessons. To say nothing else my powers. Oh God, the thought of having to convince Arleigh to keep my secret made my entire body shudder. 

Inessa, of course, noticed, looking over at me from across the table. “Hey, are you all right? There’s nothing wrong with the pizza, is there?” She asked that while inspecting her own slice curiously. 

My head shook quickly as I took a bite to demonstrate. “No, no! It’s fine. It’s cool.” I shrugged, searching my brain for excuses that would work. “Sorry, I was just thinking of something else.” A quick thought came to mind, and I launched into a story about one time when I had misjudged a jump and ended up breaking my ankle. It distracted everyone from my previous reaction, especially when I talked about how gross it had looked while all bent out of shape. That made Inessa eventually jump into her own story about one of her bad injuries, and soon no one was thinking about my weird shudder. 

And yet, through all that, I saw Ryder glance at the door a couple more times, as if he couldn’t stop thinking about Micah and that whole situation. Eventually, he excused himself to use the restroom. I immediately felt a slight flare of alarm go through me. Was he really going to the restroom, or was he going to go find Micah and say something to him about that whole situation? This could be bad. I might’ve barely met the boy a couple times, but I liked him well enough. I sure as hell didn’t want to find Micah punching him in the face next time we saw him. Call me crazy, but I really didn’t think Arleigh’s big brother was the sort to take criticism very well. My own brother teased me and even wrestled with me now and then, but the way Micah treated his siblings seemed different. There was no love there, no care. It wasn’t that he was teasing them in a way that sometimes got out of hand, he genuinely did not seem to care if Arleigh was hurt by him shoving her into the wall. No way did I want Ryder to go find him on his own and have any sort of confrontation.That could only end poorly. 

Thinking quickly, I pretended I was getting a phone call and said it was my mom, so I excused myself to the other room while pretending to talk to her. As soon as I was out of sight from the kitchen, I looked around quickly just in time to hear footsteps disappearing up the stairs. Yeah, Ryder was definitely heading up there. This could turn really bad, really quickly.

Grimacing to myself, I painted black on the inside of my clothes just in case there were cameras (or spying plants) that would’ve seen me put it in any more obvious places, and made my way up after him. I wanted to get up there as quickly and quietly as possible, grab the boy, and get out before Micah noticed we were around. And before the others paid any attention to how long we had been gone. Reaching the top of the stairs, I looked around in time to see a shape disappear through a doorway at the end of the hall. Was that Micah’s room? Did Ryder just barge in there? Oh God, if I started to hear shouting, I was going to yell at myself for taking so long. Quickly, yet quietly, I made my way down that hall to the doorway. I stopped just outside it, hesitated, then peeked through the crack. I expected to see Ryder and Micah about to have a confrontation. But what I saw was… different. Very different indeed.

The first thing I saw was that this wasn’t a bedroom at all, and it certainly wasn’t Micah’s. It looked like a personal office. An expensive one at that, judging by the furnishings. Most relevantly, there was a desk there with a computer, which was where Ryder was standing. He was next to the desk, holding his hand out. Just as I peeked that way, my mouth opening to hiss that we had to get out of there, something happened to make the words die in my throat. A small, glowing figure appeared on the boy’s palm. It cackled softly before jumping from his hand to the computer. I recognized it immediately, and had to cover my own mouth to stop the gasp of shock.

Eits. Ryder was Eits. Oh God. Oh fuck. Ryder was Eits! No wonder he had seemed somewhat familiar! Had he recognized me? Did he remember my voice? I was pretty sure he didn’t, or he probably wouldn’t have tried something like this right now. But what was he even trying? Why was he here right now? Was he pulling off a job? Was this about stealing from the Taurus shipping company after he’d been embarrassed about being caught before? Trey Fosters was one of their primary owners, and this place was easier to hit than my own family’s home. Was that what this whole thing was about? Something told me that wasn’t quite right, especially considering where this place was.

We were in the middle of Sherwood territory. Would he really risk pulling a job like that around here? Especially with a gang like Sherwood, who were so good at spying on everyone. 

Needless to say, there were a lot of thoughts rushing through my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to sort my way through any of them. And I definitely didn’t have time to focus on what Ryder/Eits was actually doing. Before I could even start to wrap my head around any of that, a sound from behind me made my gaze snap that way. Another door was starting to open. That had to be the room Micah was in, and he was about to come out. Eyes widening, I shoved the office door open the rest of the way and burst through before pushing it shut. 

Ryder looked up, mouth opening to stammer some excuse or another. But before he could, I rushed that way. The footsteps were approaching, and given the stairs were the other direction, this seemed like the only place Micah could be going. So, without another thought, I grabbed Ryder by the arm, and yanked him sideways toward the nearby closet. He heard the footsteps as well by that point, and didn’t resist. The two of us managed to get the door open and slip inside, shutting it behind us just as the other boy came into the office itself.

We could barely make him out through the cracks in the closet door, enough to see that he didn’t seem to be trying to find us or anything. He didn’t appear to have any idea we were there. Instead, the older boy walked to the desk and opened a couple different drawers, apparently looking for something. The boy was muttering curses under his breath as he rifled through the contents of the desk, then angrily shoved it shut. He straightened, apparently still annoyed about not finding whatever he was looking for. Then he turned to look at the closet. 

Uh oh. 

Yeah, he was definitely heading this way. And this closet wasn’t big enough to hide in. There were a few stacked boxes and two filing cabinets in there, but that was about it. There were no hanging clothes to hide behind, no deep corners to squeeze into. If he opened that door, which he was clearly about to do, Micah would find us instantly. And how in the hell would we ever explain being all the way up here, hiding inside the closet of his father’s private office? That… that would be bad. 

There was only one area in this closet that had any room where we could hide and possibly not be seen. As Micah approached and reached for the door, I looked up. Oh God. What was I about to do? Was I really going to–could I really–was this the only way to… my mind raced, going through what seemed like a million thoughts in those brief couple of seconds. 

I could feel Ryder tense beside me, obviously ready for some sort of fight. But before he could do anything, Micah was right there, just on the other side of the door. There was no more time, none. I had to make a decision right then and there, about whether I trusted him or not. Which was worse, exposing a secret to him, or letting Micah find us like that? Which was more dangerous? 

I made my choice. Reaching out, I shot Ryder, Eits, with a bit of black paint to silence the gasp I knew would be coming. Then I hit him with red paint as well as myself, before pointing upward. Just as the door started to open, we were yanked to the ceiling and held there. Next to me, I could feel Ryder’s jerk of surprise, and saw his mouth open to blurt something, only to react with even more surprise as no sound came out. His gaze snapped to me, as I held a finger to my lips. 

Below us, Micah poked his head in. His focus was on the boxes, Which he dug through for a moment. I had to renew the red paint on Ryder and myself as the boy below seemed to take his sweet time. But he never looked up. He rummaged a bit, found something he had apparently been looking for, and celebrated with an annoyed, “There you are, fuck.” It was a choice of words that obviously made me tense up, but he wasn’t talking to us. Instead, he had some sort of folder in his hands, which he tucked under his arm before straightening up. The closet door closed, and then he was heading out of the office. 

I managed to put black paint on the two of us again, as well as the floor, just before Ryder and I both crashed back down. We landed within the small space before I shoved the closet door open and both of us fell out together, landing in a tangled heap on the floor of the office. The two of us lay there, staring at one another for a solid five seconds before we both hiss-blurted the same thing. 

“You!” 

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Schooling 24-11 (Summus Proelium)

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There were plenty of other things we needed to do now that we had the location of the prison island. Most importantly, we needed to get pictures of a broken boat on water that we could pretend was the ocean. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to help with much of that before I had to go to dinner. Which, of course, gave me yet another reason to curse the fact that I couldn’t find a way out of that. Famous skater who had been a personal hero of mine since I could barely walk or not, I really wanted to help with this. And, of course, I really didn’t want to go over to Arleigh’s house. Which, to be fair, I couldn’t honestly say which of those made me want to do this less. 

Either way, while I was busy with my dinner thing, the others would be going with Paige over to check out her boat and try to find a spot where they could safely wreck it and take pictures. I felt bad about not being involved in that part, because it also sounded fun. But then again, considering the fact that the situation was literally life or death, I wasn’t going to ask them to wait for me. The sort of person who would have been selfish enough for that was… well, to be honest, I was pretty sure I was going to the house of a girl exactly that selfish. 

Was there really no way I could grab Ryder and Inessa and run away with them somewhere better? 

I was honestly still considering that pipe-dream solution when Jefferson dropped me off in front of the house. I would’ve taken an Uber, but most of them refused to come in this housing development thanks to the whole Sherwood thing. Which I obviously couldn’t blame them for. Sherwood was, of course, another reason I really didn’t want to come here tonight. Even if they apparently had strict orders to stay away from me, I wanted to avoid as much gang attention as I could. I really, super-duper did not want to let people who were adept at spying get too much practice watching how I moved, stood, talked, anything that could make them connect me to Paintball. 

Then again, if my own parents hadn’t figured it out yet, I must’ve been doing something right. 

Thanking Jefferson for the ride and promising that I would be waiting for him to pick me up in a few hours, I turned and looked at the house. I supposed it was pretty large for what it was. Four stories tall, it was definitely the biggest house in the whole neighborhood. There was a large tree taking up a decent portion of one side of the front lawn, and I had to force myself not to stare at it. Something told me that if the Sherwood people really did spy through plants, that tree would be the one they would be using right now to keep an eye on the intruder. Did whoever was looking at me through it know who I was already? Surely they did. I had no doubt that my parents had let Sequoia and Hemlock, the leaders of the gang, know I was coming tonight so they could tell their people to leave me alone. 

Actually, the Sequoia leader thing was weird. As far as I knew, almost no one had ever actually seen him. He made his presence known by infusing various plants with effects that gave people powers, or caused explosions, or poisoned them, or whatever. But for everyone aside from the top leadership of the gang, he was a total mystery. The rank and file members never saw him, not even in a costume. The day-to-day leadership was accomplished by Hemlock, a hydrokinetic who, while not as strong as Izzy, could transform water into poisons and venoms and such. Some people thought Hemlock was the leader and had just made up Sequoia, but that didn’t explain the power-imbued plants. Or why he would do that rather than accept the credit himself. 

Whatever, the main point was, I just had to go inside and get through this dinner. Shoving all other thoughts out of my head, I took a breath before starting to walk up the front path toward the entrance. 

Before I could get even halfway there, The door flew open and Arleigh came charging out with her arms raised. “Cassidy! There you are!” I barely had time to look up before she was suddenly embracing me. Yeah, without so much as another word, she was grabbing onto me and holding me tightly, like we were best friends. It took me completely by surprise, so I couldn’t even muster a protest or any comment at all before it was over. She stepped back, beaming that entirely insincere, yet somehow practically blinding, smile. “Dad is gonna be so happy when he finds out you came.” 

Weirdly, in that moment, I thought of something. She said her dad was going to be happy about me coming, but nothing about her mother. Which made sense, because Arleigh’s mother had died like… thirteen or something years ago. It was a long time. So of course she wouldn’t have mentioned her mother. And yet, when she first invited me over here for this whole thing, she had said that her parents, plural, would love to have me. 

Arleigh was only a year or two older than me. She was still seventeen, I was pretty sure. She had to have been a toddler at best when her mother died. So why would she have made a mistake like that? Why would she have said parents? I knew her dad had never remarried or anything. He’d adopted Errol, her younger brother, but as far as I knew, Arleigh had grown up in the house with only one parent. 

So why had she used the plural? Was it just a slip of the tongue? Was this whole double-life making me paranoid? Well, yes to that last one, but did me being paranoid mean I was wrong to zero in on that detail in particular? 

Honestly, I had no idea. But I didn’t have time to think about it any longer. Arleigh was standing there watching me expectantly, and I couldn’t exactly just flat-out ask her what she’d meant. Well, I could, but the Sherwood people were probably still watching, and I didn’t want to look like someone who paid more attention than I should to minor details. I didn’t want them to have any reason to think there was more to me than what appeared on the surface. And I definitely didn’t want them to tell my parents that I seemed to be a little snoopy. No, for the rest of this whole dinner thing, I really had to project myself as clueless, innocent Cassidy. 

So, I offered a faint smile, as sincere of one as I could manage. “Hey, Arleigh. I’m not late, am I?” Of course I wasn’t. Jefferson had dropped me off exactly on time, like he always did. 

“Oh, no, no, course not.” Arleigh rolled her eyes at the very idea, gesturing for me to accompany her as she turned back to head up the steps. “You are absolutely right on time, Cass. It’s my dad who’s late. But we’ll just have to entertain ourselves with our other guests until he shows up.” 

It was those other guests I was thinking about as I followed the other girl through the door. And I didn’t have to look far for them. Ryder was standing right there in the front hall, facing a girl who was only a couple inches taller than me, with short electric blue hair, artfully-torn jeans, and a yellow tee over a gray, very light long-sleeved shirt. The girl had her back to me, but that didn’t matter. I knew who she was immediately, and stopped short to gasp. 

Sure enough, she turned to face me, and I found myself looking at Inessa Sidorov. Twenty-five years old now, she had been a teenager when she first got involved with the international skating scene. Originally from Ukraine, she made a bunch of Youtube videos where she did tricks and stunts throughout the city and surrounding smaller villages. She was completely fearless and did a lot of crazy things anyone else would’ve said was too dangerous. And she did it all while laughing gleefully. That was one of the things her videos were known for, her cackling while doing something ridiculously cool and stupid. 

Really, was it any wonder she was my idol? 

All of that flashed through my mind, along with a reminder that lunging to hug her would’ve been just as rude and terrible as when Arleigh had done that to me. So, I forced myself to stop short and simply managed, “Y-you’re Inessa Sidorov.” I’d thought I was ready to meet her, but there was a difference between planning for something and the reality of being there. I felt a little giddy. Was it weird that I felt giddy? I definitely no longer cared about what house I was at. 

