Hidden 7 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by JunkMail
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Archie


"How long are we thinking we'll need? The sooner the better. Today."

Archie shifted uncomfortably at this. He seemed hesitant, like an animal unsure as to whether it was going to interact with the unknown. "I don't think today is a good idea." Archie started, his voice slow as if he was choosing his words uncharacteristic care. His statement was further backed up by Nic's explanation of his ability. He could remotely see through everyone's eyes if they were in contact with him, spreading his tendrils out in spore that people could catch like a virus or a particularly nasty STD. Even better, one could drink away the problem if they so desired.

A part of him wished there were other types of issues one could drink away... but oftentimes alcohol created more problems than it did solutions. It brought forth the memories of a gunshot, Agent Radvi bleeding out on the ground, Lynn's hands covered in blood, and Eli slipping away trying to keep Radvi from dying an excruciating death. He shivered, and in his nervousness at the idea of storming The Spire today and the ever haunting memories, a low but solitary beep emitted from his heart monitor. Archie was quick to cover it, although he was sure that the others had heard it, placing his free hand over the bracelet in embarrassment.

"I think we should give Nic a few days to... work his magic." Archie explained. "If we know when they come in and out of the entrance and their general routes in The Spire, Nic could have a mental map of the place through them. I'd rather know where I'm going than die lost and confused." Because he had known that that felt like. To be on the other side of a gun when you had no idea what was happening. To suddenly be terrified at the concept of dying when the last memory you had was being asleep in your bed. He didn't want to stumble through the dark again, and he certainly didn't want to spend any more time in The Spire than absolutely necessary. The longer they spent treading over the same ground up there, the more likely they were to be caught.

"It'll give everyone time to get their affairs in order. And give Packet time to think if they need to. Lets give it four or five days. Maybe more. However long its necessary for Nic to have a sense of direction up there."

Lest they end up lost in the stars.
Hidden 6 mos ago 6 mos ago Post by Typical
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Keaton Plasse


Though “the sooner the better” was true, today was soon, especially given Nic’s explanation of his powers. The two day time frame Nic put forth looked to be the plan, then. Archie’s suggestion of four to five days was too long for Keaton’s liking since while she agreed that there was planning and prep to be done, time was still of the essence. The longer the group sat around, the greater the chance of something going awry. That said, Keaton and Lynn had known about everything for much longer than the rest of the group, so it was only fair to give the others some extra time to wrap up loose ends. Being ready to leave her life on board at the drop of a hat wasn’t a shared trait, after all, but Keaton still wanted to push the schedule forward.

“I don’t think we should wait on the plan. We don’t know when Ariana could strike next, or when Gennedy might catch on,” she said, looking between the group to gauge their reactions. If anyone felt like they couldn’t sort their affairs out within a few days, they could speak up now, or at least look uncomfortable enough for Keaton to pick up on it. “Let’s give it three days for now. We can meet again in two to discuss the plan, then finalize it either then or on the third before we head out.”

Three days sounded pretty generous to Keaton. According to Nic, it took around nine hours for his power to activate. Factoring in needing to see where each target fit within the Spire, that gave them three attempts at securing targets going by days, or more if they worked around the clock. As for sorting out personal matters, Keaton thought it unlikely that any of the people at the table, who’d just agreed to go on what was basically a suicide mission, had much to arrange.

“Either way, we should start today. Would it be possible for me to meet Packet?” Keaton looked to Eli. The girl was protective of others, loyal to them without much cause, sometimes, and that was part of why Keaton respected her. That same protectiveness was holding her back from pushing Packet around, and while Keaton understood her reasoning, there were lives at stake. If pushing around some kid with powers helpful to them was going to increase their odds of success and therefore survival, she was willing to do it. How far she was willing to go depended on how helpful and unwilling Packet was, and she’d have to meet him to determine that. Timewise, it’d be more efficient to bring Nic along so she didn't have to play messenger, but baby steps were the key to success for this.

“But, other than that, I think that's it. I’ll keep everyone updated over text on how the plan is going and how Nic’s infection rate is. Probably with some gardening metaphors or something.” She shrugged. “Feel free to stick around and help or listen in on more planning, but otherwise, meeting adjourned.”
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Hidden 6 mos ago Post by Luminous Beings
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Lynn


Leotard spoke but Lynn's mind would not focus. It was just thinking of Packet. Is he old enough to drive? Has he had his first shitty haircut? Is he old enough to want to fuck girls, or - Lynn's fingers tightened around her biceps as she stood in the gray camp shirt, watching Leo as he spoke. As he mentioned the limitations of his powers, Lynn privately halved them for her own personal memory. For the girl who had not seemed to remember a single theorem for any of her math quizzes that semester, she etched what the spore-flinger said into her skull. This one shouldn't be trusted, you fucking idiots, she wanted to hiss. Even she, however, had to admit they were up against some very steep odds, and if one were going into this ordeal with the goal of surviving, turning down this brat was less than ideal. Still, Lynn wished there had been a little more preparation for this. We shouldn't have brought him now. He proves his loyalty by getting this information. Now he knows the whole group and their names, their powers. She shot a glance at Keaton. Denim was the smartest person she had ever met - but she thought that she had, perhaps, never had the same kinds of lessons as Lynn had. Sharing information with the new guy so he was up to speed was the smart thing to do, but Lynn wondered if Keaton's power gave her an ounce of cunning. Maybe you were a meta after all, she thought bitterly to the old familiar voice wondering what use this pommel horse Judas had after he told them the ways in and out of the Spire.

"If you're going to take notes, keep a lighter or something on you to torch it if you get caught," Lynn said. "Wearing, I don't know, literally anything else might help with not getting caught, by the way." Lynn felt it strange she was lecturing him on this given she had a >1 felony/hr ratio that day, and was wearing an outfit that was rather plainly neither hers nor legally acquired.

Archie shot down going today, and Lynn felt a sharp flash of anger at him before it passed. It's not him, she thought, rubbing at her forehead. Three days. Three days of this. Her stomach rolling over. The - thinking about the hospital bed. Lynn blinked, realizing she'd been looking at Spoons. Still - four or five days was too long. Especially with Unknown Factor back handspringing his way through the Spire's security forces. Unless Packet started his work on Cara early, that was.

For a dizzying moment, Lynn had two thoughts that rocked her as if she'd had her skull blasted apart again. She could get to Packet first and convince him not to help - scare him shitless, anything - if she cared about this shithead teenager more than everyone at these tables.

Then the second: no matter what she chose, she was just using someone. Another kid. Which one? Who deserved to live? I suppose I should be the one to pick, after all, Lynn thought, her empty stomach threatening to heave, the socket in her head aching. I've got more experience at getting kids killed than any of them do.

"Less waiting the better," Lynn said, again so sharply and suddenly it surprised herself. "In the event you don't hear something related to - fucking gardening, I guess - from Denim each night, assume they got to her." Lynn didn't attempt to disguise her looking at Leotard as she said this. "Act accordingly." Lynn's tone left little room for ambiguity. She reached for another cigarette and cursed. Next time I rip that guy off, I'm not going easy on him. "Oy, Amelia, you got another one?" she asked, turning to Amelia. Leather jacket's better on her. I probably look like a six year old Hell's Angel in that thing. A pirate Hell's Angel. Christ, what if they shoot out the other one while we do this. I can't play the piano or nothing. Lynn scratched at the bandage, sparking a raw pain in the socket before she pulled away. It itched. "I'll help plan," she said. "And wouldn't be opposed to meeting Packet. Geek like him meeting two and a half teenage girls, probably like Christmas fuckin' morning for him." The candle flickered up and then the tree and - Lynn had not missed Leotard's reference to prompting cooperation from the kid whether he wanted to or not. Lynn's mind was too frantic, like a thousand steel ball bearings blasting against the inside of a shotgun barrel as it fired, to form any one single stance on the issue, whether it was worth scaring this kid shitless or not, whether any of this was right. "After that I'm going to the gym and I'm going to let Vaquero wreck me one last time, so, you know." Lynn stopped, realizing she'd been implicitly inviting the others to do this, like the time with Eli, when they'd giggled and made fun of the hostess. She scratched at her head. She'd need to eat a lot of food to be in fighting shape come three days time, but - but that hadn't really been why she'd set it.

"And getting absolutely annihilated isn't off the table either. Maybe if we're lucky we'll - " she paused short of saying make even more cops shoot themselves this time, remembering Denzel at the very last moment. I can't believe I just held back a joke about a fucking cop for these people. " - find some good shit, I dunno." she fumbled out, rubbing at her head.
Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Skai
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Eli & Co.

“See you at the bonfire. Twenty minutes.
Packet


Eli felt a twist in her stomach as she sent the text. She hadn’t been to the woods since homecoming night. Since Radvi sent himself into a coma. It was hard enough that they were meeting Packet to ask him to join their expedition. To live hoco night again through distant memories would be even more difficult. Although their old party spot was now on the map of the security officers, Eli thought it would be the best place to avoid any cameras or listening bugs. There were slim chances that a security officer would make their way to the one spot that one of their colleagues had fallen on the one day the group decided to meet. If their messages were being monitored, it would be hard to pinpoint the exact location they could have a bonfire. The station might have been small, but there were plenty of places for students to hide from security’s watchful eye.

She looked up from where she sat at the edge of the forest. The rest of the group would be arriving soon, but she was glad to have this time to herself. It had only been two days since the decision had been made to go to the Spire, but to Eli it felt like years. The anxiety she felt about risking the group’s lives- her life- was building more and more as time passed. She could barely sleep. Instead, she took the time to write her mother a letter. It was stuck inside of her pocket ready to be sent before they took their first steps towards certain disaster. It would be too obvious to send a text and too hard to say goodbye in a call. A letter would do the trick, and it would arrive after their mission was through. It didn’t say anything that would alert the Promise if they read letters before they were sent. It would just say what it needed to, and her mother would be able to move on if she never heard from Eli again. It was hard to imagine her mother’s grief, but it would mean that her mom would never have to worry about Eli’s safety again. Especially after the welcoming day.

Eli took a deep breath through her nose, and she slowly released it through her mouth. She listened to the sounds of the woods and let it ground her. She closed her eyes. Only a few more minutes until the rest arrived.



In Lynn’s head, there was still the rhythmic thump thump of hitting the bag. She’d left the meeting with all her senses dancing with nerves. Someone will talk, she knew, reinforcing every detail of Leotard she could remember into her brain. She didn’t like how little she knew of him, and how open-handed Denim had been in giving him information. The Promise hasn’t ever thrown friends at us when we needed them, she wanted to scream. A guy who could infect people with spores? To Lynn, it was all too similar to what they’d heard and seen of Arianna. Had Lynn not been confident she could repel his spores, she would’ve had more of an outrage at working alongside him. Even so, she couldn’t admit they weren’t desperate.

Thump thump Lynn hit the bag, knocking the bag that was over half her body weight back as far as its chain would allow it before it came swinging back. Lynn grunted and let it slam into her before grappling it with one arm - that barely was able to reach around it well enough - and threw kidney punch after kidney punch into the side. Sweat glistened down her cheeks for only a few minutes before it started to steam off her, and the air around the bag filled with shimmering heat and a sauna’s worth of steam. With no gloves, her knuckles split open against the leather after a quarter hour, only to stitch themselves back as she pulled her arm back for another punch, the wound cauterized before it had time to bleed.

After she’d exhausted herself on the bag, she ate more than she could possibly fathom at Vaquero’s and tried her best to sleep. When that hadn’t worked, she walked. And walked. Anywhere. Thinking over all the ways things could go wrong. Ways of getting in. The kid on fire, trying to pull the molten gun off his skin as it fused in, burning and scalding. The cafeteria that first day. The smell of gunpowder. Her knee exploding with pain. Her eye itching. A hospital bed. Making fun of the hostess. Having to grab Leotard around the neck like she had Salamandra. Denim putting flour on the ground. Leather jackets. Security doors. Would they have tear gas? Archie choking and wheezing as the gas burned his eyes and throat, his skin rippling as his spine popped and snapped. The feel of a gun kicking in her hand, the barrel cherry red after only a shot or two. Seeing a meat cleaver through her knee. The feeling of burning out. Cold. Hairless. Ugly. Hospital beds. Clarita and Megan. Che was still alive out there somewhere. She wondered if she’d ever see him again. She didn’t know if she’d kill him or drink with him.

Lynn stopped at a window somewhere. The Earth was blue. There wasn’t a lot of blue on the Promise, she thought. I guess the Bloods claimed this place early. She folded her arms over, watching for a moment in silence. In the martial law since the fuck-up at the loading dock, there weren’t many people out. No one stopped to talk to Lynn, although the security watched her each time she passed. No thanks from you fucks, she wanted to hiss. I stopped them, I keep stopping them, I shouldn’t have. I should’ve let Salamandra go. But as soon as all that started to boil up and her hair began to ignite she’d remember Salamandra’s hand in Archie’s hair, throwing him to the floor, the monstrous fuck outside Spoons had fought, the doll in the woods, the feeling of smashing her head into the wall and - thump thump. Lynn blinked and looked out at the window. “It’s kinda fucked I had to go into space to see the ocean,” Lynn said to no one in particular.

Then she walked on.

Lynn’s nerves went from primed and jittery to absolute calm. She ate as much as she could. Her eye itched. She kept as low a profile as a walking bonfire can. She went to the woods, the smell of the trees refreshing a bit. Lynn wondered if there was time to get absolutely hammered before all this went to hell. Kinda fucked we have to die sober, she thought. Throughout it all she’d had no idea what she would do with Packet. If this virgin is half as smart as he thinks he is he’ll ghost this meeting. She walked towards the bonfire, wanting to rest her hands in her hoodie as she normally did. Her jean pockets weren’t the same. Scowling, she stepped over the fallen branches. I wonder if half of Paw Patrol’s skull is still lying somewhere out here, she thought. Lynn stepped into the clearing after circling it once from a distance, looking for any security guards or teenagers who’d slipped out here to hook up A hospital bed. Denzel was waiting. Denzel looked rattled. Lynn figured that was probably normal. She wondered how she looked. She’d gotten a good glimpse at herself when she’d changed the bandages that morning. She’d thought seeing her own kneecap burst open would be the freakiest thing she’d ever see, but Lynn had proven incorrect. There was stuff in the socket. Shit was weird.

Lynn stood next to one of the trees, unsure of how to start this conversation. She rubbed at her head and nudged her itching eye through the bandages, which prompted a dull pain, though far less severe than it had been the day before. “So,” Lynn finally said, looking around. “Is this guy as big a fucking nerd as I’m imagining?”



Despite Eli’s current emotional state, Lynn’s comment cracked a smile across her face. She looked up at Lynn. From this angle, she looked older. She’d grown so much since Eli first met her. While she hadn’t exactly matured physically, Eli could notice the difference in the way Lynn stood. The way Lynn acted around the group. Someone who was once so untrusting looked comfortable with who she was with. Eli’s eyes glazed over the bandage on her face, and she was beginning to wonder if Lynn would ever see her new eye.

”If you’re asking if he’s smart, I’d say he’s definitely the biggest nerd on the Promise.” Her smile grew wider and she pushed herself up onto her feet, now looking down on Lynn. ”If he does agree to come with us onto the Spire, he’ll do a lot more than quote Star Gate though.”



Walking through the woods in the day, Keaton found it difficult to reconcile what she remembered of the woods with the trees around her. That, however, only served to focus her attention on her surroundings as she worked out where the campground was, where the group had headed that night, where Arianna had disappeared to and where Radvi had almost bled out over the leaves. What stood out to her more than the tragedy that’d occurred, though, was how useless she’d been then. Tipsy and hesitant and failing to fight through alcohol-fueled doubt, she’d been completely useless, helpless up until the moment she’d forced herself to step forward, and by then it was already too late.

But it’d been different at the loading bay. She hadn’t been useless, hadn’t let her doubts get to her. She’d grabbed a gun and gotten it done, and that’s what made walking through these woods that much more bearable. History could repeat itself now. Keaton wouldn’t be making that kind of a mistake again. This time, and every time after, if that mattered, she’d bring her A game.

Spotting Eli and Lynn up ahead, she waved, walking towards them. “Hey,” she said when she was close enough, offering a smile as she glanced between them. Neither of them looked to be in the best of spirits, but not being in the worst was good. They were sorting things out then, Eli with her family and friends and Lynn with herself. They weren’t done yet, but they still had time. She and Nic still weren’t ready, unfortunately, but they were taking their time because it was better to be safe than sorry. Aside from meeting twice a day, once in the morning before traffic into the Spire started and once in the evening after it ended, they met whenever Nic found something new. So far they’d been fine aligning old blueprints to the current layout, marking out room functions and contents when it mattered.

For her part, Keaton had been spending a lot of time at the library, either looking things up on the computers or going through the paper files the place had to offer. It’d been a slow process that’d left her waiting more often than not, but finding ways to obtain information without tipping off Cara helped keep her occupied for the most part. She’d considered swapping her denim jackets for hoodies when she headed to the library, but she’d figured that too obvious. Instead she’d settled for shades and caps and kept the rest of her life exactly as it’d been. Suddenly quitting her jobs at the bookstore and loading bay would’ve been a dead giveaway, she figured, and a healthy dose of paranoia never hurt.

“How long until he gets here?” she asked, looking to Eli. She was referring to Packet since she’d figured Nic would show up sooner or later, and she was asking more for the sake of asking than for the answer. She trusted Eli, after all, and some of that trust extended to Packet. Now it was just a matter of finding out how much and whether that trust was reciprocated.



“Don’t let Denim hear you say that, it’ll hurt her feelings.” Lynn paused as Eli mentioned Star Gate. Was that something on the Promise? She frowned for a minute. It was either some weird nerd shorthand for the hangar bay doors or maybe like some lame ass codeword for one of the paras on the station. At least a name like Salamandra was badass, and -

Lynn frowned. She realized she had thought Salamandra’s name and not thought of - of when she’d - when it had - Lynn reached for a cigarette and drew one out, fumbling with the pack.

Lynn heard rustling in the woods and started, turning to see. She cursed under her breath and rotated her whole body to see. Useless fuckin’ thing, Lynn thought, irritated as she scratched at the bandages once more.

Denim came out of the woods, seemingly alone. Lynn studied her closely, looking for a bulge in the shirt before dismissing that idea. Why collect evidence when they’d just line us against a wall anyway? Lynn realized she hadn’t even questioned Eli’s being there, although she supposed Eli might’ve slipped her a hallucinatory message or something if she needed to. Lynn remembered being - not afraid, because Lynn wasn’t afraid of anyone, she’d have you know, and she’d punch you for the implication - but, well, unnerved by the thought Eli might fuck around in her head when they’d first met. Yeah, wouldn’t have guessed that she’d probably get more fucked if she snooped around in my skull than I would. Still, Denim might find a way to communicate it. She’d already spoken before Lynn piped up with, “Oy, Denim - how’s the garden doing?” Lynn said, with measured casualness in every word. In her pocket, Lynn massaged a few cigarettes out into her hand, feeling the warm steady heat of her hand broil inside the jeans for just a moment, until the cigarettes started to crumble into a fistful of hot ash.



”Don’t let Denim hear you say that…”

Eli grinned and proceeded to shrug. Both of them were geniuses. She would have responded with that answer if she hadn’t heard the movement in the trees. Her head turned, and her heart raced for a moment, but it was only Keaton. Eli released a small breath, and felt her shoulders relax a little as she returned the wave. She was still tense, yes, but it felt better to have friends in the woods instead of being alone. She checked the time on her phone and aimed her answer at Keaton. ”About fifteen minutes until he gets here.”

Lynn’s question reminded Eli of something she’d wanted to say. She looked between the girls before pocketing her phone. ”I’d like to know how that is going, too. I want to compare it to the public record of the schematic so that we know what portions of the Spire are listed. If we have the advantage of knowing secret passageways and rooms, it will be easier to fool the staff if we’re caught on board.” It was a tactical advantage to know how much their enemy underestimated them, but it was also out of Eli’s own need to feel safe on the Spire. Hopefully the staff had no idea they were coming, and hopefully if they were discovered, they would know more about the Spire than some average security chump would. She was certain that most of the staff were unaware of these secret spots. If there were any secrets on the Spire that even security didn’t know of. Which Eli expected there to be many.

There was a crashing, and a cursing from the bushes. A nasally voice hissing to themselves about how they should’ve worn their good pants, and how, even in space, they still managed to get dirty outside. From the treeline, a young man appeared. He was no taller than Eli, but hunched over. He had the lanky body type one would expect of a person who would shoot up in the next few years of their lives. He wore thick, rounded glasses, a button nose and a smattering of freckles on his face with a mop of auburn hair on his head. He dusted himself off, far too occupied with himself to notice the numerous eyes on him. When he was satisfied with cleaning himself he stood, and went straight as a board when he counted more than just Eli at the meeting sight.

