Brandy sighed. Her mom was late to pick her up from stage crew, so she was sitting, staring out the window. "I keep bleeding..." she hummed, "Keep, keep bleeding...Lo-" She thought she'd seen movement outside, in the patch of trees on the hillside between the main road and the one in front of the school. She stared at it for a minute, but there was nothing there. Of course not. Even the cross-country team doesn't run down there! Idiot...
Still looking out the window- it wasn't as if there was anything else to do- she went back to humming the song in her head. "Keep ble-" Then she blinked. Okay, this time she had seen something. She glanced over at the clump of kids in the middle of the atrium and then shrugged her backpack off and slipped silently out the door.
It's not like it's a crime... I'll just check and see if Mom's here. If not, I get them to let me back in. If so... Well, I still get them to let me back in so I can get my stuff.
Unsurprisingly, her mom wasn't there- she would have called if she was. Before Brandy could think of what she was doing, she started down into the woods. After all, I just concluded that nobody's there. There should be no problem. Unless cross-country did decide to run there...
About two steps into the woods, she caught movement coming towards her and slipped behind a tree. Even in one glimpse, she had seen that there'd been a whole bunch of them, and they had been running. So cross-country does run here. In that case, time to scare the daylights out of Tom. Serves him right after last week.
She counted off three and threw herself out in front of the oncoming group. "Boo!"
This definitely wasn't the cross-country team. It was, however, a small group of people walking- almost marching- toward her. Their clothes would have been normal, except that they were dark- grey, black or dark blue. These were not people who belonged on school land, for sure.
Well, she was right in their path. They were probably going to see here, whether she stayed where she was or ducked behind the trees. And there was a chance someone might be in the parking lot and hear her. She took a deep breath and yelled at the top of her lungs, "Who are you?"
Someone ran and grabbed her by the shoulders hard enough to hurt a little. "Don't move. And be quiet," he ordered.
Brandy didn't move. After all, she wasn't crazy.
"Who's that, General?" she heard someone ask.
"Ah..." Dark brown eyes locked with Brandy's for a second, and then the man they belonged to looked over his shoulder. "No one we know." To Brandy he said, "Go back to school."
"Go back. You didn't see us, we weren't here."
Okay. This was way too creepy. She was not just going back to school and leaving them to do whatever they were trying to do. "Why?"
"General..." called a different voice from behind the man.
"Hold on," he called over her shoulder. He turned back to Brandy. "Go back, I said. Now." Letting go of her, he walked over to the other 4 people- two women, two men.
Brandy still didn't move, but that didn't mean she didn't think. General? Then, these people are...Army or something? But then they'd be in camo...I think... Then again, if they're army, they're probably good guys... Probably... She tried eavesdropping on the conversation, but they were talking fast enough that she couldn't quite make out enough to make sense, just bits and pieces.
"-don't actually believe she-"
"-can't be more than 14! That-"
"-to make her swear-"
"-tell anyone about-"
"Of course she will! Are you insane?"
"-came with us..."
That one got total silence. It was the man who had grabbed Brandy, the one with the black-going-grey hair and brown eyes. He was probably a little older than Brandy's dad.
Finally a blonde woman spoke up. "Take her with us, General?"
He shrugged. "Assuming Roy is right... Why not?"
"Why NOT?! You have gone insane!" A redhead young man was on his feet challenging the so-called general.
"Hey! Randall," the older man said, holding his hands up. Just that, and the younger man got quiet. "You've heard of shadows before, surely."
"Well, yes, but... I've never been on a run with one before. If I had, I would have told-"
"Don't mind him, General," said a dark woman. "He just can't stand the thought of one more person taking attention off him. The hero of every run..."
"Will you be quiet?" roared Randall.
"No. And I was trying to say, you're right," she said to the older man. "Why not?"
"Same here," said the fifth, a man slightly older than Randall with short dark hair, after a moment's pause.
"I'm okay with it," the blonde woman said. "Randall, you're outnumbered."
"Well, excuse me. Just because I don't think it's a good idea to tell someone the whole story of...us, doesn't mean I'm evil. Or out looking for attention."
