Avalon Sinclaire

Interlude 28 – Scout

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There was a mini-interlude focusing on Joselyn posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the previous chapter button above. Thanks! 

“I knew this would happen. I knew it, but you told me they’d be safe. You told me she’d be safe!”

The voice of Liam Mason was audible even through the closed door that led into the room that Headmistress Sinclaire had pulled the man into as soon as he’d started up when she’d arrived. That was how Scout knew that her father was completely beside himself and had lost all control. He didn’t even bother to put up a privacy screen to keep her from hearing his ranting. Why Gaia hadn’t either, she wasn’t entirely sure. Maybe the woman was distracted by Avalon’s reaction.

It had been hours since… since… that had happened, since Sands and the others had disappeared. Since they had been taken to Seosten space. Scout had sat through several interrogations, some with Gaia present, some with her father present, and some with neither. The whole time, she gave them almost nothing, limiting herself to head motions and one word answers. The others, mainly Shiori, Sean, and Columbus, had told their interrogators the most about what had happened. Or at least, the most about what they were all willing to say.

As far as the officials were concerned, a powerful Stranger had secretly possessed Columbus as a way of infiltrating Crossroads. Scout and the other members of their team had found out about it and moved to confront him themselves. Unfortunately, what they didn’t know was that the other team, Jazz’s team, had been infiltrated as well. During the course of Scout’s teams attempt to get answers out of the false Columbus, the false Paul had intervened. That had prompted a massive brawl. And at the end of it, the fake Paul was dead (killed by Avalon in a blind rage after Flick and the others had disappeared), the thing that had been possessing Columbus was dead (killed by Flick), and half of the people who had been there had disappeared with absolutely no answers whatsoever about what had happened to them.

Or at least, that was the collective story that the Heretic interrogators were being given.

Now, Scout was sitting in this room, half-listening to her father rant at the headmistress. Mostly, she was simply sitting there, watching the opposite wall while barely blinking. The girl might as well have been a statue for all the movement that she made. She simply sat, silent and motionless, staring almost unblinkingly at that wall. Her mind was a million light years away.

That was the position that her father found her in when he finally opened the door and stepped out. Blinking at the sight of his daughter sitting like that, the man cringed before moving to kneel by her. “Scout? Honey, are you alr–” Stopping himself in mid-sentence, her father put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing briefly before using his other hand to gently turn her chin so that she would look at him. “Scout, we’ll get her back, okay? I promise. I promise, we’ll find Sands.”

“I know.” The words were quiet, barely audible. But they came easily. She said them before standing up. She stood in front of her father, waiting for him to rise before she put her arms around him. She hugged him, because he needed it. Because he needed her to be there.

“I’m so sorry, baby.” He lifted her off the floor, clutching the girl to his chest while murmuring, “I’m so, so sorry. You shouldn’t have been there. You should’ve been safe. I’ll fix it. I will fix it.”

Scout let him talk, let him murmur to himself. She let her father make himself feel better with his words, allowing them to wash over her. Words didn’t matter. They never did.  Actions mattered. But in that moment, her dad needed to say the words. He needed to make the promises, the apologies, swear the oaths. And she let him. Because it didn’t affect her. It didn’t really matter.

He took her home then. Not to her dorm, but to their family’s apartment in the faculty building. Scout ate dinner at her own spot at their dining room table. Her father barely touched his food, but she ate everything that was put in front of her. She barely tasted it, but she did eat it. Food. Fuel. Sustenance. Her body needed it so that she could go on. So she could continue.

Once dinner was over, her father picked up the dishes, setting them aside before turning back to her. “Okay, kiddo,” he started in a dull voice, “I’ll get some blankets for your room, and then we-”

Scout stood from the table and interrupted before he could continue. “I’m going to my room.” Belatedly, she amended, “My room in the school. My dorm.” Her voice was quiet, yet firm. She usually said more to her father than she said to others. Not as much as she said to Sands, but he at least tended to get more than the one or two-word answers that she gave most people.

“What?” Her father blinked before shaking his head. “Oh, baby, it’s okay. Scout, you can stay here. Trust me, the headmistress will understand. No one’s going to fault you for needing to stay here for now, while your sister… until we get her back. You don’t have to go back there tonight.”

Smiling faintly, Scout left the table. She walked over to where her father was standing and embraced the man tightly, simply hugging him for a few seconds before speaking. Her voice was even softer than usual, so quiet that he had to lean closer to hear her. “You’ll find Sands?”

When her father gave an emphatic nod, she stepped back. “Then I’m going where I belong.”  

As she turned to walk to the door, her father spoke weakly. “I just need to know that you’re safe.”

Scout paused there, turning to look back at him. Her response was simple. “So do I.”

She walked out the door. Closing it behind her, Scout hurried out of the faculty building. As she stepped out onto the grounds, the girl caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye. She turned, finding a familiar woman standing near the corner of the building, staring at the sky.

Biting her lip, she stepped closer, her voice even more tentative than usual. “Professor Dare?”

“Hello, Scout,” Dare answered without looking away from the expansive starfield that filled the night sky. She seemed almost entranced by it. “Does your father know that you’re out here?”

Nodding, Scout moved closer to the woman. She watched her for a moment, then turned her head to look at the sky, taking in the same sight. The girl stood like beside her professor for a couple of minutes. Neither spoke. They simply stood there, watching the stars in utter silence.

Eventually, Dare spoke, voice contemplative. “Do you remember the start of the year, when I tried to call you by your given name instead of Scout?” When the girl nodded, she continued. “Did you ever wonder why I would do that, when I’ve known you since the day you were born?”

Scout paused, thinking about that for a moment before giving the woman another slow nod.

“I wasn’t your pseudo-aunt then,” Dare explained. “I was trying to create a boundary between us, a… professional separation. Maybe I was overcompensating. I told myself it was because I didn’t want you two to think that you could walk all over me just because of how close we’ve been. But now… now I think there was more to it. Before, I didn’t mind being close to you that way, because you were just children. You were kids. But at that point, at that point you became students. You were Heretics. And Heretics get into trouble.” Her voice was flat. “Heretics die.”

The silence returned for almost a full minute then before Professor Dare spoke again. “I’ve lost people, Scout. I’ve lost more people in my life than…” She trailed off, swallowing hard. “My parents, my entire colony was wiped out. Everyone I ever knew, it was…” Again, she went silent as her voice cracked on the last few words. Scout saw the shudder run through the woman before she found her voice once more. “I thought that maintaining a separation once you became Heretics, once you were in actual danger… I thought it would help if anything ever…”

Swallowing hard, Dare looked to her. “I’m sorry, Scout. If I had been a little bit faster, just a little bit, I could have stopped it. I could have paused time and taken those transport orbs away from your sister and–and the others. I could have stopped them from disappearing.”

Scout met the woman’s gaze as she whispered the one thing that she had told herself when her mind had been filled with all that speculation. “Live in what can happen, not what could have.”

Repeating that under her breath, Professor Dare chuckled softly, seemingly surprising herself with it. Her head shook, and she reached out to gently brush a hand through Scout’s hair. “You’re so much stronger than your father thinks you are,” she murmured quietly. “You all are.”

Something about what she had said just then made Scout remember something else very important. Blinking up at the woman, she asked tentatively, “Flick’s dad?”

Wincing, Dare nodded with a long sigh. “I spoke to him for a little bit. Gaia was going to, but she had a… situation to attend to with Avalon.” The woman frowned to herself, making it clear to Scout that there was a lot more to that particular story than she was going to tell her.

“So yes, I went to visit Lincoln. It… didn’t go that well. But he knows what’s going on. I promised that we’d let him know as soon as we find out anything else. And Gabriel is working on something. Between him and Gaia, they’ll work something out.” Again, she brushed her hand through Scout’s hair tenderly. “We just have to trust that your sister and… and the others can take care of themselves until we find a way to bring them back. Right?” She smiled down at her.

Scout nodded, returning the woman’s smile despite herself. She remembered growing up on these grounds. She remembered Aunt Ginny being there for her after her mother was… after that day. She remembered being rocked back and forth by the blonde woman when her father had passed out from sheer exhaustion. Without her mother around, Aunt Ginny had been the closest thing she and Sands had to that kind of figure, since the headmistress was so busy.  

Eventually, Professor Dare walked her across the grounds, back to the dorm. On the way, Scout thought for a moment before looking over at her teacher. “Waiting,” she spoke simply, with a significant look back the way they had come, back to where the woman had been standing.

Dare gave a soft smile, nodding her understanding. “Yes,” she replied, “I was waiting for you to come out. I didn’t know whether you’d tell your father or not, but I knew you wouldn’t stay there.”

They reached the dorm, and Dare gave her a brief hug. “She’ll be okay. We’ll bring them back.”   

Scout returned the hug tightly, giving her professor a soft smile before nodding. Then she stepped into her room,  the room she shared with Sands, and closed the door behind herself.

For a moment, the girl just stood there, motionless and silent. Her eyes slid across the room, landing first on her own bed, then on the one that belonged to Sands. A hard lump formed in her throat as she stared for several long seconds before slowly taking a few steps that way.

She ran her hand over the bed, letting a shudder run through herself before sitting down on the edge of it. Closing her eyes, Scout laid down there, in the exact spot where her sister always slept. Her head found the pillow, the same pillow that Sands’ head always rested on. She inhaled slowly and deliberately, taking in the lingering scent of her sister.

The dam broke, shattering apart. And by morning, the pillow was soaked through with her tears.

******

“I know you all want to find your missing teammates and friends,” Gaia announced the next morning. “And we’re working on that, I promise you. For the time being, however, this is the most obvious solution to the fact that both of your teams are at half strength.”

Both of their teams. Scout, Sean, Columbus, and Avalon stood there on one side of the room. On the other side stood Douglas and Rudolph. The two boys were openly staring at Scout and the others for a few seconds before Douglas spoke up. “Half strength? Headmistress, three of our friends completely disappeared, and the other one… the other one was dead for God only knows how long while an imposter waltzed around in his skin. I think you’re understating it.”

Gaia gave a slight nod. “You are correct, Mr. Frey. This situation is…” She paused then, seeming to consider her words for a moment. “This situation is difficult. Mr. Calburn was…” For a moment, Gaia’s eyes closed before opening again. “Mr. Calburn was a wonderful boy. What happened to him was…. At a certain point, you would think that I would have found the perfect words to say in a situation like this. But those words don’t exist. I am very sorry about Paul. The others… we will find them, but Paul…” She took in a long breath, letting it out before continuing. “His family will be holding a memorial service for him tomorrow evening. Any of you, or any student, who would like to attend are welcome. Come to me and I will ensure that you make it there. And you will not be expected to attend regular classes until you are ready to do so.

“But this,” the woman continued, lifting a hand to indicate them all, “this is your team. For as long as it takes to find the others and bring them back here where they belong, this will be your team. What you do with that is up to all of you. Personally, I strongly suggest you talk to one another. The rest of the members of both of your teams are out there. They will be learning to work with one another, learning to trust each other. I believe that you can do the same.”

Scout saw the woman’s gaze move briefly toward Avalon then. Gaia looked like she wanted to say something else, something directly to her adopted daughter. But she visibly stopped herself.

As for Avalon, the girl looked tired. Her usually perfect hair was done in a simple ponytail, and it was obvious that she had barely bothered to shower. She was still beautiful, there was no question about it. Even Scout recognized that fact. But there was no effort there, not today. She just stood near the wall behind the others, shoulders hunched as she stared at the floor in silence while Gaia finished explaining their situation and what they were supposed to be doing.

Finished, the woman looked toward Columbus. “For now, Mr. Porter, I believe you have an appointment with Mr. Roe?”

If anything, Columbus looked even worse than Avalon did. If he’d gotten any sleep at all the night before, Scout would be surprised. The boy said nothing at first. He just stood there, listlessly staring. Then he gave a sudden start, as if he’d briefly forgotten that he was the one in charge of his own body again. “I–” He swallowed visibly, giving a slight nod. “Right. Appointment, I can–” Stopping, Columbus looked toward Avalon. His mouth opened like he was going to say something, but no words came out. He just stood there like that for several long seconds before closing his mouth. Then he turned and started toward the door, head down.

“Wait.” The words came from Avalon. She straightened, and Scout saw the girl mouth something inaudible to herself before moving over to where Columbus was. Slowly, Avalon reached up to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, squeezing it. “Porter,” she started slowly, her voice cracking once before she got it under control. “Porter, everyone here besides Gaia is only alive and safe because of you. You can be as hard as you want on yourself if it makes you better. But remember that. As much as that bitch took from you, don’t forget it. You could have surrendered. You could have given up, curled into a ball, and let everything happen. But you didn’t. You fought. She let her guard down because she thought you were broken. She ignored you because she thought she had already beaten you. But she didn’t win. You did. No matter what happens, no matter what that cunt said to you, remember that.

“You won.”

Columbus looked choked up for a second. He met the girl’s gaze, and Scout saw him swallow hard before managing a weak, “Thanks… thanks, Avalon.”

“No.” The girl shook her head pointedly. “Thank you. Thank you for saving our lives.”

******

“Scout?” Vanessa Moon’s voice came in a stage-whisper as the blonde girl pulled herself up onto the roof of the girl’s dorm much later, after the sun had gone down. “Are you–” She visibly stopped herself from asking if Scout was okay. “How are you doing?”

Tristan, pulling himself up behind his sister, nodded. “Yeah, what–what’s going on?” 

Scout had left notes asking both of them to meet her up here once they were done with everything else that they needed to do. Then she had come up to wait, throwing her baseball around while she waited.

Now, she stood up, holding the ball in one hand while turning to face the twins. With her other hand, she activated a privacy coin before speaking. “We have to help the others.”

Both Tristan and Vanessa looked surprised, probably because they weren’t accustomed to her saying more than a couple words at a time. But this wasn’t time for that. Scout needed to communicate. Her sister wasn’t here to translate for her. As hard as it was, as uncomfortable as it made her, she had to talk.

“Um, we want to help them, sure. I mean, stuck on the other side of space because of a banishment orb… Trust me, we’re there.” Vanessa was nodding. “But how do we–”

“They need help,” Scout interrupted. And boy did that feel strange. “We… we can’t help them. But your father can. And my mother. We… we have to tell them.”

“Tell them?” Tristan shook his head. “Scout, how can we–”

It was Vanessa’s turn to interrupt. “She’s talking about the–the visions I’ve been having, right? When I saw through Dad’s eyes. But, Scout, I can’t communicate that way. I can’t even do it on purpose. I don’t know what I’m doing, or how to do it.”

Scout nodded at that. “You need training.”

“Training?” Vanessa echoed, clearly confused. “How am I supposed to get training? It’s not like there’s any Seosten around who can tell me what I’m doing or how to get better at it.”

Smiling slowly, Scout replied, “Next best thing. Seosten-Heretic.”

“Seosten-Heretic?” Vanessa abruptly started a bit. “You mean Enguerrand, the guy at Gabriel Prosser’s camp?”

Once again, Scout nodded. “Gaia said he could teach you. If you want. We can visit the camp.”

Vanessa’s head jerked into an immediate nod. “Wh–yes, yes, of course. I want to help.”

“She’s right,” Tristan agreed. “I mean, I can’t even do what Nessa can yet, but still. Anything we can do. We’re there. After everything Flick–” He coughed. “We’ll help, whatever it takes.”

The answer made Scout smile. “Good.

“Then let’s go.”