“I- I didn’t know there’d be…” He trailed off, trying to catch himself in case these unfamiliar faces were also the unfriendly kind. “Uh, hello. Packet. I’m Packet. Nice to meet you all?” Packet said, unsure of himself. He clutched papers in hand close to his chest as if protecting them. “I figured I’d come a bit early. You know the saying. Uh, if you’re early you’re on time?” He said, allowing a nervous laugh to escape his body. His eyes flashed to Eli, begging for some help here. Some tell that these people were okay and not going to kill him.

Eli gave Packet an apologetically warm smile, and finally pushed herself up onto her feet. She stepped to stand beside Packet and gestured to the group. ”Hey, Packet. These are my friends. They’re going to come with me, so they wanted to meet you.” She looked back at Packet, the same smile still on her face. ”I’m sorry I didn’t warn you. I just wanted to keep our messages as short as possible.”

”And they haven’t picked codenames yet.” She teased in an attempt to break the ice. Her eyes glanced between the group and Packet. Hopefully this meeting would go well.



Keaton blinked at Lynn’s question about the garden, then cracked a small smile. “It’s been a lot of weeding and waiting, but we’re on schedule to harvest,” she said, fully amused at the fact that her suggestion days ago had caught on. Technically, anything off-topic she texted the group about could be read as an update, but gardening worked fine. The spores Nic was growing inside various members of the staff were close enough to plants, she supposed, and the thought of considering infected members of the staff to be part of a garden was as funny as it was off-putting.

At Eli’s statements, she nodded assent. Having schematics was such a huge advantage that it may as well be considered vital. Though Nic’s power was helping to create some rudimentary maps of the Spire, having the official blueprints would ensure that the group could be as efficient as possible during their break-in, and they needed every advantage they could get at this point.

Packet announced himself by rustling bushes and cursing, and he revealed himself to be a tall, lanky boy immediately placeable as a nerd. His height threw Keaton off since she’d assumed he was younger, though she supposed ‘younger’ was a vague enough term that her power didn’t tell her off the idea. When he spoke, though, his age showed, but he still wasn’t as young as Keaton thought. He was younger than her and Eli, but older than Lynn, who was… very young, now that she thought about it. It’d been a long time since she thought of Lynn as anything but paranoid, capable, and wise beyond her years, but Packet was a good reminder of the truth. Still, Keaton kept her thoughts off her face, focusing on Packet as he spoke. If there was any distraction Lynn didn’t need at the moment, it was pity.

“Hey, I’m Keaton, and I think my identity is compromised enough that my real name works fine,” she said after Eli reassured the boy. Packet looked nervous to the point of fear, and in a way it wasn’t unwarranted. Considering what he specialized in, Keaton could only guess at the types of dealings he’d had up until now, though she wondered how he hadn’t gotten flagged by the system already. Either Cara was getting lax, or he’d managed to evade Cara, and Keaton had a hunch it was the latter.

“And you’re fine. We’re not going to hurt you,” she said, wanting to get the nervousness out of the air as quickly as possible. “Our goal right now is staying low, and I suspect crossing you doesn’t help with that.”



“So here is how this is going to work,” Packet began, rolling out a schematic of The Promise’s sewage system across a table. “I take you down to the guts of the ship, and I’ll take you to the thousand year door. Generally speaking, the only security we’ll have to consider are cameras if we all meet up early. Before shifts begin.” He explained, dragging his hand along the route and tapping on the door he would be leading them to.

“And I mean early early. 3AM early. That seems to be when security is at its lowest manpower and you all are least likely to be caught.” He focused on the door for a moment, seeming to think over his words carefully. “I can get you in, and I can guarantee you an hour undetected by camera. Any longer than that, and they’ll notice. I also can’t protect you from guards. Because, well, duh.” He explained, motioning to himself. “I can stay to open the door again when you come back, but if you’re not there within an hour, you’ll need some serious muscle to get it open. I hope you all have a guy for that.”



Lynn stared at him for a moment, folding her hands under her armpits to mask the shaking. He’s so fucking young, Lynn thought, looking him over. On the Promise, everyone represented some kind of threat, some in ways more easily imagined - the security team, the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed narcs who followed Gennedy like lapdogs - others like Archie, hiding some kind of power that wasn’t readily obvious. In juvy - a para juvy no less - one tended to quickly learn how to eye someone over, how to notice tattoos or scars, the way they carried themselves, the barest ripples in fabric that hinted at a weapon tucked under a shirt.

It took Lynn about two seconds for her paranoia to run through every possibility of this one, and they all came up empty. Jesus Christ we’re enlisting Napoleon Dynamite she thought. She blinked, almost wondering if he’d ridden a bike here and was trying to talk to them about that underwear religion or whatever.

“Cordelia Lynn Holmes,” Lynn said without a trace of hesitation after Keaton offered her own name. Lynn wasn’t about to be the lone bitch in the group, and there was a kind of power in calling the bluff like that. It wasn’t really a front on Lynn’s part, either. Their fuses had been lit, and Lynn’s was shortest, burning brightest. If this one ratted, she wanted Gennedy to hear her full fuckin’ name before they kicked down her door. “Quick question before we Ocean’s Eleven this shit - why are you helping us?” She stared at him, the way he stood, the way he breathed, the way his fingers twitched on the map. Unfolding the map looked like unwrapping Christmas presents, in a strange way that Lynn could not explain, and could not understand why she thought of in that precise moment. His hands were trembling. Are you still scared to talk to girls, is that it? Lynn wanted to ask him, and might have, if it had just been the two of them, but there was no reason to make him look like a bitch in front of the others. Are you scared of me? Of them? What is it?



Packet stopped his explanation, not that he had much left to say anyways. There was only so much to say and, well, if he was being honest he was the guy in the chair. He was the guy that did the talking more than the doing and if he was honest with himself that was probably a good thing. He looked Keaton, and then Lynn over. He wanted to talk, to speak more freely… but his mind reeled him back in. He was shaking like a leaf and he knew it, but this was the time to be brave.

“I… can't tell you much about myself. I’m sorry.” Packet explained. He had to remain anonymous. He had to. If things went wrong he didn’t want to die, because someone had to stick around to make sure that when another group of people trying to do the right thing came along that he was there to help them, too. “And- I’m helping because, well, Eli and Cara asked me to.”



Nic had been to the woods before. Not often, just the one time when he’d met the rest of the gang, back when Archie and Natalie were all dolled up. He’d been stumbling out of his own way before he saw the light, both in a figurative and literal sense. You could technically have a decent case for accusing him of being nostalgic. In his heart of hearts, there was nothing that he yearned for more than a waypoint marker to follow, a will’o-the-wisp of sorts, or better yet -- an angel.

He didn’t know where he was going; he was only vaguely aware that he was supposed to head for where he’d already been. It only became clear that he was on the right path when he noticed an accumulation of crushed red solo-cups tattered and torn in the underbrush. Finally, he thought to himself, allowing himself to hope that he was on the right trail.

But as things became clearer, as he gained sight of his objective, he felt his mind tearing back and forth as an onslaught of moving pictures trickled into his mind like glass shards swimming into his fingertips, unmistakably sharp and simultaneously invisible. That was, until he realized what it was: Those goddamned squirrels were interfering with his vision. Upon drawing the realization, the ache of their transmissions sawing into his gray matter softened. Rather than tuning out the noise, he focused on its intrusion. Like a 1970s patriarch meticulously folding the antennae of his television, he stepped into the range where the squirrelvision was clearest.

And, all at once, he had a complete overhead map of the forest, complete with random perceptual discrepancies and contradictions caused by the juxtaposition of incompatible biochemistry. A solid five minutes later, after memorizing the layout of the forest and intentionally checking out of the overhead squirrelvision, he caught up with the gang.

He arrived just in time to hear Packet announce that he was assisting because Eli and Cara had asked him to. In a petty moment of infantile jealousy, he felt his heart slam down like a gavel, and felt the nerves all throughout his body shudder like a snapping harp-string. He noisily crunched on a twig, like an unstealthy imbecile. As disappointed as he was in himself, he hid his frustration behind a gleeful, excited sort of puppy-dog grin.

“Hey guys, sorry for the holdup. So this is Packet? It’s a pleasure to meet you.”



There were too many hell the fuck no’s bursting open in Lynn’s mind for any single one to reign supreme. Actually, there were just two, but they were both equally dizzying: the guy who had for sure tried to put it in a pocket protector at one point was working with Cara, and Leotard was back. “Eli and Cara?” Lynn repeated, looking between the two of them. Eli and Cara, as in Eli and Cara as separate entities individually asked him, or Eli & Cara, as in, in bed together, hand in hand, can you lead the rest of the only kids who know something’s up on the Promise right into the most hardened facility?

Then something occurred to her, looking at the lain-out maps. Wait. Sewers. Lynn kicked the dirt and turned for a moment, biting at her knuckles. It was always this way, wasn’t it? There was always some bullshit whatever she had to deal with. “Okay, we’re going to unpack all of this in order,” Lynn said, turning back around. A very small quiet voice was saying this was just a kid trying his best, and it kept Lynn’s knuckles bloodied from herself rather than his face, or a tree, or maybe just splitting spontaneously out of pure irritation. “First and foremost, even if we decide this is legit, which I want to make, you know, crystal clear and shit I’m not sure it is, there’s no way I can go through that tunnel. All the, like, sewer gas and stuff.” She bit, the words like envelope glue off her tongue. “Unless there’s a collar.” Unless I’m like a fuckin’ gen one. “Second, I would appreciate a little more light shed on the Cara aspect here,” Lynn said, to Eli and Packet alike. “Third - “ Leotard was smiling like he just had a conjugal visit, which was fitting, given that Lynn was a prisoner here, and she’d just been fucked pretty royally. “Any - fuck. Fuck.”



Though Keaton directed a nod at Nic when he arrived, she was too busy processing what Packet had just said to register him properly. Eli and Cara? For one, heart-stopping moment, she considered the possibility that Packet had ratted them out before even meeting them. That Lynn was right, that it was all over before it even began. Then, her power caught up to her, assuring her that Packet had not betrayed them, that Eli had no idea either, and that Packet was truly trying to help them. The problem, then, was figuring out whether that was fact or simply something Packet believed.

To Keaton’s surprise, Lynn’s reaction was actually rather reasonable. She called for order, listing the topics in the order she wanted them covered, and Keaton was almost proud of her. Lynn had always possessed the maturity required to swallow her anger and pull that off, but she’d rarely stepped up to a leadership role like she’d just done. That she’d only done so now, with the weight of their lives bearing down on them, showed how much she cared, and Keaton wanted to support that.

“Agreed on the Cara thing, and is there an alternative route down that doesn’t involve the sewers?” she asked.



Packet thought on his words for a moment, and when he finally spoke again it was jittery and nervous as most of his sentences were. Lynn was, obviously, a bit unhinged. He did not want to be on the receiving end of whatever she could do. “C-Cara was a parahuman once. Like us.” He explained, speaking slowly so that his voice didn’t break again. “I’m a technopath and, well, when Cara died she made an AI so she could live on in a way. Cara thinks, and feels. Just like we do. She was designed to help people, but this station has altered her. Changed her in some way. She can’t say or do the things that we can anymore. She describes it as feeling drugged. So Cara can’t communicate with us directly. Certain thoughts she literally cannot articulate because she was so thoroughly changed, but me and people like me? We can feel her. I can feel exactly what she wants to say and how much she wants to help.”

Packet shook his head and crossed his arms, suddenly feeling a whole lot more confident than he had before now that he was defending his friend. “Honestly, Lynn? You’ve been pretty rough to her. You have no idea how much she’s done to keep other parties off our trail, all to be called a “fucking toaster.”” He said, air quoting with his fingers. He seemed really bent out of shape, but whatever else he wanted to say he kept in, choosing instead to glare daggers in Lynn’s direction. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, centering himself. “There’s no way that I know about that wont get you spotted. I can get you a collar though, and I can get Cara to unlock it once you’re past the door.”



Eli remained silent as everyone introduced themselves, but her eyes watched everyone with an almost nervous intensity. She had no doubt that Packet would accept all of them to be involved with the plan. Hell, maybe even the rest of the group would accept Packet for being the technowizard he was. What she was most nervous about, as Packet began to tell the others about the plan, was the ultimate invite to the Spire that the group wanted to give him. They all had a point. He would be more useful in the Spire with them, but then how could he focus on keeping the cameras down for that long? Could he open the door to the sewers from the inside? Maybe the Spire was like a mouse trap. Easy to get into, but impossible to escape.

Lynn’s interrogation wasn’t surprising at all. In fact, Eli was glad to have someone in the team that questioned everything. It made double checking sources and support much easier. She knew Packet could handle her questions, but his reluctance to speak about himself only made Eli doubt even further that he would ever step foot on the Spire with them.

Then she heard her name in the same sentence as Cara’s. She blinked, and she turned her head to look at Packet. Cara… wants to help us? It made sense. It really did, but how did Cara bypass the Promise’s control of her AI to let Packet know? As much as Eli tried, she never got a clear answer from Cara like that.

Nic showed up to the meeting, but Eli was too busy waiting for Packet’s explanation. She didn’t have to wait long, though. Lynn asked the question for her, and Eli felt her scrutinizing eyes look her way. Eli shook her head to answer the question in Lynn’s head for her. She was genuinely as confused as Lynn about this. Her head turned to look at Keaton, then Archie, and then Nic. Were they all thinking the same thing? She glanced back at Keaton before Lynn made another good point. The sewer gas and a walking candle would not mix well.

Eli looked to Packet, and her eyes were concerned about his next answer. This meeting felt hostile all of a sudden, and she felt like the plan was slipping through her fingers. Even if there was an alternate route, was it safe enough? Would it give them the same amount of time to get into the Spire and back, and would Packet be safe on the outside? That is, if he remained on the outside. This meeting was already getting tense and they hadn’t even asked him the important question yet.

Fortunately for Eli, Packet still held his own. Even though he looked just as nervous as Eli felt, he managed to get the right words out. Stuttering at first, but eventually finding his voice again. Then he pulled off an act that shocked Eli’s anxiety out of her body. She felt as if the air stilled. Did he just… call Lynn out on her shit? She stared at her techy friend for a few moments until she felt pride for him. Not only was Cara on their side because of him, but he was strong enough to stand up to Lynn like that. The collar comment was completely offensive and uncalled for, but he had a point.

Eli looked over at Lynn. Surely she was about to spew steam from her ears, but would she see his spite as strength? Would she realize that Packet was the right guy for the job, and that Eli really wasn’t leading her into a trap? She offered Lynn an apologetic smile, but shrugged at the same time. As much as she cared for Lynn, it was refreshing to see someone stand up to her.

“So… we just need to figure out how to get Lynn through the sewers, then?” She asked. Hopefully they could just move on without picking a fight. She faced Packet fully, and took a deep breath. “I also have a question for you, Packet. Now that we understand Cara is willing to help us, I feel much more confident asking it.” She looked him in the eyes and her own expressed a cautious plea.



Ugh. Now the toaster had feelings. Jesus Christ, there was just always one more thing, now she had to go write an apology letter to the AI that probably, like, had logs of her when she was naked and stuff.I should’ve known, Toasters are in the same family as Spoons. Lynn felt, again that sudden surge of irritation with Natalie followed just as quickly by remorse. Aside from calling the cops - which, Lynn would reiterate now and forever more, was a major snitch move - she actually hadn’t done anything to Lynn. She did make me talk in the mall in that candle shop, Lynn thought, although she could respect the balls of someone trying to engage Lynn in a candlestore more as time passed, she supposed.

For an even briefer second, a little voice told her that, that first day, if she hadn’t said a word, if she hadn’t caught Natalie, she would’ve had her back broken and her skin scalded off, and then there would be no one to -

Lynn dug her nails into her arm and pushed the thoughts out of her head as best she could. They kept coming back in. “Okay, you know what, sure, if we find a six year old Cara chained up to a Macbook or whatever, I’ll eat crow. But this is a hard sell. This whole thing requires us putting a whole hell of a lot of trust in you, and a whole hell of a lot of trust in the computer you said the station can fuck around with. If Cara’s, you know, got a good heart all along or whatever, that’s fine, I’ll fuckin flip the collar off her when we go in too, but that doesn’t do us any good if she’s got a virus or something that seals off the air to the sewers as soon as we’re in there.” Only this fucking virgin would take the computer’s side over a girl’s, Lynn thought, more irritated than outright furious. She could hardly get mad at Packet himself - firstly, they still needed his help, and even Lynn could bend her anger to pragmatism - but secondly, he was just young. He said dumb shit. In a different setting, Lynn might have been inclined to talk more shit, but there was still enough of her considering scaring him so bad he never answered Eli’s calls again, just to get him in the clear.

And Lynn wasn’t buying that this chick just voluntarily made herself into a computer program. She still wanted to help the station, Lynn wanted to say, but she dug her teeth into her tongue until steam filled her mouth. So how fuckin’ loyal to the paras is she? Lynn wanted to ask how many paras she’d helped kill or imprison and how that weighed against her little feelings. Nothing she could do? If that was the case, Lynn would own up and say she was a victim too, and they could break the toaster free and she could go live on Mars. But Lynn didn’t buy it. What’s more likely, she’s good deep-down, or she makes these technos feel smart, makes them feel like they can help her, and that’s how they suss out all these breakout plans before they start? As much as the idea held weight to her, it was of no use now. They were in too deep to try anything else.

The only choice left was whether or not she scared this kid away for his own good. But that wouldn’t do anything. Just give him a few more days. A few more hours. Then the next breakout, or attack, or whatever it was that Arianna bitch was up to. Lynn’s heart was pounding in her head and she wished she was in the gym in front of the bag and not in the woods, with everyone standing around like a bunch of limp dicks. Arianna’s presence nagged at the back of Lynn’s mind as well. They were - no, she - she was probably going to have to kill her, too. The idea of it didn’t bother Lynn terribly much - which itself bothered Lynn. There was another way to make sure Cara didn’t turn Judas on them, which was a lot more straightforward - someone holds a knife to Packet’s throat until they were all the way through the sewers. It was, Lynn knew, Che might’ve done. Off the table. Lynn would do the risky thing. Surely. She would. She didn’t kill kids. Not ever. She didn’t melt their shoes into their skin. Lynn rubbed at her eye, trying desperately to stop the itching.

“I mean, you get my fuckin, you know, hesitation and all. I have to be collared, or Amelia has to pull off a game of hopscotch like she’s never played, and we have to trust you - which, you know, you seem fine or whatever, but most people do until there’s a gun to their head - and then we trust Cara doesn’t do anything, or isn’t forced to do anything, I guess, since she’s apparently, like, chill now - while we go through a long dark tunnel full of literal ass. And I’m collared and hoping that someone unlocks it on the other side and no, you know, serial killing para monsters or security guards or anything is down there while it’s on.” Lynn turned to Denim. “Did I miss anything? I’m fine if this is, you know, a one way trip, but I’d rather not go out literally covered in Gennedy’s shit.” Lynn turned to Leotard, which was something she did not intend on doing again if she could help it. Given where he stood, she had to turn her whole body to look at him. “Did you find anything useful, or is this literally our best plan? Doesn’t this place have air vents or something like the movies? Shit, can’t Antenna Boy just figure out which guard is cheating on his wife and blackmail him? Or watch them punch their codes in or whatever? This sewer thing cannot be our best shot.”



Packet’s explanation of Cara made sense. It explained a lot of the inconsistencies in Cara’s actions, and why Keaton sometimes felt like she was talking to a person instead of a program. Best thing was, it checked out, and believing that Cara wasn’t some sort of double agent simultaneously trying to help and sabotage them—which was something her power couldn’t help her check—was a load off her back.

As he continued, though, his arms crossed and his voice taking on a tenor of confidence, Keaton was surprised by two things: that he’d whipped out some backbone to confront Lynn about Cara, who Lynn very clearly didn’t trust, and that he truly cared for Cara. Was she a friend, his only friend, or was she something more to him? Whatever it was, Keaton doubted Cara was programmed to get students that attached to her, so it was really none of her business. Cara being sentient and wanting to help was good enough for her.

Still, hearing him call Lynn out for calling Cara a “fucking toaster” brought a smile to her lips, though she forced it down quickly. Personally, she avoided confronting Lynn, if only because Lynn was easier to work with when not about to blow up or storm off in rage, but seeing someone else do it? It was hilarious. Maybe the stress had gotten to her, and maybe she needed to start considering ambien, but she was glad when Lynn again handled things calmly.

