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We Live in the Ashes



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Tue Mar 22, 2022 6:06 am
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AceassinOfTheMoon says...



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this is Ace erasure and I won't stand for it— silv

I haven't really said anything about ace but that's cause I'm usually speechless with how awesome ace is— Harry

Ace, you’re aggressively loved. Accept or perish.— Wist

[Ace]
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Tue Mar 29, 2022 4:33 am
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Stringbean says...



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A few of the fighters' families don't know they're in the resistance.
What should we do about them?


The message stared blankly from Natalia's monitor, waiting for an answer. Her cursor blinked in the empty reply box. After a moment, her fingers started clicking against the computer keys.

Ask Nicole's group to vet them. Don't bring anyone in til we're sure they're safe.

A moment later the reply popped onto the left side of her screen. Will do.

She barely glanced at it, then closed the conversation out and skimmed her spilling inbox. That was the last message for now. She traded her computer mouse for a pencil and leaned back over the sheet of paper at her elbow, already scrawled with a growing list of bullet-point notes. Her windowless office was softly lit with a string of paper lanterns overhead, an oil lamp or two in the dark spaces, and the low watt desk lamp glaring down at her scribbles. The blue glow of her dual computer monitors shone across her cheek.

Currently hidden in base - 3 members, 7 family members. More coming. Reallocate supplies, she wrote. The tip of her pencil scratch softly, quickly, blending into the sound of her headset humming with radio static in her ear. Her computer dinged quietly as another message came in. She looked over, glancing briefly at the clock on her wall, hanging in the light just below a paper lantern. 9 am. Morning status update. She clicked it open. More shows of aggression within city. Locals shouting slurs at Caladian citizens. No physical violence. Police quiet. Much the same around country. Her lips were pressed slightly as she closed the message and filed it to its proper folder. A lamp by the door flickered as someone walked in. She looked up.

It was Jay, apparently a little late for work. His hair was messier than usual, and he looked slightly tired. Instead of the cheerful saunter that he usually had when he came to see her, he was all business when he closed the door behind him and turned to face her. He held up a poster, the kind that had been hung up all over the city. "Is anyone doing anything about this?" His voice was almost accusatory.

Her eyes shifted to it, briefly taking in the familiar page with a soft, private sigh. She looked back at Jay patiently. "We've been working since the announcement came out," she told him quietly.

He took a seat in front of her, his fingers digging into the page, and stayed silent. And? She could feel his gaze asking the question. Slowly drawing a deep breath, she set her pencil down and reached for the steaming cup of coffee on her desk. She let herself lean into the back of her chair as she cupped her thin fingers around the warm glass and studied his face.

"We've already arranged temporary living spaces here in the base for some of our Caladian members and their families. We're watching developments, and Jason and Rowan and I have been discussing our response. It's top priority right now." She explained all this in a steady, solemn voice that belied the rush of adrenaline coursing through the body of the resistance behind her screen.

Jay's dark look hadn't lifted. "Anything else?"

"Right now, that's the best we can do," she said, taking a moment to look down into her cup. "We knew it was possible this might be coming, but it's going to take a little time to act. We'll do whatever we can, Jay."

He bit his lip. "If you knew, why didn't you tell me?" There it was, in his voice. He didn't want to be angry at her.

"All I knew were rumors," she answered quietly. "They float around all the time. There was no reason to be sure this one was real until the announcement..." She searched his gaze for a second and said, "Jay, if I'd thought it was, I would have told you."

"I've got people to lose. You know about that." Jay crumpled up the paper and threw it in the wastebin. "It would have helped to know."

Natalia looked down, her face shadowed beneath the paper lanterns for a few, long moments. "I just didn't want you or anyone else to worry if it was nothing," she said, her voice a little softer than it had been before, but just as steady. She lifted her head, but didn't quite look at him. "I'm sorry..."

There was silence for a moment while she still couldn't meet his gaze. Finally, he sounded just the slightest bit less bitter when he spoke again. "I don't want pity, but I do need a favor."

She nodded, looking up, already suspecting what it was.

"I need shelter for Diego and one of his sisters," Jay said, speaking slowly. "They'll both have to go if I can't do anything, and I know we can't help everyone, but I--" He hesitated. "I'm not letting this happen."

"I know...," she murmured, nodding a little bit. "I've been working on it. I don't think they'll be able to stay here at the base-- we'll barely have space for the few Caladian fighters we have and their families." Turning to a writing pad on the other end of her desk, she told him, "I'm thinking we'll have to find other households that are willing to hide the people who are being targeted." She scanned a couple pages of her notes, then turned the pad around for Jay to see. It was mostly a list of names, many that he'd recognize. They were all members of the resistance working from their own base. A few names near the top had been struck out with her pen. "The safest way is to start by asking our own people first." She looked up to watch him while he studied the list. "It's not a perfect solution, but it's a start..."

Jay's face had turned worried and full of desperate hope as his gaze went between her and the notepad. "Can you make it work?"

Her dark eyes met his hazel ones. "I think so... A couple people have already volunteered and are taking in friends. We'll help them get set up. I'll try to get through the whole list today."

He took a deep breath, leaning back in his chair-- and then it was like the relief had cut a string that had been pulling him taut. His shoulders sank in a sigh as he put his face in his hands. "Thank you," he said quietly.

Natalia watched him sadly while he couldn't see it. She took her writing pad back with quiet, thoughtful movements, then she took off her headset and stood and came around to his side of the desk. She lifted one of the many throw pillows in her office from the chair beside him and sat down, hugging it to her stomach like a stuffed animal. "Hey," she said softly, offering him a tiny bit of a smile. "Why don't you take the week off. I'll take care of it."

Jay nodded shakily, rubbing his eyes as if he'd just figured out that he was tired. "I could use that," he mumbled.

"Get some rest," she said gently. "I love you."

"I love you too." He breathed in and out a few times, steading himself, then shook his head at himself. "I'm sorry for getting mad. I know you didn't want this to happen either."

Briefly, her lowered gaze went distant and her lips pursed slightly. "More shows of aggression within city." She blinked and carefully smoothed the expression away, even as she thought, Everyone should be mad. A sigh leaked out from deep within her chest. "It's alright..." She blinked again and looked up, then gave him another, comforting hint of a smile. "I'll keep you updated."

He nodded again, glancing down at the floor. "I... I've told Diego," he said hesitantly. "He's known that I'm with the resistance for quite a while. I know you wouldn't want that, so I didn't know how to tell you, but..." Jay shrugged defeatedly. "I couldn't keep that from him."

After a long hesitation, she only nodded. "I know you trust him..."

"I really do," he agreed. "His sister doesn't know, but... I figure she's fine too."

Her eyes flicked to him. "Alright. Ask them to be ready to leave as soon as they can. They might have to stay hidden for several weeks, they should be prepared for that."

"I will. I'll be heading back to his place soon-- probably going to take this week off there." He let out a quiet chuckle. "Oh, Rowan will be so mad."

The corner of her lips turned up a bit. "You let me worry about Rowan. He wasn't long out of diapers when I met him, it might do him some good to be reminded of that," she joked half-heartedly and Jay let out a huff of laughter.

"Yeah, you tell him who's boss."

"Mm, as much as he'll stand for it," she said doubtfully with a smile flicked up at the ceiling.

"Just don't let him evict me," he said, smiling too. His foot shuffled against the floor, and his usual restless energy seemed to be returning despite his exhaustion. There had probably been some coffee involved too. He cleared his throat. "So... You're leaving for Nor'burn today, right?"

"The escort will be at my house this evening," she said with a dampened nod. "I'll put someone in charge of the rest of the billets before I leave."

"You'll be alright, won't you?" Jay's words came out as light-hearted, but his face wasn't.

"Yeah, I'll be fine," she assured him softly. Her touch of a smile fell though as she studied him. "Will you...?"

Jay shrugged, breaking eye contact. "It's scary out there," he admitted. "A lot more than usual."

Natalia's own gaze dropped too with something like personal shame. "Well... call me if you need anything, okay?"

"Won't that be suspicious?"

She stared at the dark wood floor and slowly smoothed invisible wrinkles out of her black slacks with the palms of her hands. "It'll be alright. Even if someone found the call, it wouldn't prove anything, not just one." She blinked herself back into focus and looked at Jay, smiling gently. "It's okay, just call me if you need to."

"Thanks..." Jay sighed. "Sorry, I'm just anxious. I'm going to miss you."

"I'll miss you too," she said softly. Then she sighed and turned to toss her pillow into a pile of cozy throw blankets splayed across a cushioned bench against the wall behind her. Every spare corner of her office not lined with neat stacks of filing cabinets or with bookshelves or tables topped with odd pieces of radio and computer equipment was given a homey feel by a cushy chair, a pillow, and a blanket or two to hide from the draft and damp in her underground space. "I'll get back to work on it," she said as she stood, going back around her desk. "Stay awhile if you want." She winked and nodded subtly towards a small cabinet across the room where she kept tins of tea and coffee and a constantly restocked stash of assorted snacks, including a tiny cookie jar full of chocolate coated coffee beans secreted away just for Jay. "Help yourself to anything."

A sly smile spread across Jay's face as he slid his chair slowly in the direction of the cabinet, like a kid trying to sneakily get away with something. "Well, five minutes won't hurt..." He raised his eyebrows at her mischievously as he opened the cabinet, found the jar without looking, and popped the lid off to pour out a handful of the coffee beans. With a wink, he started crunching away. "Besides, who else will buy me these?"

She chuckled and pulled her radio earpiece back on. "Get what you want now. I may just have to lock that cabinet before I leave or all that'll be left will be crumbs."

"Oh no," he said in dismay, pouring himself another handful. "It would be a shame if these all got eaten up before you got the key."

"Don't you dare. That's all that's left, you better savor them."

"Yes ma'am," he said with a laugh, smiling at her from behind the jar. "Every last one."

Her lips twitched into a smile before she turned back to her computer screen. A small stream of messages had come in and her brow pulled into a slight, focused frown as she started clicking away.



That afternoon, Natalia gathered up her notes and, as promised, locked up the door to her office and went through the dingy corridors to the meeting room of the triumvirate, a pencil tucked forgotten into her silver hair behind her ear. Jason and Rowan were already there, Jason leaning back precariously on two legs of his chair with one boot against the lip of the table and Rowan looking intensely bored despite the accident that was waiting to happen. Natalia raised an eyebrow as she closed the door and made her way to her seat beside the commander. "Better watch it, Jason. If you break a bone we can't take you to the hospital." Jason laughed once and tucked his hands behind his head as he looked up at the dimly lit ceiling in the dreamy way he had of being thoughtful.

Natalia shook her head a tiny bit and glanced over at Rowan as she stacked her notes neatly in front of her. He gave her a brief nod of greeting and let out a sigh. "So, we're all here," he said, with the slightest bit of passive-aggressive impatience. "It's time for damage control."

"We have our work cut out for us," Natalia said by way of introduction. "There's about two hundred thousand Caladian immigrants across Misericord and we have less than a week before half of them will be deported."