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New York Minutemen 27-05

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“Stop her!” a voice shouted from behind me, and I twisted that way in time to see Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Sean put themselves between me and the rest of Roxa’s old team. Doug, one of the few who definitely wasn’t the one working for the Seosten, was the one who had spoken. On one side of him was Paul, with Jasmine on the other side. Isaac was slightly behind Jazz, while Gordon was to Paul’s left. Everyone had their weapons out, on both sides. And I had no idea who on Roxa’s team could actually be trusted, even if they weren’t actually possessed.

It was just them. I had no idea where Deveron and Marina were, or anyone else. Though considering how much planning the Seosten had put into this, I was willing to bet that they had enacted some kind of distraction on that end too. I just hoped that both of them were okay.

“Back off!” Avalon snapped at Douglas and the rest of them. She had ignited one of her gauntlets in a blade, and seemed to be almost daring one of them to try to get past her. Beside her, Sands had erected a half-sized stone wall between them, while Sean had Vulcan in his gun-form. Things were about to go sideways any second, even without Charmeine’s help.

“What are you doing?!” That was Jazz. She had her falchion out, with white-hot flames licking around the blade. “Are you just gonna let her attack your own teammate? What the hell?!”

“It’s not our teammate!” Sands shouted back at her. “You all need to back off. Let her explain.”

“Explain?” Paul snapped. “How about she explains what she did to Rudolph, or Professor Carfried, or Professor Dare? And why she just attacked Columbus. Explain all of that.”

Sean started to say something, but I spoke over him. “Sands is right! That,” I pointed at figure in front of me, “is not Columbus. I mean, it is, but he’s…” My head shook. “Look, you guys, I know this is a lot to take in. But listen to me. Columbus has been possessed.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” Isaac demanded, clearly tightening the grip on his three-headed flail. Like the rest of them, he didn’t look like he was in the mood to listen to reason. But was that because he was the bad guy here, or because it really sounded crazy?

“Yeah, Flick, what the hell?” Charmeine had Columbus back on his feet. But I’d actually achieved my goal. His goggles were sitting across the room, out of easy reach. I didn’t feel like being paralyzed in a single shot again. ‘He’ was rubbing his head. “What happened to you?”

“No,” I snapped despite myself. “We’re not playing that game.” Glancing back to the others in their tense stand-off, I informed them, “We don’t have time to go through all of it. Just–Listen, there are bad things coming. I don’t know what, but it’s bad. You want proof that he’s possessed, that the thing talking right now isn’t Columbus? Avalon, the spell.” I nodded for her to use the one that Gabriel had taught us that would expel Charmeine. “If you were really Columbus, this spell wouldn’t do a thing to you.”

Yet, as Avalon took a step that way, Jazz blurted, “Hey, get away from him! Don’t you go near him. Just… we have to call and–”

“Damn it, listen!” I stepped over, shaking my head. “You want proof that I’m not crazy? We know a spell to expel the bitch that’s possessing him. Just let her use it. Then you’ll know for sure.”

From where he was standing with his weapon (at the moment, it was in its tommy-gun mode rather than sword and shield mode), Gordon spoke in a flat voice. “You really want us to let you use a spell that none of us have ever heard of, that could do anything at all to him. Not likely.”  

“Uhh,” Charmeine made Columbus’s voice sound shaky and nervous. “Thanks, guys. I… I don’t know what’s going on. I was trying to figure out why they’ve been acting so… so weird, and–”

“Oh, put a fucking sock in it, Meryl Streep,” Sean blurted with an almost violent eyeroll. “The Academy isn’t handing out any awards tonight. Flick,” he announced while keeping Vulcan pointed at the others, “do what you need to do to get that bitch out of my friend.” His voice was tense, and it made me realize just how hard it had been for him to act like nothing was wrong for so long around his possessed roommate.  

Paul, however, clearly wasn’t going to let that happen. “You take another step that way,” he replied while holding his two hand-axes up, “and we’ll stop you. Don’t… move. We’ll call for help, then wait for the other Heretics to show up and deal with all this, whatever it is.”

“Are you even listening to me?” I squinted, unable to figure out if he was part of Seosten plan, or just being thick-headed. “There are bad things coming. If we don’t deal with this right now, then-”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as something went flying over my shoulder. My item-sense barely had time to register it as an arrow before the thing flew into Paul’s shoulder. A second later, it exploded into a burst similar to my own concussion mines, sending the boy crashing to the floor with a surprised, pained cry as his weapons clattered to the floor.

“She’s telling the truth,” Rudolph announced from his place at the same window that I had just crashed through. He still had his bow raised, another arrow notched in it as he aimed at Paul.

“Rudolph!” Jazz blurted, already starting to move to help Paul. “What the hell are you doing?!” she demanded, voice actually shaking from her confusion. “What the fuck is going on?!”  

“Jazz, don’t!” Rudolph sent an arrow between them, putting it right past Jasmine’s nose to make her stop short. “Don’t go near him,” the blonde boy called to her, “that’s not Paul!”

That’s not Paul, that’s not Columbus,” Isaac’s voice was almost shrill. “Is anyone who they say they are? Did we all switch bodies? Is this a Freaky Friday situation? Can I pick my new one? Cuz I’ve got some ideas.”

Douglas looked torn between ignoring Rudolph’s words to run and help Paul anyway, and running to Rudolph himself instead. “Rudy, buddy, what are you talking about?” he asked, voice catching a little. “Come on, what’s going on? Flick just came in and attacked her own teammate, and now you’re attacking your teammate? Come on, talk. Because this is starting to sound a lot like that thing where two groups of good guys all fight each other because of a miscommunication, and I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather not be that cliche.”

“That’s not Paul,” Rudolph repeated, even as ‘Paul’ himself tried to sit up. “He’s an imposter.”

Jasmine’s voice was tense, as she demanded, “How do you know that? Are you even sure?”

“He’s sure,” another new voice announced from the broken window. Roxa. It was Roxa. She appeared on the back of Gidget in her hoverboard form, landing in the room beside Rudolph. Since my Stranger-sense didn’t go off, I had to assume she was wearing the choker. She was also dragging a body behind herself, balanced on the back of the board.

“Roxa!” Jazz sounded equally shocked and happy. “You’re okay! You’re–you’re… what… who…?” she trailed off as her eyes caught sight of the body that the blonde was holding.

Roxa continued, her voice somber and flat. “He knows it’s not Paul because…” she stepped off the board, gaze downcast as she lay the body down on the floor. “Because this is Paul.”

It was. Paul. The boy was… oh God, he was dead. Gone. The sight made me choke, bile springing to my mouth. Behind me, the others were having pretty much the same reaction.

“Paul!” Jasmine’s voice was a half-scream, half-sob. She took several steps that way, toward the body, before stopping short as she glanced back toward the Paul that was there. “I–I don’t… I don’t understand. What–”

“I was tracking you,” Roxa informed me. “Saw the guy taking Rudolph in the cab. So I stopped them. The… Paul was in the trunk.”

Roxa had rescued Rudolph. She’d rescued Rudolph, then found the body that proved Paul was the mole on their team. Thanks to her, we might pull this off without everything going wrong. And thanks to the choker, she could actually do that without having everyone immediately attack her.

“Okay,” ‘Columbus’ sighed, shaking his head. “I guess we’re doing this the easy way then. Shame. I tried.” Looking up, ‘he’ focused on me. “Just remember, You wanted it this way.”

“Guys,” I started quickly, “we need to–”

It wasn’t quick enough. A flick of Columbus’s hand drove an invisible sledgehammer of force into my chest that sent me flying backward into the far wall before I could even think about moving. As I rebounded off it, dazed for a moment, the sound of shouting filled my ears that was quickly dwarfed by gunfire.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sean opening up on the… whatever it was that had taken Paul’s place. He was already on his feet, clearly either much less affected by Rudolph’s shot than he’d pretended to be, or he’d simply had time to heal. And he was moving fast, darting away from the hail of minigun fire to the point of running up along the wall. Then it leapt off into a dive that took Jasmine’s legs out from under her, hand-springing over her sprawled form to plant both feet into Doug’s chest in a kick that knocked the boy into Sean’s line of fire, forcing the other boy to stop shooting for a moment.

Meanwhile, Columbus was glowing with a strange reddish-orange aura that surrounded his body. As Avalon went in with one of her energy blades, he simply caught it. He literally caught the blade in his hand. Or, as I noticed a second later, he actually caught it against that thin aura. It was some kind of shield or forcefield or whatever that was surrounding his skin. It let him simply catch even the solid-energy blade, using it to yank Avalon closer before Charmiene sidestepped and put Columbus’s foot into the back of the girl’s leg.

As Avalon dropped to one knee, I was still pushing off the wall. Columbus’s hand reared back, forming a fist before lashing downward at the briefly prone girl. Before the blow could strike home, however, an arrow ricocheted off that forcefield-sheathed arm. Rudolph. The arrow didn’t seem to do any damage, but it did knock the boy’s arm off-course. And it was followed up by Roxa leaping to put her foot in the boy’s face. That knocked Columbus away from Avalon, but Charmiene instantly recovered by making him avoid all five of the girl’s flurry of follow-up punches as if they were nothing. She simply twisted Columbus’s body this way and that, like she knew where each punch was going long before it was ever even thrown.

By that point, Avalon and I had both recovered. I pushed off the wall, darting for Columbus’s left side while spinning to build momentum as my staff whipped out and around toward his head. We needed him down, at least damaged enough that the Seosten bitch couldn’t use him to attack us anymore. I just wasn’t sure how we were actually going to accomplish that.

At the same time that I made my move, Avalon dropped to sweep Columbus’s legs out from under him, clearly timing her spin for just as my staff would hit the boy.

It still didn’t matter. At the last second, Charmiene gave a quick little hop over Avalon’s extended leg while simultaneously catching hold of the end of my staff. She yanked me forward and off-balance, forcing my staff to smack into Roxa’s face instead of Columbus’s with a blow that knocked the other girl onto her back. Releasing my staff, the boy’s leg snapped up, catching my stomach to drive the wind out of me. Then he was somehow behind me, taking hold of my arm before throwing me to the ground. An instant later, his foot collided with my stomach again and I was sent rolling along the floor as the contents of my stomach fought to come up.

Columbus was just so damn fast. That upgrade that he’d gotten from… from killing Josiah, coupled with the boost that Charmiene could give him–wait a second.

Hey, partner, how you doing in there? I sent to Tabbris, trying to sound more confident than I felt right then. You okay to help me out?

The response was tentative. A-almost. She sounded exhausted. I’m trying, but–but she’s a lot older, and–

It’s okay, I assured her. Just hold it for the right time. Let me know when you can give me a few seconds of boost. That’s all I need. We’ll hold on until then. Let me know and wait for my mark, got it?

There was a sense of agreement, and I flipped myself back to my feet. In the background, I could see the others trying to deal with the Paul-Doppleganger. But it clearly wasn’t making things easy.

And we had our own problems. Avalon was giving Roxa a breather, pulling Charmeine’s attention to her even as Gidget came running in to grab hold of Columbus’s wrist in her mouth.  Unfortunately, a flick of his hand sent the mechanical cougar tumbling end over end, and Roxa’s brief distraction as she blurted her cyberform partner’s name gave Charmeine the opening she needed. A silver knife suddenly appeared out of nowhere in Columbus’s hand, and a flick of it cut into the blonde girl’s arm. She gave a strangled cry of pain, stumbling back as her arm hung useless at her side. Whatever Charmeine had hit, it left Roxa unable to use that arm.

It was like I was moving in slow motion. It was like all of us were moving in slow motion. Avalon, Roxa, and me, let alone with help from both Rudolph and Gidget, should have been able to do something here. And yet, we couldn’t even land much of a hit. Not with things the way they were.

But giving up wasn’t an option. Not now, not ever. With a grunt, I went for it, back into the fray. Something had to take. Between the five of us (more if any of the others could pull free of their problem), something would stick.

Unfortunately, it still didn’t seem as though anything actually would. As Avalon, Roxa (still favoring one arm), and I converged on the spot where Columbus was, the boy simply disappeared. I caught sight of him an instant later, stepping out of one of the nearby shadows along the wall as if it was a doorway. It put him directly behind Avalon before a wave of his hand literally set the girl aflame. Fire erupted over her, though the cry that came then wasn’t from Avalon, but from me. I screamed. Avalon? Avalon spun around to put her fist into Columbus’s face… while she was literally on fire.

Was it too soon to say that I was in love?

Of all the things that Charmeine could have expected Avalon’s reaction to being set on fire would be, apparently ‘ignore it and punch her in the face anyway’ wasn’t in the top ten. She was taken completely by surprise for what had to be the first time since I’d come through the window and nailed her. Nor did she expect Roxa to tackle her to the ground. I heard the howl of pain from the blonde girl as her bleeding arm was jostled. Still, she dove full-force into Columbus, taking him down to the floor just as one of Rudolph’s arrows shot just over their heads. Instead of hitting Columbus/Charmeine, it hit Avalon.

But that wasn’t a mistake, I realized. The arrow that struck her exploded. Not with energy, but with water. It burst on impact with Avalon, creating a brief geyser of water that drenched the other girl to put out the flames. Rudolph had been aiming for her.

O-okay, okay, my ride-along partner cut into my thoughts, I… I think I can give you a… umm, a short boost. Just a few seconds.

Thanks, Tabbris, I replied silently while taking a step that way. Wait for my mark. With only a few seconds of boost before my own Seosten-ally would wear herself out again, I had to time it just right. It had to be perfect.

Heavily burned, yet clearly not caring, Avalon was already going for the prone Columbus as Roxa practically knelt on top of him. Unfortunately, within the span of an eyeblink, the two had switched places. Roxa was lying prone on the floor while Columbus knelt on her. Shit, shit, another power. If this went on for too much longer, Charmeine was going to figure out too many of the powers she had available for us to be able to beat her.

Avalon barely registered that fact in time to collapse her energy blade before it would have cut through the other girl’s arm. Even then, she was extended enough that Charmeine was able to drive an elbow back into her face, knocking her onto her backside before Columbus abruptly stood and spun, catching my incoming swing and pointing my staff downward so that the blast of concussive energy that I had been releasing caught Gidget, sending the cyberform tumbling end over end.

She was playing, I realized. Even now, in this situation, Charmeine was showing off. She could have taken all of us much more efficiently, focusing on one at a time. She’d shown that with the single cut that had taken out one of Roxa’s arms. She could have killed or at least disabled us with ease. But she was working out her frustrations from the past half year (and probably even longer) by toying with us.

Summoning my little mice friends, I sent them to their places, converting my staff into its bladed form. Then I focused, watching as Avalon and Roxa struggled to keep pace with Columbus. I wanted to rush in, wanted to throw myself back into that fight. Especially as I saw Avalon take three rapid, vicious blows to the face. But I stopped myself. I made myself stand still, watching for my moment. Throwing myself in there was accomplishing nothing.

Then I saw it. Charmeine had Columbus half-turned away from Avalon, a gesture sending Gidget away while she put his fist into the blonde girl’s face.

In that instant, I blurted, “Valley, Kappa!” Mark, I added silently toward my companion. Mark, mark, mark!  

Avalon reacted to my words without even an instant of hesitation. Both of her hands snapped up, as a new energy constructed emerged from her gauntlets: a cage. It was just big enough to catch Columbus between the glowing solid-energy bars, trapping him in place between them. It was one of the new constructs that the other girl had been working on over the past few weeks.

It wouldn’t last, of course. He’d already demonstrated more than one teleportation ability. In a second, he’d get out of that cage. But the point hadn’t been to contain him, it had been to know exactly where he would be in the next instant. That’s what I had needed Avalon to do.

