1.4: Amber

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“Captain?” Amber held Kelly’s head up, resting her back on her knee. “Captain!” She brushed her cheek with her free hand. “Kelly!” Shit. Shit. Think. She looked up at Brand. “Where are Madi and Hana?”

“They made it to Harrier Bridge,” he said, sweat dripping down his face. “They’re going to wait for us there. They found somewhere else to hide.”

“Okay.” Amber hooked her other arm under Kelly’s knees. She could easily use Kelly’s own trick—lifting her by the metal bands under her clothes—but she’d need her concentration ready to defend herself. Besides, the captain was petite enough she could carry her without too much issue. “You lost your water somewhere along the way?”

The boy nodded. “It takes a lot of energy.” With a huff, he rose to his full height and drew his sword. Without his armour, the sword looked a little silly. The tight jeans and long T-shirt combined strangely with the archaic, if technologically advanced, sword hanging from his hip. “You ready?” He swished his hair back and got into a stance.

“Yeah.” She urged her guns into the air, orbiting her like satellites. They ran, exiting the alley and scurrying along beneath ruined awnings and porches. The Snarl remained silent. Did they really leave us alone? Amber thought. They must be going back to Guardian Tower. Probably turning us in right now.

The run felt good. The harbour wind washed sweat and stressed heat away from her skin. Kelly weighed her down, though. As light as she was, she was still an adult human. The metal bracers didn’t help. “Brand,” she said, starting to pant. “Can you take her for a minute?”

He nodded and sheathed his sword. They traded and resumed their pace. Soon, the bridge was in sight. They’d be safe. UNGC is going to be all over us by the end of the day. Just a little more. Just a little, little more.

This is where we get attacked, isn’t it? Tingles ran up Amber’s back. So many blind spots, places to hide. The Snarl was a hazard zone. Any number of dangerous people could be hiding there. The Seinaru Guntai, the Mekhanika… or the Victorians, now. Amber had to hope they wouldn’t show up in the middle of the day.

She and Brand made it to the bridge, but the tingles still rattled her. “Brand,” she said. “Call them. I have a call of my own to make.” Here. This is where we get attacked. When we’re distracted on our phones. Regardless, she produced her cell and called Juliette. If UNGC went after them, they would need somewhere to hide. None of their places would do. Not even Madi’s. Juliette, though—she had enough space, and wasn’t on the team.

Amber brought one of her guns into her free hand and scanned the surroundings. When Juliette answered, she jumped. “Yuli.” Her voice scratched. “I need a big favour, okay?”

“What’s up?” She sounded tired. Don’t tell me I woke her up.

“This is going to sound crazy. But—okay. You have a truck, right?’

“Yeah.”

“I need you to come pick me up. Me and my team.” She counted briefly. “Five of us.”

Juliette cleared her throat. “Okay. Where are you?”

What a saint. “Jacobs Street. We’ll be there,” Amber said, losing steam. “And thank you.”

“See you soon.”

She shoved her phone back. Juliette was good. Never hesitated to help. What did I do to deserve a friend like that?

“Got them,” Brand said, gesturing to a dilapidated nook beneath the bridge, under the walkways they used to sneak across. The two exchanged a nod, then ran over to collect the girls.

Madi, golden hair fettered with dust, raised an eyebrow, frowning. “I told you guys this was a bad idea.”

/ / /

Everyone pretended not to hear the two in the other room. Though the living room was at the opposite end of the house, their voices carried. Amber focused on tidying, in step with Juliette, drying dishes as she washed them. Brand and Hana, along with Brand’s friend Layla, sat to one side of a modern blackwood table. Brand, between the two girls, sat on edge, fingers locked. What’s going on there? Amber thought. Hana stared across Brand’s nose at the tiny blonde, eyes radiating disapproval. Layla, meanwhile, avoided looking at either of them, her lips pulling down at the corners. Amber hid a chuckle. No way. Both of them?