"Well you still are-"
The dark woman looked to the 'general', who told her, "Enough, Di. At least let him finish."
Randall didn't even thank him. "Well, it's just... stupid! It doesn't make any sense. You try to get someone to keep quiet about us by telling them the whole story?"
"The point we're trying to get across is that it's important to keep this a secret, right?"
"Which we're doing by telling her the whole story?"
"Randall, listen, would you?"
Randall made a face and looked away.
The older man closed his eyes for a moment. "Randall... We have a 14-year-old girl here- Here if she hasn't gone back up, which I'm sure she hasn't-" he turned and met Brandy's eyes before she could hide. "...point, Roy- And who just found out that five people she's never heard of are marching around on her school's land. If we just send her back up there with no explanation, what are the odds she won't say anything to anyone?"
"Really," added the dark-haired man. "Use your head."
"But we're..." Randall trailed off, rolled his eyes, and shrugged elaborately. "Fine. I can tell my opinion doesn't matter to anyone here. Go ahead, fine, she can shadow. Just nobody blame me if we show up on the national news tomorrow."
The older man turned and signaled Brandy over. She debated for a second, then decided it was safer to go.
"All right. Do you have an alibi?"
What kind of opener is that? Not a normal one... Then again, coming from someone babbling about taking me with him somewhere or other... "What do you mean?"
"I assume you came from the school?" He motioned toward the building, which was out of sight because of the trees.
"Well, do you have an excuse for not going home? Someone who'll cover for you?"
Well, there's Jule..."I think so."
"Well, make sure."
"I don't have my cell." This would be the day...
"Use mine," the dark woman said, holding one out.
Brandy made the call as quickly as possible. "I'll explain later," she said weakly when Jule asked what, exactly, she was covering for. She ignored the sharp looks she got. As soon as she hung up, the older man told her, "You can't tell her. Or anyone else. Tell her you can't tell her, if you must. But you can't tell her."
Not tell Jule something? Something that possibly could be a threat to my life? She took a breath. "Okay." What was she getting into?
"All right." The man nodded. "Well, before I go any further, this is Roy..." the dark haired man, "Diana..." the dark woman, "Kelly..." the blonde, "and Randall." They were all probably 20 to 25 years old, no more. "Not their real names."
Not their real names. Then again, I don't think kidnappers make introductions at all. "Oh. So then, you are..."
The man started to answer, but Diana interrupted. "He goes by Frank, but don't bother. Everyone calls him General."
Who was 'everyone'?
"Now, what do we call you?" the general asked.
He didn't ask for my real name either. She used the first name that popped into her head. "Tori."
"Tori. All right. Now, listen to me." He looked very seriously at her. "You won't have heard of the Runners, of course."
"As I said. It's not something that gets spread around. Basically, we are..."
"Saving the world from unspeakable horror," Kelly said with a grin. The general fake-glared at her, and she said, "Sorry. I'll shut up."
"Thank you." Turning back to Brandy, he went on. "The Runners were created to... Well, I'll keep this simple. We are a group who are trying to close the door between the worlds."
"Door between... No way. No flipping way."
"You see?" Randall started. "She doesn't even believe-"
The general glared at him, not fake this time. "One more word out of you, Randall, and I send you back. I am not kidding."
Randall groaned, but he got quiet fast.
"It sounds crazy, but it's true. Trust me," Diana said. "I didn't believe it either at first."
"Just listen," the general jumped in again. "Years ago, a door was created between this world and...another. At the same time, something- a device- was made that could permanently bar the door if for whatever reason it was decided that it should be shut. Do you follow?"
"A few months later, for some reason, the decision was made by those on this side to close the door. Unfortunately, the device had vanished. Uh..." He shook his head and went on. "A note arrived in the headquarters here a few days later, saying that the device had been stolen and taken to pieces, hundreds of them, and those on this side would have to collect them if they ever wanted the door shut."
"And of course, all of the pieces were hidden on the other side," Roy spoke up. "We have the technology to find them, but it's taken forever. Missions to collect pieces have failed, because of attacks on the other side."