I was already moving. Not toward the cage, but toward Roxa. As the boost from Tabbris filled my body, I felt invincible. I was moving faster than I ever had, even during the trip across the city. The Seosten girl had thrown everything she had to me. And while it wouldn’t last more than a few seconds, that’s all I needed.

Roxa was there. I dove forward, lashing out at her leg with my staff. And then, at the last second, it wasn’t Roxa there anymore. It was Columbus. Charmeine had switched places, just as I’d known she would. Trapping her in that energy cage with the code phrase Avalon and I had come up with (we had about a dozen different ones like that, it was kappa for cage) made her react by doing the same thing she had done before. She’d switched places with Roxa, thinking that whatever was about to happen would happen to that girl instead.

But I’d planned on her doing just that. So as Columbus’s body appeared in Roxa’s place, my staff was already lashing out and down, boosted by the speed and strength that Tabbris had given me. The blade on the end of my staff sliced through the back of his leg, and he immediately dropped with a strangled cry. His leg couldn’t support his weight anymore, not the way I’d cut him.

Before Charmeine could recover (and before I lost the boost), I was already spinning. My staff went up and around, colliding with the boy’s head. That time, as the blow struck home, he collapsed and stayed collapsed.

Everything, in that moment, went completely silent. The fighting on the other side of the room was still, as everyone looked over to see the unconscious, injured, downed Columbus. He was down, but did that mean that Charmeine was?   

“Okay.” It was another voice, a female voice that came as if in response to my own thought. The voice that I had heard that night on the beach. Charmeine. So no, no she was not down. She was very much not down. In that moment, the bitch was standing over Columbus’s limp, bleeding, unconscious form, staring daggers at me. “Now, now I’m a little bit annoyed.”

Gordon snapped his gun that way, as did Scout and Sean with theirs. “Who are you?” he demanded. For once, there was actual emotion in his voice. Seeing Paul’s body there and then fighting his doppleganger, it had clearly affected him. It wasn’t just in his voice. I could also see it in his face, the way his aim shook a little as he stood there, clearly about to lose it.

“Oh, that hardly matters,” Charmeine retorted. “You won’t survive long enough to understand it anyway. Fetch!” It took me a second to realize she was saying a name rather than giving an order with that word.

Fetch. The Paul-clone, I realized. He was still up and around, even with everyone else focusing on him. And from the look of things, he wasn’t all that hurt. Whatever that thing was, it was tough.

“Finish dealing with the other children. I have these ones,” Charmeine continued. “We just have to work out a few ground rules before their little journey, isn’t that right, kids?”

Even as she spoke, the white-haired, dark-skinned Seosten woman’s hand was snapping out. I saw something leave her fingers, a small object that snapped itself against the nearby wall, just past Avalon. An instant later, a glowing red forcefield popped up into existence, cutting Avalon, Rudolph, Roxa, and me off from the others. We, along with Charmeine, were on one side of the glowing wall. Meanwhile, Sean, Sands, Scout, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Isaac were on the other side with the fake Paul. Fetch, apparently. Clearly, as confident as Charmeine was in her own skills, she didn’t want to deal with all of us at once. Or maybe she just wanted to focus on those of us that she hated the most.

Either way, we were going to have to hope that the others could handle that ‘Fetch’ thing. Because the forcefield turned opaque, and I couldn’t see what was happening on the other side.

Charmeine, for her part, cracked her knuckles. “Now,” she announced. “It’s time to be a little more straightforward. No more games or misdirection. No more possession. I’ll deal with you myself.”

There was no talking, no discussion. One second, the four of us (five if you counted Gidget, which I did) were arrayed around the Seosten. Then we were moving, attacking… fighting.

Avalon reached her first, energy blade going straight for her chest. At almost the exact same time, one of Rudolph’s arrows was shooting through the air toward the woman’s other side, while Roxa and I went for her front, Gidget going in low, toward her legs.

It didn’t matter. Charmeine was as ready for all of us as if we had each sent postcards a month ahead of time, detailing everything we were going to do and exactly when we were going to do it. Ducking backward a bit, just enough to let Avalon’s blade swish past her harmlessly, she twisted to catch the incoming arrow even as her foot lashed out, kicking Avalon in the stomach hard enough to send the girl flying backward into the energy wall. By that point, Roxa and I were right there. But the Seosten gave the arrow she had caught a quick toss right down into Roxa’s leg an instant before it exploded. The blonde girl was sent to the floor with a cry that was half-howl. Her leg was injured. Not nearly as badly as her arm, and it would heal much faster. But still, it slowed her down.

I was there, staff swinging for her face before she simply caught it an inch from her nose. Giving me a small smirk, the Seosten ripped the staff from my hands as easily as if I was a child. Then her foot abruptly slammed into my chest. I felt ribs crack as I was hurled backward to the floor just in time to hear a yowl from Gidget as Charmeine did something that made the cyberform cougar stumble while sparks of electricity shot off of its back and face.

I’d thought that getting the cunt out of Columbus would help. If it did, there wasn’t that much of a difference. The Seosten assassin could still take us apart, even without Columbus’s boosted powers. She was just so damn fast. Even with the werewolf enhancements that I had, along with all my training and everything else, it felt like I was standing still. And there was no way that Tabbris could boost me again. Not so soon after she’d given me everything she could just to help get the bitch out of Columbus to begin with. I had to let her rest, had to let her recover. I was going to have to do this without the boost.

Charmeine took three quick steps back from Avalon as the other girl went after her with all the anger and frustration that had clearly been building up over all the time that the Seosten had been screwing with her life.

But Charmeine easily avoided everything, so easily that she was actually laughing. “Is that all?” she taunted Avalon while twisting her head sideways to avoid the massive solid-energy hammer that was swinging past. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this, Hannah.” With those words, she side-stepped while catching Avalon’s arm with both of her hands, one on each side of her elbow. A sudden, vicious jerk was followed by the snap of the bone breaking as Avalon actually gave a gasp of pain before she was unceremoniously tossed aside.

She didn’t stay down. None of us did. All three of us girls, with Rudolph providing support fire whenever he had something resembling a clear shot, and Gidget, kept going after Charmeine. But it meant nothing. She picked us apart, again and again, as if we were helpless children.

And she was laughing the entire time. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones working out a lot of built-up frustration and anger. Charmeine had been forced to play nice for a long time, and now she was taking it out on us, taking her time without actually going for any fully disabling moves. Still playing. Even after what I had done to drive her out of her host, she was still playing with her food. She wasn’t trying to end it. She wanted the fight to continue on so that she could keep taking us apart bit by bit. It was incredibly arrogant. I just wished she wasn’t backing it up so effectively. One after another, everything we tried just broke like we were water and she was an immovable mountain. We couldn’t do anything to her. Nothing worked. Nothing stuck. She was just too god damn fast, too strong, too… everything.

“Alright then, children,” she announced after knocking us to the floor for what had to be the fifth time, “I think it’s time to put an end to this.” A snap of her fingers summoned two of those orbs to her hands, while she smirked. “Who wants to be banished from Earth first, hmm? If you ask very nicely, maybe I’ll even send some of you together. Would anyone like to beg to stay with their friends? Begging is always fun to watch.”

We couldn’t put her down. We could barely even touch her. The very few actual hits we’d all managed to land, even working together, had barely amounted to a scratch. Fighting a full Seosten like this just… wasn’t working. She was pretty much destroying us whenever we tried.

But I had one advantage over her. One power that she didn’t have that might just be what ended this. All I had to do was keep her talking, keep her focused solely on me and nothing else.

“Charmeine!” I blurted, jerking myself to my feet despite the pain that spread through my entire body every time I moved. She may have been toying with us, but she wasn’t taking it easy.

“Oh good,” the bitch announced, lifting her chin as she smirked at me, “a volunteer.”

That was all it took to get Avalon back to her feet, blurting, “Felicity!”

The terror in her voice made my heart skip and catch, but I had to focus. Keeping my eyes locked on Charmeine, I spoke again. “You know, you may think you’re hot shit now, but did you ever stop to think about how we even found out about you to begin with, how we knew to start looking for you? Did you ever stop to think about what gave you away?”

The Seosten paused like that, squinting at me for a moment with the orbs in her hands. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “You learned about our presence from the mercenary.”

“Fahsteth?” I shook my head, giving a glance toward the probably totally perplexed Rudolph. “Nope. We already knew you were around by that point.” I narrowed my eyes then. “It was you.”

As she stared at me, I took advantage of her hesitation by continuing. “Yeah, that’s right. Remember that night on the beach, when you watched me on the phone and found out about the meeting with him? You came out after I left and made your call. But I saw you. I heard you, through my little fox friend. See, I never let it go, I never dismissed her. So she was still there. I heard everything you said. That’s how we found out about you. That’s how we knew to look for you. Not Fahsteth, not Prosser’s people, nobody else. You. You stood there and blabbed all about it without even checking to make sure I was really gone. So congratulations, Master Spy. Gaia knows about you. All her people know about you. They’ll be ready.

“And it’s all your fault.”

If Charmeine had been annoyed before, now she was completely pissed off. “Oh,” she snarled while taking a step my way, “I am going to enjoy watching them take you apart, piece by piece.”

“Yeah?” I lifted my chin. “Maybe you should wait until you get back from your trip.”

“Trip?” she shook her head. “I’m not going anywhe–” At the last second, she spun around.

But it was too late. Because I’d kept her talking, kept her focused on me long enough. The power that I had, the one she didn’t have… was the item-sense. It meant that I could feel things moving. I could feel the slow, ever-so gradual shift of the one person that Charmeine had forgotten about, the one person she had dismissed through all of this, probably because she had spent the past who-knew-how-many months enslaving him.

Columbus was awake. He had spent the past few moments slowly, gradually positioning himself to reach his goggles where they had fallen at the very beginning of all this. And as Charmeine spun that way, he unleashed a concussive blast from his goggles that caught the bitch right in the chest, tore her off her feet, and sent her flying through the broken window.

An instant later, I was right on her heels. Pointing my staff back as I leapt that way, I triggered the concussive blast, expending all of its energy. I didn’t care. She couldn’t get away. We had to be sure. We had to be positive. And a four story fall just wasn’t enough.

Flying out off the explosion of my staff’s charge, I found myself in the air over the street about seventy feet below.  Charmeine was twisting in the air, grabbing something that would obviously let her escape.

I never gave her the chance. The blade on the end of my staff drove its way clear through her chest and out the other side.

Her eyes went wide. I saw the shock there. The disbelief. The denial. She had been winning. She had been taking us apart. She could beat us effortlessly.

Yet, here we were. She had let up for one moment, given one single opening. And now the two of us were falling through the air, with my staff embedded through her body. Hell, she was actually falling slower now, because my own momentum from the staff’s expended charge was propelling us forward in an arc instead of straight down.

“You,” she snarled, “stupid–”

I interrupted. “You’re all connected, right? Good. I want all of you Seosten to know…” As we began to arc down toward the ground, I gave her a dark smile, showing my teeth. “I’m going to use this power to fucking destroy you.”

Her mouth opened, but before another word could escape the woman, I jerked the staff back and up, the blade tearing through her chest before literally cutting her head in half as the blade came up through her neck and out the top.

A blinding, unbelievable rush of pleasure shot through me, flooding my entire body with a feeling beyond anything I’d felt before. Beyond the Amarok, beyond Doxer, beyond anything that I could describe.

She was dead. Dead. Charmeine was fucking dead. The bitch who had puppeted one of my teammates, one of my friends, my girlfriend’s brother for what was probably months by that point was dead!

Dead.

Dead.

DEAD.

But I was in midair, still falling…

And then a hand caught mine. My eyes opened to find Roxa there, riding her hoverboard as she held my wrist with her good arm. “I’ve got you!” she called. “I’ve got–”

Something abruptly grew hot in my jacket pocket. Looking down, I saw it. The orb. One of the orbs that Charmeine had been using. She’d gotten one last trick in. Somehow, while we were falling, even as my staff was embedded in her chest, she had slipped the thing into my pocket. Now it was active. It was about to–

There was a flash of light, and sound. And when it was over, Roxa and I were both laying on our faces in the middle of a brightly lit room. Around us, I saw more bodies picking themselves up. The orbs. They hadn’t just caught us. They had captured others as well.

“The… hell…?” Jazz. She was lifting her head, groaning. “Where…”

“Where the hell are we?” Sands finished for her. It was Sands to my left. She was there, with Gordon beside her. Isaac was a little bit to the right.

That was it. Roxa, Sands, Jasmine, Gordon, Isaac, and me. We had been caught by the orbs.

“Where?” I echoed, slowly looking around the room in the place far, far from Earth. “I could tell you,”

“But you’re not gonna like it.”

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New York Minutemen 27-02

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“Welcome, boys and girls, to the Clocktower.”

Josiah Carfried (not our magic teacher, the other guy) stood in front of both of our assembled teams about half an hour later. We had gone through the portal room in the Pathmaker building, only to come out in the middle of… well, exactly what he said: a clocktower. We were in the top part of the tower, a room where all four walls were actually the reverse sides of clock faces, and we could see through them to the city beyond. The walls there were apparently one-way, allowing us to see out past the partially obstructing clock hands, but the world couldn’t see in.

Except… my mouth opened to say something about what we were looking at, but Gordon beat me to it. “Where the clocks are,” the boy started in his ever-serious and flat (and frankly, a little suspicious) voice, “they’re not showing the same parts of the city.” Raising a hand, he pointed at the north clock face, which showed a view from above a park, then used his other hand to point to the east clock face, which showed a view above a busy intersection that would have, if they were connected, run through the park. “There’s no way those two views could be that close.”

“Excellent catch!” Josiah blurted, pointing at him then with a wide smile. “Yes, very good, uhh…”

“Gordon,” Jazz supplied for him, giving the boy a short side-eye. “His name is Gordon Kuhn.”

Josiah nodded, his smile widening. “Right, right, Gordon Kuhn. Very good, Gordon.” He turned to gesture at the walls. “Each clock face is actually a portal connecting to one of several dozen possible locations within the city. At any point, our people here can use the portals to get nearly anywhere they need to be almost instantly. With the amount of Strangers we’ve got running around this city, being able to respond that fast is… well, it’s not just important, it’s essential.

“The Minutemen use these portals all over the city. If you know where they are, all you have to do is walk up to one, announce your name, and the portal will recognize you as a Heretic. Then it will open and allow you to come through to here. And from there, you can get anywhere else within the city just by walking up to one of the clock faces and announcing where you want to go. It’ll open the nearest portal. Pretty cool, huh?.”  

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Isaac had raised his hand, looking amused. “Did you just say Minutemen? What, can this thing go back in time too? Cuz if it can, I’m gonna go invest in some stocks or something. And maybe get a state named after me. What do you think, no one cares if Wisconsin gets a new name, right?”

“Isaac,” Paul drawled, “shut up.”  

“Hey now, Paul.” That was Marina Dupont, the tall, pale girl with brunette hair that was cut short, almost above her ears. She was shaking her head at their team leader. “Remember, we solve things constructively. You can’t just tell Isaac to shut up and expect him to learn. You have to tell him what he’s doing wrong and phrase it in a way that allows him to grow as a person.”

I was pretty sure that every single thing with a face, including the clocks, rolled their eyes.

“Mr. Acosta,” Professor Dare addressed Isaac with a narrowed-eye look. “Please, be silent.”

