Errol Fosters

Schooling 24-13 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Schooling 24-12 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh oh. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I play for keeps.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kith And Kin 20-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hostile Witness 18-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you feel about tunnels?”

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Interlude 17A – Sherwood (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Obnoxious, isn’t he?” 

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

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

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

The nearby… Sequoia tree. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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