To their credit, Pack and That-A-Way didn’t expect me to start talking immediately. They even waited when I asked them to while I went inside and grabbed those toys that I’d seen before. I wasn’t sure why they gave me such a strong emotional reaction, but I did know that I wanted them. So I put the toys in my pocket, then started out of the cabin before pausing. Turning my eyes away from the broken doorway, through which I could see the others waiting, I looked back over the room. Given everything I’d heard and figured out about Robert–Bobby, I had to assume he wasn’t stupid enough to leave clues about where he could be going when he clearly knew there were some really nasty people after him. When he’d cleared out of this place, even as quick as it had to have been, he wouldn’t have left anything behind that could point to where he was going. Still, just taking off like this without looking closer felt wrong. But we didn’t have a choice. Skip was only going to keep Pencil busy for so long, and if he and his equally psycho sister came back while we were still here, we’d be in the same position we’d been in before. It was time to get the hell out of here.
So, I headed out, telling the others I was ready to go. Broadway was already gone, apparently making her way through the woods first to give us a little privacy and also to make sure their rendezvous point was clear of any problems. If she ran into trouble, she’d make enough noise to let us know.
And with that, we started moving quickly through the forest. Pack’s lizard animals were all around us for potential protection and warning, Riddles keeping an eye on things from up above just in case. It was dark enough that the other two were using flashlights they had apparently brought with them.
After a few minutes of walking, Pack was the first to break the silence, her voice pointed and clearly angry. “So, now that you’re safe and all that, which I’m really glad about, for the record, I’m going to go ahead and call you a stupid fucking jackass, okay? And if you ever pull something stupid like that again, I swear I’ll kick your ass myself. You and me, we’ll throw down and I’ll beat your ass cuz I fight dirty. Never, ever fucking do anything like that again, you got it?”
I cringed through her words. Because she had every right to be angry. Going off by myself had probably been stupid. But what other choice did I really have? I couldn’t tell them everything. I just couldn’t. My family was… it was too complicated, and involving them that directly would just be dangerous. They didn’t deserve to have the weight of all this on their shoulders. At least until I knew more about how my family’s business worked, until I had some idea of how to stop them, I couldn’t offload that responsibility onto other people. And I definitely couldn’t tell them the whole story. That would involve letting them know who I really was, and that… was a bad idea.
But maybe I could tell them some of it. They deserved to know some, at the very least. Hell, they deserved to know all of it, the whole thing. But I just… couldn’t. That was a box I would never be able to close again once I opened it, a Pandora’s Box that was full of all sorts of dangerous evils that would escape if I wasn’t careful to keep the thing shut absolutely tight.
Some of it, however… I could explain some of it, the bits that might lead them in the right direction. Exhaling, I started with, “I–thank you. Thanks, guys. Both of you, and Broadway. And Skip too. I don’t know how she got involved, but if it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead. I–I’d be dead. No question. You saved my life. I owe you guys. I owe you–” The words stopped as I choked a little before getting myself under control. “I owe you everything. Definitely more than I can give you right now.
“But… but I can tell you something. First, I want… I need you to trust me. I need you guys to promise to keep this all secret. All of it. You can’t tell your teammates.” I looked to Pack, then That-A-Way. “You can’t tell Blackjack, and you can’t tell the heroes you work with. No one. You can’t tell anyone. Not a single person.”
I saw the way both of them exchanged looks, That-A-Way speaking first. “Excuse me? Okay, I know doing this job can make anyone really paranoid, but seriously? Why wouldn’t you want me to tell the Star-Touched about any of this? I mean, sure, Pack works for bad guys. I can see that, but–” Cutting herself off, she looked over to see the girl in question clearly squinting at her through her featureless black mask. “Oh, stop, you know what I mean. You work with a lot of bad people. Sure, Blackjack has his reputation for keeping his word or whatever, but that doesn’t make him a good person.”
“Yeah,” Pack retorted, “and a lot of psychopathic jackasses who get off on legally stomping on people who can’t fight back join up with law enforcement to get their kicks. Having a badge, or whatever equivalent you people get doesn’t automatically make you a moral paragon.”
“It’s not about any of that!” I blurted, trying to stop this whole thing from being totally derailed. “I just–it’s personal and I’m hoping you’ll be able to know the whole thing soon enough. But for now, just promise me you’ll keep everything about this secret, please.” I tried to stress just how important it was both in my voice (as much as the changer still attached to my ear would convey it) and my stare.
