Arleigh Fosters

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 was fairly tall, at just a couple inches under six feet, 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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Interlude 17A – Sherwood (Summus Proelium)

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At a glance and without advance knowledge, the subdivision would appear to be picturesque, a true example of upper-middle class prosperity within the greatly thriving city of Detroit. The area was a gated community, consisting of ninety-two houses spread across ten blocks. At the entrance to the neighborhood, once one pulled past the gate and entered the subdivision proper, a street ran to the left and to the right. Straight ahead was a medium-sized park with a winding hiking trail, a pristine playground for children, and a very well-cared for soccer field and baseball diamond. Directly in view of anyone entering the community through the main gate, at the corner of the park, was a large wooden sign with the neighborhood’s name of Pinewood Hollow proudly and boldly written across it. 

At least, it had once said that. At some point much earlier, the ‘Pine’ part of the sign had been crossed out and painted over in white. Then ‘Sher’ had been spray painted in green over it. The word ‘Hollow’ had been left intact, but someone had added ‘Enter, all ye who are’ above that part. Now, rather than a simple, polite and joyful sign welcoming people to Pinewood Hollow, the sign read, ‘Sherwood – Enter All Ye Who Are Hollow.’ 

With that altered sign and the park lying straight ahead as one passed through the gate, the entrance street ran left and right (west and east). At either edge of the park’s width, a street extended perpendicular to the first, both running to the north with the park on one side and various homes on the other. The west-east street at the entrance continued beyond that in both directions, each extending past another block before curving northward as well, with homes on both sides. The two streets continued on to the end of the subdivision before curving back to the west or east respectively, where they joined up once more. The two streets that ran along either side of the park’s length connected with the newly rejoined streets at that end as well. 

The result, essentially, was that the main street formed a large, rounded rectangle, with a square (the park) taking up the entire center portion of that rectangle, two streets running up the length of either side of that park, and homes with large front and back yards filling the rest of the space. 

Also filling up a lot of that space? Trees, bushes, shrubs, flowers, grass, vines, and every other sort of plant imaginable. The neighborhood was one of the greenest, most colorful in the state of Michigan. There were plants found in that single neighborhood that could not be found anywhere outside of exotic greenhouses and the like in the rest of North America. 

Ninety-two houses. Ninety-two families. And somewhere within those ninety-two homes lived most, if not all of the members of the Fell-Touched gang known as Sherwood. A group of Touched individuals who, as a general rule, despised most forms of modern technology and preferred nature and wildlife. They also obsessively protected their relatively small and contained territory of this single neighborhood, and it was impossible to effectively keep any secrets or surprises in the area from them, thanks to the spies they had in both plant and animal forms. When the tree outside your house, the weeds your police cruiser drove past, the simple vines wrapping around the edge of the welcome sign that a Star-Touched landed on top of, or the bluejay sitting atop a nearby telephone pole watching your whispering huddled group could all be reporting back to the loyal Sherwood members, it was quite difficult to get anything past them. 

Police and authorities had tried, of course. They raided the neighborhood with Star-Touched assistance now and then. But nothing ever came of it. By the time they got anywhere, there was no evidence of any wrongdoing to find. Whatever people in the neighborhood knew, they refused to provide information or testimony to the police. For some, it was a fear of retaliation. For others, it was loyalty (or perhaps Stockholm Syndrome). The neighborhood might have been ruled by a gang of Fell-Touched, but it wasn’t bad living there, so long as you stayed within Sherwood’s rules. Those essentially involved forcing people to keep their lawns neatly trimmed, their flowers, trees, and other plants well-watered and fertilized, and so on. But they didn’t actually hurt the people who lived there, so long as those rules and others like them were followed properly. You were allowed to do what you wanted within your own house, as long as you kept the single houseplant you were sent by the gang in a central location and took care of it. 

It was, in most cases, quiet and peaceful in the neighborhood, with beautiful scenery and some quite interesting wildlife wandering through or living within the park and surrounding forested area. Not to mention the fact that Sherwood managed to keep any other gang from ever entering their territory, which prevented the people who lived there from having to deal with problems like Oscuro or Ninety-Niner violence. If you could live with taking care of the plants and knowing that anything you said could be spied on by random animals, grass, and flowers, it wasn’t bad. 

One of the largest houses in the neighborhood, located at the furthest spot away from the entrance gate, and directly across from the north end of the park, belonged to Trey Fosters and his three children. The eldest was twenty-year-old Micah, the youngest was thirteen-year-old Errol, and the middle child was seventeen-year-old Arleigh. 

It was Arleigh Fosters, that last-mentioned, middle child, who stood in the (quite expansive) front yard of the four-story house shortly before ten at night. The tall, blonde girl was rapidly texting several of her friends back at Cadillac Preparatory School, fingers dancing over the screen so rapidly that one might have expected to see smoke begin billowing up from it. She was, in fact, so intently focused on her texting that the girl failed to notice the large (six foot four and quite muscular) figure stepping out of the thick tree directly behind her. Silently and slowly, the person reached out toward her, hands extending until his fingers were mere millimeters from touching her exposed throat. His narrow smile could barely be seen glinting in the dim light from a nearby street lamp as he prepared himself… and then struck. 

“Booga!” With that cry, he grabbed onto her neck and shoulders and started to shake the girl.

“Gaaaah fuck you!” Jerking forward out of the man’s grip, Arleigh spun to face the figure behind her, pointing. “Fuck you, Micah! Fuck you, you stupid, ugly piece of shit! Stop doing that!” She hated her older brother’s power to both manipulate and transport through plants. Or rather, the way he abused it to always get the jump on her. Micah had always lived to make her jump and scream, from the time he was eight and she was five. And probably before then, but she couldn’t remember back that far. The only thing that had changed now was that he was very good at either using his power to sneak up on her, or getting leaves to tickle her ear, branches to tap her shoulder, roots to rise up and grab her feet, and so on. 

Glaring at the twenty-year-old fucking child as he doubled over laughing hysterically, Arleigh snarled a bit before pointing both hands. As she did so, a semi-transparent teardrop-shaped forcefield appeared all the way around him. It was about six feet from front to back and eight feet tall. A moment after the teardrop forcefield materialized around him, Micah had time to blurt a brief curse, before he was suddenly pummeled by hurricane-force winds and rain. The wind slammed him up into one side of the forcefield, then reversed course to send him crashing into the other side. No sooner had he struck there than the wind shifted entirely to come down from the ceiling, knocking the young man prone against the ground. And all the while, freezing rain thoroughly soaked him. 