"Um, why attacks? I don't see-" Brandy started. The general cut her off.
"Because they didn't want the door shut. Or because I guess they saw us as invading their world."
"Us invading their world? Come on, now. They stole something we made, and we're just trying to get it back! Is that an invasion?" Kelly burst in.
"Kel, shush. So, 20 years later," the general finally finished up, "here we are. Ten pieces more, we think, and we can close the door."
"Nice. So..that's what you're here to do?" Brandy asked. Okay. All right. Aside from the 'top secret' stuff, that sounded pretty logical. So if they are telling the truth, they should be able to prove it. "Then where's the door?"
"Closer than you may think. If I can just finish?" When she nodded he went on, "Runners are the official workers, trained and then assigned to cross over and find the pieces. But there are also shadows. They are essentially...people who aren't Runners that we pick to go on some missions, usually because...well, they catch us in the act, and it's the best way to keep them quiet." He grinned. "No offense meant."
Brandy had to smile too. Sweet. So assuming this is real,I'm going to another world... Meaning that it is absolutely not, since my luck would never be that good... "So that's why you're taking me, then."
"Call it a bribe, if you want," Kelly said. Brandy had just about decided she was the youngest of the five. She was definitely the most smart-mouthed, but not in a bad way.
"Okay. But, we've got to go, then," Brandy said. "I don't know how long Ju- uh-" Better not use her real name either. "Ruby will cover for me."
"All right then. Let's move," the general said.
Brandy was expecting some secret location- after all, this was a door between worlds they were talking about. Maybe. Instead, the general led them right up to...the back of her school?
"Um..." she started.
Kelly grinned. "Oh, come on! Doesn't every high school kid know school is another world?"
Diana jabbed her hard. "Shut up, Kel."
"You shut up, Di!"
"Both of you be quiet," said the general. Still shaking his head, he went on, "Now, Tori. Did you really think we'd just have a door standing in the middle of a field or something?"
"You're- You're kidding me," Brandy said. But it did kind of make sense. The top floor of the school ran in the opposite direction from the other two- one end rested on the middle of the second floor roof, the other on the top of hill the school was built on. There were three ways to get out of the top floor: the stairwell to the other two, and a door on either side of the hall at the other end. Each of those doors led outside to the hilltop. The space between the doors, the wall at the end of the hall, held a display case on the inside, and was a plain brick wall on the outside, where the six stood now.
The general stepped up to the wall, then turned back. "Ready?" he said.
"As I'll ever be," Randall said, with a glance at Brandy.
"Absolutely," Roy said.
"I don't have a choice, do I?" Kel said with a laugh as the general looked at her.
"No!" he said, with that same teasing glare. Then he turned to Brandy. "Tori?"
She took a deep breath and nodded. The general's eyes flicked to Di.
"Let's do it!" she said, eyes shining.
Turning, the general placed his palm against the only white bricks on the wall, which formed a square. Those bricks vanished. Then, spreading outward from there, the rest of the bricks on the wall slowly disappeared too, fading away like an image on a computer screen when it's shut down. Behind them was wall that looked like it was made of black glass, with a single door in the middle.
Brandy stared. Okay, that would be a 'Yes, Brandy, for once your luck is that good.' She turned and looked at the others. Di had been watching her. "Sweet, isn't it?" she whispered. Brandy nodded and looked back at the general, who was now punching something into the pad that had appeared where the white bricks had been. After a minute he called Brandy over.
She went. "Yeah?" she said.
He handed her a stylus, told her to sign, then looked away. She took a deep breath and then scribbled her signature on it- but she deliberately made it more messy than usual, just in case. Not my signature, so I can't be blamed, right?
As soon as the pen had been off the pad for a few seconds, the name vanished. She turned to the general. "Um..."
"As long as you signed it, it's fine. I don't know your real name, and I don't want to know."
"Do you know the others'?"
"Yes," he said shortly, then turned to them. "Come on, folks. Surely you know the drill by now. If you want to go, sign the thing."
"And if I don't want to-" Kel started mouthily. She got cut off.