Again, the two of them exchanged looks. I couldn’t tell what either of them were thinking, or what they were communicating to each other in those looks. But whatever it was, they both seemed to come to the same decision, turning to me with the lights aimed roughly toward one another so I could see them better.
“Okay,” Pack started. “I won’t talk to Blackjack or the others about it. Unless it turns into something I have to talk about. If this starts affecting my people, I’m not gonna lie to them.”
That-A-Way nodded. “I don’t like it, but if it means helping you when you’ve got someone like Pencil pissed off at you? Yeah, fine. Unless it turns into something that we need help with, or like… people are going to die if we don’t call in the big guns, I’ll keep it between us.” Her voice softened then. “Come on, Paintball, you almost died back there. You need help. Stop being so stubborn and stupid about this.”
“Ah, little tip, superhero?” Pack put in. “People rarely react well to being called stupid.”
“It’s okay,” I quickly interrupted. “I know what she meant. And she’s right, running off on my own like that after I… well, implied to you that I was going to ask for help was really stupid. I didn’t know the Scions were involved, but it was still stupid.”
“And that’s another thing,” That-A-Way pointed out. “If the Scions are involved, do you really think we can keep this quiet? More to the point, do you really think it’s not just as stupid to keep it quiet? If they kill more people just because we didn’t say anything…”
“You can definitely tell people then,” I immediately agreed. “The second we see Pencil or the other Scions again and they get involved, you can absolutely call in all the help you guys have to stop them. No question. Just… I…”
Pack stopped walking then. Stepping in front of me, she turned the flashlight so that it was aimed up between us. “What?” the girl demanded. “Damn it, Paintball, you ask Eits for some kind of favor that makes some guys beat the living shit out of him. Those guys turn out to be working for Pencil. Then you lie to me–and don’t you fucking hedge about what you specifically said, you lied and you know it. You lied to me about getting help from Minority-girl over there just so I’d let you run off on your own, got yourself captured and nearly killed by that fucking psycho, and you’re still fucking holding off on us? If we’d caught up with you a minute later, a minute fucking later, you’d be dead! You would be dead, Paintball. So knock it off. Yeah, if we can keep this secret, we will. If it’s the best way. But you need to start talking. You need to explain what the hell is going on, what that cabin was, why the Scions are involved, what that fucking address was supposed to be for, and everything else you can possibly fucking explain about this situation. Because I, for one, am tired of being left in the dark about all this.”
“What she said,” That-A-Way put in immediately, “only pretend I said it a little more eloquently and nicely. Right now I’m too mad at you for nearly getting yourself killed to think that straight.”
“I know you guys are upset. You deserve to be,” I admitted a bit weakly. “I just… this is harder than you know. I can’t…” Biting my lip under the mask, I thought about it briefly. “I’ll tell you some of it. I can’t… tell you all of it. I just can’t. Not yet. But I’ll tell you as much as I can.”
“I still can’t believe you want to keep secrets after…” Trailing off as she clearly realized just how little headway she was going to make, That-A-Way settled on simply waving a hand vaguely. “Yeah, yeah. If it’s so important that you can’t talk about everything even after all that… I guess we’ll have to take your word for it. So what can you tell us? How did you get involved in something that involved the Scions, exactly? Can you explain enough about that, at least?”
“I’ll try,” I muttered. The truth. They deserved at least as much of the truth as I could manage, as much as I could give them. To that end, I slowly announced, “It started the night I got my powers. When it happened, I was… I saw these guys… execute a couple people in a motel.”
Both of the other girls (and Holiday, who was pacing around us) gave a short doubletake. “I’m sorry,” That-A-Way started in disbelief, “you saw what happen? Are you… you’re serious now.”
“Super serious,” I confirmed before gesturing. “Come on, we should keep walking. Anyway, the guys saw me, sort of. They didn’t get a good look before I ran away. While I was hiding from them, I got my powers. Then I was… hiding while I heard them talking. I found out they worked for something called the Ministry.” I was mixing around the details of when I found out what to leave out my family’s direct connection. I had to do that, for now at least. As I said the name, my gaze snapped from one girl to the other, looking for a hint of recognition in either of them. I saw none. Neither That-A-Way nor Pack seemed to have the slightest clue what that was.
