1.2: Amber

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Amber sang to her sister, knowing she couldn’t understand. Hear, maybe. But not understand. “Los pollitos dicen, pío, pío, pío.” Jessenia’s hair flowed through Amber’s hands as she braided it. Her strawberry perfume was gone, and her hair dry. At least with the window open, the hospital smell had somewhere to go. “Cuando tienen hambre, cuando tienen frío.” Dusk painted an orange blush across the room. Amber missed her sister’s eyes, how they would’ve shone in that light. “La gallina busca, el maíz y el trigo,” she continued, finishing her sister’s hair and laying it across the pillow. “Les de la comida, y les presta abrigo.” With a sigh, Amber sat by Jessenia’s side, rubbing the girl’s cheek with her thumb. “Bajo sus dos alas, acurrucaditos.” Her smile wavered. That’s her favourite part, she thought. “Hasta el otro día, duermen los pollitos.” She leaned to kiss Jessenia on the forehead.

A knock at the door. “Can I come in?” a girl said, soft voice purring in Spanish. Juliette, no doubt.

Amber answered without looking. “Yeah. Hey, Yuli.” She tucked her hair behind her ears and stretched as she stood. “How are you?” she asked, pulling the shorter girl into a hug and cheek kiss.

“I’m okay.” Juliette smiled. “How’s Yessi?”

“All right, more or less.” She pulled up a chair and gestured to it, then sat on the bed. “She missing anything exciting at school?”

“Not really. Well—” she looked at the ceiling, as if expecting an answer. “Shane got magic.”

Amber scrunched her face up in thought. “Which one’s Shane?”

Juliette giggled. “Yessi dated him for a while last year.” She shrugged. “You always ask about Yessi’s friends. About school.”

“Hey, if she can’t gossip, somebody else ought to do it for her.” Jessenia was warm to the touch. “Even if I’m not very good at it. I try.”

“You’re a good sister.” Juliette smiled.

“And you’re a good friend. Yessi’s lucky to have you.”

The two shared a silence for some few minutes, until Amber’s phone rang. Kelly.

“Hey,” she said, switching to English.

“Amber.” Kelly spoke in quick breaths. “Hey. You have a minute?”

Wonder what this is about. “Yuli,” she said, covering her phone. “Watch her a minute, okay?” The girl nodded. Back to English for Kelly. “Sure. What’s up?”

Kelly rambled as Amber slid out of Jessenia’s room and over to a window. “I need your help with something. And, uh, I want to go legit with this, so I’ll need everybody to agree on it if we’re going to do it. Otherwise there’s no way UNGC will approve.”

A courtyard opened up beneath the window. Glass-paned walkways surrounded it, reflecting flares of sunset gold. Amber twirled her hair around her finger. “Yeah?” she finally said, turning to lean against the windowsill. “What’s this plan, then?”

“McTavish was spotted in the Snarl. Reports coming in of his gang in the abandoned docks.”

Amber answered with a brief hum. The Victorians, led by the Gentleman Sword—not a Crush gang. They belonged across the ocean, in Queensdawn. Weird. She listened to Kelly’s breath on the line. “Do you know why?”

“Huh?” Kelly said. “I mean—I don’t know. But he’s here.”

“Okay.” Amber nodded, watching other visitors cross the walkways. “Where did you get this info?”

An audible sigh from the captain. “Madi told me. Look, I want to go after him. Brand’s in. Haven’t called Hana yet. What do you think?”

She scraped her fingers along the sill, dragging a magic net around several loose nuts and bolts. “I think,” she began, examining the dust now on her hands. “I’d like to put McTavish down, after what he did.” A door closed, and Juliette wandered into the hallway. “And I think he’s dangerous. He doesn’t belong here.”

“So—you’re in?”

Juliette’s golden eyes sparkled in the setting sun, so bright compared to her dyed-black hair. She adjusted her glasses and squeezed her fingers into her jeans pockets. Through the closed door, Jessenia slept—maybe dreaming, maybe not.

Amber closed a fist. These are the people I have to protect. “Yeah,” she said. “Call Hana. I’m in.”