"It is a problem," Rowan agreed. "That's a hundred thousand people making weapons and placing them right in our enemies' hands. We won't be able to keep up with that kind of production and stockpiling."

"What a shame they aren't being set to shelling peanuts," Jason remarked before Natalia knew quite what to say herself. The sarcasm in his voice was almost nonexistent. "But," he added as he set the chair's feet on the ground, followed by his own, "fair point." He folded his hands and leaned forward at the table, looking between his younger companions. "What have you come up with?"

Rowan tapped his fingers on the table. "We're going to run out of space at headquarters for everyone, but that's not the only problem. Early this morning in Moreno, one of our operatives got caught trying to shelter a family. They've been arrested as a political and their circle's being investigated as well. There was another similar situation in Nor'burn." He grimaced. "This won't work on a large scale, not without severe risk of exposure."

"We'll figure out a way around arrests then," Natalia said after a moment of silence around the table. "We've been adapting long before this."

The commander shrugged. "There's a reason why we try not to break laws unrelated to our work. It's one thing if you get caught on the job as a spy or fighter, but if everyone went around committing other crimes that don't help us, we'd have a crisis on our hands."

"This is our job," she responded with a hardened edge in her voice. "If that's not clear, then it's the first thing we need to get straight."

"We're not a refugee shelter--"

"Those people aren't refugees, they're citizens."

"We aren't in a position to be taking everyone in."

The light from the overhead bulb was taking on a dark spark in Natalia's eyes, but Jason held up a hand. His face was grim. "We can't save everyone, no. But we're not about to do nothing while people are carted out of this country, for making weapons or for any other reason." He gave them both a pointed look, then sat back and spread his palms across the table.

"Now. I don't think two arrests warrant abandonment of those efforts, but they need to be better organized if it's going to make a difference and still keep our people reasonably safe. We're still going to need another plan. We can't punch our way through this, but we can make the Tevirans hurt."

Rowan sighed, folding his arms over his chest. "Very well. What are you thinking?"

Natalia cast one more glance at Rowan before turning her attention to Jason and exhaling the tension from her shoulders as he went on. "Just this. No matter what we do, some of our Caladian citizens are going to be deported to the Caladian weapons factories. Caladia has been neutral to this point, but those factories are part of this conflict now and the key to the Teviran trade deal." He paused. "I think we should talk to our Caladian operatives and ask a team of them to go--" He held up a finger when Natalia's look started to heat again. "And act as saboteurs. I can organize a second team to meet them in the country with a load of explosives. We have a week to train the Caladians with some of my own people and plan for them to evacuate and destroy the factories." Jason shifted his gaze from Natalia's to Rowan's, reading their reactions. "The Tevirans won't get their weapons, and the deal will be forced to fall through. The only practical thing for the Teviran and Caladian governments to do will be to send our people back."

Rowan rubbed his jaw, looking thoughtful. "That's... certainly an interesting idea, but we don't want to provoke Caladia. They could blame either us or their immigrants, but they would know Teviran wouldn't have caused it, and we don't want to push them to their side. We've also got no reason to assume Caladia's providing lodging outside the factory for all of them, so there very well might not ever be a downtime during which to make our move."

Jason waved this second point away. "Fire alarm, easy trick." He wasn't so flippant about the rest though. Sighing, he stared down at the ornate design chiseled into the center of the table. "That's the main risk though, that it could draw Caladia into the fight. I think it's more likely that Caladia would support Teviran in other ways, or maybe sanction some of our trade shipments. Officially entering the conflict militarily would be more trouble than it's worth for them. They have no stakes here." He cast a long look across the table at Natalia, who was still silent, but watching him with a steady gaze and folded arms.

She drew a breath. "I could get a message aired publicly making the reason for the destruction clear. Caladia would hear it."

Rowan nodded, appearing convinced. "Maybe that'll be enough then. A few of those operatives are mine, they'd know what to do."

Jason acknowledged him with a single nod. "Alright, then let's talk to them tonight."

"And for those who we won't be sending..." Rowan paused, thinking. "A few of them are already here, and I don't see any sense in making them leave. As long as they stay here, keeping them at the base isn't the worst risk we could run. But outside of that, we need to be careful with any additional people. The police know we're trying to do this, and if they start looking for the people taking them in, we'll be baring our throats to the wolves."

"We'll plan to be careful then..." Natalia said. She thumbed through a few pages of her notes and pulled out two sheets that she slid to the middle of the table. "I've already worked out a few precautions that we can make standard if you both agree. I've also started a list of the people we have based here who are willing to take on hidden billets in their homes. I'll leave one of my officers in charge of completing the list while I'm gone, and we can ask our other bases to do the same." Jason reached for one of the sheets and skimmed it, nodding in silence.

Rowan followed suit. "How many people do you plan to do this for?" he asked while he read.

"As many as we can across the country."

He sighed, glancing at the paper he'd taken, and pushed it back across the table. "Daya wants to take in a few people. We've not discussed it much yet, but I'll let you know when we get to a decision."

Natalia hesitated, then said, "Alright. Be extra careful."

He nodded, biting his lip. "We've got plenty of space that could host them, I realize that, but yes... It'd be a problem if they started looking into us. No offense to this old man, but we can't all fake our deaths to avoid attention."

Jason smirked and tipped his chair back again. "Just don't make us have to find a replacement for you," he said, which from Jason could be taken as a sort of affectionate compliment.

Rowan huffed in amusement. "Good luck finding someone else who can put up with you. You'd fall right now and break your neck if the two of us weren't constantly telling you to stop doing that."

Jason gave another of his short, cheeky laughs that made his green eyes glitter with lamplight in his face of wrinkles. He didn't set his chair back down. "Your mom couldn't make me 'stop doing that.'"

The commander rolled his eyes. Only Jason got away with the your mom jokes. "Obviously I inherited that from her. You're still at it after all these decades."

Jason looked at him a moment with a lazy smile, then cradled his head in his hands again and closed his eyes on the ceiling.

Natalia shook her head fondly and tapped her stack of notes back into order. "Alright, is there anything else then, you two?"

Rowan shook his head. "We've resolved everything, except his desire to get a concussion."

"Would it get me a vacation?" Jason asked without moving.

"If you mean a trip to the medic's room right down the hall? Yes."

Jason snorted and went back to his thoughts. Natalia watched him a second, then gathered up her notes. It wasn't uncommon for Jason to stay like that for several minutes, sometimes even close to an hour after one of their meetings while he worked out some web of thoughts. Moving made him lose track of everything, he said. He was probably working out the framework of his sabotage plan. Natalia took her office key from her pocket and left it in the middle of the table for him to put into safe keeping whenever he left, and didn't disturb him.

She looked down at her little silver wristwatch. "Shetzle's men will be at my house in less than an hour," she murmured. Looking up, she asked, "Rowan, could we drop these at your office?" and gestured with her stack of papers.

He nodded, standing up and pushing in his chair as he glanced at a very focused Jason. "Let's go."

They walked together down the hall and Natalia followed him into his office once he'd unlocked the door and turned on the dim light. "Okay," she sighed, looking at the top page of her notes a second before laying them on his desk. The setup was the same as ever-- his work laptop; stacked binders of files that his son might have brought him; the picture frame that never had any dust on it. "I've tied up every loose end I could today-- there's a list of who I've left in charge of what in there. Most of it should run from here on it's own, but there's a couple things that will need some extra attention. It's all in the notes."

"That should help," he said, leaning over his desk and glancing over them one last time before looking back up at her. "We'll figure it out while you're away."

She nodded. "Thank you." For a few seconds, she was thoughtfully quiet, and stared past him at the wall as she absently pressed her hand to her bad leg and sat against the edge of his desk to take her weight off it. "Speaking of vacation. I talked to Jay this morning. He could use a bit of a break, so I took a liberty and asked him to take the week off, as long as you don't need him for anything urgent."

Rowan slowly raised his eyebrows in astonishment. "I... You dismissed one of my operatives for an entire seven days?" She'd rarely heard him this stunned.

Natalia looked upwards at him and gently raised her eyebrows too. "I gave Jay some much needed time off. He's under your command, I know. The reasons are personal and he's shared them with me, and this is what I think is best."

He gave her a frustrated look. "He can't just vanish. I thought he was done with all the sneaking off that he thought I didn't notice, but then he disappeared for all of last night. That's not what I'd give him time off for."

"He takes his job seriously," she reminded him. "He doesn't go off without a good reason."

Rowan shook his head and sighed in annoyance. "He's got no trouble taking orders from you. Why do I have this problem with him?"

Natalia looked down at her lap, slowly releasing a breath. "You've always taken your job very seriously too. It's a hard fight, and everyone knows we're not the ones with the advantage here. We wouldn't make it without the strong discipline you bring," she told him as she met his gaze, then gave her head a partial, matter-of-fact shake and added, "but it takes more than just that to turn people into followers."

He took a few moments before saying anything. Finally, he let out a tired sound of resignation. "Very well. It's not like I'm parenting him."

After studying him closely, Natalia slid from the edge of his desk. "No, I suppose not." She brushed some silver hair back and looked up to meet his gaze. "I should be getting home. Do you want me to buzz on the way out?"

"Go ahead and do that. I've got a few things left to do here." Rowan stepped around his desk.

"Alright, stay safe this week," she said as she started to the door.

She was just stepping into the hallway when she heard him murmur absent-mindedly, "Things used to be so much easier."

She paused with her fingers on the doorframe and looked back, but his words hadn't been for her. Rowan had picked up the picture frame, holding it with care, and was looking at it with an unusual fondness mixed with sadness. He seemed to have forgotten she was there, because she'd never be seeing this grief from him otherwise. She dropped her gaze and moved on softly before he would see her.
Last edited by Stringbean on Mon Aug 01, 2022 10:56 pm, edited 1 time in total.
  





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Mon Apr 04, 2022 4:30 am
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AceassinOfTheMoon says...



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It was late, late enough that even her college-student roommates had closed their books and gone to bed, which meant that Kamea - who should also definitely be in bed - had to be quiet as she pressed the answer button on her ringing phone.

"Hello?"

"Hey!" Avis said cheerfully. "I thought you’d be awake. You have a terrible sleep schedule.”

For a moment and not for the first time, she considered how interesting it was that she was in this situation. Casually chatting with a member of the government - one of the High Aristocracy - late at night as if they were best friends, while she was a rebel spy.

Her life was weird, and she liked it that way.

She and Avis had been friends for a couple years now. It had started with a few sarcastic comments on social media, friendly roasts and lighthearted poking fun at each other, and had slowly turned into more serious conversation, until one day he'd DMed her his phone number.

He appreciated the way she didn't treat him like some kind of god, worshipping the ground he walked on just because he was a politician, and she was happy to provide that friendship for him. It felt more comfortable than she thought it would, talking so casually to a person with so much power.

In the back of her mind, though, she was always careful to remember that he was the enemy. He and the rest of his High Aristocracy friends - whom they'd talked about so much, Kamea almost felt as though she could consider them acquaintances already - were the antagonists in her story, the villains she was working to bring down.

