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Skyler landed hard on his back, the breath knocked out of him. He lay there, wheezing, as Tag stood over him.
"Again," Tag ordered.
"No thanks," Skyler squeaked. He yelled when Tag kicked him and curled up.
"Again!" Tag circled him. "You won't live long with that attitude. Get up."
Skyler winced and pushed up to his feet. Tag watched him. "Now come at me again."
Skyler hesitated, then sprang at Tag. He ducked quickly and darted to the side, jerking his elbow into Tag's side. At first he thought it worked when he connected, but then Tag grabbed his arm and shoulder and twisted, bringing him to the ground once again and pinning him there.
"You're too slow," Tag said. "If you're going to try a hit and run approach, you need to hit, and immediately get out of reach. Use the momentum of the attack to propel yourself away if you can."
"It's just my elbow, how do I escape with that?" Skyler gasped. Tag let him up, but seconds after he stood Skyler felt Tag's elbow jam into him. He twisted, but Tag was a few feet out of reach. Skyler grimaced and clutched his side.
"That is how," Tag said. "Twist away and back up just far enough so their next swing won't reach, and it leaves them wide open."
Skyler tried to comprehend this, but all he could say was "Owwwww..."
Tag rolled his eyes. "We'll take a break."
Skyler grimaced and nodded, limping away. It was late afternoon, and the Coyotes were out causing mischief or searching for clues to the location of the MIA Jumpers. Tag had kept Skyler and his friend back to train them hand-to-hand combat. Kate and Darcy were on the sidelines, watching, at an old park near the Coyote hideout.
"Good job, Skyler," Darcy said, looking up briefly from her computer.
"Thanks," Skyler wheezed, sitting down.
"Dude, he kicked your butt." Wes smirked.
"Wes, you're up," Tag said. Wes's smirk disappeared, but he stood and approached Tag. "Have you had any experience in fighting?"
"Some." Wes shrugged.
"I don't usually initiate the fight."
"You are now," Tag said sharply. "Show me."
Wes swung a fast punch. Tag blocked it and aimed a punch at Wes's stomach. Wes staggered back, and Tag advanced. Wes lunged and ducked as Tag swung his fist and jammed his shoulder into Tag's gut. Tag's knee connected with Wes's middle, near his side. Wes yelped, but Tag grabbed his arm and twisted, forcing Wes to his knees.
Hannah clapped. Wes glared at her.
"Good," Tag said. "Very--"
Wes's leg slid back, connecting with Tag's shin and knocking him off balance. Wes twisted and grabbed his arm, jerking him to the ground and pressing his knee into Tag's stomach, pinning him down.
Everyone stared. Skyler's jaw dropped. Wes's expression was hard and determined, almost angry. Tag watched him calmly, unmoving.
"Wes?" Hannah said cautiously. Wes seemed to snap out of it and looked up. He looked at Tag and stood, letting Tag up.
"Sorry," Wes muttered.
"Nothing to be sorry for," Tag said. "That was excellent. You know what you're doing, and you don't give up entirely even when your opponent thinks he has you down. That takes a lot of quick thinking."
Wes shrugged. Tag smiled and waved him to the edge. "Jonah, your tur--"
A sharp whistle cut him off. Kate and Darcy were on their feet in seconds. The Jumpers looked confused.
"Get up!" Tag ordered. "Now! Get up and ru--"
Nabbers suddenly exploded out of the streets, heavily armed. Skyler and his friends launched to their feet as the park filled with Nabbers. Skyler felt adrenaline and fear pumping through him. This was all too reminiscent of their hideout being compromised.
Gunshots ripped through the air. Skyler dove down a small side street, praying it wasn't a dead-end.
A scream of pain made him turn. He saw Aggie on the ground, her hand pressed over a bleeding wound in her leg. Skyler looked at the Nabbers. They weren't using tranquilizers. They were shooting with actual bullets. Their guns looked top-notch and fierce.
"Ethan, no!!!" Skyler screamed as Ethan fought his way back through the Nabbers to get at Aggie. He crumpled when he too was shot in the leg. "No!!!"
"Skyler, we've gotta go!" Wes shouted over the gunshots. Coyotes who had been on lookout were scrambling in all directions. Skyler burst forward, but Wes grabbed his arm and yanked him back. "Skyler, you idiot, there's nothing we can do! You'll just get yourself shot!"
"I'm not leaving them!" Skyler writhed. "Let go of me, Wes!"
Skyler yelped when Tag grabbed him by the back of his neck and pulled him down the street quickly. After they had gone a block or two, Tag pinned Skyler against a wall, hand at his throat.
"Stop it!" Tag hissed. "There was nothing we could do, Skyler. Those Nabbers were using real guns, not their guns they use to knock us out or stun us."
"I saw, I'm not an idiot!" Skyler snarled, hot, angry tears pricking his eyes. "I can't leave Ethan and Aggie! I won't lose anyone else to Horatio and his twisted cyborg scheme--" Skyler choked when Tag squeezed his throat a little. He stared at Tag, suddenly nervous.
"Calm. Down." Tag stared at him hard, and he spoke calmly and slowly. "There is nothing we can do now. I'm sorry, Skyler... they're gone."
Tears slipped down Skyler's cheeks. Tag watched him, then slowly let go. Skyler gasped and sagged against the wall. Tag gripped his shoulder to steady him. "Come on, we need to get everyone out of the Wal-Mart."
"Why?" Wes frowned.
"They have your friends," Tag said. "And your friends know where the hideout is. It doesn't matter how strong or resistant they are to pain, Horatio will do everything he can to find out where we are, how many of us there are, and how many of you Jumpers are."
Skyler's blood ran cold. He could hear Nabbers shouting as they swept the streets. They would have to move now.