She looked at Juliette, then the others. “Hey,” she said, speaking in Spanish, “anybody else here speak Spanish?” The group answered with confusion and shrugs. Grinning, Amber turned to her friend. “Yuli, check this out. I think he’s sleeping with both of them. And they’re just finding out now.”

Juliette chanced a side glance, then came back with a snicker. “He’s done for.” She fed a soaked plate to Amber’s half of the sink. “The blonde one is jealous, I think. Jealous that he’s with another woman, and jealous that the other girl is more—ah—more…”

“Voluptuous,” Amber offered. She smirked. “They’re both pretty. The blonde, she’s a bit plain, but still cute, you know? And petite is attractive in its own way. Depends on your type.”

“Yeah. Look at the redhead, though,” Juliette said, peeking again. “White girl with a Latina body.” She laughed.

Amber joined her. They didn’t quite drown out the argument from the living room, but it helped. “I think they’re both pretty attractive.”

“If you had to choose one, which would you do?” Juliette asked. Dimples punctuated her smile.

“Huh?” Amber stopped drying and looked at her friend. She was so small, so unassuming. Like a little cat. But sometimes she turned around and said something like that. “What do you mean?”

Juliette blinked and pushed her glasses up. “Hey, it’s okay. We’re in Spanish, remember?”

“I—” Amber let her jaw hang and her breath catch. “Right. I just—didn’t know you knew.” She turned back to her dishes, face heating up. “I didn’t really think anybody knew.”

She lifted her shoulders. “I had a feeling. There’s an English word for it. Uh—how is it… gaydar?”

Her cheeks heated up more. “Wait, so—hold on.” A smile came over her. “You too?”

Juliette giggled and washed another dish. “Both, for me.” She wobbled her hand. “Well, both, and everything in between both. I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a label for it.”

Amber furrowed her brow and returned to her own work. “I honestly had no idea. That’s—” She scrunched up her face. “I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. It’s confusing.”

“It’s not a big deal to me. I like boys, too, so I’m lucky. I can pass for straight.” She rolled her eyes. “Lots of people say bisexual isn’t a real thing, though. That gets to me.”

Words didn’t come easily. Amber was sure her blush had intensified, and she swept her hair over her cheeks to hide it. “I’ve never really talked about it before. Yessi knew, but that’s it.”

“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.” Juliette looked up at her, wearing an apologetic smile.

Amber waved a hand. “No, no, it’s all right. Not like they can understand us.” She sorted dishes into the cupboard for a moment. “My family’s very traditional, you know? The man does this, the woman does that. You know. Very old-school Hispanic.”

“Yeah?” Juliette said. “I never had much experience with that. When my parents were still around, they were—they were… I don’t know. Not traditional.”

“This one time,” Amber began, cracking a smile, “my uncle, who’s white, married to my mother’s sister. We were having a big family dinner. And there were a bunch of us all in the kitchen. The women, mostly. Just talking.” Her grin widened. “And my God, my God. My uncle went over to the sink with his dish, and he started washing it.” She repressed a snort. “You would not believe how dead quiet that room went. My grandmother? I’ve never seen a face like that ever again in my life.” Laughter bubbled up. “What she does, she snaps her fingers at him. You know the look a dog gets when you yell at it? Imagine a middle-aged bald guy with that look. So my grandmother points at the dish, then at the sink, then over to the door, like she’s cracking a whip.” She drew a long breath to banish the remaining giggles. “Poor Uncle Andy. He got out of there as fast as he could.”

Juliette laughed along with her. “Don’t tell me he was the only white guy there?”

Amber widened her eyes and nodded. “He spoke Spanish, at least. Not well, but he spoke it.” She finished up her half of the dishes and leaned against the counter. “I felt bad for him, though. In a lot of modern families, that’s just expected. Everybody helps out how they can, right?” She tucked her hair behind her ears, finally rid of that blush. “I guess for families like yours, it wasn’t a big deal. Depends on the family. Me, though, I was raised with those very traditional values. It’s my job to find a husband, be a good wife, have kids, keep the house clean, cook… you know.”

