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Skyler forced himself to move. He abandoned all rules of concealment and ran. His heart had jumped into his throat and was trying to bust free. Panic fueled his steps, and he saw several guards trying to subdue a young boy who was now shouting for help since his whistle had been taken.
"Tony!" Skyler shouted.
"Skyler!" Tony screamed. "Skyler, help me!"
The guards turned to face Skyler, some drawing pistols. Skyler tensed. He needed a better plan.
A gunshot pounded into the side of one of the armored trucks and pinged into the shoulder of a guard, dropping him. Everyone turned quickly. Skyler saw no one.
"Get him!" A guard ordered, pointing at Skyler. "Some of you head that way."
"Run Skyler!" Tony yelled, straining against the guards that held him. "Get out of here!"
"Not without you I'm not," Skyler said. "I'll be right back!"
Skyler ran off. The guards took off after him. Skyler looked around, trying to create a plan through the adrenaline pumping in him.
As he ran around the trucks, Skyler slammed into someone. His yell was muffled and he was yanked between the trucks, restrained.
"Shut up, idiot."
Skyler felt like his chest would explode with relief. He relaxed and tried to pull away, but Wes didn't let go or loosen his grip.
"Don't. Move," Wes hissed. Skyler froze in place as the guards ran by. "I want you to get your stupid butt back over that fence right now, or so help me I will kill you and I will not feel bad about it. Move."
"What about Tony?" Skyler asked, pulling away.
"We'll do what we can," Wes replied. "Get out of here."
Skyler nodded, fighting back tears of panic. He dashed to the fence and tried to jump it, but his panic distracted him. He hauled himself over and landed in a crouch. They were losing the darkness, making it harder to hide.
"Cody!" Tony screamed. "Help!"
Skyler risked standing. Horror froze every limb as he watched Tony be dragged into the building. Cody was trying to get to him, but guards were everywhere. Tony's scream was suddenly caught off as the door closed.
Skyler started to climb back over, but Wes grabbed the back of his hoodie and yanked him off.
"I told you to run!" He roared, shoving Skyler away from the building. "Go!"
"There's nothing we can do," Wes snapped. Cody came running to them, carrying a pistol. The guards had seen them and were heading for them.
"Go, go, go, go, go!" Cody yelled. Skyler's limbs came back online and he ran, following Wes and Cody and failing at holding back the tears. They ran through the streets almost blindly, turning down alleys and circling back around.
They took shelter behind an expensive restaurant. Skyler fell on his hands and knees, his sides heaving and hurting.
"We can't go back to the hideout now," Wes panted, bending over and putting his hands on his knees. "At least not today."
"I know." Cody nodded. "I know... my word, Skyler, what were you and Tony thinking?! We told you to stay put!"
"I'm sorry," Skyler gasped, tears running down his cheeks. "We went to look inside those trucks. We saw someone get in--"
Skyler yelled in pain when Wes' foot slammed into his aching side. He fell over, curling into the fetal position.
"Stop it!" Cody put himself between them. Wes had a pained look on his face as he turned away, running his hands through his black hair.
"Tony's gone because of your stupid curiosity!" Wes yelled at Skyler, who was trying to stand up. "He's gone and there's nothing we can--"
"Shut up, Wes." Cody clapped his hand over Wes' mouth. "We all need to calm down right now. Panicking isn't what we do. We need to find a safe house and lie low for today and probably the next."
Wes shoved Cody away, tears of anger in his eyes.
"I'm sorry," Skyler choked out. "I should have been more careful and watched him."
"Yes you should have!" Wes spun around. "And because you didn't Tony is gone!"
"Wes, enough," Cody snapped. "Yelling won't help anyone. Skyler messed up, but yelling at him won't solve anything."
"Getting rid of him might," Wes spluttered, furious. "He's been nothing but trouble since he got here."
Skyler flew at Wes, rage and grief boiling up inside him. Cody grabbed him and held him back.
"Stop it!" Cody kept himself between Wes and Skyler. "Both of you leave each other alone. Wes, that was totally uncalled for. I know you're upset, man, I am too, but we can't strangle each other over it. It's not going to save Tony and it's not going to help us. Yes, they should have stayed put, but you and I shouldn't have taken them with us, either."
"That was all you, Baine." Wes glared daggers at Cody.