Flashing a quick grin that was instantly more believable than any I’d ever seen from Arleigh, Inessa replied, with a clear Eastern European accent, “And you are the other guest tonight. I have been looking forward to meeting you, Cassidy Evans.” 

Oh God, she knew my name. She knew my name! Resisting the urge to bounce up and down as my inner fangirl desperately tried to club my common sense over the head and take over, I forced myself to respond as casually as possible. “Oh yeah, you probably know my parents, huh? I heard they’ve been helping with some sponsorship stuff.” Largely because of my practically screaming her name into my dad’s ear for years, but still. 

“What?” Her face was blank, before she shook that off. “No. I mean perhaps. I don’t really know who the sponsors are. Lavra takes care of that. What I mean is this.” She dug into the pocket of those jeans before coming out with a piece of lined paper that had been folded over several times. Still smiling, she offered it to me. 

Confused, I took the paper and unfolded it, only to find that it was actually several pages. Once I got them all sorted, I took a look. And then I nearly died on the spot. Staring me right in the face, written in blue magic marker, were the scribblings of a probably seven-year-old Cassidy going on and on about how cool I thought Inessa was, how much I liked watching her Youtube videos, that I’d convinced my dad to get me my own skateboard, and so on. I talked about specific tricks she did in her videos, rambled a bit (or a lot) about how much I liked seeing the old yellow cat who sometimes appeared in the background, or how pretty her city was. And because I was, again, about seven at the time, all these thoughts came out jumbled amongst themselves and others. It was a mess. An enthusiastic mess, sure, but a mess. “Y-you… I–um.” What was I supposed to say? “You still have this?” 

With a laugh, the woman replied, “Are you kidding? It was the first piece of physical fanmail I ever got from the States. I have it framed in my trailer most of the time, but when I found out I was coming to the same Detroit that the letter came from, I had to bring it with me. I was hoping we’d get a chance to meet. Having dinner, that is just a bonus.” 

Arleigh, who had been standing behind me, leaned over to see part of the letter. “Wow, you wrote to her when you were a kid? That’s awesome. I probably would’ve just sent an email or something. Or got my father to find her cell number.” She paused then before looking at me. “Err, couldn’t you have just done that?” 

Before I could respond to her, Ryder stepped in from where he had been hanging back. “Eh, you know what they say, sometimes a physical message means more than tapping a few keys. I mean, she could’ve sent a text too, and just said ‘I Heart U,’ then been done with it in four taps. Five counting sending it. But that? That’s a physical letter. She took the time to write all that. It just–you know, it means something.” 

Inessa grinned and flashed a thumbs up that way. “Yes, exactly. I got emails and comments on my videos, but this was a letter all the way from the United States. And it wasn’t just any letter. It was from a little girl. It meant a lot to me.” Her gaze found mine and I felt my face turn pink. “It was very encouraging, Cassidy Evans. In times when I thought this was too hard and I should stop, I looked to many influences to assure myself that I belong in this life. Your letter was one of them. It helped get me to where I am today, in many ways. So, thank you.” 

“Duuude, I did not expect that,” Arleigh announced with a low whistle. “I just thought you’d get, like, an autograph or something.” 

She might have said something else after that, I definitely wasn’t listening. I was too busy staring at the woman who had been my skating hero for so long. It was all I could do not to show a lot more emotion than I already was. “P-please, it’s Cassidy,” I managed. “Just Cassidy. And whatever made you stay in skating, I’m really glad you did.” She was staring at me, so I had to look down as my blush deepened. My gaze found the letter in my hand as I murmured, “You’re the best skater I’ve ever… uh…” I trailed off as my eyes spotted something in particular in the letter. It was just a single sentence, and very little made it stand out from the rest. Except for one thing. The sentence read, ‘Anthony (my bff) said you couldn’t make that roof jump with the ramp but I said you could and you did so he had to let me pick the movie for our sleepover and I picked Cool Runnings cuz I heard it was your favorite movie if it isn’t please let me know so I can make him watch a different one and have you ever tried bobsledding oh did you try speed skating they go really fast but I mean the one on ice do you think they have a regular wheelie speed skate and my dad says I can’t try the roof jump but I think I can make it did you ever go sledding?’ 

Yeah, okay, I said it was a single sentence. I didn’t say it should have been a single sentence. I was seven, give me a break. 

But obviously, that wasn’t the actual point. The point was the mention of Anthony. This was real, tangible evidence of Anthony’s existence and my knowledge of him. It had escaped my parents’ attempts to rewrite history. If I hadn’t already known about him, this obviously would’ve hit me really hard. Or maybe it would’ve just confused me. I wasn’t sure. As it was, I found myself staring at that name. 

Apparently there was something in my expression, because Ryder spoke up. “You okay?” 

“Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry. It’s just… crazy, seeing something you wrote when you were a little kid.” Waving the letter, I looked toward Inessa and asked, “Do you mind if I take pictures of this so I have them? I’d sorta like to show my friends.” 

She considered that for a moment before gesturing. “You know what? You keep it. I have had it for these years and it brought me luck. But perhaps it is time it brings you luck instead. There is no one I would rather give the letter to than the girl who sent it to me.” After a brief pause, she added, “And for the record, you were right. My favorite movie is Cool Runnings. ‘Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time!’” By the time she was halfway through it, I was saying the quote with her, and when it was done, we both laughed and high-fived. 

Oh God, I high-fived Inessa Sidorov. Would I ever wash my hand again? Wait, could I get some sort of special skintight clear glove so I wouldn’t have to? Could my parents–

Forcing that thought out of my mind, I swallowed hard, still blushing. “Thanks. It’s really cool that you kept this letter for so long. I–I can barely remember sending it, but you’re still my favorite skater in the whole world. You’re like… the best.” I was grinning goofily by that point, but I didn’t care. 

“Damn straight I am,” Inessa replied with clear confidence. “And do you know what else I am? Her eyes moved to Arleigh while she added, “Extremely hungry. Do we know when your father will be arriving yet? I do not wish to be rude, of course. But it was a very long plane ride, and they had no meals because of some malfunction in the cooler.”  

At that moment, Arleigh looked up from her phone with a curse. “Fuck. Okay so Dad’s running late. He said there’s some frozen pizzas in the freezer that we can just heat up. But uhh, the cook already went home, so do any of you guys know how to work the oven?” 

The three of us around her exchanged glances, before Ryder gestured. “I think we can work it out. But what about your brothers?” 

“Who cares where Micah is?” Arleigh retorted. “And I think Errol’s up in his room. I guess he can eat something once it’s ready.” 

“Well then,” Inessa freaking Sidorov announced, “Let us see how complicated this oven is, hmm? And hope that we can figure out how to turn it on before I’m forced to simply eat the whole frozen thing as it is. 

“I fear that even my number one fan could not see me the same after that.” 

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Schooling 24-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, part of me wanted to immediately start asking Amber about the situation. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to expose Jae’s secret like that. It wasn’t up to me to kick her into the spotlight. If she didn’t want to tell Amber and me about having a boyfriend (if that’s what that whole thing was), then blabbing about what I had seen to the other girl was probably pretty rude. It had to be her choice if she wanted to share something like that. Besides, the idea of bringing it up felt way too much like I would be turning into one of those weird gossiping girls. 

So, I pushed the thought out of my mind and continued on through the school day. Though obviously curious about just what was so important about Jae’s maybe-boyfriend that she had to skip classes for the day, I still took down the notes she had requested. Maybe she’d explain it later. Especially if I poked her strategically for answers. 

Either way, beyond needing to pay extra attention for those notes, school itself was relatively normal. I sat with San and Dani at lunch, answering a bunch of questions peppered at me from the latter about what sort of doctors I’d been to whenever I was hurt doing one stunt or another. It was kind of a weird conversation, starting around her talking about healthcare and hospitals and stuff, before she started asking about what doctors I, as a rich kid, had visited. It could easily have turned… well, not hostile but at least uncomfortable. I knew I was privileged in so many ways, that especially. I had access to top of the line medicine, including Touched-Tech stuff. I thought that’s where Dani was taking it, to be honest, that she wanted to start an argument about how terrible it was that people without money couldn’t get that sort of care. 

It wouldn’t be much of an argument, given I agreed with her. But still, that’s not what she was doing. At least, it didn’t feel like it was. It felt more like she was genuinely curious about the hospitals I’d been in and who my doctors were. 

San noticed too, swallowing a bite of his pizza before asking, “Dude, are you writing a book about rich doctors or something?” 

With a snort, Dani waved a hand dismissively. “Nah, I just–like I said, I grew up dirt fucking poor, okay? I’m not used to having any money. Like, a few months ago I was digging in the couch cushions to get change for lunch. And now my great-aunt’s sorta-kinda talking about how I need to get a check-up or something. I just thought if I could figure out what doctors the richest parents in town send their accident-prone kid to, that’d be the one to try. Since the old lady’s the one footing the bill for it, might as well go to a good one.” She mumbled the last bit, poking at her plate with a fork before sighing. “Never mind, it’s stupid.” 

My head shook quickly at that. “Hey, it’s not stupid. I uhh, I mean, if you want, I can give you a list of the doctors my family goes to who are still, you know, available. There’s a couple who don’t have public practices anymore, but–err, sorry, that sounds way too braggy. I wasn’t–sorry.” 

“Sure, whatever,” the other girl replied with a shrug. “You wanna make a list of the people your parents trust with their precious baby girl, I guess that’ll be enough to make my aunt happy.” 

So, I did just that. Well, I didn’t write a note. I went through my phone to find the names and texted them to her. 

When I was done with that, San gave a blow whistle as he stared at his own phone. “Man, you guys see what that Paintball kid and his new team were up to yesterday? That shit’s crazy.”

“Pretty sure the whole city was crazy yesterday,” I pointed out with a little shrug. “Didn’t like, every gang in the city explode or something? I heard a bunch of people switched sides.” 

Dani gave a short nod, rocking back on her seat with a muttered, “Yeah, there were a bunch of traitors.” That was followed by a shrug. “But then, I mean, they’re criminals. What can you expect?” 

San was giving a dismissive wave. “Yeah, yeah, it was fucking nuts. They had, like, everything locked down, cops patrolling every neighborhood, the works. It was crazy. But, like, this other thing was different from that. They were up at that Whitecap stadium and a bunch of those fucking fire zombies attacked the place. You–” 

Dani laughed. “Dude, are you kidding me? Of course we saw it. It’s only, like, the top six videos on the SPHERE threads and all over the YouTube homepage.” 

That made me do a double-take. “It is? I mean they are? What?” 

So, both of them made me watch several cell phone videos taken by various people in the stadium while that whole thing was going on. Or from the security cameras. There were a lot of comments from people who were there, or people who knew people who were. They were going on and on about what it was like, especially when it came to the rest of the team. I–or Paintball, was still a pretty big topic, but most of the focus was on the others. They got our name right, and someone had put the names we used under screenshots of each of us. There was a bit of arguing over which was Calvin and which was Hobbes, or which was Style and which was Poise. But still, for the most part they had it right. Everyone in the comments was going on about what would’ve happened in that stadium if no one showed up. Of course, some of the comments were raising conspiracy theories about how we happened to get there right in time. But for the most part, everyone was pretty positive. And to be fair, I couldn’t really blame the distrustful people. It was weird that we’d made it right in time, or would’ve been if I didn’t know the truth.

In any case, by then, it was time to head back to class. But as I stood up, San caught my hand. “Hey, I gotta ask you something. You remember when we went to that farm with the sheep and Deborah thought it’d be a good idea to try dying their fur with food coloring and water. And–” 

“San,” I started, “what are you talking about? What farm? Who’s Deborah?” 

His voice grew more distracted as he leaned around me to look that way. “You know, the farm with the–okay, that’s probably enough.” 

“Enough of–what are you doing?” Turning to look for myself, I saw Dani walking to the exit just as Amber and Tomas came from another part of the cafeteria. At the last second, Tomas split off from Amber, disappearing into the crowd just as she ended up at the exit with Dani. The two of them stopped there and started to talk. 

“You guys planned that?” I demanded, turning to squint at San. 

It was Tomas who answered, coming out of the crowd. “Sort of. Well, mostly through a few looks and a text or two while you were busy.” 

San nodded. “Yeah, I mean you were talking about doctors or whatever and Amber was over there. We just sort of made sure they ended up in the same spot at the same time. Tiny nudge. I mean, come on, they’re cute together, right?” 

“He’s right,” Tomas agreed, “they are cute together.” 

“You guys are so weird,” I informed them, shaking my head. “Incredibly weird. But if you two matchmakers are done for the moment, I need to actually go to class.” 

Tomas pretended to consider. “You know, speaking of people who are cute together–” 

“Okay, that’s enough of that!” Red-faced, I pivoted and started to walk away quickly. I really did not want to think about who Tomas thought I would be cute with. Considering he was my ex and–wait, was he talking about him? Did he–no, wait, did I even want–no, wait–

I was so busy focusing on that whole issue, that I ended up walking right into someone who had stopped in the doorway ahead of me. There was a grunt of surprise, before the girl in question spun to blurt, “Watch where you’re going, you fucking–Cassidy!” 

It was Arleigh, of course. Because that was just how my luck went. She immediately plastered a smile over her face and laughed unconvincingly. “Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t stop right in the doorway, huh?” Another laugh came before she snapped her fingers. “Hey, you know, while you’re here, I was talking to your dad at my internship the other day–” 

“You have an internship with my dad?” I asked bluntly. 

She laughed again. “Not exactly with your dad. I’m just interning at one of the offices where he shows up sometimes. Anyway, the point is, he was talking about how you love that skater chick, ahh, Inessa Sidorov?” 

