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Someone was brushing his hair back gently, like his mother used to do on those early mornings when he had to go to school and had stayed up too late. Skyler mumbled sleepily and rolled over, plopping his face in his folded arms. A quiet laugh accompanied a gentle nudge.
"Wake up, sleepyhead."
"Nooo," Skyler moaned. "I've become one with the bed. Do not disturb me. I will lose its trust."
"I'm sure the mattress will understand," Hannah laughed. "Get up. People are showing up in here anyway, so you can't sleep."
A pillow slammed into Skyler's back. He yelled and twisted just in time to get a face-full of pillow. "Stop it! I'm awake!"
Wes stood over him with Skipper, both armed with pillows.
"One more?" Wes offered.
"No," Hannah laughed. Wes turned and whipped his pillow at Ethan, who was being roused by Aggie. Ethan, however, roared and lunged for Wes, and sent Wes scrambling away.
"You slept well." Hannah smiled as Skyler stretched before sitting up. "I've been trying to wake you up for the past ten minutes."
"Seriously?" Skyler ruffled his hair, blinking sleepily. "I did sleep well, though. It was amazing."
"It was." Hannah grinned. "Your arm okay?"
"It's fine." Skyler rotated it easily.
"Conway sent a message out earlier," Hannah told him. "Wes picked the old playground to meet at. We're shooting for this afternoon, but if she doesn't show then, we'll meet her at lunchtime tomorrow."
"Sounds good." Skyler nodded. Something that smelled hot and delicious wafted past Skyler's nose, and his eyes widened. "Is that...?"
"Pancakes!" Skipper said. "Real pancakes! To match the real mattress!"
"I've died." Skyler felt overwhelmed. "I'm dead and I've gone to Heaven."
"Not yet you haven't," Hannah laughed. "These Coyote people know how to live the fugitive life."
"They sure do know how to live, at any rate," Wes said, returning when he had realized Ethan had gone back to bed. "Ethan, get up! Pancakes have your name on them-- my word, is that coffee?!"
"No. Way." Hannah looked up and sniffed. "Oh, it is."
"You poor souls," Conway chuckled, coming over to them. "I didn't realize it had been that bad for you."
"Out of the way I need coffee." Wes stumbled past. Hannah was right behind him. Skyler laughed so hard his side began to hurt.
"Do all meals look like this?" Skyler asked as he pushed himself up. He and Conway followed Aggie and Skipper to one of the many sources of pancakes.
"Sometimes." Conway shrugged. "Horatio thinks the Jumpers are gone, so he's not as fierce in keeping an eye out, so we can slip in and buy food and coffee and things. His goons have gotten worse, but we manage."
"Nabbers?" Skyler asked.
"If that's what you call them." Conway shrugged. "Grab some breakfast and follow me. There are some people you should meet."
Once Skyler had a plateful of syrupy pancakes, he followed Conway across the cavern to a campfire with only a few people. One of them was bent over an actual laptop, her dirty-blonde, pink-highlighted hair shielded her face from view.
"Darcy," Conway said, tapping the girl's head, which popped up and looked at him with sharp eyes past her small nose. "Darce, this is Skyler. The Jumper who arrived yesterday."
"Yup," Darcy said, unimpressed. "I was there. Hi."
"Hi." Skyler nodded to her. "You have a laptop. I haven't seen those in ages."
"This? It's old. But it does what I need." Darcy shrugged.
"Darcy is a computer wizard," Conway said. "She was being hunted for hacking into the post office computers."
"You did what?" Skyler stared.
Darcy shrugged. "It was easy. I'm testing out the security at the mayor's place, but it's tough stuff."
"Wow." Skyler suddenly felt extremely inept. "How old are you?"
"Fifteen," Darcy said proudly. "Started when I was twelve at school."
"That is awesome." Skyler grinned.
"Can't make a decent pancake though," a boy near her muttered.
"Shut up, Tag," Darcy snapped, whipping her head around sharply. "You were duly warned and you know it."
"At ease," Conway chuckled. "Skyler, this is Tag. Nobody knows what his real name is, but he's our guy for combat."
"Hey." Tag nodded. Skyler recognized him as the boy in the long coat from last night. His dark hair was cut very short. He looked almost stronger than Ethan. "Nobody needs to know my name, Conway. It's better that way."
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"Sure it is." Conway smirked. "These two help run security here. We been able to hook up traps with Darcy's tech knowledge, and Tag trains the Coyotes to fight and defend themselves out in the field."
"Nice." Skyler grinned. "I don't think we ever had much technology, unless we rolled out a TV with a movie on weekends."
