"I still think this is a bad idea. Besides, I've heard Morocco is lovely this time of year. I've always wanted to visit there." Manicured hands smoothed down imagined creases in skirt fabric for the hundredth time before coming to settle.
"You only say that because it has no extradition treaty with the the US and it's tourist season," a quiet voice murmured in reply. "DedSec is our best shot at this."
A derisive snort at her companion's soft insistence was the first woman's only reply before she quickly straightened, fixing a charming smile on her face as a tall, dark-skinned man and brightly colored woman approached the booth of the café.
"Hello, you must be San Francisco DedSec's very own Marcus and Sitara, I presume?" The woman's voice was professional but warm, honeyed words flowing easily in an effort to ingratiate herself to the two hackers in front of her. "You can call me Ilinca. I have heard exceptional things about you and your group from my contact. Please, sit." She gestured to the other side of the table, waiting patiently for the pair to exchange glances before taking the proffered seat.
"You seem to know quite a bit about us, Ilinca," Marcus started hesitantly. He turned to the other woman across the table who was ignoring the conversation, sitting with her back to the wall and knees drawn up to support the sketchbook she was lost in. "And who might this be?"
Ilinca stiffened slightly before bringing Marcus's attention back to herself with a slight chuckle and dismissive wave. "Oh, there's no need to attempt bringing her into the conversation, she's rather focused right now." The quiet woman smiled into her sketchbook at Ilinca's deflection, but said nothing, continuing her latest piece.
Both Sitara and Marcus gave a knowing chuckle, "Yeah, we know someone a lot like that too," Sitara commented. She leaned back and crossed her arms. "So, you said to our mutual friend that you had a deal for DedSec involving our work against Blume. Usually we wouldn't agree to a face-to-face meeting like this, but you must have something good if you were able to convince Gooly to set this up."
Ilinca sighed, distress marring her perfectly painted features. "Yes, well, you all are more than aware of the corrupt nature of Blume and its business practices. They take great pleasure in stepping on innocent civilians for no other reason than that they can. I was hoping DedSec could help us escape from the witch hunt their CEO has set upon us."
Sitara raised an eyebrow and glanced at Marcus. "Uh-huh. Interesting… You know, for 'innocent civilians,' there's very little information to be found about you online. You know what that says to people like us, Ilinca? That you're hiding something, and you're crooked enough to know how to cover your tracks well."
Marcus leaned in toward the woman across from him. "So cut the bullshit, and tell us why we're here."
Ilinca froze, smile still in place and posture perfect, but Marcus could see the look in her eyes go hard at having her spiel disrupted. Quick as it appeared, however, it was gone, replaced with earnest confusion. "I'm sorry, I don't know what you mea—"
"Lin, tell them the truth. We need them."
The statement was soft, but clear, and three sets of eyes locked on to the quiet figure who had so far ignored the conversation around her. She stared back at Ilinca, a silent argument passing between the women, before Ilinca sighed and turned back to face the hackers.
"We're on the run from Blume, and we need your group to hide us," Ilinca bit out in resignation. "My sister and I…came across some sensitive information on Blume a month or so back, and somehow they figured out we were in possession of it. Blume's interim CEO, Malik Caine, tried to encourage us to return the information with an offer of being put on their payroll, and didn't take kindly to our rejection of his offer.
"He was quick to label us as a top-level threat after that. We've barely been surviving the raids on our hideouts, and we have nowhere left to go." Ilinca's brows furrowed, eyes darting over to her sister before returning to Marcus. "Last time was too close of a call. We can't do this anymore without help, and DedSec has been the only one to be able to go toe to toe with Blume and come out on top."
Sitara gave a low whistle, "Wow, you guys have pissed off some powerful people, huh? Can't imagine after the blow we dealt them, Blume is too eager to let any more secrets out of the bag. But as much as I personally would like to help you girls out, we don't exactly have safehouses to stash you in. We're a hacker group, we're not in the business of personal protection."
In a flash, Ilinca was back to charming smiles and honeyed words. "We know DedSec keeps hackerspaces all over the Bay area. You can let us stay at the one in this city, and in return we'll be more than happy to use whatever skills we may have to help out your group."
"Are you two hackers?" Marcus questioned.
"…No," Ilinca admitted.
"We don't let non-hackers inside HQ." Sitara's tone was apologetic, but firm. "I'm sorry that we can't help you and your sister out, Ilinca, but—"
"We'll give you the information we stole." Once more, the soft-spoken woman's voice cut through the conversation and brought all eyes to her, but she was still focused on her work. "Your headquarters is the only place Blume will never be able to find us. Let us stay there until we can get Blume off our tail, and we'll let you have the files."