"I know," Cody said calmly, "and I take full responsibility for that. But right now we can't do this. We need to find a safe house and lie low. We don't have to talk to each other or anything when we get there. We just have to get there."
"What's the safe house?" Skyler asked, pressing his hand against his throbbing side.
"A place we've set up for Jumpers in case they're seen and can't make it back to the hideout," Cody replied. "Come on."
Skyler sullenly followed the older boys. His side hurt a lot, but he didn't dare complain. Cody noticed his grimacing and made them stop.
"We can't stop here," Wes said. "He'll be fine until we get there."
"Shut up, Westley," Cody snapped. Wes looked murderous. "He's hurt because of you."
"He deserved it."
Cody examined Skyler's side. It looked bruised, but there otherwise it looked fine. They had reached the busier parts of the city now, and it made the boys nervous and jumpy.
"How much farther?" Skyler asked.
"I don't know." Cody shook his head. "Usually we have a map, but we didn't bring one."
Skyler bit his lower lip to keep from panicking.
"Hey." Cody looked at him. "We're gonna be okay, bud, I promise. Just hang in there."
"This is my fault," Skyler said, finally breaking down. The adrenaline was gone, leaving him drained and terrified. "I shouldn't have convinced Tony to go with me."
"Easy, Skyler." Cody stood and pulled Skyler into a hug. "Hold it together, buddy. Just a little longer."
Skyler tried, but his panic and grief and guilt overwhelmed him. His tears fell freely.
"Skyler, look at me." Cody pulled back keeping his hands on Skyler's shoulders. "Skyler, you have to keep it together right now. We can't draw attention to ourselves--"
The boys jumped and turned quickly. A middle-aged woman stood before them, wearing jeans, a white T-shirt with a pink crocheted vest, and a messenger bag. A camera hung around her neck. Her dark brown hair was braided down her shoulder with a pink flower pin at the top.
"Hey, I know you three." Madison looked startled. "What are you doing out here?"
"We... we ran into a bit of trouble," Cody said. "But we can't talk here."
"Come with me," Madison said. "I'll take you home."
"I don't think--"
"It's safe enough." Madison smiled. "You boys look like the devil is after you."
Skyler, Cody, and Wes followed Madison back to her apartment. They piled into her car and she took a roundabout route to the old park. On the way Cody told her what had happened.
"I'm so sorry, boys," she said, her voice shaky. "Oh, that's awful... can I do anything?"
"I don't think so, Miss Carter," Cody said tiredly. "Thank you, though. You're doing enough risking yourself to take us home."
"Call me Madison." Madison smiled. "And I don't mind. I like a bit of danger now and then. Photography isn't usually a dangerous hobby, so things like this spice up my life."
At the park, the boys and Madison headed for the hideout. By now it was almost seven. Skyler felt as if he had been up all night long. Had they really been out only two hours? If Skyler hadn't been such a stupid idiot, would they have been back earlier?
When they arrived, the Jumpers on watch duty let them in, relief in their expressions.
"Kip's really mad, guys," Deanna warned. "He found out you guys snuck off--"
"Where's Tony?" Stephen asked, looking from Wes to Cody. "Wasn't he with you?"
"He... there was a problem," Cody said.
Deanna's hand went to her mouth, tears springing to her eyes. Skyler followed the boys quietly into the main cavern, where the rest of the Jumpers were talking in worried tones. When they saw Skyler and the older boys and Madison, everyone fell silent.
"Skyler!" Hannah ran to her brother. Skyler wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her shoulder and finally releasing his grief. Hannah looked startled.
"Skyler, what's wrong?" Hannah asked, holding him gently, rubbing his back soothingly. She looked at Wes. "What happened? Where did you all go?"
Kip approached, looking furious.
"Do you have any idea how stupid that was?!" He roared, making everyone flinch. "Four boys gone, no note or anything. What-- Madison?" Kip looked at Madison, startled.
"Hi." Madison gave a small wave. "I just came by to drop them off. I found them in the city."
"In the city?!" Kip looked at Wes and Cody. "Hold on, there were four of you."
"Can we talk in private?" Cody asked. Kip hesitated, then nodded. He looked at Skyler.
"Are you okay, Skyler?" He asked.
"He may need to sit this one out," Hannah said, still holding her little brother close as he cried. "If he isn't needed?"