Blinking at that, I found myself nodding in confusion. “Sure, she’s awesome. Inessa’s basically been my hero for years. Why?” As soon as I said that, I felt like it was probably a mistake. 

With a grin that was almost shark-like, Arleigh pounced on my reaction. “Oh, well that’s cool, because she’s staying at our house right now. Just a little something with her agent screwing up a hotel booking while she’s here for some video, and my father happened to be at the hotel when they told her there weren’t any rooms. He offered her a place at our house, so she’s staying with us. You know, if you want to meet her.”

Oh crap. Shit. First of all, there was a big part of me who really did want to meet her. I had been watching her videos on skating for as long as I can remember. And beyond that, another part pointed out that if I declined, it could cause trouble. My dad knew just how obsessed with Inessa I was. If I turned down the opportunity to meet her, he was going to ask why. He was going to ask what else I had to do. And those were things I really couldn’t afford to have my parents asking. I needed them to ignore me. Finding out that I had turned down the opportunity to meet this girl would make them do the opposite of that. They would start paying attention. They would worry about me. They would look into what else I was up to. 

There was absolutely no choice. I was going to have to agree to go over to Arleigh’s house. That thought by itself was almost enough to make me reconsider. But my parents knew too much about how much of a fan of Inessa I was to think that I would let avoiding Arleigh keep me from meeting her. 

Pushing down all my conflicted thoughts about the situation, I forced myself to smile as much as I could. “I mean, are you sure your dad really wants people coming by just to gawk at his guest? Hell, what about Inessa? She probably just wants to relax and–” 

With another laugh, Arleigh punched my shoulder lightly. Sort of lightly. “Don’t be silly. You’re not just any ordinary lame-o person. Besides, my parents would totally love to have you over for dinner. Come by tomorrow. Ryder’ll be there too. We’ll have a whole, like, little party thing. Just don’t invite anyone else. Little party. Just us.” 

Ryder was going to be there? Okay, sure, maybe this whole thing wouldn’t be a complete waste. If Inessa and Ryder were there, at least I wouldn’t be stuck with just Arleigh and her parents. Or maybe I was just telling myself that. Either way, I had to go to this thing. Which was going to be interesting. 

Finding the words to mutter a thanks to the other girl and promising to text her later, I quickly made my way down the hall. With thoughts of Jae’s possibly secret boyfriend, the whole Dani and Amber situation, and the fact that I was going to have to visit Arleigh’s place tomorrow filling my head, I made my way to class. One thing was for sure. 

My civilian life was starting to be just as ridiculous as the Touched one. 

******

Eventually, school was over, and I took the ride home with Izzy and Jefferson. I had homework that I really had to get done. It wouldn’t exactly help my ability to keep my activities secret if my parents started getting calls about failing classes. So, I locked myself in my room and tore through that as quickly as I could. I’d already made arrangements to go over and visit the others at the shop for a real discussion about everything that had happened the day before. But for now, I had to stick around home and go to our normal family dinner. 

Thankfully, I didn’t really need to say much throughout the dinner. Simon took up most of the talking, going on and on about a trip that he and his friends were taking next week. Apparently, they were heading to Yellowstone to do some camping. Or at least, that’s the story Izzy and I were being given. Maybe it was even true. I sort of doubted that everything my brother did was for the Ministry. Still, there was no way for me to know for sure. Was this a real camping trip, or was he off to do something else and we were just being given an excuse for why he wasn’t around? Given his outward enthusiasm, my brother was either a very good actor, or it was the truth. Or maybe he really was doing something secret, but was just as excited about that as he would have been about camping with his friends in Yellowstone. 

Whatever the truth was, it meant I didn’t have to talk very much. Still, I tried to make things seem as nice and normal as I could, teasing Simon about being eaten by bears. Which, of course made me think about that little visit I’d had with the Minsters Gray. They had obviously reported everything I said to my parents, so I wondered briefly what they thought about that. Too bad I couldn’t just ask them. Even if the thought of how amusing it would be to suddenly pipe up with that in the midst of Simon going on about some sort of special meat they would be barbecuing out there was enough to make me have to bite my lip. 

Eventually, dinner was over, and I was able to excuse myself. Izzy had another night of patrol to get to, but we took a few minutes up in my room to talk a bit more about everything that happened. I thought about bringing up my idea about Jae having a boyfriend, but decided against it. First, that was way too close to being one of those weird gossiping people. And second, why would Izzy care? She barely knew who Jae was, outside of just being Amber’s friend. She’d met her like once here at the house, as far as I knew. 

Pushing that thought out of my head, I made sure she promised to be careful out there, considering how crazy the city had become. Granted, things might have calmed down a bit after yesterday, but it was just as likely that they would get worse. Not to mention the fact that Jennica was still out there and wanted to make a name for herself. She agreed, before going to what my parents were claiming was a study date. Because, of course, I still wasn’t supposed to know about her powers. I wondered how long they would keep that up if this adoption thing happened. Was that entirely up to Izzy herself? Would my parents let her tell me the truth about that much at least? And how was I supposed to react when it happened? 

Thinking about that while I made my way out of the house, I headed for the shop. The others were there already, and once I was inside, I took a few minutes to explain again about my encounter with the bear-and-raccoon Ministers. Needless to say, everyone had a lot of questions. Not to mention how openly (and loudly) vindicated Peyton felt about finding out she really had seen a raccoon at the stadium. There was dancing and jumping up and down involved. 

I fielded their questions for a few minutes before finally shaking my head. “Guys, I swear, I don’t know more than that. It’s a little weird that they let me see them. I think it’s some sort of test. You know, to see just how much I can keep secret. Like they said, it’s not like it’ll be some big mystery about who exposes them, if they start hearing rumors about a bear and raccoon TONI. So, you know–” 

“Don’t go blabbing about it,” Sierra interrupted. My doppelganger was sitting on one of the tables full of junk in the middle of the pawn shop main floor, eating a very large burrito. “Not if we wanna avoid more Ministry attention for the moment. Which sounds like a good idea to me. Especially since we’re supposed to be focusing on Breakwater now.” 

“Yeah,” Murphy put in from where she and Roald were sitting in a couple metal folding chairs, “now that the zombie distraction is taken care of. Which, for the record, I’d rather never see any of them again. I am done with zombies for the rest of my life.” She paused briefly before adding in a dark, muttered voice, “Especially the Luciano kind.” 

Peyton, who was sitting cross-legged on one of her hovering marbles that had transformed into a simple disc, spoke up. “Yeah, let Broadway and Grandstand look for that crazy bitch. And Pack, I guess. It’s not like we don’t have important things to focus on.” 

Jumping on that, Wren piped up from the glass counter where she was perched. “I’m almost done with the thing to track the location of the place when you call that jerk. But I wanna make sure it works the first time, you know? Because if we try it and it doesn’t work, they’ll probably notice and make it even harder.” 

“Good idea,” I agreed. “We need to know where that place is so we can convince him to do the right thing. But I’d rather they not realize where we are in the process.” 

The younger girl quickly bobbed her head to that, promising that she would get it done as soon as possible. “I’m working as hard as I can, I swear.” 

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Peyton put in. “You’re only one person. Don’t forget, you’ve got us to help. We might not be Tech-Touched, but we can be extra hands.” 

Fred grunted from the cash register, where he had been working on counting cash and paying bills. “Don’t worry, I’m making her take breaks.”

“Good.” That was Paige, who was standing nearby with her arms folded. “But in the meantime, we should probably talk about the actual plan for what we’re gonna do after we have the island’s location. Personally, I don’t think that’s something we should just leave for the last minute.” 

“Oh come on,” I found myself teasing. “Are you seriously saying you don’t want to totally wing blackmailing the world’s most secure and secretive supervillain prison into doing our bidding? 

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” 

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Interlude 22C – Double-Oh Eits (Summus Proelium)

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This whole thing had always been stupid. It was so stupid, and dangerous. Ryder Towling knew that. He had known from the start just how bad it would be for him if he was caught doing something like this. Going into Sherwood territory undercover as a tutor so he could find out why Cup and Pencil wanted to find this Errol Fosters kid so badly? It was ludicrous. He’d come in here repeatedly with no backup, no one who even had the slightest clue where he was, doing his best to snoop around without getting caught. If the Sherwood people realized that there was a member of La Casa in their territory… Yet what choice did he have? If he was going to get the answers he’d been looking for, he had to take a few risks. 

But he had never expected those risks to come to this.

“Last chance. Either tell the truth right now, or… well, you should just tell the truth. Trust me, you don’t want to face the consequences. I can get pretty creative.” 

Facing his interrogator, Ryder closed and opened his hands a couple times. He could feel sweat on his palms, and had to restrain himself from shaking them out or wiping them against his legs. To show fear would give them what they wanted, and he couldn’t do that. Not if he wanted to get through this. 

“Okay, fine,” he finally managed, speaking through a throat that had threatened to close up on him. “I’ll tell you… I’ll tell you the truth.” He took a deep breath, bracing himself before forcing himself to speak the words that his tormentor was waiting for so expectantly. 

“The first time I ever kissed someone was when I was fourteen. She was a girl in my bio class who wanted to see if I umm… if I kissed like a boy. It was while I was still, um, pre-op.” 

Hearing that, Arleigh Fosters whooped and thrust both arms in the air while leaning back in her seat at the kitchen table right next to him. “Hah, told you losers, earlier than both of you! That’s two points for answering the question, and two more points for beating you guys. Dude’s first kiss truth was worth four points. Suck it.”

Across the table, Micah Fosters, Arleigh’s twenty-year-old brother who had actually asked the question before ‘teasing’ Ryder about facing the consequences, smirked a little. “I don’t think that fourth point counts.” He gestured to the thirteen-year-old boy beside him. “Errol’s not even fourteen yet. If he gets a kiss before his next birthday, that’ll be an illegal point.”  

Glancing to the scrawny, stringy-haired blond boy with glasses, then back to Micah, Arleigh snorted in clear disbelief while waving a hand. “Yeah, sure, dude. I’m shaking in my boots at the possibility. Errol, when was the last time you physically, in-person spoke to a girl your own age outside of school?” Belatedly, she added, “And off the school grounds. Truth or Dare, E. I’ll spot you six points, minus one for every day it’s been. Or you can go for a six point dare, your choice.” 

From the dangerous smile she gave then, the dare would probably have been a bad idea. 

Shrinking back in his seat slightly, Errol hesitated before slowly answering, “Away from school and off school grounds? An hour ago.” 

While Micah guffawed, Arleigh let the front of the chair she had been tipping back on come back down with an audible thump. “What? When did you talk to a girl?” 

“Izzy,” Errol replied promptly. “We had to talk about our project so we met at the library. You said away from school, you didn’t say it couldn’t be about school.” 

“Oh come on!” Arleigh protested. “It was implied! The whole point was, when was the last time you had a real conversation with a girl that she didn’t have to have because of school.” 

With some effort, Ryder managed to resist the urge to elbow the girl beside him. Honestly, he didn’t even think she was thinking about how she was treating her little brother. She wasn’t intentionally trying to make fun of or embarrass him, it was just… how she was. Not that that made it any better, really. And it made him wonder just how nasty she could be when she was trying. 

Micah, by that point, was shaking his head. “Nuh uh, no take-backs. You said what you said. That’s six points for Errol here. Not his fault you suck at phrasing things. It was an easy six points for your side. All you had to say was, ‘when was the last time a girl chose to speak to you outside of school and for no school-related reason.’”

Yeah, okay, maybe they both just sucked, Ryder decided. Not that this was a new revelation. It hadn’t taken him very long to decide that both of the older siblings were the sort of people whom he would quite gladly never have anything to do with if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. 

And yet, was it absolutely necessary? The thought drifted through his mind briefly before he dismissed it. Yes. If he wanted real answers about the whole Errol situation, and he did, then it was necessary. He had to keep sitting here, playing their stupid points-based Truth or Dare game for as long as it took to get his other work done. Work that would have been finished already in most houses, but for this one he had to be extra careful. He has spent several visits over these past few weeks mapping out the house as best as he could. Specifically mapping out not only the cameras he’d been able to spot, but every plant as well. Here in Sherwood territory, all flowers, cacti, vines, potted plants of every variety could be a spy. He’d had to come here multiple times, using secret cameras in his backpack he could study the video in an attempt to find a route through the house that didn’t involve passing any plants that could’ve spotted an intruder.

Luckily, the intruders he had in mind were only about five inches tall. 

Even with all his planning, walkthroughs, and the videos of his time in the house, this whole thing would’ve been impossible if it wasn’t for one thing. The Roomba. Every time he’d visited, stood in the kitchen to talk to one of the others, gone upstairs to tutor Arleigh, every time he was around, Ryder had noticed a Roomba busily doing its work somewhere in the house. It was one of the newer models with the ability to hover so it could more easily get around obstacles or go upstairs. Which was pretty important when it came to his plan.

Unfortunately, the only time the Roomba went upstairs, as far as he had seen, was right when he was normally leaving. Which really didn’t work for him, and was what led to this whole situation. Managing to maneuver himself an invitation to stay for dinner without being obvious about it had taken some time and a bit of luck, but now he was here. Even better, their father wasn’t here. He’d told them to order a couple pizzas and not to stay up too late or turn the music up so loud that it would bother ‘them.’ The Sherwood people, obviously. How the Fosters managed to maintain even relatively calm relations with the infamously technology-hating gang when their dad was so deeply tied to the tech-delivering company Taurus was still a mystery. 

Well, actually, money. The answer was probably money. No matter how much Sherwood hated technology, Ryder was willing to bet they put it aside for a certain amount of cash. And lord knew the Fosters had cash. Not Evans-level cash, but then again, who else was that loaded? 