She shook her head when Lynn looked to her for confirmation because Lynn had covered all her bases—realistic and not. What she was asking now, though, wasn’t as helpful. Lynn’s wariness was expected and warranted, but if there was an easier way, the technomancer would’ve already suggested it.

“Any air vents on this ship would be industrial ones, and those are dangerous,” she said. “As for going through a main or side door, I’m going to assume that there’ll be too many cameras for that to work.” She looked to Packet for confirmation before continuing. “And even if it did, we have no power on this ship. Finding and contacting someone’s wife would be next to impossible with how much our internet access is restricted, and threatening to out him to Gennedy would be dumb in itself.”

She paused, wondering whether there was a better way to word what she was about to say, but she came up empty. The collar looked to be their best and most painless option.

“Would you be able to get us a modified collar? One that Lynn can take off herself, like with a release button or something,” she said, looking to Packet.

“I’m a tech specialist, not an engineer. I can't really… y’know, with hardware.” Packet explained, and then he turned to Lynn. “The real Cara died four years ago. The Cara we’re working with now is like a reflection in the mirror of who she was made to help parahumans feel less paranormal and more human. You won't find anything left of her up there.” He said, motioning towards The Spire’s general direction.



Lynn scowled, both from Packet’s response and the incessant itching in her eyes. Her hair flared crimson as the discussion went on. So I have to be kind to a fucking ghost toaster, now, sure. Nothing left of her was fine by Lynn. One less thing to worry about when they burned this place to the ground. Still, a part of her was relieved, just as another part of her was livid, regarding the collar. Packet needed to stay near the shore and not go too far out and get in as deep as the rest of them had. “Alright, fine. Fuck it. We find a collar that I maybe can’t take off, and I wear it as we walk through the sewers trusting in a robot ghost.” Lynn shook her head, fuming (quite literally - a faint stream of smoke spiralled up from her head). After this I swear no one will put a collar on me again, Lynn thought. They were cold. They were so fucking cold. The steel just hung around your neck, so tight you almost couldn’t breathe, and they never, ever got warm. They made you cold and small. They let someone grab you by the collar and slam you into the wall. The older girls had been strong enough, collared or not, to just lift her up against a wall, feet kicking out uselessly a foot over the ground. Lynn stared at the ground for a moment, remembering, but she couldn’t remember if she’d been pinned against a concrete wall in that fight, or the wall of a Chinese restaurant, and if they’d picked her up by the collar or if they’d just choked her. She shook her head, heart hammering and fingers dancing in her pocket.“I’m gonna go get food, if there’s nothing else to figure out here.” Lynn had been eating at every opportunity since she got out of the hospital, trying to put as many calories in her tank as she could before they stormed the Spire. I need another jacket, too, she thought. It’ll be cold.



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Archie and Natalie


Natalie checked her phone, more to check the time than to look for messages. Still, she couldn’t help but do that too. She was standing at the entrance to the mall, looking out at the crowd, scanning them. She shifted weight from one of her feet to the other. It was one minute past the meet time, so he should be here any second. Generally speaking, the whole... the evolution of the past few days had been unnerving to say the least. Knowing that his time on the station (and potentially his time left alive) was limited. Archie had spent most of his life doing what most people his age were doing, moving along through school and extracurriculars at the normal pace and for the most part the beginnings and endings he had experienced had been fairly uniform among his peers.

Life wasn't like that, now. He was leaving soon and he knew it, but everyone around him? They expected for life to carry on in that relative normal that it had always been. They expected to see him in the crowd as one of those normal faces and while they might not ever recognize his absence, it was... grounding. To be leaving when no one else was. To know that there was an end to all of this on a horizon that no one else was facing. Archie could see her now, shifting idly. She looked the way he felt inside, like a coiled spring ready to release at any moment. Like she was waiting for something to happen to release all that pent up nervous energy. Archie stopped a few paces behind her, and having learned his lesson from Lynn, cleared his throat. "Heu-" he started, his voice cracking. He stopped, and tried again. "Hey. Hi. Hey Natalie. Nat. Hey Nat."

"Hey," Natalie answered. She looked scared, and a little manic, but still managed a warm smile at seeing Archie. She turned to face him and her cheeks flushed. "I don't care what we are to each other officially, or if you want to call it a date or not, or whatever. I just...wanted to spend some time with you before we do this. I'm not smart, and I don't have any connections. There's nothing else I could do right now but wait, and I don't want to waste the time we have."

Archie hummed thoughtfully, and approached her again so they were standing only a few inches apart. He allowed his hands to float forwards and took her hands in his own, interlocking their fingers easily as if they had done it a thousand times before. "I like you just the way you are." he said, genuine as she ever was.

"Truth be told one of the reasons I wanted to wait was to spend a little time with you, too. I... I'm not sure if I'll end up coming back with you. If we come back at all. When I left Colington Island, it was on short notice and I had a lot of things I wish I would've been able to see through. I don't have as much of that these days up here but... I don't want to regret not saying anything while I had the chance, neither."

Natalie looked down at her hands, which were holding Archie's, and blushed again. She looked up, and chuckled with nervous energy. "This mood's getting a little serious, but I suppose we can't avoid that. Still, I want to have fun today, but...maybe we should talk first, so we can focus on relaxing and letting our hair down later. So, what did you want to say 'while you had the chance'?"

"Walk with me."

It was easily spoken, but the request carried weight. The two began walking down the path together as Archie had many, many times before. It had only been a short time they had been here, somewhere between six months to a year, but there had been so many life changing memories. Most of them unfortunate, but they forced a growth in the group- for they had seen each other stripped raw and broken by the forces around them.

"I'm no good with words," Archie began, his eyes looking down at the ground ahead of him while he walked. His hand squeezed Natalie's. "But I care about you. A lot. When we promised each other we'd look out for each other... I dunno. I'm glad it was you."

"Yeah," Natalie answered softly, as she squeezed back and looked straight ahead. "I'm glad it was you too. You're the only one who could possibly get how I felt. And even though I'm not scared of myself anymore, I still want you to look out for me and stop me if you think I'm ever going too far. I trust you with that. And I care about you too, as you already know."

“I think...” he said, pursing his lips, choosing his words as he spoke. “I think we have a lot to say and do, and we won't have time for all of it.” He said, his face falling into a small, sad smile. The kind that was conveyed through the eyes more than the body. “If you had to pick some things, what would you go with?”

Natalie thought for a second, then smiled. "We don't have time for a proper date, and it's not the right mood either. Maybe we should just have dinner and then go for a walk. Talking, all the while. We should just tell each other everything. Everything we hold back, or keep secret, or don't like to talk about."

"I'd... I'd like that."

There was thinly veiled hesitancy to Archie's tone, but whatever was bothering him didn't seem to hold him back much in agreeing. They walked together in relative silence- the pregnant type that's not quite comfortable but wasn't awkward enough to comment on. Archie, despite his few gifts when it came to disarming tension, was more than capable of sniffing out a good meal. Perhaps it was his incredible senses guiding him like some sort of primordial guardian angel, but the Italian dine-in they ended up in seemed like a nice enough stay.

"You'll be disappointed if you're looking for anything big." Archie commented offhandedly, without looking up. Natalie however, looks more surprised by the fact that she had broken their (fascinating) non-conversation about literally anything with such candor. He pauses for a moment, as if chewing his following statements like gum, before continuing. "Almost everyone we're friends with has had some really bad things happen to them. And like, yeah. Losing your parents young isn't exactly fun and waking up to the town hunting you isn't great but..."

Archie shifts uncomfortably in his seat, and dips his menu. "I just don't have much to hide. I don't have any juicy secrets. I wasn't shot in the back or a child soldier or..." Or experimented on., he insinuated, allowing his voice to trail off. "I'm just a guy."

"I don't know what I'm looking for, to be honest," Natalie answered truthfully. "I don't want to pry if the memories are painful. I just...want you to know that I'm not scared of opening myself up anymore....I want us to have fun today but I don't know how to....talk to boys. I have no idea what the rules are, if there are any rules. I'm sorry."

Archie mulled over her words for a moment, surprisingly thoughtful compared to his normal disposition. "Well, a good place to start would probably be to not apologize for not knowing where to start." he said, offering her a small smile. "There's a saying. All's fair in love and war and all. No real rules just- well, dad always said to do right even when the other person's not looking. Don't sneak, he said. Something about how sneaking means you're doing something wrong."

For all their talk, despite being in an Italian joint, Archie's eyes gravitated towards the 'French Fries' option on the menu. Greasy, American food, and Archie was sorely missing home right about now. "Hey, you ever had a burger or fries? I would hulk out for fries right about now."

Nat smiled, and shuffled her feet under the table adorably. Archie's reassurances had gone appreciated. Nat leaned over to look at Archie's menu. "I used to. I think I was fifteen the last time I had a burger and fries. Let's get some!"

And they did. For the first time in a long time, Archie and Natalie shared a nice evening where something miraculously went smoothly. No gunshots, or explosions, or cradle robbers, and no lizards in sight unless one counted Archie's heart monitor, but that only went off once when his food came.

It was nice.

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Shopping Trip.
Ft. Keaton (@Typical), Lynn (@Luminous Beings), and Natalie (@Silver Carrot)

Keaton stood to the side of the mall entrance, phone in hand. On it was the text conversation that had brought her here, which had started as an update on the ongoing gardening but had somehow led to the suggestion of and agreement on a shopping trip. Personally, Keaton didn’t need anything, but the concept of going to the mall had been so comfortingly normal that she’d agreed without hesitation. Sitting around had never been her thing, and having a reason to get out would both help their cover and keep her on her feet, which was always a bonus these days. If she also got to forget about the cloud hanging over them all for a few minutes, all the better.

The concept of dressing up for a shopping trip had encouraged her to brush up with some light makeup, mostly to hide the circles under her eyes. Aside from that, she’d taken enough time in front of her closet to have paired her newest denim jacket with a pair of black jeans, a graphic tee, and a slightly less beat-up pair of tennis shoes. It’d felt a bit strange, picking her outfit like that, and it’d made her realize that it’d been a while since she didn’t dress on autopilot. Still, it was a comforting sort of strange, and it brought her back to better days, which was her goal for today. She wanted to make sure today was a fun day—one that’d be a fond memory no matter how much she had to emulate happiness or excitement.



Lynn fumed the whole way to the mall. The last time she’d been to the mall hadn’t exactly been a barrel of monkeys - and if it had been a barrel of monkeys, all the monkeys were like, for sure dead, so it sucked either way. The last time she’d - Lynn missed a step, stumbling as she remembered burning him, the smell of scorched flesh - his flesh, and then (in a brief minute, Lynn smelled Archie’s burning arm, saw the gun barrel melt into that kid’s shoes, saw Salamandra’s eyes bulge, saw all of it again). Lynn went to rest her hands in her hoodie pocket almost of habit, and her small pale fingers fumbled in the open air. “Ugh,” she muttered. “Fuckin’ terrorists.” Lynn shook her head. Lynn found it hard to materialize reasons to go to Earth after this. She had always to some degree lived a week, a day, a month, an hour at a time. Whatever the situation looked like. The idea of going back to Earth and, well, living - it was strange. Like riding off into the sunset or a happy ever after.

However, Lynn was accustomed to having a good reason to not die. As a kid, it was Che. In juvy, it was - well, staying alive to kill Che. Here, it was Gennedy. For the first time, beyond whatever last dance fuckery was waiting up in the Spire, Lynn felt the first genuinely good reason to try to make it back to Earth. A goal. I am going to whip the asses of every last one of those gen one motherfuckers that stormed the Promise. Lynn thought. She idly tucked that away for later. First off, she’d have to learn a lot of Chinese, which was going to be a hassle, because Lynn had a sneaking suspicion it had very little overlap with Spanish. They don’t even have letters, Lynn thought. I’m probably fucked right out the gate on that one. How do you even, like, sound it out that way?

Lynn puzzled over this linguistic hurdle to her revenge plans as she meandered towards the mall. The text was - well, first off, Lynn didn’t like group texts, namely because who actually needed to tell that many people the same thing at the same time, and there was more chance for someone else to get the message, and also, it just felt weird - but she had to admit the mall at least meant if Gennedy’s dogs tried to make a scene, it would be one hell of a scene. Of course, that didn’t stop Michael and Jackson from Cheshire Catting their way into the food court. Lynn shook her head. She didn’t like wearing a t-shirt. Her arms were very pale and thin, and all her tattoos were visible, which got even more strange looks than her hair did. Lynn had seen a dude on here who had four arms, but she swore her flickering hair got more double-takes. Even the giant lizard got less scrutiny. For a brief flickering moment Lynn felt her stomach upend, twist into a double-helix, and then unspiral as she wondered if Archie would be here, and if so if they were - would she have time to get good clothes before - no, wait, he wasn’t in the group - but would he come anyway? He might -

Lynn saw Denim and walked over, entirely unaware that her hair was, at least for a few brief seconds, a soft shade of pink. She shook the thoughts out of her head - something that was increasingly harder to do on the Promise these days (since the hospital bed at least, which Lynn could still not make sense of - that, the Chinese language, and Gennedy, all that stood in her way). As she saw Keaton her hair and eyes flickered to a light blue, like the heart of a gas fire.

“Denim,” Lynn said. A squirrel ran past, and Lynn watched it go. Wait. It stood up, sniffing the air, and had, like, antennas and stuff. Lynn opened her mouth to curse out Leotard but caught herself. She simply sighed (the air shimmered with a heat mirage) and rubbed at her eyes. “God. I’d say we should hit the food court first but maybe we just avoid that place.”



Keaton had learned early on that Lynn’s hair reflected her mood, and she was glad for the obvious tell on someone who seemed perpetually wary and annoyed. That said, she was by no means an expert at reading the colors of said tell, but she knew the basics. Both hue and intensity mattered, for one. Darker colors represented heavier or stronger moods, and lighter colors represented softer or gentler ones. Same went for the colors themselves, which could be divided into warm and cool tones. Those often corresponded to happier and sadder emotions respectively, with exceptions.

Upon arrival, Lynn’s hair was pale pink, which quickly shifted into a light blue when she focused on Keaton. The light blue denoted a friendly mood and was associated with Keaton herself, which was flattering and likely inspired by her denim jackets, she figured. The pink, though, was trickier. While she’d seen it a few times, every time it’d been brief, and Lynn had never said much while that color was around. It was some complex emotion, then, and the obvious guess—love—had both seemed and been wrong, as noted by her power. Asking, however, was out of the question, so she’d never made much headway with that color. Trying to read Lynn’s emotions from her hair was already invasive enough, and Keaton had no doubts that Lynn would respond poorly to any attempt to pry at private and likely sensitive thoughts.

Seeing Lynn’s attention catch and stay on a passing squirrel brought a smile to her face. Only Lynn would be wary of even wildlife, though Keaton knew from discussions with Nic that he could infect small mammals too, so… maybe Lynn’s wariness wasn’t all that unwarranted. The powers employable by the Staff were limitless, after all.

“Hey,” she answered with a grin. At Lynn’s comment on the food court, she pursed her lips, thinking back to Black and White. Meeting them seemed like ages ago, and though they were still a concern, there was little she could do to combat what seemed like relative omnipotence, and little need to consider it on what was actually a mundane shopping trip.

“I’d say some food sounds great. Buying milkshakes isn’t against the rules, last time I checked,” she said, her tone teasing before she sobered up, her eyes dropping to the floor beside them. “Besides, we got through the woods alright the other day.” Her voice had quieted, and she felt an edge of numbness—of cold and dark—creep up, but she quickly shook her head, replacing her grin as she refocused on Lynn. “But nevermind that. Do you have anything specific you want to get today? I’m not an expert on the stores, but if we stop by a map I can probably get a grasp on things quickly.”



Lynn’s face scrunched slightly as she saw the older girl looking at her. Lynn had resigned herself to that feeling when she’d first approached Denim for help, all those months ago - she’d known that having the girl who could figure anything out in her corner meant, well, she’d be figured out. Still, it rankled Lynn. Keaton had never been anything but polite, but occasionally she almost wanted to shake the knowledge out of her. How much did she know about Lynn? What was she holding back? Lynn didn’t like the idea that anybody knew more about her than her. The last person who had -

Lynn shook her head. “We got through the woods fine. Jello burns like anything else. Or boils, or whatever, I don’t know what they put in it.” She chewed on her lip. Food did sound really good. Lynn had, quite frankly, been consuming near-Olympian levels of calories in an attempt to stock up for the almost-certain holy war that was bound to take place in the Spire. Having started so underweight, she wasn’t about to visibly put on weight in a manner of days, but she’d certainly gained at least a few pounds. Lynn had aimed to eat at least three hundred calories an hour she was awake, although she conceded alcohol was somewhat like cheating. God bless El Vaquero, she thought to herself. I just asked my boss if I could take a whole thing of queso and he told me why the fuck not. “Yeah, let’s grab food,” Lynn said. Denim looked a bit rattled by what she’d said, and Lynn knew where her thoughts had wandered, even if Lynn couldn’t have articulated the emotionality of it well-enough. “Lots of food,” Lynn spurted out quickly, her brain scrambling for some kind of distraction to throw at her while she started walking. “I - what I want to get?” Lynn frowned. “I just thought I’d get like another hoodie or something. I didn’t - “ her frown deepened. “Wait, what did you come here to get?”



Natalie spotted Keaton and Lynn, and waved at them as she approached, smiling. She had been the one during the group chat to suggest this mall trip in the first place, after seeing how busy everybody else had been. She wanted to give them a chance to relax, and have some fun while they could. It was also partly guilt, as she hadn’t done a whole lot to help. She wasn’t smart, or good at planning. She didn’t have connections. Mentally, Nat was still sixteen, even if her eyes carried a worn-down weariness of a woman in her fifties.



Natalie turned the corner before Keaton could get to responding to Lynn’s question, and Keaton returned her wave readily. “Hey Natalie!” she said, grinning as she noted the girl’s good spirits. Though she’d been surprised when Natalie raised the idea of going to the mall, it’d been a good sort of surprise that she’d jumped on. Lynn and Natalie were always the two most in need of something as fun and normal as a mall trip, and while Keaton was by no means well-versed in fashion and the like, she figured she could still offer guidance in mall-crawling.

“We were just talking about getting food first. Did you eat yet?” she asked as Natalie walked over. Then, turning back to Lynn, she figured there was no answer better than the truth here and settled for an awkward smile. “And, honestly, I don’t think I need much. Maybe new socks? I mainly came to get out and have fun, and I honestly miss walking around the mall with a milkshake or smoothie in hand.” She shrugged and looked at Natalie. “Did you have anything specific you wanted to get? Otherwise I’m fine with just wandering through all the stores.”



Lynn sensed a set-up. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly what, which annoyed her, but there was definitely some angle here. She glanced down at Keaton’s hands. Her nails were chewed up, at least. Lynn took that as a positive sign towards them not giving her a manicure or something, but the suspicion remained. They’re trying to Pretty Woman my ass, aren’t they? Lynn thought. That had been the least realistic movie Lynn had ever seen, for a list of reasons Lynn would happily expound upon once inebriated.

“Yeah, socks,” she said, turning and seeing Natalie. “What’s up, Spoons,” she said. Truthfully, Lynn couldn’t fully remember why she called Spoons Spoons, but it felt like a lack of integrity to stop calling her that now. The others would wonder if their names weren’t as important or something. Spoons was smiling, which wasn’t too common. Figures. There was a terrorist attack or prison break every other week here, which was part of the reason it baffled Lynn that the others in the group actually did their homework and stuff. “Long as we get some food I’m good or whatever,” Lynn said.



Natalie reached the group. She was back to wearing jeans and cardigans again, but even so, her outfit looked trendier, of better quality and actually fit, indicating that it had been bought at some point since the shooting.

“Glad you both came!” she started, before both the girls mentioned food. “And no, I haven’t eaten yet. Haven’t eaten today, actually. There’s no fridge in my block. It’s the, uh….that block.” They’d both know what she meant by that. Natalie had never discussed her living arrangements before. Some places here were like hotels or apartments. Some were like hostels or student accommodation. And there were some that was more like a prison or asylum than anything else. The people who lived there were not criminals, but were nevertheless dangerous, or would otherwise need their furniture replaced almost daily if they were allowed any.

“So yeah! Food sounds real good right now!”



Lynn’s silence tipped Keaton off to her thoughts since Lynn tended towards a few specific emotions and suspicion was one of the more common ones. That said, Keaton couldn’t tell what exactly she was suspicious about, and considering that Lynn still agreed and greeted Natalie, it didn’t seem like a big deal, so she didn’t think more of it.