Juliette nodded and narrowed her eyes. “Sounds like you’re not too interested in that.”

“Yes and no.” Amber shrugged. “I love taking care of people. That’s just part of who I am. But—you know—it won’t be so easy to provide grandchildren.” She looked away and chuckled. “My parents didn’t account for me ending up gay.”

“You can always adopt.”

“Well, yeah. It’s just that my parents wouldn’t approve.” Amber kicked her heel against the drawers and drew her gaze to the floor. “They wouldn’t really understand.”

There was silence, in both rooms. Amber noted the tension at the kitchen table. It got worse. Finally, Brand spoke up. “What have you two been talking about, anyway?” he asked, gesturing to Amber and Juliette.

If only he knew. “Just telling funny stories about my abuelita.”

It got quiet again until Kelly walked in. She looked blank. Her hair stuck to her in sweat-soaked locks. Amber saw the woman’s skin through tears in her clothing. Oh, Kelly. Amber strode forward and wrapped her arms around her. She ignored the sweat. Kelly hesitantly returned the embrace. “I’m so happy you’re okay,” Amber said, squeezing the captain tightly.

Kelly peeked over Amber’s shoulder. “Nobody else is hurt?”

“Everyone is okay,” Layla said.

Amber stroked Kelly’s hair. “Do you know what happened?”

“I just got here, but I have an idea. She lost a decent amount of blood.” The paramedic approached. “My guess, though? Syncope due to extreme emotional stress.”  Amber looked over at her. Such a nice smile. “You’ll be okay. Just rest up for a while.”

Kelly took herself out of the hug. “Yeah. We’ll have to stay low for a bit.” She pulled a chair out and sat at the head of the table. “Who has anything important at their place?” She raked a hand through her hair. “By that, I mean the address listed on file at UNGC.”

Amber had guns there, and ammunition. That wasn’t such a big deal, though. She still had a few extra clips scavenged from Byzantium Black during the fight. They’ll do for now. “I’m fine.”

Brand slumped forward. “My armour’s all there.” When he sat back up, he pouted. “You don’t think UNGC will confiscate it, do you?”

“It’s possible,” Kelly said. “I’m not sure if I’m just being paranoid or not. But I think it’s safe to assume we might have a few MPs after us.”

Amber nodded, arms crossed. “We went behind our CO’s back for personal revenge. We entered a hazard zone without clearance. We interfered with an ongoing mission. We assaulted uniformed rangers.” She gestured at the pile of handguns on the corner. “We stole UNGC property. All in all, I’d say we’re in trouble, yes.”

“You guys have any ideas?” Madi pushed herself down the hallway. What the hell did you say to her, Captain? She’d made an effort to hide tear-reddened eyes, but Amber was sure everyone knew. “I could yell at you all I wanted for this, but—that won’t help.”

Kelly looked away. To avoid the inevitable awful silence, Amber cleared her throat. “Yuli has been generous enough to let us come here today.” She turned to her friend. “And thank you for that, again.” Back to her team. “UNGC is going to try to find us. They don’t appreciate rangers going rogue on them.”

Layla squinted. “Do you think Juliette or I could get into trouble for this? For helping you guys out?” She shrugged. “And what about Madi? She wasn’t really involved, either.”

Amber tilted her head. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. As long as we’re careful.” She stepped forward into the center of the room, posing herself tall. “And that, right now, is the name of our game. Careful. We wait for the investigation—and there will be one, I guarantee it—to calm down. You guys remember Mashina? Piotr Volkov?” She watched for nods all around. “Used to be a ranger. Then, he went rogue, started his gang. Even then, when he was just a smalltime thug, UNGC went nuts. The news went nuts.” Allowing a pause to breathe, she placed herself in the doorway, hands folded behind her back. “And we’re already big shots. Well—” She winced. “We were, anyway. Regardless, they’re going to treat us like rogues. Starting now. High profile rogues. Got it?”

