The truck stopped at the gate, producing the occasional sputter and knocking sound as it sat there. The driver extended a hand out the window, waving for the camera, and the gate opened by way of remotely operated pulley.
It was another minute to the top of the hill, where the truck rolled to a stop in the parking lot, an expanse of gravel without any defined parking spots. The three people within remained where they were, warily observing the restaurant from a distance.
It was a log cabin writ large, the cedars stripped of their bark and stained with something that made them almost glossy, a warm yellow under the sun. The third floor was half the size of the other two, allowing the other half of what would have been the third floor to be a rooftop patio instead. A series of tables was scattered around the building, some close together and others a considerable distance away, as if they were trying to escape into the woods. Beyond the building was a cliff, and a vast expanse of forests, hills, mountains, and a small lake.
“Nice view,” Moose said, from the backseat.
Linc was settled in the passenger seat, reclining a bit with his seat angled back and his legs folded under him. With Moose in the back, he’d had to slide his seat as far forward as it could go, and it didn’t leave him much legroom. “Just think, past that view there isn’t nothing at all. If you headed straight ahead and kept going, you might not find any habitation until you ended up on the backside of this settlement here.”
“If you headed straight ahead,” the driver said, pausing to take a swig of the bottle of water she’d wedged into her cup holder, making a face at how warm it was, “You’d put yourself into that lake down there. Or you’d end up in the ocean. You’d drown either way.”
“People would call you an idiot,” she said. “Why would you go straight ahead like that? Are you proving a point?”
“I don’t think that’s what Linc was getting at,” Moose said.
“Harper knows what I’m getting at,” Linc said, turning around in his seat to look at Moose as he said it.
Moose was a big guy, with tousled blond hair. He’d undone some of the straps of his mask and had the mask laying over one muscular shoulder. The mask was metal, crude, and Moose wore something cloth under it for padding, which he had on now. He wore a sleeveless undershirt, jeans, boots, and had two gauntlets sitting next to him on the car seat. Even with the truck being large and Moose lying down across the length of the seat, he barely fit. He didn’t seem to mind much.
Behind Moose and the truck was the gravel road that led up the hill, the gate checkpoint, and a ways below that, the simple settlement where most visitors would be made to feel unwelcome. One to two thousand people would be living there at most.
“They built this place and situated it on the very edge of civilization,” Linc said, to round off his earlier thought.
“You two always seemed like the kind of edge of civilization people to me,” Moose asked.
“We do okay,” Linc said. “Put us in the middle of a city, we do fine, eh babe?”
“Mm,” Harper made a vaguely affirmative sound. “This a trap, y’think?”
Linc turned his attention to the building at the top of the hill. “Nah. Why would you build a nice place like this and use it for a nefarious purpose.”
“Well, y’know, it’s gonna be nefarious. That’s why we’re here,” she said. “It’s a question of if it’s a murderous sort of nefarious.”
“That’s a good question, I admit,” Linc said.
“I knew a guy,” Moose said. “He had a mansion. Inherited or somethin’. Super nice.”
“The guy or the house?” Linc asked.
“The guy was nice or the house was nice?”
“The house. That’s what I’m gettin’ at. The guy was as nefarious as they get. He renovated the insides. He wanted to make a whole business of holdin’ people that needed holdin’. For ransom. Said he’d deal with ’em and clean up the mess if ransoms weren’t paid. Wanted to be a contractor for disposin’ of people in horrible ways.”
“You’re supposed to just drop them off at the nice, conspicuous mansion, hand over cash?” Harper asked.
“That was it, I think. He’d make sure they died slow and horrible for you, clean them up, make sure they weren’t found.”
“Definitely not a nice guy then,” Linc said.
“I dare say he wasn’t,” Moose said.
“That’s a terrible idea for a business,” Harper said.
“It kind of is,” Linc said.
“Might’ve been,” Moose said. “He didn’t seem in it for the money, gotta say. I highly suspect he was more focused on the part where he would do horrible things to people. Guy has a nice place, he wants to do creatively bad things to people, and he wanted a bit of pocket money. Draw lines between each of those things and you end up with something shaped like his game plan there.”
“A triangle?” Linc asked, looking back at Moose. At Moose’s shrug, he elaborated, “If you draw straight lines between three things, you get a triangle.”