“Okay, okay, Jesus Christ, Arleigh! Get over it!” her brother shouted from inside the field. Even as he said that, Micah was slapping his hand against the lawn. At his touch, the grass that his sister was standing on grew over a foot so it could wrap around her ankles and yank hard to knock her to the ground. That was enough to disturb her concentration so that he could punch the forcefield and shatter it, escaping its confines even as the heavy rains and winds stopped. That was Arleigh’s power. She created small, contained forcefields and could create severe weather effects within them. But the forcefields were weak if she wasn’t intently focused on them. 

To the other members of Sherwood, and the public at large, he was Landscape and she was Clime. Their father, Trey, was better known as Hemlock. His power, at its base, made him a powerful hydrokinetic, able to mentally manipulate water. But it was more than that. Any water the man put under his control could then be altered into various poisons, toxins, and venoms. And what amounted to drugs. It was that latter ability he used on the water that went into the houses of the neighborhood, providing what he referred to as ‘just a little happy juice’ that made those who drank it enjoy living there a little bit more. 

Fear that Hemlock could poison the greater water supply before they stopped him was another thing that stopped the police from pushing too hard. If they stopped him while committing a crime, when they could see him in plain sight, that was one thing. But invading the Sherwood stronghold neighborhood and tearing everything apart? Giving him nowhere to run would create a nasty situation. 

Micah and Arleigh’s father was even heavily responsible for how well the plants in the area grew, ensuring they received all the water they could need. And healthy, nutritious water at that, suited specifically for each individual plant species. 

And yet, as important as Trey/Hemlock was to Sherwood as a whole, he was not the leader or founder of their organization. Sure, he was the second-in-command, and often led in the field. He spoke for the leader in many respects. 

But he wasn’t the true guiding force of the gang. These weren’t his troops. This wasn’t his neighborhood. 

That honor and title belonged to Sequoia, the founder and leader of Sherwood. Sequoia’s own power involved infusing plants (or pieces of them) with various effects that could be triggered by various means such as touching them, ingesting them, or even inhaling their scent. The effects Sequoia could create varied wildly as well. Some gave temporary powers (including the ability to grow to enormous heights), or created explosions, poisons, and so on. Some could even heal. The bigger the effect, the more time and focus it took. The power was quite expansive, allowing for a lot of variation so long as the appropriate time was taken to fill each leaf, twig, flower, and so on with the desired effects. Not to mention his… more elaborate powers. 

Sequoia was the true leader of the Fell-Gang, yet Hemlock tended to do the talking, thanks to a rather… unique situation involved. 

As soon as both siblings had recovered, they each lunged to their feet. Micah was holding out both hands. “Truce, truce, damn it. God, why don’t you learn how to take a joke?” 

“And why don’t you learn how to leave me the fuck alone?” Arleigh shot right back. “You didn’t even–oh damn it, Micah, my phone!” Reaching down to where she had dropped the phone, she cursed once more upon seeing a large crack across half the screen. “Look what you did!” 

“Dude, you get an allowance of like five hundred dollars a week,” Micah retorted. “And that’s before you add in whatever you skim off the take whenever we get a good score. And even if you were completely fucking broke, just get the kid to fix it. Not a big deal.” 

“That’s not the point!” With that declaration, the blonde girl raised her hand as though she was about to trap her brother in another weather-field. Seeing that, Micah instantly hopped up and then dropped through the grass under his feet to disappear off… somewhere else. 

“Yeah,” Arleigh shouted after him even though he could have been anywhere within a half-mile radius, “you better run!” With a muttered curse, she looked at the crack on her phone and considered before turning to stare up at the leftmost window on the third floor of the four-story house. 

“Obnoxious, isn’t he?” 

The deep male voice came from the nearby telephone pole, making Arleigh jolt and jerk that way to find herself staring at a small owl that was perched there. Unlike with her brother’s interruption, however, she didn’t snap at the talking bird. Instead, she swallowed before giving a little nod. “Sorry if we disturbed you, sir.” 

“Disturbed me?” the owl echoed, then abruptly flew up from the pole and glided silently off into the night. 

“Nonsense.” That time, the voice, identical to the first, came from near Arleigh’s feet. She looked down to see a chipmunk perched there, gazing up at her while continuing with, “Siblings annoy one another and fight. This is the way of the world.” With that, the chipmunk chittered and then abruptly took off in a panicked run to get up the nearby tree. 

The nearby… Sequoia tree. 

Not that it was the only one in the neighborhood. Indeed, there were over a dozen of them within the formerly named Pinewood Hollow.  Sequoia trees planted back when the housing division had first been built, by an enterprising developer who thought having some of the gigantic trees within the subdivision would attract attention. Of course, it would take the trees quite some time to reach their full height and width (and some would almost certainly be cut down or moved before then). In any case, most believed that the Fell-Gang’s leader had taken their name in honor of one of those rare trees. But the truth was a bit more… direct than that. 

Yes, the leader of Sherwood, the true founder of the gang of nature-based criminals, was a Touched tree. Gifted intelligence and powers, with the ability to move (albeit quite slowly and deliberately to the point that it would take an entire day to cross a football field), Sequoia the tree had lived on these grounds since before there had been an actual neighborhood here. They (though the voice used sounded masculine, Sequoia preferred the gender-neutral they) and Arleigh’s father had both become Touched on the same day, at nearly the same moment. They had worked together since then, with Sequoia becoming what amounted to an uncle or aunt for Arleigh and her siblings. 

They may have been incredibly slow, and lacked anything in the way of a mouth to speak, but Sequoia got around that through the use of their powers. Not only did the natural materials they empowered grant special benefits, if something of less than human intelligence ingested them, Sequoia gained the ability to control and speak through them. And even when the affected animals weren’t being actively controlled, they still followed the directions they were given, acting as minions for the tree so long as they stayed within a certain radius. That, of course, was another reason the neighborhood was so secure. All those animals who could be spying on its residents at any time did so under the control and direction of Sequoia themself. 

“Go on then,” the tree-Touched spoke through a third animal, this one a small deer that stepped through the nearby bushes and stared at the girl. “Run and get your phone fixed. Perhaps later you can show me more videos of that funny cat.” 

“Oh yeah, sure.” Arleigh was about to say something else before stopping herself. With a shrug, she turned and headed for the door before making her way through her family’s home. She trotted up the stairs two at a time, calling out in the direction of the kitchen for the cook to make her something spicy to eat and that it better be ready in twenty minutes because she was starving. The fact that it was ten at night was immaterial, of course. They had people working in the house around the clock. There was always someone in the kitchen ready to make whatever they needed, what with her family’s odd hours. 