"I think we can manage." Cody nodded, casting a warning glance at Wes. "We have the gist of it."
Hannah nodded and led Skyler to the far corner of the cavern, away from people. She sat him down and lowered herself next to him.
"Hey," she said, one arm over his shoulders. "Talk to me, little bro."
Skyler told her everything. It took a while, because Skyler struggled to control his tears, but he told her what had happened. Hannah listened silently, tears in her own eyes.
"Oh, Skyler." Hannah pulled him into her arms again, cradling him against her. "Oh, I'm so sorry..."
Kip approached them, followed by Wes and Cody. Skyler sat upright.
"Kiddo." Kip crouched down in front of Skyler. His eyes held grief, but he didn't look angry. He sighed slowly. "I don't think I need to scold or yell. I can already see that you're sorry."
Skyler nodded, fighting tears of shame.
"Cody says you looked inside one of the armored trucks," Kip continued. "Can you tell me what or who was inside?"
Skyler nodded. A feeling of nausea threatened to make him sick, but he swallowed and tried to ignore the feeling.
"Cyborgs," he said in a whisper. "Lots of them, all sitting there. It's like they weren't... alive yet, or something. They didn't look at me."
Silence fell on the group, then Claire and Grace ran over to them.
"Cody!" Claire ran to him. Cody turned and accepted her hug. "Thank goodness you're okay!"
"Hey there Skyler." Grace crouched down. "You okay too?"
Skyler nodded and sniffed, wiping his eyes.
"I'm fine too," Wes said.
"Oh, thank heavens!" Hannah held her hand to her heart dramatically before rolling her eyes. Wes narrowed his eyes at her.
"Alright, we need to figure out what to do about this," Kip said at last. "Cody, fill in Grace and Claire since they're here. I need to prepare to tell the others. Where's Madison?"
"She went home," Grace said. "She said she would try to stop by tonight to check on the boys."
Kip nodded. "Skyler, Cody, and Wes, I don't think I need to tell you that you three need to lie low for a long time. Sadly there's nothing we can do for Tony, and I won't have any of you get caught too."
Skyler nodded listlessly.
The rest of the day was hazy for Skyler. He barely listened to Kip's announcement of what had happened, and the capture of Tony. Skyler escaped into one of the dead-end tunnels, curling up against the wall, alone in the dark.
Not a month here and he had already screwed up everyone's lives. He probably got Tony killed, he got Wes stuck lying low twice, and had been in general stupidly foolish twice in the same place.
He shouldn't be here. He wasn't making anyone's life any better. He couldn't do any damage on his own, surviving in alleys like he used to with Hannah.
Hannah. She would say he was being ridiculous, but Skyler knew better. Wes was right. He had been nothing but trouble since day one.
Skyler hugged his knees up to his chest and sobbed. No one would be harmed by his actions when he left. He wouldn't hurt anyone like that again.
"Skyler?" Hannah's voice carried through the tunnel from the entrance. "Skyler, I know you're in there. Talk to me, little brother."
"Nothing much to talk about," Skyler mumbled. "I screwed up big time. I've screwed up twice."
"So?" Footsteps approached the dead-end. "We all screw up sometimes."
"Not as badly as I did," Skyler said. "I just sent Tony to his death, Hannah. I should have just stayed here, that way Tony wouldn't have come."
"You don't know that." Hannah finally reached him and knelt down in front of him. "Skyler, I know what you're thinking. I can't let you just leave."
"How did you--"
"Cody told me what Wes said," Hannah replied. "He was worried you would actually leave. Skyler... what would I do if you left? If you got caught?
"I made a promise to myself that I would take care of you. I wouldn't let you go hungry even if I had to go hungry. I refused to let you shiver in your sleep. I told myself that one day when this was all over, we would go back home. I would bring you home safe and sound. And Skyler, I can't do that if you leave. I love you, baby brother, and if anything happened to you... I wouldn't be able to live with myself."
Skyler felt Hannah touch his knee. He swallowed back another sob and put his hand over hers.
"Don't go," Hannah whispered. "We can make it through this. Ignore what Wes said. He's a jerk who doesn't know any better. Stay here, and we can figure things out. I'll be right beside you. Always."
"Promise?" Skyler murmured. He felt Hannah pull him into her arms, hugging him tight. Skyler hugged his sister back.