“Maybe the lines weren’t straight,” Moose said. “But if you’re wondering if this is a trap, I don’t think it being fancy is ruling anythin’ out.”
“It’s a log building, Moose. Nothing that fancy.”
“Fancy to me.”
Harper leaned forward against the steering wheel, to get closer to the windshield, squinting against the sun.
“What do you think, babe?” Linc asked. “Is it a murderous nefarious or a prosperous nefarious.”
“It’s something,” she said. “The people on the roof are in costume and some of them are looking at us. I think we better get ourselves inside or they’re going to start laughing at us.”
“They’re going to laugh whatever happens,” Linc said. “Your truck has seen better days-”
“Don’t go talking about my truck, Linc.”
“And we’ve got Moose with us, no offense Moose.”
“Some offense taken, thank you very much,” Moose said, indignant.
“You call yourself Moose. People are going to laugh. That’s when you show your merits and make them stop laughing, is the way it works.”
“People shouldn’t laugh in the first place,” Moose said. “The Moose is a terrifying and noble creature. If you wouldn’t fuck with a rhino, you shouldn’t fuck with a moose. It’s one of the only proper prehistoric, giant animal species to have the grit to last to today.”
Harper turned off the truck. The truck sputtered, coughed, and died abruptly, in a way that suggested it wouldn’t revive again.
“I know, bud,” Linc said, taking his eye off the truck’s much-abused, dust-caked dash. “I know that much, I’ve seen one up close. I’ve seen one run through snow that a normal person couldn’t walk in and hit a car hard enough to roll it. I have a healthy respect.”
“Damn right,” Moose said.
Harper gave Linc a look, pulling her full mask on and flipping up her hood.
“But they don’t all know it,” Linc said. “You gotta work with that. You picked a jokey name, you gotta put up with the jokes.”
“Hope was they’d be laughing with, not laughing at,” Moose said. “At least I’d hope you weren’t the ones poking fun at me. It’s unkind, Linc.”
Harper climbed out of the truck.
“I’m not laughing at, bud. I’m just saying they might be. That’s all,” Linc said. He pulled his mask on, fixed his hair and beard with few sweeps of his hand, and climbed out, then hit the lever to flip his seat forward and give Moose room to squeeze out.
Moose kept the cloth mask on over his upper face, leaving the metal mask on his shoulder. He stretched, his joints popping audibly, and pulled his fur-lined gauntlets on.
“You’re going to have to take those off again if we end up eating,” Linc said.
“It’s about presentation,” Moose said. “Besides, the name doesn’t make sense if I don’t got ’em.”
Harper was in costume, though the costume part was mostly a hooded, sleeveless top in her namesake velvet color, lopsided in how it trailed down over one leg in a robe-like aesthetic. She wore skintight shorts underneath. A black mask covered her upper face, and had truncated, forking horns that poked out through the top of the hood and kept the hood from falling back.
Linc wore a mask like Velvet’s, but his traced the area around his eye sockets and eyebrows, with the edges tracing back and into his hair, forking as they did. He wore a bodysuit for the upper body and pants. His costume had always been meant to be layered, but the heat had forced him to strip down to the base layer, with the pants only because he felt like a clown if he wore only the skintight stuff.
People leaning against and over the railing on the roof watched them as they approached the door.
“This place is a hell of a lot better than the last couple we visited,” Prancer remarked.
“More expensive too,” Velvet said. She was looking at the blackboard posted by the door, with prices. “Twenty dollars for a chicken sandwich?”
“Come on,” Prancer said, pushing the door open.
The inside was expansive, with the kitchen as an island in the middle, counters and surrounding it, booths around the edges of the room, and tables in the space in between. There were only eleven non-staff people within, but the ground floor could have seated a hundred or more.
Prancer approached the kitchen island. He spoke to a black, twenty-something woman in a tan polo shirt and apron, “Who do I talk to for the rules?”
She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating an elderly black man who was wiping out a glass. The man was watching, squinting with one eye, as he carried out the routine motion of cleaning the glass.
“He’s in charge?” Prancer asked.
The employee gave Prancer a single nod.
“What can I do for you?” the man asked, as the three approached.
“We’ve been around the block a couple of times, I’m just looking for a primer on customs, and any special rules.”
