Rising in Rank
Look! It's an attempt at a regular upload schedule! Yeah I can't promise this will work but I'm hoping to get chapters out once per week. School is a bitch though, so who knows? If all goes according to schedule, uploads should be Sundays.
Bright light woke her. Penny groaned, rolling over to squint at her clock, up against the wall. "It's two in the morning, what the fuck?"
Wait. She didn't know that voice. If someone had come into her room to bother her in the middle of the night, she'd have expected it to be one of her friends. Not a stranger. She sat up quickly, turning to look at the door. Some blond dumbass other than Michigan stood there, a sheepish grin on his face. "What?"
"Hey, I don't like it either. But it's time for another test. You're up against me now, though after what I watched yesterday I kinda wish you weren't."
She mumbled something unintelligible, tired mind trying to make sense of his words. "Test... Oh. At two in the morning? Wait. You? 'M going up the list, and Maine was seven so you're siiiiiix..."
"Uh-huh. I'm tired. I mean, Pennsylvania. I'm Pennysylvania. ...Pennsylvania."
She scowled as she realized he was holding back laughter, taking the hand that he reached out to her. "Wow. You really are tired."
"I'll be Penny. You can call me fine for short by the way." She paused. "Wait don't do that. That was mixed up. I'll be fine. You can call me Penny for short. Because Pennsylvania is long. Don't call me fine. No flirting. I have a girlfriend."
"Sure," he laughed. "You can go ahead and call me Wash." With his help, she managed to drag herself out of bed and stay on her feet, letting go of his hand to stumble towards the door.
"You're nicer than I expected," Penny said as they made their way through the halls towards the locker room. "You top six always seemed kinda distant and scary. And then Maine yesterday barely said anything to me."
"Yeah, well, Maine doesn't really talk much. To anyone. He's a good guy though." One of Wash's shoulders lifted and fell in a small shrug. "None of us are really scary. Carolina can be intense and South can be...trouble, but everyone else is cool."
"Hard to tell. You guys never seem to hang around anyone else. I'll have to take your word for it."
"You'll find out for yourself. You'll make it onto the team, I know."
"I'm trying," was her only reply. She stopped in front of a door, and Wash glanced over his shoulder at her when he realized she wasn't walking with him anymore. "My locker's in this one."
"Oh. I'll see you out there then. I won't take it easy on you."
"I'm gonna get my ass kicked if it's anything other than hand to hand, I'm sure." She entered the room, going right to her locker and stripping out of the clothes she'd fallen asleep in to pull on her armor. She just wanted this over with so she could go back to bed. It was way too early to be up, and she hadn't even had coffee yet.
It took longer than usual to finish changing and to stumble out of the locker room and into the training room. The sight that met her was familiar enough. A table with a gun and ammo laid out, a field of pillars rising out of the floor... "Shit. The paint guns?" she mumbled, pulling her helmet down over her head as she made for the table nearest her. She couldn't see the other end of the field with the pillars in the way, but she was pretty sure it was safe for her to assume Wash was over there. Wondering idly about her audience this time — who would be up at this ungodly hour? — she looked up at the windows. Too far to make out anything other than humanoid blobs of color, but it didn't look like anyone was in armor, except one. Purple. A headcount would prove full attendance from the top six though. Minus Wash. And presumably plus Maine?
"Agent Pennsylvania, are you ready?"
"Huh? Oh. Oh, yeah. Sure F.I.L.S.S.," Penny muttered, glancing down at the paint gun in her hands. She'd habitually gone through the motions to prepare it for use while her tired mind had been wandering. Or at least, she hoped that was what had happened. It was too late now. The table sank beneath the floor.
"There will only be one round. Beginning in five. Four. Three. Two. One. Begin."
Penny slipped in among the pillars. They all seemed more clustered than usual. There were more of them too. Made it basically impossible to see much of what was around her. She decided one spot was as good as any other to wait and settled down where she was, placing her back up against a pillar and constantly scanning around herself.
It was eerily silent other than her own breathing and her pounding heartbeat for several long seconds. Then there was a flash of movement in her peripheral and she ducked. Paint splattered against the pillar beside her, instantly hardening. Penny swung her gun in the direction it had come from, frowning. If not for the paint, she'd have guessed she was still alone. There was nothing to see. And with how close together these things were clustered, she was pretty sure she wouldn't have been able to notice Wash finding new cover. Her back went against a pillar again, then she slid around to another side of it.