The group nodded. Amber held her breath and crossed her arms. What have we gotten ourselves into? “But,” she continued, “this is what we signed up for. The captain asked us, each of us, if we were okay with this. And we all agreed. If anybody’s changed their mind, well—you’re already too late. But if you want to back down, I guess now is the best time.”

She knew Kelly would be solid. Brand and Hana, though? Not so sure. She stared them down, alternating. Nothing? Good. “Right. So. This doesn’t change our mission.”

“McTavish,” Kelly said, raising her head. “We go after him. We make things right.”

In the hall, Madi hung her head. Poor girl. “Yeah,” Amber said. “First priority, we need somewhere more permanent to stay.”

Juliette put a hand on Amber’s sleeve. As she looked over, the girl started speaking. “If you need to, you’re all free to stay here.” Nothing hid beneath her smile. Genuine compassion and kindness. “I have plenty of space.”

Hana narrowed her eyes. “How old are you, Juliette?”

She smiled, with those dimples again. “I’m eighteen.”

“And—” Hana leaned back in her chair. “Is this not your parents’ place?”

Juliette shook her head. “My parents don’t live here anymore. And please don’t ask about it.”

Amber raised an eyebrow and turned her gaze on her teammates. “And that means don’t ask about it. Everybody got that?” A stern nod affirmed the order. “Thank you, Yuli. From all of us.”

“Thank you,” Kelly said. “We’ll all treat you and your home with respect. And we won’t get you into trouble with UNGC.” She smiled. “Promise.”

Juliette gave everyone her chipmunk grin. “Okay. Can I make tea for anyone?”

/ / /

Getting everyone’s things was the first order of business. They decided to get Brand’s armour first, considering he actually needed it. When they pulled up to the building, Amber volunteered to go up with him.

They were quiet in the lobby, and in the elevator. Amber left her guns in the truck. No sense scaring anybody, even with all her licenses. Naturally, Brand left his sword behind, too. There would be no explaining that. They got up to his floor, down the hall, and through his door, all in silence.

The door latched shut. Without even taking in the room, Amber hooked her arm across Brand’s chest, grabbed his shoulder, and shoved him into the wall. “Hey!” She covered his mouth with her free hand. “You want to tell me what the hell is going on with you and Hana? And you and Layla?” He mumbled, his eyes shouting fear. Amber scowled and cocked her head. “You don’t think we can tell? What do you think Yuli and I were talking about earlier?” She huffed and released him.

“What’s wrong?” Brand said, eyes flickering back and forth. Don’t you dare get smart. His gaze settled on Amber’s, and he ruffled his hair. “You know, if you’re jealous, just let me know. I’d be happy to let you in on the fun.”

This stupid kid. Amber brought a palm to her forehead. “What I’m saying,” she said, pointing a finger into his chest, “is that you need to treat women with a bit more respect. Okay? You can’t just sleep around if your partners aren’t all okay with it. Hana was about ready to tear that blonde girl’s throat out. Don’t screw around like that. Got it?”

He sidled away from her, into his disordered living room. “So I guess that means you didn’t volunteer to come with me just so you could pounce on me.”

“Yeah, sad for you.” Amber moved in, scanning the mess. Mostly clothes.

“It really is,” he answered, heaving open a closet door. “I’d be very lucky to get with you.”

She crossed her arms and chuckled. “Yeah?”

Brand dragged a box out and unlatched it. But he disregarded it and stepped over to Amber. What does he think he’s doing? She expected him to touch her without asking. He didn’t, though. He just tucked his hands into his pockets. “Yeah. You’re really beautiful, Amber. Even though you’re such a lioness, who’d hunt down anyone who hurt your pack, you’re still sweet. Like—”

“If you compare me to chocolate, I’m going to hurt you.”

He paused. “Like—”

She smirked. “And if you say brown sugar, you’re going out the window. Go get your armour, Ranger.” With a mock salute and a blush, Brand did as ordered. Amber sighed and tousled her hair. “Seriously, though, Brand. Don’t go sleeping around and causing unnecessary stress for yourself or for Hana. We can’t afford it right now.”

