Prepared 20-X

FLINT
The Lights Are Not All On Upstairs.

“Isn’t-” crunch “-ice-” crunch “-supposed-” crunch “-to be-” crunch “-fragile?”

Exhausted, my arms dropped back down onto the ground beside me, bringing the heavy weight of the ice-cuffs with them. Despite repeated gravity-powered poundings against the pavement, using what little strength I could still muster, the only sign of damage on them was a small amount of chipping on the bottom. It had been a good few minutes since everyone had left, but they hadn’t begun to melt at all either.

“Fuckin’ bullshit,” I panted, as the post-exertion burn began to wash across my arms. “I’m gonna start carrying an effin’ hairdryer around now.”

“Could be worse,” Ricochet said, slightly muffled by the short wall between us. “If it started meltin’, we’d get water in our pants.”

I winced. “Small blessings.” Honestly, that would’ve been appropriate, considering the way the day had been. “You don’t have anything that could get these off?”

“Unless you wanna cut your hand off, nah. That fuckwipe took all my gear, remember?”

“Wonderful.” I let my torso fall from its awkward half-raised position, and rested my head on the tarmac, looking up at the sky. My arms were twisted awkwardly across my chest, but it was really a secondary consideration to the aching pain.

“Okay, look, when I talked about not being able to leave you alone, it was supposed to be a joke. Y'all are like puppies at this point.”

I didn't bother moving my head. I physically couldn't, but I also didn't bother. “As always, great timing, Void.”

Footsteps grew louder, and her face appeared in my vision. “What happened?” she asked. “Where is everyone?”

I flicked my eyes at the cuffs and the wall. “The Tower happened. Same answer to the latter.”

“And they left you two behind?” she asked skeptically.

Tersely, I explained to her what had happened. As I did, I could hear two more sets of footsteps moving around.

“Well,” she said when I finished, “that's, uh…” she trailed off. “Fuck, man.”

Which about summed it up. “Yeah. She sounded serious about it too, and it's not like there was any reason to try and trick us. They had us dead to rights.”

“Yeah. I’m glad I wasn’t here, honestly. I’d either be with them, or where you two are.”

“I doubt the latter.”

She grinned. “Yeah, me too.” There was a crunching noise, and chips of ice flew over my head as I felt the cuffs splinter. Another crunch, and the cold weight fell away entirely. “Daniel?” Void asked. “Are you almost done?”

“Almost,” came his reedy voice in reply. “This stasis effect is really making it difficult.” I had wondered what Void had meant when she said she was going to get help, but I really should’ve been able to guess.

“Oh, it’s difficult for you?” Ricochet growled. “Feels like worms in my fuckin’ skin.”

“That’s the musculature repairing itself,” he said, sounding strained. “It’d feel like that anyway.”

“Yer a shitty healer then.”

“Ricochet, be nice,” Void said amusedly. “He’s saving your life.”

“I would’ve been fine,” she snorted, but she shut up.

After another minute or so, Daniel let out a long, heavy breath. “Okay. How does that feel?”

“Like there’s worms under my skin. Dead worms.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty normal for this sort of thing. Natalie, did you want me to-”

“If you could, that’d be good.”

Daniel’s face appeared in my vision, red and slightly sweaty. “Hey,” I said casually.

“Uh, hello.” He looked at Void. “I think I need to warn you now, I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do. I just healed him yesterday, and the more I do it in a short timeframe, the less effective it gets.”

“Just get him on his feet.”

“Without killing or permanently marring him, please,” I added wryly.

He knelt down, and placed one hand on my chest, then hissed and immediately withdrew it like he’d been burned. “What in… how are you still conscious?”

“I’m too stubborn to not be,” I replied.

He clutched his hand to his chest, looking worried. “I’m not joking. You have internal bleeding.”

“Well, that’s where the blood is supposed to be, right?”

“...how many times do you think I’ve heard that joke?”

“Never before, and I’m very original and funny?”

“Er, no. The opposite of that, actually.” Tentatively, he replaced his hand. “Euch. I’m surprised you’re not dead.”