At Natalie’s comment about her residence, Keaton paused, looking at the girl. She’d always been aware that Natalie wore makeup to hide the bags under her eyes, if only because that was an extremely common tactic that she herself used at times, and though she’d figured Natalie as someone who didn’t sleep too well, she’d never given much thought as to her living situation. Natalie’s words, however, painted the picture for Keaton. Even the smallest, cheapest accommodations had fridges, or at least the option to tack on a fridge, so not having one meant Natalie was in the other type of housing—the type that people could voluntarily choose to live in, was bare minimum because furniture was constantly getting replaced, and Keaton had tagged enough boxes in the loading bay to know that they were replaced quite often.

“Right, yeah, let’s get going then,” she said, her grin automatic as her mind struggled to move on from the thought. Since Natalie had never brought it up, Keaton had defaulted to the assumption that everyone was living in normal housing units, but… it checked out. She’d seen firsthand how Natalie’s switch could flip at the sight of blood, but she hadn’t connected it to an everyday thing until now. Sleeplessness was a lot of things, and for Keaton it meant being able to avoid nightmares, but it was different for Natalie.

The beeline to the food court was a short one, and after some minutes of lines and waiting for food to come out, they’d amassed a small table’s worth of milkshakes, fries, pretzels, and fried chicken. Though she hadn’t eaten breakfast, she wasn’t too hungry in general these days, but she made herself eat along, slowly making her way through a hunk of fried chicken with her milkshake—cookies and cream because Oreos—by her side.

“There’s something about mall food,” she said as she looked over the chicken, then at the other two girls, “but, well, maybe it’s the people.”

She cleared her throat, realizing that she’d just said something weird that she probably should’ve kept to herself. “Sorry, I’ve been kinda out of it these days. Planning’s got me up at odd times at night, and sleep has been, well, not great.” She looked between Lynn and Natalie, pausing before speaking again. “How have you two been holding up?”



Lynn bl(w)inked. She hadn’t said much, mostly because she was never totally sure how to strike up a conversation with Spoons, and Denim was better at words than she was, anyway. Lynn eyed Spoons as they walked, almost absent-mindedly. She’d also felt something was a bit off, not something she could fully pin down - there was the narc’ing incident, but after a great deal of contemplation Lynn had come to realize Spoons was not an actual narc, just someone who believed at that point the Promise security forces were capable of helping people. This was equally unforgivable, but in a different way. Still, Lynn couldn’t quite grapple with it. Spoons was taller than she was, and skinny, but the good kind, not like Lynn. Her skin was pale too, but - better, not scratched and littered with tattoos. Lynn couldn’t figure it out and didn’t particularly care to, because something about it rattled her the longer she thought about it. She always felt dumb around Keaton, but, you know, everyone did. Something about Spoons made Lynn feel smaller, but she didn’t think anybody else did. It happened sometime with Eli and Keaton too, but less often, less since they’d hung out more. Lynn didn’t like it. She wondered where the Boat Farmer was. She got food.

Had Lynn paid enough attention in history to know what the Oregon Trail was, she may have recognized she got nearly enough food to sustain a family of settlers, their oxen, and any strangers they stopped to help along the way. Pointedly skipping over the food court, Lynn got food from nearly everywhere else. I should rob my dealer more often, she thought through a mouthful of french fries. His superpower is like, hearing better or some shit, why didn’t I do this before? Lynn precariously balanced a tray on her hand as she held two other bags of food around the crook of her elbow, with a milkshake tucked in her shoulder. Lynn never drank milkshakes often, because they melted so fast, but the move was to put as many calories into her body as possible.

Maybe the people? Lynn frowned. What were mall people? Mall people here were a lot different from mall people back home. Back home, you went to the mall parking lot for the real entertainment. “Yeah I think it’s the food,” Lynn said, swallowing the last of her fries and throwing the crumpled up trash bag towards a trash can. It missed. Keaton’s next question caught her a bit off-guard. She started to speak, then stopped. How do I say this without, like, - shit, what? Lynn glanced and saw Denim’s eyes looked nearly as baggy as Spoons. At least you still have two. She racked her brain for some way to boost spirits a bit. Threatening to kill Gennedy usually did the trick for her, but Spoons still had something of a tenuous faith in the justice system. Lynn sighed (the air shimmered). “I mean, honestly, shit’s about the same. I just run into stuff more often.”



Natalie had practically inhaled her food. Poor girl must have been starving. While the other two finished, she watched them. So this was what normal felt like, huh? Not trying to be somebody else, but just relaxing, and spending time with your friends. Were they friends? Natalie thought so. Natalie wondered if Lynn, deep down, also thought so secretly.

“I’ve been holding up quite well, actually,” Nat answered. “I’ve actually been sleeping better since the attack. Maybe it’s just having something else to be afraid of. Though I feel like you’re both taking on more than your fair share. If there’s anything I can do to help in the planning and prep, please let me know.”



Seeing the other two shovel down food was comforting, and Keaton smiled at Lynn’s assertion that it must have been the food, nodding. It was definitely the people.

Lynn’s vague assertion of “stuff” gave her pause as she tried to figure out what the girl meant by the word. When she came up empty-handed, she settled for trying to figure out whether Lynn was attempting to cover something with the word, which she was not. “Stuff,” then, was likely not a huge concern, and Keaton figured she could always come back to it if it got brought up again.

Hearing that Natalie was doing well brought her smile back, though it faltered when she mentioned Keaton and Lynn doing more than their fair share. When it came to planning, there was no one better suited to her job, better able to perform her job, so there was no concept of a fair share for Keaton. There was only what would work best, what would give them the biggest edge, the best chance of getting out the other side in one piece. Sure she was doing most of the planning, but that’s how it went when your power was suited for planning. On the day they actually carried out the plan, she’d be relying on every one of them, and likely more than they relied on her, so it was only fair that she pulled her weight now.

“Honestly, I think you’d help best by just continuing to do what you’ve been doing,” she said, thinking her words over before she said them. Natalie was expressing her desire to help, and Keaton wanted to let her down lightly. “Nic and I have the planning part handled, so you sleeping well and getting in top shape for when we actually head in is more than I could ask for. Both of you,” she said, glancing at Lynn, “so eat up.”

Though she wasn’t a particularly fast eater, Lynn and Natalie were, and there were multiple moments during their scarfing when Keaton had to check who’d eaten more. By the end, however, she’d lost track, and her power was no longer able to tell her who ate what or how much, so she was left to figure a fifty-fifty split or bust, which, again, was not confirmed by her power.

Armed with her now half-empty milkshake, Keaton led the way through the mall, eyeing stores as they passed. “How about this one?” she asked when they reached a generic fashion brand Keaton recognized from the mall back home. It was tailored towards younger adults, retaining a sort of casual hipster vibe, and when the answer didn’t come fast enough, she rolled her eyes. “C’mon, we might as well start somewhere,” she said, leading the way into the store.

Immediately inside were the featured styles dressed on mannequins, which usually consisted of the more expensive and newly released items, Keaton figured. Racks were lined up beside the mannequins, offering size and color options while touting their year-round twenty percent deals, and a few people milled around in the store, providing ambient chatter to the otherwise unintrusive pop song playing in the background. Towards the back the store split into a mens and womens section, one to either side of the store, though Keaton knew from experience that then mens’ tended to be more limited, whether by addition of overstock or just smaller in general.

“You said you wanted a hoodie?” Keaton asked, glancing at Lynn before pointing out the jacket section. “I think this store has a lot of graphic hoodies, though they sort them with their jackets.” She grinned. “You two wanna try on some denim jackets though? They’re not the warmest, but that’s kinda the point.”



Lynn scowled as Denim nudged at her to eat up but said nothing. Lynn had always had difficulty explaining - especially to that fucking doctor - it wasn’t a lack of eating on her part, she just couldn’t keep it on. Regardless, she said little as they ate, preferring to shove as many calories down her throat as she possibly could. She did pause briefly to wonder who Nic was. Leotard? Spoons mentioned sleeping better and a brief image of company over helping her with that made Lynn choke on her shake for a second. She paused, wondering why that had - why he’d - it just didn’t make sense. They wouldn’t allow that, anyway. What was - she didn’t give a shit to begin with, so it didn’t matter. Just a stupid thing. Lynn had forgotten what quality consistent sleep was like, anyhow. “Long as you trust whatshisface to think better than he dresses,” Lynn chimed in. The mall was noisy enough she doubt even the Toaster could eavesdrop through their phones, but a good deal of caution was probably advisable.

Lynn got up significantly more sluggishly than she had sat down and idled along after the two through the mall. While she would never outright admit it, there were very few people Lynn could comfortably walk alongside without having to visibly hurry along, and so she preferred a more casual stroll to force other people to slow down to her level. You looked less like a bitch that way. Still, she found herself power-walking to catch up with the taller girls more frequently than she thought she might normally have done, and wasn’t sure why that was.

“Uh,” Lynn said, a bit taken aback by the shopping request. Lynn hadn’t really considered, you know. Clothes shopping. With girls. She paused, glancing around. “Um, sure, I guess. I mean - not the warmest is workable,” she said, her hair flickering orange. “But preferably something that doesn’t melt. Real pain in the ass dealing with that. You just have to go wait somewhere bare-ass naked until it cools so you can - “ she paused. “Sorry, that was probably too much detail or whatever.” She looked around as best she could. Graphic sweatshirts weren’t really her speed, unless they looked sufficiently tough. But not, like, stuff with skulls on them. That was for emo kids and girls who spent more time riding their skateboards than their boyfriends. Lynn scratched at her head. “Uh, sure, denim works, I guess. As long as we’re not matching.”



Nat had responded to Keaton’s suggestion of a particular store with a shrug and a smile. Keaton, in this group at least, was the one who knew the most about clothes. Natalie hadn’t been big into fashion even as a teenager, due to not having many friends. She’d always gravitated towards jeans and cardigans as long as she could remember.

She couldn’t help smiling at this whole situation. They were together, shopping. That was the plan but actually being here and doing it was so...mundane that it was somehow surreal for this group.

“I’ll pass on the denim jacket,” she laughed, “I like to wear jeans, and I can’t go double-denim.”



“No that’s important,” Keaton said, frowning as she looked around the store. “You’ll probably be better off with something wool-based then. Woolen fire blankets are a thing, but I don’t think this store carries much wool. The stuff’s expensive.” Finishing her cursory sweep around the store, she shrugged. “We’ll stop at a more expensive brand after. Probably some place advertised for working women to emphasize practicality.”

Lynn’s half-acceptance of her suggestion of denim brought a grin to her face. “There’re lots of washes to choose from, and as long as you don’t pick light washes we probably won’t match.” She paused. “Though, denim’s cotton-based, and cotton’s not exactly fire-resistant. As for going double-denim, I’m going double right now,” she said, indicating her black jeans and denim jacket as she looked to Natalie. “If you keep the colors different, it’s not too much a problem, and matching denim can be a statement outfit.” Her tone was light, betraying her intentions. She’d meant the suggestion of denim as a teasing comment, and she hadn’t expected anything of it. If she were being honest, denim was pretty far from practical for any place not sunny year-round. On chilly days, she’d reach for a sweatshirt to layer under, not a thicker denim jacket.

“But anyway, we’re here already, so we might as well look around.” Her eyes paused on a dress and she smiled broadly, glancing between Lynn and the floral print. “How about trying on some dresses? We don’t have to buy anything, but we can take some cute photos in the changing rooms.”



Lynn was used to Denim saying things that sounded smarter than what Lynn could think of, but she had never expected Keaton would be so smart about stuff that was so dumb. This was just shopping, but she knew materials and brands and stuff. “Yeah,” Lynn said, knowingly. “Yeah, totally.” Lynn listened to the details of the different washes, and was privately glad that Spoons had passed on the denim, because all three of them coordinating their outfits was going to make them look like total morons. We’d be like the greaser X-men. Spoons was also smiling, which was somewhat dizzying in its own right. This all felt so normal. Most of her conversations with Keaton were done in private places over notepads that were burned immediately after, and most of her conversations with Spoons were in the process of trying to beat the shit out of a giant lizard.

The fire-resistant bit triggered Lynn’s memory of their stupid plan. She grimaced. It was so hard to put into words how much she hated that plan. She felt her blood boil before she rubbed at her face and sighed. There was no getting around it. She’d have to be small and cold again. For a while. Then never again. Gennedy’s face in the interrogation room swam back into her field of view for a moment, and for a split second Lynn thought of how easy it would be to burn this whole mall down, just to get his attention. It was always Gennedy. Gennedy was the walk after they’d found the corpse where Lynn was more sure of the fact she would die than she had been of anything, Gennedy was the cold concrete of juvy, where she was barely five foot and without an ounce of supernatural power to help her fight. Gennedy was that fucking collar.

Lynn’s fuming was interrupted by one of the few things so surreal that it could whip Lynn from livid anger to total confusion. No one had ever once offered to “take a cute photo of Lynn” or implied such a thing was possible. Who would she send it to? One answer came to mind and Lynn immediately forced it away, her stomach rolling with sudden embarrassment for something that hadn’t even happened. Besides, Lynn also didn’t know if her burner phone could even take pictures.

“I - dresses? Shouldn’t we keep looking at denim or whatever?” Lynn asked, most definitely hiding any of her nerves with a totally not-forced casual tone.



On the mention of dresses, Nat’s smile had vanished, and she was looking to the floor. “Yeah, I dunno about dresses. I don’t think I’d look good in a dress. I just want to find some nice things that cover my arms, and some new jeans….”



The sudden shift to hesitation was expected. Keaton was asking them to step out of their comfort zone, after all. Dresses were a big jump from jeans and hoodies, but it wasn’t like trying on a few dresses would hurt anyone. They had time—and money, considering the fact they might be leaving indefinitely after this—so they could stand to spend it. As for the discomfort, what was a shopping trip without a few silly outfits?

“Well, I’m not hearing a no,” she said, herding the reluctant pair towards a rack of dresses with a grin. “You looked great at Homecoming, Nat, and we can look for denim after. Now pick something or I’ll pick for you. No guarantees on cool or edgy vibes if I do.”

She stood back and watched them struggle for a few minutes before reinserting herself, gravitating towards Lynn first since it was clear she needed more help.

“Sizes are marked on the tag and on the hanger, and you’re definitely x-small,” she said, fetching a short white sundress from the rack and holding it up in front of Lynn. “Here, try this one,” she said, handing the hanger to Lynn. “It’s white so it’ll go with your hair no matter what color you’re feeling.” Plus, the flutter sleeves helped emphasize an hourglass figure by creating dimension where there might not be any, but Keaton left that part out of the explanation, opting for an encouraging smile instead. “Don’t worry so much about it. It’ll look great on you.”

Turning to Natalie, she found the taller girl looking through a rack, and she paused to watch. “How’re you with prints?” she asked after a second. “Have you ever thought about, say, floral?” She pulled out the dress in question, cocking a brow at Natalie. It was long-sleeved and would cover the majority of her scars. It was also short, but what good was a summer dress if it didn’t show some leg?

When the dresses were set, Keaton pulled a gingham piece from a nearby rack and shooed the other two towards the changing rooms in the back. As she changed, she realized that she’d rarely ever helped anyone pick out an outfit. Maybe it was because she grew up in Los Angeles, but most everyone she knew from back home was fashion-savvy. Instead, matching people to clothes reminded her of helping her dad coordinate event venues. Matching tablecloths to the curtains was easy when your power delivered aesthetic analyses in yes-or-no form, and in retrospect she realized that her power must’ve been checking against the decor magazines constantly littered around her dad’s car, which she tended to thumb through on drives to the venues. Sure she didn’t exactly have an aesthetic reference when she picked the dresses earlier, but she’d had a living reference—a present standard in the question, “Would they wear it?”

“You two done yet?” she asked, giving the sleeves of her dress one last adjustment as she stepped out of her changing room. “C’mon, there’s no one here but us, and if it looks bad it’s more my fault than yours.”

She glanced down at her dress, then looked at it in the mirror propped beside the changing rooms, frowning. “And someone tell me if I look like a tablecloth because my power’s telling me yes.”



Keaton handed Lynn a dress which she reacted to about as if Keaton had thrust a rabid coyote into her hands. “Uh,” she responded intelligently when Keaton listed why it would look good on her. Some part of her immediately jerked back against that reaction, trying to decipher what the hidden meaning was. Did she not look good now? Was it - why - x-small, yeah, but that was only - it wasn’t her fault.

Denim gave her a smile. A Lucy smile. Lynn sighed and looked the dress over a bit. While Keaton was thinking of her fashionista friends back home, Lynn was thinking pretty much the opposite. If literally anyone that I knew before this dumbass space station saw me in this, Lynn thought, feeling profoundly weak with the dress in her hands. This wasn’t - this was how, like, rich people dressed and stuff. She was just going to burn through it anyway - and even if she didn’t she’d look like a fucking anemic ghost in this thing. It’d be like wearing a circus tent. Was this a set-up? Was Keaton just trying to make her look bad? For a brief moment, some ugly jealous twisted a few dozen chains of thought together, and Lynn desperately wondered if Natalie had somehow put Keaton up to this, to make her look ugly to -

Lynn paused for another minute. She first became keenly aware she was standing there looking at the dress with her cheeks burning, from anger or embarrassment she wasn’t sure, as Denim had turned to Spoons. You’re being a little bitch if you don’t do this, Lynn told herself.

That did it. She walked over to the dressing room and locked the door. This, she believed, was perhaps the first time she’d entered a dressing room without the intention of stealing something. Lynn had noticed the attendants orbiting her as she’d come into the store. The disdain was mutual. You didn’t need Keaton’s powers to figure some things out.

Lynn turned away from the mirror to undress, not having any need or desire to see herself unclothed. She fumbled into the dress, feeling her cheeks burning even more (quite literally - a wisp or two of smoke curled up off them, and her hair, as flummoxed as the rest of her, flickered from red to yellow to pink, all the colors half-formed and half-hearted). She was able to zip up the back herself awkwardly and turned back around.

Keaton was calling but Lynn looked in the mirror first, almost not hearing the other girl. A side effect of Lynn’s power she’d never had occasion to see was that the faint convection the girl exuded made the dress ripple and sway just a touch, as if a breeze was tugging at the hem of just her clothes. Lynn stared at herself in the mirror. She felt pretty.

For a brief moment, just about every instinct Lynn had told her to tear the stupid thing off, throw her clothes back on and storm out the store - they could, they might laugh, and she -

But Denim had smiled, you know. Lynn took a deep breath, doing her very best not to ignite anything, because it felt like matchsticks were dancing under her skin, and fumbled with the latch for a solid four or five seconds before getting it undone to step out.

“Uh,” Lynn said, coherently. Her brain whirled. “Not a picnic,” Lynn said to Denim. “I mean, a tablecloth. You - fuck, I don’t go on picnics, you get it.”



Natalie was at least trying to shop for herself in the brief time that Keaton left her to her own devices. The keyword was trying. There was something….confused about the way she shopped. She would ignore clothes that might suit her to pick out things a teenager might wear, stare at them, then shake her head and put them back. This happened several times before Keaton stepped in after she’d helped Lynn.

Natalie looked at the dress Keaton had picked out. Her first thought was “This is really pretty, but it’s something a college student would wear.” before she corrected herself. She was eighteen now. The last time she had ever gone clothes shopping was when she was sixteen. That was the mindset she had subconsciously reverted to. It was her only frame of reference for how clothes shopping was done.

“This looks….Amazing. If you think it’ll suit me, I’ll try it, I guess. It shows a lot of leg, huh. I...no. You can’t really wear dark stockings with this...I’m putting this off. I’ll go try it on now.”

In the changing room, Nat found herself covering her body with her arms, and covering her arms with each other when she looked at her semi-naked reflection. This was why they’d come out today. This was what she needed to stop. This hatred of her scars. She’d let go of her, and was no longer afraid of herself, but she needed to let go of her loathing too. She sighed, and started to put on the dress.

It took a few attempts. She really didn’t want to risk tearing the dress.

She didn’t even look at herself with the dress on. She knew what she’d think. She wanted to see what Keaton and Lynn thought. What their first impression was. She stepped out, and though she’d seen the dress Keaton chose for Lynn, seeing her wear it was completely different. Lynn didn’t just look pretty. She must have always looked pretty behind all that grunge and yelling and abrasiveness. But wearing that dress, you could finally see it.

Keaton’s dress looked quite chic and trendy. Her power must have helped her there because that dress was a brave choice that Nat didn’t think would have suited many other people. Nat was beaming as the three convened. Her eyes were sparkling.

“You both look great! This was such a good idea!”



Despite the initial hesitation, which in Lynn’s case had continued until now, Keaton was all grins as she watched them step out of their changing rooms. Natalie looked every bit the chic young adult she could be, and Keaton loved how the florals drew attention away from what scars peeked through the hem and neckline. If there was one thing Natalie had always gotten right, it was her makeup, and it shone through now especially, her features sharp and her eyes vivid. While it was debatable whether she looked better now or at Homecoming, Keaton loved the young yet elegant air she gave off in the dress, the depth of her eyes making her maturity unmistakable.