“Helps keep me grounded.” He hummed as he pulled various pieces of body armour from the box. Interlocking pieces, sleek and elegant, in monochrome. In a way, it resembled a dragon’s scales. Light and mobile, but functional. It would save him from bullets, at least. “But I’ll make sure I don’t cause trouble, Lieutenant.”

“Good.” She made for the door as he packed everything back up. “And, by the way. You’re not exactly my type.”

/ / /

Kelly didn’t need much, but Amber insisted they swing by her place anyway. Her place was close enough. Again, Amber volunteered to go with her. The others would dismiss it as her being Team Mom. Really, she just wanted alone time with some of her teammates.

Kelly’s place was cleaner than Brand’s. Smaller, but cleaner. She had a studio apartment, near Anthem and Marathon, with the Charles River just within view. Her low-rising bed sat shoved in a corner, behind the wall that hid her kitchen. The rest was a living room, decorated with shelves, swords, and sketchbooks. A flat screen and a very short table completed the room. No couch? No chairs at all?

“You okay, Amber?” Kelly asked.

Qué? Oh, yeah. I’m fine. Why?”

She shrugged. “You seem like something’s on your mind.”

Amber cracked a grin. “You don’t have chairs.”

“I’m Japanese,” she answered, smiling from one corner of her mouth.

Might as well accept that as an answer. “Right. My bad.” She forced a cough and looked around. “What’re you picking up?”

“Food, clothes.” Kelly ventured into her kitchen. Between the cupboards and fridge, there was barely room to move. “Pot, if Juliette is okay with it.”

Amber shook her head. “Let’s be safe and say no. She’s already Hispanic. We don’t need another reason for police to profile her.”

Kelly cast a mournful gaze at one of her drawers. “Fair enough, I guess.” She put herself on her tiptoes to reach at a cupboard. Her fingernails barely graced the knob. She groaned. “I hate being short.”

“Here,” Amber said. Kelly wasn’t hard to lift. She squeaked a bit in surprise, but didn’t fight as Amber hoisted her up by the middle.

“Uh—thanks.” Kelly flailed a bit, signaling ‘down’. A box of nutty bars rattled in her hand. “Itadakimasu,” she said, with a sarcastic grin.

Amber blinked. “Is that what it’s like when I speak in Spanish?”

The captain laughed. “Yeah, pretty much.” She shrugged. “Dios mío, I get. Chica, I sort of understand. The rest, though?” She moved her hand over her head.

I miss her laugh, Amber thought. “Better than me with Japanese. All I know is kowaii.”

Kelly cocked an eyebrow at her. “That means ‘scary’.” Amber trailed her back to the living room and met Kelly’s eyes again. “You are kawaii,” she said, emphasizing the different syllable. “Godzilla is kowaii.”

Amber nodded. “Ah, okay.” Wait. She looked away as Kelly dove into her closet. Did she just call me cute? “Nobody else thought to get clothes. Even I didn’t think about it.”

“I guess it was on my mind.” Kelly pulled out a plain grey hoodie and a pair of leggings. “Plus, you know. This shirt’s a little torn.” She turned to Amber and lifted the tee a bit, exposing her belly button. “Do you care if I change? I want to get out of this.”

“Yeah, that’s fine.” Amber bit the inside of her lip to hide a smile. Am I supposed to not look? We’re both girls… She found it hard to look away, though. When Kelly pulled up the shirt, she revealed a collection of fresh bruises, painting slashes of black and purple across her sides and back. “Holy shit.” Amber covered her mouth.

Kelly looked over, eyes wide. “Huh?”

“Shit, chica. You don’t feel all this?” She sauntered over and brushed the back of her hand against one of the bruises. Kelly’s stomach tensed up in response.

She frowned. “Oh. Oh wow.” The captain lifted her arms and craned her neck to look at herself. “I didn’t realize I got hurt so badly.”