“Can you do anything?”

He hummed, uncertain. “I do what I would normally call preventing him from dying, but I don’t think that label is accurate here. Based on this, I think I can get him on his feet? But I feel like that’s just going to mean he’s going to get even more injured.”

Ricochet laughed, and I glared at Void. “You’ve been telling him tall tales, haven’t you?”

“I have not,” she chuckled, “and if I had, they would be average-height tales. Because they’re true.”

“I got it the first time,” I grumbled. “Fix me up, doc. I’ll pinkie-swear not to do it again.”

He hesitated, glancing at Void. She nodded. “I understand where you’re coming from,” she said gently, “but this is important, Daniel. It could mean the difference between life and death-”

“Aww, I’m touched.”

“-because if he’s in this state, he’s holding the rest of us back.”

“Aw.”

“...promise you’ll try not to die.”

“Scout’s honor,” I said solemnly. Well, lied. I lied solemnly.

That seemed to do it for him. He closed his eyes and concentrated, and I felt almost painful warmth spread from his hand through my entire body. I didn’t swear, but only because I’d been expecting it.

After a few moments, it passed. I was still sore, and tired, and bruised, and also mildly naeseous, but it was no longer to the point of immobility. Hesitantly, I pushed myself up into a sitting position, and stretched my arms.

“It’s alive!” yelled Ricochet. “It’s aliiiiiiiiive!” She was on her feet, and the flesh through the bullethole in her armor was clean and unbroken.

Daniel was staring at me, rocked back on his heels. “What?” I asked him.

“That was more effective than it should’ve been,” he said. “Do you have any genetic conditions?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“If you get the chance, could you get checked? I feel like this could be important.”

“Now is probably not the best time for that, Dan,” Void interrupted.

“No, no,” he replied, flustered. “Not now, just… if you get the chance. Sometime.”

“Uh, sure, I guess.” Seeing as I could move again, I pushed myself up onto my feet, and looked around. As it turned out, the third set of footsteps I’d heard belonged to Ribbon, who was currently leaning against a wall, the strands of her costume flicking and snapping angrily at the air around her. “Ah, so that’s why you took so long,” I said to Void.

She nodded. “I figured we could use all the help we could get, and I wasn’t comfortable leaving her there in the first place.”

“Good call.” I streteched again, and found my range of motion was reduced and uncomfortable, but workable. “So. What now?”

“I don’t think we have much choice, really.” Her voice was grim. “If whatever that datapad turns out to be is as bad as the heroes think, then we’re obligated. Besides, we can’t just leave the others hanging in the wind. So…”

Ricochet made a puking noise, and Ribbon’s costume began lashing even harder.

“...we have to help the Tower,” I sighed. “Wonderful.”

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Prepared 20-IX

HANNAH
Surrounded By Idiots.

The chorus of protests was loud enough they probably heard it on the other side of town.

“Absolutely. Not.” Awestruck’s voice boomed over everyone else, drowning them out, and triggering a primal fear instinct in me that made we want to find something large and solid to hide under. “You’ve finally lost it.”

“Were you not listening?” Galvanize said, frustration bleeding through the artificial filtering. “If I’m right, we don’t have enough firepower. Even with them, we might not have enough.”

If you’re right.”

“I am.” There was nothing smug about the words. They were heavy with worry and a sort of dreading certainty. “But if I’m not, you can destroy my career all you like, and then throw this lot in jail cells afterwards.”

“Awestruck,” Paladin interceded. “Maybe we listen to her? When was the last time she acted like this?”

“...Lazarus,” he admitted grudgingly.

Never heard of it.

“Sabah will know. Or it’s classified, one of the two.”

“Yeah. So maybe the benefit of the doubt is earned here.”

Awestruck grimaced, turning away from her to face the Outliers, and by extension, me. “If any of you try anything,” he said flatly, “I will make sure you never see the sun again.”

“Hey, when was the last time we had any water?”

...uh, before we got on the train to the market? I think? Now’s a weird time to think about that.