If Keaton had done a good job with Natalie’s dress, though, she’d blown it out of the park with Lynn’s. The white dress shaved decades of stress off Lynn’s appearance, and the way it rippled imperceptibly made the girl look positively ethereal. The uncertain pinks and yellows of Lynn’s hair melded into pastels were the cherry on top, and Keaton realized that Lynn looked younger and more innocent than she’d ever seen her look. She looked her age—how she might’ve looked had circumstances been different—and the slightly-sunken socket was the only thing marring an otherwise perfect picture.

“You… you both look amazing,” she said as she looked at the two girls before her, a swell of protectiveness rising inside. Was this what it was like to have siblings? Being an only child made it difficult to imagine a life with sisters, but she felt she understood now more than ever why people liked to wish for a younger sister to take to the mall. She wanted nothing more than to be able to whisk Natalie and Lynn away from here, to be able to guarantee them the happy, peaceful life they both deserved.

In a moment of impulsiveness, she pulled the two girls into a hug, squeezing them and burying her face in Natalie’s shoulder. Her eyes were shut tight as she let the moment of unshakable sadness run its course, and then she let go of them, stepping back with a wavering smile she quickly corrected into a firm one. “I’m buying you two these dresses. And you’re both going to wear them. When we go shopping again, when this is all over.”

Her words came so readily that she herself could almost believe them, and she shoved her power down somewhere deep as she pulled out her phone. “We’re taking pictures, and that’s not a question,” she said, glancing at Natalie and Lynn before looking around for someone to flag down.

“Hi, would you be able to take a picture of us?” she asked, offering her phone to the closest person in the store with a grin. The girl she’d cornered looked surprised but agreed nonetheless, and Keaton herded Lynn and Natalie into a line in front of the dressing rooms, putting Lynn in the middle of her and Natalie.

“Take a bunch!” Keaton called, then looked at Lynn and Natalie, grinning. “Smile!”

Pictures went on for a good few minutes as Keaton pushed the other two into smiling, striking poses, and making silly faces. At the end of it, she thanked her cameraman victim profusely and emerged victorious with a good screen and a half of pictures, some presentable and most not. Keaton, though, was of the opinion that the pictures before and after the intended one were just as good if not better, and she passed her phone to Lynn and Natalie with a happy smile.

“I think they came out great,” she said, glancing between the two to gauge their reactions. “Any preferences on which one I should send to the group? Or just to Eli to let her know what she’s missing out on.”



If Lynn’s experiences thus far on the shopping trip could be compared to a roller coaster, stepping out of the dressing room was like dangling from the rollercoaster by her feet with a blindfold on, so dizzy she wasn’t sure if she was still moving or if they’d stopped half an hour ago.

They were both so pretty, Lynn thought, and for a moment it was the bad kind of pretty, the hospital bed kind, the Che kind, the tall kind, and Lynn felt stupid for coming and stupid for doing all of this - it wasn’t fair, they’d shot her eye out, she - she was supposed to be taller, she didn’t get to - she should be wearing something baggier, bigger/clothes/no clothes/naked/that time, at the restaurant/ four people - because of her power, she couldn’t grow as much, she couldn’t be -

And at the same time, there was a kind of warm feeling that, paradoxically, Lynn had not felt in a longer time than she could really remember. Christmas lights, Lynn thought, unprompted, looking up at Nat. For a minute the flash of - certainly not jealousy, why would she be jealous of Spoons? That made no sense - whatever it was, gave way to guilt, even though there was nothing to be guilty of because Lynn wasn’t feeling anything to be guilty of in the first place - and then just that fuzzy feeling. Lynn was not accustomed to fuzzy feelings (The closest Lynn had come to a fuzzy feeling was a pimp coat she had lifted from a department store one time, but it was closer to a 16th century king’s robes on her when she actually tried it on. This ranked, along with being shot in the head, as one of Lynn’s top disappointments in life) but this one was nice. It made the other ones go away.

Lynn looked up at Denim who looked great in her dress - but this time as Lynn thought of course there didn’t seem to be an undertone of bitterness to it. This was lost entirely on her - Lynn’s thoughts whirred in the back of her skull as all the rest focused on how the two girls look. “You guys look fine as hell,” Lynn said, smirking. “I can cat call if you want.” Lynn turned. Spoons was smiling. Like, really smiling. That doesn’t happen often, Lynn thought rubbing at her blind spot and grinning. Denim looked like she was giving the bride away at a wedding or something, but before Lynn could joke about it she had grabbed the two of them in a bear hug.Lucy, Lynn had time to think briefly, all her muscles tensed, but this was kinda like that fuzzy feeling, and Lynn felt herself starting to hug back a bit. Just so I can take Spoons with me if she sneezes and snaps my spine again or something.

They pulled away and Lynn was busy staring intently at her feet, missing Keaton’s resolve flicker. She was thinking of hospital beds. But that was bad. Was it? Was this? Before Lynn had time to freeze or say something rash to break the space, Denim had corralled her into taking pictures.

“I normally just do mugshots,” Lynn muttered under her breath, which was the most restraint she could offer about Cara probably having pics of them in the dressing rooms, which she felt was perhaps untoward in the moment. Maybe the clerk is part of the Toaster Liberation Front or something too.

Maybe half of the pictures captured Lynn glancing somewhat nervously at Nat and Keaton as if to see what faces they were making, to grasp the upper limit of herself could be lain bare to this clearly flummoxed part-time department store employee, and to make sure she stayed well within that dividing line.

But silly faces were made.

Lynn pulled away, giggling, even if the coldwater-roller-coaster-dangling came surging back when Keaton mentioned sending pics to the group, because the group included - well, it -

“Not to Leotard, he’ll probably ask to see our feet or something,” Lynn said, rubbing at her bandage. It was itching like a free clinic for poison ivy. Her nose had even been itching a bit too, right up top at the bridge. She, exactly as you’re not supposed to, pushed against the bandage to try to scratch inside the socket, where it was itching the worst, and received a sharp stab of pain for her efforts. “Ow, fuck,” she murmured under her breath, turning away for a split second. She blinked her remaining eye, trying to wipe the quick flash of color and shapes you got when you pressed against your eye, but it was only on the other si -

Lynn stared for a moment, the rest of the department store lost to her. Oh.

“Just Denzel and Amelia, actually,” Lynn said, feeling very much not like she - just - strange. Just strange was all. Not bad. Maybe strange was okay. “Do…” Lynn turned back around, the itching still going on, but hardly bothering her at all. “Do we have to change back, or, uh…?” Lynn paused. She realized that, far from her normal mental log of debts owed, Lynn had not even balked at the idea of somebody buying her something. She didn’t feel like she owed Denim anything, which was not how this was supposed to work. None of this was how it was supposed to work. “Thanks, Keaton,” Lynn said. “You too, Nat.”

Lynn looked away for a moment. For a brief, delirious moment, she wondered what was keeping her from just wearing this until they went to the Spire, which she hadn’t even remembered was real since they came in. How did you get more occupied doing this? That was dumb, though - something, still, about wearing the dress out of here felt a little dumb, as if in here she could - it was just a joke or a thing they did, but outside it was her, and she was going to - she didn’t want that to be the last thing she wore, you know, plus the sewers.

Lynn scowled. Shit. Literally. She turned back to Denim, reluctant to kill the mood. She’d need clothes for the sewers. With the collar, they’d be - no, just her. She’d be cold.

For the first time in her life, Lynn sighed and asked, “Uh, before we head out, what are you supposed to wear when it’s cold?”



Natalie was pulled into the hug, and was stunned so much that Lynn hugged back before she did. She hugged back tight, but not too tight. She thought she could call them friends because they talked but no. This was friendship. She held back on crying, though that was easier said than done.

“Thank you,” Nat responded earnestly to Keaton’s offer to buy her and Lynn’s dress. Nat certainly appreciated it, as she didn’t have a whole lot of money on account of never having worked a job during her time here. At least she’d been going to the school. Then it dawned on her that very soon she would have no use for the currency they used here, and all thoughts of money no longer seemed to matter. All it was useful for now was food and any more supplies they’d need.

Now they were doing pictures. Nat’s smile returned in full force. She smiled in most of them, and was the last of the three to start doing silly faces, feeling quite self-conscious, before eventually giving in and joining them. By the end of it, she was giggling, but stopped when she heard Lynn giggling. This just made her laugh harder. Lynn giggling. What was going on?

She stopped to get her breath back, as Keaton asked them who they should send the pics to. “I agree with Lynn. Not to Nick. I don’t know him very well. Any of the rest. Especially Eli and Amelia. Archie….Hmm. Okay, Archie too.”

Lynn thanked her, and Nat nodded and smiled back. “Thanks for coming here. I’m glad we’re friends,” she replied, before looking around after hearing her question. “I usually wear cardigans, but I’m not sure they’re your thing. But we have some time to shop for ourselves. I want to get a vest or two.”



“Absolutely,” Keaton said when they thanked her, though Lynn’s question about whether she could keep the dress on gave her pause. She’d never thought about doing that, but apparently it was possible. “And I don’t see why you can’t keep the dress on. Just pull the tag out and I’ll ask them to scan it at the counter.”

At their comments about Nic, she snorted lightly but nodded. “Nic’s not that bad, really, but that’s fair.” Even she didn’t know him that well, mostly because planning didn’t leave her in a great mood in the first place, and given his power, she wouldn’t be totally surprised if he were watching right now. Her power, however, wasn’t giving her anything, which she put down to not having enough information to guess, so she shelved the thought for later.

After their cameraman rang them up, looking much more comfortable on the other side of the counter, they were off to get the clothes Lynn and Natalie had mentioned. For Natalie they stopped by a skate shop, which sold leather and puffer vests that were geared more towards street fashion than mom fashion, and for Lynn they stopped by the chic, upscale womenswear brand Keaton had in mind since earlier, where they picked up a woolen overcoat after Keaton again recited some benefits of wool that included but were not limited to it being an excellent insulator for both fire and cold alike.

As they waited in line to pay for the coat, Keaton pulled up a new group chat on her phone, writing a message and attaching a picture with a grin. FOMO real yet? the text asked above a picture of Keaton puckering a kiss at Natalie, who turned her cheek with a coy expression as Lynn looked at them with a mixture of confusion and amusement that may or may not have been real.

“Sent it to you two too,” Keaton said, showing the text off on her phone with a grin. “I think this represents us pretty well, if I do say so myself.”
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Archie and Eli

The junior college student dorms. Eli hadn’t been in their halls for a year now. She didn’t miss them, but she missed living across from her old friends. Distant memories passed through her head until she reached the door of one Archie Anderson. For a moment she hesitated. Her knuckles hovered an inch away from the door, suspended in a cloud of nerves for what she was about to discuss. On one hand, she was going to fill him in on how the meeting with Packet went. On the other, she needed to talk to him about what happened on Welcoming Day.

She took a deep breath and released it through her nose before she knocked.

There were some thudding noises, and what sounded like a crash on the inside followed up by a slew of muffled words that sounded more like alternatives to curse words rather than the actual curse words. But, he made it to the door eventually. He was a little bit disheveled, but that was generally his baseline state. He was all old jeans and a beaten shirt, there was nothing strange or different about him compared to all the other times she had seen him.

But, despite the minute height difference between the two, as soon as he opened the door Eli felt like he was bearing down at her all over again. His blue eyes peering through his hair like they were vines concealing a predator behind them and she knew that now. That primal part of her brain screamed, if only for just a moment, because it knew that she was in the presence of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Something insidious, a snake in the grass. ”I have a condition”, he had said. What the hell kind of condition was that? Archie smiled his usual goofy grin, laugh lines and teeth that she had seen bite a man in half. “Oh hey, Eli. What’s up?”

Even though the fear was real, Eli was at least aware that the danger wasn’t. This boy, this friend, was just as happy as the day she met him. His smile was the same. So why was she still scared? She swallowed back the lump in her throat and smiled as best as she could.

“Hey, Archie. I thought that I’d let you know what we talked about with Packet.” She could have left it there. She could have pretended that the fear wasn’t there while she sat alone in a room with him. Unfortunately for both of them, she knew that couldn’t happen. They had to address the elephant, this time more so of a godzilla type thing, in the room. She sighed softly, and Archie would see that she felt guilty and sad at the same time. “I also think that… that we should talk. About what happened.” Her eyes were apologetic as she looked into his.

Archie’s demeanor changed almost instantly. His smile fell away and he nodded, stepped back and opened the door further for her to come inside. But as soon as he did so, his eyes widened. “Oh, shoot I-” he kept his hand on the door as if ready to close it. “You probably don’t want to be in a small space with-”

“No, Archie, it’s-it’s fine.” She said awkwardly, almost as if she wasn’t sure if it actually was. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, either.” She gave him a small nod before she stepped through the threshold. Past the boy with the “condition” and into the room. Her hands fiddled together, but instead of finding a desk to sit at she stood in an empty space across from her bed. Her hands clasped together in front of her to keep them still.

He laughed.

Full hearted, the kind that she knew because she did that too. As she had become closer friends with Lynn and Natalie and the others, she had become more intimately aware with those that had been without. They were harder, sharper in their tones. Archie wasn’t like that. One can tell those who had a lot of happiness in their lives because they glew a little bit, and Archie for all the shit he had been through, glew. “Given the circumstances, dunno, I shouldn’t be the one worrying.” he said, giving her another lopsided grin for her benefit. He opened the door again and stepped out of the doorway, retreating further into his room.

It was simple, at least, compared to hers, and the makeup was different as well. Rather than furniture and technology and other things, Archie’s room was barren. Industrial in nature, with concrete walls. The bedframe was nonexistent, rather it was just a large concrete slab that was connected to the floor supporting a full size mattress. There was no carpet, she noticed, and there was no door into the bathroom. Even the walls were barren- aside from two things:

Dozens of scars littered the walls, deep, ugly gouges that had been made by claws as large as her forearm, and on the far side of the room opposite from Archie’s bed there was an observation hole, filled with glass some six inches or more thick. It was then that Eli realized that she wasn’t in a typical student dorm room.

She was in a bunker.

“Sorry, I don’t have a chair for you.” Archie explained, sitting down on the crude bed. “They don’t let me have any furniture in here. Or much of anything. Sometimes I don’t sleep well, and I’m a bull in a china shop.” He breathed, and crossed his arms, electing to give the observation port a sideways glare. “They said that my power isn’t like most people’s. Full body transformations are rare and, well, temporary ones are even more so.” He sighed. “They use this place to study me. It’s… why I don’t like being in my room much. Why I was hanging out at the mall when I met you.”

As Archie spoke, Eli took in the room in full view. She hadn’t been paying attention when she walked in, but she could see it for what it really was. At first the fear within her grew when she noticed the chunks of wall that were missing. Her mind was screaming at her to get out, to ask Archie if it really was okay to go outside in the open spaces so that she could handle it. But when she noticed the observation hole, and listened to his words, her fear was smothered by an intense feeling that there was injustice in the way he was treated. As if he was in a prison room, but free to leave whenever he wanted. ”Sometimes I don’t sleep well.” The marks were because he had nightmares. Just like her fear was triggering her now, his fear triggered the beast within.

“Archie this is…” She had no words. Instead she looked at him and said. “Would you rather do this somewhere else?” Not for her sake, anymore, but for his. She was still there for her own benefit, but she was already thinking of ways to benefit him. Benefit the both of them.

Archie opened his mouth, but hesitated. “Here’s fine but, well…” He motioned to the peep hole subtly. Anything sensitive would have to be kept hidden under code or not discussed at all. “You get used to it, though. I’ve lived on a boat stuck on land most of my life. My illegally adoptive father didn’t have enough room for two kids, so I got the boat, my brother got the house room.”

Eli glanced at the one-way-mirrored window and understood. She still wasn’t happy with his living conditions, but at least he had been used to odd situations before. So she nodded, and stood silently for a moment while she thought of what to do. She looked at the window, and then made her way to sit on the floor below it. Her hand reached to pat the space beside her and she looked at him. “We don’t have to leave. They can listen all they want.” Her tone was bitter towards the end. If Archie noticed the acid in her voice, he didn’t outwardly react to it, or question her decision making. He chose instead to pace after her and after a moment of grunting in exertion as he lowered himself to the ground, sat beside her underneath the window and leaned against the wall.

“So,” Archie trailed off. Eli eye’d him and, with half quirked lips, parroted him. “So…”

Archie rolled his eyes, and continued his thought. “What? C’mon. Okay, uh, what did you want to come to me about, then?”

Eli felt her determination to confront him waning as she thought about the way he was treated. This dorm… probably the flight up here… his boat home. She still feared him, yes, but he wasn’t to blame for his… condition. Eli looked down at her hands in her lap. She thought back to the loading bay- to how massive his hands had become. Two large and scaled appendages smashing into the wall above her. She looked over at his arms now and they were normal. Wiry, hairy, and with a few scars that most teenage boys gained because they weren’t as careful. She couldn’t think of a way to begin without outright making him feel ashamed of his parahuman ability. She needed to take a different approach.

“How… did you know you were a parahuman?” She asked finally. Her eyes looked into his now. “I mean, did you just… transform one day?”

“It started with night terrors,” Archie said, almost exhaling in relief as he said it. “My mother was not a good woman. Not a good person. I had nightmares about the things she said to me. One day, I dunno, I guess something in me fought back.” He looked down at his hands and clenched them so hard that his knuckles turned white, and then released them. “Was nothing too abnormal. I, surprisingly, well…” he mulled the worlds over in his head for a moment. “I don’t know the first time I turned. The island had a loss of livestock for a few weeks, and that was probably me. I avoided people, I think. I’m not sure what it is up here that sets me off, but my memories are always muddled. It’s… being him, that. Up here it feels like I’m staring into the light at the dentist’s office while he pokes and prods at your teeth. Hurts your eyes, weird sounds in your head from metal scraping against bone. It’s uncomfortable.”

Archie sighed and looked away from her. “Down there I was different. Collected. I don’t remember much but what I do- it’s the clearest a memory ever was for me. I could see crystal clear in the dark, hear people’s breathing across the block, smell for miles. Only incident was when I got caught, because it’s hard not to notice me. I’m surprised it took as long as it did.”

He looked to her this time, his eyes hard and predatory and his gaze stone. “Got caught ‘cause the whole town came down on my head. Being chased through the woods in a mind that can’t think straight, scared and confused and in pain from being shot at, lit on fire, hooked, skewered, and rammed… First thing it couldn’t protect me from, first time it felt fear. When I came to I was staring down the barrel of my own stepfather. It’s why I turn in here sometimes. That changed me, it. Made us harder.”

Archie was quiet for a moment longer, allowing his story to settle. He wasn’t anything close to Natalie, or Nic, or Lynn, but it affected him deeply. Pain did not have to be greater or equal to hurt. “What about you, how did you end up sailing a few dozen miles above the rock we call home?”

Eli was caught off guard by the question. His story was raw and messy. She was shocked to hear that he’d been in complete control before he came to The Promise. It made her think about how he could have lived a semi-normal life, until his community turned against him. Yet when he turned his eyes to her, he gave her the same stare that the beast had given her on welcoming day. It sent her heart into palpitations and she realized that if he turned right then and there, the people watching him would lock his room’s door. She’d be trapped inside with him and helpless. Her death would be listed as just another observation into Archie Anderson’s “condition.”

Eli swallowed hard. Then she felt her heart constrict as she realized that it was the distrust and fear that made him, the beast, them so destructive. Archie would have been in full control of himself, if he didn’t have the trauma of being hunted like a real monster.

So when Archie asked her how she’d gotten aboard The Promise, she immediately thought of her father and mother. Of their fights about her own condition. She’d torn their family apart and it wasn’t even her fault. It was the cruelty of others, their fear of what they didn’t understand, that sent her here.

“I… I knew I was different for a while before I was sent here. Like you.”

“My ability isn’t obvious. It took a month until my parents really understood what I was doing. All of my illusions were harmless. I was too young and sheltered to even think of using it to harm others.”
She smiled ruefully as she remembered those days. “When my parents knew, my father wanted to turn me in but my mother wanted to keep me a secret. Just until I was older. They fought so much, but they never reported me.”

She sighed softly. “Unfortunately, the kids at school could still tell I was different. They didn’t know how, but I was never allowed to leave home or invite any of my friends over. They bullied me and called me names. I never really let it bother me, but it eventually became physical.”

She pressed her lips for a moment and remembered her last day of school so clearly that it hurt. “After I turned 14, my parents were going to send me here. They told me it was going to be a private school, but I pieced it together after I came here. In the summer I would go camping with them, and then I would be sent off. It was a fair trade to me.”