Amber grit her teeth and spun Kelly around, gingerly pushing at her hips. Trickles of blood tore lines from shoulder to waist. The Spanish came out before she could help it. “Jesus, Captain.” Amber put a hand against her mouth again. Much of the blood was dried, painting new colours onto the bruises. But a flurry of tiny cuts still added to the stream. “I’m gonna clean this up, okay?” She swallowed past a growing lump and jaunted over to the bathroom, across from the kitchen, to get a cloth and wet it.

“What’s wrong?” Kelly asked, eyes skittering about. “Shouldn’t Layla have caught anything serious?”

Amber shook her head. “She didn’t take a super long look at you. By the time she got there, you already had blankets and pillows all over.” She stepped around to look her friend in the eyes. “Hey, I gotta take your bra off, okay? You’ve got blood all over.”

Kelly scrunched her face up a bit, but nodded. Amber took a breath and undid her, then began the careful work of sponging away the blood. The captain’s muscles jumped and tensed at her touch. “Here,” Amber said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be easier on the floor.” She guided her down onto her knees. “You’ve got stuff in the bathroom. You know I’m going to have to disinfect all this, right?”

“That sounds unpleasant.”

Other than the battle scars, Kelly’s skin was soft. And she’d warmed up, finally. She was so cold earlier, when she passed out. The smell of sweat had faded, too. Kelly still had an oddly-pleasant post-battle aura, but most of it had soaked into her shirt. I’ve never seen her shirtless before, Amber thought. If I just turned her around, I could She shook her head. Idiot. Amber knew her vices, but liked to think she also knew when they weren’t important. “You know,” she said, smirking, “I’m glad Brand’s not the one doing this.”

Kelly laughed. “Well, he could probably clean me faster.”

“He’d just want to get you dirty all over again after.”

The captain laughed a bit softer, but it faded as she bowed her head. “Hey, you sure you didn’t get hurt?”

“I’m fine,” Amber answered.

“I just want to make sure you’re all right. That was more of a fight than I planned for us to get into.”

Amber nodded. “It’s all right, honestly.” She pushed Kelly forward a bit to have a better angle at the damage on her lower back. She’d stopped jumping at the cloth a little while ago. The bruises still dominated her cool fawn skin, but the blood had gone away, at least. “You know my stance on this.” She wiped away the last, then stood to get a disinfectant cream from the bathroom. “Almost done here, Captain.”

“Thank you, by the way.” Kelly said, looking over her shoulder. “I didn’t even realize I was in such rough shape.”

Amber smiled. “You think I’m going to see my friend hurt like that and not do something about it?” She went over the wounds with the cream, being ginger, fearing she’d hurt her. “A lot of people think I’m cold. That I’m just this badass with a gun.” She smirked. “But if there’s any stereotype I’ll embrace? It’s that I’m loyal. And I probably care too much about my friends.”

“That’s not a bad thing.”

“And it’s better than being the generic spicy Latina,” she said, pushing herself to her feet. “Okay. You should be good.” She let out a gentle laugh. “Now put some clothes on.”

/ / /

Amber jangled her dog tags. The chill soothed her, spread calm into her. Like she could hold comfort in her palm and squeeze it. This is so messed up, she thought. Juliette, over at the table with a cutting board, smiled at her. The kitchen was too cozy. The whispered radio, the clack of knife-on-board, the bubble and steam and scent of the soup. Amber kept stirring and fidgeting, alternating glances between her friend, the stove top, and the window. How are we cooking at a time like this?

“Everything okay?” Juliette asked, in her typical mewl.

“I don’t know.” Amber looped the chain around her finger. “I just—I don’t feel right, imposing all of us on you like this.”

“It’s okay. Really.”

Amber sighed and opened the pantry. “I believe you,” she said, fishing for spices. “It all just feels so weird.”

“What makes you say that?”

Cilantro and cinnamon, way at the back. “Well, I probably just lost my job. The others, too.” She shrugged and dashed in the ingredients. “Not that we’ve really been working for the past year. Getting paid? Sure. We were on reserve. Whatever. They could’ve needed us.”

“You don’t know for sure that anybody’s going to come after you.”

