Obviously, I had been through a lot of ridiculous things since I’d Touched the orb that one night a couple months ago. It was pretty hard by this point to say that any single moment definitively topped all others as far as standing out went. But I was going to have to admit, standing on a rooftop in the middle of the night, giving our made-up story about how my friends and I had been robbed by a group that was actually us to a bear and raccoon who shared the same space and kept taking turns being physically present? Yeah, that was going up near the top of the list, at the very least.
And, to be quite frank, it was probably pretty up there as far as being terrified went. So I had to hide that reaction as much as I could. I was standing here lying to what was apparently not only one (or two) of the Ministry’s highest ranking people given they had the title of Minister, but one of them was probably capable of smacking my head clean off my shoulders. Yes, I had orange paint and all that, but still. Standing in front of a nine-foot tall bear, even if he was in an incredibly-tailored suit, while lying my ass off about something as important to the Ministry as who had robbed them… it wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun time.
Still, at least we had planned out exactly what we were going to say about this. We’d known that there would come a time when we had to tell the story, and that we might not all get to tell it together. If they asked us separately without any warning, we wanted to have our story straight. This way, whichever of us they talked to would say the same thing.
In short, the story we’d come up with, which I relayed to my alternatingly bear-raccoon interrogators, was that our group kept some supplies for Trevithick’s work hidden in a few old sheds around the city. Sheds which we had rigged with alarms and other protection to keep the equipment safe. One day, we had been talking and practicing outside one of those sheds when we heard something moving inside. Opening it up, we found three black-masked figures starting to pull boxes over to a hole they’d made in the floor. We were, quite understandably, surprised to see someone there. So they managed to throw some sort of flash bang thing before we could react. We chased them through the tunnel after recovering, but it simply led all the way to a large drainage ditch a couple blocks over, where we’d lost them.
“But at least they only made off with a couple boxes worth of stuff,” I finished with a shrug. “And we put cameras in our storage places now, believe me.”
Price, the raccoon, was perched on top of one of those small metal smokestack things, rubbing his paws together thoughtfully as he regarded me. “I don’t suppose you can show us where this other tunnel is so we can check for any other evidence?”
Looking right back at him, I replied, “I don’t suppose you can show me where your tunnel is?” As he lifted his chin in reaction, I added, “I mean, that’s why you showed up like this to ask these questions, right? These people broke into some place that was important to you, and now you’re looking for any clues that could help you track them down. But something tells me you don’t want to let the sharing thing go both ways.”
There was a brief pause as he seemed to consider my words, before hopping down as the smoke and light burst appeared. The bear, Fisher, was back. “You’re ahh, you’re right, we don’t have the authority or permission to take you to that place. But we did hope that–”
“Look,” I interrupted before I could talk myself out of interrupting a bear, “I get it. I know why you all want to stop these people. I mean, I may not know the whole story, but something tells me your whole secret gang doesn’t really like the idea of another secret gang horning in on your territory. Trust me when I say you guys have a better chance of catching them than we do. But if, by some chance, we do happen to get them first, we’ll be sending them to prison, not to you people. Don’t take that the wrong way, it’s just… yeah.” It was important that I stick that bit about sending them to prison in there. It implied that I didn’t know they could get to any prisoner quite easily, and I really wanted to obfuscate just how much I knew about the Ministry. Or just let them think I was that naive.
“We did get off on the wrong foot, didn’t we?” Fisher noted while giving me a curious glance. He stepped backward, hunching down a bit. I had the feeling he was intentionally trying not to intimidate me. “We heard our introduction to you was Squire carrying out an execution.”
Squire. That name immediately leapt out to me, for more than one reason. First, he was obviously talking about my brother. That was Simon’s name in the Ministry, Squire? And second, I’d heard that name recently anyway. Back when we had been working out where Luciano was, Murphy had read a bit about how they were sending Squire instead of Plan Z to take care of something else, because Plan Z was busy. Simon was Squire.
Absorbing all of that, I focused on the large bear in front of me, who was still doing his best to look unimposing. “You mean when I wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time, saw two people get shot in the heads, and then this Squire guy ordered his friends to kill me for being there? I’d say that was more than one wrong foot. That was at least a wrong leg.”
Fisher gave a slight nod, slumping down to a seated position there on the roof in front of me. “Yes, very regrettable. We wish that had gone differently. If you like, we can answer questions, such as what exactly it was that you walked into that night.”