Her gaze lifted back to the viewing windows. Maybe she could catch a glimpse of Wash reflected in the window. The reflections of the training floor were pretty faint but the human eye was naturally drawn to movement, even if it would be difficult to see. And there was indeed movement, but not the kind she was looking for. The purple armored figure had just paced along the window, finding a new view of the training room probably. Eyes narrowing, she tried to block out the people behind the windows and focus on the reflections. There! A flash of movement! Behind and on her left. No, right. This was a reflection.
Penny spun out to the side, finger tightening around the trigger as soon as she spotted her opponent. Then she groaned. She knew as soon as she released that she'd rushed the shot. The paint splattered against a pillar right next to the purple-armored figure.
Hold up. That wasn't Wash. Unless he'd undergone a gender change in the past five minutes. "Bullshit! What the hell?" Penny darted behind another pillar as her opponent opened fire. She backed away, using pillars as cover until she was certain her opponent wasn't able to see her anymore. That was South Dakota, wasn't it? Even without interacting with the top six, mostly everyone could recognize them by armor. She should have realized something was up when she saw the single purple figure watching through the window. People said the twins always came in a pair. It hadn't even registered that the reflection she'd watched had been a purple one.
But wait. Why was North in armor? None of the others were wearing–
Paint encasing the hand that held her gun interrupted her thought. She cursed as it hardened, dodging around a pillar to avoid another shot. How had South found her so quickly? She'd been certain all the pillars had hidden her from view and she gone in a randomly chosen direction. Must have been a lucky guess. Penny repeated her prior escape, moving around pillars until South's line of sight was blocked and then changing direction to circle around. Her gaze went back to the windows, searching for reflections. Was South doing the same? Was that how she'd– hold on. North had moved again. Penny's eyes narrowed. She jumped to the left, avoiding another paint shot from South who had, again, found her remarkably quickly.
Putting a theory to the test, she ran, weaving around pillars until her sight of North in the window was blocked. A few seconds later, she saw him moving into view. She pulled off her helmet and held her breath, listening. Sure enough, footsteps could barely be heard, fast approaching her. "Son of a bitch," she huffed, jamming her helmet back down over her head and stepping out from behind the pillar.
She stepped around to the other side, her already paint-coated hand held up like a shield. South fired and another mass of paint hardened around her hand. Penny rushed forward then, catching another shot on her hand. She dropped in front of South, slamming her trapped hand against the floor hard enough to shatter the outer layer and crack the second one. A quick twist of her hips and she swept South's legs out from beneath her. As the other woman went down, Penny swung her painted hand and knocked South's gun out of her grip. Her free hand moved fast, fingers hooking under the helmet and pulling it off. She knelt on South's back, pinning her down. Tucking her opponent's helmet under her arm, she pulled off her own and then held South's up near her face. "Fuck. You. You were watching from up there and telling her where I was, weren't you?"
"Hey, no need for that aggression. Wyoming, time check." There was a pause, then a sigh crackled over the radio in the helmet. "Well. Good job, Pennsylvania, but now I owe York ten bucks. Might want to watch out."
"Huh?" A blast of paint splattered across her chest and hardened. Her eyes widened as she realized she'd screwed up. The gun she'd knocked away from South hadn't ended up as out of reach as Penny had thought. Two more shots followed, and Penny fell back off of South, her torso a ball of hardened paint.
"Match over," F.I.L.S.S. announced. "Agent South Dakota wins."
"Give that back." South snatched her helmet from Penny's grip, scowling and walking away as the pillars sank into the floor.
Penny groaned, rolling over and smashing her painted hand against the ground a couple more times to break off the two layers of hardened paint still stuck to it. The stuff all over her chest, she'd have to go clean by hand. Great.
"You look dead on your feet, hun," Jersey scolded as Penny sat down for breakfast. "Did you stay up late?"
"No. I went to sleep as soon as I got back to my room." Penny drained about half her mug of coffee in one gulp. "Then I got dragged out of bed at two in the goddamn morning for another test."
"What was it this time?" Jersey laid a hand on her shoulder and Penny leaned up against her with a yawn.
"Hide and seek paintball against the Dakotas. She was on the floor while he watched from the viewing area and ratted me out to her every time I managed to lose her." She stabbed her fork rather violently into a sausage on her plate. "I lost. I screwed it up at the last second. I had South pinned and I got distracted. I should have shot her right away and ended it there but I didn't."
"Don't be so hard on yourself about it. We both know you don't function well without sleep." Jersey grabbed Penny's now empty coffee mug, kissed her cheek, then got up. "I'll get you more coffee, hun."
"Thanks." She shoveled a last bite of scrambled eggs into her mouth, chewing through them furiously then laying her fork down.
"Morning Penny!" Michigan plopped himself down across from her.