Josiah continued then. “The answer, ah, Isaac, is yes. I did say Minutemen. That’s what the Heretics assigned to this New York branch call themselves. You know, because they live in and deploy through this clocktower. And their goal is to respond to any crisis within minutes. Which, sorta makes the whole ‘Minutemen’ thing make sense. Plus, it’s a reference to Heretics being a part of those militias back when the whole war of independence thing was going on.”

War of independence, I noticed he referred to it as. Not the Revolution or the American Revolution. I was pretty sure that was a British thing. Interesting.

Yeah, a silent voice spoke in my head that I belatedly recognized as Deveron’s, about a quarter of the guys assigned here switched to our side in the war and sabotaged this place so they couldn’t ambush Alters so much. Took them years to put it back together from all the damage we did to it. Wonder if they just stuck the same guys back here after wiping their memories…

He sounded odd, like he’d started out trying to just share a bit of history with me, but turned bitter toward the end of it. I turned slightly to glance at him, and he gave me a slight head shake.

Scout turned to whisper something to her sister, and Sands spoke up for her. “If there’s a bunch of Heretics assigned to this place,” she asked, “where are they? This place looks pretty empty.”

Professor Dare, standing behind us, spoke up. “Their offices and other rooms are downstairs. This is just the transportation room. Though,” she amended then, “I don’t imagine many of them are here…”

Josiah was nodding quickly. “Yeah, they’re pretty busy people. Don’t spend much time around here. Mostly they’re in and out. But we can go down and check things out for a minute. Then we’ll take a little drive to the hotel we’ll be staying in, and we can talk about what you guys wanna do first today. Remember, this is a reward, so you’re not just here to learn. You’re also here to have fun. Four days of fun.”

******

The man wasn’t wrong, at least about the first day. It was more than fun, it was probably one of the best days I’d had since becoming a Heretic. Well, aside from the private time I got to spend with Shiori and Avalon, but in a group setting? Yeah, this was pretty much one of the best. Josiah was clearly intent on showing us a good time while we had the chance to be there.

We went to two different museums, one of which had this awesome light show. We also visited this thing called the High Line, which had been an elevated railroad track back in the thirties, but was now a narrow, raised park that gave some amazing views of places like the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson river. Plus, there were all kinds of food vendors and art pieces scattered throughout. With the pretty grass and bushes and everything along both sides of the walkway above the concrete and pavement of the bustling city below, it was really neat.

That night, we ate at an amazing diner place that served hamburgers practically as big as my head, and long, shoestring fries that made me seriously think about going back and hugging whoever had cooked them. Topping it all off with a big chocolate milkshake was just the best.

Even having Charmiene around, puppeting Columbus, couldn’t totally ruin things. She would get what was coming to her. Every second that she held him against his will, I was going to make her pay tenfold for it. Whenever I saw ‘him’ joking around with Sean, or asking Professor Dare and Josiah questions, and especially whenever ‘he’ got anywhere near Avalon, I barely restrained myself from lashing out. I still had no idea how Shiori had been keeping it together.

At least she wasn’t on this trip. Maybe not having to see Columbus would give her a little break. Though I suspected she’d just spend the entire time worrying. Which was why I texted her pretty much constantly, and sent pictures back. I wanted her to know that everything was going fine.

Hell, even catching the occasional stare from one of Roxa’s old teammates wasn’t enough to put that much of a damper on the day. I already knew that they were suspicious of me, and we were going to take care of that the very next day. I could deal with being stared at awhile longer.

The hotel we were staying at was pretty good too. It was a six story place, and Josiah had rented out about half of the fourth floor. We split into pretty much the same room assignments that we had back at the school, meaning that Avalon and I shared one. Boys were given rooms on one side of the hall, while girls were on the other. Jazz and Marina shared a room, as did Rudolph and Deveron, in order to make everything even. Though I suppose there was a little bit of co-ed habitation going on, since poor Sean was still stuck playing roommate to Charmiene.

Yeah, making snarky thoughts like that in my head did actually help me cope with this situation.

“So what do you think, Herbs?” I asked my pet rock while balancing him on my hand in front of the window of the room that I was sharing with Avalon. “It’s a pretty gorgeous view, huh?”

“It really is,” Avalon remarked from where she was standing over in the bathroom doorway.

Glancing over my shoulder, I raised an eyebrow. “You can’t even see the city from over there.”

She graced me with a tiny smile then, one that few were lucky enough to ever see. Her voice was so soft that I could barely hear, yet the words themselves still sent a shiver through me.

“I wasn’t talking about the city.”

My eyes widened briefly, and I made a noise that sounded like a cross between a hiccup and a giggle as my face turned pink. “I, I, um…” Squirming a little, I gave the other girl an admittedly goofy smile. “You’re, umm, I mean… you’re pretty… pretty. Pretty.”

“Chambers,” Avalon drawled slowly, stepping away from the bathroom before walking toward me with a raised eyebrow. “Did you just say ‘pretty’ three times in a row?”

“I, um, it… bore repea–” I started before being interrupted as Avalon reached me. Her lips found mine, and it was all I could do to avoid dropping Herbie as my hand quickly closed. Hell, it was all I could do to avoid dropping myself, as weak as my knees felt.

After a bit of that, Avalon pulled back and gave me a wry, knowing look. “Well, you ready to go?”

“Ready to…” I echoed blankly, mumbling the words cluelessly while staring at her. Which, gorgeous as she was, didn’t really help with that whole focusing thing.  I had to blink a few times, shaking my head to clear it before remembering. “Oh. Oh, right. Um. Um. Yeah, meeting Roxa, got it.” Squinting at the girl, I managed a weak, “That was mean.”

From her smile and wink, I don’t think she felt bad about it at all.

Eventually, we did make our way out of the room. But we didn’t go out the door where one of the others could’ve seen us. Instead, the two of us slipped out onto the balcony. Making sure no one was watching (or at least none of our classmates), I took hold of Avalon before producing my staff in the other hand. Then we leapt from the balcony, dropping fast toward the street before I used a blast of kinetic force from the staff to shove us across the street. Before we splatted against the roof of the lower building there, I let off a couple more bursts from the staff to slow us down until the two of us landed fairly lightly, each dropping into a roll to take the rest of our momentum.

As we picked ourselves up, the sound of slow clapping drew my attention to the other side of the roof, where Roxa stepped into view. “Good job,” she started. “I’ll give the flight over here about an eight, but I’ve gotta drop the landing to a six point five. Sorry, I’ve seen better.”

“Well shit,” I retorted, “guess we’ve gotta go back up there and try it again. Shooting for a nine.”

Stepping over beside me, Avalon lifted her chin to the other girl. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

Roxa shook her head. “Nope. The others are back in a motel a few blocks away. Except for Lesedi. She’s up in one of these buildings with a rifle. You know, just in case anything went wrong.”

Restraining the urge to look around, I nodded. “Well, I think we’re okay. We shouldn’t be gone for long though, so here.” Reaching up, I fumbled with the invisible clasp of the choker briefly before pulling it off and offering the thing to her.

We weren’t going to have the meeting between Roxa and her old team until tomorrow, when we could get everyone away from Josiah for long enough. But I wanted the girl to have the choker ahead of time so that I didn’t have to disappear to get it to her before the reunion actually happened. Thus, the quick meeting tonight.

“Thanks,” Roxa replied, feeling out the choker briefly before looking at me. “So all I have to do is put it on?”

I nodded. “Yep. As long as you’re wearing it, their Stranger Senses won’t go off.” Pausing then, I asked, “Nervous about seeing them again?”

She gave a quick, emphatic nod at that. “Hell yeah. I… I think I made the right choice. I know I did. But it’s… it’s still gonna be hard. It feels like I abandoned them. I know, I know they wouldn’t understand. It’s just…” Roxa sighed.

“I get it,” I assured her, glancing toward Avalon. “We both get it. But you should be where you’re happiest, not wherever makes other people happy.”

Smiling slightly, the other girl nodded once more. “Thanks… now you should go, before something happens.”

“Alright,” I agreed, “but be ready for tomorrow. We’ll text as soon as we get away from Carfried and meet you… where did we say?”

“Bowling alley,” Avalon replied. “Four blocks east. Dare vetted it.”

“Right.” Roxa raised her fist. “Bowling alley, tomorrow. I’ll wait for the text. I just hope we–”

She was cut off then as my hand snapped up, covering the girl’s mouth. “Don’t,” I chastised flatly.

“Just don’t.”

******

“Exactly how many pancakes can you eat, anyway?”

Blinking up from my plate to look at Deveron as he finished asking that, I shrugged. “Um. As many as I’ve already eaten, plus… three? I think three.” Blushing a little then, I mumbled, “I like pancakes.”

The two of us were the only members of the group that were up at the moment. Deveron had met Avalon and me when we got back to the hotel, and offered to go out with me after the other girl crashed. So, after spending a little time upstairs, I’d eventually joined him in the lobby. That time, I didn’t mind going right through the hallway. We weren’t going anywhere that would’ve mattered if Roxa’s team saw.

We’d walked around for a little bit, looking through the city. Deveron talked some about other times that he’d been here. I kind of had to coax him into it, but he’d slowly opened up as we strolled. We had moved through the busy city, talking about… well, a little bit of everything, from his time in school and how the teachers had been back then, to what was going on right now, to… hell, his favorite books when he had been growing up. I even asked him about Bystander things, like what it had been like to go to Crossroads while the first World War was happening.

It was honestly the closest I’d felt to the man who was my mother’s first husband that I could ever remember. And now, we were sitting in a diner, eating food while he chose to give me shit about how many pancakes I’d eaten.

He was chuckling, while taking a bite of his own omelet. “Nothing wrong with liking pancakes, Flick.” Tapping his fork against the plate a couple times thoughtfully, he added, “Your mom likes them. Especially–”

“Blueberry ones,” I finished, finding myself smiling. “I remember. Everything was an excuse for blueberry pancakes. On my fifth birthday, she made this…” I trailed off, blanching suddenly as my stomach dropped.

“Flick?” Deveron frowned, his voice rising. “What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s not… it’s just…” I sighed. “For my fifth birthday, Mom made these blueberry pancakes that were shaped like a raccoon. You know, oval for a body, then a circle for the head, an oblong shape for the tail and two little bits for ears. It was…” I swallowed hard, slumping in my seat in the far corner of the diner. “It was supposed to be Taddy.”  

I told him about Taddy, my old stuffed raccoon that I’d had since I was a baby. I told him how close I’d been to my little toy, and how I’d destroyed it with scissors after coming home from school to find my father crying over my missing mother’s shirt.

“It’s stupid,” I mumbled, staring down at the half-finished plate of pancake while blinking stubborn tears out of my eyes that just wouldn’t go away. “Just a dumb toy. But I wish I could take it back.” My eyes closed tightly and my shoulders shook. “I wish I could take it back.”

There was the squeak of Deveron rising from his side of the booth. Then I felt him take a seat at my side. His arm moved around me, pulling me into a sort-of sideways hug that I only resisted for a moment before letting myself slump against him. My head rested against his shoulder, and I gave another shudder.

“I miss her,” I managed after a few seconds of that.

“I know.” There was pain in Deveron’s voice. Pain that I completely understood. “I miss her too, kid.

“I miss her too.”

******

The next morning, after breakfast, it was time for what was promising to to be another long, but fun day. Our first stop, according to Josiah, was the Bronx Zoo. Apparently the rest of the day was supposed to be a surprise, but he promised it would be interesting.

Unfortunately, we had too many people to fit everyone into one vehicle. But Josiah and Dare were on top of that, and already had two vans and a car waiting when we got out of breakfast.

So we split up. The others split up and went into both of the vans, while Professor Dare, the elder Carfried, Rudolph, ‘Columbus’, and I took a car right behind them. Carfried stayed in the front with Rudolph squeezed in next to him beside the driver, while the rest of us sat in the back. Dare was in the middle, putting herself between me behind the driver’s seat and ‘Columbus’ behind Carfried in the passenger’s seat. The reason she gave for putting the two of us on opposite sides of the car was so that we could both look out the window to watch the city. Which sounded like a decent enough explanation.  

I knew why Dare wanted to keep Charmiene in the same car that she was in. It would allow her to keep an eye on the Seosten bitch. Between her and Profess–err, Josiah Carfried, Charmiene wasn’t likely to try anything too obvious. Still, something felt off as the car pulled into traffic.

The driver, a short, squat guy wearing way too much cologne, was chattering away about the city as he wove the car in and out of lanes. Somehow, he always managed to find a spot to swerve into that was barely large enough for the cab. Half the time, he wasn’t even paying attention to where he was going. He’d look over his shoulder to say something about some bridge or building or whatever while jerking the wheel violently to the left to zip into a tiny opening that had just appeared between a dump truck and a van full of Japanese tourists.

Honestly, I wasn’t really paying attention to the poor driver. My gaze was focused out the window, watching passing buildings. But my mind was too busy trying to figure out how Roxa’s team was going to take it when she showed up. Would they calm down, or just double down on their paranoia? Was there anything else I could do, or actually tell them to make things better? I didn’t dare go with the whole truth. I’d gotten really lucky when it came to my own team. I couldn’t expect an entire other team to react that well to the whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ story.

“Hey, Flick.” That was Colu–Charmiene. ‘He’ was leaning forward to see around Dare, eyebrow raised as he fumbled a little with the goggles in his hands that he’d pulled off to tinker with. I could almost believe that he was nervous. “You okay? You seem a little, you know, distracted.”

Yeah, I wanted to say, I’m a little distracted thinking about how I’m going to find a way to rip you out of my friend, my girlfriend’s brother, and burn you alive, you gigantic puppeteering cunt.

Instead, I just managed as much of a smile as I could. “Grew up in Wyoming, remember? Never been to a place like this,” I nodded over my shoulder at the window. “City is freaking huge, man.”

‘Columbus’ smiled. “Yeah,” he replied, “it is freaking huge… man. Oh, and uh, immutatio.”

I was still registering the fact that he’d said some completely random word that didn’t make sense, even as Professor Dare was already twisting. I heard the start of a shout, before she was gone. Gone, as in she literally fell backwards through the car. The spot where she had been sitting was partially translucent, like a ghost. And Dare herself was tumbling along the road, end over end. We’d been going at a pretty decent clip by that point, up to about fifty-five, and that spell that Charmiene had spoken had literally turned Professor Dare’s seat and that part of the car insubstantial, dumping her out onto the road in the middle of traffic.

A cry had just escaped me, as I reflexively jerked my head around. Yeah. Dumb. Idiot. I should’ve stayed focused on Charmiene. But it was Professor Dare. I had to turn, staring through the back window at the sight of the blonde woman getting her feet under herself just in time to dive out of the way of a honking semi that came barreling through the spot she’d been in a second earlier.  

It was only for an instant. I only looked back for the span of a heartbeat before my werewolf-enhanced reflexes made me twist back to face the bitch wearing Columbus. But it was still a heartbeat too long. I saw ‘him’ flip up those goggles of his, thumb hitting a button on the side. Then there was a flash, and I was slumping sideways. My body was locked up, paralyzed.

And it was worse than that. Charmiene had used only one hand to hit the button on the goggles that paralyzed me. Because her other hand was occupied, holding the red-bladed knife that she had just stuck through the back of Josiah Carfried’s neck. The white glow of Columbus’s kill-aura filled the cab, while Rudolph actually let out a strangled scream of shock that only stopped as the driver of the cab drove an elbow back into his face so hard that the boy immediately slumped, unconscious.