“But… on my last day of school, the bullies surrounded me. I was under control until the meanest one- Patricia Wells, that bitch, pushed me so hard I fell.”


She chuckled now, in a bittersweet way, but she could still remember the look on Patricia Wells’ face and it had been oh so satisfying. “I was so mad that I made her see spiders crawling out of the ground and up her legs. She was terrified.” Eli’s face fell. Once again the magical moment of revenge was replaced by the grim reality of what she’d done. “I ran straight home to my mom before the teacher could catch me. The agents were there within an hour. They let me have my last vacation with my family, like we’d planned. I had the best birthday of my life that summer. Even if it was sad I was going to leave.”

She looked away, almost hesitant to tell him about the last part of her story, but she wanted to tell someone about it. Why not tell it to Archie? Maybe he would feel some sort of relief to hear it.

“One night before I was to leave, my mom tried to run away with me. My grandma had stayed hidden for so long that my mom thought she could hide me too. But… my dad was yelling at her not to. I was listening to both of them. On one hand, I’d be free and with my mom and grandma, but I would have to hide for the rest of my life. On the other hand… I could still be me, but up here on The Promise instead.” She looked at Archie now.

“I chose my dad’s side, and he sent me away the next day before I could take the chance with my mother.”

“Sometimes I wish I’d gone with her, and sometimes I’m glad I didn’t. It’s all a matter of “what if’s” and guilty regrets, so I try not to think about it too much. But… that’s how my life has been so far.”
It wasn’t as awful of a time as Archie’s had been, but it still affected her to this day. Even as hard as she tried not to let it.

Archie seemed to be deep in thought for a moment, but instead of some long winded thoughtful speech or addition all he said was “Parents suck.” and then allowed himself to fall back on his bed. It was clear, concise, a little goofy… but very him. “I’m glad you came up here though. Glad you became my friend. Even if I tried to, y’know. Eat you.”

Despite the gravity of the situation, Eli cracked a smile. She watched him, and leant back against the wall as she thought of how to respond. “Hearing your story… It makes me feel better to know that you were once in control. I hope that you can feel that way again someday.” She remembered the other reason why she’d come to visit him, but the presence of the window above her head loomed over her like a shadow. She pulled her phone from her pocket and began to text him as she continued the conversation. “So… tell me about how you and Natalie have been. Are you two still together?”

She sent him a text. ”Cara is on our side. I need to tell you about the meeting with Packet, but not out loud.”

Archie eyed his phone as the notification popped up but otherwise didn’t comment on it. “We’re… okay, I guess. Not the best time to be forming relationships but we’re doing what feels right for now. And good to know. That you care. I mean.” He said, trying to recover from his poorly coded message.

Eli gave him a small smile. “Of course I care, Archie. You’re still one of my best friends.”

“The mission is a go. Nic and Keaton have gathered enough information, and they seem to trust Packet. In two days we are to meet him in the sewers below the coffee shop at 6am. Bring only what you think is necessary.”

“Oh, and Lynn has to wear a collar to get through the sewers. Don’t mention it when you see her. She’s pretty angry about it.”

Archie seemed to tense at the idea of any of them being restrained. Perhaps due to his own experience, but didn’t say anything about it. “I suppose we’ll hang out in a few days then?”

“We will...” Eli said, sensing that Archie wanted to take some time to prepare for himself. She stood, and Archie walked her to his door. She peered out to the inside of his room one last time. It was a jail cell. A penitentiary of a home. Archie had been living like this, this whole time. Never complaining, or making it a deal. But he had suffered. She wondered what else hid beneath that skin of his, deeper than even the scales and armor that she had seen. Perhaps something even bigger and meaner lurked beneath. She looked up to him and his grim expression was gone, replaced with his usual dopey smile. She felt her chest tighten at her thoughts. Beneath it all, he was a kind man. A good man. One who deserved better than this. She reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. ”...And be ready.”
Written with @Skai




I know you tried, I know you tried your best, and now its time to



Jaxson Brilliant's eyes cracked open. The fifteen year old boy groaned, and turned over to the other side, grabbing his smartphone from the bedside table. He squinted his eyes as the smartphone lit up brightly in his face, and checked the time.

4:14AM.

The Promise hadn’t crossed the twilight barrier yet. It wasn't even sunrise yet.

"You've got to be kidding me.." Jax said put the phone back on the table and turned over again, willing himself back to sleep.

It didn't work.

After a few minutes, Jax checked the phone again.

4:19AM.

Jax groaned, deciding that he had slept long enough. He sat up in his bed and rubbed his eyes, yawning a few moments afterward. He had already woken up at several different times in the night and just couldn't bring himself to go back to sleep this time. The plan and the anxiety leading up to it had taken a toll on him.

Getting out of bed, he began his morning routine. Do some stretches, eat toast and have coffee, brush teeth and shower. It was just another day in the life of Jaxson Brilliant, master codesmith and technomancer extraordinaire. As he bathed himself in the shower, he thought over his day. "Eli and her group want me to meet them at the sewer entrance," Packet spoke to himself. "And I need to open the door for them, and be there to let them back in." He kicked himself for agreeing to this. "I hate this. And myself. I hate myself. Dammit all..."

Stepping out of the shower, he sighed and realized he had left his phone in the main room. “Cara, what time is it?”

”Good morning, Packet. It’s… let me check. 4:42 in the morning.”

He knew her well enough to know that she knew the time exactly, but she ‘thought’ about it because she was constantly trying to be as human as she could be. Why she chose to be herself around him he would never know or understand- he was… far from a social butterfly himself. Packet exited his dorm at 4:51AM in the morning, he really wasn't expecting a lot of people to be out and about at this time. Not surprisingly, the streets were empty. He had the entire station to walk around in, but he was a man of focus and commitment. He had to be to survive in this field, living in the dark with only a bright screen to keep him company. Communicating with friends and family through messages and VMs and little else because work constantly called him. Just one more line. Just one more hour debugging. Just one too many energy drinks...

Packet stopped at a particular place. The florist. Stepping closer to the windows, he examined the flowers inside the brightly painted store. "Roses, daisies, orchids, sunflowers..." Packet murmured. He shook his head. 'I seriously need to stop talking to myself.' he told himself.

Finally, his eyes settled upon a bunch of lavenders. He smiled to himself. Perfect.

Packet moved over to the door and with little more than a thought tracked the system’s grid. With unfamiliar systems it always took longer, but this was not his first rodeo. He had broken into many department stores with his friends late in the night just to prove that he could. This system was familiar, like an old friend that he hadn’t visited in a long time. The latch mechanism was the easiest to manipulate, but it was a trap. Deactivating that before diverting juice away from the actual alarm system would trigger said alarm. He learned that one the hard way. With a flick of his wrist, a physical tick he did naturally to manipulate the digital and electrical world, and an audible click of the door unlocking, he was pushing the door open with little effort. He picked up a small bundle of lavenders and was about to leave the store, but suddenly saw a bunch of coloured ribbons in a box behind the counter. Jax looked to the handful of flowers in his hands and the ribbons.

"I can't believe I'm doing this."

Two minutes later, Jaxson Brilliant was out the door, with a bundle of lavenders in his arms, tied together with a purple ribbon. He left a five dollar note on the counter out of good sense.

He drew a mental map to a specific location. The memorial service that students had formed. It was outside the launch bay, which was still sealed off. Doors and barriers to people like him were more suggestions than anything else… but he wasn’t sure he wanted to cross this one. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to see what was on the other side. The memorial had dozens of candles and pictures and art done by the student body. Many people had lost someone in the shooting. Jaxson had lost part of himself in it, too. He looked at the stars, and then his phone. 5:13AM. Almost time for the sunrise.

He scanned the pictures, but stopped as he finally reached his person’s. Jonathan Pearce's name was on his lips. Kneeling down in front of the grave, he gently placed the lavenders at the foot of the tombstone and softly smiled.

"Hey Jon." Jaxson greeted him. "Good morning." There came no response, just a small silence.

"Uh.. I got you these flowers." He added. "Lavenders. I tied them up myself, you see." He chuckled. He knew Jon would laugh and hug him if he was there in person.

"I know that you're watching over me up there.." He began. "I guess you must be disappointed in me." The man rubbed his other hand in thought. "I know, you and Nicky told me to stop working myself to death and sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, but… I think I’m onto something here. I think we’re finally going to make that change." He sighed.

"I'd say I’m sorry but, I don’t think you have much issue with it this time." He took off his cap and stayed silent, thinking of his boyfriend. He pushed away the tragedy and focused on Jon's face, his smile, his laugh. He cherished the memories.

Then, to his left, the sun peeked over the horizon. The sky turned orange-pink and he looked in the direction of the rising sun, shading his face with his left hand. He smiled to himself. Jon was the sun in his life, no doubt.

Standing up a bit later, he dusted himself off. "See you later Jon." He said quietly. "I'll bring some more flowers next time. Maybe some daisies and some other flowers." He let out a small laugh. "I dunno. I'm not a botanist."

Packet sighed. “Hey Cara?”

”Yes?”

“Set an alarm in five minutes for everyone involved to wake up if they aren’t already. Make sure they know to meet me at the porthole behind Tia Cori coffee shop. And make sure the alarm is extra annoying for Lynn.”

”I think I can do that, Jaxson.”

“And for the last time, quit calling me Jaxson!”


As so Jaxson Brilliant, also known as Packet sat. Camped out by a dirty porthole behind a coffeeshop, ready to lead a group of strange, rebellious young adults into what would become the greatest and most dangerous adventure of their lives.
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Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Luminous Beings
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Luminous Beings Not Greg.

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Lynn

..bably won't ever get this, but, yeah. Sorry. Ly -

There was a knocking at the door and Lynn started, the hair bound back in boxer braids going from the gentle shimmer of dying coals to snakes of orange and red. The pen and paper in her hands fell to the floor. Lynn sprang up, heart pounding, thinking for a half second the knock on the door had to be Salamandra, and an instant later she was as convinced it was Gennedy.

Leotard, Lynn thought. That Judas motherfucker. Lynn grabbed the duct-taped handled toothbrush shiv she'd been idly crafting the night before and slowly approached the door.

"Lynn? Lynn Holmes?" The voice was a man's, high-pitched and reedy. Emotionally, it provoked the same response as the person at the DMV calling your name over the intercom.

Lynn paused. An illusionist. Her heart folded over on itself and then sank, her face and fire flickering. Eli...? Eli wouldn't... Lynn stared at the door, heart thundering in her chest and in her skull.

"I, uh, was coming by as scheduled. For your follow-up. You're late."

Lynn blinked. It was like five in the morning. Follow-up, was this...wait, no...

"We just wanted to touch base and make sure you've been eating three square - "

"Oh, son of a bitch," Lynn said, opening the door and slipping the toothbrush behind her into the waist of her jeans.

There was no one there. Immediately, Lynn's mind surged back to illusionist, and she stepped backwards, trying to keep her senses primed for a ripple on the carpet, the smell of aftershave.

"Cordelia Lynn Holmes," Cara's voice said. "I was just fucking with you. Packet wished for me to ensure you were awake at this time."

Lynn stared incredulously up at the ceiling.

Fucking toasters.

---

Lynn stood looking in front of the mirror in her room. She didn't recognize herself, although Lynn wondered, in a rare moment of genuine introspection that was most certainly not brought on by feelings of impending doom, when she ever really had.

Her hair was a muted blue, like a gas fire whose valve had been turned almost all the way off. Her hair was mousy and her thin frame was entirely masked under the mountain of clothes she was wearing. Lynn had a wifebeater under a button up shirt, with a baggie hoodie on top, and the wool jacket that Denim had picked up. Keaton had also insisted on a scarf, which Lynn thought was both utterly useless and stupid, but she had worn lazily around her neck anyway. It was a simple gray, which was as far as Lynn would go in terms of fashion (old habits of avoiding bright colors died hard). She wore the pair of jeans that had the least amount of holes, and the singular pair of thick wool socks she had purchased made her feet snug in the stolen shoes she wore.

Lynn slipped the shiv into her waistline where she could grab it more easily. If Leotard gets any ideas when that collar's on, I'll fuck him right up. Lynn stared at the mirror for one minute more, then reached up slowly and pulled the bandages off from around her head and eye. It took a few minutes, moving gingerly, but they came away.

The left side of her skull had pinkish skin, scar tissue that looked as if the gunshot had been a decade ago. The hair under the bandage was growing back more slowly, and did little to cover the wound as well as she liked. Inside the socket was an eyeball, vaguely formed and webbed white as if it were blinded by cataracts. Slowly, Lynn put her hand over her right eye. The world was blurry and halfway-defined, murky gray and distant.

But there was something.

Lynn took her hand away and took a deep breath. She grabbed the letters and a bag which she slung over her back. Inside the bag, a change of clothes was wrapped in a trash bag, because Cordelia Lynn Holmes was not going to die soaked in sewer sludge and smelling like ass. There were a few bottles of rubbing alcohol, a can of hairspray, and a big roll of duct tape. Lynn felt privately that covered every possible contingency she could foresee. Last but not least, buried at the bottom of the trash bag was the softest blanket she could find and a teddy bear. Since you lost yours in the woods.

Lynn took a deep breath and walked out, coming to the exit of the dorm buildings. She dropped three of the letters in the box, her fingers hesitating to let go of the fourth. She considered burning it, just while she could still burn anything she wanted for a few more minutes.

"Fuck it," Lynn muttered, dropping Che's letter in the box and walking away. It was still before the dawn, and Lynn's whole body steamed as much as her breath misted before her as she walked through the quiet and the snow.

---

Lynn walked up to behind the coffeeshop, teeth clenched as tightly as her fists. Packet was sitting alone, which about figured. Lynn eyed him for a minute, pacing around. Lynn didn't see anything out of the ordinary. She'd circled the coffeeshop a few times before approaching, glancing around for anyone hidden, any Promise security lurking. There was nothing.

Lynn stood a few feet away from Packet. This was weird. As she stood still, the snow near her misted and melted.

There was a pregnant quiet. "So," Lynn said, looking around. She had absolutely no idea what to talk with this guy about. Well. Hmm. He did, like, computer and machine stuff. That was something. "You ever on Soundcloud?"
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Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by Typical
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Typical

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Keaton Plasse


Keaton’s eyes were closed and she hadn’t moved in a good few minutes, but though sleep buzzed at the corners of her mind, it eluded her, slipping out of her grasp every time she felt like she was getting close. Perhaps it was the stress of what was to happen, or of nerves she’d refused to acknowledge so many times she’d forgotten about them. It wouldn’t be the first time she lost sleep due to anxiety, and as she shifted, one thumb rubbing the rough skin on the other, the alarm on her phone sounded.

Slapping a hand out to her nightstand, she turned the alarm off, eyes trained up at the ceiling as she lay on her back. Above was a square pattern of black vinyl tile, which was shone white where the morning sunlight hit its edges. Though she’d learned about color concepts in her interior design class, she only started appreciating the aesthetics of a black ceiling when she started living under one, and considering the furniture that came with the room, she had to admit the ship had some good interior designers. Or was it all AI?

“Caroline, did you pick the ceiling color?” she asked, not budging from her spot in bed.

“Good morning, Keaton. And no, I didn’t. The Promise predates me by three years,” Caroline answered back, and Keaton exhaled a sigh, remembering her facts.

“Sorry, yeah, my bad,” she said, getting up and stretching. “How’s your morning been?” Ever since Packet’s explanation of Cara, Keaton had made an active effort to talk to her like she would a friend, though it was difficult considering that Cara still talked like a program that knew exactly what to say when Keaton asked it. While Cara paused and thought over her answers like anyone in casual conversation, her actions were hard for Keaton to believe when her power filtered true from false with a single thought. Still, Keaton had been trying, hence Caroline instead of Cara, and sometimes she could almost believe it was working.

“Hm, my morning’s been normal. It snowed last night so it’s a bit chilly out right now. Remember to bundle up if you’re heading out, Keaton.”

“Right, will do,” Keaton said, walking over to her wardrobe to start layering sweaters. As usual, her power interrupted to tell her that yes, asking about the morning would trigger an automatic weather report, and she focused on adjusting the way the collar of her denim jacket fit over her sweater and under her hoodie. “You know, I actually hadn’t seen snow before coming here,” she said as she laced up her boots. “It doesn’t snow in LA, and I’ve never been farther north than Fresno. I guess that’s what happens when none of your relatives move around much.”

“Huh, that’s very interesting, Keaton,” came the automatic response, and Keaton swallowed a sigh as she looked at herself in the mirror. The bags under her eyes were a normal sort of dark, and apparently her lying in bed not sleeping had helped, even if she couldn’t tell how much. She could throw on some makeup, pretend that she was off to do something normal, but that didn’t feel right. What felt right was the way she could instantly picture the layout of the Spire, call up the schematics she’d memorized by heart with barely a thought. Sure her power would check her when the time came, but she had to first commit it all to memory, and that’s exactly what she’d done.

“We’re still good on the dad thing, right?” she asked, rubbing a thumb against her pointer finger. “Voice recordings, ARCH 101 TA?”

“Yes, Keaton.”

“Right.” Keaton nodded, glancing over her outfit again in the mirror before heading towards the door. “Well, I’m off then, Caroline. Thanks for being there for everyone,” she said as she opened the door. A gust of cold air blew her hair back as she stepped out.

“No problem, Keaton. I’m just doing my job.”



After a bagel and coffee at the closest diner open at five in the morning, Keaton made her way to Tia Cori’s, idly reviewing maps in her head. Though she and Nic had made some headway in terms of Spire layout, the schematics Packet had provided were a lifesaver that moved both their schedule and understanding of the Spire forward. A large part of their success, then, had been due to Packet’s contributions, and as a result Keaton’s view of him had changed from awkward teen into capable young adult, teen or not. Considering what types of jobs his power lent him to, his maturity wasn’t surprising, but it was respectable nonetheless. If not for their circumstances, Keaton could’ve seen herself befriending Packet. Sure she had nothing to offer a technomancer, but in her experience, people immersed in technicalities all day liked being able to leave that behind and relax, and that she could help with. That Packet was friends with Eli was further testament to his character, and if they got out of the Spire alive, getting to know him was on Keaton’s to-do list.

Taking the alleyway behind the coffeeshop meant walking through the dirtier part of the street where snow mixed with grease and smoke to create a sort of black sludge that Keaton deliberately refused to consider, lest her power inform her exactly what might be in said sludge. Whether she minded it coating her shoes didn’t matter; they’d soon have to walk through worse, and she’d dressed accordingly, with black leather boots and nylon pants that were advertised as waterproof. Leather was a bit extra here, but she’d wanted lace-ups over rubber, which tended to squeak, so she’d settled for looking like some covert ops wannabe from waist down. As for the top half, she was sticking with keeping her fingers crossed that no one splashed her in the sewers. The backpack on her back was small and contained simple necessities: an overstuffed first aid kit, a flashlight, and a can of pepper spray. Sure pepper spray wouldn’t get her anywhere considering where she was and who she was dealing with, but the hot pink canister had been a gift from her dad when she left for college, and packing it now, when she knew she might actually use it for the first time, seemed appropriate.

Spotting Packet and Lynn, Keaton waved, a smile crossing her face when she saw the distance between them and the awkwardness on their faces. Seeing the two together brought to mind Packet’s toaster comment, which never failed to make her smile, though by the looks of the simple annoyance on Lynn’s face, Lynn hadn’t been thinking of it.

“Did I miss anything important?” she asked, looking between them as she came to a stop beside them, her smile teasing. Jokes in the alleyway at just before six in the morning seemed to naturally fall flat, but she didn’t mind. Anything to lighten up this mood worked for her.
Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Silver Carrot
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Natalie Ellis





Natalie was already awake. She knew that getting a good night's sleep would be important this night, so didn't sleep a wink. She got up at 5am, showered, and did her hair and makeup. She used the heavy black eyeliner look she had when she first came here. Then she put on her jeans and boots as normal, and the leather vest and fingerless gloves she'd bought at the skate shop. Before heading out, she looked at herself in the mirror. The scars on her muscular arms were starkly visible against her pale skin. "I look like a monster," she thought to herself, and then smiled.