“Payment up front for what you’re ordering, have the money ready when you order if it’s busy. Don’t cause trouble, don’t draw weapons, don’t be loud, give us a heads up and use the side door or the patio if your power is going to bother anyone. Upstairs is the bar, you don’t go upstairs unless you’re invited or you already know you qualify to go upstairs.”
“What kind of qualification?” Velvet asked.
“If you have to ask, you don’t have it,” the old man said. He put the glass down and picked up another. “Roof is for more private meetings than you’d have on the second floor. Don’t go taking yourself up there if you wouldn’t be allowed on the second floor.”
“Noted,” Prancer said. “Anyone to avoid, watch out for, anything like that?”
“That’s more for you to watch out for than for me to bother with. If they’re causing a problem or being a bother to others, they’ll get kicked out. If you help with the kicking out, I’ll give you something on the house.”
“Right,” Prancer said. “Got it.”
“Do you serve drinks down here?” Moose asked.
“We do. Anything fancier than beer or wine, we’ll have to send someone upstairs to fetch it.”
“Could I grab a mightyman?” Moose asked. He pulled off a gauntlet and retrieved a wallet from his pocket. He held out a twenty. “Long, hot drive.”
“Name?” the old man asked, gesturing at an employee. The employee set to getting the beer. The old man pulled a pad and pen out of his apron.
“Name? Uh, M.K.,” Moose said.
“No initials,” the man said.
“Just Moose then,” Moose said, sliding the twenty across the bar. “We can order food at the tables?”
“You can,” the old man said. He picked up the money, then pulled out a fiver from the pocket of his apron and passed it back to Moose. He looked at the others. “Names?”
“Prancer. She’s Velvet.”
“Do I need to worry about you?”
“Nah. We’re pretty tame. We’re here to make contacts and get our names out there for the small stuff.”
“If you do any business, be discreet enough I and my staff don’t see it. If you use powers, don’t bother the person next to you.”
“Got it. Can I grab a beer? What my buddy Moose is having,” Prancer handed over the bills.
“Me too,” Velvet said.
Prancer withdrew a larger bill from his wallet, and set it on the counter, sliding it toward the old man. “Gratuity?”
“No need,” the old man said. “Service fees and peace of mind are worked into the food prices. Order something, if you want to thank me.”
Beers in hand, they briefly considered sitting at the counter before Moose took a seat at one of the tables.
“Where you sit is important,” Prancer said. “Booth, you’re minding your own business, you’ve got walls around you. Sitting at the counter, you’re open to people approaching you and joining you, I think. Not entirely sure how it works here in particular.”
“I hear you,” Moose said, “But I was sittin’ funny the entire drive here, and if I sit on one of those stools then I’m going to have my back spasming the entire way back. I need a sturdy chair, here.”
“Sure, doesn’t matter that much,” Prancer said. He twisted around in his seat, one hand on his beer, taking a look at the others who were present. “Pretty laid back here.”
“Could be a quieter time of the day,” Velvet said.
“Out of the way place, too,” Prancer said. “You heard what he said about using powers? How many places have we been to, and how many allowed use of powers at all?”
“Ten. Ten places,” Velvet said, hunkering down over her beer. “This is the only one, I think. Might have been a rule in The Well, but that was more the kind of place where you don’t know the rules until someone’s punching your face in for violating them.”
Prancer watched as a faint speck of dust traveled across his vision, pink-tinted. He smiled.
Four teenagers in the corner booth. They wore dark clothes with symbols and designs spray painted on and bleached into the fabric. One with a bandanna on his head looked their way, and Prancer flashed the guy a smile.
Three in another booth, against a wall. Tinkers. There was a cloth strewn out over the table, and parts were laid out. They ranged from twists of metal to a glass tube housing something that looked like a large, chewed wad of gum. The wad was throwing itself against the sides of its glass cage.
He wondered how that worked with the ‘no business’ rule. Were they only talking shop? Where was the line drawn?
Sitting alone in one booth was a woman with a mask covering her lower face, long black hair, and a long red dress with a slit down one side, exposing a tantalizing bit of leg. She wore an intricate framework of metal at her arms and hands, a series of bands at the elbow, wrist, knuckles, and rings at the finger, with thin rods of steel extending between each, along the back of each finger, and stopping at each finger and thumbtip. Each tip was enveloped by an ornate claw.