Questions? Oh boy, yeah, I had a lot of those. And yet, “How would I know you’re telling the truth? I mean, I hate to sound like a broken record, but again, don’t take that the wrong way. If you’re gonna say those two people were pedophile rapists who got what was coming to them, I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not.”
With a poof of light and smoke, Price was back. “You’re right,” he agreed. “You got no reason to believe anything we say. And we’re obviously not about to be best friends here. Still, like we said before, we wanted to thank you for putting all that aside when it came to this zombie situation. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to laugh about all this tension.”
“Maybe,” I allowed with a little shrug. There was no sense in being needlessly hostile. Not only did I really want to avoid a fight right now, but I needed the Ministry to continue seeing me as not a threat. They knew that I knew a bit about them, and that I wasn’t on their side. But as of right now, they also saw that I was willing to ask for their help, and I hadn’t tried to go to the cops or anything. I wasn’t an immediate problem they had to deal with, which meant I could potentially be an asset at some point in the future. I wanted them to keep thinking that. On the other hand, I was pretty sure they would be suspicious if I was too easy on them.
To that end, I added, “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to let me take this Squire guy to the cops so he can tell them the whole story about why he killed those people. You know, as part of laughing about everything in the future, once they accept his story and give him a pat on the back for doing such a service to the community?” My head tilted one way, then the other. “No? Worth a shot.”
There was a snort from the small raccoon, before he replied, “Sorry, that probably won’t happen. Not unless Squire… let’s say, screws up very badly.”
Yeah, there was a lot I was tempted to say about that too, but about ninety-eight percent of it would’ve given away far too much about who I was. So, I simply shrugged once more. “In that case, I should probably get out of here. I mean, it’s been pretty cool, talking to a bear and raccoon at all, let alone a bear and raccoon who keep switching places. I feel like it’d be fun to hang out sometime. Maybe go see a movie. But right now, I’m basically asleep on my feet. Seriously, remember that whole ‘saving a stadium full of people from a bunch of fiery zombie monsters’ thing? You were there to see how awesome we were. But being awesome takes energy, so I need to go home.”
With a slight chuckle, Price waved a paw, which gave me a nice look at his claws and reminded me that just because he wasn’t as big as his partner didn’t mean he couldn’t still be dangerous. “Sure thing, kid. And might I just say, you took talking to a raccoon and bear who keep swapping places better than a lot of people might’ve.”
Speaking dryly, I replied, “Well, you did make it clear that my first impulse to hug you was a bad idea, and my second impulse to ask for a selfie probably wasn’t much better. You don’t seem like the type of guys who want to have your picture out there, considering I would’ve heard about you otherwise.”
Fisher returned, swapping places with Price before giving me a short nod. “Those are some good instincts. Maybe they’ll take you a long way. But ahh, as far as hugs go, I will note that I am much more open to the concept than my partner.”
My mouth opened, before I paused, looking him up and down. Then I shrugged, “Mmmmaybe we should hold off on the hug until a second meeting. But there’s something…. else that could be cool.” With that, I told him what I was thinking.
Absorbing the request, Fisher made what sounded like a low chuckle. “You are an odd and fascinating boy, Paintball. And yes, perhaps we’ll see you again sometime. We know we can’t tell you not to tell any of your friends about us, if you’ve said anything about the Ministry already…” He trailed off, as though waiting briefly to see if I would react at all. When I didn’t, he just carried on. “But just know that if word gets out about us, or anything else, we know how to track it back. So be careful. And that goes for everything else you know about our group. Discretion is the better part of valor, and valor keeps everyone happy.”
Promising the bear that I would keep that in mind, I added, “About that request?”
His eyes widened just a little. “You were serious about–ah… well yes, I believe we can accommodate that, if you are certain.” With that, he extended one arm, waiting expectantly.
Some part of my brain was asking if I was crazy, rather vehemently. I ignored that part (it was used to that), and stepped that way. Pausing, I pointed and coated both of his arms with purple paint before turning around. Fisher reached down, and I felt his enormous paws close around either side of my waist. Without any apparent effort whatsoever, he hoisted me up in the air. “You are certain about this.”
In response, I gave him a thumbs up while activating the paint I’d given him. “Let’s light this candle!”
There was a brief pause, before Fisher leaned back, holding me out over his head, almost horizontal to the ground. Then he snapped upright with a roar, and hurled me out over the city. Between his natural bear strength, the Touched-based increase I was pretty sure he already had, and the boost I’d given him, I was sent flying over the rooftops with a loud scream that was half-terror and half-exhilaration escaped me. Several seconds in, and the scream turned to a laugh. I was sailing past several buildings, tumbling head over heels through the air. I was dizzy, in the middle of some terrifying mixture of flying and falling, and it was absolutely amazing.