“Just one more thing,” Charmiene announced while tugging the red-bladed knife out of the dead Heretic’s neck, her eyes focused on my totally unmoving body as I lay slumped in the corner of the cab. As I was forced to do nothing but watch, she made Columbus’s hand reach up to the roof of the cab. Her fingers scratched away at the fabric there, revealing a spell that had already been drawn in there. Just like the spell that she had prepared to turn Dare’s part of the cab ghost-like. This one, however, did something very different. As she touched it, the view outside the cab windows went fuzzy white for a couple of seconds, and my stomach twisted. Then the view changed. We were in a completely different part of the city.  The spell had teleported the car.

Dare had been left behind. Josiah Carfried was dead. Rudolph was unconscious. The driver was… somehow working with them, and Charmeine… Charmiene wasn’t pretending anymore. I was alone. I was completely on my own, and still paralyzed from whatever those goggles had done to me.  

It felt like my heart was beating so loud that it almost drowned out Columbus’s voice as Charmiene made him speak. “I do hope you didn’t honestly think we were stupid enough to not figure out that you still had the choker. But thank you for being subtle enough about it to give us time to set up enough spells to block all those wonderful little tracking enchantments you’re carrying around. It means that we’ll have plenty of time to have a little conversation.

“A conversation that, I can promise you, you are not going to enjoy.”

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New York Minutemen 27-01

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“You sure keep yourself busy, don’t you, Miss Chambers?”

Turning away from the weight machine that I had been working on (having twelve hundred pounds stacked on it was still enough to make me do a double take whenever I look at the thing), I replied, “I only need an hour of sleep a day, Mr. Atrean. Gotta keep myself entertained through all my extra time. And I told you, it’s just Flick. Especially in the middle of the night.”

Not only was it the middle of the night, about 12:30 in the morning, but it was also Saturday night. Or Sunday morning, depending on how you looked at it. It had been about two weeks since we found out that Columbus was the one who was possessed, and it had been a completely torturous two weeks. I had absolutely no idea how Shiori was lasting this long, though she said having people to talk to about it made it a little easier than when she had been keeping her vampire mother secret. Still, having to act normal while knowing that her brother had been enslaved by that bitch was obviously awful. I had been trying to make it so that she didn’t have to spend that much time with him by monopolizing her time myself. Which, to be fair, I actually enjoyed. Or at least, we enjoyed it whenever we could stop thinking about why I was monopolizing her time. Sometimes we spent as much as an hour forgetting the specifics of our situation.Then one of us would inevitably start thinking about it again and go quiet.

Now, the Committee’s stooge raised an eyebrow at me before clearing his throat. “And I believe I told you, it’s October. Maybe we can make a deal and both try to be a little less formal.”

“Are you sure your partner’ll be okay with that?” I asked idly while picking myself up from the machine. Stretching my arm out, I rubbed my bicep while watching him. I knew he wasn’t possessed now (or hadn’t been, at least), but I still didn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw–you know what, that wasn’t a very good figure of speech anymore. I didn’t trust them.

“Eh,” October gave a shrug, stepping back to take a towel off the nearby rack before tossing it to me so I could wipe off. “If Patrick ever eased up, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.”

“I feel like a broken record,” I admitted with a look at the blonde man, “but do you know anything about my dad yet? I mean, I don’t suppose you were coming in here to tell me that you guys finally found him and there’s a squad of Heretics on their way to rescue him as we speak.”

He had the grace to wince a little before shaking his head. “Would’ve opened with that, I promise.” The man met my gaze. “Just like you’d tell us if you ever hear from your dad?”

“I’d say you’d be the second to know after me,” I replied flatly, “but quite frankly, I’d probably tell my team first, and Gaia, and… maybe someone else. You’re probably in the top ten though.”

October squinted at me briefly before his head tilted as he considered. “Well, at least you’re honest about it. Yeah, I can’t blame you for that. But seriously, if you hear from your father, please don’t try to handle the situation yourself, all right? Whatever or whoever took him, they might have done it so that they could use him to get at you. There are–” He paused, seeming to take a moment to consider his words. “There are people out there who would love to get hold of a promising young Heretic student and twist them. I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

Now see, that I could actually believe. I just didn’t think that my idea of ‘twisting a student toward bad things’ and his were in the same ballpark. Because quite frankly, ‘make sure that the person you’re killing has actually done something to deserve it beyond being born’ didn’t exactly sound like evil brainwashing to me. But what did I know? I wasn’t a Committee Representative.

“Believe me,” I replied with total and one hundred percent complete honesty, “I have no intention of running off by myself to go attack whoever has my dad without telling you about it first.”

“Good to hear.” The man watched me for another moment, probably trying to test if I was lying (which, thanks to Gaia’s ring, he wouldn’t be able to) before inclining his head in a nod of satisfaction. “I know you probably don’t like us being here that much. Honestly, I’d probably feel the same if I was you. But we really are trying to help, if you let us. Just… think about it.”

He left, heading heading out of the room. I let him go, waiting a minute to make sure he was actually gone before tapping a finger on the water bottle beside the weight machine. “Okay.”

An instant later, Sands appeared next to me, popping out of the bottle as she stopped possessing it. Shaking herself off, the brunette looked to me. “That was kind of close, huh?”

We’d barely gotten the alert that the man coming in time for Sands to hide and leave it looking like I was the only one in the room when October came in. Luckily, the other girl had actually worked out a pretty neat little alert spell and placed it in the corridor outside. It wasn’t anything big that would attract attention. It just had a very simple effect of changing a little ball that we had set up from red to blue whenever someone passed near it. Apparently she and Scout had had a noisy alarm variant of the spell used to keep them out of the treats when they were little.

I coughed at that, nodding emphatically. “Yeah, which is one reason why you staying out to work with me is a bad idea. Plus, there’s that thing where you need a lot more sleep than I do.”

For the past couple of weeks, Sands had insisted on spending at least part of several nights a week doing extra workouts with me, whenever I wasn’t with Gaia. Not only that, she was also now training with Avalon, Deveron, and me early in the morning and in the afternoon. Before all of this had come out, Sands had mostly slept in until the last possible moment. But now? Now she was like a woman possess–shit. A lot of old phrases had been ruined lately, apparently.

Still, Sands shook her head. “I can’t sleep anyway. I just lay there and look at the ceiling, Flick. I might as well do something useful with it. I… “ She paused, biting her lip before looking at me imploringly. “I have to do something. If we’re right and–you know, then just sitting here feels…” She cringed. “I just have to get out of there. Doing this stuff helps get me tired enough to sleep.”

“Trust me,” I replied after wincing, “I understand. I get it. But right now,” I glanced to the clock on the wall, “it’s almost one o’clock. If you’re gonna get enough sleep to function, it’s time.”

“Yeah…” Sands straightened. “Plus, Scout gets worried if she wakes up and I’m gone. Thanks.”

She jumped back into possessing the water bottle then, which I picked up before making my way out of the room and back across the grounds to the dorms. Passing a couple of the security guards on the way, I gave them a wave. They knew me by then and simply waved back before continuing on their patrol. No one was really going to question why I was carrying water around.

After dropping Sands off at the room she shared with Scout and paying a quick visit to my own, I found myself back outside. But I didn’t go anywhere else. Instead, I stood there in the space between and slightly in front of the two dorm buildings. This, right in the spot I was standing, was where Professor Pericles had been murdered in cold blood, his body eventually found by security more than an hour later.

Opening my special notebook that I’d retrieved from its hiding place, I scribbled in it while looking at the ground where Pericles’ body had been found.

We knew a lot more than we had at the start of this whole thing. We knew why Pericles had been killed: because the murderers thought that killing him would undo the spell that protected Avalon. And they thought that because when they used a spell to determine the identity of the spellcaster, it returned the name ‘Zedekiah’, which they thought referred to Zedekiah Pericles.

We also knew who had done the killing, or at least who was responsible for it: the Seosten and whoever they were possessing. This Manakel guy, he was probably the one who had done the job. He-or she depending on who he was possessing- had walked right up behind Pericles and-

Huh. According to everything I’d heard, Professor Pericles had been killed by being stabbed in the back, literally. But how could someone– I turned slightly, positioning myself the way that Pericles had apparently been before he was stabbed. According to what everyone said, based on the position of the body and the fact that, as far as they could tell, he hadn’t been moved, Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm when he was murdered. He was standing here, facing the boy’s dorm. From that position, the front of the girl’s dorm would still be in his peripheral.

The fact that he had been stabbed in the back… Yes, Manakel was obviously possessing someone, clearly someone that Pericles wouldn’t have reason to suspect. And yet, they had stabbed the man in the back. That kind of said that Manakel wasn’t confident in his ability to take Pericles in a one-on-one fight. Or at least, not quickly enough to avoid attracting attention.

And yet, how would someone, even a Seosten possessing an adult Heretic, sneak up on someone like Pericles and avoid being seen? Would they rely entirely on their own stealth, or…

Again, I looked over toward the boy’s dorm, frowning a little. Pericles had been facing that way when he died. Would Columbus have been possessed back then? God, I really hoped not.

I was speculating too much. It could’ve been nothing. Maybe Pericles was just distracted by something else. Or maybe whoever Manakel was possessing was just that good at avoiding detection. Or maybe… any number of things. I kept half-expecting the same magical intuition that had made me realize that Sands’ and Scout’s mom had been friends with Tristan and Vanessa’s mother to pop up again to give me the answer to this. But nothing happened. I thought there might be something to the fact that Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm, but maybe there wasn’t. I just… didn’t know. With a sigh, I closed my notebook.

What I did know, was that I had missed out on a lot by not getting the chance to have Zedekiah Pericles as a teacher. Manakel and Charmeine had taken away a lot when they killed him. And I was pretty sure they’d also taken away a lot when they put Tangle in that coma. I had the cure for it, but the second I actually used it, they’d know that we knew more than we should. Given that we had no idea who in the hospital might be working with them, it… felt safer to wait. Even if it was yet another reminder of how much the Seosten had taken from us.

I just hoped that, one day, we’d have a chance to take a lot away from them in return.

******

“So let me make sure I’ve got this right,” Columbus’s voice intoned skeptically. “You guys went out in the regular world for almost an entire day, and nothing bad happened? Nothing at all?”

It was about a week after I’d had that conversation with October in the middle of the night, making it late February. We still had no idea who Manakel was possessing, and it was all I could do not to sarcastically retort that ‘Columbus’ would’ve known if anything had happened.

Three weeks. It had been three weeks since we started looking for Manakel and there was still no sign of who he had possessed. I’d even had some of the others test people when it made more sense for them to do it. Hell, even Gaia had done a couple, working her way through her staff. Though she did say that she didn’t want to tell anyone else what was going on. Not even people she trusted. There was too much chance of them being possessed at some point in the future. She wanted to keep this as small as possible until we’d actually identified Manakel.

But again, it wasn’t like we were having any luck at that. Which was why we had to sit here and keep pretending that we didn’t know that Columbus was being puppeted by that Seosten bitch.

Thankfully, it was Avalon who spoke up while I was still swallowing back that comment. “Yes, Porter,” she answered simply, “six whole hours in the Bystander world and nothing went wrong.”

We were standing out on the grass near the Pathmaker building. And by we, that was the entire team, Deveron included. The seven of us were waiting for Dare to show up with Paul, Rudolph, and the rest of Roxa’s former team. Because it was finally time for that trip to New York. Yeah, wouldn’t that be fun? A whole weekend with people who were convinced that I was somehow responsible for Roxa’s disappearance (okay, I kind of was, but not in the way they were thinking) sharing a hotel, transportation, and everything else with us. That wouldn’t be awkward at all.

Thankfully, we already had a plan for that. Once we were up there and were given free time, Roxa was going to join us. I’d meet up her privately, pass her the choker so she’d be safe, and let her come visit with her old team. Then they’d see that the girl was okay, that I wasn’t some psychopath that had her trussed up in my basement or something, and it’d all be hunky dory.

Shut up, I could pretend to be optimistic for a little while.

Deveron was smiling, arms folded over his chest as he watched us. “So you guys actually went on a real date, huh?” he asked, in a way that made me feel like he was just barely suppressing the urge to reach over and ruffle my hair or something equally embarrassing and weird.

‘Columbus’ spoke up then. “So, how did it go? I mean, you two and Shiori out on a date together? Didn’t that get… you know, weird?” If I hadn’t already known that Charmeine was the one pulling his strings, it would’ve sounded like the boy was just being a protective brother. As it was, the question just made me feel nauseous. She was obviously poking for sore points and seeing if there were ways that she could get Columbus to screw with us if need be. Probably so that they could cause a problem and isolate Avalon in the future whenever they needed to.

Somehow, I made myself smile, winking at ‘him’. “Sure, but it was more like two separate dates. Gaia sent us out in the middle of some city in California. She and Professor Dare were the only ones who knew where we were. They picked the city at random. We didn’t even know where we were going until we got there. And we had Wyatt and Dare shadowing us, playing bodyguards, just in case. They were pretty good about staying out of the way though.”

Sean, kneeling next to Vulcan while letting the mechanical dog munch metal nuts out of his hand, raised an eyebrow. “Two separate dates?” he asked curiously. “How’d that work?”

I shrugged. “Shiori and I spent a couple hours together first. We went to play laser tag, visited this cool little train museum, and did some shopping. Avalon did uh, whatever she did, with Professor Dare watching. Then we switched. Professor Dare and Shiori went out to do something while Avalon and I went and did our thing. Mostly we took this boat out on this lake in the park and did some fishing. It was pretty cool. Plus, we actually caught some fish.

“Then we all went to dinner together, and saw a movie.” I smiled, glancing toward Avalon, who was blushing while looking away from all of us. Obviously, she was thinking about other things that had happened during that movie and immediately afterward. “It was pretty great,” I finished.  

“Good,” Deveron announced. “You all deserved a break, and a real date. Or two real dates.”

Sands reached out to poke me in the forehead. “Yeah, we all deserve that kind of break. But some of us aren’t lucky enough to have one person that likes us like that. Let alone two.”

From his kneeling position, Sean teased, “I dunno, I’m sure Zeke would love to take you out.”

The other girl made a face at that, leaning over to kick lightly at him. “Don’t even start with that. Our parents used to make us play together as kids and he was a selfish jerk then too. Now he thinks I should be his girlfriend or something just because we spent some time in the sandbox when we were five. I ate worms back then too, and you don’t see me doing that anymore.”

Snickering despite myself, I reached out to pat the girl on the shoulder. “At least he actually likes you. Even if he’s got a weird way of showing it. I’m pretty sure he still thinks I’m crazy.” From my pocket, I produced my favorite little rock, letting him perch on my palm. “Doesn’t he, little buddy?” Pausing for a moment to listen, I nodded. “You’re right, you’re right. We shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs. Truly, you are the most noble of us all, Sir Herbie.”

“Believe me, Flick,” Sands informed me then, “I’d rather date your rock than that jerk.”

Before we could say anything else about the (amazing) date that Shiori, Avalon, and I had gone on, Scout nodded past us. I turned, to see Dare heading our way with the other team. Right. It was time, I guessed. Time for our trip to New York.

This was going to be… interesting.

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Spy Hunt 26-05

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“I’m gonna kill her! I’m going to rip that damn Seosten bitch out of him, tear her apart with my bare hands, and burn whatever’s left until it’s nothing but ashes!”

That was… well, it was rather obviously Shiori. The Asian girl was pretty much snarling the words as our little group stood up on the roof of the building a short time later, as soon as I had been able to get away from Colu– away from Charmeine and join the others up there.