Despite being the second-in-command of a group whose entire mission statement revolved around hating technology (not to mention having the actual leader literally planted in their back yard), Arleigh’s father actually didn’t. Nor did Sequoia, as a matter of fact. Despite being a plant themself, the tree-Touched was fine with technology, so long as it didn’t cause them direct problems. 

It would’ve been pretty hard for Trey Fosters to hate technology as much as Sherwood claimed to anyway, given the fact that he’d made his fortune from his involvement in the Taurus shipping company. Taurus both maintained and delivered high-tech equipment, including Touched-Tech prototype stuff. These days, the Evans owned the majority of the company (like they did so many other things in Detroit), but Trey Fosters had been one of the first investors, and still held enough of a stake in them for the family to live far more than comfortably in this enormous house. Not to mention his continued involvement in the company’s ongoing growth as they expanded their business across the continent and became the name associated with safely getting expensive technology from one place to another.

The point was, no one would believe that a man involved in a business like that, particularly as heavily as her father was, would be such an integral part of a group that was so rabidly anti-technology. And that was the point, of course. That had been the very reason Trey and Sequoia had come up with this gang plan together in the first place. It was the perfect cover for their overall plan. A plan they had presented to the Ministry leaders, eventually making Sherwood indispensable to that organization.

Essentially, Arleigh’s dad used the gang to carefully target companies that rivaled his, or refused to do business with them, or even just to convince a wavering client that they needed Taurus. He wasn’t stupid about it, of course. Trey made sure to have his own assets get hit enough that it wouldn’t be immediately suspicious. But even that was helpful in the long run, as he would simply write off anything that was ‘stolen’ or ‘destroyed’ and then collect on the insurance while selling the items and equipment themselves on the underground market. In some cases, the items that they stole from other companies were even analyzed and reverse-engineered so that Taurus (or a different company linked to them) could come out with something similar or better. Naturally, Trey made sure to have a few items stolen from them end up making their way to Taurus’s rivals to avoid suspicion. And proceeded to make even more money off forcing those rival companies to pay for the stolen tech. 

There was, of course, the question of why a gang like Sherwood would allow someone as connected to technology as the Fosters were to live in their territory. But Trey solved that issue by insisting that the house had been his late wife’s (Arleigh’s mother’s) dream home, a house designed from the ground up by the woman herself. She’d died of cancer within six months of moving into the house a little over fifteen years earlier (in the very same incident that had led to both Sequoia and Trey himself becoming Touched), and he made a show of refusing to leave the home his dead wife had put so much of herself into designing. Instead, he paid what amounted to protection money to the gang (ignoring the fact that it was his own gang, of course) so they would leave his family alone. The authorities (those who weren’t corrupt themselves) still thought he was crazy, of course. And they were also somewhat annoyed that he was essentially handing cash and resources to a known group of supervillains. He, in turn, played up the angle of a still-grieving husband (even fifteen years on) who refused to let go of his wife’s memory and would pay anything to keep himself and their children in that house.

In any case, to the outside world, the Fosters were simply a rich family who were paying a good bit of extra ‘rent’ to a gang of fanatical nature lovers for permission to continue to live in the home designed by the deceased wife/mother. The true aim of Sherwood, to control the creation and distribution of technology, remained obfuscated behind their stated mission of hugging all trees, destroying all computers and cars, or whatever it was people thought they did. 

Sometimes playing the part of a tree-hugging flower girl hippy while in costume was hard, but it was a good way of concealing her actual identity, Arleigh had to admit. Just as no one believed that the leader of the nature-obsessed Fell-gang was one of the main investors and leaders of a company based entirely around protecting technology, there was also no one who was going to guess that a girl whose cell was basically glued to her ear and who always drove the the latest model car (to say nothing of having the fanciest electronic toys) was an enthusiastic member of that gang.

Of course, even with all of that, there were decent investigators who might have stared very intently at their family. But one more major thing protected them. That was the Ministry themselves, who made sure to keep any such investigation from going too far. And, of course, warned Arleigh’s father about them to help him set up airtight alibis. He and his children would appear on one side of the city in front of plenty of witnesses while Sherwood hit a convoy on the opposite side of the city. Body doubles and holograms were quite good for that sort of thing. 

In the end, the plan that Sequoia and Hemlock had come up with all those years ago had served to make them a very important piece of the Ministry’s ability to control the city so effectively. Essentially, Sherwood and Braintrust were two sides of the same Ministry-connected coin. The latter group were a bunch of Tech-Touched who helped keep the Ministry themselves fully equipped with the latest and greatest toys, while simultaneously driving away or recruiting almost any other Tech-Touched in the city. 

Sherwood, on the other hand, focused on destroying or driving away any technology that the Ministry didn’t want in the city. Or simply secretly acquiring it and passing that tech to their sister gang of Braintrust. The Ministry gave them targets to hit and Sherwood did so, under the guise of hating all that stuff. Braintrust and Sherwood were both actually quite close, a tight-knit group of allies. But in public, they were often at one another’s throats. It helped to play up the illusion.  

Finally approaching the door to the room whose window she had been looking at from outside, Arleigh spoke up as she took those last few steps. “Xanah, tell the brat I need to talk to him!” 

There was a brief pause before the household computer assistant demurely acknowledged the request. That was followed by a slightly longer pause as it clearly passed the message inside. Finally, the door opened and Arleigh found herself looking at her younger brother. Thirteen-year-old Errol was scrawny to the point of looking unhealthy, with glasses and enough of an asthma problem to require constantly keeping an inhaler nearby. His blond hair was stringy and stuck out in every direction no matter how much he attempted to keep it under control (not that he tried that much anymore), and he almost always wore tee-shirts advertising old cartoons from the seventies and eighties. Or, more seldomly, newer cartoons. But mostly the old ones. 

Blinking at his big sister a few times, Errol hesitated before asking, “Uh, yeah?” His tone was wary, given how seldom either of his siblings wanted him for anything good. He was, in many ways, the black sheep of the family. 

Still, Arleigh gave him an encouraging smile. “Hey, Dorkfish, need you to fix my phone.” She held it up and waved the cracked screen in his face. “And you better hurry, Sequoia wants to see more cat videos.” 

“Umm, okay,” the boy started carefully, “but the last time I fixed something for you, you said you’d take me to the aquarium. We still haven’t gone, and that was like two weeks ago.” 

Arleigh rolled her eyes. “Okay, Jesus, don’t be so dramatic about it. Look, fix my phone and we’ll go the day after tomorrow. I’ll even drive us out to get something to eat after, all right? Now would you just do your thing, please?” 