"This was not the plan, moya mir," Ilinca hissed. "Without the information—"
"It's better off with them anyway. At least they'll do something good with it, and if it convinces them to hide us, then we don't have a choice."
Ilinca pinched the bridge of her nose, exhaling slowly before turning away from her sister, smile now strained. "Fine, if it will ensure our safety, we will give you the information we found and help out DedSec in whatever way we can while under your protection. Are these terms amenable?"
Marcus gave a thoughtful nod, weighing logistics in his head at the possible opportunity presented before them, "What kind of information are we talking about here?"
"Every board member's hidden skeletons too dirty to keep digitally." Ilinca gave a short pause. "And that's just the stuff I've taken the time to look through."
Both Sitara's and Marcus's expressions changed to one of shock. "That…certainly changes things," Marcus murmured after a moment. "We'll need to discuss this with the rest of the group before we give you any sort of answer, naturally. But we should be able to give you an answer within the next day or two. Think you can survive that long?"
Ilinca didn't bother to hide the pleased look on her face at his response. "Of course, I completely understand; having two strangers take up residence in your headquarters isn't a trivial matter. Here's my card, please feel free to contact me with any questions or decisions you may have, regardless of time." She fished out a business card and slid it across the table before getting up from the booth, smoothing down her blouse. "It was a pleasure to meet the both of you. I hope to hear from you soon." With that, Ilinca strolled out of the café as quickly as her long legs would carry her, not bothering to wait for her sister.
The quiet woman hesitated before following her sister. "I'm sorry about her trying inveigle you," she apologized, looking at both Marcus and Sitara for the first time since they arrived. "I'm Ava. My sister doesn't do well with relying on others or having things out of her control. This whole situation has shaken her more than she cares to admit." Ava gave the pair a small smile, then followed after her sister.
"You guys hear all that?" Marcus spoke aloud, and the comm channel in his hear burst into chatter.
"How the fuck does Blume have more secrets?!"
"It makes sense that they would protect their darker secrets by keeping them off digital records, but still around in case blackmail was needed."
"I can't say I trust these girls, but it's clear they're in some deep shit they can't seem to shovel out of."
"Right," Sitara sighed, standing up, "let's get back so we can all discuss this for real."
"Well, that went almost perfectly, I'd say," Ilinca sighed as she flopped into the dilapidated armchair of their latest hideout. "Now we just have to wait for their call."
Ava sat against the foot of the chair, enough blankets around her to almost lose herself in. "I still don't like that I had to talk. I don't like playing your part of the game. Especially to these people. They seemed nice."
"They are nice, moya mir. That's why I needed you there. You're soft and precious enough to snag any bleeding heart. And DedSec is not only full of them, but intelligent enough to be suspicious of me on my own. We couldn't have secured their help otherwise, though I wish you hadn't offered up our information like that."
Ava huffed and burrowed further into the blankets. "They weren't going to agree to break their rule without incentive, and they're too curious for their own good to say no to information. Besides, is it so bad for once for us to do something good with what we steal?"
"Having money is good," Ilinca stubbornly pointed out.
Ava gave a light laugh then yawned. "Yeah, but it feels nice to do something good for once." Hefting the blankets around her shoulders, Ava stood up and turned to her partner. "I'm gonna head to bed. Please actually comes to bed tonight; don't just stay up reading through more files."
Ilinca sat up just enough to press a kiss to Ava's forehead. "I promise I'll join you soon, moya mir. I'll need to be rested if we're going to be taking up residence with DedSec, but I want to look through a couple more files to see if there's anything on Caine." With that, Ilinca moved to a filing cabinet labeled Blume Corporation situated herself at a table to begin her work. What was supposed to be an hour turned into three, and it wasn't until Ava stomped in from the bedroom, pulling the files out of Ilinca's tired hands and chastising her, that she finally went to bed as promised.
Bright rays disoriented Ilinca as she roused herself from her sleep. She turned over, searching for Ava's typically curled up body. When she realized she was alone, she panicked and shot out of bed.
"Ava!" Ilinca stumbled out of the bedroom, looking frantically around the broken-down apartment they had been squatting in. "Ava?!"
A tangle of blue and purple hair popped around the corner of the kitchen. "Good afternoon! I wanted to make you pancakes, but you kind of slept through breakfast. And lunch. Jeez, you really needed to sleep, didn't you?"