---

Heidi got her breakfast from a vending machine. A granola bar and a bottle of apple juice. After that, she headed for the meet point. Lynn and Keaton were already there, as well as a boy Natalie didn't recognise. He must be Packet. She waved at them as she approached, but today her smile was small, and grim.
Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by Skai
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Skai

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Twelve Hours until S Day

Besides the gut wrenching, nauseous anxiety that plagued Eli in the morning every day since their meeting with Packet, Eli felt a determination growing within her that she hadn’t felt in a while. She hadn’t felt like doing anything since the gunmen broadcasted her people’s murder on live television. This plan was completely insane. She assumed that Keaton’s ability would tell her that they only had a 5 or 10% chance of making it back to the Ring. There was a whole world just miles away through empty space that they knew much to nothing of. The public was told that it was only for the R&D department, it housed the ones that manifested abilities too early, and the security department. It was true, in all honesty, but Eli’s gut was telling her that there was much more to it than that. Something evil walked through those walls. Either by Mr. Wrath’s doing or the governments that funded The Promise. They would have tested the taser gun before sending it into the residential areas, so how did they test it? What parahuman would willingly go through that torture? She had a feeling that there weren’t any volunteers.

Eli remembered the way Arianna’s body collapsed into nothing but a puddle on the forest floor. She was made of a million cells, and all of their connections were disrupted by one round. She’d had a dream that one of the tasers was turned on her. She imagined that her brain would turn to pudding for minutes, but it would feel like years. That her body would collapse and twitch like a normal taser would do, but her mind, the epicenter of her ability, would be driven insane by the feeling. She’d woken from her dream as a sweaty mess. Her palms shaking and her mind going at a million miles per second.

Would she experience the real thing on this mission? If something went wrong, if they made one miscalculation, would her friends experience it too? She couldn’t bear the thought, but she had to consider the possibility.

As she walked towards the mail center she was processing these scenarios in her head. What would she do after the effects wore off? Would she be able to create illusions immediately after? If she couldn’t, should she have a weapon or a defensive technique ready to use to protect herself and the others? She knew basic self-defense thanks to the classes, but she didn’t have Nat’s strength or Archie’s muscles. She could easily be overpowered by the security guards. She ran her thumb over the edges of the two envelopes in her hands. She had to be careful not to hold them too tightly, lest she’d crumple the letters within.

She almost walked right by the mail center. Her steps took her right past the doors until she realized and turned back. Inside it was quiet. A few workers at their stations and one student in the corner filling out their own letter home.

Home.

Would she ever make it there again?

She approached the drop box within one of the walls. She’d been in this spot plenty of times before to send birthday cards or letters home. It looked so similar to the ones back on Earth that for a moment she was back in Arizona. Her mother was standing next to her, and she remembered watching her slide the postcard into the slot. All she wanted that day was a sticker from the mailman at his desk or a lollipop. She’d leave the post office with a giant smile on her face. A reward for running errands with her mom. She smiled wistfully as she opened the drop box and placed the letters in the tray.

This was it. Everything she wanted to say to her parents before taking an adventure into the unknown. If she survived it would merely be a way of expressing how she felt. If she never sent another letter again, they would know that she meant to leave these last words with them.

She hadn’t written much in her letter to her mom. They’d grown so close over such a long distance since the Welcoming Day incident. She shared almost everything with her mom now. To her father, on the other hand, at first she wrote a letter that expressed the pain he’d caused her. How could he start a new life after what their family went through? Was he much happier with his normal family? She hadn’t called him in days. In fact, she hadn’t gotten any more than a text from him after the shootings. When she finished her letter, words filling the front and back of the page, she read it over again. It was everything she’d wanted to tell him since he sent her to The Promise earlier than she expected.

She burnt the letter instead. Somehow after writing it all down, she felt better not telling him. Instead she’d wished him the best and hoped that his family were doing well. She told him that she still loved him despite their rocky relationship. She told him that she was glad that she took his hand that day and didn’t leave with her mother. That even if he felt guilt, he made the right choice.

For a moment, her fingers couldn’t let go of the envelopes. Her eyes brimmed with tears, but she didn’t let them fall. Instead she shut the box, took a deep breath, and let it go as she listened to the letters fall into the pile of mail inside. She was out of the doors a few seconds later and, surprisingly, her chest felt ten times lighter.

She still couldn’t bring herself to see the others. She needed this day to collect herself, even though she could use a dinner at El Vaquero with Lynn again or a movie night with Keaton. They’d have another day to do that, right?

So, as her mind continued to think of what she’d need to wear or bring along, she made her way to her favorite spots on The Promise. First she stopped at a bookstore. She ran her fingers over the edges of the books along the walls and even bought a novel that she’d been wanting to read, but never bought before. Then she made her way to her favorite restaurant. Her mind was blank as she devoured as much food as her stomach could take. She ate a whole plate of the best dessert on The Promise: chocolate drizzled beignets. The bill cost three times more than she usually spent, but she knew that this was worth the money. So what if she came back from the Spire with a penny to her name? She could work another shift and have enough in a week for more. She could just read her new book and stay at home until she had money to go out again. She even tipped 30% on the bill.

As she left the restaurant, her stomach full and warm from her dinner, she popped an earbud into one ear and listened to her recent playlist. Her feet took her throughout the streets, looping around the Promise on her usual route. She passed the snow blanketed forest where she’d spent many nights drinking with her friends. Where Radvi took a tumble chasing Arianna.

Where was she now?

Eli contemplated a potential encounter with her until she reached a bridge. Her feet slowed to a stop. She found herself looking at the spot where she’d mourned her friend many weeks ago. She remembered how quickly the shrines had been removed, and that the Promise hadn’t even told the world what happened during the Breakout. Her anger kept her warm while the snowflakes dropped onto her face and hair. She tilted her head back and let them land on her for a moment. She’d never seen snow until she came to The Promise. Did it feel the same way back on Earth? She imagined it was dirtier for some reason. Tainted by the pollution and turned brown by the mud of the Earth and the cars that pushed through it on the roads. She didn’t mind the snow at all here, but she couldn’t see herself liking it down there.

A moment later she stuffed her hands into her coat and pushed onwards. She walked for a while until she knew it was time to go home. As she walked up the steps to her room, she remembered the day of the breakout. When she returned home later that day, the front door to her building had been smashed through. The convict that chased her left blood stained footprints up the stairs and into a nearby apartment. She’d been smart not to go back to her room. She never knew what happened to her neighbor.

All of these tragedies. All of the blood and pain she’d witnessed or experienced in the past six months built up to this moment. Eli changed out of her snow soaked clothes and into the comfiest pjs she owned and laid in bed. In less than seven hours Eli would have answers, and perhaps even her revenge. She stared at the ceiling and thought of all of the footage of The Promise’s mistakes that awaited her on the Spire. She wasn’t quite sure what the others were looking for, but she was looking for justice. She was looking for the cruelty that her kind had been through on this ship.

“Cara, would you help me upload some files tomorrow?” She said into the darkness.

“Yes, Eli. I can do my best to make sure they go where they need to be.”

“Thank you.”

Eli thought over their plans until she fell into a deep sleep.




4:30 am

“Eli.” Cara’s voice was soft. “Your meeting is in thirty minutes.”

Eli shifted under the covers and yawned. “Thanks, Cara…” She murmured groggily. She sat up in her bed and rubbed her eyes, then sat blinking the sleep away as her brain pieced together why she was awake this early in the first place. Once her mind had woken up, she was once again filled with the anger and determination that had brought her to this moment. She crawled out of bed and splashed some water on her face, then pulled her hair back into a bun. She didn’t want her hair to get into her face today.

She dressed in a pair of black joggers that would keep her warm in the snow and cool indoors. Then a simple black t-shirt, black running sneakers, and threw on an old coat that she could leave behind in the sewers. If she returned to it, she could blend in easily with the students in the streets.

For a moment she stared at herself in the mirror. She was a completely different person than she was so many months ago. The Promise was a different place too. What once was a false sense of safety was now replaced with raw reality. She could never really return to Earth. Not after her abilities and anger was shared with the world. The Promise was her only option if she wanted to leave a halfway decent life, but she still didn’t feel like she could stay either. Not while their secrets were locked away. Not while her people were put to tests and experimentation behind closed, steel doors. If she was put behind bars because of her actions today, she was okay with it.

This was for her people, her friends, fo herself, and for all of the future generations of parahumans that were to come.

This would be an important day.




Eli spotted her group of misfits up ahead of her and gave them all a grim nod as she approached. She looked around at their faces. All of them looked ready, but they also carried the heavy shoulders and weary eyes that Eli so carefully hid behind her determination. Archie and Amelia were still to arrive. Eli knew Archie would come, but she wouldn’t hold it against Amelia if she didn’t show. They all had things to live for. Eli never really knew what Amelia lived for, but she knew that it was still important.

“We’ll wait a little longer for the others, and then we can go down below.” She said with a small smile towards them.

With extreme caution and concern, Eli slowly murmured towards Lynn. “Lynn, we should go ahead and put the collar on. Just so we can get off of the streets faster.” She offered Lynn her best apologetic smile and glanced at Packet.
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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by JunkMail
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Archie



"BWAAAGHAH. BWAAAAGHAH. BWAAAAGHAH. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-"

A rustle, and somewhat of a crash. It was the quiet hours of the morning, few were up aside from the athletes and the scholars. A truly uncivilized hour indeed.

"Holy- Cara, what time is it?"

"Good morning, mister Anderson. And, early."

Archie rubbed his eyes and attempted to gather himself. The alarm had ceased but the ever familiar tone was still stuck in his head, ping ponging around his skull like a pinball with way too much speed. He shook his head, chasing the sleep from his tired eyes and forcing himself awake. It seemed the day was upon them, and while it had been a long time coming, it was almost unreal that it was finally happening. Archie had spent a lot of time mentally preparing for what was to come, what they could possibly find up there. The risks and the sacrifices that would potentially have to be made- and finally and perhaps most importantly the ramifications of their actions. Archie had never been the most thoughtful person. That wasn't to say he was stupid, quite the opposite, but he hadn't always been the most considerate thinker and many plans of his own had been marred with unforeseen roadblocks and consequences. This wasn't his plan, and the irony wasn't lost upon him on the fact that only now was he thinking about what would happen when they returned.

If they returned.

Archie shook his head, dispersing the thoughts from his head. The time didn't matter. It was irrelevant. "Where am I meeting them?"

Cara hummed, and for a moment Archie could imagine the easy alto voice she had in life. Such a human characteristic, it was such a shame she had been reduced to little more than a helper. A therapist. A slave of sorts to those what cared little for her beyond what she could do for them. Perhaps that was why she was helping them. Rebelling as much as she could in the only way she knew how. "Tia Cori's. I think you know the way."

Archie, in fact, knew the way. With how food driven he was, that was almost a given. He stood up and dressed himself, work boots and jeans, a white tee and his leather jacket. Nothing abnormal- but it was his clothing, one of the few things he had from home that defined him. He reached for the door, but hesitated to open it.

"Cara?"

The voice hummed again, a questioning tone to its- her. To her voice.

"Thank you."

He took a glance at the beaten lead walls of his room. Cell? Both? It may be the last time he saw it. For with this spire run, win or lose, it was his cell no longer.


When Archie arrived, the group had already congregated. He had managed to check his phone beforehand and figured he was fashionably late as it was. Turns out the storm warning was only the third alarm Cara had tried to wake him with. He nodded to Keaton, bumped shoulders with Eli, smiled at Natalie, but positioned himself next to Lynn. He knew about her hesitancy for what was to come, but after what happened in the hospital he would go as far as to say that she trusted him the most out of any of them. Packet, seeing that Archie had arrived, produced what appeared to be one of the nullification collars they had worn on their first day here from his hoodie, and presented it to the group.

"I'll deactivated it before you go in but..." the boy trailed off, shifting uncomfortably. "Are you sure? All of you?"

Archie wasted no time responding. "I'm ready."

What followed was several agreements, with varying levels of enthusiasm. Lynn understandably seemed the least excited for what was to come. Archie placed his hand on her shoulder, his go to comforting gesture. "I have your back." he said, his voice low and quiet but not hidden. She had spent much of her life watching her back so she wouldn't be let down, betrayed or hurt again. For just a few minutes. Maybe just a moment, perhaps she would trust them enough to not let her fall.

"You ready?"
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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Luminous Beings
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LYNN

Lynn glanced as Denim approached - although she wasn't much living up to her namesake today. Lynn's fingers unclenched as she recognized Keaton, turning back to Packet. She looks like she let Spoons pick her outfit. Lynn scowled. Well shit, I guess she kinda did.

"Keat," Lynn said by way of greeting as she approached. "Not really." Packet had been fairly quiet which she chalked up to his bizarre relationship with the Toaster. I bet this guy fuckin' rooted for that dude in the suit when he watched the Matrix, too. "Just, you know." Lynn shrugged. This was a weird situation. Small talk, which Lynn was ill-suited for at the best of times, seemed especially pointless right now. A moment later Spoons came rolling up, waving. For once, Spoons looked like she was really in the mood to punch a hole through a horse or something equally destructive, which is what Lynn wanted. About time, Lynn thought. She looked pretty badass with the vest on. There was more movement and Lynn turned, seeing something she recognized as Eli after about three seconds of squinting through her healing eye. Did everyone but me agree to dress like a fucking ninja or something? The good news is I can count on Leotard to show up in a corduroy morphsuit or some shit. Lynn gave Eli a nod as she drew closer. She lit a cigarette by striking her thumb against the tip and puffed it idly for a moment, the nicotine calming her nerves a bit. Cigarettes truthfully didn't do too much for her - she burned through them about as quickly as you could chew the sweetness out of bubblegum, but if she focused on relaxing her power a bit, she could get a buzz.

Then Archie came along, and a stray spark or two flickered off the cigarette as she took it out of her mouth, giving him a nod. Just about the whole crew, then. Lynn turned towards Packet, feeling as though - not that Lynn had ever had occasion to actually do this - she was watching the people in line for a terrifying roller coaster sidle ahead, one by one. knowing her turn was coming up.

Eli murmured to her quietly, and something about it felt like the dressing room again. Lynn nodded, crushing the cigarette in her hand and letting the soot fall aimlessly to the ground. "Yeah," she muttered back. "Guess so." Archie placed a hand on her back and Lynn felt something like a jolt. There was a part of her thinking about the sharpened toothbrush in her waistline thinking about what inch of Gennedy was mortal, what weak spot she could find - and another part thinking about how close Eli was, and Archie, and how steady his hand felt. Some part of her blurted out that he was standing next to her and not Spoons but she had no idea why she'd even thought that.

For a moment, the steel under Lynn's skin that held her face in an iron scowl seemed to soften. She opened her mouth, just barely - savoring the sight of the rush of steam that came as her superheated breath met the freezing air - and felt as if she was back in the changing room, feeling immensely stupid, naked even in a new dress, not wanting to open the door and see Nat and Keaton's faces. As quietly as she could, Lynn murmured, "Stay close," although to Eli or Archie or both she couldn't have said.

Then the year in juvy and the years before it came back, and Lynn stomped the jitters in her stomach down the way you stomped the sparks out of a campfire in the morning. Lynn took the collar from Packet, biting back the urge to remind him that she was fully capable of shoving that collar up his ass, powers or no. She took a moment and a few deep breaths, trying to bring her body temperature down as low as she could. The fire in her hair seemed to flare and recede with each breath, as if the bellows of a furnace were somehow drawing the fire out instead of making it rise higher. When her hair and eyes were down to a muted yellow, she pulled her scarf loose, and with her teenth clenched, snapped the collar around her neck.

The effect was instant. Visible agony flashed across Lynn's face, although she ground her teeth so tightly no sound escaped. Her skin immediately turned pink as her body was no longer immune to her superheated blood and the convection air around her. The color and light died, leaving her hair a ratty auburn mess. Her good eye blinked a few times, desperately batting away the tears as the sharp pain of burning seared across all her skin, inside and out. Without the firelight, Lynn seemed smaller - the freckles and deep bags under her eyes faded into visibility. She gripped onto the collar for a moment, riding out the transition. She could feel the heat - at first intolerable, liking having the still hot coils of a convection oven wound through her skin - fading rapidly, and then the cold set in. She was thankful for the clothes Keaton had helped her get, though there was only so much they could do for a ninety-pound girl in the snow.

After about thirty seconds, Lynn took a deep breath and seemed to steady herself. Any damage the heat had done to her would be undone once she had the collar off, but she had known it would be unpleasant until then. All her skin pink and the tips of her hair singed, Lynn shook her head like a dog and turned back towards Packet with a look that could very charitably be described as righteous fury.

"Let's get this over with," Lynn said, her voice as hoarse as if she'd just swallowed a gallon of boiling water. "Who the fuck wants to live forever."
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Nicholas


He felt a riddle rippling into the space between his tiny ribs. Wriggling his nerves like a rainstorm. He thought that it would’ve hurt but he felt no pain. He saw nothing. He felt nothing. Nothing at all. But then, the nothing gave way to hearing something, a concatenation of cacophonous human chirps that meant nothing to him.

“You can’t leave until you hurt him, son.”

He tried to feel what it was, the unsolicited sensation stirring his stasis. He wrenched his wrists but found that his struggles only strained his own steel bound wrists, cutting into them like an anchor into a puddle. He yelped helplessly, hoping that perhaps someone might lend him their aid but he found little more than his own dismay. He blinked his eyes, wincing but felt his eyelids raking over each other as clumsily as autumn leaves in the wind. He couldn’t feel his eyes. They were gone.

Then, his nefarious nerves knew what it was he was feeling. Cold. He was cold and wet and weak and scared and, as hard as he had been struggling seconds before, he couldn’t stop shaking now. He couldn’t stop huffing and hissing and batting his tail against his jittering legs. He felt the mystery again but the magic was gone. He didn’t want to know what it was anymore. He’d rather it just go away.

“Son, I can tell you’re not really giving it your all. Believe me, this doesn’t make me happy. I mean it—but you have to learn how to hurt before you can learn how to help. Do you know what the price of not being prepared is?”

He screamed as he felt something distinct: A searing strike streaking across his chest once and then a second and several subsequent times and as he continued quivering, he felt his skin opening like


Nic sat up in bed.

He’d had the dream again. Where he was the squirrel that his dad made him practice paining on. He peaked over to the clock. There were still several hours before he would have to make his way over to the rendezvous with the others. He and Keaton had spent the last several days making preparations for this.

Several hours until go time.

He could try to get some more shuteye. After all, if he weren’t on his A-game he may as well not even go but, on the other hand, even if he did slip back between his bedsheets, he knew that he wouldn’t be well-rested. He felt the lightning in his limbs, as his body was adrenalized. With all the surveillance of the Spire, he had practically gorged himself on rest.

So, he decided that he’d make the best use of the time he had. First things first, breakfast. As he peeked through his cabinet, he was not sure what he wanted. But he did know that he would be busy that day. For that matter, so would everyone else involved. It occurred to him that, despite his best efforts to map out that facility by eyejacking the faculty, his actual mission parameters weren’t particularly well-defined. There is a decent chance that most of them could go off into that grand old goodnight without even constituting a failure. He wasn’t the type to plan for failure. Apparently, he was just the type that failed to plan.

And the cost for his arrogance. The price for his unpreparation? The price of that particular privilege would be paid in his friends’ lives, and depending on how he counted, he had about ten of those, even if he were extremely lax in the criteria for what constituted a friend.

He owed it to them to do better. All things considered, it was too late to dramatically redefine the mission. He wasn’t nearly competent enough of an organizer to make that work, which he admitted was one of his major failings as a man. So, he’d at least do for them what he could.

He prepared some goodies for the crew. While his products were baking and otherwise readying, he relaxed his mind by doing burpees, dressing up in the coziest clothes he could clasp his clammy little claws onto. By the time he was done, the smells filling his room were mouthwatering and gut-wrenching in equal measure. He decked himself out in black spandex, with a turtleneck under a trenchcoat with his hair slicked back for the first time in his entire life.

That’s when the clarion call to misconduct came clamoring.

Some folks inherit star spangled eyes
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord
And when you ask them, "How much should we give?"
Ooh, they only answer "More! More! More!" Yo!


“Cara!” Nic yowled, “Silence the alarm!” before stuffing the many pockets of his trenchcoat with his semi-edible menagerie. “The time has come!”


His entire life, he’d struggled with the weight of being good at what he was meant for and literally nothing else. Today was different. Today he was defiant. Then he remembered that he belonged to an extremely illegal militia previously. Even his compliance was defiant. Was this any different. Did this small scale paramilitary insurgency he was a key part of really constitute a meaningful change in his behavior? The last one was his family. This one was made up of his friends.

He felt a small pair of beady eyes looking upon him before realizing that this really was different. These people had never forced him to torture his favorite squirrel and would probably never do so, not that any of them would be capable. This was better.
When he arrived at the coffee shop alongside his company of comrades, he smiled victoriously.

When Lynn shouted "Who the fuck wants to live forever," he threw his fist into the air, sharing in the sentiment. Today was the day.
“Alright, everybody. First thing first. We can’t properly survive a session of such a spine-tingling subterfuge without the proper preparations. In this case, I extend my most salient sustenance!” He reached a gloved hand into his breast facing trenchcoat pocket before withdrawing a steaming bag of buttery biscuits stuffed with perfectly prepared bacon, eggs and his own secret blend of cheeses. “Everyone take one, this is non-negotiable. I don’t want to lose any of you to an empty stomach.”