Either way, the Roomba was the key. While he and the Fosters had been sitting around the table playing the stupid game as they waited for the pizza to be delivered, Ryder listened and watched for the little robot vacuum to buzz by on its way under the table. That was the only totally clear spot here in the dining room. There were two cameras that could each keep the entire area they were sitting at in view, and no less than five potential spy plants. He didn’t know that they were being watched by the plants, but it was a possibility. And that was too dangerous. Even if the Sherwood people weren’t on good enough terms with the Fosters to say anything about seeing the innocent, nobody tutor snooping around using tiny energy gremlins, they sure as hell would have a few words to say to Ryder about it. He’d be throwing his secret identity away, letting Sherwood know who he was, and exposing himself to all sorts of trouble. 

Thus, waiting until the Roomba went under the table. As it did, he shifted his position just a little as though turning to look at Arleigh. In the process, the boy summoned four of his so-called mites (miniature invaluable technology elves). The quartet of tiny figures were crowded on his hand, but they knew to stay silent rather than make their normal cackling shrieks. This was a stealth mission. As soon as the Roomba passed by beneath his outstretched hand, they leapt off and fell onto the thing, disappearing inside it right before the robot exited out the far side of the table and back in view of everyone. 

So far so good. Managing not to let his relieved exhale be too obvious, Ryder spoke up. “Are you sure the pizza guy’s gonna be okay coming through this area? I mean… you know.” Even as he was saying that, he was also viewing things through the eyes of his mites. Or rather, through the Roomba they were possessing. 

He may have been just this side of useless in a direct physical confrontation, but if there was one thing Ryder actually was good at, it was multitasking. It was literally a superpower, allowing him to carry on his own actions and engage in full conversations with the people around him while also seeing and directing his mites off on their own things. He couldn’t really describe what it was like to see things through multiple sets of eyes at once, let alone how it felt to direct multiple different actions at the same time. It felt like acting as himself but multiple times and all at once. 

Yes, it was weird. But it was also quite useful. During official missions with the rest of La Casa, he could monitor multiple possessed cameras, doors, vehicles, and more all at once with no problems of having to divide his attention. Every mite he had active was another completely separate focus that he could keep track of all at once. 

While the Roomba slowly made its way out of the kitchen (he couldn’t exactly just take control and direct it straight where he wanted the thing to go without being too obvious), Arleigh snickered. “You mean those nature-loving pussies? Don’t worry, they know better than to mess with our food.” Turning a bit as though looking at one of the nearby flowers, she added, “They’re not as tough as they think they are.” 

With a sigh, Micah muttered, “Don’t antagonize the gang, Arleigh.” 

“Oh please, they’re not always watching.” Arleigh rolled her eyes before glancing to the boy beside her. “They just want people to think they are. They love to make everyone paranoid.” 

While all that was going on, the Roomba with its stowaways trundled along out of the kitchen and did several passes through the small area in front of the stairs. Much as he wanted to send the thing straight to where he needed it now, what Ryder absolutely did not want was for Mr. Fosters or anyone else who happened to review the camera footage from today for any reason to notice something amiss. Everything had to look as normal and mundane as possible. Still, he couldn’t help but hurry it along a bit. The thing still followed its normal route, but did so faster than usual. He really doubted anyone paid quite that much attention. 

So, before long, the Roomba made its way up the stairs, hovering onto each one to vacuum it in turn. Speeding the thing up slightly without running out the motor or attracting attention, Ryder continued to focus his own physical body’s attention on the others, offering a shrug. “I guess if you think it’s okay. Pizza guy wouldn’t agree to make the delivery if it was that dangerous, right?” 

Errol spoke up a bit hesitantly, “Yeah, they know what sort of rules to follow. They come in, deliver things, then leave. There’s um, a list of license plates and people who aren’t allowed to deliver in this area anymore because they broke the rules.” 

“And the place we order from has a good rep,” Micah put in. “So don’t worry your little head off, my man. It’s all gonna be fine.” 

At that point, it was Errol’s turn to offer a truth or dare to one of the two sitting across from him. After giving his sister a brief look while she stared him down, the boy instead focused on Ryder. “Truth, what do you want to be when you grow up? I mean, when you graduate and all.” 

While Arleigh made a noise that was halfway between a groan and a laugh, Micah spoke up. “Oh come on, dude. You can do better than that. That’s the wussiest question ever. We’re not five years old. Here.” He leaned over and whispered something in the younger boy’s ear. 

Errol hesitated after hearing it before sighing. Focusing on Ryder once more, he tried again. “Okay, okay. What do you want to be when you grow up for one point, and for one point each, name three jobs you’d rather die than take.”

With a visible smirk, Micah shrugged while drawling, “Kid still really doesn’t seem to get the point of Truth or Dare, but we try to keep things light for him. Consider this a freebie. But be warned, next time it comes back to us it’ll be my turn again and I will make up for my brother taking it easy on you.” 

Right, this wasn’t that hard. And even if it had been, there was no way that Ryder was going to request a dare. Not when everyone in the room was allowed to make suggestions. He already knew that the older two Foster siblings had plenty of what they would consider interesting ideas on that front. So, he hesitated only slightly before replying, “Well, as far as what I want to be when I grow up…” Several thoughts ran through his mind, most of which he couldn’t say without exposing too much about his true extracurricular activities. “I kinda want to be a chef. Like, a pastry chef. I want to make super-delicious treats that people pay a lot of money for. You know, the kind they serve in five-star restaurants and charge ridiculous rates for. Not really for the money or fame or anything. I don’t think pastry chefs get famous no matter how good they are. But because I want to make those obscenely rich people pay absurd amounts of money for my cakes and things, then turn around and sell stuff that’s just as good to completely normal public high schools for like… pennies. Just because I can.” 

While saying that, he was also focusing on the Roomba. It had made it up the stairs and was heading into Micah’s room. The door opened for the little robot automatically, allowing the thing to get in there and do its work. Ryder had only been in that room once, so he had to be careful. Watching through the Roomba’s camera, he waited until it went under the bed, then made one of his mites hop out. The thing would only have a few seconds of life before vanishing, so he had to be quick. On the way through, he’d taken note of the two plants in the room. One was a small flower up on a shelf by the door, while the other was a cactus sitting in one corner. As long as he had the mite stay under the bed until it reached the end, then use the desk for cover, he could get it around to the back of that desk and up into the computer without being spotted. 

At the same time, the Roomba had finished its work and went out into the hallway. From there, it went through Arleigh and Errol’s rooms, and he did pretty much the same thing. Getting his mites into the computers of all three Foster siblings, all while continuing on to detail the three jobs he’d rather die than take (veterinarian, police officer, pest control). 

Then it was his turn to ask a question. Honestly, he’d rather just pass and focus more on what he was doing, but he had to keep up the ruse. So, after thinking about it for a moment, Ryder looked at Micah. “Truth, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?” 

Rather than respond immediately, the older boy seemed to consider for a few seconds. Then he offered a slow smile before replying, “Dare.” 

Well that was a little surprising. Why would the boy rather do a dare, one he had to know his sister would jump on, then answer the question of where he’d like to live? 

Sure enough, Arleigh was already bouncing up and down, delighted about getting a chance to do a dare against her older brother. As soon as the boy confirmed he would be going with that, she bolted off the seat and began to prepare some sort of concoction in the kitchen that she was going to make him drink. 

Yeah, that sounded gross, but whatever. It gave Ryder a moment of peace, and he took full advantage of that. The Roomba had made it to its main target, the office that he had never been allowed to go into. It was Trey Fosters’ office. Arleigh, Errol, and Micah’s father. And here, he had to be even more careful, using the Roomba’s camera to watch for anything that could spot his last mite. From what he could tell, there was only one spot under the desk that would be out of sight of the large floor to ceiling plant in the corner by the window (which itself had a large tree visible through the glass). He waited for it to be there, then had the mite hop out, shimmy along the corner of that desk, then slip through a hole for a cord and into the actual computer. 

He had done it. All four of the computers had his mites in them,  and he was pretty sure no one knew about it. Now all he had to do was have them download all the files from those computers to the beefy ten terabyte USB drive in his pocket. He doubted he’d need that much, but he’d wanted to come prepared. 

While his mites did their work, Ryder focused on making as queasy a face as he could. It wasn’t that hard, considering he could see some of the things Arleigh was putting in that drink. “Are you sure you want to taste that?” 

“I think you underestimate me, tutor-guy,” Micah retorted. “Believe me, if there’s one thing you should know, it’s this. 

“I play for keeps.” 

*******

He should have brought a bigger USB drive. As it was, Ryder ended up having to focus mostly on the files from Trey Fosters’ computer. That by itself had ended up being a full six and a half terabytes. The rest of the space he’d split up among the other three as evenly as possible, getting all the files he could with a focus on anything that mentioned Touched, the Scions, Errol’s name, and so on. 

He didn’t really look at what he’d gotten in the process. Even his multitasking ability only went so far, and he didn’t trust himself to keep a poker face if he found something important. So, he waited until he was safely done eating, out of that house, in his car, and far from the Sherwood neighborhood before pulling over in a parking lot next to a bookstore. Then he used a cord to plug the USB drive into his phone and started to look at what he’d found. It would take a long time to sort through it all, of course, but he wanted to get at least a first glance. 

Using one of his mites for help, Ryder searched through the video files from all the security footage that had been on Trey’s computer. He had his little buddy search specifically for any moments in the audio that mentioned Errol and the Scions within thirty seconds of each other. 

There, a conversation had been recorded inside the office about a week earlier. Quickly, after glancing around reflexively to ensure that he was still alone in the dark parking lot, Ryder told it to play on his phone screen from a point a few seconds before those keywords were mentioned.

Two people were standing in the office when the video started. One was Trey Fosters himself, a dark-haired man in his early forties who clearly spent a lot of time working out. The other, meanwhile, was a nondescript red-haired man with a neatly trimmed goatee and dark eyes. 

“You know why Cup and Pencil are after my son?” Trey was asking, standing behind his desk with his attention laser-focused that way. “Then don’t keep me in suspense. Or do I have to say pretty please, Minister Gold, tell me why the Scion psychopaths have been trying to find my son all this time?” 

Minister Gold? That was a weird–shaking that off, Ryder focused on listening. 

“Yes, Hemlock, we do,” came the response.  

Despite his resolve to focus, Ryder quickly paused the video. Hemlock?! Arleigh’s father was Hemlock, second-in-command of Sherwood? Did she–did they–of course they knew. That was… that was why they–oh. The man who was so big in the technology delivery game was second-in-command of the gang that hated technology? What the fuck was that about? Why–how would–oh.

Oh. Big oh. He hadn’t just stolen information and files from some random family inside rival gang territory. He’d accidentally stolen identity-revealing information from the gang itself. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He didn’t mean to. Could he–no. No, he couldn’t apologize. They didn’t know what he’d done, and if they found out, they weren’t going to listen to him try to claim he hadn’t done it on purpose. Oh God. Wait, did that mean Arleigh was–she couldn’t–wait.

Shaking those thoughts off for the moment, he hit play once more. However reluctant he was to do so, after he’d done all this already he might as well get the answers he’d been looking for. 

“It took some digging,” that Minister Gold was saying, “but it turns out Errol’s birthparents, Colette and Shane Elbrecht, were old college roommates and friends of Rodney Barlow. AKA Overseer.” 

Overseer. Ryder had heard that name before. He’d been a huge threat in Wisconsin about seven years earlier. Wisconsin to start anyway, but with enormous potential to become a national problem, with his power to touch anything that came off a person’s body, like their hair, blood, sweat, and so on, and ‘charge’ it. When a body part was charged, Overseer could see through that person’s eyes, hear what they heard, and even control them like they were an extension of himself. But even worse than that was the fact that if he got enough body parts, he was able to fashion them into small dolls. And those dolls could be used by anyone, even someone without powers, to control the person in question. 

Needless to say, Overseer had been a real target. He’d risen up the Fell-Touched ranks, been a problem for awhile, and then disappeared. There were a lot of rumors about Touched on both sides of the fence banding together to get rid of him before he became too much of a threat, given he could control all of them if he’d gotten his hands on enough of their hair and other bits. 

“From what we’ve been able to put together,” Minister Gold was saying, “Cup and Pencil have gotten their hands on a DNA-locked safe from the Elbrechts. We believe that inside that safe are various… dolls their old friend left in their care.” 

“Dolls,” Hemlock echoed. “You mean Overseer’s dolls, the ones he was making on his way to come play in this town before you sent your dogs after him.” 

“Yes,” Gold replied. “Which means if Pencil and Cup manage to open that safe, they’ll have access to every doll he stored in there. 

“And they’ll be able to control potentially every Detroit Touched who existed back then.” 

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Patreon Snippets 23 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 23rd edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Shortly Before 20-06

He was definitely being watched. Ryder Towling knew that much even as he stepped out of his car, parked in front of the Fosters’ house. Of course, he could have said as much before ever coming into Sherwood territory. Everyone knew how the gang operated. Feeling eyes on him as he closed his door and walked around to open the back was hardly surprising. It took a lot of effort for him to resist the urge to look around. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he grabbed his satchel from the backseat, hoisted it over his shoulder, and closed the door. 

Yes, there were definitely plenty of eyes on him. Which was why he had to be very careful not to let anyone know the real reason he was here. Or anything about his other identity. Something told him that if the Sherwood people found out that he had any connection to another gang, let alone that he was Eits, someone who primarily used their hated technology, they wouldn’t be too happy. He might not even get a chance to explain the situation. 

And even if he did get that chance, what would he say? Was he supposed to tell them that he had been repaying a favor to a secret organization that had helped him… become who he really was inside, and had actually kept information they probably didn’t want him to have? Information which revealed that Cup and Pencil were desperately trying to find someone who had been adopted years earlier. Someone who now lived in Sherwood territory, in this house. Errol Fosters. 