/ / /

Getting Hana in on the plan didn’t take much. Looking at her now, Amber wondered how she even functioned. She swaggered into the office, fiery hair bouncing and cascading to her natural rhythm. Gorgeous, Amber thought. It seemed odd that she and Kelly were related—not that Kelly wasn’t cute in her own way. Their fathers were brothers, both immigrants from what remained of Japan. Kelly’s mother had been Japanese, too, but Hana’s mother was vividly Scottish. They shared wide eyes and a vulpine affectation to the lines of their face, but Hana was pale as snow where Kelly’s tan was closer to Amber’s. Seeing the two side-by-side as they were now, the relation was obvious. Hana, though, stood taller and curvier. She leaned on her cousin, using her shoulder as an armrest.

Amber sighed with crossed arms as the two cousins bantered with the secretary. She could only analyze her teammates for so long. At least the wait allowed for admiration of the girls’ shapes. Convenient.

Beside her, Brand nodded off. The cool air in the office encouraged sleepiness. Rain pattered against the window, which looked over Wilder Bay. The clouds made for a dark afternoon. The secretary, a young man who seemed starstruck over Kelly and Hana, read out available dates for a meeting. Mr. Vinier—the local handler—would be busy. He had other teams to manage. More important teams. What had Dragon Saffron even done in the last year?

“Come on,” Kelly said, disengaging from her cousin to lean on the counter. “We’re solid. Maxime knows us. We can’t wait until next month.”

The secretary shrugged. “I’m sorry, Captain Rose. I can’t make those kind of calls. I’ll let Mr. Vinier know you’re here, but that’s about all I can do.”

Great. More waiting. Kelly and Hana continued arguing for some time, which Amber droned out with her own thoughts. How long had it been since Jessenia’s accident? Every spare braincell repeated on a loop about her sister. The five-month mark would come up soon. When the captain roused her attention, Amber shook her head. “Qué?” It took her a second to correct herself. “Sorry, what?”

“Max made time for us,” she said.

“Oh?”

Sure enough, Maxime Vinier stood by the desk, hands folded behind his back. Light glinted across the deep brown of his balding forehead. He said something to—who is that? Amber rubbed her eyes. Oh. Him. Captain Yancy November, from squad Byzantium Black. Tall, average in the face, very serious.

“Good to see you, Dragons,” Maxime said, holding a hand out. The soothing bass of his voice came out tired, almost begrudgingly. Kelly shook his hand. “I have some spare time between meetings. I can see you quickly.”

Amber rose and stretched herself out, mewling as her knuckles cracked. Yessi would want me to get more sleep. She followed into Maxime’s office and stood to Kelly’s right, at-ease. “We apologize for the inconvenience, sir,” Amber said, before Hana could say something out of line. She nodded at Kelly.

“We have a mission proposal,” the captain said.

Maxime lumbered himself into his chair and stared at them. “Pitch this to me, then. You haven’t had an official mission in months.”

Amber exchanged a brief glance with Kelly. That’s not a good sign.

The captain took a deep breath. “As I’m sure you know, sir, James McTavish and the Victorians have been seen in the abandoned docks area, and—”

Maxime lifted a stone block of an eyebrow. “No.”

“Sir?”

“You want to go after them. I understand, but I know my answer. It’s a no, Captain.”

Amber looked away, tracing her gaze along Maxime’s bookshelves.

“Sir?” Kelly asked, again. “May I ask why?”

He leaned back, rapping his fingers along his armrests. “First of all, because that’s the exact mission I just approved Byzantium Black for. That’s what Captain November and I were talking about, just now.” He clasped his hands. “Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I don’t think you’re fit for it.”

Amber tensed, and she bit the inside of her lip. No. We’re good enough. Don’t give us that shit.

“You,” Maxime continued, “all have a very personal experience with McTavish and his gang. An experience that could lead to disruptions of protocol.”

“Sir,” Amber cut in, turning her attention over. “If I may? You know we’re professionals. You can trust us.”

“I don’t think so, Lieutenant. I trust you, personally, to be professional. But not the others. Least of all Ranger Brand, who has only been in training for half a year.”

Amber expected Kelly to say something, but it was Hana who spoke. “What did we do?” she said, arms crossed. “We used to be your star children.”

“Stand down, Lieutenant. You’re a diva, not a soldier.” Maxime sighed. “Dragon Saffron. I put up with you because I have to. Because you have a reputation, and because people like you.”

This is going well. Amber turned to Brand, who fidgeted in the corner of the room.

“We’re good at what we do,” Kelly said. Amber saw the captain’s fingers digging into her palms behind her back.