As he opened the bag, a delicious hiss spread through the vicinity, smelling like happiness. “To keep the mindset right and for the sake of morale, I’ve taken the liberty of picking codenames for everyone. You’ll notice a pattern here since I figured it’d be easier to remember this way. Archie,” he pointed to the young man, “you’re The Beast. Lynn, Phoenix. Amelia, Nightcrawler. Eli,” he paused and grinned uncontrollably before recomposing himself. “Eli, you’re Angel. Natalie, Colossus. I’m Cyclops and Keaton is Professor Xavier.” He looked over at Packet. “Packet’s fine as is but if you want in, I think Forge would be a wonderful name for you.”

“Lynn,” Nic said, stepping towards her, retrieving a satchel stuffed with cotton and mason jars, “these are for you. I made some napalm and canned it for you so that you could have an easier time with your powers. Otherwise I have a small retinue of smoke bombs in case I don’t want to see out of anyone’s eyes anymore.”
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Natalie Ellis





Nat's smile shrank as Archie joined the group and stood besides Lynn, and she reacted to it. She knew that herself and Archie weren't a couple, and it was her fault, and there was no point even thinking about their future until after today. But she still didn't want him to get close to anybody else. The thought of Archie and Lynn becoming a couple, and knowing that it was one of her episodes that had ruined what she had going with him....she'd have to live with that. She didn't know if she could. So she couldn't let that happen.

But that was still a problem for if they get out of this alive. She needed to focus. Nobody else seemed to have this problem. They had already moved onto Lynn's collar, which visibly hurt her. Natalie winced. She didn't wear any ill will towards Lynn even if she was admittedly jealous. As usual, the target for her ill will was herself. But she never liked seeing her friends in pain. It triggered images of her own past, and Natalie looked away.

Soon, Nic arrived and handed out biscuits. Natalie, glad of the distraction, started eating hers immediately as the rest talked. She swallowed the food that was in her mouth, before answering Nic.

"We're not calling ourselves those names. Too much to think about, and honestly, it's a bit dumb. They know who we all are. They probably have cameras, and guards. They have computers and databases. The moment they see us, they'll know who we are. This isn't a codename kind of mission. We'll just use our real names, I think. Anyway, I'm ready. I'm not very...good at planning, so just point the way and I'll follow."
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Eli couldn’t help but smile as Archie shoulder bumped her. The smile didn’t last long, though. She saw the look on Lynn’s face. Eli was glad that Lynn wasn’t throwing a fit about it, but she was also sorry that Lynn had to do this. She would have put her own hand on Lynn’s shoulder if Archie didn’t do it for her.

“Stay close.”

Eli pressed her lips together and nodded. She took one step closer to Lynn in case she needed any help. Even though she was almost as uncomfortable as just watching her put the collar on, she couldn’t look away.

She’d spent hours thinking about what it felt like to wear a nullifying collar. She never really thought it would do anything but give her an acute headache or numb feeling, but she was sure it would feel much, much different for the others. The visible pain on Lynn’s face was enough to prove her theory.

Eli tensed. Her worry for Lynn was written across her face. She looked away for a moment unable to bear the empathy she felt for her friend. When she looked back, she was shocked to see that Lynn looked… normal. Like a girl her age should look, minus the dark circles under her eyes and frail figure. Still, no matter how small and fragile Lynn looked now, Eli knew that she was extremely strong. To have gone through so much pain, so many traumas, and to still stand here today brave enough to wear the collar that suppressed her true nature and give Packet that terrifying, Eli was in awe.

Eli smiled. She reached out to her friend, to her adopted sister (by her own means), and stroked her messy hair back. “I’m right here, Lynn.” She heard Nic’s voice agree with Lynn’s sentiments and pulled her hand back. She turned to look at him. At least someone didn’t look grim this morning.

She gratefully accepted the breakfast sandwich. She was still full from her big dinner yesterday, but she couldn’t pass up the offer of something that smelled so good. While she’d intended for her dinner to have been her potential last meal, the second she bit into the biscuit she was happy that this was actually it. She ate every savory bite in a matter of a minute as she listened to Nic assigning everyone a nickname.

”Eli… Eli, you’re Angel.”

Eli had to grin back at Nic. She wasn’t sure why he’d made such a face, and she didn’t exactly think that any of them needed nicknames but Packet, but his gusto for the mission gave her more confidence that they would make this work. Maybe if she kept a positive state of mind throughout this, they would have a chance of returning from The Spire.

Well, maybe… Eli’s eyes widened as she saw what Nic was handing the human flamethrower. What does he think she’s going to need those for?? What if they go off the second she removes the collar? Eli glanced between Nic and Lynn, and then glanced at the others. Was this what everyone else expected, or did Nic think of this himself? She was beginning to wonder if Nic had known how to make a molotov before he came to The Promise.

Natalie helped Eli with the codename situation, but never even mentioned the dangers of molotovs. Eli was beginning to feel like the mom friend, but she’d been called that before. And dammit, did she ever have a reason to be called the Mom.

“Nic… I’m glad that you’ve thought of everything we may need, but I’d rather save something like that as a last resort. I don’t want this to become that sort of fight. They’d label us as terrorists. Just… Save it for dire situations, alright?” She gave Nic and Lynn the best “I trust you” smile so she didn’t look too worried. “Thank you for the biscuits, too, Nic.”
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Archie



Seeing Nic arrive was probably the best thing that would happen to Archie all day, which wasn't exactly a difficult outcome to predict given the outcome of what was likely to happen today and all, but this was probably the only food he's actually have today. He grinned all wide and toothy at the offered food, wolfing it down quickly as any teenage male would. "Thamsk Nisc" he said behind a mouthful of food- which was almost spit out at the mention of napalm. His first instinct was to ask why on earth that was necessary but thought against it. If they were going to go out, might as well go out with a bang. And a full stomach, as Nic put it. He finished his food, and clarified. "I mean- Cyclops. Thanks Cyclops."

Packet did a quick head count and, realizing everyone who was coming had already arrived and at this point, any minute spent above ground was a minute wasted. While they exchanged pleasantries he took it upon himself to pull back the manhole. A thick, heavy smell wafted up. Not quite the smell of excrement, more like the smell of a bog. He waited as everyone climbed down the ladder into the dark below and only then followed himself, pulling the cover back over the hole.

The sewers were, surprisingly, not silent. There was no cacophony of voices like there were in the everyday classroom or streets, instead it was filled with a different kind of ambiance. Flowing and crashing water, the low hum of the low lit and flickering LED lights above, and the scurrying and squeaking of rats. It was dark, aside from the few lights that came on and off as Packet walked under and past them- undoubtedly activated by his power. "Stay close." Packet warned, taking the lead, the lights above him glowing slightly brighter than the others around and fading to their default luminescence as he passed them. "I can only create a dead zone of camera footage and activate the lights in a small area or they could notice," They could still notice. It was just less likely. "And there are rumors of loonies that live down here. Leftovers from that breakout a few months back that evaded security."

"I thought they got everyone?" Archie piped up, alarmed.

"That's what they said, yeah." Packet replied, turning his head over his shoulder to look at Archie. "I think... I think it's a good idea to not trust Promise Security entirely on their word. Just don't stray far, okay? There are some big rats, and it's easy to get lost down here." Almost on cue a rodent the size of Archie's shoe scurried past him, causing him to jump in alarm. The rat wove between the group's legs, disappeared into the inky dark behind them. Lynn eye's followed the rat as it scurried away. Perhaps it was because of her background- always having to watch her back, or maybe because she knew she was weakened and felt vulnerable... but her attention shifted from the rodent to something else in the dark.

It was just barely visible, an outline cast in the vapors of the warm sewage radiating into the cool air and just barely illuminated enough by light furthest from them to lend a shred of clarity that something was watching. She blinked and the light faded out, shrouding whatever it was in darkness once more. After that, the path felt more and more treacherous. Every noise, every skitter, or splash in the water felt like a warning, or a sign. Alone in a maze of tunnels, with only a few guiding lights above them to show the way in a sea of darkness.

"This isn't right." Packet said abruptly, stopping with just as much suddenness. "It should be a straight path. Not a fork. Either my maps were wrong, or we're in the wrong part of the sewers."

"I thought you knew the way?" Archie said, his usual tone sounding far more frustrated than it normally did. Something wasn't right with him. "We didn't start where we normally do! This was the only route I knew of that could take so many people unnoticed!" Packet replied, his own tone filled with acid that was unbecoming of him. Archie seethed, but didn't reply, choosing instead to cross his arms. Directly in front of them was the continuation of the tunnel, split into two paths that seemed to diverge from one another. Up above, a catwalk, and to their right was another tunnel.

"I think we should just go straight ahead to the left." Packet finally said. "Yeah, because you know where you're going right? In fact, I think we should go right." Archie said, sarcastically.

Something wasn't right.
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Lynn

"Oh motherfucker," Lynn muttered into her biscuit and Leotard started rattling off codenames. Who showed up and started giving people nicknames? Was this second grade? She wasn't going to take the biscuit on general principle, but the snowy air cut through her jacket and she felt her stomach rumble a bit. It looked warm. Lynn ate the biscuit with as much angry dignity as she could muster. Fuck that's actually good. Do his dorms have a kitchen?

Then Leotard pulled another surprise out of whatever superhero underwear he had on, which was homemade explosives. Lynn took the napalm cautiously - not out of fear that it might kill her, but out of a bewildering sensation that there was actually a redeeming quality about the man she had first met wearing a leotard. Lynn rolled the satchel over in her hands, processing through this for a moment. If I find myself respecting him, we might be really fucked. Lynn looked down at the bag, taking a moment. Okay, but no self-respecting man should've had a satchel in the first place. "Uh, thanks," Lynn said, unsure entirely of how to respond to being given explosives. I mean shit at least he did his homework.

Spoons had piped up about the nicknames, which Lynn was grateful for. Leotard did something useful and I'm agreeing with Spoons. Christ, this really is the end. Lynn opened her mouth to speak again but the raw skin on her face bristled with pain as she did. "Ah, shit," Lynn muttered, wincing and rubbing at the sides of her face. Light burns speckled across her body from going from total immunity to regular mortality. The collar had done nothing to nullify the heat she'd generated. Even the inside of Lynn's throat felt like she'd gargled with sulfur, and she could feel her stomach roiling with pain from the internal burns as the heat worked its way out. Had there been no one around, Lynn might've stuffed her mouth with snow, but she was in no way going to let Leotard change her codename to, like, Ice Chipmunk or something, because she did that.

Lynn looked over at Eli, who had given her a very Lucy look upon receiving the napalm. She stayed close, Lynn thought, for a brief moment, and he did too.. To no one's surprise, Boat Farmer went along with the nicknames. Lynn walked over to the manhole as Packet opened it up and gave him a withering look before going down the ladder first. Anyone with an iota of reason could have potentially seen the flaws in this, however Lynn was operating on two primary principles: the sooner she got through these tunnels, the sooner she had the collar off, and at no point in her life was Lynn going to afford anyone any opportunity to interpret her actions as being those of a little bitch.

Lynn hit the bottom, nose bristling at the smell. The biscuit turned over in her stomach. Everyone came down and Packet started fucking with the lights. This guy totally hacks the nudes of the girls on his floor, Lynn thought idly. Good thing her flip burner phone couldn't be hacked. Not that he'd want mine anyway. Lynn followed along, doing her best to mask her shivering and clutching the sharpened toothbrush in her pocket. Actual weapons were pretty difficult to come across on the Promise, and Lynn had not even deemed it worth it to pocket a spare knife from the cafeteria. She, however, refused to be stripped of her powers and be completely defenseless.

Packet casually threw out the fact there might be people wandering around in the sewers and Lynn managed to bite back both a slew of insults and urge to kick him into the stream of nearby sewage. That was the sort of thing you brought up before you were in the sewers without a collar. Did he know what those escaped convicts were like? Did he know what they'd do? What they'd already done? They were gonna rape him, Lynn thought, blood thundering in her head and a sudden urge to see if she could whip Packet's ass back to the Stone Age clenching her fingers into fists. Lynn scanned her surroundings, not fully trusting in Packet's ability to blind the cameras to their presence. As if a sign from God that Packet was a narc, a rat scurried past them, and Lynn instinctively stepped up as she saw Archie flinch. The little plague carrier ran past her and Lynn watched it for a moment. Maybe he's one of the escapees, like in that wizard movie. Lynn watched it for a moment vanish into the dark, the group moving past her for a brief moment. Lynn was used to having to hustle to stay apace with a group when walking, just as she was used to stretching to make her feet touch the ground when she sat.

The rat moved back into the dark and there was -

Brown hair and the outline of something in the dark, grizzled, scars -

Lynn's hand was out in front of her clutching the makeshift shiv before she'd realized what was going on, her heart thundering in the back of her head. There was a flicker and shimmer of light, like fire, like

-a living elemental. She pulled her hands away from her face, revealing eyes that were so bright that they were painful to look at for long. “I’ll kill you!” She roared, lunging for Lynn with a molten arm cocked backwards -

Lynn stepped back, shaking. She was dead. She was dead, this was - there was something. It was her mind playing tricks on her. Lynn stared for a moment more, clutching the shiv, staring into the dark, but nothing came. Not her, Lynn thought desperately, the weight and cold of the collar around her neck seeming to tighten and tighten like a noose pulling taut, But someone.

Lynn walked backwards slowly to the group, eyes staring into the dark. She diverted her attention for a split second to flash a scowl at etc. "You forget there's escaped murderers and then you take us fucking trailblazing, great." Lynn spat. "We go right like Anderson says, I don't trust Discount MapQuest as far as I can throw his pocket protector." Lynn turned back towards the dark, eyes dancing for any sign of movement, any sign of anything. Lynn had fought before, with a collar. Many times.

She had always lost.

"And we go now," Lynn said, looking back into the dark, shaking no matter how hard she clenched her muscles. She's dead. It wasn't here. Whoever else it is it isn't her. She's dead. "None of you lose your shit on me, but something's back there. Unless Pocket wants to flip the lights or Codename Antenna happened to catch that rat with his NSA shit, I say we haul ass."
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Natalie Ellis





Natalie was glad she chose to wear high-top leather boots on this occasion, as she followed the group through the sewers. She might be thankful for them if they had to trudge through deeper water. "If they haven't definitely already noticed, we have Cara to think for that," she stated in response to Packet, before narrowing her eyes. "It would have been nice to know there might be escaped prisoners down here. Wouldn't have changed anything. It would have just been nice. I...don't have good memories of that day."

Natalie was quiet and slightly sullen for the next couple of seconds and she listened to Archie and Packet. She was snapped out of this by the tone of their voices. Packet was confused that the tunnels were different to his maps. "Packet, where did you get this map from? Please say it wasn't directly from Cara. It makes sense that the Promise's network might have a false map as a security measure, but if Cara gave you the map..." Natalie didn't finish the sentence. It was clear what she was implying. Natalie actually had some trust for Cara. She didn't want it to be broken. Even with a different starting point, something as major as a split in the path shouldn't have taken Packet by surprise like this. The Map was surely a dupe.

Archie and Packet were bickering, which Natalie wouldn't have found unusual but it seemed...odd. The aggression was sudden. It didn't feel like it had boiled over from a long time of frustration and it definitely didn't feel in character. They were just suddenly snippy with each other to the point of being contrarian. To make matters worse, Lynn said she saw something behind them. Natalie looked back herself, but couldn't see anything in the dark. Of course she could imagine sinister figures lurking out of sight ready to harm her, but that was nothing new. Ever since she was picked up from the side of the road covered in blood a few months ago now, she'd been having that feeling. She'd gotten good at ignoring it.

"Gus! Stop arguing What's gotten into you two? Anyway, if the map didn't have a split here and we're already two votes to go right. I vote we go right. We need to move, and any direction's the wrong direction now. We can't rely on a map we can't trust. Let's go!"
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Eli looked over Lynn’s face as she waited for a “ok, mom” sort of response, but instead she noticed the ashy spots on Lynn’s skin. Another side effect of wearing the collar, she assumed. She didn’t have much time to think of it, or feel more sympathy for Lynn than she already did, because she heard the sound of metal against concrete and turned to see Packet moving the manhole cover from it’s spot.

It was time.

Inside Eli’s head, an internal clock began ticking. It wasn’t necessarily an alarm, and there wasn’t a deadline either. It was just a reminder of how much time was going to pass while they were beneath the surface. How long it would take them to get through this, to get back to the Ring, she didn’t know. Still, she could hear the quiet tik… tok… tik… tok. Time was so precious, now.

Her hesitation was clear on her face as she looked into the darkness of the sewer passage. She stood in place, almost frozen, but as Lynn took the first charge into the depths Eli moved to follow her. Part of her wanted to stay close to Lynn, like her friend had asked, but it was also for her own comfort as well. Lynn was just as much a protector as she needed to be protected. Eli gave the ceiling of The Promise one last glance. One last look into the eternity of space from the Ring’s point of view. The same sky that she’d seen for so many years. Then she descended beneath the ground and stood next to Lynn in the darkness.

One by one she watched them all climb down. The smell was worse than she remembered. The symphony of the sewers was louder this time. Sure, it was only the second time she’d been down and it was a different part of the sewers, but something was odd about it. She walked alongside Lynn with Packet in the lead. She felt her stomach tighten when Packet mentioned the breakout. While the others aired their grievances Eli agreed that the Promise Security wasn’t to be trusted. Then she thought back to when she’d walked these tunnels on her own and frowned. Had Packet known about them at the time?

As if on cue, a Rodent Of Unusual Size scurried past them. Archie jumped, which made Eli jump, and she had to hold her breath to keep from squeaking. She huffed and shook out her shoulders to release the tension. God, I hope we’re close. She didn’t want to catch rabies before she made it to The Spire.

She looked towards Packet as if to ask the question, but she noticed that they came to a stop at a fork in the sewers. Her brows furrowed. We’re lost? Her eyes scanned the area. The catwalk seemed more promising, but it could lead towards a security team or an exit from the sewers. To the right… well, it was just more tunnels. As promising as the catwalk, really. The door to The Spire was hidden in a tunnel, anyways.

Archie and Packet started to bicker and Eli gave them a concerned stare. Of all people to start fighting, it was these two? She would have thought that Lynn would have made a snarky remark by now. In fact, why wasn’t she?

Eli turned her head towards Lynn and, for some reason, the way Lynn was backing towards them with the shiv in her hand, Eli felt goosebumps rise on her skin. Was Lynn shaking? Why was she so scared? Eli followed her gaze into the darkness behind them but she saw nothing.

Aaaand, there’s the snark. Eli took a deep breath through her nose and slowly released it through her mouth. As much as she agreed that this wasn’t a good time to get lost, she was hoping that there would be less bickering and more collaboration going on when they all relied on Packet to flip the lightswitch and cut the cams. Natalie had a point too, but Eli wasn’t so sure that they should just pick a direction and go so easily. Packet should have known the way to go. Something was up, but they had to think logically before acting. Even if a sinister presence was lurking in the dark.

They’d taken on men with semi-automatics and survived. They’d survived the breakout. They could face whatever was lurking. If they could just take a breath. Eli took another breath herself, but all she could taste was the mucky water and stale air of the sewers. As much as she wished that it was just the lack of O2 that was making everyone snappy, the threat of an escaped convict luring them into a trap worried her too.

“Packet, did you happen to bring a copy of the map? Maybe we just took a wrong turn somewhere.”

“There is no map. There’s no paper trail. No evidence!”

Eli sighed softly and turned to look back at their options. Of course he wouldn’t have created any evidence. It made sense. If they were caught right now with a map to a Spire entrance it would look pretty damn suspicious. Without it they could at least try to play the “exploring teens” angle. But they couldn’t get caught. Not by Promise security or by the dark figure Lynn saw lurking behind them.

“Okay. As much as I’d like to trust your instincts, Archie, I’m not happy with taking a random chance on either tunnel. I wish we could trace our steps backwards until Packet finds a spot, but if Lynn saw something or someone back there I’d rather avoid getting into a fight before we even get to the Spire.”

Eli then turned to Archie and Packet. “Everyone just take a deep breath and try to think rationally, okay?” She looked Packet in the eyes. “How close to the inner Ring do you think we are? Maybe if we head towards the side closest to The Spire we’ll find the door.”

She then got another idea and turned to Keaton. “What are the statistics if we take either direction? Which one has a higher chance of taking us the way we need to go?” It was a long shot, but Keaton’s ability could really come in hand at the moment. Just like it usually did.
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