“What, like some kind of cult thing?” the lizard girl demanded while her hand went out to rub along Twinkletoes’s side. The lizard-gorilla seemed fine now after shrinking down and then being returned to his large size once more. The same went for Mars Bar. Something about Pack using her power on them again healed the damage that had been done. Which was a relief.
Shaking my head, I kept walking in silence for a few seconds before forcing the next words out. This was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do, just getting myself to say what I needed to say. Pack and That-A-Way may have both been on opposite sides of the law, but they’d put that aside to come and save me. They deserved to know about this. “Look, I know you’re both going to think I’m crazy. I know. But I need you to listen. What I’ve heard about this Ministry, it’s… they’ve got their fingers in both sides. Star-Touched and Fell-Touched. It’s like they work behind the scenes. They’ve got people working for villain groups and people on the heroes’ side too.”
Pack looked at me like she was about to say something, but That-A-Way spoke first, blurting a quick and very baffled, “Bad guys working for the heroes? How hard did Pencil hit you, again?”
“Oh, yeah,” Pack put in, “that’s bound to make the poor guy want to keep talking about something that he was clearly reluctant to even start on in the first place. Act like he’s crazy.”
“That’s not what I–” That-A-Way snapped defensively before catching herself. “Damn it, I wasn’t…” She trailed off, sighing. “Sorry. I guess we should at least hear you out.” Even as she said it, however, the girl still sounded reluctant and defensive. Which I couldn’t blame her for.
“I know, I get it,” I quickly assured both of them. “It’s a lot to throw on you guys and expect you to believe any of it instead of just thinking I’m a raving lunatic. Why do you think I didn’t want to actually tell you? Because I know it sounds like crazy bullshit. But seriously. The way they were talking, and other things I’ve heard since then… that’s why I didn’t want to join the Minority.”
“Because you thought we worked for these… Ministry people?” That-A-Way was staring at me, almost walking into a tree before Pack reached out, caught her arm, and tugged her away from it. She gave the other girl a quick look, a nod of thanks, then stared at me once more. “Really?”
“I didn’t know any of you,” I pointed out. “And I still don’t know most of you. I mean, look at it this way. Pretend the Ministry is real and you don’t have any doubts. Just for sake of argument. Pretend there really is this secret organization that has agents on all sides, people who report to them. Do you really think they’d put people on the heroes’ side who couldn’t blend in well?”
That-A-Way briefly looked like she wanted to argue with that, but stopped herself. Instead, she was quiet for a minute, walking through the woods with us like she was lost in thought. Finally, I saw her head give a tiny nod. “Okay, I’ll… pretend and go with that, I guess. If this Ministry thing worked like you said, they’d be good at putting people in under cover. Maybe even people who really thought they were doing the right thing by reporting stuff to this secret group. Hell, they might not even know that this Ministry works for both sides. Maybe they think they’re reporting to a secret group of Star-Touched people, you know? Like Internal Affairs or something.”
“You mean an even more secret group of heroes inside the group of heroes.” Pack snorted. “Yeah, that sounds about right. If a group like Paintball’s talking about existed, they could totally make some do-gooders think they were part of the super-special secret club like that.”
I nodded slowly. “Yeah, that’s kinda what I mean. Anyway, like I said, this Ministry has people on both sides. From what I can tell, they run some kind of protection racket or something. You know, letting bad guys operate in the city in exchange for part of the money they take in from jobs. I heard them talking about getting the patrol routes for different Star-Touched teams for a higher percentage take, and direct intervention, whatever that entails, in exchange for even more. I’m pretty sure they have at least one person on every hero team to give out patrol routes, hero’s schedules, other things like that. And more on the police force, the court system, all those things. They’ve been around for a long time, you guys. Like I said, they’ve got their fingers in everything. They run things behind the scenes, and they’re really not happy that I know anything about them at all. Except they’re not sure how much I know, if anything.”
“So if what you’re saying–” Pack corrected herself, “If you’re right about what you think, then Blackjack’s gotta know about this, right?”
“Sure, it sounds like all the big Fell-Touched players in the city know about it,” I confirmed. “They work within the system the Ministry created. I’d be fall down shocked if Blackjack wasn’t totally aware of the whole thing. But he’s not gonna tell a brand new member of his group that kind of secret.”