He nodded. “You were, once. But you’re out of practice.” He gestured across the room. “Lieutenant Rose missed the bus to be a pop star, so she’s saving the world instead. And Ranger Brand is so green that if he started bleeding it would look like Christmas.” Maxime’s face went sour. “And you, Captain. You’re out of shape, you’ve got a gimpy arm, and you’ve recruited precisely one new member in twelve months. You do realize, Captain, that UNGC squads typically have seven to ten rangers.” He leaned in, apparently enjoying Kelly’s speechlessness. “Not four. And out of the bunch of you, Lieutenant Sorrel is the only one who thinks like a soldier.”

Amber raised an eyebrow at her name. “Ah, thank you, sir—?” She mentally slapped herself.

He cocked a grin. “If I were in charge of these things, I’d put her on Byzantium Black.” He stared them down, then waved a hand. “But I’m not. If you want to waste your time with the Dragons, Sorrel, that’s your decision.”

Amber stepped back a bit. She bit her tongue, feeling the daggers of Maxime’s eyes. What’s he trying to accomplish? “This team is my family, sir. I couldn’t work with anybody else.” Kelly caught her eye, and the two smiled at each other.

The captain turned to Maxime. “There’s nothing we can do to change your mind, sir?”

He answered with a grin. “No. Consider yourselves under orders to not pursue James McTavish. That’ll be all.”

Final, Amber thought. Maxime had a way of doing that: shifting the power dynamic so he was always in charge. She respected that. He may have been unpleasant, but he was good at his job.

Hana left the room first, tailed by Brand. The door creaked on its hinges. Kelly stayed put, making a hard line with her mouth. “Captain, come on,” Amber said, taking her hand.

“Yeah,” she answered. “Let’s go.”

/ / /

At the very least, Guardian Tower wasn’t far from the nearest Code Bread. It only took Amber and the others some ten minutes to walk from Maxime’s office to the coffee shop. Amber and Kelly didn’t say a word the entire way over, but Brand and Hana did enough talking for the four of them. They must be hooking up, Amber thought, observing the talkative pair. It certainly wasn’t coincidence that Brand walked a step behind Hana. The way she walked in those tight jeans, Amber couldn’t blame him. She smirked and looked away.

They knew the procedure for Code Bread: Hana ordered everything, and the other three found a table. It was a silent process, as Hana knew each member’s order by heart. They took a table in the corner, between two windows. As soon as they sat down, Kelly collapsed forward into her arms. Poor thing. Amber placed her hand over the captain’s. “Brand,” she said, turning to him. “Go wait in line with Hana.”

“Hm?” He tilted his head.

“Go, Ranger.” She punctuated it with the ‘yes, that’s an order’ eyebrow raise.

“Thanks.” Kelly’s voice came muffled through her arms. She groaned and lifted her head up. “You know, part of me isn’t surprised.”

Amber locked her fingers between Kelly’s. “Hey,” she said, nearly laying across the table to whisper. “If you want to go under-the-radar with this, I’m with you.” With a smile, she fell back to her seat. “Family is everything to me. And this team is my family, too.”

“Thank you, again.”

Amber studied the woman’s body. Petite, slender, athletic. Her muscles hadn’t seen much real use in a long time, though. She knows it, too. Kelly wore baggier clothing to hide her lack of definition. Amber missed the captain’s long hair, and her signature leggings-and-tube-top combo. Not only because she looked great in it, but because she glowed in it. It helped her image. In that, her scar looked fierce, ferocious. Kelly cultivated a reputation as a swordsman—cashing in on her background by using a katana was a good PR move on that front. Lately, though, in her cargo pants and hoodies, she was just a small woman with a big scar.

Amber snapped out of her analysis when Kelly grinned, then spoke. “You zoning out again?”

She returned with a dopey smile. “Qué?

Following a pause, Kelly pushed her brows together. “About what Maxime said… About putting you on Byzantium Black.”

“Please,” Amber said, rolling her eyes. “He’s just trying to rile you up even more. The man doesn’t like us, I can tell you that.”

Kelly looked away, over to the counter, where Hana prattled off their orders. Ambient chatter filled the shop. “Have you eaten yet today?”

“Hm?” Amber twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “Oh. No, actually.”

“You should get something here.”

“I’ll be fine,” she said, grinning. “I’m already a little chubby anyway.”

“You still need to eat.”