“Not really. One, apparently we’re going to need to fight, and not being dehydrated would probably help. Two, on the other hand, it’s probably good that we didn’t, because we’d probably have pissed ourselves there.”


“...oh.”

Yeah.

“Ooh yeah,” Skew said sarcastically. “Be worried about all the trickery we’re going to pull from down here on the ground.”

“While dyin’,” Ricochet added.

“Those two are really leaning into the Greek Chorus thing, huh.”

“Instance,” Paladin asked, looking down at the two of them, “do you have any healing saved?”

“Minor ones,” he replied, sounding worried, “but nothing that’ll heal a gunshot wound.”

“Stabilize her, then, and bind them. Away from each other, not together. You two, try anything and, as bad as you might feel now, you’ll be longing for it once I’m done with you.”

“Aww,” Skew cooed as the hero approached, “we don’t get to be press ganged? I’m so disappointed.”

“You two know you’re not actually funny, right?” Instance asked as he leant over Ricochet. “Like, you have to know. You seem pretty self-aware.” He motioned for her to move her hands away from the wound, and laid one of his own over it. A harsh grey light began emanating from it, mildly unnerving to look at.

“I’m touched.”

“Not a compliment.” He withdrew his hand, to reveal the wound and the surrounding material were all now that same shade of grey. “That’s a stasis effect. It’s not going to get any better, but it’s not going to get worse either.” Standing back up, he brushed his hands off. “Fog?”

I turned around just in time to see her sweep past me, nearly bowling me over. Oh, right, she hates me, doesn’t she. I’d forgotten about that. With a quick gesture from her, fog flooded over the two injured, and snapped into restraints, and a small wall in between them.

“Oh sure,” Skew said, “because without this, we’d just hop right up and take you all on.”

“See, this is what I’m talking about,” Instance replied, sounding mildly amused. “You have to-”

“Found her,” Galvanize’s voice boomed out. “Everyone, follow me.” She swivelled away from us, towards a side street.

“You haven’t actually given us any reason to do that, you do realize.” It was… Flatline, that was it, speaking for the first time that I’d heard that night.

“No, I haven’t given you any choice. Now move.”

“And if we don’t?”

“Guys.” It was Skew’s voice, but… serious? It almost sounded strange. “Go. I’m pretty sure this is a big deal.”

“Are you sure?” Tide asked.

“Yeah. We’ll be fine. Go.” She turned to me. “I’m assuming you’re going?”

I scratched my head. “I kinda think I have to?” Plus, beating on Green Cloak sounds really nice right now.

“You do,” Galvanize confirmed. “Enough chatter, we need to move.” Her mech set off down the street. “Outliers in the middle. Guardians on the end.” Valiant followed her, and, tentatively, so did the others.

“I don’t know exactly what we’re going to find,” Galvanize began explaining. “This entire situation is shrouded in layers and layers of deception and false information. But I’ve gathered enough to know that someone who has possession of the information on that datapad is going to be capable of doing some horrible things. A teleporter doubly so.”

“You can’t be more specific?” Paladin asked.

“And why,” Awestruck growled, “are we now only hearing about this.”

“No I cannot, and because it was just speculation and hearsay before. The relevant people were kept in the loop.”

“So basically,” Tide called out, “we’re cannon fodder.”

“Yes,” the hero replied bluntly, which seemed to take the wind out of her sails somewhat.

Kai, who had been doing her best to make herself invisible, hadended up lumped in with the Outliers along with me. She  was muttering to herself, arms folded tightly, and when I tried to walk closer to her she moved away.

“She blames us for dragging her into this. Which is pretty fair, to be honest.”

We’ve been dragged into this just as much as she has!

“Right, because these things are always so logical. And you know that’s not true anyway.”

...darn.

Without Skew, I had no real way of interacting with the Outliers, so I ended up at the back of the group, right in front of the Guardians. I realized my mistake just a hand came clamping down on my shoulder.

“You have some explaining to do,” Stump growled from above me.

I’d had enough.