Ilinca took a deep breath and rubbed her temples. "You turned off my alarm again, didn't you?"
"You needed sleep, Lin. I'm not going to apologize for that."
"Brat." Ilinca grumbled, though fondness still shone in her eyes. Ava's only reply was to stick out her tongue. "Did you at least check the business phone to see if DedSec got an answer to us yet?"
Ava popped back into the kitchen briefly before returning to the table with a stack of cold pancakes and an old flip phone. She set both on the table in front of Ilinca. "See for yourself."
Ilinca snatched up the phone to read the message that was left open on the screen.
Unknown Number (12:53 PM): Hey, Ilinca! It's Marcus. Just letting you know that we talked about it with the rest of the crew and decided to accept your terms. Pack up what you can, and I'll swing by later today to pick up y'all up. Sound good?
Ilinca scrolled down to see that Ava had replied for her since the text had been sent a few hours ago. Smiling at the cheerful exchange between her and Marcus, she set the phone down and began digging into her pancakes.
"So, did you plan on letting our new friends know just how much information they'd need to be moving?"
Ava admitted she wanted to see their faces when they saw just how much they'd be hauling back to HQ, and from there the afternoon spiraled into the two women scrubbing all evidence of themselves from the hideout and preparing the data to move locations. They had little to pack, since they had brought little from their home with them when they went on the run, but that hadn't bothered them; They both knew that slipping back in to their apartment would be easy with DedSec on their side to watch over them.
As evening arrived, so did a knock on the door. By then, Ilinca had changed back into her persona—still wary of trusting DedSec—and greeted Marcus as she let him inside.
"Good evening, ladies." Marcus gave an overdramatic bow as Ilinca opened the door and gestured for him to come inside. "I'll be your driver and rule-instructor for your stay at Casa del DedSec. Got everything packed up I hope?"
"Yeah, we've been traveling light since this whole debacle began. Everything else had to be left back at our place, which Blume has under surveillance 24/7, apparently." Ilinca led Marcus over to several waist-high filing cabinets, turning as if she were a showman on a game show. "And here we have your reward for assisting us two damsels in distress."
Ava gave a derisive snort, but when Marcus looked over at her, she didn't seem to be paying them much attention. Turning back to examine the filing cabinets, he gave a low, impressed whistle. "Now how'd y'all manage to sneak these puppies out? I can't imagine they weren't being heavily guarded or some shit."
Ilinca gave him a sly smile that reminded Marcus of a predator that was particularly pleased with its catch. "DedSec may be good at breaking and entering, but I have my own ways to get into secure areas."
Marcus raised an inquisitive eyebrow at her vague comment. "You know you're not gonna get away with the whole 'mysterious stranger' act for much longer, right? The others ain't gonna let ya stay if you don't give us a lil information about yourselves."
Ilinca's smile settled into something more amused as she leaned a hip on the nearest filing cabinet. Her gaze drifted over to Ava struggling to zip closed a second suitcase stuffed full of her work supplies. "Not to worry, I've already been given the talk about playing nice with others. I know it may not seem it, but I am grateful for the help DedSec is giving us," she reassured. Her attention lingered fondly on Ava for a couple more moments before turning to look Marcus directly in the eyes. "The first thing there is to know about me? That girl over there is my entire world, and I will do whatever I have to in order to keep her safe."
There was a hard edge to Ilinca's words that gave an implicit promise of just how far Ilinca was willing to go for the other woman. Absentmindedly licking his lips, Marcus thought back to some of the things he had done in the past year for the safety of his little found family. He gave a short nod to let her know he understood, "Trust me, I know the feeling." Marcus clapped his hands together, breaking the somber tension of the moment. "Now then! I guess it's a good thing I stole a moving van for you girls. Let's get you moved on in!"
The crew held their breath as they heard Marcus's voice introducing the two strangers to headquarters.
"And may I present to you ladies... The DedSec crew! This here is Josh, Wrench, Ray, and you've already met Sitara." Marcus hopped down the last couple steps to give a flourishing bow before introducing the other members as two women entered the communal space: one tall and impeccably put together, with an air of confidence emanating from her, and hidden behind her, a smaller woman with brightly colored hair and a soft, distracted look on her face.
Marcus turned to the rest of the crew, continuing his overdramatic act. "Gentlemen and lady, may I present Ilinca and Ava."
"I see we still haven't been graced with a last name," Ray commented, suspicion barely held back from his tone. "You wanna fill us in, kiddies?"