Just before I would have splatted against the side of a building, I managed to right myself, using orange paint on my legs, and a shot of blue against the wall so I could simply bounce off it, maintaining my momentum through another couple jumps and a shot of red that sent me sailing freely over the next roof. Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuuuuuck this was fast!
I wanted to do it again. But I had a feeling they wouldn’t be there if I went back. So, I let my speed gradually slow so I could get my bearings once more.
What did it mean, exactly, that Ministers Gray had shown themselves to me? Was it just that they were testing how I would react and whether word of their existence would leak out? Obviously, just like Fisher had said, if they showed themselves to me and then rumors of a bear-raccoon joint TONI started going around town, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out what happened. But was that the only reason they made a point of letting me see and talk to them, or was there something else? Were they trying to make me think there could be trust between us or something? I… I didn’t know.
What I did know was that I needed to get home and sleep, before I ended up crashing right into a wall or falling off the edge of a roof. Though to be fair, either one would result in me not being conscious anymore. Which was sort of like sleeping.
But hey, at least I probably wouldn’t have to worry about being turned into a murder-zombie if that happened. So we had accomplished something today.
The next morning was Thursday, May 14th. When I’d gotten home the night before, Izzy had already been asleep in her bed. I took just enough time to check on her, then crashed into my own bed and slept until the alarm went off for school. Then I dragged myself through the shower and was just getting dressed in my room when the intercom buzzed to let me know she was out there. So, I let her in and the two of us took a few minutes to talk about what had happened the night before. She’d had just as much excitement as me, given the whole Cuélebre situation.
“So now he’s pissed at you too?” I asked while nudging her as we sat on the edge of my bed. “You know you didn’t have to do that just to be like me, right? Actually, imitating me in general is just a bad idea all around.”
Audibly snorting, the other girl lightly kicked my leg. “I wasn’t imitating you. He was gonna hurt Whamline, so I had to spray him down. You know, as a distraction.” After a brief pause, she grimaced. “But uhh, yeah, I don’t think he likes me very much right now.” That said, she turned my way and poked me in the arm harder than she had kicked me. “What about Broadway’s sister? She’s still out there, and she’s gonna be even more mad at you than Cuélebre is at… uh, both of us?” Squirming a bit, Izzy added, “Plus, she wants to get into the Scions, and they hate you too.”
“Pretty sure they hate both of us,” I pointed out mildly, even as my face twisted a bit. “But yeah, she’s probably gonna be a problem. We know she’s out there now though, and so do the good guys. And the Ministry. It’s gonna be hard for her to show her face out there very much. Not that that solves the problem or anything, just… yeah, we’ll keep our eyes open. And uhh, keep watching for bears and raccoons.”
She blinked at that, then stared and listened with an open mouth while I explained about meeting the Ministers Gray. When I was done, she took a moment to make sure I wasn’t pulling her leg, then sank back a bit, absorbing all of it. Finally, she murmured a soft. “Wow.”
My head bobbed. “Wow about sums it up, yeah. I guess they want to see what I do with that sort of information. It’s definitely a test, and… I think also a sort of threat. But we can handle tests and threats, right?
“Right,” she agreed before pushing herself up. “But you know what’s gonna be an even bigger threat if we don’t move?”
“Jefferson,” I confirmed, hopping up after her. “Yeah, you’re right. We better get down there, or he’ll kill us before Jennica even has the chance to try.”
So, the two of us had a quick breakfast before joining Jefferson for the drive to our schools. We talked about ordinary girl stuff on the way, to the point that I was pretty sure poor Jefferson’s ears practically started to bleed. Which I felt a little bad for, but hey, anything to make sure he’d report that there was absolutely nothing interesting going on with us.
In any case, I eventually found myself at school, where I took a waiting Amber for a walk around the back field for her turn with the whole catching up thing. She apologized for not being able to get there, and for not even being around when the rest of the Star-Touched showed up.
“They took us straight to the clubhouse, then had our parents pick us up,” she was saying while we studied some graffiti on the side of one of the football goalposts. “I mean, they promised your situation was already taken care of, but I still… you know.”
“I know,” I confirmed. “It’s okay. I mean, like I said to your…” Briefly, I made a point of looking at my phone. “Seventeen text messages, we’re good. We were safe.”