Hana and Brand appeared, ferrying a tray of coffee to the table. Amber found hers by colour. “Hey,” Hana said, snuggling into the seat next to Kelly. “So, what’s the plan?” Her voice flowed to a natural music, even in a hush.

Brand sat next to Amber. He leaned, draping an arm over the back of his seat and letting his thigh brush against Amber’s. She denied him the contact. “Well,” he said, “looks like we can’t chase him officially.”

“That’s too bad for the officials.” Hana flicked her hair. “We’re not going to let him get away, are we?”

Kelly shook her head. “Not a chance.” She shared a glance with each member of the team. “I want to make absolute sure that we’re all okay with this.” Nods all around. “Then we’re going after him. Official or not. For Avery, for Ryker, for Victor. And for Madi.”

“We’ll be competing with the BBs,” Amber chimed in. She sipped and savoured her coffee. “They’ll be working in the same territory. If they see us running around, we should assume they’ll tell UNGC.”

“Which is, of course, bad for us,” Brand said. He swished a hand through his hair. “I can’t say I want to be chewed out for this. It’s worth it, I think, to take McTavish down, but I still don’t want to be chewed out for it.”

Amber shook her head. “No, it’s worse than that. Maxime told us we’re not allowed to do this mission. He’s our commanding officer. We do this? We’re disobeying a direct order.” She drew a breath. “Regardless of how it plays out, if we get caught, I guarantee you we get court-martialed. We could easily get DD’d for this.”

Kelly nodded along. “I need everyone to be okay with that.”

“Let’s be honest,” Hana said. “Dragon Saffron is a dying brand. If we’re going to go down, I’m okay with it being to get rid of McTavish.”

Brand narrowed his eyes. “Well, I’m only nineteen. I can afford to ruin my military future for the sake of my friends.” He smiled, biting his lip as looked at Hana. “As long as I can still get a job at Code Bread after, I’m happy. Besides. It’s not like I’m incredibly attached to this city, anyway.”

Amber resisted a sigh. “You’re happy as long as you can be around women.”

“You’re not wrong,” he said. “If this all goes downhill, maybe I can make a new career for myself as a dashing rogue.”

“Doing what?” Kelly asked.

Brand put down his coffee to stroke his chin. “Stealing hearts.”

Hana winked at him. “As if you don’t have enough already.”

Coping mechanisms, Amber thought. Lightheartedness and flirtation. She suspected that the more openly the two acted as such, the more seriously they took the situation. She hoped so.

“Who knows,” Brand said, sitting back. “Maybe I can even seduce Eclipse when they inevitably send her after me.”

Hana laughed. “The most powerful woman on Earth? Not likely.”

“If I can charm the most powerful person in the world, what would that make me?”

Amber snickered. “Dreaming, I think.”

“You don’t think I could do it?”

“I would bet on it, but there’d be no way for you to win.”

He shrugged. “I make a point of going up against insurmountable odds.”

“That’s good,” Kelly added in. “Going after McTavish will probably be like that.” She put her empty cup down. “We need to practice.”

Amber nodded. “It’s been a while since we’ve done any exercises.”

“Soon,” the captain said. “If we want to beat Byzantium Black to the punch. We have to train soon. McTavish is ours. It has to be us.”

“We should train at the docks.” Amber pushed her cup to join Kelly’s. “We’ll do our training exercises there. We’ll be fighting him there, so we should train in that environment,” she said. “It’s a hazard zone, so we should be careful. And make sure we don’t get caught. But being practiced in that environment will be good for us. I think it’s worth it. Plus, if we happen to see McTavish? Even better.”

Kelly nodded. “Good. We’ll meet up tomorrow, by Jacobs Street. From there, we’ll slip past the barricade and get in to Harrier East. Three o’clock.”

/ / /

Amber wheeled Madi’s chair along the desolate road. Why did she even want to come? It wasn’t that she made it hard to sneak past the barricade—looping around the back-alleys and getting into the maintenance walkway beneath Harrier Bridge was simple. It was just that it was dangerous. Amber already had her doubts about training here, especially when they could just be going after him. But Kelly liked her idea, and Amber had faith in the captain. Letting Madi come, though? That, she wasn’t so sure about.

Madi ran a hand through her golden tresses and stretched out. A stray wind caught her hair and blasted it down over her face. She laughed. “As much as this is a bad idea,” she said, pulling her hair back, “I’m glad I get to come along.” She cracked her knuckles and folded her hands behind her head. “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been outside in the past month.”