"Kamea?"

She blinked. "... sorry. Zoned out for a second. Guess I'm more tired than I thought I was."

He laughed. "Mood. I can call you back in the morning?"

"Nah, then it'll be late for you and we won't have much time before I have to get ready to broadcast. Now's fine." She sat up and got off the couch, heading up to close the slightly-ajar door leading to Abyssosque’s room. The girl was a light sleeper, and if she heard Kamea talking to Avis, that would lead to a lot of awkward questions. Her bare feet made a quiet shuffling noise against the laminate flooring and a soft shhh as she stepped back onto the living room carpet and settled herself back into the corner of the couch.

"Mkay. Well. I'm calling to offer you a job."

Kamea blinked. A job? This would be the perfect opportunity to get closer to the High Aristocracy, work her way in so deep that she’d have access to information the rebellion desperately needed. This was perfect. Too perfect to just be handed to her on a silver platter like this.

"I know it may come as a surprise, but I have one of those already."

He huffed. "Another job. We're looking for an administrative assistant to help us out for a bit. You've mentioned that you've got experience in that area, right?"

"Mm. I spent a few years as an assistant before getting promoted to broadcaster." She hesitated. "Wouldn't I need to work in person, though? I'd have to move to Caital, and I can't exactly do that."

"We'll find a way to make it entirely virtual," Avis promised. "Basically all you'll be doing is sorting through reports and filing them so that Eilanawyn and Dominic don't have to do that themselves and have more time to deal with things, and helping me schedule things for the other three."

"And then I'll replace you so you don't have to do anything and can just relax and get paid?" Kamea teased.

"Hey!" Avis protested. "I'm not lazy, I'm efficient. And you aren't replacing me, this is going to be a temporary job until things calm down."

"Rebels still giving you trouble?"

He sighed softly. "Yeah. They're getting bolder. Alessia thinks we should just sweep in and stamp them all out before they do any real damage, and I'm worried that Eilanawyn and Dominic are getting tired enough of them to listen to her."

"They aren't that threatening, are they?"

He snorted. "Nah. It's honestly hilarious that they think they can do anything worthwhile. But they are getting pretty annoying and we have to dedicate more resources than we'd like to keeping them in check, so… I can see the appeal of just crushing them now."

“I’m sure things have flared up a lot now,” Kamea prompted, a tiny bit of her magical charm drifting into her voice.

She didn’t feel bad using her powers like this. All her life, she’d gotten her way with a wink, a smile, and a sparkle of magical charisma, and she wasn’t about to stop now. If her silver tongue got her into the good books of the High Aristocracy, all the better.

Avis’s sigh was almost loud enough to make her bring the phone away from her ear. “Don’t remind me. I told everyone this was going to backfire on us horribly.”

“Anything serious?”

“Not in Misericord, as expected. A few families have disappeared and a few other people are being investigated for hiding them, but other than that… the Misericords are practically shoving the Caladians in a box and handing them to us. It’s Teviran that’s got us worried- there’s protests everywhere, and it won’t be long before things escalate to riots.”

Kamea made a sympathetic clicking noise with her tongue while reaching for her worn notebook to write Avis’s words down in. “Wouldn’t want to be in your shoes. How’s Dominic handling things?”

“He’s okay. The new anxiety meds are doing wonders.” Avis’s words, while confidently dismissive of the issues, betrayed a slight edge of worry. “He’s definitely stressed, though- which is why it would be awesome if you could help us out.”

She pretended to consider it, staring out the window at the glowing city beneath her, the moon’s light reflected off thousands of shimmering windows and refracting everywhere until everything was bathed in pale light and nothing looked real. “I don’t know, I have a really busy schedule-”

Please, Kamea? Just a few weeks until we can rebalance life and work and get everything going smoothly again.”

“How much am I gonna get paid?”

“I will literally throw money at you until you say yes.”

“Literally?”

There was a very long pause, then the vague sound of fluttering bills and clinking coins came through the phone.

“That-” Shh “-is-” Clink “-me-” Shhh-clink “-throwing money at you. Now say yes.”

She laughed; she couldn’t help it. “You’re gonna make me wake up my roommates!”

“Then say yes!!”

“Yes! Stop throwing money at the phone- why do you even have money on hand to do that?”

“I had to go find my wallet,” he admitted. “I don’t just have stacks of money lying around.”

She laughed again, and then winced as she heard Abyssosque’s door creak.

“Kamea, what the f-

“Sorry, Abby,” she apologized, removing the phone from her ear and placing her hand over the mic. “I’ll be quiet.”

“You’d better, I have early classes tomorrow. Who are you even talking to- is that a guy?”

Kamea sighed. “Go back to sleep, I said I’d be quiet-”

“Are you playing with a guy again?”

“Oh my god.”

“Again?” Avis said interestedly. Evidently Abyssosque was being loud enough for him to hear. “Ooh, tea-”

“You shut up,” Kamea hissed at him. “Abby. Please just go back to bed. I’m sorry I woke you up.”

She glared at Kamea, but the effect of her stare was mildly ruined by the fact that she was wearing fluffy pajamas with frogs on them and her blue hair was sticking up in every direction. “Fine. I’m bringing this up to Faye in the morning.”

Kamea nodded, shooing her away with one hand. “Go.”

“Again?” Avis repeated as she brought the phone back up to her ear. “Kamea, are you a heartbreaker?”

“Don’t you start with me,” Kamea whispered. “Or I’m not gonna help you.”

“Alright, alright. This is me-” He set the phone down. “-putting my hands up in surrender.” He picked it up again. “Damn, talking over the phone is really inconvenient when you need to make dramatic hand gestures.”

She snickered, then clapped her hand to her mouth a minute too late as Abyssosque swore at her, the curse muffled by her bedroom door. “I’m hanging up before my roommate kills me.”

Avis laughed. “I’ll provide flowers for your funeral if she does. I’ll email you with the details of the job?”

“That’d be great.”

“Thanks again for doing this. I promise, it won’t take up too much of your time, and we’ll pay you well.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll believe it when I see it. Talk to you later.”

“Talk to you later.” Kamea brought the phone away from her ear, intending to hang up, right before Avis ended with “heartbreaker,” and hung up on her.

She stared at her phone for a moment, then sighed deeply and opened her text messages. This couldn’t wait for her next broadcast; in fact, she probably wouldn’t mention it on the air at all. Avis would probably ask her not to tell anyone.

However, she needed to tell her sister, and she needed to tell her now.

She'd just gotten one of the biggest, most perfect opportunities of her lifetime handed to her on a silver platter, and she needed new instructions.
this is Ace erasure and I won't stand for it— silv

I haven't really said anything about ace but that's cause I'm usually speechless with how awesome ace is— Harry

Ace, you’re aggressively loved. Accept or perish.— Wist

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SilverNight says...



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Finn was in heaven. He had a stack of files to read through and re-sort, and he was enjoying it. The peaceful environment of the resistance archives gave him a workspace where he could focus, and he was feeling productive today. He’d already gotten through a couple, and he could have kept going for hours, if he wasn’t constantly getting interrupted by calls from his father.

The communication device he had to carry around on the job had buzzed four times this morning already. There was no option to turn it off— Rowan didn’t like being hung up on— so the commander’s voice would come right through, and he always had to take it. This time, his voice came from the entrance to the room instead, and he was so absorbed in his reading that he didn’t even notice the heavy footsteps approaching.

“I need a favor. Why don’t you call Jay?” Rowan had materialized in front of his desk, arms folded over his chest.

Finn looked up in startled confusion, taking off his reading glasses. “Um… He’s on break?”

“I know he is. Can you call him?” his father repeated.

Finn nodded, reaching for his phone. “What do you want me to tell him or find out?”

Rowan shrugged. “Just ask where he’s at and what he’s up to. No one’s heard from him for a bit and it’s best to make sure he’s not going to blow our cover from some sunny beach.”

He looked at his screen, thinking while he looked through his contacts for Jay. Going on break was practically unheard of without very good reason for Rowan’s operatives, but something told him he hadn’t had much of a say in it for Jay’s case. This was also the closest thing to concern that he would show for him— Finn knew his father wouldn’t admit it, but the security excuse was just a cover to make sure he was fine. “I’ll do that. Is there a reason you can’t call him?”

Rowan grimaced, and that was enough of an answer.

“He’s not taking your calls,” Finn guessed. It didn’t surprise him. Jay didn’t like being shouted at, and that must have been what he was expecting to hear.

“Either that or he’s at some vacation place so exotic they don’t have cell service.” His father sighed, scowling. “I probably should have put a tracker on him before he went. That would keep things secure if that was the standard.”

“Don’t,” Finn said, a little suddenly. Rowan raised an eyebrow, silently asking for elaboration on the one-word answer, and he added an explanation. “G threatened to do that, back when he was thirteen.”

“Ah. Well, he had just run away.”

“He was hurt,” he reminded him quietly.

He saw a muscle in his father’s jaw clench, which usually meant an argument was on the way. But to his surprise, he looked away briefly instead and gave a short nod of agreement. “He was,” he admitted— and then suddenly he was too busy to linger, turning away to leave. “I’ll be back with something else for you in ten minutes.”

Finn frowned, perplexed, but didn’t say anything as he pressed the call button. Jay wasn’t any more likely to take time off than Rowan was to give it away.

A few rings went by, and he started to get worried. Maybe something had gone wrong and Jay couldn’t answer because he had a problem. He tapped a pencil he’d been using for notes on the edge of the desk anxiously. There was trouble in town—

“Hey, Finn.” Jay’s voice answering caused relief to wash over him.

“Hey.” Finn let out a deep breath. “Are you okay?”

There was a long pause, then a sigh over the phone. “No. Not really.”

He nodded, even though Jay wouldn’t see it, leaning forward over his desk a little more. “Are you safe at least?”

“Yeah, I’m at Diego’s place. I’m going to be here for my… break.” Jay cleared his throat. “Is Rowan on his way to holler at me?”

“No, he wanted me to make sure you were fine, actually.” Finn bit his lip. “Jay, I… I’m so sorry.”

“Diego’s not going anywhere,” Jay said quickly, to his surprise, guessing what he was thinking. “Natalia’s going to be finding somewhere to keep him and Juliana.”

Finn’s spirits lifted instantly. “Really? Oh, I’m so glad.”

“Yeah,” Jay agreed, and something told him that he was smiling slightly. “It’s— scary out there right now, and we’re both nervous about going anywhere, but— he’ll be alright, so I have that going for me.”

“Did the two of you get back together?”

“Sorry?”

“I mean, are you dating again?”

“Oh,” Jay said. “Well, we didn’t stop being together. We just… I don’t know, went on hiatus. That kind of thing.”

“I get it,” Finn told him, though he wasn’t sure he did. He only knew so much about it.

“But I think that hiatus is over, mostly because I’ve gotten my act together.” Jay laughed. “Took me long enough.”

Finn smiled. “I’m glad,” he said, glancing down at the file he had open in front of him. “Are the two of you going to be okay?”