I ghosted, and he stumbled as his arm went straight through me. I kept walking. “Look,” I said, feeling somewhat justifiably irritated, “I know it looks bad. But I didn’t ‘betray’ you, I didn’t stab you in the back, I’m not working any angle. I was trying to find the Prowlers like you asked me to. I can’t help it if the universe wants to keep throwing me in with these gosh-darned idiots, but I’m not with them.”

“And Stonewall?” he asked, flat. Now it was my turn to stumble.

“You forgot about that, didn’t you.”

WE’VE BEEN BUSY, OKAY?

“That,” I said with as much false confidence as I could muster, “was extenuating circumstances.”

“Which were?”

“Extenuating.” I could feel him glaring at me.

“Ha- Wisp.” Wait, did he- “Are you trying to handle everything in the worst way possible?

“No!” I protested. “It just… keeps working out that way.” It sounded weak, even to me.

“Once this is over, there are going to be consequences. You know that, right?”

I sighed. “I’m… not really good at thinking ahead. Right now I’m just trying to concentrate on the here and now.”

“Maybe not the worst idea,” he conceded. “But, please. That stunt you pulled cost us a lot. Just… think, please? Even just a little? About others, if not about yourself?”

I looked ahead, at Kai. “...I’ll try,” I said quietly. “But right now, I really do think the present is probably more important.”

“I guess that’ll have to do.” He let himself start slowing, moving back towards the others. “Oh, and stay away from Fog. She hates you even more, now.”

I groaned. “Why did she even hate me in the first place?”

“Honestly, I don’t even know,” he admitted. “I’m not really sure she does.” I glanced back at him, and sure enough, I could see her glaring at me from behind him.

That’s comforting.

“Hey, we have a nemesis! There are worse things to have.”

She is not my nemesis. Also, that’s dumb, I don’t have a nemesis.

“What about Green Cloak?”

...shush up.

“Stump had a point, you know. A good point.”

Can we not rehash this again? Not now?

“Fine. But it needs hashing, sooner or later.”

Later.

“It better be. Also, was it just me or did he-”

LATER.

I glanced back over my shoulder, checking to see if Fog was still glaring at me (she was). As I did, though, I saw something flash across a rooftop. Just for the briefest of moments, a flicker of white.

Did you see that?

“See what?”

...never mind. It was probably nothing.

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Prepared 20-VIII

FLINT
King Undisputed.

In retrospect, I only had myself to blame for this. Noticing something about the Tower, and then dismissing it? I might as well have A-framed my legs and hung a “Kick Me” sign above my crotch.

“I’m gonna assume this is somehow yer fault,” Ricochet said to me.

I sighed. “I’m so glad we’re friends.”

The Tower heroes dropped down from the rooftop, Balthazar levitating those that couldn’t take the fall on their own. “All of you,” boomed Awestruck, hovering above the ground, “get down on the ground and put your hands behind your head. You are under arrest.” I’d never been inclined to see him in a particularly heroic light, but right then, he looked downright villainous; mixed shades of grey in his costume, harsh shadows on the lines of his face from the light Paladin’s glowing armor was putting off. He raised a hand and pointed, and with a whipcrack noise, a shockwave tore up the ground in front of Kai, who had been trying to sneak away. “All of you.”

“Can you move your hands?” I asked Ricochet, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Cause I can’t.”

She waggled a few of her fingers, currently applying pressure to her wound. “Well, I can. Should is another thing.”

“Well, we’re on the ground already, right? Points for effort.”

“Don’ think they’re gonna go for that.”

Predictably, the others weren’t obeying either. Thankfully, the Prowlers and mercs had already been secured, or they probably would've taken the surprise of the new arrivals as an opportunity. The Outliers had been somewhat spread-out, but I could see pretty easily that once things popped off, they'd mostly be moving directly towards Stonewall and Vortex, who could protect them from the first blows Which, you know, indomitable spirit and all that, but I really wasn’t seeing a way out of this. We couldn’t fight Valiant on their own while fresh; with the Guardians, while injured and under-strength? Even the most compulsive gambler wouldn’t put money on that. Still, if we were gonna go down, going down fighting seemed pretty good to me, even if I couldn’t actually stick to it myself.