"Then I'll blame you when we have to admit because the shadow's not back in time!" the general thundered. Kel looked like a puppy that had just been spanked. He softened. "I'm sorry, Kel. But I've only had to admit once so far, and I don't want to again, do you?"
"Um, no!" Kel ran up to sign the pad. When she finished, she walked a few steps to where Brandy was and said, "And if you're wondering what admitting is, it's when you have to tell somebody about the Runners because they found out a shadow was missing and got worried. Like if we don't get you home, or Ruby doesn't cover. Pretty dangerous, since supposedly someone could go report us to a news station or something... More likely they'd just think we're nuts."
Brandy nodded. Trying to get off that ever-so-pleasant subject, she asked, "So, are you the youngest here?"
Kel nodded. "21. Just out of college last year. Roy's oldest, he's 26. He was some kind of tech major in school, I think. Randall and Di are both 24. He's actually older than her, believe it or not. By like 9 months."
"Um, he acts like..." Brandy stopped, not wanting to look like a baby or something.
"...an idiot," Kel finished cheerfully. "That's what I call him. Jokingly. He's not that bad once you get to know him, I promise. And anyway, last run he talked my group out of a really sticky situation. So, see, that's why he's here. Di's navigator. Roy's techie. General's here to keep us all from heinously murdering each other."
Brandy laughed. "And you are?"
Kel shrugged. "I don't know. Guess I'm here for..." She struck a modeling pose. "My pretty face!"
Randall, who had just finished signing, hooted. "Hey, beauty queen. Your prom date was over 3 years ago!"
"And yours never happened!" Kel shot back. Di applauded.
The general sighed. "Why did I accept this run? Somebody, anybody, remind me why!"
Di assumed an innocent-young-lamb face. "Because you love us so much!" she said, overly sweet.
"No. Because otherwise I'd lose my job."
Di looked shocked, then pouted. "You mean you don't love us anymore?"
"Of course I like you. SEPERATELY! BY YOURSELVES! Not all four of you together. Again. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson after last time."
"Well then, never learn your lesson. Please," Roy said. The other three immediately agreed.
The general smiled. "I'll try not to. Now can we please go?" He turned and pulled the door open. All Brandy could see inside was a lot of misty looking stuff. She had to remind herself that what should be on the other side was the upper floor of her school.
"I've just been standing here waiting for you to say that," Kel joked. The general rolled his eyes, grabbed her hand, and pulled her with him as he went through the door.
Roy walked over and stepped through seriously. Randall turned around, said, "Coming, oh shadow dear?" sarcastically, and backed through.
"Ignore him," Di ordered, ran over, and half-jumped through.
Brandy took a deep breath and walked over to the door. She let it out, closed her eyes and stepped through. Her stomach dropped. She was falling...
Somebody was shaking her. She opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was a face that she should probably recognize, except that right then it was asking a lot. Her head hurt...
"Pounding headache, huh?" a voice said. "And you probably felt sick to your stomach there for a minute."
"Uh-huh." At least her voice was normal. "I can't think..."
"Take this." The man handed her something. She slipped it into her mouth and swallowed. Almost instantly the pounding in her head started to fade. That was when it hit her that she was laying on the floor with the general- how could I forget that?- kneeling next to her, and the other four standing around staring. What a way to get Randall to trust me...
"Better now?" the general asked. When Brandy nodded, he said, "Oh, good. I hated myself for a minute. Everyone else took theirs while you were signing, and I never gave you one."
"I'll live," Brandy said, scrabbling to her feet. I wish they would just stop staring at me... Her legs buckled and she would have fallen if the general hadn't caught her.
"Still dizzy," he muttered, holding her until she got her balance.
"There, see?" Randall started. He got no further.
"See what?!" the general roared, abruptly letting Brandy go. "See the general's an idiot? See he ought to go home and let you fend for yourself? No, I'm not going to," he said in a calmer voice, although it was just as loud. "I care far too much about the rest of you to leave you with this- THIS-" Glancing at Brandy, he visibly swallowed whatever he'd been going to say, and instead finished up, "With HIM." He managed to make the pronoun sound worse than whatever the original choice of word had been. "I swear, though, Ro-" He muttered something that sounded like a curse under his breath. "Randall. If I have not been specific enough before, I will be now. If. You. Do not. Cease. This. Discrediting Tori. Right. Now, I will personally throw you back through that door. And out of the Runners, or I'll do my best to. Is that perfectly clear?"