A long silence passed where he almost wasn’t sure if Jay had heard him, but he spoke just before he would have repeated his question. “I don’t like this world at all sometimes. I’m not feeling welcome in the country I’m fighting for. Diego’s not wanted in the place he’s lived all of his life.”

Finn nodded slowly, biting his lip. “I know. This nation’s let you down, and I want to change that as much as you do.”

Jay sighed. “It’s more than that. As a world, we’ve got the features of a mega-empire with an iron-fist, a conquered territory with no interest in helping people they don’t think belong, a multi-corporation state that’s only concerned about money-grabbing, and… whatever the hell Iltheus is doing these days.” He paused, as if trying to think of something. “Oh, right, they’re about to have a civil war. If we’ve going to fight for a better world, it has to be redeemable. I keep placing my faith in it and I keep getting disappointed.”

“Please just hang on,” Finn said softly. “We’re going to make it right.”

“I hope so.” Jay laughed after a moment, in the way that someone does when they realize they’ve said something too depressing. “I should get going.”

“Okay. Stay safe, alright?”

“I will,” Jay promised. “I’ll see you in a week. Love you.”

“Love you too,” Finn said, hanging up.

He’d barely had time to look back at the file again when Rowan walked back in, someone else with him this time. He recognized her face, but it took him a moment to tell who she was. He’d seen her in passing when he’d gotten a file for his father.

“This is Destiny,” Rowan said. “She’s going to be joining our division.”

Finn waved and gave her a smile. “Welcome.” Destiny nodded in response.

“You aren’t busy, are you?” Rowan asked in a tone that suggested you better not be. “I’d like for you to give her a tour around.”

“Sure, I can do that.” Finn gave his files a look before he stood up. It seemed like he wouldn’t be getting back to them for a few hours.

“Splendid.” Without wasting another moment, his father left the archives again, his heavy footsteps echoing in the hallway.

Finn suddenly remembered Destiny’s surname. “You’re Destiny Song, right?”

Destiny let out a small amused huff. “My parents were hippies. A strange last name warranted a strange first name.”

He laughed before holding out his hand, and she shook it right away, surprising him with how strong her grip was. “Right. So I’m—”

“His nerdy son who’s always busy reading something here.” Destiny cut him off.

Finn raised his eyebrows. “Did he put it that way? I guess that’s fair enough.”

“Well, I was paraphrasing.” She looked around the file room. “This is a nice place, though. I can see why you hang out here.”

“That it is,” he agreed, quickly writing down a note and setting it on his stack of files: Finn’s— will be back later to read & put back.

“So, what is it you research in here?”

The suddenness of her question and the intensity of her voice when she asked it startled him a little. “Uh…”

Destiny shook her head. “Never mind,” she said smoothly, but her gaze lingered on the pile for a moment. “So, you ready to show me around?”

“Yeah. Right this way.” Finn led her out of the archives and down the hall.

The armory was their first stop, just a short walk away. Finn flicked a switch, and glaring white lights in the ceiling buzzed to life. It was a decently-sized storage room that his father did his best to keep well stocked, with weapons and firearms hanging on shelves standing against the walls. Destiny picked up one of the guns and turned it over in her hands, the action seeming familiar to her.

“I assume you can use one of those?” Finn asked. Rowan did give training to people who didn’t already have the skills needed, but he was mostly keen on recruiting those who wouldn’t need to be taught.

Destiny nodded with confidence, holding it for a little longer before putting it back in its spot. “That’s right.”

“Alright.” Finn glanced around the room before turning around, and they left the armory behind.

They made a quick stop at the medic’s room, then moved on to the barracks, which was empty at the moment. It served as a temporary resting spot for those who had gone on a bad mission and would need to wait for the coast to be clear before heading back to their homes. A half dozen bunks lined both sides of the room, with little space between any of them. Finn was glad he’d never had to stay here before.

“Does this get a lot of use?” Destiny asked.

“Not really,” Finn said, before adding, “but with the families we’re taking in, it’ll be full soon.”

Destiny scanned the room throughly, walking in the gaps between the bunks. She gave everything close attention, and he couldn’t tell if she was looking for something or just wanted to know every little detail about the place. Finally, she said, “It doesn’t look very comfortable.”

“Nope.” Finn waved her over, and they went on their way again.

The last stop was the room where they did their strategy and planning. There were a few people inside already, gathered around a table to discuss, but not his mother, which was unusual. He frowned, looking at the chair where Daya often sat. Normally, she’d have a map of whatever location she was looking at making a move in and a million notes of all the possible tactics that might work. But something must have called her away today. Sunny wasn’t around either, and this change in routine confused him.

“What is it?” Destiny asked, startling him.

“Nothing,” he said with a shake of his head, and he walked around to Daya’s usual seat. “This is where we make plans for our next move. A lot of important work goes on here, and my mother’s behind a lot of it.”

“Isn’t she a boxing medalist?”

“Fencing. She’s still one of Misericord’s champions.”

“I see.” Destiny leaned over the latest map. Her words seemed carefully thought out when she asked, “Can anyone be part of the planning process?”

“I think so,” Finn said. “There’s a final decision, so maybe not everyone’s ideas will happen, but anyone’s welcome to help out.”

“So I could suggest a mission?”

Finn paused. “I guess?”

She nodded slowly, then smiled at him. “Cool. I think I’ll stay here and check this place out a little.”

“Okay. Do you need help?”

Destiny was already sitting down in Daya’s seat. Technically, the chair wasn’t reserved, but the other fighters tended to leave it for her out of respect. A few people at the other table had glanced over in confusion before going back to their work. “I’ve got it from here, thanks.”

“Alright.” Finn stepped back from the table, giving her a last friendly smile. “I’ll see you around.”

She didn’t respond to his goodbye, but she did glance up at him just before he left the room. For a moment, Destiny’s smile seemed more like a smirk— and then she was out of sight, blocked from his view as he went back to the archives.
"silv is obsessed with heists" ~Omni

"silv why didn't you tell me you were obsessed with heists I thought we were friends" ~Ace

"y’all we outnumber silver let’s overthrow her >:]" ~winter

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Tue Apr 26, 2022 4:21 am
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SilverNight says...



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The ticking of the clock was obnoxiously loud behind Diana. She had no idea why the one at the front desk was still analog; they should have upgraded to digital ages ago. She couldn't take the batteries out to restore the silence, though, because the last time she'd forgotten where she'd placed them and didn't know what time it was on her shift for three weeks.

It had eventually become white noise. There were many constant sounds in the library: the soft and fluttery turning of pages, the clacking of keys on laptops, the whoosh of air coming in through the revolving doors. Most of them had become comforting in their regularity, but it made the less common noises more irritating on her ears.

The clicking of heeled shoes coming her way was one of those more frustrating interruptions. Unfortunately, it also meant she was about to have to get back to her job.

Diana glanced up from a list of newly released books they were considering ordering. There was a woman leaning over the desk, elbows resting on the surface, and she flashed a grin at her.

"Evening!" the woman said cheerfully. "You're- Diana, right? I was in here the other day looking at some of those older books, and I'm back for that one special one I wasn't allowed to check out."

Oh, great. Another person who recognized her and that she didn't remember.

"Sure thing," Diana said smoothly, moving to the computer screen. "Could you just remind me of the title?"

"We Live in the Ashes," the woman replied.

An image of a beaten-up book, the leather cover torn and scarred from misuse, popped into her head. Thank goodness, it was coming back to her. "Oh, yes. That was in the back room, wasn't it?"

The woman nodded. "Mm-hm."

"I'll go and find that for you..." Diana would have said the woman's name outloud, if she'd known it, so the end of her sentence came out as an awkward trailing off. She turned away quickly, just barely catching the look of slight confusion on her face, as she opened the door to the room behind the desk.

She flipped the light switch. The room was dark most of the time, and the librarians rarely needed to spend very long in here. Her eyes went to a cart stocked with books just to her left. It seemed like no one else had used this space since she'd gone in here for that woman, because she vaguely remembered pushing it out for her to browse. Diana spotted the book in question lying on top of the pile. She found herself opening it to the first page, and then stared in surprise for a few moments.

The ink was new.

The book looked decades old, from its state, but there was no question it had been printed within the last five years or so. The text was still the regular dark black, without the slightest sign of fading. Diana frowned, closing the book to check the cover again, then looked for the publishing information near the start. There wasn't any.

Curious. Maybe the author had just printed it off themselves, bound it together, then dragged it behind their car or something.

Diana took it out with her and handed it over to the woman. "This is a very strange book."

"I don't usually write anything else," the woman said absently, flipping through the pages intently.

"Pardon?" Diana didn't usually mishear things as much as she forgot them, but it still happened.

"Hmm?" The woman looked up. "Oh. I said that I don't usually write anything that isn't strange. Strange is sort of my brand, y'know?"

She still wasn't sure she'd heard right. "Are you saying you wrote that?"

"Well, I obviously haven't wrote it yet, since I don't currently remember writing it, but-" She closed the book and showed the cover to Diana. "Deserae Wintermere. That's me. I, apparently, wrote this book." She shrugged and flipped it open again.

Diana had no idea what her face was doing at the moment, but if she had to guess, it was somewhere between gawking and scowling. "Sorry, I don't get how that works."

"No one really does," the woman mused. "Time travel is incredibly confusing."

"Last I looked, that wasn't a thing." Or was it? Could something that big fly under her radar?

She supposed it had happened before.

The woman closed the book again and looked up at Diana with one eyebrow raised. "You're- you're actually questioning me on this? How refreshing. People usually just accept whatever I say in an attempt to get rid of me faster."

"Refreshing for you," Diana mumbled. This wasn't a nice change of pace for her.

Deserae sighed softly. "I'm sorry. I'll- just take this to one of the desks over there and stop bothering you."

"Wait." Diana hadn't planned to say the word, but it came out with certainty, so she went with it. "You-- you're not just going to go after saying that, are you?"

Deserae examined her a little more closely, violet eyes narrowing with concentration, then blinked. "Has anyone ever told you that you have an interesting mind?" she asked, abruptly changing the subject.

"What does that mean?" She was sure she was frowning now.

"Usually I can get at least a sense of what people are thinking, even if it's not entire thoughts," Deserae mused. "But all I get off you is a headache. That's something I haven't seen in a while."

"...I'm sure I haven't heard that before." Diana lifted her shaking hands to massage her temples. People had plenty to say, but not... quite that.

Deserae bit her lip thoughtfully, studying Diana almost like you would study a fish in a tank at the dentist's office, then blinked. "Sorry! I'm sorry. That's- I'm going to go before I say anything to mess things up further. I'm just here for the book, not to make your night worse."

"It's... a little bit late for that." Her eyes darted around the section of the library that she could see. The people were still reading or working calmly, none the wiser. She envied them right now.

"This really wasn't how I was planning for this to go either," Deserae admitted. "Again, I'm sorry. I'm just here for the book- and hopefully, if things go according to plan, I won't need to come back for this copy again."