Shiori was being held back by Avalon, who was holding the girl’s arms in a firm grip to stop her from… I wasn’t sure what. There was no telling what Shiori would do if she was released, considering the reaction she was having. She wasn’t outright fighting Avalon’s grip, though she was straining against it at least a bit. Her eyes were wide as she blurted, “Let me go!”  

Deveron was there, moving in front of the two girls as his hand moved up to touch her face gently, just enough to make her look at and focus on him. “Shiori,” he announced quietly, “we’ll get her out of him. But not like this. You can’t just go running in there like that, demanding that she pop out him and making threats. It won’t work, and then they’ll know what we know.”

Sands, who was standing back with Scout, looks of shock on both their faces, gave a quick nod. “He’s right, Shiori. If you let that angel-bitch know that you know she’s got Columbus, she’ll–”  

“What would you do?!” Shiori demanded, head snapping that way. She stopped jerking at Avalon’s grip for a moment, staring beseechingly at them. “If it was one of you that she took, what would you do? Scout, what would you do if it was Sands? Or Sands, what if it was Scout?”

Both of them looked stricken by the suggestion, while I quickly moved over there. Deveron saw me coming and moved, even as Avalon released her. As Shiori moved forward a step, I caught her in a hug. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, eyes closing tightly as I felt the other girl immediately cling onto me. “I’m so sorry, Shy. I’m sorry. I was hoping it wasn’t him. I can’t–I–” Stopping myself from saying anything else, I hugged her even tighter instead, feeling her tremble under my grip.

For a minute or two, we just stood there. I didn’t know what the others were doing. My attention was focused solely on the girl I was holding onto. Shiori’s body shook a little before she dropped her head. I felt her shudder then before the sound of her tears falling made the anger that had already been rolling around inside me practically boil over. They made Shiori cry. That bitch took Columbus, had been puppeting him for God only knew how long. Damn it, damn it! What was I supposed to do? How could I fix it? How could I make it any better right now? How?

There was no easy answer. And maybe no answer at all. Finally, I leaned back to stare at the girl. “Deveron’s right. They’re all right, Shiori. We’ll get Columbus back. We will kick that bitch out of him, I swear. I promise, we’ll save him. We’ll get your brother back. But we can’t do it right now. You know we can’t do it right now, not until we know where the other ones are. Or at least,” I amended, “where the one that’s here in the school is. We have to identify the one that Manakel is possessing. As soon as we do that, as soon as we know, we can kick them out. We know the spell to do that, remember? And Gaia will help hold them so we can free Columbus.”

“I–but… but…” Shiori stammered, something obviously catching in her throat as she choked a little while shaking her head. “What am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to… to talk to him? How am I supposed to–I–if I see him, I’ll know. I’ll know, Flick. I’ll know she’s in there. I’ll know it’s really… it’s really her. I can’t–I can’t just… “ She closed her eyes again and shivered.

I didn’t know what to say, what to tell her. It was Deveron who spoke, his voice low. “Shiori.” When she looked that way, he continued. “I know. When I went here before, my first time at this school… when Jos and I were, when we were trying to save all the Alters that we could while pretending to be loyal students…” He swallowed hard, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to Shiori’s. “I had to lie to people I was supposed to be able to trust. I had to… had to pretend that I was a good little soldier. All those people I fought alongside, the other students, the ones who weren’t in on it… they would’ve killed me if they knew. They did try to kill me after they found out. My friends, people I cared about, I couldn’t tell them the truth. So I know. I know what you’re feeling. But it’s gonna be okay. Because Columbus knows, Shiori. And as soon as we find out who Manakel is possessing, we’re going to kick that cunt out of your brother. So you can hold on that long, all right? You can pretend. Because you’re not pretending for you. You’re pretending for Columbus. You have to protect Columbus, and that means pretending. All right?”

“Pretending,” Shiori echoed, her voice shaky, “for Columbus. Lying to… to protect Columbus.”

I nodded. “Yeah. You can do it, Shy. You have all of us. And Columbus is in there. He’s… he’s safe, as long as they think we don’t know anything. Hell, he’s probably one of the safest people in the school right now, because Charmeine won’t let anything happen to him while she’s there.”

“But when I look at him,” she whispered, “what if I can’t stop seeing her? What if I… what if…” Trailing off, Shiori shook her head rapidly. “No. No, if I mess up, she’ll… Columbus will–” She stopped short, taking in a long, deep breath before exhaling. “Y-you’re right. I have to pretend. I have to… to fake the–” Abruptly, she cut herself off, eyes widening in abruptly dawning horror.

“Shiori?” I glanced to Avalon and then back to the other girl again, confused. “What’s wrong?”

“Wh–” Shiori choked on her own words, cringing a little bit. “What if it wasn’t him?” She stared at me, utterly horrified. “W-we don’t know how long he’s been possessed. What if… what if Columbus wasn’t the one that–that accepted me? What if he’s been possessed since before I told him the truth about–about what I am? What if he really does hate me? What if he’s never–”

“Shiori, stop.” Reaching up, I put both hands on her cheeks, making her look at me. “Shy, even if that wasn’t your brother… I think it was, but if it wasn’t, his reaction wouldn’t be different. You know him, Shy. You know Columbus. And now, even if he wasn’t in control at that point, he’s seen enough to know that you’re not evil, okay? He knew you before, and he knows you now.”

“You can’t what-if yourself to death, Porter,” Avalon added pointedly. “There’s enough real problems without obsessing over potential ones. If he wasn’t the one in control when he accepted you, we’ll deal with that when the time comes. Now, let’s focus on identifying the other Seosten so we can kick them out and free your brother. Everything else can come after that.”

There was no response at first. Shiori seemed to be processing our words for a moment before her head dropped in a nod. “I can do it,” she whispered. “For Columbus, I can keep it together.”

Brushing my thumb gently along the girl’s cheek, I whispered back, “I promise, we’ll help him as soon as possible, okay? We will get that bitch out of him, the second we can do it right.”

“I know.” Shiori’s words were weak, strained, and the sound of the sadness in her voice made me want to strangle someone right then and there. Slowly, she looked up. “But… what now?”

“Now?” I echoed, biting my lip. “… Now we keep clearing everyone we can. Fahsteth said that Manakel was possessing an adult, but we don’t know that it’s stayed that way for sure. So we don’t skip anything. We check everyone we can, and we start using the anti-possession runes and anything else we can do whenever possible. We just have do all of it without Charmeine finding out.

“So, uh, good luck to us, I guess.”

******

“Miss Chambers, you have been a busy little beaver, haven’t you?”

It was later that day, as I walked through the hall on my way to the library. Blinking back at the sound of the voice, I found myself facing three figures. Two of them were the Committee’s errand boys, October and Patrick, while the third was Professor Kohaku. “Uh, I have?” For the twenty-millionth time recently, I thanked my facial-shifting power for keeping my expression flat.

October, who wore another one of his Hawaiian-print shirts (this one was dark green and white), nodded easily. “Sure have. Every time we ask the headmistress if we can talk to you again, she says you’re off doing some project or another. So much work, when do you ever just relax?”

Professor Kohaku lifted her chin. “Miss Chambers understands the value of what we’re doing here,” she announced with a brief glance toward me. “She’s been engaged in extra training.”

Patrick, who looked just as stiff as ever in his pitch-black suit and red shirt (which seemed to be the only thing he ever wore), met my gaze evenly. “I imagine keeping yourself so thoroughly occupied also distracts you from worrying about what may have happened to your father, yes?” His words were flat, and I couldn’t decide if there was any actual accusation behind them.

Staring right back at the man, I paused before shaking my head firmly. “There’s nothing I could do that would stop me from worrying about my dad. Maybe it helps a little bit, but… but mostly it just stops me from going completely insane and doing something stupid. So you tell me,” I added then, letting a little challenge slip into my voice, “have you found out anything yet?”

“No.” Patrick’s answer was simple, as his head shook. “Honestly, we’ve been hoping that he’d contact you so we could go from there. But so far, he doesn’t seem to have done that.”

I stared right back at him, somehow managing to keep my gaze from reflexively flicking toward the ring that I wore on my right hand, the gift from Gaia that made it so that neither of them could detect when I was lying. “You’re right, I haven’t heard from my father since he disappeared.” Again, I didn’t bother keeping the challenge out of my voice as I went on. “But I thought Heretics were supposed to be good at finding people. So why haven’t you found him?”

“Miss Chambers,” Professor Kohaku reprimanded slightly. “I understand that you are worried about your father. No one blames you for that. But please, watch your tone of voice a bit more.”

October spoke up then, raising a hand. “It’s okay. I think we all know why she’s a little testy.” To me, he added, “And you’re right, we really should have found your dad by now. Wherever he is, somehow he’s hidden from anything our people have been able to try to track him with.”

“Which,” Patrick added, “means he’s with another Heretic. Or a Stranger that’s hiding him for some reason.” He paused, scanning me before asking, “Do you still think it’s your mother?”

“I don’t know,” I answered flatly. “But if I did know for sure that she was with him, believe me, I wouldn’t just be sitting around here doing homework and training.” I hardened my voice, focusing on the anger I felt about the whole situation in order to sell my next words. “My mom already broke my dad’s heart and ripped his soul out once. I won’t let her fuck him over again.”

Kohaku looked like she was about to say something about my language, but stopped and let it go. She gave a slight nod. “I’m sure if the gentlemen here find out anything, they’ll let you know.”

“Yes.” That was Patrick, his tone as even as ever. “Just as you will tell us if you hear anything.”

I nodded at that, raising my hand to offer it while replying, “Deal. You tell me, and I’ll tell you.”

Patrick stiffened a little, squinting at me. “It is not a ‘deal’, Miss Chambers. It is your duty to inform us if you have any information related to our investigation. We are not making some–”

October interrupted, taking my offered hand. “I think we can agree with that,” he announced, giving his partner a brief glance. “After all, we’re all on the same side here, aren’t we?”

I paused, watching the man for a second after he shook my hand. Nothing. He was clear. Raising an eyebrow, I pointedly offered my hand back to Patrick once more. “Yeah, we are.”

He sighed before accepting the hand that time, giving one single, half-hearted shake. Again, I watched carefully. But despite my half-expectation, he was clear too. They might’ve been Committee stooges, but there was no sign that either of the men were actually possessed. Which wasn’t surprising, since Fahsteth had said that Manakel was possessing an adult at the school before these guys had actually shown up. But still, it meant that was two more possibilities down. Which was good, because there were only so many people that Manakel could be.

And speaking of people that could be possessed, I turned to where Professor Kohaku had been. “Professor, I–errr…” She wasn’t there. The Asian woman had disappeared.

Then I saw her come around the corner, pulling the sleeve of a boy, Paul. “You are not some creature of the night, Mr. Calburn,” the woman intoned flatly. “By no respect do you need to resort to lurking in the shadows and around corners. It’s unbecoming. Now do you have anything you’d like to say to Miss Chambers?”

Paul blinked at that, flushing a little as his head shook. “No, ma’am, I mean, I was looking for the–”

“My time is entirely too valuable for whatever excuse you’ve thought up in the past three seconds, Mr. Calburn,” Professor Kohaku interrupted. “Just remember, lurking and spying make you look suspicious. And when I am suspicious of people, I tend to put them in detention where I can keep an eye on them. Do you understand?” When the boy nodded quickly, she gestured. “Then be off, and find better hobbies.”

Turning back to me then as Paul hurried off, she asked, “Does that happen to you often?”

“Um.” I coughed. “More than you might think. But it’s okay.” Waving that off, I hesitated before looking back to her. “Thanks, Professor.”

“Of course.” Kohaku reached out, settling her  hand on my shoulder briefly. It felt warm. “If he bothers you again, let me know. We don’t put up with stalking here.”

“It’s alright,” I murmured, staring at her briefly. No. She wasn’t possessed. There was no overlay of any figure when she touched me. Which was another person cleared. Three in this one corridor. And soon I’d check Paul and the rest of Roxa’s old team, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t any of them. Manakel was supposed to have taken over an adult. Some adult… somewhere in the school.

And we were going to find out who that adult was, even if we had to do it one person at a time.

******

“Okay,” Koren started slowly about forty minutes later. “So, I understand why you couldn’t tell me any of this stuff before. But…” She looked over to me, frowning a little. “Why are you immune to being possessed, exactly? Is it a family thing because of your mom? Should I be immune too?”

Yeah, I had already checked her and then explained the truth. I was pretty damn sure by that point that she wasn’t possessed, since we knew that Columbus was and Manakel was supposed to be possessing an adult. But still, I’d made sure before telling her what was going on. For the past half hour, I had been explaining everything that we’d kept from her lately.

Sighing, I glanced around before answering. The two of us were sitting out on the beach, where I’d dragged her after finding the girl in the library once I’d gotten in there. “I don’t know, exactly. No one seems to have any idea why I’d be immune. I’m not a hybrid or part of Avalon’s family, so… I don’t know. Maybe mom found out whatever Liesje did to make her bloodline immune and copied it. Or maybe Fossor did something to me to protect his investment. Or… I don’t know.”

The brown-haired girl fiddled with her braid self-consciously for a moment before offering, “Maybe it’d help if you found out if it was just you, or your family. This um, Enguerrand guy, he can possess people, right? If I went to him, he could test me and find out if I’m immune or not.”

I paused slightly, biting my lip as I looked over to her. “Yeah,” I murmured. “That’s a good idea. Plus,” I added then, “you could meet my dad. He really wants to meet you. I mean, he really wants to meet all of you. Wyatt, you, your mom… He’s um, he’s really looking forward to that.”

As soon as I’d finished saying that, I blanched, “I mean–” Wincing, I swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean to… your dad…” I was flailing inwardly, lost on what I could possibly say.

“I know,” Koren replied flatly, glancing away from me. “I’m not going to hold your dad being alive against you, Flick. That’d be stupid. I just…” She trailed off, looking away as her voice fell a little bit. “I wish my dad got that lucky. I wish… I wish I knew him. That Tribald guy told me about him, but it’s not the same.” She looked back to me then, meeting my gaze. “I wish I wasn’t jealous of you. I wish I was that good of a person. But I kind of am. I want my dad back. I want my dad to have the same chance yours does. But he doesn’t. And that’s not your fault. Or your dad’s.

“Besides,” Koren added a bit pointedly, “if I blamed you for saying something without thinking about how I might take it, I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world.”

Smiling despite myself, I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure the role of biggest hypocrite has a lot stronger contenders than you. Besides, you’re working on it. And,” I added with a raised eyebrow, “it sounds like that’s not the only thing you’ve been working on. Miranda said you two had an adventure after you texted me about Pace. Sorry I couldn’t tell you much at the time.”

Koren shrugged at that. “Operational security, I get it. And yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you about it.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “Miranda said it was something I really needed to see. But she said you chased Pace to some hideout she had, and there was a hooded guy–”

“Or girl,” Koren interrupted. “We couldn’t tell if it was a guy or a girl. But yeah, they were definitely Pace’s–I mean, Lies’ boss. And whoever they were, they weren’t happy with her. We managed to get this chest thing out when they started burning down the place she was hiding out in, and–”

Raising a hand, I poked her in the shoulder. “According to Miranda, by ‘we’, you mean you ran right into a fire and nearly choked to death.”

She flushed a little bit at that. “Yeah, well, I’m fireproof, but I forgot about smoke. And in any case, it was worth it. We got a bunch of her money and passports and stuff, but we also got this camera, with a video on it.”

“That must’ve been what Randi wanted me to see…” I murmured thoughtfully.

Koren nodded. “I copied it onto my phone. So um, I guess just look at it.” With that, she passed her phone to me and sat back, looking apprehensive.