Randall flinched. "Yes, General," he said. Then he gave Brandy a look of pure hate.
The general didn't see. "Thank you," he said. "And that is not an empty threat, either." Turning away from Randall, he said to the other four, "Sorry about that. Let's move."
As they started down the hall- it looked like an ordinary hall anyway- Di slipped over next to Brandy. Tori. Got to remember that. After all, even the general almost screwed up and called Randall his real name. "Whoa. Okay, that was..." Tori started.
Di half laughed. "His biggest weakness. And strength too. Once you're on his team, he's, well, furiously loyal to you. Even at the expense of other people he likes."
"So I'm 'on his team' now?"
"Absolutely. Have you completely missed how he's taking on Randall for you?"
"So you guys have been on missions together before?"
"The older three of us have been with General for, like, 10 runs. Kel's new- I think she's been around for 3. Maybe 4? I forget." She shrugged. "But we're a team. Who cares if they send us on separate runs half the time."
"Ssh!" the general ordered. Di got quiet.
When the group got to the door at the end of the hall, the general turned to everyone. "Park, right, Di?"
"Right down the street." He looked surprised. "That's easy."
"Wait. I'm the navigator here. How did you know where the park's at?"
"I do occasionally look at maps people have made, Di. Did you think I trusted where I'm going to someone twenty years younger than me? More," he added.
"Dropping details," Roy muttered under his breath. "Not a good idea when they could be watching."
Tori got chills.
"Well, you did pick me to navigate for you."
"Do I need navigation for someplace that's just down the street?"
"You wouldn't know that if you'd trusted me and not looked it up."
"But I did look it up, so what would have happened if I hadn't is irrelevant."
Kel cleared her throat. When Di and the general looked at her, she said in a high-and-mighty voice, "Excuse me, Kel and Randall. We are wasting time." Then she threw up her hands and said, "Honestly! Will you two ever stop arguing? Why do I accept these runs? Somebody, anybody, remind me why!"
For a minute they just looked at her. Then the general sighed and said, "I can see I'm getting predictable..." Everyone laughed. "All right. Let's get this thing and get home. Did you notice this group of us has never had to admit yet?"
"Yeah, we have. There was that first run we ever did..."
"Not this group. That was without Kel. Which is funny, because you'd think she'd make it more likely we'd have to admit, not less..."
Randall looked like he was about to say something, but Kel cut whatever it was off at the pass by saying, "Hey! I resent that remark," and pouting.
"Come on, Kel. Take a joke. You know we all like you." That was Roy. Kel grinned when he said it. Wonder if there's something going on there...
"All right." The general said again, and looked around. "Let's go, get this done, and get home, shall we?"
"No objection to that," Di said. Then, mimicking the general again, "Let's move!"
The general laughed. "I am too predictable. I better change, fast!"
As he pulled open the door, Kel grinned at him. "Oh, don't change. You're not predictable. We just know you too well."
"Not another word that we don't belong here, anyone. All right?" the general whispered. "Roy, you go get the piece this time. The rest of us will wait in case you need backup. When you have it, just get to the door as fast as you can. We'll meet you there."
"Double luck," Kel whispered.
"Double luck," the other four who were staying repeated. Tori was a beat behind the rest.
"Double luck to you, too," Roy breathed. He pulled himself up to his full height, threw his shoulders back, and strolled off as if he was just out for a walk.
"Okay, so... We can go back as soon as he finds-" Tori started, accidentally in her normal voice. That was as far as she got, because Randall slammed a hand over her mouth.
"You are determined to wreck this for us, aren't you!" he said, also in his normal voice.
"Stop!" the general roared, pulling Randall's hand away. In a sharp whisper he went on, "You are now wrecking it just as much. Be quiet!"