"Have a little pancakes with your syrup," Alabama commented dryly, glancing at Michigan's plate as he sat down as well. He was tossing an apple from hand to hand, pausing every now and then to take a bite from it.
"Hey," she greeted halfheartedly.
Jersey chose that moment to return, setting Penny's mug down in front of her. Penny guzzled it down as Jersey answered Michigan's question. "They got her up at two am for another fucking test. I don't know why they thought it was okay. She couldn't have gotten more than four hours of sleep."
"Two and a half," Penny muttered, setting down her once again empty mug. "I didn't get to go back to bed afterwards. It took forever to clean that stupid paint off my breastplate."
Jersey scowled. "Those motherfuckers–"
"Hey Jersey?" Michigan interrupted.
"Whatever it is, it can wait. I can't believe this. You still have to do a full day today, don't you, hun?" When Penny nodded, mumbling out a "As far as I know", Jersey's scowl deepened. "That's so unhealthy. What makes those bastards think–"
"It can wait, Michigan."
"Yeah, I don't mind waiting. Oh, and, by the way, we didn't really want to be up so early either. That was all the Director."
"Holy hell." Jersey flinched in surprise, looking over her shoulder.
Penny just tilted her head back, practically bending over backward. "Mmmmh..." she mumbled thoughtfully. "Washington."
"I tried to warn you he was listening in," Michigan huffed. "Alabama, why didn't you back me up?"
"I thought her reaction would be funny. I don't get to see Jersey being startled that often."
"You're an asshole, Al."
"No, Jersey, I'm an opportunist."
"Guys don't start right now! I wanna look cool in front of one of the top six," Michigan whined.
Gazes turned back to Wash, who just tilted his head then turned to Penny. "Uh, I just came to let you know that you'll have another test this afternoon. Fifteen hundred. It should be against me for real this time. You're allowed to take off until then."
"Great. I get two colossal fails in one day."
"Did the earlier one not go well?" Alabama asked.
"I lost because I'm an idiot and I got distracted," Penny snarled.
"Because you were tired because it was two in the morning," Jersey cut in. "You'll do better this afternoon."
Penny grumbled something under her breath then glanced at Wash, who'd begun to meander away. "Hey. Before you leave."
"Did you know this morning when you said I'd be against you that I wasn't really?"
"No. I wasn't told about the change until I made it to the locker room."
"Why'd it happen?"
"Uhhh I think the Director said something about evaluating you in a situation with bad intel and at a disadvantage." Penny grunted and bent over her empty coffee mug. "Y'know. I think we were all pretty impressed right up until the end. Bet you'll still get marks for what you did even if you lost."
There was silence until he walked away. Then Michigan leaned across the table, slapping a hand down on top of it. "Penny! You're cool now. You heard him. You impressed them! Oh my god, that's gotta be exciting."
"Hey, Michigan. That makes us cool by association," Alabama pointed out.
Michigan's eyes went wide and he gasped. "We... We're cool too? Holy shit. I've always wanted to be considered cool by the popular people."
"You're a dork. But a cute kid." Alabama chuckled, ruffling Michigan's hair as he stood up. "Well, I'll see you guys later. I've got some things to take care of."
"I'm gonna go too! I think I'll have a surprise for you later, Penny, but I want to make sure it's okay for me to do it first. I need to check for permission." Michigan swept up his plate and ran off.
Jersey wrapped an arm around Penny's shoulders. "Done eating?"
"Want more coffee."
"No way. You're going back to bed so you can sleep until your next test. You need to take care of yourself, hun."
"No, I need to pump myself full of caffeine and then go train so I don't fuck the next test up."
Jersey held her chin in her hand, elbow propped against the table. "You really don't take well to loss. Cool it, Diana."
Penny went silent. Jersey didn't toss around real names lightly. She took in her girlfriend's stubborn expression, along with the much more subtle lines of worry that creased her face. "Yeah. Alright. I'll go sleep for a bit."
"A bit." Penny stood. "I'm still making room for a little practice. Target practice at the very least. I didn't land one single hit earlier. You're not changing my mind about that."
"Win some, lose some," Jersey sighed. "But you have to promise you'll get at least four hours of sleep."
"I will. I'm deadass tired." Penny laid a hand against Jersey's shoulder, then walked away.
I know if somebody ever woke me up at 2 am, I'd bite their head off. And yes, Penny is a coffee addict. Her mind works like mine when tired, by the way. Crazier ideas become normal to assume (like seeing North wearing around and walking around and immediately assuming he was playing eyes in the sky for South – even if that was true) while the obvious things (purple armor does not equal Wash, she didn't hit the gun far enough away from South, etc) become difficult to figure out.
Also I adore Michigan.