Kelly marched beside her, hauling a heavy backpack. They couldn’t wear their uniforms on unofficial business, of course, so they had to pack everything in a hockey bag. “You still don’t approve, then?”

“Of course not.” She smiled up at the captain. “But someone’s got to be here to protect you. I can still fight, you know.” Fire sprang up around her fingers, jumping up in blazing beads. Madi winked at Kelly and dispersed the flames.

Cold breezes blew off the harbour, rushing between gantry cranes and warehouses along the waterside. The entire district creaked, from Adamastor Yard to Harrier Bridge. A grey, weary landscape, forgotten by the rest of the Crush. Bits of trash crunched underfoot. Can’t imagine why the Victorians would want to lair here, Amber thought. Considering their name, she assumed they’d pursue a more upscale territory.

The team took a right at the derelict intersection of Heart and Cinderella. Streetlights dangled from their sockets. Glass shards dotted the sidewalk near an abandoned building. They walked on, engaging in some smalltalk which Amber blocked out. In a few minutes, they ventured into the empty suburbs of Harrier East. What used to be Harrier East, anyway. Everything east of the bridge had been abandoned some twenty years ago following Mashina’s rampage.

They stopped at a basketball court between a few apartment complexes. The court made for neutral terrain between the rough-and-tumble of the destroyed buildings. “Okay,” Kelly said, stepping to the front of the group. She dropped the bag and unzipped it. “It’s been a while, huh?”

Amber took a breath and willed her magic to life. Every scrap of metal in a hundred meter radius around her exploded into her awareness. Her other senses slowed momentarily to compensate. The world threatened to spin, but Amber righted herself with another breath. Her two pistols, resting at the bottom of the bag, pinged against her magic like sonar. They rose into the air, spun, and flew into Amber’s waiting hands.

The weight sat well in her grip. Like phantom limbs, suddenly reattached. The Walther Atlas, official UNGC ranger sidearm since 1998. Best gun in the world. She had two of them.

These were her practice arms, of course—airsoft, gas-powered blowback—but holding her weapons again electrified her. She relaxed her hands and let the guns float around her, dancing along the pulse of her magic.

Brand had produced his sword, and Kelly hers. The world of blades confused Amber. What use is a sword over a gun? She supposed Brand used his more as a focus for his magic than anything else. Kelly, though, fought tooth-and-nail with hers.

The captain unsheathed her sword with religious care, her eyes closed and her hands steady. Yes, Amber thought. That’s my Kelly. She smiled. Kelly stood straighter, taller, with a sword in her hands. When the wind tousled her hair, she looked noble. Even in the too-big-for-her clothes.

Hana and Madi, both unarmed, waited at the sidelines. Is Madi really okay with this? Amber thought. I hope she doesn’t get upset, watching us. As Amber mulled it over, Hana stretched her fingers, tensing and releasing her fists. Embers sparked up and flared around her wrists. Heat rippled the air around her. Thankfully, Madi smiled at this. Maybe this will actually be good for her.

As Kelly and Brand lapsed into practice stances with each other, Amber dug into the supply bag for safety goggles. She gestured the others over and handed them each a pair. “You guys sure you’re okay with getting shot?”

“We’ve been through worse,” the captain said. “Airsoft pellets sting. But I’ve been stabbed, and shot for real. I can take it.”

Brand ruffled his hair. “Can’t say I’ve been shot before.”

Amber shrugged, popping on her own goggles. “It’s not too bad.”

“What?” He blinked, tilting his head. “Really?”

She snorted, smiling out of the corner of her mouth. “No. It’s probably the most painful thing I’ve ever felt.” Before finishing her thought, her attention drifted to Kelly. Her sword glinted under the grey sky, the same colour as her eyes. “But when you take a bullet for someone you care about? The pain doesn’t matter.”

Brand idled. Amber couldn’t tell who he was looking at. Hana, maybe. “I can’t decide if that’s inspiring or terrifying.”

Shrug. “It should be both. I didn’t mean to scare you.” She looked back at him, finally. “It was an offhand comment. Sorry about that.” Poor kid. With a smile, she twirled her guns in the air. “You’ll be okay, Ranger. Come on. Let’s practice.”