Darcy scoffed. "We can roll out the TV anytime here. I've been able to get almost everything to run off of batteries, or hand cranks. Sometimes even solar powered on the roof of the store." Skyler was impressed, but Darcy made sound as if it were the easiest thing in the world.
"You'll get used to her," Conway murmured, leading Skyler back to his friends. "I'll leave you to your breakfast. Tag will come by to take some or all of you back to wherever you were holed up."
"Thanks." Skyler nodded.
"Hi," Hannah said as he sat down by her. "So what's next?"
"We grab our stuff from the garage," Skyler said. "Hannah, they have power here! They have a girl who's brilliant with computer stuff--"
A forkful of pancakes entered his mouth.
"Eat," Hannah laughed. "I got you some coffee too."
"You did?" Skyler looked at the mug she offered him in dismay.
"No, it's hot cocoa," Hannah giggled. "You dork, did you really think I'd give you coffee?"
"Yes." Skyler ducked and laughed when she tried to hit him.
Skyler, Ethan, Jonah, and Wes went back to the garage. The girls had planned to go, but when Darcy informed them of the availability of baths, not even Aggie could be convinced to go. Skyler had a hard time keeping the rest of his friends from bailing. While a bath sounded amazing, they had work to do.
It didn't take long to gather up their things. Tag and Kate came along to help pack anything worth salvaging, but there was very little to take. Only their clothing and a few crude weapons were packed away, and they were soon on their way back to the Wal-Mart, where the boys found baths waiting for them. A shower would have been better, but Darcy forlornly said she hadn't been able to work out that yet.
Skyler felt like a new person after he had cleaned up. He was finally rid of the dirt and grime a simple wash hadn't been able to remove. A soft mattress, hot food, and a bath was almost too good to be true. But it was true. It was real, and it gave him a boost of hope. Maybe they would be able to fix things. They had found new friends who were willing to help. Just maybe, they could do this. They could take down Horatio and find their friends.
After a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches (another heavenly creation the Jumpers had forgotten the taste of) Skyler and his friends headed for the old playground. They scattered and hid down small alleys, watching the park closely.
Soon a familiar car rolled carefully into the playground's small parking lot, and a familiar, dark-haired woman stepped out. She was dressed in jeans and a button-up denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up. As usual, she had her bag slung over her shoulder, and her camera around her neck. Skyler's throat almost closed up at the sight her as Madison Carter snapped pictures of the playground, glancing around often.
Madison jumped and turned. Skyler stepped forward, and Madison gasped.
"Skyler," she breathed. "My word, it really is you. I got the note and I couldn't believe it. I can't believe you're here. You're alive."
"Yeah." Skyler grinned. "I am. So are a few others."
The other fugitive Jumpers came out of hiding, and Madison hugged them all, even Wes. She cried, and Skyler couldn't deny he did, too. Madison asked so many questions it was hard to keep up, but Skyler and his friends were able to answer them all.
"You haven't heard anything about the others, have you?" Jonah asked.
"Nothing." Madison shook her head. "It's like they were never here. And nobody will believe Horatio is behind it. I can't get anyone to buy my articles about it anymore." She looked at the Jumpers. "But now I know some of you are alright. And you've grown so much, all of you!"
Skyler grinned. "That tends to happen."
"Not when it makes me feel old." Madison hugged him again. "So you guys have found some Jumper-wannabes to live with?"
"More or less." Skyler shrugged. "The Coyotes seems like good people. We'll be okay. We just wanted to make sure you were too. We hadn't heard anything of you until last night."
"I'm fine." Madison smiled. "I'll keep my ears open for news on the rest. Maybe I'll pay a visit to the City Hall to interview people on life as an intern there and see if I can snoop around."
"Just be careful," Ethan said. "We don't want to lose you too."
"I never get lost." Madison winked. "Unless you count the time I went on my first date and couldn't find the theater."
* * * * *
Kip jerked when a needle punctured his arm. He looked up groggily to see a blue fluid be pushed out of the syringe. A cool relief washed over him, and he groaned, sagging against the chains that held him upright. A familiar blonde head came into view.
"Claire," he gasped.
"You have five minutes to start talking before Uncle Horatio comes back," Claire said. "He's losing his patience with you."
"I'm not saying anything," Kip panted. "If he hasn't found them these past two years, he won't find them now. They could be anywhere--"
"Claire," Horatio's voice made Kip stiffen. "Don't you have your violin lesson now?"
"Yes sir," Claire said. "You're back early."
"My phone call ended sooner than expected." Horatio kissed his niece's head as she passed him. The door closed behind her, leaving the two men alone.
"Now, Mr. Oliver." Horatio selected a small, sharp knife from a nearby metal table before approaching his prisoner. "What were you saying about the escaped Jumpers?"