With a small sigh that said he already knew he would probably regret it, Errol took the phone from her. Holding it in one hand, he pointed his other hand at the screen and focused. Three pulsing waves of nearly invisible, very pale-blue energy emanated from his palm. The first wave, upon hitting the screen, made about a quarter of the crack disappear. The second erased most of the rest, and the third finished the job. Finally, the phone looked as good as new. Not just as far as the crack went, but all the smudges were cleaned off, a bit of dirt that had been on the side of it from being dropped on the ground was gone, and the whole thing gleamed as if it was fresh out of the box. 

Grabbing the phone from her brother with a blurted thanks before ruffling his hair a bit too hard, Arleigh darted off with it. She was already texting her friends once more, jumping right back to that conversation. 

For a moment, Errol watched her go. Then he exhaled and turned to walk back into his room. On the way through it, he glanced over to where his discarded dirty jeans from earlier lay on the floor next to an overturned book, a scattered (and slightly bent) set of collectible trading cards based around famous Star-Touched, a plate with a crack in it from where he had dropped it, and his dirt-caked shoes. 

Reaching out with both hands, the boy focused. Several more pulsing waves of energy emanated from his palms. As the waves hit the items on the floor, the bent cards were straightened and returned to look as good as new before shuffling themselves together and back into the nearby box. The crack in the plate vanished before it floated up to rest on the desk. His dirty jeans looked like they had been through the wash and dried, even folding themselves properly before the nearby drawer opened and they flew up into it. His shoes were equally clean, and slid backward into the closet before that door closed. And the overturned book flew up to land where it belonged on the nearby shelf. 

Fixing things. That was Errol’s power. But it was more than that. His gift ‘put things together and in their proper place.’ It fixed damage, cleaned objects, moved them where they belonged (or as close as they could get to where they belonged within a relatively small area), and even organized them. He could shuffle a deck of playing cards a dozen times, then use his power and the cards would organize into their proper new-deck order. Or, alternatively, he could make them appear in any order he wanted. He could organize things by color, size, date, whatever. He fixed and put things in their proper place. 

It was also a power that had nothing to do with nature, a fact that annoyed their father given how out of theme it was. Which was just par for the course, really. Errol didn’t fit in with his family in any other way, so why should his power be any different? At least Sequoia thought it was cool. 

Sighing once more, the boy sat back at his computer and hit the button to turn his webcam back on. “Sorry,” he started, “it was just my sister. Where were we?”

“That’s okay,” his homework partner assured him, “I think we were on number seventeen?” 

On the computer screen, Izzy Amor shook her head while lamenting, “I’m sure glad you understand this algebra stuff, cuz I’m completely lost.” 

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Interlude 15B – Dani and Amber (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The Non-canon chapters were posted on Patreon over the weekend and can now be viewed by EVERYONE, even if you are not a member. The Heretical Edge Non-Canon can be found here and the Summus Proelium Non-Canon can be found here

“So, your friend’s pretty weird.” The conversational announcement came a few seconds after Dani and Amber had been left standing by themselves in front of the school when San dragged Cassidy away after simply and unsubtly announcing that the two girls had a lot in common. 

“Which friend?” Amber retorted easily while folding her arms as she regarded the new girl for a moment. “The billionaire princess skater girl who’s way nicer than you’d probably expect, or the dude named after a city who thinks he’s equal parts Casanova and Cupid?” That last bit was added with a squint toward the retreating figures in the distance. 

“Yup,” came the encompassing answer as the black girl grinned. She rocked back on her heels a bit before adding, “Soooo, like he said, I’m Dani and you’re Amber. And the Frisco Kid there might’ve been super-unsubtle and all, but he did get one thing right. I mean, besides the names.” 

“Wow,” Amber remarked. “That is a deep pull for a reference. What’s that, early seventies?” 

Dani’s head shook. “Late. Seventy-Nine. And what can I say, my dad used to love him some Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford. Anyway, that thing he was right about is that it’s breakfast time and I am like, super-fucking hungry. So, I’m gonna see if I can find that enormous cafeteria again. You wanna help me do that a little faster? I hear I’ve got something called an expense account there and I’m pretty eager to see what kind of damage I can do to it in one day.”

Snorting despite herself, Amber turned. “Yeah, come on, it’s this way. I’ll show you. And does that mean you’re not used to having an expense account attached to your school meals?” 

The response was a chuckle as the other girl moved to keep up with her. “Trust me, babe, there’s a lot about this whole situation that’s new to me. I’m not exactly what you’d call old money. Or new money, for that matter. The entire having money concept is a bit shaky.” 

Something about the way the girl said that made Amber glance toward her as they walked toward the school entrance. There was a somewhat strange sense of deja vu, but it was momentary. Shaking that off, she curiously asked, “Did you win a scholarship here?”  

Dani’s response to that was a laugh. She practically doubled over, head shaking. “Sorry, sorry. Just the idea of me getting a scholarship for anything is pretty fucking hilarious. Unless they’re giving out ‘mediocre achievement awards’ now.” Still chuckling, she explained that her mother had been gone since before she could remember and that her father bounced years back. Apparently she’d done the foster family circuit for awhile until the government found some rich great-aunt who lived in Europe. It was that great-aunt who put Dani in this school. 

“She also put me up in an apartment in the city with–” The girl’s face twisted just a bit. “I guess you’d call her a nanny? Anyway, she basically leaves me alone for the most part. I think she’s just glad to have an easy job. Whole thing’s stable enough. And now I get to go to rich kid school. But lemme tell ya, I was not expecting the first student I met to be Sterling and Elena Evans’ little princess. Not that she’s anything… uhhh…” 

“Anything like you’d expect, yeah.” With a nod, Amber gestured as they entered the cafeteria. “Anyway, here we are. If you’re really hungry, this is definitely the right place to go. Pretty sure the head chef used to work in one of those fancy hotel restaurants before this place stole him.”

“See, and here I am just trying to get my head around the idea that lunch isn’t mystery meat casserole served with an ice cream scoop,” Dani muttered while looking around the room. The two were attracting a few curious looks from people who clearly didn’t recognize the new girl. 

Ignoring that, Amber was about to point out where Dani could order that food she wanted. Unfortunately, a new voice interrupted before she could speak up. “Well hey, Amber, hey Jae.” 

Great. Knowing that voice, Amber turned a bit. Yeah, of course. It was Arleigh Fosters, the tall, blonde chick who had decided to make Jae her mortal enemy at the beginning of the school year just because her then-boyfriend had said something about Jae looking cute. Yeah, it was stupid, but it wasn’t like Jae asked for his opinion. 

As soon as the two turned toward her, Arleigh made a show of looking surprised, hand covering her mouth and all. “Oh,” she faux-gasped, “you’re not Jae. Hah, well then! Silly me. I thought maybe she finally took that trip to the doctor to get her whole… pigment situation fixed.” Her hand waved around as though to encompass Dani’s entire body. “And, you know, they just went a little overboard.” 