Kelly fixed her scabbard to her belt and gestured to the nearest building: a two-storey brick hovel, its windows shattered and the roof rotting. “Let’s clear that building. Amber, take point. Brand, you’re her number-two, I’m three. Hana, you stay here and protect Madi in case anything happens. Got it?” She nodded to Hana. “First, give us some smoke cover. Then find somewhere you can hide.” Madi being here would only cause problems, Amber thought. She’s a sweetheart, but… This is too dangerous for her, isn’t it?

At Kelly’s command, Hana thrust her hands forward and washed flames over the ground. Debris went up in cinders. The air grew heavy with heat, and a smokescreen rose to obscure the windows of the building. Amber holstered one of her pistols. Her heart skipped. Sweat greased her fingers. It’s just practice. But I feel so good.

The captain, third in line, dashed forward and planted herself on the opposite side of the door. With her eyes closed, she put a hand against the surface and breathed in. Her metal-magic would detect any tampering. A moment later, she made eye contact with Amber. She nodded, and Amber echoed it. Brand squeezed her shoulder. Good.

Kelly brought her katana to bear and smashed the doorknob with the hilt. The perks of paramilitary employment: future-tech materials, even for archaic weapons. The door cracked at the point of impact and soared open. Amber moved in, covering the right flank of the room. Corner clear, left wall clear. She advanced to the corner. Far wall clear. The temptation to check the rest of the room gnawed at her, but doing so would be death. The right flank fell to Brand to check. Ignoring her sector to double-check Brand’s would be a fatal mistake. Trust him with your life. This is your job. That’s his job.

Amber took her point at the far corner. The room was a lobby, with a single desk lording over a field of toppled chairs and yellowing books. One door stood opposite the entrance, and another passage lay behind Brand. That’s dangerous. But it’s my sector. He trusts me. Amber’s breath slowed. The corner of her view caught Kelly taking her point by the entrance.

The outside light illuminated just enough to reveal that the doorway behind Brand led to a corner-fed room. Okay, Amber thought. Exchanging nods with her team, she moved over. They formed their line again, but with Kelly in the back this time. Nervous lightning flashed through Amber’s body. She signaled Brand, who squeezed her shoulder in response. Go. Wall clear, corner clear. Couches, tables, and more chairs filled this room. Brand and Kelly moved in. This room was a dead end.

“Clear. Good,” the captain said. “Far door in the main room, go. Alternate formation. Brand, take point. I’m number-two, and Amber, you’re three.” She moved out, and the group followed. Amber put herself against the knob-side of the door. Across her, Brand stood panting. Magic-controlled water swirled around his sword like a saw blade. They signaled each other. Amber spun, bringing her held pistol toward the doorknob and moving her second gun up as well. Airsoft rounds. Need to move the door with magic.

She fired, and her body shivered. Warm tingles swam through her. I missed that. With an urge of magic, the door swung open. Amber forced herself not to smile.

Brand moved in. In the alternate formation, the number-one would hold down directly in front of the door, covering his flank from there while still avoiding the so-called fatal funnel. Brand followed the plan to the letter. Kelly moved in, taking her point to the left of the door. Amber’s turn next. She moved in, breaking right behind Brand. Corner clear, wall clear, far corner clear. This room was devoid of furniture. An open staircase hugged the far wall, with several steps missing.

“Ranger,” Kelly said, turning to Brand. “Don’t worry about my side of the room. Even if there’s a bad guy there.”

“Isn’t that a threat, though?”

“Don’t forget how fast all this happens. You have to cover your side. You take your eyes off your sector, even if it’s to help me, you might be ignoring a second threat on your side. Trust me to cover you from anything in my side. All right?’

He nodded, his breath leaving him. “Yeah. Got it.”

Amber grinned. He’ll learn. Her gaze fell on Kelly. Even in the near-darkness, the captain nearly radiated light. Being in action again would be good for her. She stood stronger, her eyes seemed a bit perkier, she—

Footsteps. Outside. Amber’s train of thought switched gears in half a second. “Form up!” she said, quiet as she could. “Someone outside.”

She ran to take point at the door. Brand and Kelly were closer, but she had more ranged capabilities to clear the room. Kelly stood behind her, with Brand last. They waited.

The warmth Amber enjoyed earlier grew cold. Were Hana and Madi safe? If they got into a fight, Amber would hear it. Only the footsteps crept in. And now it was quiet. Shit. Okay. She nodded. Kelly squeezed her shoulder. Go time.

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