The Fosters themselves shouldn’t even have been living in this area. The family was rich specifically thanks to a business involving transporting technology. Ryder had no idea how they managed to convince the Sherwood people to leave them alone. It was one of many questions he had about this whole situation. Some of which he might even be able to get answers to. 

As he walked away from his car and approached the front door, the boy asked himself for about the thousandth time why he didn’t just go to Blackjack, explain everything he knew, and ask for help. Seriously, what was he doing here? He wasn’t a fighter. He was a behind-the-scenes sort of guy. And he sure as hell wasn’t some sort of secret agent James Bond type. If he ran into trouble here, deep in another gang’s territory, what was he going to do?

It was stupid. Not asking for help was stupid, the whole thing was stupid. Yet something made him stop every time he thought about going to Blackjack. He had no idea what that whole situation was, how close his boss was to the people who had helped him. For fuck’s sake, they had helped him, so he didn’t even know for certain why he wasn’t going straight to them with this, or just letting them handle it. He just… he couldn’t explain it. He owed them so much, but he wasn’t blind to possible problems. 

He needed to find out more about what was going on, why the Scions wanted to find this kid so much, why his family was living here of all places given what they did for a living, what–all of it. He just had to be careful and find out as much as possible before he made any real decisions. Because once he told anyone about what he knew, there would be no going back. 

With that thought firmly in mind, the boy reached out to push the doorbell. Here went nothing. If this whole thing went wrong, he was totally going to tell himself that he had said so. 

He only had to wait a few seconds after pressing the button for the bell before hearing the sound of several deadbolts and chains being unlocked. Finally, the door was pulled open, and he found himself looking at a beautiful, tall blonde girl who was probably incredibly popular at her school. She wasn’t exactly his type, but he could tell at a glance that the girl was accustomed to being ogled. More than accustomed, she expected it, pausing there with the door open and a knowing smirk on her face. “Hey there,” she greeted him, looking the boy up and down. “Arleigh Fosters. You my new college prep buddy?” 

Yes, this was how he had decided to get into the house and find out more about Errol. Searching through posts from the family online, he had found out that they were looking for a tutor, and a little bit of electronic trickery thanks to his little Mites meant that he was given the job. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to go from working with the girl to learning exactly what was going on with Errol, but at least this gave him a foot in the door. He had even gone through the trouble of making some fake business cards for his supposed services, as well as giving himself a mixture of reviews online. Most good, a few middling based on personality differences, even a couple bad ones. He’d wanted it to look as realistic as possible. 

“Ryder Towling,” he confirmed, extending a hand reflexively even while berating himself for the gesture inwardly. “It’s uhh, nice to meet you.” 

Gazing briefly at his hand as though trying to decide how to react, Arleigh finally offered a very faint, somewhat amused smile before reaching out to gently squeeze it. She didn’t exactly shake his hand as much as… grasp the back of it briefly, but at least she didn’t leave him hanging entirely. 

With that, she pivoted and beckoned. “Come on in. Dad’s back in his office, and my little brother hasn’t gotten home yet. My big brother… who the fuck cares, he’s not here, that’s what matters. Are you hungry? Carol’s probably still in the kitchen.” Without waiting for a response, she raised her voice to call, “Carol, bring some snacks up to my room! Something fun!” 

“Ah, it’s okay, I–” Stopping himself from objecting too much, Ryder shifted his focus to the other thing the girl had said. “Your room? I mean, you want to go up there to study?” 

Giving him a light, clearly teasing glance, Arleigh replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll leave the door open. For now.” With that, she pivoted, flicking her hair over her shoulder as she walked to the nearby stairs and began to ascend. The way she walked made it clear that she wanted him to watch her. This was a girl accustomed to having everyone in a room be attracted to her. More than that, she encouraged it. Which… was kind of cool for her, actually. He wasn’t interested, at least not beyond the obvious biological sense. But still, he wasn’t going to fault her for owning it. She seemed, well, certainly not modest in any sense of the word, but sociable enough so far. 

Shaking off those thoughts, he followed her up the stairs. Spending several long seconds trying to think of a casual way to bring it up, he finally settled on a simple, “So you’ve got two brothers, huh?” 

“That’s right,” the girl replied without looking back. “One younger, one older.” She paused by an open door and gestured. “That’s Errol’s room. My little brother. He should be home soon, but you know, if he bugs us too much I’ll just throw shit at him until he leaves. It’s usually not hard to make him fuck off. Micah’s the one that’s the real pain in the ass.” 

They had reached what was obviously her bedroom by that point, as the door was shut and had a big whiteboard hung on it with the words, ‘Stay The Fuck Out Micah’ written on it. Before opening the door, Arleigh spoke clearly. “Xanah, disable the alarm on my door, code Eulogy Kermit Piggy Grover.” 

After a brief pause, a female voice coming from a nearby speaker acknowledged, “Alarm disabled, Miss Fosters. Have a pleasant afternoon.” 

“You put an alarm on your door?” Ryder asked, raising an eyebrow. 

With a snort, the girl pulled it open. “Like I said, Micah’s a pain in the ass. And I mean that with a capital P and A. I can’t give him any opening.” 

This all felt… like a very awkward and strange house to live in. But Ryder pushed those thoughts aside for the moment, following the girl into her quite large bedroom. He was pretty sure the place was bigger than his whole apartment, actually. She had her own bathroom, accessible only through this room, with what looked like a full whirlpool tub inside, and a separate enclosed shower. The bed itself, on the opposite side of the room from the entrance to the bathroom, was big enough for about six people to sleep on, yet it didn’t even take up half the room. 

Looking around briefly, he finally stepped over to where the desk with her computer was. There were already a couple chairs there. “But you ahh, you don’t think your other brother’s such a pain?” 

Shrugging, Arleigh replied, “He’s little, I can kick his ass. I mean, I can kick Micah’s ass too, sometimes. It just–” She stopped, seeming to consider her words once more before simply finishing with, “Micah can go fuck himself. Errol’s not bad. Annoying sometimes, but… you know, not a big deal.”

Looking to a picture on the wall, Ryder stepped that way. “This them?” He focused on the younger boy in the photo, who looked nothing like the other two. He was little and scrawny, with glasses and a very awkward appearance. 

“Yeah, that’s my brothers,” Arleigh confirmed with a dismissive roll of her eyes. “But come on, you’re not here to tutor them, remember? Micah’s already in college and Errol’s like, really smart anyway. He’ll be fine.” 

Turning away from the picture, Ryder started to step over that way, when a sight through the nearby window made him pause. “Someone just pulled in.” 

“What?” Arleigh jumped to her feet, moving next to him to look out. “If Micah’s back already, I swear–oh. Hey, that’s Cassidy.” 

“Uh, Cassidy?” Ryder looked again. There was a small girl behind the wheel of the car. From that distance, she looked pretty, in a way much more understated than Arleigh’s in-your-face hotness. Her hair was cut short on one side and long on the other, with pink-tinted bangs. Standing at the window, he found himself staring intently that way before noticing the older man sitting next to her, and the two kids in the backseat. Including a very familiar sight. The boy whose picture he had just been looking at, and who was the very reason he was here. 

“Cassidy Evans, she’s the one driving, next to her dad,” Arleigh announced, already pivoting to head for the door. “And that’s Errol in the back. Come on, let’s say hi. We can get to the tutoring thing in a minute.” 

Well, that was strange. She was really eager to run downstairs and greet this Cassidy. Even as he followed her, Ryder asked himself why that would be. Did she have a crush on the girl or something? 

Forget it, that didn’t matter. Whatever her deal with the Evans girl was–wait, that Evans girl? The realization struck him suddenly, making the boy stop briefly. He had… never thought that–okay he hadn’t really put a lot of thought into what Sterling and Elena Evans’ daughter would look like, but from that brief glimpse he’d gotten, that wasn’t it. She… wow. 

Shaking that off, he told himself to focus on being pleasant and getting through this whole thing. Then he could try to push for more information about Errol, maybe even talk to the boy himself a bit if an opportunity presented itself. 

After all, he was here for answers, and he probably wouldn’t get any by focusing on Cassidy Evans. 

*************

Immediately After 20-09

As the video call from her adopted little sister ended, Irelyn found herself staring at the phone in her hand. A wide assortment of thoughts were running through her mind, many of them involving a lot of curse words. Of course, the very first thing she did was hit the button to call the girl back, ready to launch into a diatribe about what exactly Paige thought she was doing. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, there was no response. The call went to an automatic voicemail after a few rings, and Irelyn left… not quite (anywhere near) the full list of things she wanted to say in that moment, but enough to make it clear that she needed Paige to call her back immediately. 

Not that she expected that to work, of course. Paige was incredibly stubborn when she wanted to be. So, Irelyn turned away from the grocery store she had been about to walk into, thoughts of preparing dinner that evening completely gone in the moment. She called a different number while striding toward her car, sticking the bluetooth device in her ear to talk as the person on the other end picked up. “Hazel? Yeah, listen, can you get hold of your brother for me? I need him to trace a phone number. Yes, I could go through the official system, but I don’t want to for this. And you both owe me for making those introductions. Yeah, you guys love it here and you know it. Right, here’s the number. Thanks, let me know what he comes up with.” 

Reading it off for the girl, Irelyn got into her car and started it up before realizing that she had no idea where she was driving. She had been in such a rush to move somewhere and feel like she was accomplishing something after that frustrating call from her sister that she had briefly forgotten that she had nowhere to move to just yet. 

Instead of pulling out and driving aimlessly, she took a moment to replay everything that had been said on the phone. Then she paused, a frown touching her face. Paige had stopped her from bringing up the fact that she was Touched, that she was a member of the Conservators. Irelyn had been about to remind the girl that she had experience with this sort of danger specifically because of that, but Paige had spoken up quickly to cut her off. 

Someone else was there with her. Someone had been with Paige and the other girl hadn’t wanted them to overhear Irelyn give away her secret identity. But who? And why hadn’t Paige said anything about someone else listening in? Why–was she captured? Was she being held prisoner? Fuck. Fuck, fuck. That made sense. Of course, that was why she had refused to say anything more. They probably heard about Irelyn asking around and had forced Paige to make that call, likely at gunpoint. This was all bad, so bad. Unless she was jumping to conclusions. It was possible, possible, that there had simply been someone there who wasn’t a threat, but whom Paige didn’t want to hear about Irelyn’s secret. She had to find out more. 

It wasn’t long before Hazel called back, her voice coming through the car’s speaker system that time. 

“Okay, Bryson says this thing’s coming from Florida. Down just a little north of Miami. You wanna tell us what this is all about? Or do we have to play twenty questions? Is it a person? I bet it’s a person. My second guess is animal.” 

Frowning inwardly, Irelyn muttered, “Florida, who do they know in Florida?” The answer, of course, was a lot of people. Her parents were rich and had contacts all over the place. But maybe the Miami part could narrow it down a little. Finally, she shook off those thoughts and focused on what the girl on the phone was saying. “I don’t know exactly. My parents and little sister disappeared a little while ago. And now Paige called me to say they were looking into one of Dad’s businesses, but they got in trouble somehow and she was going to get them out of it.” 

There was a brief pause at that before Hazel replied, “Uh, is your sister some sort of super-ninja secret agent or something? Wait, is she–” 

“She’s not Touched,” Irelyn assured her. “And she’s not–I mean she knows self-defense, Dad made sure of that. So did I. But she’s not–no. I don’t know what she’s thinking. But I have to find her, and our parents, before something terrible happens. There’s something going on around here, and I’m pretty sure Paige knows all about it. She’s the one I need to get answers from.” 

“Well, let Bryson keep working at this on our end,” Hazel tentatively replied. She sounded uncertain, yet curious. “He says there are a few weird things about that signal, like they were trying to mask it or something. But he’s pretty good with this stuff, so he can probably work it out eventually. I’ll make him keep digging a little deeper, let you know what we find out. If anything.” 

“Hazel Ruthers, you and your brother be careful,” Irelyn cautioned. 

“Ew, don’t use my full name, it makes you sound like my mother,” the girl on the other end retorted. “And the last thing I need is to be reminded of my mother. It ruins the mood.” 

Snorting, Irelyn shot back, “Right, right, sorry. Consider me chastised. And… do me a favor, keep all of this off the official record on your end too? Don’t take it to your boss just yet. I don’t know why, it just feels like the right thing to do. I’ve got a weird feeling about all this.” 

“You always have a weird feeling,” Hazel lightly teased before sobering a bit to add, “Seriously, we’ll keep it on the downlow, sure. It’s the least we can do. Well, that and help you find your family. Give Bry a little more time to pick through this thing and see what’s so weird about it, then we’ll get back to you.”

After agreeing with that, Irelyn disconnected before heaving a sigh. She still had no idea what to do about this. Well, she did. The call had come from Florida. She could go there and look around in person. Was that the right thing to do? There was a war going on right here in Detroit, yet her sister and parents… Fuck, what was the right call here? If something happened to her family because she stayed here, she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself. But on the other hand, if she left and this war kicked into even higher gear and people died because she wasn’t around…

Cursing once more under her breath, Irelyn reached out to hit the button on her dash to call Silversmith. Once he picked up several rings later, she tersely spoke, explaining a bit about the situation as succinctly as possible while trying to keep any emotion out of her voice. She didn’t want him to think she wasn’t being professional about this whole thing. Mostly she simply said that her parents and sister had gone off the grid and she needed to go check on them. 

Once she finished, there was a brief pause before the man replied, “I’m sorry to hear about your family, Flea. Of course you can take the time out to go down and look for them. I have a few contacts in the Conservators down there who can help out.” 

“What about the–” she started to bring up the gang war. 