Sighing inwardly as she yet-again reminded herself that smacking the other girl would be very against the Minority rules of not standing out or attracting that kind of attention, Amber demanded, “Seriously, Arleigh? What’re you doing, trying to bully by proxy? You know I don’t give a shit what you think, right? Neither does Jae. And, oh, she’s not even here. Who exactly are you trying to mock? Yourself for pretending you’re too stupid to know the difference between a black girl and an albino Asian girl? No, seriously, what exactly was your plan here?”

“Wait, is that what this is about?” Dani looked back and forth between them before settling on the blonde girl. “You’re seriously like, trying to be the bitch bully of the school? Do they pay you for that? Cuz if you’re really like… targeting someone who isn’t even here, they should really dock your salary. That’s just lame.” She glanced toward Amber then with a slow head shake. “Gotta say, I’m pretty disappointed, I expected more effort from rich kid bullies.” 

“One, I’m not a fucking bully,” Arleigh snapped. “This isn’t some kid’s movie or an afterschool special. Her friend is a fucking freak. Worse, she’s a boyfriend stealing bitch freak. And I don’t have to explain anything to you. I’ve already heard what you really are. You’re just a broke fucking–” 

And then she said it, a word that she never should’ve said. A word that no one ever should’ve said. A word that immediately made Amber’s eyes widen, breath catching as a feeling of disgust and rage filled her. 

In the background, she heard Dani coldly and dangerously demanding, “What did you just–” 

Without thinking, Amber lashed out. Her fist collided with Arleigh’s stomach with enough force to double the other girl over, her cry muffled by the fact that the wind had been knocked out of her.

The moment she did that, a rush of fear ran through Amber. What the hell did she just do? God, she was attracting attention. Now the school was going to get involved, and that would–

She was distracted by Dani, who stepped up closer to the doubled-over Arleigh and put an arm around her to help the girl straighten up before too many people could notice. Clearly forcing her upright, Dani leaned in closer to whisper in the girl’s ear. Amber couldn’t hear what was being said, but she could make out the dangerous, intense tone of the new girl’s voice. And she saw the way Arleigh’s eyes rapidly widened while her face grew almost pale enough to make the girl bully herself if she stuck to the same standard that she used for Jae.

Finally, the blonde managed to pull herself free, staring at Dani, then at Amber, then back again. It looked like she couldn’t decide which of them was more dangerous. Her face twisted a bit as she sputtered, “You two freaks deserve each other. Just go fuck yourselves.” Despite the harshness and certainty of her words, the girl’s voice caught a bit. She was clearly blustering. With one hand over her stomach, she staggered away, muttering curses under her breath. 

“Dude,” Dani announced with a look toward Amber. “Nice hit. Great follow-through. You take boxing lessons from your dad or something?”

The question made Amber flinch, thoughts of her father rushing through her head. “I–no. No, he…” 

“Aww, shit, I stepped in it, didn’t I?” Wincing, Dani asked, “Yours run off too?”  

“What? No!” Amber hurriedly blurted. “No, he didn’t–I mean–” She swallowed the thick lump in her throat. “He died, a little over a year ago. Hit and run.”

For a moment, the other girl stared at her, before closing her eyes with a heavy sigh. “And here I am, standing with both feet in the shit now.” Opening her eyes, she met Amber’s gaze. “Seriously, I–I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything until I knew what was going on. I just–sorry.” 

Biting her lip, Amber shook her head. “You didn’t know. You couldn’t know. It’s–I mean, it’s okay. I miss my dad, but you don’t have to feel sorry for me or anything. I–” Cutting herself off, she gestured. “You’re still hungry, right?” 

So, the two of them went through and got food. In Dani’s case, she truly did stick to her plan of seeing just how far she could stretch that expense account. Which, as it turned out, was pretty far. She had a tray laden with a truly remarkable array of meats and pastries, along with some very delicious fruit and yogurt. It was a veritable feast, and even the girl herself looked a little overwhelmed as she set the tray down. “Eesh,” she murmured, “I might’ve gone a tad overboard. But hey, waste not, want not.” 

Raising an eyebrow, Amber remarked, “I’m pretty sure that’s not what that phrase means. Like, I’m fairly certain it means the exact opposite of whatever this is.” 

Dani seemed to consider that for a moment before simply offering a shrug. “Eh, whatever. The point is, I’m about to dive into my first spoiled rich bitch meal. You might want to send for help if I don’t surface within ten minutes.” With a thumbs up, she found her fork and knife and set to work.

Despite her words, the other girl did keep talking while devouring her meal. The two of them chatted mostly about what Amber thought about the school and most of the people in it. It was clear that Dani didn’t exactly hold the wealthy in high esteem. Which, again, bugged Amber. Not in the way she might’ve expected, given a lot of these people were her friends and not nearly as bad as Dani seemed to think they were. But because it… it felt like she was missing something. 

More to the point, talking with Dani felt far more normal than it should have. It didn’t seem like they were having their very first conversation, awkwardly feeling each other out. Instead, it felt as though they were picking up from a previous conversation that neither of them have ever had. Yeah, it was weird. It was weird because it wasn’t weird. Because they were so comfortable already. They just started talking and the words flowed easily. It was one of the most normal and casual conversations Amber could remember having in a long time with someone who wasn’t Jae, which was just… odd. Did she really like Dani that easily? 

Noticing that the other girl kept taking a bit of meat and rolling them into small balls before setting them aside, Amber asked, “You got a dog at home or something?” 

“Huh?” Dani blinked, then looked down and coughed. “Oh, uhh, no. I mean, it’s more like a couple rats.” She gave a short nod. “Yeah, just a couple rats. They like it when I bring extra food.” 

“You keep rats? That’s cool, what’re their names?” Amber had always wanted to keep a pet rat, but her mother wouldn’t stand for it. Which was totally unfair bullshit. She was a superhero, she should be able to keep a pet rat if she wanted one. 

Dani seemed a little surprised that Amber would ask that. Taking a second, she finally replied, “Oh, you know, Remy and Nicodemus.” 

“From Ratatouille and… Secret of NIMH?” Amber guessed before being rewarded with a nod. “That’s so cool. Maybe I can see them sometime. I mean–” Belatedly realizing what she had just said, Amber turned pink, waving both hands. “Never mind, I mean–never mind.” 

The other girl seemed just as flummoxed, words catching in her throat a few times before she managed a quick nod. “Right, yeah, maybe sometime. That’d be… cool.” 