Ava had left her sister's side at some point to wander around, taking in the artwork and graffiti that littered the walls. "Were we on V or W, Lin?"
"W is next month," Ilinca stated, her eyes glued to her phone. "This month our last name is Valentine."
"Ah, right," Ava murmured, amusement laced through her soft words. "You've been excited to use Wayne this time around."
Ilinca shot her sister a sharp glance which went ignored. "...Yes, I have. It's uncommon enough to garner interest, but common enough that we will be lost enough in any lists should people try searching for us."
"You're naming yourself after the caped crusader?" Wrench blurted out, exclamation marks lighting up his mask.
Ilinca scoffed, "I assure you I don't know who or what that is."
Equal signs flashed on the anarchist's display, and he crossed his arms, looking as if he was barely holding back on what he thought about Ilinca's response.
"Right," Marcus heaved a sigh, "well, we only have one guest bedroom in the back so you'll have to figure out—"
Ilinca cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Ava will take the bed. I'll place my things in there so as to not be a bother, but the couch will more than suffice for my needs, sleep-wise."
The hackers all exchanged a surprised glance. From everything they had seen of Ilinca so far—from her designer clothes and immaculate makeup to the commanding and superior air about her, she didn't seem to be the type to prefer a couch over a bed. They looked over to Ava but she continued drifting around the room, distracted as she took everything in.
"All right, if that works for you," Marcus commented with a shrug of his shoulders. "Now, guys, I know y'all wanna give our guests the third degree, but check it. Imma need some serious help getting all the files unloaded and stashed away."
Sitara and Wrench perked up at that, and eagerly followed Marcus back out to start unloading the van. Ray settled in against the wall—a fresh beer in hand—to keep a conspicuous eye on the two women as Ilinca began moving their things into the hidden bedroom and Ava continued her idle inspection of the hackerspace. Once Ilinca had disappeared through the door, Ray took a swig from his bottle and cleared his throat.
"So…what is it you and your sister do exactly?" Ray prompted.
Ava turned to look at him, but didn't stop her circuit around edge of the underground headquarters. "We're con artists," she stated simply, peering at the 3D printer. As if sensing the next question on her interrogator's mind, she turned back to him and continued walking. "Don't worry, we're not a threat to DedSec. Our choice of marks overlaps quite a bit with the type of people you guys target, actually."
"I'm guessin' you two are more of the 'steal from the rich, give to yourselves' types rather than the poor though," Ray grunted.
A sly smile made its way across Ava's lips at Ray's comment, "Can you say DedSec's never used their skills for their own personal gain? That all the money you steal goes to others?" She gave a slight shrug, taking her attention away from all the art gracing the walls. "We were the poor when we started."
He gave a noncommittal hum in response, "Fair enough. So that must be the 'skils' your sister there offered up, huh? Mind elaboratin' just a bit more on what precisely those skills are?"
Ava went quiet for a moment, lost in an argument with herself over how much exactly she should reveal right now. But before she could reply, Ava slammed face first into Josh's side. She had gotten distracted by her conversation with Ray and hadn't noticed the quiet hacker standing in front of the monitor wall, staring intently at several screens and muttering under his breath. His rapt attention was broken as he stumbled from the impact. Startled, he whipped around to face the newcomer, flinching away from her touch and taking a deliberate step away when she instinctively moved to steady him.
"I'm so sorry!" Ava squeaked, embarrassment flushing over her cheeks. She quickly retracted her hands at his reaction and stepped back at the same time he did. "Sorry, uh, Josh, correct?" she asked nervously.
Josh stared at her for a moment, attempting to take in her body language and tone. "It was an accident. It's fine," he murmured, turning back to the screens in the wall in silent dismissal.
Ava side-stepped around Josh, sighing with relief when Ilinca came back into the main space. She wasn't used to this much attention on her, and while she still thought this was the best course of action, Ava had to admit: she was nervous about trusting DedSec.
Ray's interrogation quickly shifted over to Ilinca and Ava watched the finesse with which her partner handled the man's questions. She closed her eyes and took a deep breathe to calm the tension coiling in her limbs, urging her to grab Ilinca and run. It would be fine. It would all turn out all right. The plan would go just as they intended, and soon it would be smooth sailing for them once more. She let a small smile creep across her face as Ray chuckled at some wry comment Ilinca had made, approval quickly growing. Everything went so much smoother when Ilinca did the talking and Ava stayed behind the scenes.
It was, after all, the perfect system. What else could they possibly need besides each other?