“You have five seconds to comply.” All of them stood at the ready, various appendages, tools or parts beginning to glow or move. “Four.” The Outliers shifted slightly, doing the same. “Three.” Kai, muttering words I couldn’t hear in a high-pitched, strained tone, dropped straight down to the ground and covered her head. Less obeying instructions, and more trying to make herself less of a target. “Two.” And Wisp was-

“O-”

“Wait!” As tense as things were, the sudden cry made almost everyone jump. “Waitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwait!” Wisp rose out of the ground in between the two groups. What the fuck? “Just… please, wait.”

“Why?” asked Stump. “So you can lie to our faces and then stab us in the back again?”

Again, what the fuck?

“What? Argh, no, that’s not-” She paused, clenching and unclenching her hands. “Now isn’t the time. That datapad you were all looking for? Green Cloak just took it.”

Dead silence.

I let my head slump back onto the tarmac. Well, at least she didn’t say that we had it in the first place.

The reaction, though, wasn’t what I was expecting. Or from who I was expecting. “...you’re sure?” asked the artificial voice of Galvanize. And even through the filtering, she sounded worried.

“Positive,” Wisp said, sounding a little uncertain.

“We need to find her,” the hero said, turning to the others. “Now.

“What?” Paladin asked. “What’s going on.”

“No time to explain.” Her oddly-shaped mech began to rise, until it was about half a story off the ground. “We need to find her, before it’s too late.” Small panels began opening on the mech, sensory devices sliding out of them and pointing in different directions.

“It’s just a datapad.” Balthazar said, disbelieving. “How much harm-”

“There is a strong chance we will all die,” Galvanize said curtly. “There is an absolute chance that many, many people will die.”

“I don’t think-” Paladin began, but Awestruck cut in over her.

“She’s right.” He turned to the Guardians. “You handle this. It will be a good training exercise.”

“Ya hear that?” Ricochet snorted. “Hey, we’re a trainin’ exercise. Glad to be of service.”

“Absolutely not,” Galvanize said. “We’re not leaving behind any potential firepower. You’re all coming with us too.”

Christ. It was possible the hero was overreacting, but somehow, I didn’t think it was likely. We’d sort of know, or suspected, that the datapad contained dangerous information, but they way she was talking about it was more like a weapon. Suddenly, I was very glad we’d managed to get it away from Edith. If she had gotten her hands on something like this…

Then again, I wasn’t sure Green Cloak was any better. Edith was crazier, but Green Cloak was, you know, dumber.

“You don’t make the calls here,” Awestruck growled at Galvanize. All the Guardians were looking slightly uncomfortable and confused. The Outliers were too, of course, but they were hiding it better.

“Of all the times to be getting insecure, Awestruck, now is not one of them.”

“And them?” He jabbed a finger in our direction. “Are you suggesting we just let them go?”

“No. When I said “all”, I meant it.” Her mech shifted slightly to look at the Outliers. “You all want to be heroes, right? That’s how you frame it. You think we’re not up to snuff, and so you’ve got to step in and do it yourselves, because you’re all teenagers and any form of complexity in systems or morality is completely foreign to you.”

Um.

“Well, congratulations, now’s your chance to actually make good on that. Consider yourselves shanghaied, because we’re going to need every hand we can get.”


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Prepared 20-VII

HANNAH
Run Away, And Never Return.

Everything was happening too fast. I stared at Ricochet’s limp form, frozen in place and panicking. This wasn’t happening, this wasn’t happening, this wasn’t-

“Stop. Not now. The others need to know. You can freak out later.”

I don’t- I gathered myself, switched. Okay. ““They’re, uh-” my voice caught in my throat, “spreading out, looking for it, somewhere in fifty meters, and- Ricochet is… down. She’s been shot.” I couldn’t bear to stick around to see the reaction, and I was back, staring at Porter’s back.

“Okay, it’s just him. You can take him. Hit him from behind, try and-”

With an unholy scream, Skew came charging around the corner, nearly bowling me over, and slammed into Porter, bearing him to the ground.