“Yeah, cool. Sometime.” Feeling awkward, Amber thought about excusing herself. But that would’ve been running away. Instead, she sat right where she was, telling herself not do anything else as stupid as inviting herself over to the home of a girl she had barely met. 

Finally, Dani brushed her hands off, picking up a napkin to wipe them while asking, “So, where does one get doggy bags? No way I’m leaving the rest of this here. Actually, do they let you put stuff in a refrigerator around here? Wait, don’t tell me, there’s coolers inside the lockers?” 

Snorting despite herself, Amber shook her head. “Sorry, we’re not quite that spoiled. But we do have pretty big lockers compared to the public school. And I’m pretty sure if you ask, they’ll put whatever you want in one of the coolers at the back of the kitchen and put your name on it.” 

So, the other girl did just that, taking her leftovers up to be put away. The lady behind the counter seemed a little surprised, but willingly put the food in a bag, scrawled Dani’s name on it, and sent it to be put away. 

“Right,” Amber started once that was done, “come on, I’ll show you where your first class is. And we should probably talk about how we’re going to avoid Arleigh for the rest of eternity.” 

Dani, however, responded with a shrug. “Meh. If she wants to start shit again, I say let her bring it. She really doesn’t know who she’s fucking with.”

Squinting toward the other girl, Amber asked, “Hey, that reminds me. What exactly did you say to her when you whispered back there? She looked pretty freaked out. Not that I feel sorry for her or anything, but seriously, how’d you do that?” 

Dani, in turn, gave an almost feral smile. “Oh, you know, I just made up some shit about being connected to a street gang who would make her life a living hell if she kept pissing me off. Something about stripping her car for parts, shaving her head, sending a bunch of my older cousins to fuck with her house.” 

“You said you didn’t have any cousins or anything, just a great-aunt,” Amber pointed out. 

With a grin, Dani nodded. “Sure, but she doesn’t know that. Anyway, she’ll probably start shit again eventually, but I think she’ll back off for now. Hey, when she starts up again, you think she’ll go with the black thing, the poor thing, or the gay thing?” 

“All of the above if she can manage it,” Amber replied. “Especially since she’ll have time to really think of something good. I mean, ‘good.’” She used her fingers to make the quotes. 

“Yeah, well let’s see what she comes at me with.” Dani sounded unconcerned, shrugging both shoulders. “Maybe I’ll just hire you to be my full-time bodyguard, huh? You did a pretty good job the first time.” 

Both girls smiled at each other briefly, before Amber’s blush returned. “R-right, um, speaking of the whole gay thing. I mean, what you mentioned before, and like San said about us having things in common. And like–I mean I just, I’m sort of…” 

Sort of what? She wasn’t in a relationship, because she couldn’t be in one. Pack had expressed obvious interest, yes, but that couldn’t happen. Pack was a bad guy–girl. Damn it, why did bad girl have to have such a very different connotation than bad guy? She was a villain, there. She was a villain and had no interest in being anything but a villain. All she really cared about was making money. Well, okay, she did have important lines she wouldn’t cross, and she’d been really helpful before. But still, she was far from a hero, and had absolutely no interest in changing that fact. She and Amber could never actually be something, right? So why would she tell this totally normal, cool, and super-hot girl that she wasn’t interested? Especially given that would be a lie. She was absolutely interested. And the thing with Pack couldn’t go anywhere. And… and…

“Yo.” Dani was waving a hand in front of her face. “You okay in there? I think I lost you for a second.” 

Realizing that she had literally spaced out like that made Amber’s eyes widen, and she shook herself quickly. “Sorry, I just–I um, I don’t think I’m ready to… um.” 

“Dude, we’re just talking, chill.” With a small smile, Dani gave the other girl a thumbs up. “It’s all good. I’ve sorta got someone I’m interested in too.” For a moment, she gazed off past Amber, seeming to get lost in her own thoughts before shaking that off. “I dunno if it’s gonna be anything. It’s kinda complicated, you know?” 

Oh boy, did this chick have no idea. “Trust me,” Amber assured her, “I definitely know complicated. I hope you figure it out though. And if you wanna talk about it sometime…” 

“Yeah, you too. Good luck with your whole thing.” With that, Dani pivoted on one heel to start walking down the hall with her guide. “Hey, if we both figure our shit out, maybe we can all double-date or something.” 

Briefly thinking about how ridiculous that would be, bringing Pack to a restaurant along with all her lizards, Amber nonetheless found herself smiling. Because the only way that would ever happen was if she was honest with Pack, and the two of them worked through their differences. And that really was something to smile about. “Yeah,” she murmured under her breath. 

“It would be pretty cool to do something like that someday.”

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Interlude 2C – Carousel (Summus Proelium)

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“Jae!” The shouted name was accompanied by a series of increasingly loud knocks against the wooden door. “Come on! Get up! I’m gonna be late for work, and you know what happens then? They don’t hire me for another episode and you’ll have single-handedly destroyed my career! Come on!” The cajoling words were punctuated by two more quick bangs against the door, and a heavy, audible sigh.

Sitting up in bed, Jae Baek opened her eyes, glancing around the small room. The bed itself took up about half the space, while her dresser and desk occupied a substantial portion of what was left. The albino-Asian girl slipped her legs off the bed into the single bit of open space right between her desk chair, her bed, and the door. Just as another knock started to come, she opened the door (very nearly taking a fist to the forehead in the process). Standing there in her pajama bottoms and tee shirt, she faced the woman outside the door. Or rather, she faced the woman’s shoes. Jae’s gaze remained low, as usual, while her voice was also soft and polite. “Good morning, Kella. I’ll be ready in ten minutes, as soon as I shower.”

“Hurry,” the overly botoxed and heavily bleached blonde woman urged, annoyance clear in her voice. “I don’t have time to wait around while you sleep in to all hours. Some of us have responsibilities, you know.” With that, she spun on a heel and walked away, high heels clicking on the hardwood floor.

With a quiet sigh, Jae turned to take clothes from the nearby dresser before heading for the bathroom across the hall. She could hear the woman making as much noise as possible in the kitchen, just to make it absolutely and perfectly clear how annoyed she was at having to wait.

With a soft sigh, as the things she could have said to the woman flooded her mind, Jae stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. It wasn’t worth the fight, even if she had been brave enough. Kella Song was her… step-adopted mother, of sorts. It was complicated. Jae, along with six other ‘ethnic’ children of varying ages (Jae being the youngest), had first been adopted by Timothy Wallace and Andrea Mars. The former was producer and director of various television shows, while the latter was an actress who had served as lead or co-lead of a couple movies and one long running drama series, the latter of which she had received awards and great accolades for.