She was pretty certain there was only one way to interpret that last part. "You won't be stealing that book." She felt so foolish saying that. Telling the author they couldn't have the book they apparently wrote and that no one else had ever wanted.

Deserae paused, then laughed. "Oh! Oh, god, no, that's not what I meant. Should I be offended that your first thought is that I'm going to steal it?"

"It might be the least abnormal impression I have of you right now."

"Fair enough," Deserae agreed. "No, don't worry, I'm not going to steal this book. It turns out that the same jerk who won't sell a few other books to me has another copy, and I'm not going to leave him alone until he sells it to me."

Diana slowly raised her eyebrows. "So, your plan is..."

"Throw money at him until he caves. Or wait until the end of his natural lifespan, whichever happens first."

"I meant for this copy." She pointed at the book in her hands. What kind of turn of phrase is "natural lifespan"?

"Oh! Read it until I have my own, I guess."

"You won't have long enough before closing to finish it, so if that doesn't happen soon, you would be back." She could see Deserae was about to object. "No, I have a very good idea of how reading speeds would go for a book of that size. Even abnormally fast ones. We close pretty soon." The ticking clock sound-- which she'd miraculously forgotten about for this conversation-- surfaced once again.

Deserae glanced at the clock. "... it really is that late, isn't it." She sighed. "Alright, well, then I might be back a few more times."

Diana bit her lip. I pray you will be back. She didn't think she wanted this hanging over her. "Go ahead and read for a few minutes."

Deserae flashed her a smile. "Thank you." Her heels - still an annoying sound - clicked against the floor as she moved past the front desk to an empty table against the wall nearby.

It took some focus for her to get back to work. Diana found that her jaw was clenched tight as she tried to turn her attention back to the list of books she was supposed to be going through, her gaze going between the strange woman and then the clock, waiting for the time when she'd have to return.

She wasn't sure if she'd ever have this off her mind.

Finally, closing time was almost directly upon them. Diana gave Deserae a meaningful look as people started to get up and leave.

Absorbed as she was in her book, she didn't seem to notice.

She cleared her throat. "Thank you all for stopping by! If you need to return a book before you leave, please stop by the desk."

Again, Deserae didn't react. It was starting to feel like she was deliberately ignoring Diana.

She heaved a sigh, and stepped out from behind the desk. She walked towards her table, bent down, and dropped her voice. "You've got to put that back."

Deserae sighed softly and closed the book. "I know, I know." She pushed it across the table toward Diana.

Diana picked it up, running a thumb over the spine. "How far did you get?"

"Only a couple of chapters. The writing style is... interesting. And complicated. And kinda dissolves into nonsense after about chapter four?"

She raised an eyebrow. "How so?"

"Well- most of the pages of chapter five have been torn out, and the few that are left are covered in scribbles to the point that they're unreadable. So- not nonsense, exactly, but close."

"...Did you do that?" Diana knew books got torn, but not usually so deliberately as an entire chapter. Maybe it was something the writer-- as in, Deserae-- hadn't liked.

"I would never!" Deserae cried. "Especially not to one of my own books!"

She grimaced. "Fair enough. Anything notable besides that?"

She shook her head. "No. The rest of the book - cover aside - is remarkably pristine."

Diana turned it over in her hands a few times. "Well, if it still holds your interest... I'll store it somewhere for you."

"Please. There's... something about it. A feeling I can't shake. It's important, somehow."

She nodded, though she wasn't sure she understood. "Right. Of course."

Deserae's gaze went distant, staring into space for a moment, before she blinked. "I really need to get going," she said, changing the subject.

Diana blinked, then glanced back at the clock. "Me too. That slipped my mind."

Deserae got to her feet, then smiled at Diana. "I suppose I'll see you next time I come in for the book, then."

Diana murmured in agreement as she stepped aside. That had better be a promise. "Come back soon."

Deserae brushed past her and managed to make it out the door just before one of Diana's coworkers locked the last one. Diana watched her go through the window. Some of the tension left her body, her shoulders relaxing as she let out a long quiet sigh. Finally, she turned around to place the book in one of the desk's drawers before she went to start turning off lights.

She didn't think that she'd be forgetting this anytime soon.
"silv is obsessed with heists" ~Omni

"silv why didn't you tell me you were obsessed with heists I thought we were friends" ~Ace

"y’all we outnumber silver let’s overthrow her >:]" ~winter

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SilverNight says...



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Aly’s phone rang in the middle of her Misericord history class. She pursed her lips and sat still at her desk, ignoring the glances in her direction, as she pretended that her phone was silent, and not buzzing obnoxiously loud. It was just a first-year course, but the professor took it very seriously, and was surprisingly strict about the lectures. No phones were allowed out. And unfortunately for her, it was hard to deny the existence of hers when her ringtone, which was the serene sound of her brother loudly playing the kazoo, could be heard by all in the room.

The professor glanced away from his presentation and sighed tiredly as he shook his head at her. “Ms. Sierra-Castilla, I assume that’s your phone.”

No, I smuggled a kazoo into class just to drown you out. But Aly just nodded. “It is.”

“Would you mind taking it outside?” The professor made a face.

She smiled to cover up a returned grimace as she got up from her seat. “No problem at all.” At least it didn’t look like he’d be docking participation points.

A few of her friends grinned and gave her thumbs ups, celebrating her escape from the boredom of another lecture with nothing to make the time pass. Aly raised one of her hands in a peace sign as she pushed open the door and stepped into the hallway.

The call was from Juliana. She’d been expecting it to just be spam, which would’ve meant she got to hang up and spend five minutes pretending to be on the phone. But if her sister was calling, especially with yesterday’s news, it needed answering.

Aly accepted the call a heartbeat before it went to voicemail—which, because she was pretty sure she hadn’t changed it to something more professional, was more kazoo sounds. Adapting for the college environment hadn’t been immediate for her.

“I thought I’d call during your least favorite class.” Her sister’s voice sounded like she was smiling.

Was there good news? She wasn’t sure if she could determine that yet from this alone.

“Good thinking,” Aly said with a chuckle, leaning back against the wall to the side of the door. “It’s not even a full month and it’s such a pain.”

“Did the whole class hear the—?”

She grinned. “Yes, they all heard the kazoo.”

Juliana cackled. “Diego’s a genius. From now on, he’s allowed to make whatever voice recordings on my phone that he wants.”

Aly laughed, but she felt the amusement slipping away, being replaced by that same heavy feeling she’d been carrying for about twenty-four hours now. “What are you calling for?”

Juliana took a deep breath. “Well, it’s definitely good news, but it’s kind of surprising.”

Aly blinked. “Well? Spill it, don’t leave me awkwardly dancing and loitering around the hallway.” She did a spin away from the wall, making sure to let her shoes squeak on the floor so she could hear it.

A giggle came from her sister. “Okay. Is anyone around?”

“Nope. I walk a lonely hallway.”

“The good news is, Diego and I will have a way of avoiding the— the event that’s set to happen in six days.”

Aly pressed the phone closer to her ear. Her shock almost prevented her from replying. “For real?”

“It’s going to be among the wildest things we’ve done as siblings, but I think we can pull it off,” Juliana confirmed. “It’ll also be one of the most cautious and delicate things we’ve done, so obviously you can’t just go around telling people.”

“No, of course not. Sibling pact.”

“Sibling pact,” her sister echoed.

The shock had shifted into excitement. “How are you going to do it?”

“That’s the surprising news,” Juliana said, as if the good news wasn’t nearly surprising enough already. “Diego told Jay, and you’ll never guess who’s been working at a refugee shelter for Iltheusians for the past couple months.”

“…Jay has?” Aly’s brow furrowed.

“That was rhetorical, but yep. I didn’t know either. They should be able to sneak the two of us in.”

“Huh.” Aly frowned and glanced at her fake nails.

A pause went by before Juliana let out a little sigh. “You’re not buying that explanation, are you?”

“Not really, I must admit. It sounds like a good career path for Jay, but I know the ex-military people he lives with are kind of strict and have him working for them, so I’m doubtful they’d just let that change happen. Also, I follow him on social media and he still makes joke posts about his boss.”

Image


“I just hope Mama and Papa don’t put that together, because that’s what I’ve already told them.” Juliana clicked her tongue. “I thought we were sending you there to be an engineer, not a detective?”

“You should be good, and no, my major hasn’t changed.” Aly made her way back to the wall. “So, liar, liar, pants on fire, what’s the real explanation then?”

“Well, if the refugee shelter thing caught you off guard, this is a lot more unlikely. But also a lot cooler. Just don’t tell the parents.” Juliana’s voice was amused. She cleared her throat before continuing. “Jay has actually been working for the Misericord resistance.”

It took a moment for the statement to sink in, but she quickly dissolved into surprised laughter. “That is so wild.”

“Isn’t it?” Juliana said, laughing as well.

“Our brother has been dating a secret agent and—”

“Woah, woah, not so loud. I can hear your voice going up and it would be bad to get overheard there.” But she was still giggling. “It is really crazy.”

Aly grinned. “Did Diego know already?”

“Oh, yeah. It makes sense why he didn’t share, safety and secrecy and all but— that’s just cool and I had no idea. Okay, okay, I’ll stop gushing. But anyway, Jay’s talked to his people and they should be able to hide the two of us. We might have to stay low for a few weeks before it’s safe to see you again.”

“Missing you for a little while is infinitely better than having you gone on the other side of the world.” She let a soft sigh. “I was worried to death about you two.”

“Now you don’t have to be,” Juliana said. “And great news, you can focus on class instead.”

“Ew.” Aly scrunched up her nose. “Fine, I guess.”

Juliana laughed. “Love you, Aly. See you later today. Kick ass in history.”

“I do not kick ass in history, and love you too,” Aly said, smiling slightly as she hung up, and stepped back into the classroom. Maybe the lecture would be easier to bear with this news.





Aly met up with Juliana around their parents’ coffee table later that day, surrounded by invitation cards, envelopes, and a couple of Juliana’s glitter pens. They had the living room windows open, and the wind blew off the paper items every couple minutes, but they would pick them up and go right back to work whenever it happened. Their family’s Harvest Moon Feast was taking place in a couple days, and they’d been tasked to look at the invitation list of last year’s and decide who to send them out to this time. Juliana was reading off the names.

“Celia Alondra?”

“She’s one of Mama’s good friends, right? She should get one.” Aly wrote the name on one of the cards in extra loopy, fun lettering. Her usual cursive handwriting had quickly turned into shorthand when she’d entered college, after it became clear she’d need to be faster with her engineering notes. But no one wanted to see a squiggle for their name on a card.

Juliana nodded, then read the next name on the list. “Danilo Leocadio.” Her face scrunched up a little.

“Ohhhh, you don’t like him,” Aly said, leaning forward and tapping a long acrylic nail on the coffee table. “What’s the gossip there?”

She snorted. “No, I do not. He called Diego something mean, you can probably guess what.”

Aly made a big show of crumpling up a card that could have belonged to him and then throwing the ball into the recycling can. “We don’t invite bigots.”