Her gaze met mine as she bumped her fist into my shoulder. “Sure, if you count adding another pissed off enemy to your ongoing list as being safe.” She tried to make it sound teasing before visibly sobering. “Look, just be careful, okay?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” I assured the girl, “I wouldn’t wanna be eaten by a bear.” Letting that hang for a moment as she stared at me trying to figure out if that was some sort of strange figure of speech, I finally snorted and explained the situation. Which meant I was treated to my second ‘person staring open-mouthed at me while trying to figure out if I was screwing with them’ of the past hour.
Finally, Amber rocked backward on her heels. “Oh. I mean… oh. Wow. Well, either they’re sharing information with you because they don’t think you’re a problem…”
“Or because they’re planning on making sure I’m not,” I finished, feeling a slightly queasy sensation run through me before pushing that aside. “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure it’s that first one.”
Amber sighed. “I hope so. You’ve got enough people angry at you as it is.”
“You know, people keep saying that,” I pointed out. “But the way I see it, if I get enough people pissed at me, when they do make a move, they’ll all run into each other, start a fight, and then I can escape unscathed. Like those cartoons where the whole group dog-piles the guy and he just crawls out from under the dust cloud and walks away.” My eyebrows waggled pointedly while she stared at me. “No?”
“You should probably go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan,” Amber replied flatly. Her mouth opened to add something else, before looking past my shoulder as she adjusted to call out, “Hey, Jae, what’s up?”
Sure enough, Jae was approaching. She had on a wide-brimmed hat as well as sunglasses, and was clearly wearing sunscreen to protect her delicate skin. And even then, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t stay outside for very long. She also stayed silent until she was right next to us, before finally offering a slight smile our way while speaking softly. “Morning. Would…” She hesitated, clearly wanting to ask something but apparently uncomfortable with it.
“What is it, Jae?” Amber prompted. “It’s okay, you can tell us. Unless you wanna just talk to one of us?” She glanced to me, looking slightly uncertain. Or possibly uncomfortable.
“Oh yeah, sure. Sorry.” Holding up both hands to assure them it was okay, I started to say I would see them inside. For all I knew, Jae wanted to talk to Amber about stuff involving her being That-A-Way and didn’t realize that I already knew that. Hell, I didn’t know if Jae knew that. It was a weird situation. The two of them were friends, but that didn’t mean she definitely knew, and even if she did, I didn’t necessarily want her to know that I knew because that could lead to figuring out who I was, and then–yeah. It was a whole thing.
Before I could head off, however, Jae quickly spoke up. “I–uh, actually I was… wondering if you both could take notes for me today. I have a… doctor’s appointment. I mean, Amber in the classes we have and… and Cassidy in the classes we have that I don’t have with Amber. I–that is–”
“Sure thing,” I assured her before she could fumble on with that. “No problem. Doctor’s appointment, huh? Everything cool?”
“Yeah,” she confirmed while glancing out toward the parking lot. “Dad just wants me to get a check-up since he’s back in town. He was just working on some movie with this contagion outbreak, and… it made him paranoid. So Kella’s gonna drive me over there.”
I rarely heard Jae say much, so this was practically a whole speech by her standards. Which made me once again think she must’ve been feeling awkward about the whole Amber being That-A-Way thing. But that wasn’t a discussion I could get into right then, so I just let it go and promised again to take notes for her. Amber did the same, and then Jae headed off.
“She knows, doesn’t she?” I started quietly after watching the girl leave.
Amber seemed to jump a bit, turning back my way. “Huh?”
“About you being Touched, I mean,” I clarified. “Err, sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just, that was a little awkward right there, like she wanted to say something but didn’t. Or… something.”
There was a brief pause before Amber gave a slight nod. “Uh, yeah. She knows. But she doesn’t know anything about you.”
“Yeah, that’s probably why it was awkward,” I noted, shaking my head before starting to walk to the school building itself. “This whole situation is just weird sometimes, you know?”
Muttering something about me having no idea, the other girl followed. The two of us were just heading inside, when I glanced toward the parking lot. There, I saw Jae getting into the passenger seat of some random car. At first, I thought it was her stepmother giving her that ride she was talking about, but the driver was a man. One that I belatedly recognized.
Okay, so if Jae’s stepmother was supposed to be taking her to the doctor, why was she getting into a car with that Damarko Myers guy? Wait, hold on…
Did… did Jae have a secret boyfriend?