Her heels were much the same, Prancer noted. Heels were unusual for someone in costume, and hers were more unusual still. She wore something similar to her gloves, with the same bands at her leg, ankle, and foot, with the thin metal bars extending between each. Her toes were covered with the same metal claws, there was a strap of metal below the balls of her feet, and at her heel, one large claw-point served as the ‘heel’ of her heel, stabbing straight down.
When she moved one leg to fold one knee over the other, the claw tips moved on their own, twitching, recalibrating, the heel shifting back to stay pointed at the ground, flick back and away, then flick down.
She undid one side of her mask so it swung toward Prancer, still blocking his view of her mouth, helped by the draping of long hair, and she leaned down, taking a bite of her wrap. She put one hand to the loose end of her mask while she chewed, and fastened the end as she swallowed.
She saw him looking, turning her head his way. He smiled at her.
She only stared.
“Someone’s coming,” Moose said.
One of the spray painted kids. The guy Prancer had smiled at.
“Prancer, Velvet, M.K.,” Prancer introduced the group.
“Where are you from?”
“Alaska, believe it or not.”
“Long way,” the teenager said.
“Especially when you’re driving it,” Prancer said. “Who are you guys?”
“The group’s Ripcord. I’m Gorgos. We raid stores and resell, mostly. We’re nobodies. It’s the B-listers and small fry down here. The people with name recognition go upstairs.”
“Meaning the people we want to do business with are upstairs,” Velvet said, still leaning heavily over her beer.
“It’s fine,” Prancer said. “We’ll work it out.”
“What do you guys do?”
“We wheel and deal,” Prancer said.
“Prancer likes to be clever, but he doesn’t get that sometimes you have to explain why it’s clever, otherwise you only confuse people,” Velvet said.
“It’s why I have you, babe.”
“The wheel part is getaway driving and transporting,” she explained.
The kid leaned forward. The decoration on his outfit looked like the sort done with a stencil and a spray bottle filled with bleach, strategically bleaching fabric. Snakes and a woman’s face as a recurring motif. He had a bandanna over the top of his head and one over his nose and mouth. “What do you deal?”
“Grass, mostly,” Prancer said.
“You actually have some?”
“Not here, but we have it. Brand new and in high demand, given the times,” Prancer said.
“Are you looking for resellers?”
“For the right price. Mostly we’re looking for new friends, and we’re trying to get the lay of the land before we do anything too enterprising.”
“Can I get back to you?” the guy asked.
“You’re welcome to,” Prancer said. “We wouldn’t mind company either, if you guys wanted to join us.”
“I’d have to get back to you on that too,” the guy said. “We’re trying to find our way these days. We agreed in the beginning we wouldn’t have one leader, and that was great then, but right now we’ve got two different leadership styles butting heads.”
Prancer looked over at the table, where those seated were having a very fierce, hushed discussion.
“If you want to just sit and trade stories, we’d be happy to have you,” Prancer said. “Get away from all that, maybe come away with some fresh perspective.”
“I might take you up on that. For now I’d better get back and make sure nobody reaches across the table to strangle someone.”
“Question before you go,” Moose said. “Is it always this quiet?”
“It’s about to get noisier,” Gorgos said. “Keep an eye on the guy at the end of the kitchen there. He communicates with people in town. He was talking to the boss about something and the boss put another cook on the stove. Wait ten minutes and I bet he’ll hit the button to open the gate. If he holds it down it’s a lot of people. My guess is the ferry from NYC hit the shore near the G-N portal twenty minutes ago.”
“Good to know, thanks,” Prancer said.
Gorgos jogged back to his team.
“You’re dwellin’ a lot on going upstairs,” Moose observed.
“Reminds me of being a kid and being told I had to stay downstairs with my cousins and their friends during the holidays. My cousins were assholes,” Velvet said. “One good thing about Gold Morning is it took them out of the picture.”
“She’s wearing the purple cloak, that’s a sign of royalty, don’t you know?” Prancer plucked at Velvet’s hood. Velvet batted his hand away. “And royalty doesn’t not go upstairs. Royalty doesn’t show mercy.”
“Y’know I went to prison because of you, Prance,” she said, quiet.
“Well, yeah. I will point out we survived Gold Morning because we weren’t home when Alaska got hit.”
“I went to prison for you,” she said, again. “That counts for a lot.”
“‘Course. How does that connect, though?”
“Just sayin’,” she said, her accent thicker as her voice became softer. “You said things would be different.”