“Nope, we don’t. Mama and Papa wouldn’t get it, so I’ll just tell them he was out of town.” Juliana scribbled over the name, then moved on to the next. “Adrian Westwind. Who’s that again?”

“The old gay guy a few blocks away who takes in stray dogs and cats and has a super cool roof garden. He’s super sweet.”

“Oh, right! He’s definitely invited.” Juliana checked Adrian’s name off the list as Aly addressed a card to him.

“We have a lot of these to get to,” Aly remarked as she reached for another card. “Next—”

She inhaled sharply and yanked her hand back to look it over when she felt a stinging pain on the tip of her finger. Sure enough, there was a good-sized paper cut. Not the least bit serious, but damn, those always hurt more than they should.

Juliana winced as she saw it. “Ouch, bad luck.”

“I was bound to get one of those eventually while working,” Aly said, her teeth slightly gritted together. “It’ll make the rest of this project extra fun.”

Her sister examined it thoughtfully, then said, “Does Mama have any houseplants she doesn’t want anymore?”

Aly saw where this was going. “Probably the third one from the left on this window. She said it wasn’t doing so well.”

“Dead?”

“Not quite, but getting there.”

“That should do just fine.” Juliana stood up and took the plant from its spot, setting it on the table next to their workspace. “It even saves the need for a bandaid.”

Aly held out her hand, and Juliana set it on her open palm. Her sister’s other hand pinched a leaf that was more brown than green, and she closed her eyes. Aly felt a soft warmth instead of the harsh sting where the cut was, and she saw the skin on her finger close up until it was impossible to tell that it had been open at all. The houseplant shriveled up a little further, losing a few leaves.

“Thank you very much,” she said, taking her hand back.

Before Juliana could reply, another voice spoke up. “What was that?”

They both startled and turned their heads. Diego stood on the other side of the room, holding a canvas bag close to the floor like he’d been about to set it down and forgotten he was going to. Jay was just one step behind, equally confused. The door was in the kitchen, and they hadn’t heard them come in. It was a consequence of an inexpensive apartment that didn’t have the best plan for a layout.

Aly’s brother looked like he was about to speak again, but was too shocked to say the words. His gaze went from her healed hand, to Juliana, to the dying houseplant. Finally, he looked at their faces with an expression that she couldn’t fully read, but she knew it contained a question.

She exchanged a glance with Juliana, who bit her lip and nodded slightly.

Looking back at Diego and Jay, Aly raised her hand. It was only shaking a little.

Snap.





“Jay took the week off,” Diego said, leaning back on the couch as he wrote an address on an envelope. “So he’ll be able to make it to the potluck in a couple days.”

“Time off from such a fascinating job.” Aly wriggled her eyebrows. “Do you even get paid? Obviously you can’t exactly declare it as your income for taxes and the like.”

“Sort of,” Jay said with a laugh. He was sealing and stamping the envelopes that came his way from Diego— now that they were unexpectedly four, they’d turned into a supply chain. “I definitely don’t get paid vacation. But until my boss gets ahold of me, I have all this time, so we thought we’d stop by.”

“I’m glad you did,” Juliana said, waving the list. “There’s so much here to do. I didn’t even know our family knew this many people.”

Jay went through the finished envelopes, looking over the names. “How many are you expecting to be able to make it?”

“We’re hopeful,” Aly said. “It’s our chance to see people before— it’s a time with others that no one would want to pass up.”

Diego had paused his work to get up and open the windows wider. “Besides, it’s tradition. It’d be a surprise to everyone if we didn’t hold it this year, when we should all be relying on each other to get through this.”

“We’ll make it work,” Juliana said, and they all nodded in solemn agreement.

Aly was more careful with grabbing items now. Her work was controlled and methodic, having settled into a rhythm, and she only stopped to collect the papers that kept blowing away. Occasionally, she would look up at her sister, and their gazes would meet for a second before they focused on their task again. This was a tradition, too, even if not everyone knew it.

2198 words
"silv is obsessed with heists" ~Omni

"silv why didn't you tell me you were obsessed with heists I thought we were friends" ~Ace

"y’all we outnumber silver let’s overthrow her >:]" ~winter

silver (she/they)
  





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Sat Jul 09, 2022 2:22 am
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Stringbean says...



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Jason frowned at the back of the transcribed radio message as Rowan read it. The two a.m. light of the conference room lamp spilled down in the same aged yellow hues as it had almost twelve hours ago when the entire triumvirate had last met.

Things did have a way of coming up quickly, didn't they.

Jason's green eyes glinted in the dull light as they shifted to the commander's face. Rowan set the slip of paper down. The gesture had a feeling of finality. "So," he said in a low voice. "I see why it was urgent."

"Twenty-three arrested just after midnight--we don't know how many more will be coming. There's secret police swarming the town, so our people can't even get out of their base." Jason sighed grimly and leaned back in his chair. "If the police find that base, the whole group will be busted."

Rowan shook his head. "This is just what we need," he muttered to himself, before clearing his throat and using a more official tone. "That's not all, I think. If this is happening in a small town like Fraygen, it could happen in any base. The reports of individual operatives getting caught over sheltering the Caladians weren't good, but practically everywhere is doing this. We're going to be leading them right to our doorstep."

"Bastards," Jason muttered. "They planned this. Knew we'd try to help and took advantage of it." He scoffed faintly, falling into a brief stare at the note on the table with his arms crossed. Then he tipped his chair back and stretched to flick a switch on a small radio set behind him. "Yammy, has Miss Whitestar checked in yet?" A voice crackled over the set in the negative. "Let me know when she does." He flicked the switch off again with a sigh. "We need to handle this tonight," he said to Rowan as his chair legs touched the ground. "Can your wife make it?"

"She's already on her way, I believe. I figured we'd need some help."

Jason gave a short nod. "We might." He reached for his coffee, dark and steaming in a clinking china cup that looked older than he was. He took a sip and wrinkled his nose. "When was the last time these coffee grounds were changed? This tastes like musty basement."

"Something tells me it's not the coffee grounds," Rowan commented. "Might have something to do with all the museum relics you drink out of though."

Jason's elbow thumped the table as he pointed a boney finger at Rowan. "I'll have you know this full set of china cups minus two and all the saucers was graciously donated to the underground by my mother's dearest friend in memory of me before the good woman died."

"That's right," Rowan said. "They're from an era that we have in our history books. We call those items antiques."

"It is in the history books actually!" Jason said brightly. "So am I."

The commander sighed. "I remember, yes. Such a long time ago. Your funeral was very sad."

Jason huffed. "Yes, I'm sure," he answered wryly, resettling in his chair and becoming serious again. He picked up the radio message and stared at the penciled letters. "There's a woman on my team who uses a type of cloaking magic. If we could get her into the Fraygen base, she could help protect the members trapped there."

Rowan nodded. "That will help. After that, they shouldn't leave until the police are busy again, which will be probably be on the day this is all set to happen."

"Five days. They should have the provisions to hold out that long if they've rationed properly." He'd started folding the radio note into all sorts of angles and then unfolding them one by one. "Done then--I'll send my agent out as soon as we're finished."

"Natalia's going to be unhappy when she checks in."

"Unfortunately that won't be for hours. We can't wait." Jason looked up as he smoothed out the creased page. "She'll understand."

Rowan folded his arms over his chest. "I hope she will."

The door creaked open. They both looked to Daya, who came in about as composed as a person could be this early. She took Natalia's empty spot, giving Jason a small nod of greeting. "What's happened?" she asked.

Jason quickly filled her in, finishing calmly, "We could use your input."

Daya pursed her lips. "It looks like we're going to have to be more careful," she said. "I don't know what mistake they made that made them get caught, but my guess is they didn't sufficiently cover up their tracks. From now on, everyone has to do this in small groups and try to mislead anyone who might be watching."

Rowan cleared his throat. "The two of us... We were thinking we might have to stop this entirely."

Daya stared at the two of them, her hands resting on the edge of the table like she might push herself up and leave. "Are you serious?"

Jason glanced at Rowan. "It wasn't just leaving tracks," he explained softly. "Some of the police staged as Caladian immigrants seeking help. Our people led them right to their homes. Another hour before the message got out and it might have been the base itself."

"I know you wanted to do something about it yourself," Rowan said in an understanding voice. "Without this, we would've been able to. But that wouldn't be safe for our family, and it wouldn't be for any of our operatives, either."

Daya sat back, wearing an unfamiliar look of defeat. "So, because the police are expecting us to help, we have to stop and tell the world the resistance is willing to let this happen."

"Not willing," Jason corrected, but paused and looked at the note. "But we just aren't strong enough to do this. Not right now. If we lose one base this way, we could lose four, five, a dozen, and we can't afford that."

"I'm sure all those people know that."

"It's not better for us to be remembered as those who failed and caused an entire movement to fall," Rowan said. "We can make this up later, somehow. What we can't do is recover lost bases or people." Jason stayed quiet, thoughtfully running his fingertip down one of the creases in the paper.

Daya took a deep breath. "We shouldn't send back the ones who are already here," she relented.

Jason shook his head without lifting it. "No, of course not... We should bring in the families of those who are already here, but it's risking too much to go further." He finally looked up again at the two of them. "Do we agree?" Rowan nodded and after a few seconds Daya did the same. Jason leaned his chair back again to push a button near the radio set. "Alright. Now let's talk about what we can do. Rowan, have you had a chance to talk to your Caladian operatives about the mission?"

He cleared his throat. "I did. Of course, they weren't very happy at the request. I don't blame them. But four of my seven who would be going did agree to it. Is that enough?"

"With the five volunteers from my own division it should be. They'll start training your four tomorrow." A young woman who couldn't have been more than twenty came in while he was speaking, and Jason handed her a note he'd scribbled down with a nod. She took it and left. "I've worked out most of the details of the plan, now it's mainly a matter of getting the explosives across the border and to the drop point."

"Caladia is very tight on their customs," Daya said. "They'll search trucks, trains, and any boats they have control over."

"If only we could get a hand from their pirates," Rowan grumbled.

Jason huffed faintly, but in the ponderous silence that fell around the table, his expression began to shift seriously. He tapped his finger in the air. "Hold on... Let's actually consider that," he said, looking up.

Rowan frowned. "Jason, I realize I'm nearly always serious, but that time I wasn't."

"Well I am. They could do it, and for the right price, I think they'd be willing. Let's face it, contraband isn't my specialty, or yours, Rowan. I'm willing to try my hand at almost anything for the right cause, but--" He shook his head once skeptically. "I don't want to run that risk with this. I think we should hire some professionals."

Daya seemed interested. "If what I've heard about them is true at all, they'd do it well. The main issue would be the price. They'd likely ask for something large, and we would hardly be in a position where we could bargain."

"We have some cash in reserve," Jason mused. "We could call on our sponsors for more. I think we could find enough."

"Would they really sail all the way over here for it?" The commander seemed doubtful.

"For the right deal, probably," Daya said.

Rowan rubbed his face. "This is going in directions I didn't anticipate."