"I will not!" Randall whisper-yelled. "You decide to bring a shadow, and I'm expected to blindly follow what you say, even when she's very obviously disobeying what you just said? Well, I refuse to be a puppet to you-"
"Randall, shut up!" Kel begged.
Apparently he refused to be a puppet to her too. "I will not!" he whispered again. "We... I thought we were- a team!" He shook his head and said in an even lower whisper, "I thought we were a team. Stupid of me, really. Nothing is a democracy with the mighty general in charge."
"Hold on. Just because-"
"I think I'd better go. You said you'd toss me through the door if I said anything about your precious shadow again. I think I'd rather walk through myself." And Randall turned on his heel and ran, around the corner and out of sight.
The general closed his eyes. "Oh, no..."
"What in the heck did you think you were doing!" Di yelled at him. Low voices had apparently been forgotten. "You just kicked him out!"
"He left on his own," Kel started in the general's defense. Di didn't let her finish.
"You are-" she thundered at the general. "I am sick of how you always yell at him and boss him around and-"
She glared at the general, looking like she was about to breathe fire. Tori could just about see the smoke billowing from her ears. "I am sick and tired of it. You know what? I'm not waiting for you to throw me home too. Or throw me out of the Runners. I can do both those things myself."
"No!" The general reached out and grabbed her arm. Her green eyes met his brown ones, which looked just slightly wet. "Ari, don't do this to me."
"To you?" She yanked her arm away from him. "That's funny. What did you do to Randall?" She ran off the same way he'd gone, disappearing around the corner in the direction of the door.
The general's eyes were closed again. When he opened them it was to look right at Tori. "Go get her. Stop her. Please."
"Go back through the door and catch her before she asks to be released from the Runners. Base is up the hill behind the school. Your left coming out of the door. Go."
"What if I-"
"Tori." He took her hand and pulled her a little away from Kel. "This is my team. I'm losing two of them. I-"
"Where's Di going?"
Tori and the general both turned to see who the frantic voice belonged to. It was Randall.
"You, sir, are..." The general visibly took a deep breath. Then he mumbled something under his breath. Tori was close enough to hear he was counting to ten. When he finished he said, "You are in so much trouble with me right now..."
Randall had put two and two together. "She's leaving."
"Leaving, and asking to be released. Because of what she thinks I did to you. And yet here you are. And don't give me some innocent 'I was thinking of leaving but then I saw what happened and thought better of it' act."
At least Randall had the grace to look embarrassed. "I was not leaving. I was never going to leave. I just wanted to-" Then the first part of what the general had said finally got through to him. "She's actually asking to be-"
"No, I'm making this up," the general said sarcastically. "That's what she's doing. I'm trying to get Tori to-" Suddenly he looked up. "Where's Tori?"
"I don't know." Randall looked around too.
Neither of them would see her. Because Tori was halfway to the door.
She didn't fall over or faint or anything when she went through the door. That was good. It was probably because she'd taken that medicine or whatever the general had given her.
She ran. Bolted up the hill behind the school, at first forgetting she could get in trouble, then praying that no one saw her. When she saw the dark woman running just as fast ahead of her, she yelled at the top of her lungs. "Di! Diana!" Then finally, as a last-ditch attempt, "Ari!"
The woman jerked to a stop and waited for Tori to catch up. Then she said, "How on earth did you know my real name?"
"General called you that when he was trying to get you to stay. I figured it was a slip-up and he used your real name."
Ari looked at her more closely. "What are you doing here?"
"General sent me to come tell you not to leave."
Ari glanced over Tori's shoulder. "Where is he?"
"He's, uh, he's..." Tori couldn't remember if she'd ever known the name of the other world. She waved a hand over her shoulder at the back wall of the third floor.
Ari's eyes widened. "Oh, no. He sent you back by yourself? He's not... He's still through on the other side?"
Ari sighed. "You... I don't believe he did that."
"Why?" Now Tori was scared. "What's wrong?"
"You're his shadow. His, because he's in charge. So he's supposed to be with you the whole time. If Kel or Roy gets it into their head to turn him in for it, you will both be in big trouble."
"Well, Randall definitely won't be turning me in. Man, he looks so humiliated right now..."