So, I took the phone and watched the video through. Once it was over, I slumped back, staring at the blank screen. My mouth worked a couple times. “She… she’s not just innocent, she was… rebelling. She was trying to fix things. She believed in… she believed that Strangers weren’t always the bad guys. She was trying to show people–oh…”

“Yeah,” Koren replied, “that was pretty much our reaction.”

For a minute or two, we just sat there until I found my voice. “If she’s still alive, if there’s a way to get Lies out of her without–we… we have to try.”

There was a brief murmur of agreement from the other girl before she looked at me. “But if there’s not a way to get her out, we have to free her either way. That girl, the one on that tape? She wouldn’t want to be stuck doing what Lies is making her do. If… if killing her is the only way to stop it…”

I didn’t say anything to that. She wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t want to respond. How could I respond?

So we sat there in silence, thinking about what we might have to do at some point, before I finally cleared my throat and tried to change the subject. “Um. Wyatt says you’ve been spending a lot of time with him, learning everything he’ll teach you.”

Koren blushed a little, shrugging self-consciously. “Yeah, well he’s really good at that spy and security stuff. And it turns out, I like learning it.”

It was more than that, I knew. She wanted to learn it so that she could protect people she cared about, so that nothing like what had happened to her dad would happen again. Still, I just nodded. “We get someone else who can do what Wyatt does and I’m pretty sure we’ll…” I paused then, frowning thoughtfully.

“Flick?” Koren blinked at me. “What’s wrong?”

“Why haven’t they figured out that it’s Wyatt?” I asked slowly, before looking over at her. “I mean, why haven’t the Seosten figured out that Wyatt is the one who put the spell on Avalon? Sure, most of the school thinks he’s just some loony nutjob, but you’d think the Seosten would be able to figure it out. Even that Rucker guy, Kohaku’s second-in-command, said that Wyatt’s a genius with security spells. How have they not put two and two together yet?”

Koren’s head tilted. “You mean he hasn’t told you about it yet?”

“Uh, told me about what?” I stared at the girl.

She lowered her voice conspiratorially then. “The blame-shifting spell.”

“I can honestly say,” I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The other girl smiled broadly. “That’s why they haven’t figured out that he’s the one who put that protection spell on Avalon. Basically, you set the blame-shifting spell on some item, like a rock or a coin or whatever, okay? You set it on an item and set it for some action that you did. From that point on, until the item with the blame-shifting spell on it is destroyed, or they actually see you do it, people won’t be able to connect the action it’s connected to with you. Like, say you want to uh, borrow Chef Escalan’s favorite spatula without getting in trouble for it. You create the blame-shifting spell and attach it to that action. As long as the item you put the spell on stayed intact, Escalan wouldn’t even think about blaming you for it.”

I sat back a bit, processing that. “So, Wyatt’s got some magic doohickey out there that’s shifting ‘blame’ for the protection spell away from himself? So even if they know that he’s good with magic, as long as the blame-shifting spell is intact, they physically can’t even think of him as a candidate.”

“Unless someone who does know about it points it out to them,” she confirmed. “It’s not perfect. It can be broken if they see it themselves or someone like you or me outright tells them.”

I whistled low at that. “I’ve said it before, but I’m really glad Wyatt’s on our side.”

“Right?” Koren snorted, smiling a little bit before looking over at me. “So you think it’s a good idea, getting out to meet that Enguerrand guy so he can test me?”  After I nodded, she opened her mouth before freezing up a little, worry etching its way into her expression. “I… Flick, we have to go to Eden’s Garden too. You said there was a Seosten out there too, right? What if–What if it’s Seller? Flick, my mom, she–”

“I know, trust me, I know.” My head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We will, Koren. As soon as we can, we’ll test Seller and make sure he’s safe, I promise. I just had to make sure you were okay first. First chance we get, we’ll get out there and make sure your mom’s safe with Seller and Miranda.”

She sat back then, clearly trying to relax even though I could tell she was worried. Not that I could blame her. Seller would be a prime target for possession, though I hoped he was good enough to avoid it, like Gaia.

In any case, at least we know who Charmeine was possessing. As I’d promised Shiori, we would get her out of Columbus as soon as it was safe to do so, as soon as we knew who Manakel was possessing.

And as soon as we did, we were going to introduce those wannabe angels to the concept of hell. Because at this point, they clearly deserved nothing less. They had taken over Pace, turning the girl I’d seen in that video into the one that I’d seen in action. They’d taken over Columbus, making Shiori cry in the process. They had separated Vanessa and Tristan from their family. They had created this entire society specifically to maintain their superiority. They were responsible for the deaths of… of God knew how many innocent Alters. They were using Heretics as their bogeymen. They were… they had… they…

With each thought, I was getting even angrier. The rage boiling up inside me at the thought of everything the Seosten had done, of everyone they had hurt, it made me want to hurt them… tear them apart, put them down… it made me want to–

“Uh, Fli-Flick?!” Koren’s voice was raised, high-pitched with surprise and what sounded a little like fear.

“What?” I blurted, turning that way. Or at least, I meant to say that. What came out wasn’t words, but a snarl that made me almost wet myself.

Koren was standing up, backing away from me with wide eyes as she raised her hands. “Flick, it’s me. It’s me, Koren. You know that, right?”

Of course I knew that. What was she talking about? What–

I could smell her fear. Hell, I could smell a lot more than that. I could smell the last food she’d eaten on her breath, dirt on her shoes, the soap and shampoo she used. I could smell students down the beach. I could smell all of it and more. And hear them. I could smell them, hear them… and I was hungry. 

I stood up. Except I wasn’t standing. I was… crawling? No, because my head was easily at the same height as Koren’s. But my hands and legs were down, so… Wait, what was–

My head looked down. The first thing I saw was ripped clothes. My ripped clothes. And instead of my hands, I saw two enormous, frying-pan sized tan paws, with equally massive, deadly-looking claws extended out from them. And I wasn’t crawling. I was on all fours. Four legs. Four paws. And instead of skin, I had golden-tan fur… and… and…

Oh.

That’s what I got from killing that werelion.

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Mini-Interlude 39 – Avalon, Shiori, and Choo

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“You think it’s going okay out there?” Shiori asked Avalon as the two of them sat by the spot that had been set aside for Choo to live in. The little Jekern (who had grown enough over the past weeks to be about the size of a small puppy) was sniffing eagerly at the bowl that Shiori was holding. The bowl was a treat that the girl had retrieved it from its spot on the beach after she and Avalon left Flick to finish talking to Sands and Scout.

“I think it’s going about as well as it can,” Avalon answered. “Now what did you say you needed me for?”

“Oh, right.” Shiori’s head bobbed. “I need you to voice the big bad wolf.”

“… you need me to what?” Avalon’s voice was flat.

Setting the bowl down in front of the eager warthog-like creature, Shiori explained. “I promised Choo I’d tell him the story of the Three Little Pigs today. I need you to voice the wolf. Please?” She batted her eyelashes rapidly.

“You realize that only works on Chambers,” Avalon informed her. “And I have training to do, I’ve got too much to focus on to worry about–”

She was interrupted by a squeak. Looking down, Avalon found Choo nudging her foot, wide eyes blinking up at her imploringly before he made another pitiful, pleading noise.

“… fine,” she sighed, slumping a little. “One story. I’ll sit here for one story.”

“Yay!” Shiori cheered. “Great, now get comfortable, Choo. It’s time for your story.” She pushed the bowl closer to him, revealing the contents: fluffy popcorn, straight from the bag. Seeing the object of what he had been smelling, the little pig-Alter gave a loud squeak of joy before practically diving into it.

“Now,” Shiori started, “the story of the Three Little Pigs. Ahem. Once upon a time, there was a big bad, nasty, evil, terrible, smelly, violent old wolf.”

Avalon sat back against the side of the tree, remarking, “I feel like you’re adlibbing a little there, Porter.”

Shiori remained focused on Choo, whose snout was shoved fully into the bowl of popcorn while he happily munched, his eyes riveted on her. “The wolf was looking for a book called the Necroinkmikon.”

“Wait, what?” Avalon blinked over that way, taken aback. “Porter,” she demanded, “did you just say Necroinkm–”

Shiori nodded quickly at her. “Uh huh, but hang on, it’s not time for the wolf yet.” To Choo, she continued. “The Necroinkmikon was a book of magic spells that could make the Big Bad Wolf unstoppable!”

At her words, Choo shrank back a bit, ears flattening as he made a slightly fearful noise. But he didn’t stop chewing, leaning forward after a second to sneak another mouthful of kernels.

“Now, the Big Bad Wolf was the biggest, baddest, most dangerous wolf in the whole group of Devils. And he found out that the Necroinkmikon was being protected by three pig brothers: The Pigs Of Destiny. The Big Bad Wolf knew that the pig brothers were living in this forest. So he went in to find them, kill them, and take the book for himself!”

As Choo made a noise of fear and shrank back even more, she reached out to give him a reassuring scratch. “Little did the Big Bad Wolf know, but these were no ordinary pigs. No, these pigs had been training their entire lives to protect the Necroinkmikon. The wolf was about to be very, very surprised.”

The reassurance convinced the little Jekern to go back to enjoying his popcorn, and Shiori smiled a little bit. “The wolf crept through the forest, searching and searching for the pigs. Eventually, he found one of their homes, a house… made of straw. The straw meant that the little house was hidden from surveillance satellites and passing drones. But the wolf found it. So he crept slowly up to the straw house. And when he saw the little pig cooking his breakfast inside, he said…” She nodded toward Avalon.

For a moment, the other girl remained silent and stiff. But as Choo turned an expectant gaze to her and made an eager noise, she relented. “Little pig…” Avalon started reluctantly, “… little pig, little pig, let me in.”

By contrast, when Shiori voiced the pig, her voice was high and a bit squeaky, her best approximation of a small but confident swine. “Hah! Vile wolf! Here to get the Necroinkmikon, huh?! You’ll find nothing but pain and misery here, you contemptible, cowardly canine crook. Come and take it!”

Blinking twice, Avalon paused before realizing that both Choo and Shiori were waiting for her. “Um, okay then. Uh, if you don’t let me in, I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”

“Filthy wolf, you’ll get nothing from me,” Shiori called in her pig-voice, “but pain and total misery!”

Again, attention returned to Avalon, who finally shrugged. “Okay then, I guess I’ll blow your house in.”

“And he did,” Shiori continued. “The wolf took out his AK-47–”

“He did what?!” Avalon blurted.

“Oh, don’t worry. I know it’s old, but the 47 is totally still one of the best guns in the world,” Shiori informed her. “It’s super reliable. He knows what he’s doing. So the wolf took out his AK-47 and opened fire on the straw house, blowing it to smithereens!”

Choo had flattened himself against the ground by that point, and was watching with rapt attention as Shiori went on. “But when the smoke cleared and the wolf stepped into the remains of the straw house… he found… nothing! The little pig had disappeared, and there was no sign of the book of spells!”

Both sets of eyes turned to Avalon then, who worked her mouth a little bit awkwardly before coughing. “Err, uh, little… pig? Where are you, little pig? Show yourself!”

“And the pig did,” Shiori narrated, “but the wolf wasn’t going to be very happy about it… because the first little pig was a master survivalist. That’s why his house was made of straw, see? And he announced himself by nailing the wolf right in the back with an arrow! Of course, the Big Bad Wolf was too tough to go down to a single arrow, but it sure got his attention. He turned around, howling with pain, only to find the first little pig high up in a nearby tree! The little pig had his commando paint on, and the red bandana that he was given to commemorate his service in the military during the war.”

Military?!” Avalon blurted then. “Since when did the three little pigs serve in the military?”

Choosing to take that as the wolf speaking, Shiori countered in her little pig voice. “If you persist in this search, Mr. Big Bad, you’ll find only trouble, a myriad!” She adjusted her voice to be the narrator again. “And the little pig let loose with another arrow, and another! The wolf was under attack, and the survivalist pig had the high ground! So he had no choice but to flee deeper into the forest.”

“Ahem,” Avalon interrupted, lifting her chin. “A tactical withdrawal. Besides, if the pig had the book, the wolf would’ve seen it by then. Obviously, it wasn’t there. So there was no reason to waste time with Rambo Pig.”

Smiling broadly, Shiori continued. “The wolf looked deeper in the woods. He spent hours searching for any more pigs. Finally, he found a little log cabin, with smoke coming out of the chimney. When he peered through the window, he found the second little pig, cooking his lunch on the stove. Seeing the little pig, the wolf took a breath, and called…”

“Little pig, little pig,” Avalon almost immediately started, “Let me in!”

“But when the wolf finished making his demand,” Shiori intoned with a little smile, “he found that the little pig, who had just been standing in plain sight… had disappeared! One blink, and the little pig was gone. The only sign that he had ever been there was the still simmering pot.”

Pawing at the dirt, Choo snorted, sending sparks of electricity in the air as he charged around the bowl in circles, making it clear that if he had been there, he’d give that wolf what it deserved.

“Well,” Avalon shrugged. “If you won’t let me in, I’ll…” She paused then, lifting her gaze to the sky to shake her head slowly before continuing, “… I’ll blow your little wood house away with my AK-47.”

“And he did!” Shiori informed their enraptured audience-of-one. “The wolf put so many bullets into that cute little wooden cabin, that there was almost nothing left. Because not only was the wolf a terrible person in general, he also had no appreciation for classic architecture.”

“The wolf,” Avalon sniffed, “was a little too busy looking for the book of ultimate power to worry about a few logs.”

“But he didn’t find his prize there either,” Shiori announced. “And when he stepped among the rubble, he found no sign of the pig… until a tiny little fist punched him square in the back, hitting the wolf in just the right spot to make his muscles seize up. When the wolf turned, he found himself facing the second little pig… in his black ninja uniform!”

“Ninja?!” Avalon demanded, “I thought the pigs were soldiers… with bows and arrows.”

Again, Shiori interpreted her words as coming from the wolf. “My brother served his country, foul fiend,” she squeaked the words, “but Asia is where my studies convened.”  Switching back to her narrator voice, she continued, “And the wolf soon found that his gun would be of no use here, as the black-clad pig ignited his laser-sword–”

“Oh, now that’s not even–” Avalon started.

“–and cut the rifle into pieces with a single slash of his glowing energy-blade!” Shiori finished.

Coughing, Avalon gestured. “Well, uh, you said the book wasn’t here, so I think the wolf is leaving.”

“Of course, finding that the book wasn’t in the second pig’s house, he fle–err, tactically withdrew even deeper into the woods.” Shiori lowered her voice a bit then. “The wolf searched the forest for the rest of the day, trying to stay one step ahead of the two pig brothers while he searched desperately for the third house, where the book had to be.

“Eventually, he found it. As the moon rose up into the night sky, the wolf finally discovered the solid brick house, built right up against the base of the mountain, where it was protected on all but one side. The wolf had only one approach. And as he crept silently up to the house, he found that all the windows were closed and barred. There was no way to see inside.”

“Well,” Avalon sniffed. “In that case, I’ll just–err…” She paused. “The wolf doesn’t have a gun anymore.”

“That’s okay!” Shiori crowed, “he can just use his grenades!”

“The wolf has gren–” Avalon started before shaking it off. “Never mind, yes, the wolf uses his grenades.”

“And the house was blown to smithereens!” Shiori called, throwing her arms out to demonstrate while Choo made a squeaking noise of alarm. “But once again, as the smoke and debris cleared, the wolf found… nothing. In fact, the house seemed oddly empty. Because of course, it was a diversion, a trap!”

