“What about Amelia?” I asked.

Brooke smiled. “Let’s just say that this time, my mom came through. Amelia won’t be playing any games any time soon.”

I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before Amelia would find her way back out into the world. Somehow, I didn’t think she was the type to roll over and die, just because she’d been apprehended. In fact, she’d probably just see this as the next stage of the game.

Beside me, Brooke looked down at the gun in her hand, as if realizing suddenly that it was there, and her skin went very pale. I tried to figure out a way to say thanks, but couldn’t quite form the words.

“You okay?” Zee asked Brooke. Apparently, our profiler had already come to the conclusion that I was going to be just fine. Forget the fact that I’d almost died…

“I’m not,” Brooke said, the gun still in her hand. “But I will be. My mom was right. I had to get over the gun thing eventually.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold up there, I thought. There were lots of take-home lessons from what had just happened—for instance, “Never underestimate the PTA” and “Don’t put Toby on banner duty”—but none of those lessons involved even the hint of the suggestion that Brooke’s mom had been right about anything.

I opened my mouth to say this, but Zee shook her head. I bit back the words and almost choked on them, but figured that Zee had her reasons. She always did.

“Look on the bright side,” Zee said, changing the subject.

“What bright side?” Brooke asked.

Hello! Saving me! Bright side! Our covers were safe! Bright side!

“When the floor gave way, Toby’s banners bit the dust,” Zee said.

That was supposed to be the bright side?

“No offense,” Brooke said, and I prepared myself to be offended. “You’re a great hacker, but your bubble letters really suck.”

CHAPTER 35

Code Word: Catfight

When I walked into the Quad the next morning, I wasn’t sure what I expected to find. I knew that the Big Guys had taken Mrs. McCall into custody, and that with their help, Chloe had been able to locate and deprogram the nanobots. Or so I’d been told. If I suddenly keeled over in the middle of the debriefing, I was going to know who to blame. I also knew that the Big Guys (and Brooke’s mom) had decided to forgive me my breach of protocol with Amelia, and Brooke her rogue operation. After all, in a roundabout way, we’d been right, and in a not-so-round-about way, we’d saved the day. Again.

Besides, as far as the Big Guys were concerned, the threat was contained, and all was right with the world. And the fact that they were the ones who’d dropped the ball and actually left Joanne McCall off of their watch lists didn’t exactly give them much room to cast stones. I mean, come on—she was clearly unhinged, and they’d known she was in Bayport all along.

Walking into the Quad, half of me expected some kind of celebration. Ribbons. Confetti. Ice cream would have been nice. Cookies would have been better.

What I found was a half dozen girls gathered round a single screen.

“New mission?” I asked. “Already?”

“Homecoming vote projections,” Lucy answered. “Our old hacker wrote the program a couple of years ago, and we just entered in the last piece of data. It’s some algorithm thingy.”

I winced at the phrase algorithm thingy, but figured that, depending on what the aforementioned thingy had to say about homecoming, I’d save any more dramatic reaction for later.

“You’re in the lead,” Chloe told me, her voice tight. “By a lot.”

Brooke flipped her hair over her shoulder. “I can’t believe we actually saved you,” she huffed. “This is our senior year.”

I looked at the other nonsenior cheerleaders. Hadn’t any of them bothered to fill the seniors in on my little speech yesterday? “I practically begged the student body not to vote for me,” I said. “It’s not my fault my little brother is a spaz.”

“The problem is that you did ask people not to vote for you,” Zee said. “Now half of them are supporting you because they think you’re nice, and the other half are voting for you because they honestly believe you don’t want to win, and they’re just being petty.”

“Though, to be fair,” Tara added, “Noah’s pirate speech did have some effect as well. His Abraham Lincoln speech, not so much so.”

I didn’t ask how this program somehow had the capability to analyze my brother’s wacky campaign ideas. I really didn’t want to know.

“Just tell me what I can do to lose,” I said. “Please.”

Brooke said something along the lines of, “I don’t think there’s a point,” but what I heard was, “I am going to make your life a living hell for this.”

“Turn that thing off,” Chloe said darkly. “Let’s go upstairs and practice.”

Brooke smiled then. It was a chilling sight. “Let’s,” she said. “I was thinking we’d teach Toby how to fly.”

Fly? As in give up my lovely, benign front spot position in order to let a bunch of girls with hardcore grudges against me throw me up into the air and hold me there? That so wasn’t going to happen.

Except I looked at Brooke’s face again and knew that it would.

The thing about being a flyer is this. If you think you’re going to fall, you will. If you think the bases are going to drop you, they do. And if you think this whole thing is some sort of twisted punishment for past sins, you’re absolutely one hundred percent correct.

An hour later, I still hadn’t managed to stick a liberty, but I had managed to acquire several new bruises that would look just lovely with the homecoming dress the twins had picked out for me.

“By the way,” Tiffany said, proving herself remarkably in tune with my thoughts. “We got you a new dress. It’s pink.”

The torture, it appeared, was just beginning. The worst part of it was that as hellish as this was and as catty as they were all being, I knew that if things had gone differently and I’d woken up this morning as a noncheerleader, my life would have been a whole lot worse.

“Let’s go again,” Brooke said. “One, two, down, up, down…up.” She counted off the movement, and this time, as they hoisted me none-too-gently into the air, I actually managed to stay there. My form wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t so much a liberty as a “get me the hell down from here,” but I stuck it.

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