“Don’t worry about us,” he assured her. “Finding your parents and your sister is the important thing right now. Make sure they’re safe. If I need to, I’ll call in some help up here to fill in for you. We’ll be fine, I promise. You head to the airport right–wait, no. I’m going to call in some favors and get you a rapid-transit. Head for–here.” He paused briefly before reading off an address. “Go there, I’ll have a teleporter meet you in twenty minutes or so. They’ll take you straight to Miami where you can meet with the Conservators and get the ball rolling to figure out where your parents and sister went.” 

Still taking a bit aback by the man’s quick reaction to all of this, Irelyn finally found her voice. “Right, thanks, Smith. I’ll get this done, find them, and get back here as soon as possible.” 

“Don’t worry about us,” the man insisted. “Take care of your family. And let me know if you need anything else while you’re down there. We’ll be ready to back you up if we need to. That’s what a team is for.”  

After hesitantly agreeing and thanking the man, Irelyn disconnected once more and began heading for the address. She set the car into autodrive before rolling her seat back to change into her costume. The whole time, a multitude of thoughts were running through her head about what she would find in Florida when she got there. What had her father gotten himself involved in now? And why was Paige so insistent on dealing with it herself? There was something incredibly suspicious about the whole situation, even if she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. 

Whatever this was, whatever was really going on, she was going to find out the truth. And then she and Paige were going to have a long talk about not running off on her own. 

Florida though? Really? Why the hell did it have to be Florida

A few minutes later, she pulled up in front of what looked like a disused warehouse. Parking her car, Irelyn stepped out, now fully-clad in her costume as she looked around. Catching a glimpse of a man waving toward her from the doorway, she strode that way. 

The man stood just under seven feet tall, heavily muscled under a black bodysuit with a silver cloak and hood. His face was covered by a dark red metal mask with holographic white numbers displayed across the front. Currently, the numbers simply read zero point zero zero. 

“Snapback?” Flea, now that she was in costume, asked. “He called you over from Chicago?” 

“I don’t mind,” came the surprisingly gentle and cheerful response given the man’s size and build. “Good luck finding your family though. You let me know if you need anything, yeah?” 

Agreeing, Flea reached out to take the man’s hand. Immediately, she felt the air twist around them. It was a disturbing sensation, making her stomach flip over. The view around her distorted to the point that it hurt to look at it, and she closed her eyes before the nausea would have taken over. 

And with a popping noise, they were abruptly standing elsewhere. As her eyes opened, she found herself still grasping the man’s hand, as they stood in the middle of an alley. The beach was visible in the distance, and the ocean beyond that. 

“Miami Conservator base is about two blocks north,” her ‘lift’ informed the woman. The zero point zero zero previously displayed across the front of his red metal mask had changed to one thousand, three hundred and ninety six. “Thought you might want to get your bearings a little bit before heading that way to check in. But ahh, this is a pretty big jump so you might want to let go before I snap you back with me.”

Snapback was well-named. Essentially, he was capable of transporting himself to any location he had a decent understanding of, no matter how far away. But he could only stay in that location for a limited time. The further the distance, the shorter his time there. When he released his grip on the second location, the man instantly returned to his starting point and gained a brief moment of total invulnerability, as well as a level of super strength depending on how far away he had transported and how long he held it for. Like a stretched rubber band. The strength and invulnerability only lasted a couple of seconds, but it allowed him to hit someone or something with utterly devastating force simply by making a jump to somewhere very far away, holding the teleport for a few seconds until he could stand it no longer, then transporting back and lashing out. He could smack ordinary people around incredibly effectively just by teleporting several miles away and then ‘snapping back’ to swat them. Even better, if he wanted to, the man could expend his temporary strength in a single concussive blast from his hands rather than a physical blow, if his target had moved. 

Alternatively, he could choose to ‘snap’ the connection entirely and stay in the location he had teleported to. Doing that would send a concussive wave out at both his starting and ending locations, though he could choose exactly how to divide that force, giving his starting location the brunt of it and the ending point only a minimal amount, vice versa, or anywhere in between. When he was making a long trip and trying to stay there, the man had to find starting and ending areas that wouldn’t be damaged in the process. 

Thanking the man for the lift, Flea watched him vanish with a rush of expanding air that made a popping sound, before turning. Florida. Time to go visit the local Convervators, and–

“So,” a voice abruptly interrupted. “We heading out?” 

Jumping a bit, Flea pivoted, finding herself facing a familiar figure in a costume consisting of what looked like purple scalemail body armor over her chest, a black hooded cloak, purple metal helmet with black visor, and tan pants over dark brown boots.

Hazel?” she blurted. “What the hell are you doing here? I just–I told you to help your brother look for–how did you–” 

“Hey, you’re not the only one who can call in teleport assistance when you need to,” the other girl retorted. “I’ve still got friends from my old Minority squad in Nebraska. And I had time-off to take. I told you, I wanna help. 

“And hey, don’t call me by my real name. It’s not Hazel Ruthers while we’re in costume. 

“It’s Trivial.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“There’s my baby girl.” With a broad smile as I approached, my father opened his arms before yanking me up into them once I got close enough. He lifted me clear off the ground and hugged me tight. “Now, who said you were allowed to grow so much while we were gone?” he demanded. “I thought I made it clear that you’re supposed to stay exactly the same while I can’t see you.”  

God, some part of me really wished that it was easier to only be disgusted by what my father was really like. It would have made this whole situation less agonizing, if I could stick to just seeing him as the leader of a criminal organization, who hurt and killed people. 

But that was the whole problem. He wasn’t just that. He was my father too. And beyond that, the Ministry had done some good things. It was all so complicated, the whole thing. He was my father and I loved him, just like I loved my brother and my mom. But they were all criminals. They all did bad things, along with some good. They were… it was… complicated. So complicated. Seeing him right now, being embraced by him, just made all those conflicted feelings come rushing back into me even more than ever. Especially after that whole thing with them helping Luciano escape. That was wrong. It was horrible. I had to do something about it. I had to get that piece of shit put in prison where he belonged. And I couldn’t excuse the part that my family had played in helping him escape. And yet… and yet… my father was here. I hadn’t seen him in what felt like forever, even if it hadn’t actually been that long. Despite all the terrible feelings deep in my stomach, I found myself returning the embrace tightly. Which only made me feel even more conflicted about the whole thing. 

Finally, I found my voice while making my head shake. “I didn’t grow at all! It’s only been a couple weeks, you know.” Belatedly, I added in a mutter under my breath, “Besides, you could have left for five years and I wouldn’t have grown at all.”   

“Couple weeks?” Dad gasped as though completely confused by that. “I tell you, it felt like that five years.” With a smile, he set me down and ran his hand through my uneven hair. “Ever decide if you want that to be long or short?” he teased, tugging a bit at the longer side. 

“More fun to be both,” I retorted, poking him in the stomach. “I didn’t know you were going to be here. Let me guess, you drove Jefferson over the edge and he quit to go work for Uber.” 

With a snort at that absurd thought, my father shook his head and turned to open the front passenger side of Royal Thunder. “Actually, I thought we could get some practice in. You’ve got your training license, right?” As he said that, Dad stepped down in the passenger side of the car, leaving… leaving the… the…driver… side…

As that realization slowly filled my head, I gaped, eyes widening. “Wha–you, you mean it?” 

Chuckling with amusement as my reaction, Dad gestured. “Come on then, get in before I change my mind. Let’s see what you can do.” Abruptly, he grimaced before quickly amending, “And by that, I mean let’s see how many rules of the road you can follow while being extremely careful. Speed limits are fine things, but let’s pretend it’s like five miles per hour lower. Or ten. Ten is good too. Hey, parking lots are fun, how about we do circles around one of those?”

“Too late!” I chirped, dashing around the front of the car to jump in the driver’s side. Once there, I found that my father had already arranged the seat to be higher and more forward, specifically ready for me to use. The pedals had also been extended a bit forward so I could reach them more easily. Finding all that, I turned a bit to stare at my dad.

He, in turn, winked. “Well? You’ve been going on about wanting to drive for so long. Let’s see what you can do. I need to figure out if I can put you to work once you get that real license.” 

Despite myself, despite everything, I leaned over and gave him a side-hug. Then I started the car, checked everything over, and pulled away from the curb after making sure the road was clear. I didn’t peel out or anything, tempting as it was with the power of the machine I was controlling. I kept myself under control and brought it up to just under the speed limit as we cruised out to the regular street to join up with traffic. 

Dad watched me the whole time, his head shaking with disbelief. “I can’t believe you’ll be seventeen in under a year.” His voice was a thoughtful murmur. “You were only nine a couple years ago, weren’t you? Where’d the time go?” 

Snorting, I carefully took a right turn at the light. “Yeah, and a couple years ago, you were only thirty.” 

Making a strangled noise in the back of his throat, Dad retorted, “Just how old do you think I am, kid?” 

Pretending to think about that for a few seconds while drumming my fingers along the steering wheel, I offered, “I dunno, fifty-seven?” 

“Fifty-se–” That strangled sound was back as my father choked, giving me a look. “Okay, you know what, maybe you can wait another ten years before driving.” 

A laugh escaped me. Which just made the whole situation worse. God, it was so easy to fall into this routine, so incredibly easy to forget the truth, even for just a few minutes. Yet in the back of my head, I couldn’t completely stop thinking about what Murphy and Roald were doing right now, and how their lack of justice was in large part the fault of my family. 

Clearly noticing the way my expression changed, Dad reached out to touch the side of my face while we were waiting at the red light. His voice was concerned. “Hey, what’s wrong? Did something happen? Whatever it is, you know you can talk about it.” 

Oh God, if only that was true. For just a split-second, I seriously imagined what would happen if I actually told him everything. How crazy would it be if I just unloaded the whole thing and told my father everything I knew and everything I thought about what they really did? What if I actually told him about how their bullshit allowed the murderer of my friend’s brother to escape? How would he react? Would he be ashamed? Would he offer to fix it? Would he apologize? Or would he just find a way to excuse it? Would he simply erase my memory again? How would he really react? I was so tempted, in that brief moment, to actually go through with it and see what happened. Maybe it was partially because of just how upset I was about the Murphy situation in general. Or maybe it was because of the actual fight I’d had with Simon the night before. Or because they’d been gone for awhile and this was my first time being close to my dad in a couple weeks. Either way, whatever the reason, the words were right on the tip of my tongue.  

And yet, I suppressed the urge and simply shook my head while looking at him. “I just missed you,” I found myself easily lying straight to his face, even as my stomach turned itself into knots. “Did you guys finish your business, or are you leaving again?” There, it was easy to make it look and sound as though the reaction he had seen was about being upset that they had been gone. Manipulative, yes. But I had to give him some legitimate explanation for the look he had seen, so he didn’t wonder about it too much. Because the last thing I needed was my father to spend too much time wondering about what I was doing and why I might be upset about something.

Thankfully, it seemed to work. Dad gave a low sigh and reached over to brush my hair fondly. “We’re back for awhile now, I promise. Pretty sure your mom will kill me if we have any more business interruptions anytime soon.”  

Again, I was tempted to say several things to that. Thankfully, the light turning green distracted me, and I was able to shove those impulses down along with pushing my foot against the accelerator. As the car pulled away, I found my voice. “Maybe she’d just maim you a little bit.” 

Dad, in turn, chuckled once more. “Oh sure, maiming sounds better.” Shaking his head, he focused on giving me driving advice for the next thirty minutes or so, telling me where to turn and asking how I felt about freeway driving, parallel parking, downtown traffic, and more. Through it all, I pushed aside my troubled thoughts about the whole situation and tried to focus on just being there in the moment. But the whole time, a voice in the back of my head wouldn’t stop talking about how I was betraying my friends by not confronting my father about what happened, even though I knew it wouldn’t actually help anything if I did. It would, almost certainly, make everything worse. So, I shoved the impulse down and lost myself in the driving lesson. 

Eventually, we stopped to pick up Izzy, who had stayed after to work on some project. As I brought the car to a halt in front of the school, she approached alongside a boy who looked familiar. He was blond and scrawny, with messy hair and glasses. Where had I–oh! 

Yeah, the realization of where I had seen the boy before came to me even as Izzy spoke up. “Uh, is it okay if we give Errol a ride home? His sister… didn’t want to wait.” 

Right, his sister. Arleigh Fosters. Somehow, the fact that she refused to wait around to give her little brother a ride home didn’t exactly surprise me. And I was pretty sure Izzy was giving a sanitized, polite version of her likely reaction to being asked. 

Dad gestured. “Sure thing, as long as you don’t mind getting a lift from the speed demon over here. Why don’t you guys both hop in the back? How’s it going, Errol? How’s your dad?” 

Oh right, Errol’s (and by extension, Arleigh’s) dad was another rich businessman. Specifically, he owned a pretty big stake in that Taurus Touched-Tech shipping company. Not as much as my parents did, but still quite a bit. Enough that my parents did have the occasional meeting with him. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure we had even had Arleigh over to the house once or twice years back. It would have been while I was still in first or second grade, so I barely remembered it, but I was pretty sure she had been there. 

Gee maybe we were best friends too and then my parents erased that. 

While I was thinking about that, Errol gave some light remark about how his dad was fine, then he and Izzy started to talk some more about their project. I tuned them out after a minute and focused on driving. Despite everything I already knew about my family, I bizarrely didn’t want to disappoint my father with my skills. My father killed people and ran a Mafia-like organization to control all crime in the city, and I was worried about him thinking I was a bad driver. How absurd was that? 

Whatever it was, I drove carefully (but not too carefully) back out to the main street before asking Errol to remind me of where he lived. He, in turn, tried to demur by telling me that I could drop him off at a nearby library and he would take the bus. 