A couple decades earlier, an award-winning television actress and her director-producer husband might have seemed very… out of place in Detroit, of all places. At least if they wanted to have any kind of career. But with the resurging economy in these past twenty years, and a rebuilt infrastructure, the city had become a good stand-in for other larger cities such as New York. It was useful when shows lacked the funding to actually film where they were supposed to be set.

In any case, Jae and her adopted siblings had been taken in by Andrea Mars and Timothy Wallace as part of a… giving back to the community or… something. With their wildly varying and nicely photogenic ethnicities (especially Jae hitting the mark of both Asian and albino), the two could parade their children around to show how much they cared about minorities.

That wasn’t fair. Timothy (she had never and would never refer to him as father) may have mostly seen the children for what they could do for his image, but Andrea had been the opposite of what Jae thought a vapid actress would be. She had genuinely cared for all of them, and spent as much time as she could with the group. It was Andrea who helped pull Jae at least a little out of the shell she had spent so long in before being adopted at the age of nine.

For a few years, things had been nice. Jae got to know her new siblings and mother, learned not to expect anything from Timothy, and actually began to enjoy herself. Even her small room was a personal choice rather than anything forced on her. Jae preferred not having a lot of space. That was the way she had grown up, in foster home after foster home. It was what felt natural.

But the time with her new family didn’t last. When Jae was thirteen, Andrea suffered a traumatic ruptured brain aneurysm and passed away before even reaching the hospital. Within a couple years of that, each of her adopted siblings had moved on to college or other things (Andrea had been the glue that kept them together), leaving Jae the only child in the house, and often the only person in the house, as Timothy took more jobs that kept him away.

It was that feeling of being abandoned, of having had a real (if unconventional) family for such a brief time before it was snatched away to leave her alone in a silent, dark house that had driven Jae to such emotional extremes that her Touched-sphere had appeared. The sphere which had given Jae her powers and introduced her to a new unconventional family, the Minority.  

Then Kella happened. Though she was younger than Andrea had been (and much younger mentally), the woman had already used enough plastic surgery to qualify for some kind of frequent patient award. She was a thirty-something clinging to her teens and the very short-lived success she’d had as an actress back then. And she was certainly in no mood or mindset to actually help raise a teenager when she herself had never truly grown beyond being one.

Kella and Timothy were married just before the man himself found great success once more on another show. That kept him very busy, so he was rarely home. Which left Kella and Jae alone most of the time. Kella, at Jae’s request, knew nothing about her being Touched or a member of the Minority. Timothy did, but he said nothing to Kella. For all the faults he may have had as far as actually spending much time with his adopted children went, he did keep his promises. And he had promised not to tell Kella until or unless Jae asked him to.

Besides, it wasn’t as though the woman ever expressed that much interest in anything Jae did.

What she was interested in was drinking. And also taking as many roles as she could. Even if those roles were almost exclusively either commercials or extremely minor ‘day player’ roles on an established show.

The drinking part was what had gotten her license revoked. Which meant that with her husband gone so often, the woman either took cabs or other ride sharing services to get to her roles, or she relied on Jae to drive her. Most of the time it was that second one, as it didn’t cost money.

Showering quickly before dressing, Jae made her way back out to find Kella waiting for her in the kitchen. The woman held out a bagel with sausage, egg, and cheese stuffed into it that she had taken from a box and heated in the microwave. “I made you breakfast,” she announced. “Come on, let’s go. If I’m late for this shoot, do you have any idea what that’ll do to my career?”

With a quiet, “Thank you,” Jae took the breakfast sandwich. It was nice of Kella, even if she was still acting so incredibly impatient. The woman wasn’t horrible (aside from that whole drinking problem), just… self-centered and not really the type of person to raise or care for a minor. She didn’t know how to handle Jae. Microwaving breakfast for her while demanding she be driven to her work because she’d lost her license for driving under the influence was par for the course.

She wasn’t abusive. She was… complicated. And unreliable. Complicated and unreliable, that summed up Kella Song well enough. She had never intended to be any kind of mother.

Heading outside while taking a bite of the bagel sandwich, Jae silently opened the back door and waited for Kella to get in, the woman making a muttered production about how much the director was going to chew her out for being late. Then Jae got in the front, starting the car before checking the time. She still had about forty minutes before classes started. Plenty of time to drop Kella off and get to school.

Did Kella even remember that Jae had school to go to after this? She genuinely wasn’t sure.

But hey, at least today would hopefully be less exciting than yesterday and last night had been. Jae just hoped no one lit any fuses on the powderkeg today. Or at least that they would wait until after school to do it.

It would just sort of be nice to get through all of her classes without having to go fight any supervillains.

******

On second thought, supervillains would have been nice. At least she could hit those problems.

That was the thought that occured to Jae a short time later, as she stood facing her locker. The actual lock part had been broken (not for the first time), and the door stood open to reveal an exciting collection of hate and vile.

First, there was the fact that everything in the locker reeked beyond belief, as what seemed to be a combination of sour cream, old milk, and rotten eggs had been thrown inside at some point the day before. It also looked like there were some mushed bananas in there for some reason.

On the door of the locker was a taped bit of paper that read, ‘Just in case you want to be even whiter, freak.’ Below that, written in marker on the door itself, were a series of notes, some barely legible. They reached all the way to the bottom of the locker, most written in different handwriting. Among other things, they read,  ‘Fuck off, mutant’, ‘Get out of our school’, ‘Eat shit and die’, and ‘Are you cuntagis? Cuz I’ll still fuck you if you put a bag over your head.’

It went on like that, with other fun misspellings and bits of horrific grammar.  And dicks. Lots of dicks. They were drawn all over the inside of her locker. One enterprising person had even gone beyond drawing to tape up an actual photograph of a penis.

Quietly, to the point of barely being audible, Jae whispered to herself, “For people who think that I’m such an untouchable freak, they sure are eager to let me know they have penises ready to go.”

It made her smile just a little bit, though it was a smile touched with resignation. With a sigh, she closed the locker door and turned to find the nearest janitor. In the process, she nearly ran right into Amber, the two of them both jerking back at the last second.

“Jae!” the dark-haired girl blurted. “God, do you smell that?” Her nose wrinkled. “What the hell is it?”

Quietly, Jae replied, “I think someone’s lunch went bad.” Leaving it at that, the girl started to walk. She was not going to have her teammate and friend feeling sorry for her. Or worse, trying to take care of it herself. Jae knew Amber well enough to be certain she would start throwing people around until someone talked. And as much as the girl would have appreciated the gesture, this was something she needed to deal with herself, or not at all.

The two of them walked together, talking for a few minutes until Jae said that she’d forgotten something. They were near Amber’s first class (a purposeful move), so she said goodbye to the other girl before heading back the way she’d come. On the way, she felt her friend’s eyes on her, but resisted the urge to look back. It only would have confirmed Amber’s obvious suspicions.