Oh. I didn’t realize they were that close. Skew had charged on ahead of the others, but they were close behind. “Skew!” Void yelled at him, which was about as effective as shouting at a wall. “D*mnit. Round them up,” she said to the others.
“We have the numbers advantage, so take advantage of it.”

They split off, moving towards the mercenaries and Prowlers still in the open.

Which abruptly left me with nothing to do. Skew seemed to have Porter well in hand (by which I meant that I wasn’t going anywhere near someone that obviously, apocalyptically ticked off) and Void was moving towards Ricochet. I didn’t want to go and help the others fight; it felt like giving up my presence was the wrong thing to do, and I wasn’t going to be moving around a fight while invisible and get friendly-fired to death. I guess I’m looking for this datapad, then. If I were a crazy gun-obsessed vigilante, where around here would I hide something?

I turned, scanning the area. There weren’t that many options, and all of them had been taken by one of the bad guys. Abandoned building across the road, two piers, bus stop, some kind of small security shack? All of them seemed equally likely. The piers were being handled by the Outliers, so that left security shack, building, bus stop.

“Eenie meenie minie-”

No.

“Fine, be a spoilsport.”

We need to think about this.
“Based on what? You’ve got literally no idea about any of these. Guessing is all we have. It could be any of the three.”

Or… My eyes fell on the sewer grate a few feet away.

“...”

It makes sense.

“No. No more sewers.”

You think I'm happy about it? Retreading the same darn thing over and over?

“You understand we’re going to stink for days?”

You understand your priorities are way off?

“Let me have this.”

The grate was really darn heavy, and I couldn’t use my powers without revealing myself, but I eventually managed to my fingers into the gaps, lift it above the lip and slide it partially open, just enough to slip through. It was a pretty safe bet no-one was paying enough attention to notice it, but just in case, I replaced so that it was almost back in place, with just a sliver of a gap to let the light through. No easy feat when hanging from a ladder, but I managed.

Sadly, I didn’t find a room with a chest in the center, bathed in a perfect halo of light, and the datapad inside. It was just a sewer, like the others, with nothing in sight that looked even remotely like a hiding place.

“Good guess, dingus.”

Shush, there’s probably more of those tunnels around here. The sewer stretched out for a long while to my left and right, but straight ahead of me was another shorter path, and then a t-junction. Investigating it revealed that it was the same as the previous one, with one crucial difference: a rectangular concrete doorway, out of sight from where the entrance was. Unlike the others, though, this one actually had a door on it, a solid steel slab with a chunk lock attached.

No one was going to see me down here, so I made a clone and crushed the lock in my hand, then swung the door open. It was soundless and smooth, enough so that I almost hit myself with it. Behind it was a short dark corridor, and a small, square room, with, I kid you not, a single light hanging from the ceiling, pointing at a large metal safe.

“Item get,” I muttered to myself as I began walking forward.

“It’s absolutely trapped, right?”

No crap. I ghosted just before entering the room properly, and as I looked down, I could just barely see the light reflecting off of a tripwire as my legs passed through it. Wasn’t hard to figure out what would have happened if I’d pulled that.

There were probably other traps as well, but I didn’t see any obvious signs of them as I walked up to the safe, and crouched down in front of it. It had a large, complicated looking dial in the center, which seemed like too much trouble, so I just pushed a finger through the seam of the door and dragged it through the hinges. The door fell forward and hit the ground with a clang, revealing the interior, and the datapad.

There was other stuff too; some large oddly-coloured bullets, what looked like an old CB radio, a single, battered notebook, green with a fraying spine, and money. Quite a bit of it, multiple stacks in multiple currencies. Suddenly, I felt a bit bad for breaking the door, but it wasn’t like she had given me the code. Besides, all the traps were still there. I picked up the datapad, tried to put the door back in place as best I could, and turned around to leave.

Hugging the pad to my chest seemed to allow me to keep holding it when I ghosted, like doing so with my glasses had made them invisible along with me. I shut the door behind me, went to switch back, but then reconsidered and left my real body there. It was probably safer that way.