“Nonsense,” Dad objected. “It’ll be just fine, Errol. We’ll drop you off right at your house. Believe me, nobody’s going to try anything.” 

Well, that was confusing. Looking over at my father and then to the back seat while we were at a stop sign, I echoed, “Try anything?” 

Errol, in turn, sighed and told me where to take him. Only then did I realize why he’d had that reaction. Apparently, he lived smack in the middle of Sherwood territory. Yeah, no wonder he was a bit nervous about bringing strangers into an area controlled by a bunch of psychotic anti-technology Fell-Touched. Hell, I was certainly curious as to how a family like his could continue to live there, given everything. Their entire business revolved around transporting, repairing, and selling super advanced technology. So how could they afford to live in a place that was literally run by a gang that wanted to destroy technology? Did the gang not really know who they were or what they did? Or… or…

“Yo, Earth to Evans Junior.” Dad’s hand touched my shoulder, making me snap out of what had apparently been an extended moment of staring off at nothing. “Did you forget you’re the one piloting this craft?” 

Flushing a bit, I checked both ways before pulling away from the stop sign. “Right, sorry. One taxi ride home coming right up. We’ll be there in ten minutes.” 

“Fifteen minutes,” Dad corrected me with a raised eyebrow. “We’ll take the scenic route, no need to get on the freeway with our guest.” 

There it was again, the total cognitive disconnect. My father was both one of the biggest superheroes in the entire state, and one of the biggest criminals. And yet, he was worried about me having a fender bender or something while one of his business colleagues’ kids was in the car. Trying to comprehend him in both ways (or rather, all three) was making my brain twist itself into knots. Hell, I wasn’t even sure that thought made any sense at all. It was just words, thoughts about how strange this whole situation was. My dad was a hero, a villain, and my father. He ran a Star-Touched team, helped Fell-Touched do bad things for money, and he was worried about his daughter getting the son of one of his business partners hurt. It was so hard to make all that fit together into one person all at the same time. 

The point was, being around my dad like this was confusing. It made my brain and my stomach hurt. But I pushed all that down and focused on driving. I liked driving. I could lose myself in that for the time being. 

So, that was exactly what I did. For the next fifteen minutes, I focused on driving to the gated community that had once been known as Pinewood Hollow. Now, the graffitied sign at the front had had the Pine part crossed out and had ‘Sher’ put in front of it. Meanwhile, ‘Enter, all ye who are’ was written in front of the Hollow part. 

“Dad, can objects turn into Touched?” I asked, staring that way. 

“I don’t think so, kid, why?” Dad replied, sounding curious. 

I pointed to the sign. “Because whoever made that was obviously some kind of giant anime sword, to have all that edge.” 

Even as I said that, a bird that was sitting on a rock next to the sign gave a sharp caw before flying away, making me jump a bit before silently cursing myself for it. Right, angry birds, spy-plants, wonderful. It was just so welcoming. I definitely couldn’t see any reason why going in here, let alone living here, was a bad idea. 

Dad’s hand found my shoulder once more, squeezing it. He chuckled at what I’d said, even as he reassured me. “It’ll be okay, trust me. We’re not doing anything wrong, just dropping off someone who lives here. You can’t let people like that control everything you do. Don’t be stupid about it, but don’t surrender to them entirely either. They’re not stupid, they’re not going to pick a fight with every car that drives through their territory.” 

Some part of me wondered if this was some sort of test somehow. But I shook that off and gave a distracted nod while pulling the car into official Sherwood territory. 

Nothing happened, of course. It wasn’t like simply entering their area was instantly going to make the whole gang descend on us. Though some part of me wondered what my father would do if there was some sort of confrontation. After all, most of the bad guys had no idea who he really was. Either of his identities, come to think of it. How would he react if some of their people got a little ambitious and tried something? The thought made me just curious enough to almost want it to happen. Part of me was morbidly interested in how he would handle something like that without giving away any of his secrets to the three of us. 

But, of course, it was like he’d said. Nothing happened. No one approached us at all as we drove through the subdivision to the large house that Errol had directed me to. The whole place just looked like any other quiet, fairly upscale neighborhood. 

Except, of course, for all the flora. Seriously, there were exotic plants all over the place. The grass was deep green and cut perfectly on each yard, there were bright, colorful flowers and bushes everywhere (some of them clearly tropical or just rare), the trees were larger and fuller than any other place in the city. It was like driving out of Detroit and into a well-maintained rain forest or something. Say what you would about these guys’ methods, but they kept some pretty homes. 

No. They forced everyone else in this place to keep pretty homes. The correction immediately came to mind, while a knot formed in my stomach once more. Everywhere I looked, all these pretty bushes, tall trees, the vines along some of the houses, even those perfectly manicured lawns, were all reminders that the people who lived here were essentially being occupied by a hostile force that made them do all that. 

Okay, granted, there were worse tortures than being forced to have pretty plants in your yard. But still. The plants also served to help spy on these people. They were all basically cameras and microphones. 

That little tidbit stayed in my head while my father walked Errol into the house, with Izzy following after to be polite. Apparently Dad wanted to visit with Errol’s dad for a few minutes, to talk about something that was going on at Taurus. 

Unless, of course, what he really wanted to talk to the man about was Ministry stuff. That would explain how the family could afford to stay here, surrounded by that gang, right? If they actually were connected to the Ministry, the Sherwood people would be told to leave them alone. And it would explain why my father wasn’t worried about being confronted in this place. Not because they knew who he was, but because they knew Errol and his family were off-limits. That made sense. Plus, of course my family would have Ministry-connected people in the high positions at Taurus. It all fit. 

Also, it was possible that part of me just thought that Arleigh having supervillain connections, even if it wasn’t her fault and she didn’t know about it, made sense. Meanwhile, another part of me chastised myself and said that wasn’t fair to the girl. Even if I didn’t really like her. 

Speaking of whom, while lost in those thoughts, I heard Arleigh’s voice call out my name.  Quickly, I looked that way to see her approaching from the front door of the house. There was someone else with her, a somewhat lanky guy with light, somewhat curly brown hair that was cut fairly short. He wore jeans and a long, green shirt that was unbuttoned over a black tee with a local band’s name on it. 

“Hey there, Cass!” Arleigh cheerfully greeted. Again, like we were best friends. “Cool ride. You get your license after all? Dad pull a few strings?” She added that last bit conspiratorially. 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Just having a practice ride with him, that’s all. Hey Arleigh. And umm…” I looked to the boy. 

“Oh, this is my new college prep tutor.” Arleigh gestured back and forth between us. “Cassidy Evans, this is Ryder Towling. Ryder, this is Cassidy Evans.” 

Offering me a slightly self-conscious smile, the boy extended a hand as he and Arleigh stood by the driver’s side of the car (it was parked in the driveway). “Cassidy Evans, huh?” 

I felt a strange sense of familiarity in that moment, but shook it off and turned to shake his hand. “Yeah, I know, disappointing in the flesh, huh?” 

“Oh don’t be silly!” That was Arleigh, laughing a bit too much. “The last thing you could be is disappointing. Actually, you should come to this party we’re having Friday night. It’s gonna be at Sonya Deckermire’s lakehouse, and I swear to god, they’re gonna have jet skis.” 

“Oh, well, jet skis make that really tempting,” I managed to reply. “I’ll see what’s going on.” Quickly changing the subject, I looked back to Ryder. “College prep tutor?” 

“It’s really not a big deal,” he claimed. “I’m just making sure she’s ready to apply for different schools next year, that she’s got her extracurriculars all worked out, her applications look nice and tidy, that sort of thing.” 

“You should let him help you at some point,” Arleigh noted. “You know, after he gets me all squared away.” That was accompanied by an almost convincing laugh. “You don’t get to steal him until I’m done.” 

“Oh, uh, sure.” Ryder dug in his pockets, coming out with a card, which he handed me. It had his name and a phone number on it, along with a note about what he charged for various tutoring services. 

Tucking it away, I thanked him. Again, there seemed to be something familiar there. But before I could focus on it, my father returned with Izzy. He took a moment to talk to Arleigh and her new tutor, before getting in. As Izzy tucked herself alone into the backseat, Dad gestured. “Home, Jeeves. And you better make it snappy. If your mother doesn’t get to see you in the next few minutes, she might just kill all of us.” 

All thoughts of Arleigh and her tutor left my head as I pulled the car out of the driveway and began to head for the house. Right, time to see my mother. 

And hey, the good news was that my stomach was getting a lot of exercise today with all those jumping jacks it was doing. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patreon Snippets 21

Arleigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

Plan Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then she waited. 

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Hostile Witness 18-03 (Summus Proelium)

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So yeah, apparently I was supposed to be attending a party where my dad was going to be giving a speech. Attending a party as Paintball, that was. I’d attended plenty of events where my dad was speaking when I was just myself, of course. But now I was supposed to sit there, play nice, and pretend I was totally oblivious while he went on some long spiel in front of a whole crowd. I couldn’t show any reaction to the things he would be saying. Worse, what if they asked me questions about it? What if they wanted to ask how the new young Star-Touched in Detroit felt about all the wonderful things the city’s richest family was doing to improve everyone’s lives?

I also couldn’t back out now. It would probably look a little suspicious if I had been okay with going to this thing right up until they mentioned my father’s name. Even if they didn’t have any connection to the Ministry, that would probably make them curious enough to poke around. And the last thing I wanted was anyone ‘poking around’ when it came to my family. Besides, just because they might not have a connection to the Ministry didn’t mean that anyone they asked about my reaction wouldn’t. Yeah, that whole thing could get really complicated, really fast. 

And there was more than that, of course. I wouldn’t be the only one there. So would Alloy,  assuming she agreed to go. For a brief second, I had actually considered just not sharing the invitation with her, to avoid that entire situation. But honestly, I’d seen way too many TV shows where someone had tried something like that and it backfired in their face the moment someone else asked the person why they’d refused the invitation they didn’t even know existed. Just because I couldn’t think of anyone right now who would say anything like that to her didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen. And the last thing I wanted to do was create some sort of trust problem between the two of us just because of a stupid mistake on my part. I had enough issues already. Enough things I wasn’t sharing. So yeah, I was going to have to tell the other girl about the invitation and probably deal with her being there too.  

Speaking of Peyton, it was finally time for me to go meet up with her, after catching a quick bit of dinner at a nearby Chinese place. I changed back into my civilian clothes to do that, of course. Fun as it might have been to be recognized and continue that whole ‘building public opinion of Paintball so my parents couldn’t easily tear it down’ thing, I needed a quiet place to think about what I was going to say to the girl who had thrown herself so thoroughly into being my partner. 

The restaurant had been just what I needed, at least as far as privacy went. I’d managed to get myself seated in a rear, quiet corner by saying I really needed to read for a school project while slipping the hostess a twenty dollar bill. From there, I ate some really good food and spent the next forty-five minutes trying to settle on exactly what I would tell Peyton when we met up.

Unfortunately, while the food was incredible, my brain wouldn’t cooperate. Even now, as I started to leave the restaurant and move toward the alley where I could change, I honestly had no idea what I was going to say, or how far I would go with my explanation. All I could do was play it by ear. At the very least, I would tell her about the Ministry, and in general terms how I had found out about them. But I kept going back and forth on whether I should reveal my identity to her. We were supposed to be friends and partners. Plus, some of that Band-Aid had already been torn off by the fact that Amber and Izzy knew about me. It felt somewhat easier to trust someone else with that. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still barely knew Peyton. I wasn’t sure how she would react to this whole thing, so maybe it was better to just give her the general information about the Ministry and see how that went before telling her anything else? 

I was so involved with my own thoughts about that whole thing that I almost walked right into someone as I came out of the restaurant while they were starting to walk in. Only the fact that they blurted my name snapped me back to the real world in time to come up short. 

It was Arleigh Fosters. If Paige hadn’t existed, Arleigh would’ve been our school’s resident rich, hot blonde cheerleader type. Even though she wasn’t actually a cheerleader, she still had that same look and all. And the same stereotypical meanness. Not to mention racist, given the things I’d heard the girl say at school. All in all, Arleigh was not a pleasant person to be with. 

And yet, there was a pretty major difference between her and Paige in that she’d always been nice to me. She never insulted me, and always acted like we were… if not friends, at least friendly. Which kind of made me feel gross, to be honest. She tried to slide herself into my life whenever the chance arose, and basically laughed off any retort I made as though I was kidding. As horrible as she was to Jae (after deciding that the other girl had been trying to steal her now ex-boyfriend just because said boyfriend commented on Jae being cute), she was overly pleasant to me, because of who my family was. It was sickening. 

Actually, now that I knew more about the Paige situation, she and Arleigh really were opposites. Paige was a bitch to my face, but had been secretly trying to help because she cared about me while being incapable of showing it. Meanwhile, Arleigh was nice to my face because she wanted to have that connection to me–or rather, to my family. But she was obviously a nasty snake who didn’t give a shit about me or anyone who wasn’t herself. 

Sure enough, as soon as she saw me recognize her, the girl put on a bright smile. “I knew it was you. Hey there, Cassidy. I don’t think you’ve met my brothers, have you?” 

That made me notice the two guys on either side of the girl. The guy to her right was clearly older, probably around Simon’s age. He was also blond like Simon. But taller. He was several inches over six feet and very well-built. Almost distractingly so, damn. He looked movie-star nice. 

Meanwhile, the boy on the other side of Arleigh was… very different. About the only similarity connecting him to his siblings was the fact that he was blond. But, unlike their perfectly cared for thousand dollar haircuts, the mop atop this kid’s (he looked like he was twelve or thirteen) head was stringy and unkempt, sticking out every which way. He was skinny enough to almost look unhealthy, and wore glasses. Yeah, if he hadn’t been standing right there, and possibly if I hadn’t outright been told about their relation, I wouldn’t have connected this kid to Arleigh Fosters. 