"Hannah." Skyler's head jerked up. "Skipper, the others--
"She was with Kate, relax," Tag said quickly. "Kate will take care of them. She and Darcy will take them to the rendezvous. We need to get the others out of the hideout and make sure anyone already out doesn't come back."
"What can we do?" Wes asked.
"I'll show you where the rendezvous is and you get everyone there," Tag said. "I'll take care of making sure no one goes back to the hideout."
Skyler nodded and followed Tag. When they found the rendezvous, a small, boarded up warehouse at the very edge of the old sector, they ran to the hideout and tried to hurry everyone out. Conway was there, so his help in getting the Coyotes moving was a big help. Hannah wasn't there, and it made Skyler nervous.
"Groups of five, guys!" Conway shouted to the Coyotes. "Leave everything, just go! Some of you older guys and girls carry the younger ones!" Conway looked around. "Skyler! Where are your people?"
"I don't know," Skyler replied. "Hopefully with Darcy and Kate."
Conway nodded. "Let's get out of here."
Unfortunately, the Nabbers were busy sweeping the streets. Skyler heard a lot of gunshots, and sometimes a scream. Wes kept him moving to the rendezvous, but he hated leaving people behind who needed help. It made him sick and furious. He was failing more people, and he couldn't help any of them.
Wes became the leader to the warehouse. They had three younger Coyotes with them, all girls and all looking terrified.
"C'mere." Skyler knelt down to let the youngest climb on his back. "We're almost there, girls."
"Down this way," Wes hissed, waving the girls down an alley. "Hurry!" They ducked down the alley just as a group of five Nabbers came down the street. Wes clamped a hand over one girl's mouth, muffling a whimper. Skyler crouched slightly, ready to run.
A gunshot cracked through the air, making the girls squeal. The Nabbers shouted, and Wes and Skyler bolted with their group. Skyler glimpsed Tag standing behind the Nabbers, two other boys on either side of him, all holding pistols. They scattered, and the Nabbers followed in pursuit. Wes and Skyler and the girls got away safely, and made it to the warehouse.
The warehouse interior was full of kids and old, empty metal shipping crates, like the kind you would see on semi-trucks. Coyotes stood around them, and some were even on top. Everyone was talking worriedly, fear on their faces.
"You see Hannah anywhere?" Skyler asked Wes.
"Here she comes--"
Skyler nearly fell over when Hannah ran at him, hugging him. He hugged her tightly, relief washing over him. "You're okay... are the others with you?"
Hannah nodded. "Skipper and Jonah are fine. Darcy and Kate got us here a while ago. We couldn't save Ethan or Aggie..."
Skyler hugged her again to hide his tears. Hannah held him close, as if she knew about the tears anyway.
"How many Coyotes are here?" Wes asked.
"We've counted seventy," Hannah said. "They come in twos or threes, mostly... any sign of Conway?"
"He was at the hideout last we saw," Skyler replied. "Helping the others get out."
"Skyler!" Darcy ran over. "Wes! You guys are okay!"
"Yeah." Skyler nodded. "Thanks for getting our friends here."
"That was all Kate." Darcy smirked. "I just held the littlest one's hand."
"Thanks," Skyler said again with a smile.
A few more Coyotes appeared, bringing their number to seventy-eight, before darkness fell. Conway was still missing, and Tag hadn't come either. Kate called for complete silence in the warehouse, and the voices hushed. Skyler found a small opening higher up where he could look out at the street, but nothing moved. There were no more gunshots. Everything was still, as if nothing had even happened.
Skyler jumped when he heard the coo of a pigeon, and jumped again when he heard another one from inside the warehouse. He twisted to see Kate making the bird call. She glanced at him with a small smile and headed down to the ground floor. Skyler looked out his opening to see three people hurrying toward the warehouse. One was limping.
Coyotes started whispering among themselves as the new arrivals entered. It was Tag and the two boys who distracted the Nabbers for Skyler and Wes.
"What happened?" Kate demanded as Tag eased down, favoring his right leg.
"I was shot," Tag grunted. "Is everyone here?"
"Not everyone, no," Kate murmured. "Just keep still."
"Hey." Tag spotted Skyler as he approached. "You all make it okay?"
"Yeah." Skyler smiled. "Thanks to you. You saved our butts back there."
Tag smirked. "Good. Is Conway here?"
"We haven't seen him," Kate said. "He was back at base last. Now shut up and hold still. Skyler, help me."
After Tag was safely resting, Kate sent Skyler and two other Coyotes on a headcount. They were missing a little over fifteen Coyotes. This dampened everyone's already low spirits. Many wanted to go out and search, but they all knew it would be too dangerous. The Nabbers were probably still out there. They had gotten out of the hideout, but they went out too soon while the Nabbers were prowling.
The Jumpers had their own losses to grieve. Losing Ethan and Aggie... that was almost too much. All the running and adrenaline hadn't left them much time to think about it, but now that things had calmed down a little, the shock hit them full force. Grace cradled Skipper in her arms while the girl cried, and Wes went off to an empty part of the warehouse, with Hannah following him. Skyler felt a bit jealous Hannah went after Wes, but after a while he didn't mind so much. When he was younger he would have wanted her nearby, but now, it gave him time to grieve and bring himself back under control.
But that was easier thought than done. Skyler found a high up place, lots of time of jumping and climbing fences making it easy to access, and sat in the shadows. He tried to stop the tears, but he eventually curled in the corner, unable to dam up the grief. He sobbed, and shoved his mouth in the crook of his elbow, his eyes squeezing shut.
He had lost more Jumpers. Ethan and Aggie had been among the Jumpers he joined up with to help rescue the others with Cody. They had kept an eye out for him. And now he couldn't even protect them.
What would they do now?