“They will,” he said. He put a hand around her shoulders and pulled her closer, then kissed the top of her head. “We’ve got a decent crop, a lot of demand. We’ll do okay. We’ll make inroads.”
“I’m optimistic,” Moose said.
“I’m not unoptimistic,” Velvet said.
“You’re not enthused either, doesn’t sound like,” Moose said.
“Just sorta hoping for more, sooner,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. There wasn’t much more to say.
Velvet reached out, and the menu flew from the tabletop to her hand. It was tinted red and dusty, but much of their table and glasses were, now.
Prancer took stock of the other three capes in the room before the newest batch of arrivals reached the front door.
There was one, who might have been a bouncer, who had stepped out the side door momentarily and was now taking a seat by that same door. He wore a mask of metal bars that looked like they’d been welded to one another, all vertical, but he also wore a black apron.
That left only the couple at the bar. Matching costumes, white armor with jet black iconography, multiple circles and crescents in various patterns, with the armor sprayed black around each icon, so it looked like the darkness glowed. The man wore full armor, the woman wore only scattered pieces of armor, with white chainmail to cover the rest of her.
They drank white wine, in the middle of the afternoon.
Capes were strange people, Prancer mused.
“I want to be the kind of person who earns her way upstairs,” Velvet said. Her head still rested against his shoulder, where he’d pulled her close.
“That’s really stuck in you, huh?”
“It’s stuck,” she said. Without moving her head, she raised the beer to her lips and took a careful sip.
“You might have to lose the beater of a truck, babe, if you want to dress the part.”
“Don’t go talkin’ about my truck, Prance.”
“Every time you turn it off, it sounds like it’s off for good. I say a little prayer to myself that it will be, even knowing it’s a long, long walk back to home. Then I can take the money I’ve got saved up and buy you something nice. All the bells and whistles.”
“When I got out of prison, I only had two things, babe. That truck, and you. I wasn’t feeling especially fond of you at the time, either. It’s the only thing I’ve had for myself since I was old enough to have anything, that I’ve been able to keep.”
“Counts for somethin’, that,” Moose said.
“It does,” Velvet said, frowning down at her beer.
Prancer frowned at Moose, who only shrugged. Guy wasn’t making it any easier.
“What if we overhauled the outside, got someone to give the engine a real solid lookin’-at?” Prancer asked.
“So long as it stays my truck. I don’t want you ship-of-Theseusing it.”
Prancer resisted swearing under his breath. So that tactic wouldn’t work.
There was more of the pink dust in the air, now. He gave Velvet a kiss on top of the head, then shrugged slightly. She moved her head off of his shoulder, sitting upright.
“Things will be better,” he said.
She reached for his hand and squeezed it. “I’m going to go find the ladies’ room. Order food before things get hairy. I’ll have the chicken caesar sandwich and grab a few bottled waters while you’re at it. For the drive back.”
“You know the markup on those will be insane,” Prancer said.
“Just get me my water,” she said.
She walked away. Prancer watched her walk away, feeling wistful.
He signaled the waitress. He made sure to give Velvet’s order while he remembered it, and then gave his own. Moose put in enough of an order for two people.
When they were alone again, Moose commented, “Sorry, for interjectin’.”
“When you were talking about the truck, and about prison.”
“Ah. Yep. Apology accepted.”
“Hard to be the third wheel sometimes. Especially when things get complicated, relationship-wise.”
“Can’t speak about the third-wheeling. That’s for you to figure out. But for the relationship part, it’s the simplest thing in the world, Moose,” Prancer said. “She’s my girlfriend, I’m her boyfriend. Sometimes you and she enjoy each other’s company, sometimes I enjoy someone else’s company, but that doesn’t change that it’s me and it’s her as the boyfriend and girlfriend.”
His voice had become progressively more stern as he’d talked. He paused, meeting Moose’s eyes.
“Makes sense,” Moose said. Prancer smiled.
“Doesn’t seem like you’ve had anyone but her keeping you company, gotta say,” Moose said.
Prancer looked at the woman with the mask on her lower face and the claw-heels. “Trying to be better.”
“Good for you,” Moose said, before taking a drink of his beer.
“I’m going to marry that Velvet sometime soon,” Prancer said. “I’ve just got to make amends for old wrongs first. Can’t ask her to marry me when the last momentous event in our lives was me being a screwup.”
“The prison thing?”