When I pushed the grate out of the way and stuck my head out, it was clear that the fight was over. The Outliers had the Prowlers and mercenaries tied and/or cuffed to various objects, including Porter, who had been dragged away from Ricochet, and were now sort of milling about. Kai was near them, but still slightly separate, leaning against a wall with her arms folded. Skew was lying on her back next to Ricochet, who had rolled over onto her back and was now pressing her hands to her wound. Seeing that was a relief: I didn’t know her, but as a general rule I’m more of a fan of people living.

“Hey, guys!” I yelled at the group as I clambered out of the sewer, waving the datapad with one hand. “Is this it?”

“Yep,” said Green Cloak’s voice from behind me, and something pulled the pad out of my hand. Hearing her voice, I instinctively spun around, trying to hit her, but she was already gone, the suction left in her place pulling me forward slightly.

I spun around, wide-eyed, trying to follow where she’d gone, but I couldn’t see her anywhere.

“Are you,” Skew’s voice said, and I turned back to see her pulling herself up into something resembling a sitting position, “F***ING KIDDING ME?” The others were yelling, spreading out and darting around as she continued to yell from her prone position.

I stared mutely down at my hand. Something was bubbling up inside me, like boiling acid or liquid nitrogen, something that had been building all night. It forced its way up my throat, and out my mouth, and I clutched at my hair and screamed, wordless frustration and anger and the sheer frickin’ pointlessness of it all condensed into a single sound.

“Bad night, huh?” called a familiar voice. Hollow, echoey.

Oh, no.

I looked up to see Stump standing on a rooftop above us, flanked by the other Guardians, and behind them, all four members of Valiant.

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Prepared 20-VI

FLINT
Can’t Be Caught Unawares.

“Of course she'd hide it on the docks,” I grumbled, as Wisp slumped back into unconsciousness up ahead. “Typical.”

Void glanced back at us, and the group as a whole. “Remember the plan,” she called out, before lifting off into the air. Beside her, Freefall vanished with her usual lack of flair.

“Why is that typical?” asked Kai. She wasn’t nearly as winded as I was, which I took as a personal insult.

“Because,” I panted, “Li- Ricochet is basically a danger-junkie with zero sense of subtlety. So, if someone asked her to hide something, in order to keep it away from criminals and other unsavoury sorts, where else is she going to put it-”

“-than right under their noses,” she finished.

“Uh, yeah. Exactly.” Another reminder that I didn’t really know anything about her; it wasn’t common knowledge about the smuggling gigs that ran out of the old docks, or the fact that they often clashed over it. “You a street kid?” I asked, working from an intuition.

She pretended not to hear me, which I took as a yes. Probably a touchy subject, then.
We’d fallen far enough behind that I almost missed the next communication, the sound muffled by distance. The panicked tone caught my attention though, and I focused in. “They’re, uh, spreading out, looking for it, somewhere in fifty meters, and-”

And we rounded the corner, to see the mercenary leader standing over a limp form on the ground.

“Ricochet is… down. She’s been shot.”

For a moment, everything was still. I could hear my own blood pumping in my ears. Then, my veins filled with ice, bitterly cold and frigid. Absolutely fucking not.

The others were talking about something, chattering in alarmed voices, but I tuned them out. Wasn’t important. My whole body burnt with pain, my lungs gasped for breath, but somehow those didn’t seem as big of a deal as they had seconds ago. In fact, they didn’t seem relevant at all. Without even thinking about it, I powered ahead of them, my vision tunneling down until all I could see was the man, and Lis, still fine, still alive, just lying down and not moving and blood pooling out from-

Someone was yelling. I realized belatedly that it was me. I didn’t remember deciding to do that, but it seemed appropriate, so I let it keep happening. The mercenary, gun still in hand, spun around, shock etched into his face, just in time for me to hit him with a flying tackle and send him flying to the ground.