"We'll make it work," Jason said, with that sense of self-assurance he never seemed to be missing, though none of the gravity of the situation was missing in his manner either. "One way or another. I've instructed our team to detonate the bombs the first night they're able after the third day. If we want our supplies ready for them, I suggest we contact these pirates very soon."

"I'll probably have to talk to someone, who will talk to someone, who will talk to someone else," Rowan sighed. "But I'll get in touch."

With the faintest smirk of understanding, Jason nodded. "Then I think we're ready to move forward." But he paused for a long time, running his fingers along the edge of the radio message in his hands. "Do you suppose your son would mind looking ahead for us?" he asked, looking mostly to Daya this time. "Just to make sure things turn out. Even for the right price, I don't trust those kind of people not to double-cross us."

"Well, I'm sure he wouldn't like getting woken up, but he'd do it," Daya said, taking out her phone. "One moment."

She dialed a number and put the phone to her ear. A few moments went by where the only sounds were the ringing and her mumbling something about how this room always had the worst service. Just before it seemed like it would go to voicemail, Jason overheard a tired voice saying something over the phone.

"Sorry, I know it's early... It would help us out if you could light the birthday candles. Do you think you could?" An answer Jason couldn't make out. "Yeah, we're at the dove nest." Another reply. "Okay. Make sure you're actually awake before you drive anywhere."

Daya hung up, and the silence that followed made it hard for Jason's companions to stay awake. The bulb hummed overhead in its hooded shade and Jason's china chinked softly now and then, until tired footsteps scuffed the thin carpet in the hall and everyone looked up. The door creaked open a few moments later and Finn stood awkwardly in the doorway. He let out a long yawn. "Do they give out parking tickets this late?"

"I don't believe so," Rowan said as Daya got up to give him her seat.

"Cool. I don't think that was a legal parking spot." Finn sank down into the chair, closing his eyes for a moment before opening them again and looking to Jason. "I assume this was your idea?"

Jason was watching him, the wrinkles around his eyes looking deeper than usual as he swallowed another mouthful of coffee and placed his cup down solemnly. "And I apologize. If it wasn't so important that we sort this out tonight, I would have waited. Are you sure you don't mind doing it?"

Finn let out a long breath. "It'll be alright," he said, putting his hands on the table to steady himself. "What is it you need?"

Jason responded with a single, slow nod. "Thank you." He paused. "We're expecting some of our people to receive a delivery in Caladia sometime in the next two weeks. We can't, however, fully trust the people making that delivery, and... it's imperative that it does arrive. I'm asking for your insight on what becomes of it."

Finn nodded. "Can I have something a little more specific? The location, the contents, or the people doing it? It'll help me find it better."

Again Jason nodded, slow and careful. "A band of pirates will be delivering crates of explosives to some of our deportees, likely somewhere on the industrial island off the country's eastern coast, the Island of Pride."

Finn was silent.

"We know, it's an unusual decision," Rowan said. "The purpose of the explosives isn't to harm anyone, but to make them reconsider."

Finn sighed. "Okay. And you want me to see if something blows up?"

Watching him from across the table once more, Jason deliberated, then answered, "No. As long as we can be sure the shipment will arrive, we can handle the rest, and that's all that will be necessary."

There was a clear look of relief on Finn's face before he sat up straighter and took a deep breath. "Alright," he said quietly.

Finn's eyes closed, and the other three watched him in silence. He was nearly perfectly still, except for when a microexpression would flash over his face and his fingers trembled slightly. There was motion behind his eyelids, as if he'd entered the R.E.M. phase of sleep. Does it feel like a dream to you? Jason wondered as he watched the young man's troubled face. The dream of someone else?

At last, Finn's stiff posture relaxed and he opened his eyes again. "The delivery makes it to them," he said tiredly.

Subtly, a tension left Jason's body like the silent release of a sigh. He nodded once more and said quietly, "Thank you. Can I get you anything? There's hot coffee in my office."

Finn shook his head. "Unless you need anything else, I'll be going back now."

Jason shook his head and rose from his creaking chair. "I'll help see you out."

"Thank you, Finn," Daya said gently.

Finn stood up as well, looking a little unstable. As they moved toward the door, Rowan was whispering something to Daya. Jason didn't catch what it was.

He held the door until Finn followed him out. They strode slowly through the dim, dingy hall, Jason's many layers of clothing rustling quietly and a long, rust-orange scarf swinging with his step. He was quiet all the way to the main foyer, where a skinny young man who looked like an intern was sitting at a desk of small computer screens with his feet propped up as security footage wavered in dull green hues in front of him. He looked up when Jason and Finn entered and gave a nod. He pushed a buzzer to unlock the door, and Jason led Finn out, glancing deftly around the dark basement room they entered. As derelict as the interior of the base seemed, the door swung on its heavy hinges without a sound. The two of them shuffled past boxes and shelves of dusty cleaning equipment by the light of Jason's cell phone flashlight, then up a flight of stairs to the back room of a smoothie bar, where a familiar fruity smell hung in the cool air.

Jason paused at the door to the service alley to turn to Finn. "Your father doesn't pressure you to do this for us does he?"

Finn took a moment before he answered with a shrug. "That's just kind of how it is."

Jason looked off at the ceiling panels as he nodded thoughtfully. The nod shifted to him shaking his head as he looked back. "That isn't his right," he said flatly. "It's not anyone's. Remember that, mm?" He studied Finn in the dim light with a short nod.

Finn glanced away and pressed his lips together. "Mmh-hmm."

Jason's eyebrows rose into his wrinkled forehead as he glanced away. "I suppose I could offer to talk to him, but that might just make it more difficult, wouldn't it."

Finn sighed. "Yeah. It would." He gave Jason the tiniest hint of a sad smile. "You've been talking to him long before I could even form words. You have to pick your battles and it's best not to choose the ones against him."

"Best to avoid all battles when you can," Jason replied with a small, wry smirk. But then he became serious again. "What you have is something special," he said, dropping his voice and meeting Finn's gaze. "And something very personal. Sooner or later that will be a battle you'll have to fight for yourself."

It was difficult to say whether Finn looked any more confident, but there was something different in his gray-blue eyes as he nodded. "Thank you. I'll do my best."

Jason offered him an encouraging nod, then glanced at the alley door. "Well, we've lingered long enough to be a security threat, I'm sure. I'll check the cameras again and let you know if it's still clear."

Finn let out a sleepy chuckle and gave him a thumbs up. "I'll wait here."

"Goodnight, Mr. Chase," Jason said before turning, with just enough cheek to prove that he was teasing. He went back through the basement door, leaving Finn in the dark for a minute or two. Then Jason's head poked into the room again, white hair visible in the dark without his flashlight. "That was a terrible parking job," he whispered loudly across the room. "Do you know you parallel parked across three compact spaces?"

"Did I really?" Finn whispered back. "Wait, I think it was also in front of a fire hydrant. Probably something wrong with the curb too. I was in a bit of a hurry."

Jason smirked. "Anyway, all clear."

"Thanks for looking out for me," Finn said with a smile. "See you around, sir." With a single wave in the dark, Jason pulled his head back and closed the door with a soft click of the automatic lock.

Jason's hand rested on the door handle as he stood in the foyer once again and breathed a pensive sigh. He crossed behind to the green wall of surveilance screens, watching Finn's empty car from over the intern's shoulder. In a moment or two, Finn walked across the screen. Jason smirked slightly. There was indeed a fire hydrant. He watched Finn check his windshield for the dreaded parking ticket which had not appeared. His gaze caught the hidden security camera with a small smile before he climbed in.

As the car started up silently and pulled away, the upturned corner of Jason's mouth sank. Nothing moved on the screen except the wavering transmission lines--the parking lot was empty, a few trees and landscape bushes bordering a visible corner, a shop entrance in the background dark and empty as well. Another quiet sigh leaked from Jason, and a moment passed before he straightened and glanced at the intern, pretending not to catch his knowing stare. As usual, the intern pretended not to know this and gave a nod. "Goodnight, James," Jason said, dropping a hand on the intern's shoulder as he turned away. He heard the usual, "Goodnight, Mr. Homer" echo behind him as he went back down the well-worn hall of this cave.
  





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Mon Nov 14, 2022 2:33 am
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Stringbean says...



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Natalia's phone buzzed on the hotel nightstand, spewing out a sleepy cello tune. She reached a thin arm out from the comfort of her blankets and silenced the alarm without looking, then drew the puffy quilt from her head with a groan and rolled over.

She hated these long-distance trips. Shetzle's team of black-suited escorts always picked her up in front of her house at a time when she wanted to be curled up on her couch with a quiet cup of tea before bed. She was pretty sure Shetzle just wanted to mess with her. Was there really any good reason for it being so late? Then it was a long, sleepless ride in a stuffy limousine across from the same bleakly dressed men as always who never said a word. Oh, except when she was getting out of the car. One of them always managed to make a snide remark about "cripples" or "taking until daybreak."

"Bastards," she mumbled into her pillow. Since when did she talk like that? It was 8 a.m. and she didn't have patience for them. But still. "Thanks, Jason." He was a bad influence.

With a sleepy sigh, she finally opened her eyes. Crisp November sunlight was spilling through the thin curtains over her hotel room window. Faint, muffled sounds of the busy morning life down in the street below tripped through. Bicycle bells rang, a delivery truck rattled past, a police office blew their whistle and someone else yelled a curse. God she missed her own room already.

She got up, washed, pulled her hair into a silver bun, and took some black leggings and a baggy sweater from her suitcase. At 8:45, the tallest and burliest of her escorts met her outside her door and shadowed her to the elevator.

Shadow. She chuckled inwardly and stared at his shadow from the shaded light in the elevator ceiling, his swallowing hers. His head and his shoulders and his ridiculously bulging biceps (she was always waiting for the seams in his suit to split open) all loomed above her, and his frame was wide enough that he could have wrapped three of her in a bear hug if he was the type to give hugs and not just break people. Yes, very intimidating. He couldn't breathe down her neck from way up there if he wanted to.

The elevator dinged and they stepped out.

She poured her coffee in the hotel lounge as if the other escorts weren't lingering around the creamer or leaning menacingly in the front door, eyeing people through their dark glasses, ate her bagel and fruit at a table alone, then brushed crumbs from her sweater and walked out without comment or with any of her escorts following her.

It was a formality mostly, them being here, so that if anything ever happened they could put on the paperwork that they'd done their best to protect a government worker while on duty. No one would ask questions, and no one felt the need to make sure she actually did her job in Norburn--they'd gotten her here. They felt sure enough that Shetzle's threats would do the rest.

What wasn't formality was intimidation factor. She rolled her eyes as she stepped off the hotel walk into the street and took a breath of free air.

Norburn wasn't like Shanoa. As the capitol, Shanoa had always been a pride and showpiece, the embodiment of all the ideals of Misericord culture. Artful artictecture, sparkling fountains, rows of small shops, bustling festivals, preserved cobble roads, and parks budding with greenery and warm, quiet moments. Though it had lost much of its glow since the invasion thirty years ago, remnants still remained, like ghosts waiting to come back into their bodies.