Instead, Jae made her way to one of the janitorial closets. There was usually at least one of the custodial staff around there right as school was about to start.

Sure enough, Frank Harrington was there, just filling one of his mop buckets. When Jae approached, the man looked up, smiling broadly. “Well, if it isn’t the only kid in this school who ever beats me at Scrabble. You up for a tie-breaker match later?”

“Maybe,” Jae agreed before adding, “Could I borrow some cleaner and a rag? I spilled some of my lunch in my locker yesterday and didn’t notice.”

Raising an eyebrow, Frank gave her an unconvinced look. “You spilled it?”

She met his gaze, pausing briefly before giving a single short nod. Her voice was even softer than usual. “I’m sorry.”

For a moment, it looked as though he might push things further. The man knew something else was wrong, and was clearly wondering if he should take this to the administration. In the end, he handed over a spray bottle, several rags, and some kind of air freshener. As Jae took them, he hesitated before speaking up. “You come back for that rematch, you hear? I’m gonna take the crown.”

“What crown?” the girl found herself asking.

“I’ll make a crown,” he declared, “and then I’ll take it.” Pointing at her, he added, “Next Monday. Lunch. You bring that thesaurus you call a brain and I’ll bring a crown. Got it?”

She agreed before taking the cleaning supplies and heading back to her locker. The bell would ring in the next few minutes, but she had time to at least start cleaning things out.

The books that were covered in the… stuff were all put in a plastic bag after being wiped off as well as she could. Several notebooks and loose bits of paper were thrown away, but she was able to salvage her favorite pencil case that she’d had since the first day of school after being adopted. Andrea had given it to her, with a note written on the inside about being part of a family.

Taking the case, Jae smiled while opening it, only for her smile to fall immediately. It hadn’t gotten away unscathed after all. Over the note that her now-deceased adopted mother had written, someone had used marker to scrawl, ‘Ghost Slut.’

Clutching the box tightly with both hands, Jae closed her eyes. She was breathing harder, the rage boiling up before she could get a handle on it. Of all the things to ruin, of all the things they could have destroyed, they chose to scrawl those hateful words over a beautiful note written by the woman who had adopted her. A woman who was no longer around.

No. No. She would have stood for other things. She would have gritted her teeth and bore it, for the most part. But this? This was too far. This was something she would not just ignore.

First, Jae finished cleaning the locker as well as she could, including scrubbing off the vile marker scribblings. She hesitated over the writing in her box, but was afraid that any attempt to clean off that ink would also wipe away what remained of Andrea’s note. In the end, she pushed the box into her bag and straightened up.

The rest of the vandalism could have been anyone. But the specific note in her pencil box? She knew who had done that. One person had started calling her Ghost Slut, Casper The Friendly Whore, and other variations of that theme. There were others who used it now and then, but she knew this was the work of the person who had started it.

And she knew what to do about it.

******

Jae’s chance didn’t come until fourth period. That was the first time she shared a class with…  Arleigh Fosters. At the beginning of the school year, Arleigh’s then-boyfriend, Price, had made the mistake of saying that he thought Jae was cute and exotic. It had been a stupid thing to say to someone as prone to jealousy as Arleigh was, but he hadn’t actually meant anything that bad by it. To Price, it had been an offhand comment that he immediately forgot about. But it had boiled up and blossomed into a full on rage fit from Arleigh, who became convinced that Jae was sleeping with him. She had all-but attacked her at the end of September, until Price stepped in. He’d broken up with her then, while making it clear that he and Jae were not a thing.

But that hadn’t helped. Arleigh was utterly certain that Jae had been the one to break them up, and ever since that day, all of the incredibly-rich girl’s hangers on and friends had made it their life’s mission to make Jae feel like a freak.

Now that she thought about it, Jae knew what today had been about. It was around this time the year before when Arleigh and Price had become a thing. This must have been the day that would’ve been their anniversary, renewing the hatred in the girl enough to make her lash out again.

As luck would have it, Jae’s desk was situated directly behind Arleigh. The tall, blonde girl was already there, staring at Jae with a smug, self-satisfied look that made it even more clear she was the one responsible. With her phone in one hand, the girl made a point of typing out some kind of text, glancing up at Jae once more, smirking again, then typed some more.

“Alright, alright, alright, people!” Mr. Hughes announced while coming into the room. “You know the rules. Phones away. That includes you, Miss Fosters.”

With a sickly sweet smile, Arleigh replied, “Of course, Mr. Hughes.” She then set the phone down on top of the book bag at her side, giving the girl behind her one last glare.

Jae ignored her, sitting down with her gaze on the desk. Or at least, it would appear to be to everyone else. In reality, she was watching Arleigh’s phone, and keeping a look out for anyone paying too much attention. Luckily, everyone was too busy listening to Hughes as the man began to go over the results of a quiz they’d just taken the day before.

Once Jae was certain the coast was clear, she focused on the phone on top of Arleigh’s bag. Stretching out her power, she felt it pick up the phone, shrinking it down to about the size of a marble before it floated up under her desk. Jae was able to grab hold of it and put the phone in her lap without anyone noticing.

From there, she divided her attention between Mr. Hughes and the phone, making sure it was silenced before opening up the messaging app and scrolling through. As expected, Arleigh spent a pretty big portion of her conversations with people insulting other people, many of whom she was also having conversations with insulting the people she was having the first conversations with. She was talking behind everyone’s back.

Taking as many screenshots of the various conversations as she could, Jae then went about sending those screenshots to the people who were being talked about. All of the insults, all of the catty remarks about their personal problems, all the times that Arleigh had spilled some close personal secret to someone else just so they could mock the person in question, all of it. She screenshotted all of it and sent dozens of messages to as many contacts as she could.

Already, the phone was starting to blow up with responses demanding to know what the hell was going on. Still, as one last measure, Jae opened up Arleigh’s Facebook account and proceeded to upload all the screenshots there as well, posting them publicly.

Finally done, she looked around once more. By that point, Mr. Hughes was deep into his lecture for the day, and everyone was taking notes. Using her power again, she sent the phone back out, carefully letting it spin around her desk until it was positioned just above the other girl’s bag. Then she let it fall back into place. One of the students beside her noticed something, glancing over as if he’d seen the tiny marble-sized phone out of the corner of his eye. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he shrugged and went back to paying attention to the teacher.

After that, Jae focused on class. When it was over, she straightened from her desk and headed out without sparing a glance toward the girl in front of her.

She was all the way to the door before hearing the shrill, panicked, “What the fuck!?

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