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It took them four days just to reach the other end of the city. They had to wait out a Nabber sweep, which cost them a day, just to be on the safe side. They didn't resume their search until they passed the general area of the Coyote hideout. The trio searched the area outside of the city, foraging or hunting for food as they searched.
Skyler's mood didn't improve much. He was sullen and moody, and eventually Jonah and Grace avoided talking to him at all. He knew he was being a jerk, but he couldn't help it. He was tired and frustrated, and it didn't look like there was anything good waiting for them.
On the fifth day, they had almost made it to the northeast corner of the city. There weren't many roads around here, but sparse forest. The terrain was hilly, however, which could provide some cover.
"Skyler, we're gonna have to go back," Jonah said as they wandered away from the city, exploring a very old and very overgrown cemetery. The fencing had been piled with trash, rusted metal, and storm-torn trees and boughs.
Skyler sighed tiredly, slumping against a tall grave marker. The cool breeze helped calm him, but he didn't feel any better.
"Skyler?" Grace called. "Come on, Jumper, let's hit the streets home."
Skyler sighed again and pushed off the gravestone. A strong hand suddenly gripped his shoulder by his neck hard, making him gasp. Grace yelped for Jonah in alarm, and Skyler felt the barrel of a pistol press against his head as a strong hand wrapped around his neck, making it hard to breathe.
"Hey!" Jonah cried out. "Let him go!"
"Our land, our rules, boyo." the man holding Skyler at gunpoint said. "Now do as we say, and your friend won't get a hole blasted through his head."
Grace looked ready to panic. Skyler strained at the man's arm, trying to steady his breathing. Which was hard when you had a gun to your temple, but trying was better than letting his mind focus on fear.
Hannah hadn't been in the poor district in months. She could never stand the smell, and she had passed out the last time she had gone there. She and her friends hadn't had the special masks before, since those had been at the old hideout, so searching that district for their captured friends had been minimal.
Today they had the masks, but they weren't searching for Jumpers. They were visiting a friend of Wes's. She and Kate were going with, and they would be attempting to get this "friend" of his to help them stake out the new facility Horatio had started.
Wes hadn't been thrilled at the idea Kate was going along, but he couldn't argue she would be helpful if things went south. Hannah understood why Wes didn't want Kate along, besides the fact he had always disliked her since day one. Visiting someone from his past would be painful. No one but Hannah and Kip knew about it, and confronting it with Kate around would be awkward.
Hannah held her breath for a few seconds, letting the metal canister attached to the mask filter the air for another few breaths. They walked carefully through the streets, alleys full of garbage, and gross puddles in the potholes.
Wes tapped her shoulder and pointed. Hannah turned to see a short alley. "That's where we found Skyler, when you guys first came." Wes smiled a little. "Kid was terrified of us. Cody gave him his mask to breathe, and Skyler pitched a fit."
Hannah smiled slightly. It seemed so long ago now, joining the Fence Jumpers. They had been just two kids running from home caught out on a Nabber sweep. Hannah had tried to keep them away from Skyler by pushing him down a hill into the poor district and running off to draw them away. Then she met Cody, and he went to find Skyler. He hadn't even known either of them, and he was willing to risk his own neck for her kid brother.
Cody had saved Skyler's life more than once after that, and he had kind of become Skyler's hero. It had taken Hannah long days to help Skyler recover from the shock and grief once it had caught up to him. After they had jumped off the train and found their little mechanic's garage, Skyler fell apart. But it had built him back up again, and now he was teaching kids how to jump fences. It was his turn to be the one kids looked up to. And he was good at it. Hannah admired his strength. She wanted something like that. She wanted to be strong for others when everything looked really crappy.
"Hannah," Wes said, pulling her from her thoughts. "This way, daydreamer."
Hannah followed him and Kate down a narrow street to a dilapidated trailer home. Hannah reached into her pocket for her switchblade, scanning the surrounding houses, as Wes pulled off his mask and went up the two stairs to the tiny porch and knocked on the door, then scratched at it with his sneaker. Then they waited.
Without warning, the door burst open. Kate and Hannah snapped open their knives, and Wes jumped back. A huge man stood in the door, wearing jeans and a green muscle shirt. His dark skin nearly blended in to the dim interior of the trailer home, and his dark eyes locked onto Wes.
"Well." he crossed his arms. "How much money do you owe, Hawk, and which one of them is the mother? I ain't helpin' you if it's both of 'em."
"What is it you want?" Jonah asked, trying to keep his voice even. "Can you just lower the gun?"
"Hand over your food and cash," the man barked. "Now!"
Skyler winced as the pistol pressed harder against his head. He choked when the arm tightened. Jonah backed up, swinging his backpack across the short space of grass between him and Skyler. Another man hurried forward and rummaged through the bag. His clothes were soiled and torn, and his beard seemed to sprawl untamed as much as his hair did.
Spots danced in Skyler's vision. He gasped, but only a strangled click came out.
"Let him go!" Grace pleaded. "You're hurting him!"
"He's fine," the man said. "Toss yours over too. Or bring it over. You're a pretty thing."