“A trap?” Avalon echoed. “A trap for what? Another ninja or a soldier?”

“Neither!” Shiori’s head shook. “The third little pig wasn’t a ninja or a soldier… he was a super-genius! The same super-genius who built his brother’s laser-sword–” Lowering her voice, she stage-whispered, “See, foreshadowing? Wasn’t that pretty–errr, I mean, he was a super-genius! And as the smoke cleared and the wolf found the empty house, the ground rumbled and shook beneath him.”

“If you say he made an earthquake machine, I swear…” Avalon started slowly.

“As the wolf turned around, grumbling about his terrible luck,” Shiori narrated, “he found himself facing not an earthquake machine, but the third pig’s newest invention: a twenty-foot tall mecha!

“You know,” Avalon intoned thoughtfully, “at this point, I really should’ve seen that coming.”

Shiori excitedly continued then, her voice rising into her pig-squeak. “Mr. Wolf, if you truly wish to find the book, face my steel chariot and take a look!” She narrated, “And as the pig finished speaking, a metal panel slid aside to show the wolf’s target: the Necroinkmikon was held in a bulletproof glass cage right in the mech’s chest, surrounded by a dozen guns, cannons, lasers, and flamethrowers!”

“Yeah, you know what?” Avalon muttered, “I don’t think the wolf needs the book that badly.”

“The wolf turned to flee,” Shiori announced. “Only to realize that he’d forgotten… the house was at the base of a mountain! He was trapped, facing the giant mecha ahead and the mountain behind. But even then, the wolf found that his luck had sunk even lower. To one side of the mech, a camo-suited pig, head adorned with his red bandana, appeared with his bow pulled taut. And to the other side, with a flash of smoke, the black-clad ninja pig appeared, his steadily humming laser sword held aloft!”

Switching back and forth between her squeaky pig-voice and her normal narrator voice, the Asian girl continued. “‘You think you’re still a threat–’ the first little pig called to the wolf, before his ninja brother finished, ‘we’ll put you down, no sweat!’ And as the wolf whimpered and backed up against the mountain, their genius brother announced, ‘Let’s go boys, and after we teach him an intricate lesson…’

“All three pigs finished together, their weapons bearing down on the wolf, ‘We’ll visit our delicatessen!’”  

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Spy Hunt 26-03

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“No… no, no way.” Sands was shaking her head as the five of us floated there in the ocean, each supported by one of my sharks. Which was a good thing, since neither of the twins seemed to be in any kind of position to be keeping themselves above the water.

“You mean one of us–one of us is…” Lowering her voice, Sands whispered hoarsely, “possessed?! And you’ve been–you’ve been lying about all this stuff you’ve been doing?”

“Only the stuff that we couldn’t let the Seosten know,” I reiterated. “The stuff about learning how to expel them, finding Fahsteth when we said we were fighting zombies with Dare, lying about the choker being destroyed. Okay, yeah, it was a lot of lying. But Sands, we’re really sor-”

“Really sorry,” the other girl interrupted while squinting darkly at me. “Seriously, dude? You’re really sorry? I’m pretty sure Scout and me should be insulted right now.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I–like I said, we were trying to… there wasn’t any–”

Sands rolled her eyes. “Not insulted for that, dummy. We’re not insulted because you had to lie and keep secrets, we’re insulted that you’d think we’d be mad about it after you explained it. Seriously? You think we’re that selfish? Maybe I’d be a little miffed if it was anything less than this, but it was Seosten, Flick. Of course we’re not mad that you had to make sure it was safe before you told us. That’s just common sense. How freaking self-centered do you think we are?”

My mouth opened and shut a few times at that. “I–I–um. Oh. Well, um. Sorry? I mean, thanks.”

Avalon snorted, head shaking. “Now you know what’s been happening. And why we couldn’t tell you the truth until we knew you weren’t possessed. And why you can’t tell anyone else yet.”

Sands nodded slowly, sinking back a bit against Sherman as the bull shark held her up. “I–you… you really think that it’s someone close to you? One of the team, or Deveron, or…”

“It has to be,” I confirmed. “Everything they know about, everything I overheard, what Fahsteth said, whoever this Charmeine is possessing, it’s someone that’s close to us, someone we trust.”

“So you have to clear us, one at a time,” Sands murmured, her eyes wide as she took all that in. “Holy shit. I mean, I… we knew they could possess people, sure. But I never–I mean I didn’t think they were actually–I didn’t know that–holy shit.” Repeating herself, she looked almost sick.

It was an expression that got even worse as Scout leaned over to whisper something to her. I saw Shiori flinch beside me, her own enhanced hearing obviously allowing her to pick up whatever Scout had said. Sands, for her part, looked pale as she turned to me. “Oh. Scout, um–” She grimaced, working her mouth a little. “Scout wants to know if you’ll check our dad.”

The question made me flinch, for more than one reason. After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Of course. I–maybe…” Pausing, I thought about offering to let them take the choker to check their father themselves. But honestly, I couldn’t be sure that they’d be able to disguise their reaction if he was possessed. And if they did give anything away, it wouldn’t be hard for whatever theoretical Seosten was possessing the man to figure out that they knew too much. And from there, well, he’d probably get the choker back in about two seconds if he knew about it.

“Yes,” I finally settled on. “We’ll test him, as soon as we can. I mean, I don’t wanna just walk right up to everyone who might be possessed and put my hands all over them. Even if the Seosten didn’t start getting suspicious about it, I’m pretty sure I’d end up on some kind of list.”

Sands started to nod then, before blinking. “Hey, that reminds me… how did you guys get back to the island?” She was squinting. “You said you had to talk to the head in the lighthouse to get it to send you away in the first place–which, for the record, I am also completely freaking out about and you are totally going to take us up there to talk to the thing at some point.”

“Um, it’d probably help if you started out not calling him a ‘thing’,” I pointed out mildly.

Her head bobbed up and down. “Right, right, of course. I just–the point is, that’s how you got off the island. But you had to go through all that in the first place because of those bozos from the Committee. So how’d you get back onto the grounds?”

“Oh,” I replied, “that part was simple. I just called Gaia. She got Dare to distract the guard in the lighthouse. Then she went up there and left her phone on speaker so that I could talk to the Reaper and ask him to bring us back over.”

For a couple minutes after that, the five of us just floated there in the water. I didn’t want to do anything to interrupt the twins as they clearly came to terms with everything we’d just told them, and from the look on Avalon and Shiori’s faces, they felt pretty much the same way. So we just sat like that, letting Sands and Scout work through it for as long as they needed. Once in awhile, they’d ask a question about something that had happened, and I’d answer. Other than that, however, there was relative silence (beyond, of course, the sound of the ocean around us).

Eventually, Sands looked to her sister. The two exchanged silent stares for a few seconds, seeming to come to some kind of silent agreement before both of them looked to me. “Okay,” the talkative twin announced, “we get why you had to lie before. But now we’re in, all right? We want to be included. Whatever happens, we get to help. We’re your team, Flick. Let us help.”

I stared at them both. After everything that happened, all the stuff I’d had to lie about… they accepted it and moved on, just because they realized that I had to? Just like… that? There was a thick lump in my throat, which wasn’t entirely because of what they said. It was also because of what I knew I had to say. I couldn’t put it off anymore. Not after what they’d just done.

“Shy, Valley….” I murmured before coughing as I raised my voice. “Could you guys give us a few minutes? I–I need to talk to them alone.” Glancing to the two, I added a soft, “Please.”

They both seemed to realize quickly what was going on. Avalon nodded, shooting a brief glance toward the probably even-more confused twins before she and Shiori started off back to shore.

“Uh, Flick?” Sands offered, her tone puzzled, “are you sure you didn’t get this whole thing backwards? You already told us the bad news, remember? Why are they leaving now?”

Biting my lip, I took a moment. I’d been thinking about this for awhile by this point, ever since I learned the truth from Klassin Roe. That had been… jeez, before Christmas. You’d think that, by this point, I’d already know exactly what to say to them about it. But I didn’t. I had no idea.

So, I just decided to wing it. Thinking about it any more was just giving myself more excuses to avoid actually saying what I had to say, more reasons to delay. “Um. So, I have something to tell you guys about the umm, the war. You know, the one with my mom and the… yeah.”

I wasn’t helping matters like that. Sands was even more confused. “Uh, now you’re going even further back. I swear, if you’re about to confess that your mom was part of a group that was trying to protect Strangers that they thought weren’t evil, I’m gonna have you checked for a concussion. Or possible possession, I’m not sure which. What the hell, dude?”

“No, no, I–” Sighing, I started over. “Okay. Listen, I found this out awhile ago, back before Christmas. But first I didn’t know how to bring it up, and then there was all that stuff about not knowing who to trust or what to–it was hard. But um, the thing is… your dad was… sort of the person who… kinda… got the war started in the first place.”

Seeing the obvious confusion on their faces, I pushed on, rushing by that point to just get it all out. “What I mean is–ugh. Okay, I’m just gonna say it. My mom was working with people to secretly protect Alters. Sort of like what we’ve been doing, but more proactive. You know, a secret group of people she trusted. Like I trust you guys. One of–um, one of those people was your dad. She trusted him with the secret about what they were doing. And he… um, he sort of went to the Committee and turned them in. That’s how they found out what Mom and her people were doing and brought the whole thing out into the open. That’s what started the civil war.”

Silence. Nothing. Absolutely no sound whatsoever came from either of the twins. Sands and Scout both just floated there, staring at me in complete silence for… I had no idea how long. It felt like hours. But then, it could have been only a few seconds. I heard a slight ringing somewhere in the back of my head that I had to convince myself wasn’t real. I was afraid. I was more afraid of their reaction to this news than I had been about everything else. They’d understood why I had lied to them and kept secrets about the Seosten thing. This was their dad. It was their dad, after they’d already lost their mother. How could they possibly react to this?

As it turned out, the answer was: not well. Scout looked stricken, of course. Her mouth had fallen open, and she was staring at me as if I’d… well, as if I’d told her that her own father had been responsible for a war that nearly ripped their society apart, all because he betrayed someone who should have been one of his closest friends, someone who had trusted him.

But it was Sands, Sands who kicked off and started to swim to the beach. She moved so abruptly and so quickly that it took me a second to react. Scout looked just as taken aback, making a noise of confusion before starting after her sister, who was already halfway to shore.

Catching hold of Scout’s arm, I gave a short whistle. Brody and Quint both swam right up, giving us a lift to the shallows that cut off some of the other girl’s lead. We scrambled up out of the water just as Sands started out onto the sand, and I blurted, “Hey, wait! Where are you going?”

“Where?” Sands demanded, pivoting back toward me. “Where am I going? You just told me that my dad–” She lowered her voice slightly, into a hiss that was quieter, though not that much further away from hysterical. “You just told me that my dad was responsible for the entire civil war and everything that happened in it, and you want to know where I’m going?”

I winced, my mouth opening and shutting a couple of times as I fought for the right words. But before I could actually say anything, she went on.

“We lost our mom.” Her eyes were so wet that I didn’t think she could see anything out of them, and it had nothing to do with the ocean. “We lost our mom, and now… now you’re saying that…”

Pivoting, she punched a tree so hard that her fist made a hole in the thing, while letting out a noise that sounded like a mix between a grunt and a somewhat muffled scream.

Scout quickly moved to her sister, while Sands stood there with her fist embedded in the tree. Her voice was lower.

“Do you have any idea how much I wanted things to go back to the way they were supposed to be before all this happened? Do you have the slightest clue how hard I wished for all the monsters to be the monsters they were supposed to be, for all of the Heretics to be the great, upstanding, perfect heroes that I always thought we were? Do you understand?

“My whole life, we were told the stories about the noble Heretics saving humanity. And I wanted it, I wanted all of it. When you told me about the Alters thing, how they’re not all monsters, you have no idea how hard it was not to go straight to Gaia, or one of the other teachers. I was scared, I was scared and I was mad and I wanted… I wanted everything to be the way it was supposed to be…

“I wanted to tell them, I wanted them to make things be the way they were supposed to be. I wanted you to be wrong. I wanted all of us to be the heroes we were supposed to be. I wanted to tell them, I wanted them to make it better. I wanted you to be wrong. It’s selfish, I know, I know. But I still wanted it. I wanted it so bad.”

Pulling her fist out of the tree, Sands turned to face me, while her sister put a hand on her shoulder. “But I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t do that, because it was wrong. Because you trusted me, and because me wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true. A hero doesn’t stick with things exactly as they are just because it’s easier. But it’s hard, because every time I look around and see everything that we are, I have to question all of it now. I have to question everything now, my entire life. All of it.

“Mom, she decided that Strangers weren’t all evil. She did it, and Scout is still alive because she trusted the Stranger that saved her.”

Glancing to the girl beside her before looking back to me, Sands lowered her voice a bit more. It was trembling. “But now you’re telling me that if the positions had been reversed, if Dad had been there instead of Mom for whatever reason, Scout would have died. Scout would’ve died because Dad wouldn’t trust them, he wouldn’t trust a Stranger.

“I wanted things to go back to the way they were, I wanted things to be the way they were supposed to be the whole time I was growing up. But they’re not. They’re not, and no matter how much I want them to be, they won’t. I moved on. I’ve been trying to move on, and the one thing that has helped me with that, the one thing that is helped the most is the fact that I knew I knew that if push came to shove and I had to tell my dad the truth, he would believe me. He would be there for me, for us, because he’s my dad. He’s our dad. And no matter what kind of wrong things he did, my dad always did the right thing if he could. If we told him the truth, if we showed him the truth, he’d listen.

“But now… now you’re telling me that he wouldn’t. Because he already betrayed his friends. He took the easy way out. He turned them in. This whole war that happened, all of it is his fault. He would have turned in my mom, his wife. He would’ve turned us in. He’s our dad, he’s the only parent we have left, and you’re saying that he would have turned us in.”

There was an anger in the other girl’s eyes that I’d never seen there before, a hardness as she continued. “And you know what? Mom would’ve been on the side of the rebellion. She would have been on that side, if they hadn’t erased it. Which Dad obviously helped them do. If they hadn’t done that, if the rebellion wasn’t erased, our parents never would’ve gotten together in the first place. Which means Scout and me, we would never have been born.

“So you want to know where I’m going? I have no idea. But where I want to go is to my dad, so I can…” Sands trailed off for a moment before her head shook, tears for flowing freely as they had been throughout all of this. “So I can punch him. So I can punch him and keep punching until… until…”

Words had completely failed the other girl by that point, and she felt both knees, shoulders shaking heavily as she cried.

And I… I had no idea what to say. Honestly, I’d kind of expected Scout to be the one that was more upset by everything, not Sands. I thought Scout would be upset and Sands would know what to say. If anything, I’d thought that Sands would almost be on her father’s side of the whole thing. This was… this wasn’t going the way I’d thought it would, at all.

While I stood there, clueless for a few seconds, Scout had already knelt by her sister and was embracing her. Neither of them said anything, content for the moment to just hold onto each other while they tried to cope with what I’d just told them.

And what could I say? I’m sorry? It was pathetically inadequate. I remembered how I’d felt as a kid when people told me they were sorry that my mother had abandoned my father and me. Apologies, sympathy, anything I could’ve said felt… wrong.

So I didn’t say anything. Instead, I took a few steps forward and then sank to my knees beside the twins. With a heavy lump in my throat, I embraced Sands and Scout, putting one arm around each of them.

I wasn’t sure how long we stayed there like that. But I did know one thing with crystal clear certainty by the time we moved again.

Liam Mason deserved every single punch his daughters wanted to give him.

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