"How would you know?"
Right. She wouldn't know. She was already gone when that came up. "He never left, Di- Ari," she corrected herself. "He pretended to, I guess to get the general to feel bad or something. But he didn't actually leave." When Ari shook her head, Tori asked, "What?"
"I just can't believe he'd send you back without him. Knowing what could happen if..."
"Well, it's like you told me. Once you're on his team, I guess he's fiercely loyal to you. Even at the expense of other people on the team. Or himself."
At that moment, as if it had been his cue, the general himself came running up the hill, with Kel, Randall, and Roy trailing him. "Di," he breathed, when he got to where they were.
"Oh, don't bother. Everybody here knows my real name anyway."
The general looked at Tori, who nodded.
"Oh. Well, we might as well tell you ours too, because-" Kel started. The general glared at her, and she finished up with, "Anyway, my real name's Michelle. Shel for short."
"Josh," said Roy.
"Rob," said Randall.
So it was his real name the general started to say. "My real name's Brandy."
"And mine's really," Ari rolled her eyes slightly. "Artemis."
"Oh. Like, Artemis was the huntress in Greek myths, and Diana was Roman? Or am I..." Brandy trailed off.
"Right. I thought it worked pretty well. And then," she looked at the general, "when we weren't on runs and using covers, he started calling me Ari. For which I am really grateful." She smiled. "Among other things..."
"Such as?" The general had to know where she was going with that, because he was smiling too.
"Don't think I don't know it. You were going to get kicked out for me."
"Kicked out?" Maybe that wasn't what he'd been expecting.
"Well, you sent your shadow back without you. If anyone finds out..."
"Oh, that." He waved his hand like it was pointless to bring it up, but then he turned to Josh, Shel and Rob. "If any of you say anything about this-"
"Um, why would we?" Rob said, sounding serious for once. "We're a team."
"Yeah," Ari said, smiling. "We're definitely a team. As long as somebody stops being stupid, that is."
"Do you have a death wish?" said the general, fake-glaring. "Or were you talking about Rob?"
"Then she would really have a death wish!" Rob said.
Ari looked from one to the other. "I'd...rather not say who I was talking about, thanks."
"But you're staying though, right?" Shel said.
Ari looked around at the group and broke into a grin. "What do you think? Of course I'm staying, you idiot. I only came back to find you." She looked over at the general. "Sorry."
"Well. That explains why you were so ready to leave, when you're the one always saying..." he trailed off, smiling.
She smiled back. "We're a team," she finished, holding a hand out in the middle of everyone.
"We're a team," Josh echoed, and slapped his hand on top of hers.
Shel and Rob did the same, piling their hands on top. Brandy decided it wouldn't be a good idea to throw herself in.
The general was last. He looked around, locking eyes with the other four, and then Brandy. For some reason he held hers longest. Then he said softly, "We're a team," and put his hand on top of the pile.
Ari drove her home and dropped her off at the end of her street, where her mom wouldn't see the unfamiliar car.
As soon as Brandy walked in the door, she was faced with her mother. Considering that she didn't tend to lie to anyone, she felt pretty good about the story she came up with about Jule's mother driving by the school and picking her up, and letting her stay at Jule's to help her with a project she was doing. Saying that she hadn't had her phone to call about it was also a nice touch. Of course, it was the only true fact in the whole story. And hopefully her mom wouldn't call up Jule's to thank her for the help...
After a few days she stopped worrying about that, though. A week later she's completely forgotten it was something to worry about.
What she couldn't help thinking of what had happened. The secret door in the back of her school. The other world on the other side. The broken machine. The nine pieces still missing. (Or ten, if Roy- Josh- had never gotten the one he'd been after.)
And then there was the other thing that was bugging her. Ever since she'd realized he wasn't actually some kind of kidnapper, she'd been sure the general was a good guy. He just seemed too, well, grandfatherly (cursing aside) to be doing anything sinister. But there was that other thing...
She stuck it into the back of her mind as a question to ask if she ever saw him again.
You got your team back together, right? So what the heck was up with all those serious looks before you'd be part of it?