Anger burst through Skyler, and he tried to twist away. The arm tightened, and the cold pistol muzzle dug into his head. Skyler coughed, unable to breathe now. His legs buckled and he clawed at the man's arm. Grace tossed her bag over, and it too was searched.
"What's this?" the man pulled a very wrinkled magazine clipping out of the bag. Skyler recognized it as one of Madison's articles. The man skimmed it and looked at Grace. "You this Madison who writes these?"
"What? No." Grace shook her head. "She's a friend of ours, though. Have you read her articles?"
"Yeah." the man nodded. "Is it true?"
Blackness closed in on Skyler, and he didn't hear Grace reply. His tense muscles relaxed as he slipped into unconsciousness.
Something shoved against his chest. Skyler coughed and his brain realized he could breathe. He gasped sharply, inhaling and coughing.
"Easy, easy!" Jonah's voice came through the fog. Skyler coughed again, grabbing at the first solid thing his hands found, which happened to be Jonah's arms. "Easy, Skyler. You're okay. Relax and breathe."
"I told you!" Grace was shouting. "He couldn't breathe!"
"--appened?" Skyler rasped, looking around. What was he doing on the ground?"
"Don't try to talk," Jonah said. "That guy had you in a tight headlock. You were unconscious for a few seconds." He gently pushed Skyler back down on the grass. Skyler inhaled slowly, savoring in the ability to do so.
"Sorry, boyo." a man looked at him. "Didn't mean to knock you out."
Skyler nodded and coughed again. Jonah gave his shoulder a squeeze. Skyler pushed himself slowly upright, swaying a little and catching hold of Jonah for support.
"You three are friends of this Carter woman?" the man asked. Skyler nodded, messaging his throat a little. "Is what she says true? I've read her articles in that new fancy magazine. That's some worrying stuff."
"It is." Jonah nodded. "Skyler's seen it firsthand. He and Grace both were in the hands of the mayor, and he pretty much told them."
Skyler got to his feet. Jonah stood beside him, watching him carefully. Skyler looked at the man. He had holstered his pistol. The backpacks were by his feet, and at least a dozen other men stood behind him. All dressed in threadbare clothing and wild hair.
"Anything being done about it?" the man asked.
"We're working on that," Grace said. "We three have been looking for a place that we and our friends can stay. It's not safe in the old sector anymore."
The man nodded. He looked at Skyler.
"I know you got no reason to trust us," he said, "but we'd like to help. This cemetery is big, and we can fortify it. Far enough from the city so no one would know."
Skyler stared. "You're serious?"
"Serious as I was putting the gun to your head," the man said. Skyler swallowed and nodded. The man held out his hand. "Victor Maron. Now come over a get yourselves a bite and we can talk."
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Hannah blinked. She leaned over to Kate. "One of us looks--"
"Neither," Wes said. He grinned. The man in front of him grinned and pulled Wes into a tight hug. Hannah was sure the man could crack a rib with just a hug.
"Where have you been, kid?" the man asked. "You went off one night and I never saw you around again."
"It's... It's a long story..." Wes said quietly. He cleared his throat. "Girls, this is Fred James. Fred, this is Hannah and Kate."
"Hello." Fred nodded to them. "Well, come in. Don't stand out in these streets. My boy and I have to talk."
"Your boy?" Hannah repeated as she and Kate entered the cramped trailer home. It was nicely kept, but still not a place Hannah wanted to be in. Fred closed the door after them. She was very glad Wes considered him a friend, and that Kate was there.
"Yeah." Fred nodded. "I knew Hawk's brother, and I looked after his kid brother when he died. He's always had a place to crash here if he needed it." he looked at Wes. "But then he disappeared, and I never knew what happened to him."
"Sorry." Wes shuffled his feet. "I... had stuff I needed to do..."
Fred looked at him. "You tried to overdose, didn't you?"
Wes didn't reply. Fred nearly swore. "Hawk, you idiot--"
"Don't, Fred," Wes snapped. "I was an idiot, yeah, but someone found me... He took me in and straightened me out."
Fred stared hard at Wes. "You didn't think to let me know? I was worried."
"I'm sorry," Wes mumbled. "I wasn't exactly in the right mind to let you know... then things came up..." Wes looked at Fred. "But now we need your help."
"What's wrong?" Fred asked.
"You hear about the mayor's new correctional facility?"
"The guy who saved me is in there," Wes said. "But he hasn't done anything wrong, and he's probably being tortured. The mayor's a jerk, and we need to take him down. We need to get someone on the inside of that facility, or at least stake out the place for my group to go in and get him out."
"Your group?" Fred shifted. "What've you gotten yourself into, kid?"
Wes considered for a minute. He looked at Hannah and Kate. Hannah saw something like ferocity in his eyes. An anger that had been boiling beneath the surface and was ready to rise up and attack full force.
Wes looked back at Fred. "A war. And we need every dang man we can get."
Fred's expression didn't change. He watched Wes thoughtfully. Wes stared right back.
"You've grown up, kid," the man said at last. "Now pull out a seat for the ladies and we'll talk. I hope there's a plan behind the tough-guy attitude."