“I’m still not sure about this,” That-A-Way admitted. “But I’ll keep going along the hypothetical ‘this is all true’ route for now. That said, what does that have to do with Pencil and the Scions? Or that cabin?”
This was the big one. Even bigger than getting them to believe the bit about the Ministry. I had to be careful how I explained this. “I followed some of those Ministry guys the other day when they kidnapped a girl and tried to kill her. Apparently she had some kind of secret information or proof about the Ministry or something. Anyway, I saved her and she ran away. Then I found her later and listened to her talking to… umm… someone on the phone. She called him her dad, but…” I shook that off. “Anyway, the point is, there was something about the girl and her dad wanting revenge against the Ministry for someone named Anthony Tate. I looked into it. He’s a kid who used to live here, then moved to Texas and died in a car crash. Supposedly.” Ohhh this was getting so close to secrets I really shouldn’t talk about. The thought made me cringe inwardly.
That-A-Way spoke up into the brief silence. “Okay, wait, wait. Who’s this girl? And that Anthony Tate, who’s that?”
“LIke I said, a kid who used to live here before he supposedly died in a car crash with his parents in Texas.” I offered a shrug. “I don’t know how he was connected to that girl… umm, Paige Banners.”
That-A-Way dropped her flashlight and tripped over a rock, cursing as she almost fell. It took her a moment to scramble across the ground to find the light. “What–who?”
“Paige Banners,” I repeated. “She’s the girl I saved, I found out her name later. That’s one of the names I had Eits look into,” I admitted to Pack. “I thought her dad lived here, but apparently she’s like… adopted or something? I don’t know. Point is, she was on the phone with someone she called her father, and they were talking about getting revenge for that kid dying or… something. Anyway, Eits looked into it, found out this guy Robert Parson was a bodyguard or something. He was in the car with the Tates too, but he survived. So we were looking for his address. That’s the address you got from him, the one those assholes wanted. I guess Pencil and his people got the address from Eits’ phone, cuz they got to that place too.”
“But what did they want with this guy?” That-A-Way demanded. She sounded like she really needed to sit down. Which was another thing I could definitely sympathize with.
“I guess he pissed Pencil off somehow,” I replied, shrugging once more. “I really don’t know the details. All I know is Pencil wants this guy dead, so he’s in hiding. Which means I can’t get answers out of him about this Ministry, or Anthony Tate, or this Paige girl.”
That-A-Way was silent for a few long seconds, staring ahead as though deep in thought. Finally, she exhaled long and loud. “This is a lot to take in, dude. I don’t–” She cut herself off from whatever she had been about to say, correcting it to, “I’m not sure what to… say, you know? If I’ve got this right, you’re claiming that there’s a secret underground group that manipulates heroes and villains everywhere in the city, and that this random schoolgirl, whatever her name–”
“Paige Banners,” I reminded her.
“Right, Paige Banners,” she nodded. “This Paige Banners and her dad, who isn’t the dad who lives here in town with her because she’s adopted or something, are coming up with some secret plan to attack and hurt the Ministry as payback for this Anthony Tate dying. You looked into Anthony Tate, found this Robert Parson guy, went to his address, and got jumped by Pencil, who is also after him?”
“And the Scions also beat the shit out of Eits to get that address,” Pack quickly put in.
“Yeah, and Eits got hurt,” That-A-Way acknowledged, turning to shine her light at me. “Is that about it?” Her voice was a bit dull from the shock of taking all of this in.
“Ummm…” I winced. “Did I mention that it sounded like that girl’s real dad is in Breakwater?”
“Breakwater,” That-A-Way echoed. “The inescapable supervillain prison. He’s just… calling out of that.” She stopped walking, putting one hand against her face with a long, heavy sigh.
“This is kinda why I didn’t want to dump all this on you guys,” I managed a bit weakly.
“I get that,” she murmured, finally moving her hand to look at me. “Look, I don’t know how much of this is true–okay, hold on. What I mean is, I believe you believe what you’re saying, but I don’t know how much power this Ministry actually has. But, I’ll keep quiet about it for now. I want to… investigate it for myself, okay? I’ll do it quietly, I swear. I won’t bring up the actual name or anything. I just want to find out more.”
“Same,” Pack agreed. “I’m morbidly curious about these people. Especially if part of my money is going to them.”
After a moment of hesitation, I slowly offered, “Well, if you guys really want to find out more about this group for yourselves…
“I know a pretty interesting secret about the mall.”