She stirred. “I have a pretty good feeling. Vinier didn’t like us even when we were solid. Back when we were good.” She watched Juliette cut a pepper. “Now, though? We’re actively working against him.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

The steam felt at odds with the tension in Amber’s chest. “We do,” she said. “They want him alive, you know that?”

“That’s weird.” Juliette met Amber’s eyes, with curiosity. “Rogues who’ve killed don’t get taken in alive. Ever.” She frowned and shrugged. “They’re too dangerous to risk it.”

Amber tilted her head. “Right. Didn’t realize you knew much about my job.”

“I keep tabs on divergent stuff. You people are interesting.”

Smirk. “You people?”

Juliette stuck out her tongue. “Killer divergents don’t get any mercy. Letting a murderer with superpowers run around is too dangerous.” She moved on to the cauliflower. “So why alive?”

“They want him for something. Or they need him,” Amber said. “It’s not just that they want to put him in prison. If they want him alive, they must want to question him about something.”

“You think he knows something important?”

“He must. It’s the only reason I can think of.”

“I guess Kelly doesn’t really want to spare him.”

Not that I do either. “No. But I don’t know if she could do it.” She sighed and leaned the ladle against the side of the pot. “I shot him at St Kilda. But that was reflex. I mean—shit, Yuli, he killed my friends.” The dog tag warmed in her tightening grasp. “I guess I’ve moved past it by now. But even then, I don’t think I had that killer instinct.” She shook her head, hair flopping about her shoulders. Her chest swelled. “Kelly gave me lethal. It was a bad situation. But a captain can’t authorize lethal force unless the higher-ups say so. So why was UNGC okay with having him dead then? And not now?”

Juliette said nothing. Of course she didn’t. The poor girl—she didn’t need this talk about killing and revenge.

“I don’t know, Yuli. I’m thinking out loud. My train of thought is all messed up.” She leaned on her elbows and returned to stirring the soup, moving the ladle with metal-magic. “I guess what I’m trying to say—even then, when my friends were dying, I couldn’t push myself to aim up.” Her breath wavered, not wanting to escape. “Three inches. Three fucking inches, Yuli. I’m pretty sure that’s exact. I’ve replayed it so many times in my head. Three inches, up and to the right. He would’ve been dead.”

The girl moved over and took Amber’s hand. “I don’t see you as a killer. That’s not you.”

“No. I’m not.” She turned herself around and let Juliette hug her. “I don’t think Kelly is either.” Juliette’s strawberry perfume overpowered the soup. She wore the same smell Jessenia did. It melted past some of the ice in Amber’s gut. “I don’t even know if I’d feel better. If I did kill him.”

“You think the world would be better off without him?” Juliette let go and returned to her table.

Amber stared the window. “Yeah. I do.” She ran a hand through her hair. “I just don’t know if we’re the ones to get rid of him.” She paused, then offered Juliette a smile. Let’s just finish supper, she thought. Her throat hurt. Less from speaking, more from her heart being caught inside it.

They cooked almost in silence, with only the radio keeping them company. Juliette threw the vegetables into a stir fry as Amber continued with the soup, adding in pinches of spices as she went. The radio ads gave way to blues as the meal went on. Steam, sizzle, and aroma filtered out through the hall. Hana was the first to join them, followed by Brand. The latter drew a lingering gaze on Juliette, who didn’t seem to mind. Don’t you dare, Amber thought.

Kelly came in last, hands tucked in her hoodie pocket. The group, gathered in the dusk and gentle light, quieted on her entry. Even Amber and Juliette, just finishing their work, turned and paused. Shadows fell across her, highlighting the vulpine cast to her face, and the supple curves under her baggy clothing. The captain began to smile. She resisted it at first. You can’t stay serious forever, Captain. Everyone around the table urged her on, offering their own grins and encouraging greetings. And Kelly finally allowed it. Amber slid her chair out for her, and sat at her left-hand side. “Come on, Kelly,” she said. “We can deal with the rest of the world later. For now, let’s eat.”

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