Norburn was different. It was a city with a toughened edge, reflected in the rough-hewn stonework lining the tops of its rows of high, narrow buildings. Everything here felt solid, including the threading steps of the people, drumming through the sidewalk. Shanoa was a fertile place blessed by the largest branches of the river. Norburn had been built up inside a forest and dug into rocky ground. You could tell which way was north anywhere you could catch a glimpse at the horizon--the Adamantine mountain range loomed outside the city limits.

There were more police here too. State police. Natalia took them in with little flicks of her dark eyes on street corners, by trolley stops, outside bars and community centers. Norburn always had more. But this was more than last time. She took a trolley to the east side of town and passed a dodgy-eyed man in the dark state uniform as she went into an electronics repair shop.

The shop was a dimly lit place with blinds over the front windows and second-hand radios and tv sets displayed neatly on dingy metal shelves. The faded red carpet hadn't changed in years. Natalia pulled her phone from her pocket and went to the service counter in the back, where she waited a minute or two for the shop owner to come out.

Daniel was a watery-blue eyed man in his early thirties, but already showing flecks of gray among the chestnut brown around his temples. He smiled at Natalia when he came into the room, and she smiled back, placing her phone on the conuter. He pushed his glasses up his nose as he took it and turned, plugging it into a computer against the side wall. The screen was hidden, but Natalia had seen it run before, checking for background files that shouldn't be there, any taps she didn't know about, then deleting any messages to a list of people she'd given him years ago. After a few moments, he glanced back at her with a slight nod. Everything was clean.

"Could you run the pictures off for me?" she asked like she always did.

He answered like always. "Sure, take about thirty minutes. Want to browse anything in the back in the meantime? Lots of newer models in at good prices."

"Can't hurt to take a look." And then he'd lead her to a tiny room in the very back of the building. She'd step in, shutting the heavy door with a tiny wave, and run her fingers along the paneling until she found the secret latch. Mechanisms would whir behind the walls and above the ceiling in near silence, a vibration she could just barely feel through the floor, then the sensation of dropping slowly as the elevator-room sank. When the latch clicked back into place, she opened the door and like some trick of mirrors, stepped into another world.

In some ways it was like the Shanoa base--dim and chilly and furnished on a budget. But Nor'burn's rough edges showed here too, maybe most of all. Natalia's flats clicked with a soft echo as she started down a dark corridor of bare stone, lit by a string of hooded bulbs, like the prison. Besides the smell of coffee wafting down to her, there was no sign of anyone else here, until she reached the end, took a turn, and the roots of the moutain opened up to a humming cavern glimmering like a cybernetic fairy village. Computer screens and mismatched light fixtures emmitted an ethereal aura and tiny lights blinked patiently in electronics towers stacked and strewn along work tables. Natalia felt like she was walking through a science lab or some sci-fi space station as she went down the pathways, passing people focused and silent with their work. In a few moments, she was through.

Yamren's office was at the end of a fairly long hallway to the side of the main area, tucked away in such a way that it seemed almost as though she'd prefer that no one could find it at all. Stepping from the rough stone of the main base floor to the finished wood of the hallway was a little bit of a shock, too; Yamren had insisted that her area be finished off, citing the sheer amount of electricity and wiring she'd need to do her job properly as the reason extra work and money should be dedicated to her. Leaving the wires exposed would be dangerous, she explained, and everyone had agreed--if a bit begrudingly in a few cases.

Yamren was a bit of a delicate subject with a few of the more radical Resistance members. Being Teviran by birth had immediately made her disliked and distrusted, and her oddness only made things worse. Rumours about her were abundant among the rebels, both those who more openly disliked her and those who were just open to gossip.

The most common rumour was that she wasn't human. From her physical appearance--thin, pale, practically white hair and eyes that were a strange shade of violet--to the way she acted--avoiding the sun and people as much as she could, muttering to herself when she thought no one was listening, and staring at empty corners with a vaguely concerned and confused look--everything she did only served to feed the rumours that some sort of supernatural blood ran through her veins.

Natalia discouraged the rumours whenever she overheard anyone talking. Whether or not they were true, it wasn't something that needed to be whispered about behind the girl's back.

As far as Natalia knew, the only thing inhuman about Yamren was how much coffee she consumed. It was a miracle the girl's heart hadn't given out yet.

The smell of said coffee only strengthened the closer Natalia got to Yamren's office. As she finally stepped around the corner into the small cave Yamren had claimed as her own, she had to blink in the sudden light of all Yamren's computer monitors. She easily had the same amount of technology in her claustrophobic cave-office as the rest of the base combined. Computer towers blinked and hummed under and around her three desks, monitors gleamed along the walls with a few sitting on the desks, and cords and wires spilled everywhere, plugged into the walls and the tech and--well, everywhere.

Yamren herself sat in the middle of the technological mess, back to Natalia, tangled white hair pulled up into a ponytail. She had a soft blanket wrapped around her shoulders, but it had fallen slightly, dipping low enough to reveal the very tip of the large, pale scar that ran from the base of her neck on the left side to somewhere down her back.

She was wearing large noise-cancelling headphones and listening to music loud enough that Natalia could hear the bass from across the room. She hesitated in the doorway, eyeing the young woman with mixed concern and uncertainty.

"I know you're there, Miss Whitestar," Yamren said softly, not turning around. "Please, sit down, I just need to finish this quickly and I'll be right with you."

There was a small table and a chair to the right of the doorway, and Natalia sat down in the hard plastic seat, watching Yamren tap her fingers quickly against the desk and bob her head to her music.

After a minute or two, Yamren tapped her keyboard and the music stopped. She took her headphones off and dropped them on the desk, pushing her rolling chair over to the small table Natalia sat at and turning around in one smooth motion. As expected, she brought a half-empty coffee mug with her, which she took a sip from as she studied Natalia. The dark circles beneath her violet eyes were stark, but her expression was alert and focused.

"Glad to see you made it safely, Miss Whitestar."

Natalia smiled a little, studying Yamren with the same vague concern she always did. "Thanks. It doesn't seem like much has changed around here. You're still working too much."

Yamren smiled tiredly. "That's the fourth time I've heard that today. I'm beginning to think it might be true."

She sank back in her chair as she took another sip of her coffee. "Mm. It's not all resistance business, though. I've been working with a group trying to change the list of qualifications on the work order. We're trying to get Caladian immigrants with people--children or elderly or any other reason they'd be unable to take care of themselves--dependent on them to either be excluded as well or, at the very least, given financial support so their dependents can be relocated easily to other places where they'll be taken care of." She shrugged. "I can always catch up on sleep later. This is more important."

Natalia's expression sank into grim seriousness. "The more angles we can take, the better. You're all doing great. Anything else?"

"A few other people with connections have been using every favour they're owed to try and get more important and visible people to speak up against the entire deportation order, and we've all been sending letters and emails and stuff like that to local political leaders asking them to talk to the people higher up the chain of command, hoping that eventually, we can get through to the High Aristocracy and explain exactly how much damage they're doing to Misericord." She sighed softly. "Most of the Resistance members here think we're wasting our time, and they're probably right, but we have to try."

Another sip of coffee.

"We do have a new advantage, though. Kamea was hired as a temporary administrative assistant for the Aristocracy. She'll still be running her radio broadcast so she can tell us what she finds, but she'll now also have access to more sensitive files and she'll be able to talk directly to the Aristocracy on our behalf. If she does it delicately enough, she might be able to inspire a little bit of real change."

Somehow Natalia doubted the High Aristocracy were the listening types. Still... "That's good news. Maybe we can finally make some real progress."

Yamren nodded. "At the very least, it gives us direct contact with the High Aristocracy, which could be useful in a few different ways."

"Keep sending us ideas," Natalia said with a business-like nod. "We'll talk about it in Shanoa." Then her head tipped a little. "How's Kamea holding up?"

"Truth be told, I think she's only been getting better and better since she left Misericord. A couple years away from...certain people in the resistance makes a whole lot of difference."

Natalia hummed thoughtfully and nodded, but her gaze broke downward. Her morning reports came slipping back to her. More shows of aggression. Much the same around country. "Tell her to stay safe."

Yamren smiled faintly. "I'm sure if I tell her that one more time, she's going to come back to Misericord just to tell me to stop."

"I'm just glad she's on our side," Natalia said with a tired chuckle. "All three of you. You're quite a family."

"People remind us of that constantly." Her faint smile remained in place, and the words came off lightly, but her hands shook slightly as she raised her coffee to her lips a third time.

"Well...you are," Natalia answered, her soft smile fading. "You'll let me know if you need anything?"

She nodded. "Thank you, but I'm fine."

"Alright..." Natalia pushed herself up from her chair. "Let Jason know I'm alive, will you? Time for me to catch up with the base leads and see what they've done to stir up his Royal Highness."

Yamren's eyes widened slightly. "Jason. I have a message to pass on from the other two leaders. They've voted to stop hiding Caladians on the grounds that it's putting too many of our people in danger."

Natalia stopped, silent for a second like she was checking she heard right. "What?"

"Several of our operatives were arrested by police posing as Caladians in need," Yamren explained quietly. "If things had gone just a little bit worse, one of our bases would've been discovered. As it is, we've had to completely stop operations in a couple of smaller cities. Jason and Rowan decided it was far too dangerous to continue trying to hide the Caladians."

Natalia was quiet, her face turned away. When she finally turned back, the lines across her forehead were tight, but not exactly with anger, and she didn't look at Yamren. "Well that's that," she said quietly. "I need to get a message to someone back in Shanoa. But he's on hiatus and dropped contact with the base. Is there a messenger I can send from here?"

Yamren pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Any of the Resistance members here would be perfectly willing to carry a message. There's a couple people who don't really have anything to do right now, so I can ask one of them."

She tapped her fingers together for a moment, expression going distant, then refocused her gaze on Natalia. "I assume this message is important and needs to get there fast?"

"As soon as possible."

She nodded. "I'll ask Astra, then." A faint flicker of worry crossed her expression, but she pulled the blanket higher around her shoulders and said nothing else.

Natalia drew a crinkled scrap of paper and a small pen from her pocket and stepped to a bit of clear space at one of Yamren's desks as she bent over it. "It shouldn't be dangerous. This is where she should take it..." She scribbled something, then dug absently through a couple more pockets for another paper scrap. "And this...is the message." She folded it and looked up at Yammy as she handed it over. "Make sure she burns the address before she leaves."

Yamren nodded again and tucked the note into a pocket. "Understood, Miss Whitestar. Is there anything else?"

After a brief pause, Natalia shook her head. "Nothing else. Thanks for your help."

Yamren was already pushing her chair back over to her computer screens by the time Natalia was halfway through her sentence.

"Just doing my job, Miss Whitestar," she said absently, clicking through half a dozen screens of messages and emails and a few other things fast enough to make most people dizzy. Natalia shook her head slightly and left the glowing cave alcove without interrupting with a goodbye.
  








"You, who have all the passion for life that I have not? You, who can love and hate with a violence impossible to me? Why you are as elemental as fire and wind and wild things..."
— Gone With the Wind