More by chance than by any particular skill or effort, I ended up on top of him. I swung both fists down towards his head in a hammerblow, but he managed to get one arm out from underneath me and block it. My blow bounced off like it had just hit rubber, but his arm was forced downwards too, and I hit it again, forcing it to bounce straight into his face, knocking it against the concrete. It, too, bounced: a very small, very quiet part of my brain noted that he must have been able to shapeshift parts of himself. That was fine by me, though; I smacked his head down again and again with a fist, treating it like a spring-loaded punching bag. It was kind of funny, actually, until my fist connected and found something hard and unyielding instead of flesh. There was a nasty crack that I felt even through the haze, and one my fingers stopped doing what I told it to do.

The mercenary tossed me off him, and reached for the gun he’d dropped, pointing it at me. He fired, but I’d been ready, and the pistol tore itself to pieces as the bullet tried to exit vertically through the slide. To his credit, he didn’t waste any time being confused, instantly tossing the useless hunk of metal to the side, but he’d already lost the moment, and I hit him again, in the side this time, sending a furious spike of pain from my finger up my arm. That wasn’t going to be sustainable, so I instead used it to grab his arm, grasped his shoulder with the other, and pivoted around my hip and slammed him to the ground.

He hit with a pained grunt, and something snaked around my arms and pulled me down with him. I leant into it, landing on his chest with both knees, causing him to lose his weird snake-grip on my arms.

Then, I proceeded to hit him until he stopped moving.

And then I hit him some more, and I pretty much kept on doing that for the next little while.

At some point, hands grabbed me and lifted me off him. “Flint?” someone asked. It was Void, staring at me concernedly through the gash in her helmet. “Are you…”

“Fix her,” I said dully. “Go get your healer, and fix her.” All the energy had drained out of me, and I stared off into the distance, not willing to look down at-

“Flint, she’s-”

“Just… please, Talie.”

“Yeah, Talie,” said a weak voice. “Go get him.”

“Oh cool,” I said tiredly, “I’m imagining voices now. That’s fun.”

The voice laughed weakly. “What a surprise, Flint’s crazy.”

Void stared at me flatly. “Like I was trying to say before you interrupted me-”

“I live, motherfucker,” said Lis.

“Well, not that exactly.”

I stared blankly at her for a moment. She’d rolled over onto her back, and was sitting up awkwardly, with both hands clutched to her gut. Her headgear was pulled up off her face, and she was pale and sweating profusely, looking pained.

But she was alive.

“Would it actually kill you if I hugged you right now?” I asked with a weak grin.

She rolled her eyes. “It’d kill me even if I hadn’t just been shot.”

That brought the reality back in. “How bad is it?” Void asked.

“I’ve had worse,” she said, wincing. “But there was always someone with a medical kit right there.”

“You’ve been shot before?”

“Yep. My mom did it once, just so I’d know what it felt like.”

“Well, that was a horrifying sneak peak into your childhood,” Void muttered. “Look, I don’t want to move you right now. I’m gonna go and get Da- a healer.” She glanced at me. “He should probably have a look at you too, Flint.” I was too tired to protest. “Keep pressure on that. I will be right back with help.”

She lifted off into the air, and we watched her go. One of the others started dragging Porter’s unconscious body away, but I couldn’t muster up the energy to lift my head and see who it was.

“I can’t believe you got yourself captured,” I said to her.

“Oh, fuckin’ excuse me, who just got locked in a fuckin’ kill room for like a day?!”

“How did you even hear about that?!”

“I gots sources.”

“You’re a fucking liar and you know it.”

“Souuurceeesssss.” She waggled her fingers at me, then immediately winced and put her hand back.

Footsteps approached. “Are you two alive?” Tide asked.

“Barely,” Lis and I said together. “Oh shut the fuck up,” she continued immediately, “I’m way closer to death than you are.”

I made a face at her.

Tide sighed. “Okay, so you’re both fine, then.".

“Hey, guys!” It was Wisp’s voice, and she was close enough to my current field of vision that I managed to look at her. She was waving one hand at us, and holding something in the other. “Is this it?”

“Yep,” said Green Cloak, as she appeared behind her, snatched the datapad and disappeared again.

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