The girl herself was gesturing back and forth between first the older guy, then the younger boy. “This is Micah and Errol. Guys, this is Cassidy Evans. She’s cool.” 

Oh boy was I ever so thrilled that someone like Arleigh thought I was cool. Or rather, claimed to think I was cool. I was going to rush right home and write in my diary about how the two of us could be best friends and go to college together and then have families living right next to each other. Because gee golly willickers, I definitely believed that she actually liked me.  

And yes, it took basically everything I had not to say that out loud. Not because I was worried about what the girl thought about me, but it was probably a bad idea to draw attention to myself. With everything that was going on, I didn’t want to give Arleigh any reason to focus on me any more than she already did. I just did not have the time or energy to deal with her when I had so many actual problems that mattered.

So, rather than allow myself the moment of catharsis that telling this girl exactly what I thought of her would give, I simply replied as flatly as possible, “Great to meet you guys, you’ve got good taste in restaurants, have a good time.” The words were mechanical, coming automatically just as they had any time my parents had dragged me to one of their special fundraisers or other functions where I had to play nice and be polite to people I really couldn’t care less about or be more bored by. Then, as now, I just wanted to say as little as possible before getting out of there. To that end, I attempted to simply slip past them and keep going. 

Unfortunately, Arleigh’s older brother, Micah, put a hand on my arm. His voice was casual, though his grip was tight in a way that made it clear that he wasn’t accustomed to being gentle. “Hey, your brother’s Simon, right? Where’s he been lately? We were supposed to have a game the other night with a bunch of guys, and he just sent some lame excuse about business or something. I was on a hot streak too, could’ve taken some of the weight out of his wallet.”  

Managing to pull my arm free from his grip, I shrugged. “Yeah, he and our parents went to New York for some kind of business thing. I don’t know anything else about it.” Glancing away to stare across the parking lot briefly before looking back, I added, “They don’t exactly keep me in the loop about all that stuff. All I know is they had to go. I think Dad’s involving Simon in business more so he can take an official position or something.” I was trying to keep everything I said as casual and uncaring as it would have been if I didn’t know the truth. I had to sound like a teenage girl who didn’t really care what her parents and brother were up to. 

Not that Micah really seemed to be paying attention to my tone. A snort escaped him at the explanation. “Yeah, sure, it doesn’t have anything to do with him wussing out of the game.” 

“Dude,” Arleigh retorted before I could respond, “the guy probably makes like a hundred k a month allowance or some shit. You really think he’s afraid of losing a few thousand to you in a card game?” She focused on me then, eyes rolling as though we were actually sharing some kind of moment in being annoyed by her brother. “He’s just pissy because Dad’s making him save up for a better car on his own. And his idea of ‘get a job’ is fleecing guys at poker.” 

“Hey, don’t mess with what works,” Micah shot back before giving his sister a ‘light’ shove that made her yelp a bit and stumble. Then he actually winked at me. “Speaking of which, how much do you know about cards? Actually, doesn’t really matter, I could totally teach you. You get an allowance from Mommy and Daddy Moneybags too, right? Could be a lot of fun.” He was practically waggling his eyebrows in a way that made me instinctively want to punch him. 

“Uh, no thanks.” I shook my head, starting to move around them once more. “I already said I’d meet somebody else. But good luck on your whole gambling thing, hope that works out for you.” 

“Hey, you girls.” Before I could leave, another voice called out. And good lord, what was with this restaurant doorway attracting people who knew me? 

When I looked toward the source of the voice, however, I realized that she might have known me, but I definitely didn’t know her. At least, I didn’t think I did. She stood only about four inches taller than me, with light brown hair pulled into a loose ponytail. Definitely pretty in a tomboy sort of way, and I was gonna guess she was in her late twenties. She also moved very… smoothly, like a dancer gliding across the pavement. 

“Oh my God, dude,” Arleigh groaned as the woman approached, “I told you, I don’t know where she is.” 

“Don’t know where who is?” I asked, looking back and forth between them. 

“Just checking to make sure you didn’t hear from her,” the woman calmly informed Arleigh, though there was a slight edge to that calmness that told me it could vanish in an instant. Then she turned her attention to me. “Sorry, I’ve got you at a disadvantage. You’re Cassidy Evans. I’m Irelyn. Irelyn Banners. And I’m looking for my sister, Paige.” 

Okay, that made me abruptly choke, my eyes widening despite myself. “Wha-what? Paige doesn’t have a sister.” Wait, was this a trap? Was this that son of a bitch launching a secret attack? Was–

“You might call me the black sheep of the family,” Irelyn replied with a wince. “And from that reaction, I’d say everything I’ve heard about how you and Paige get along was accurate. Sorry, I really don’t know what her deal is. I just–” She exhaled. “I don’t exactly spend a lot of time with her. Never have, since our parents adopted her after I ahhh… left. But I tried to take her out for her birthday and she never picked up the phone. Never responded to texts or e-mails. And she’s not home. The school says our parents took her on a trip, but no one knows where exactly, and there’s no one… actually at the house.” She squinted at me, as though wondering if I had answers. “It’s like they all just disappeared. And no one is answering any calls. The last time anyone saw her, or our parents, for sure was her birthday party.”

Ooookay, this I really didn’t expect. Mentally reeling while trying to hide it, I blinked a few times at all that as if it was new information. “Uhh, really? Maybe it was a uhh, you know, surprise trip to one of those remote places.” 

“Dad doesn’t go offline,” the woman flatly informed me. 

“Yeah, well, we don’t know where she is, dude.” That was Arleigh, putting a hand on my shoulder. “If we did, we’d tell you, okay? Why don’t you go tell the cops or one of the Touched teams about your missing sister? I’m sure they’ll get right on it.” 

Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I managed, “Do you have a phone number? I mean, can I have your phone number. If I hear anything…” Boy was I going to let Paige have it for not mentioning that she might have a secret big sister poking around wondering where she was. 

Irelyn gave me the number, and I made a note of it before promising to let her know if I heard anything at all about Paige. Meanwhile, Arleigh started to say something else about school, but I was already starting across the sidewalk to the parking lot. On the way, once I was almost to the asphalt, I glanced back to see that Irelyn had gone into the restaurant already. Which left Arleigh and her older brother having a quiet, yet intense-looking whispered conversation in the doorway. Meanwhile, the younger boy was looking at me, just as silent as he had been throughout all that. What was his name? Errol? Yeah, that was it. Like Errol Flynn. But boy did he not seem anything like what I’d heard about that old actor guy. This Errol had been completely quiet through the entire interaction, essentially a fly on the wall while his siblings bulldozed over the whole conversation. Briefly, I wondered how often they completely forgot he was there. 

Right, it didn’t really matter. I had nothing to do with their family dynamics. So, I mentally shrugged that off and kept going. The next time I glanced back, they were gone. Presumably, they’d finally stepped into the restaurant. So, I pushed those thoughts aside and jogged away. Paige had an older sister. How had I never known that? How did she just fail to bring it up? What kind of trouble was this going to be? 

Shoving those thoughts away, I moved over to the alley to change back to my costume, keeping an eye out for anyone paying too much attention to the young teenager slipping off the main street. It was all clear, so I found my hidden spot and changed, sliding my regular, everyday clothes into my backpack. 

From there, I took a running start and red-painted myself up to the roof of another building, giving a loud whoop on the way. Of course, out here, my aim was perfect. I hit the exact part of the roof I’d been trying for. Yeah, there was definitely an aspect of my power that I didn’t understand. Maybe more than one. I had that really good aim, but I was also able to navigate through that dark forest perfectly. And, now that I thought about it, the whole navigation thing affected more than the dark. Could a normal, regular person instinctively find and land on the exact parts of a building, billboard, or even telephone or light pole as easily as I did while racing my way across the city? I hadn’t really focused on that too much before, but seriously. I did this stuff instinctively, as though I’d done it for years. I just reflexively knew how to twist my body to land where I wanted to. Not completely perfectly, of course. But still. It had to be more than simple luck. Especially now that I’d seen how things worked in the virtual reality world. I definitely had some sort of extra mental power that was helping me out with all that. I really needed to test that, see what its limits were and what else I could do with it. 

And hey, now that both Izzy and Amber were on board with this whole thing and knew my secrets, they could help with all that. Especially Amber, come to think of it. She had her own extra navigation mental power, after all. She always knew what compass direction she was facing. So, maybe she could help me figure out how my whole thing worked. Huh, it turned out there were benefits to actually sharing important information with people, who knew? 

In any case, I eventually made it to the parking lot behind a clothing store that was being renovated. This was where I was supposed to meet Peyton, and sure enough, there she was. I landed on the edge of a roof nearby and took a look around first to make sure no one was spying on her. Once I was assured that the coast was clear, I jumped off the roof and used orange paint on my boots to land smoothly a few feet away. 

“Hey, Paintball!” Pivoting my way as I landed, Peyton waved. She was wearing the marble-costume I’d seen that first night, the more knight-like gold and black armor with a white helmet, while the remaining three marbles lazily orbited around her head. “Didja trip over any more huge life-threatening dramatic problems on your way over here?” 

Flushing a little behind the helmet, I waved that off. “Haha, you’re hilarious. And you better hope I didn’t, because me not being super-busy for two seconds is your best chance to actually get some answers about what’s going on.” Sobering slightly then, I mentioned in slightly vague terms about how I’d heard that Paige apparently had a sister no one knew about, who was looking for her.

“Dude, a secret sister–wait, is she part robot too?” Peyton demanded. 

“Not as far as I know,” I murmured thoughtfully before waving it off. “No, no I don’t think so. Anyway, the point is, it’s something else to deal with. But what about you? Are you okay? Everything’s cool between you and your mom?” Her mother was obviously pretty protective, and the last thing I wanted to do was get the other girl in trouble just for helping with my stuff.

Peyton, in turn, shrugged. “It’s okay. But don’t change the subject. You promised you would tell me what’s actually going on around here. I mean, I know it’s gotta be something big just from what I picked up so far, but I need you to fill in the blanks so I can kick my imagination out of the driver’s seat. Cuz quite frankly, it’s trying to take the car off a cliff right now.” 

Yeah, she was definitely nervous about this whole thing. For a brief moment, I wondered if telling her all of this stuff was actually the right thing to do. She was already anxious, and knowing the truth probably wouldn’t fix that. But then, she deserved to know. She’d earned that, and it wasn’t my place to keep her in the dark just because I thought it was for her own good. Much as I often lamented knowing what I did about my family, I wouldn’t want to go back to being in the dark. Not really. And I certainly wouldn’t want someone else to make the decision for me. 

So, taking a breath, I looked around before noticing some cement steps nearby that led up to the back of the store. Beckoning for her to follow, I walked that way and sat down. Once Peyton dropped beside me, I looked out at the lot and began to tell her at least some of the truth. I kept details about my family and my identity out of it for the time being, but gave her a basic rundown of how I’d first encountered the Ministry, what they were and how they worked as far as I could tell. Instead of saying that I’d seen my brother at the mall and followed him in to hear him talk about that whole thing with criminals paying for the right to operate in the city, I just told her I recognized the man from that first night. 

I did feel bad about not telling her the full truth and basically lying by omission, but this was a lot to dump on her already as it was. Once I knew how she would react to this whole thing, I’d get into more details. Assuming this actually worked out, of course. 

“There’s more,” I told her flatly once that was done. “I mean, I’ve sort of skirted around some details. I won’t lie to you about that. There’s a few specifics, even important specifics, that I didn’t mention. It’s just… it’s a lot. I don’t want to lie to you or anything. There’s things I’m not going to tell you yet. Sorry, I really am. I just… I can’t get into that stuff right now. But everything I have told you is the truth. That’s what the Ministry is, and they’re why I’m not joining any teams. They have their fingers in everything, every team on both sides. They control the city.” 

Peyton was silent for a minute, clearly digesting all that. She rocked back and forth there on the step while the three extra marbles went still and motionless around her head, as if they too were thinking about that whole thing. Finally, the girl looked over to me. “So, they do good things and bad things. I mean, yeah, they let a lot of crime happen. But crime’s gonna happen everywhere, no matter what. And look at how much better Detroit’s doing than it was before Touched came along. I had to do a history report about this place in the 90’s, and it wasn’t pretty, Paintball. My mom even showed me some pictures from back then, and the city was… you know, pretty bad. When powers came, this place could’ve turned into a complete warzone. I’ve seen like, journalist people pointing out how easily things could’ve gotten worse instead of better. If this Ministry had anything to do with directing things this long, they can’t be all totally bad, you know?” 

Meeting her gaze, I replied, “Yeah. It’s complicated, I know. They’ve done some good things, and probably even stopped a lot of much worse stuff from happening. But they also kill people. They do bad things too. I just–you know, I have to find out just how much power they have and what they’ve done to consolidate it. They’re the most powerful group in town, and even if they have some good intentions, there’s no one to stop them from going too far.” 

After considering that briefly, Peyton nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. And either way, I’m with you. Seriously, Paintball, you saved me, more than once. And I like working with you. That whole thing in that VR place, that was crazy, but it was also like… the best?” She exhaled. “I know it’s dangerous and terrifying and all that. All of this is. And my mom would kill me if she knew I was anywhere near this stuff. But I wanna be here. I want to help. Just–maybe think about the good stuff these Ministry people have done too. I swear, I’m not ignoring the murder stuff. I’m not. But maybe they can be… you know, fixed?” She added the last bit with a helpless shrug. 

“I dunno,” I murmured. “But at the very least, we’re gonna find out more about them when we break into that secret mall base.” 

“You actually have a plan for that?” the other girl pressed. 

Offering a smile that she wouldn’t be able to see, I cheerfully replied, “Sure do. 

“How do you feel about tunnels?”

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