“Everything before, too. Trying to be better.”
“I don’t want to step on any toes or get into anythin’ too sensitive here,” Moose said. “But can I ask? Would be easier to not step on toes if I can ask.”
“It’s the whole thing. Get powers as a kid, sixteen years old, make friends with the right people, start dealing. It’s an elevation in status, y’know? I was the guy who the cool kids in high school went to for product. Had money, had girls throwing themselves at me, I was invited to all the parties, and I meet Velvet there. One of many girls in one of many cities. But she gets powers and comes back to me, wants in, wants out of her house, especially. I oblige, and she doesn’t make me regret it.”
“Years pass, we find our fit. She’s got more financial sense, I’ve got the salesmanship. Most capes, there’s going to be conflict. She’s got her thing, you know how her power works. She hangs around somewhere, and this dust collects, and she can telekinetically control stuff, more dust there is on it. It’s how she gets that fucking truck going again, when it refuses to move. She makes us sit there for five minutes and then gives it another try, and it works, and she’ll fiddle with it later and get it tuned up just enough it starts going.”
“She must care an awful lot about it,” Moose observed.
“She does. But that’s her whole psychology. She wants to settle in, wants to have a place she can call hers, whether it’s that truck cab or, I don’t know, going upstairs. I get restless. The mover thing. That causes friction. But we work despite it. We’re as soulmate as you can get when you’ve got… whatever these things are giving us our powers. Parasites. You had the visions when we were on the battlefield, that day.”
“Sure,” Moose said.
“As yin-yang soulmate as you can get with these things screwing up the fit,” Prancer said. “But we got comfortable. I graduate school, barely, she graduates a year after me, we keep up the routine. Some wheeling, mostly dealing. The parties every weekend, tooth and nail fights because we’re both the type to flirt with others, before we realized we were fine just not worrying about it. Couple more years pass, I’m twenty-one, she’s twenty, still in the routine.”
“A rut?” Moose asked.
“Just the way things were. Somewhere along the line, you know, I’m twenty-seven, she’s twenty-six, and I’m still boning boys and girls from high school. Still partying.”
Moose’s eyes had widened.
“Legal, mind you,” Prancer said. “But… sketchy, in retrospect.”
“More than a little, no offense,” Moose said.
“None taken. I deserve it. I didn’t realize until they came after us. Capes, police. You get into a groove and you don’t think about things and somehow a decade gets away from you. You’re not the cool guy people are excited to get to know. You’re the guy they’re into because they have to be if they want a discount, or if they want someone accessible that’s older. Sad. Pathetic. Slapped me in the face while people were talking to and about me in court. Forced me to take a long, hard look at who I was and who I wanted to be.”
“That’s good,” Moose said.
A young woman entered the restaurant. Prancer almost thought it was the first of the influx, but she was alone. She was an older teenager or twenty-something, with long white hair, wearing a black dress and black makeup, and she took a seat alone at the table. She rummaged in a bag to find a book.
The waitress approached her, kettle already in hand. The money was passed across the table, and the tea was poured. A regular.
Her mask was so simple it might as well have not been there. Curious, too, that she’d come this far to read a book. Maybe someone would be joining her.
Prancer watched the new arrival, but he kept talking, “She told me, over and over again, I needed to be better. That she wanted better. That we needed to be careful. I didn’t listen. We got out of prison, she took me back, and I owe her for that.”
“If your critical flaw was not listening, might be you’ve gotta listen when she’s saying she loves that vehicle out there.”
Prancer nodded slowly. Then he let his head loll back, and he groaned. “I’ve put up with that thing for so many damn years.”
Velvet’s glass of beer slid across the table, and Prancer caught it just before it could reach the edge of the table and tip into his lap.
“You’re talking about my truck?” Velvet asked, making her way back from the restroom.
“Moose is telling me to let it go,” Prancer said. “I’m trying to come to terms with the idea.”
“You’re a good boy, Moose,” Velvet said, taking her seat. The glass pulled out of Prancer’s hands, sliding across the table to slap into Velvet’s hand.
“Appreciate that, Velvet.”
“Did you order or did you forget?” she asked.
“Remembered,” Prancer said. “It’s coming soon.”
The front door opened.
A large collection of capes entered and immediately headed off to find their booths and tables. One of the new arrivals stepped inside and loitered by the door. She was a woman with a slender figure and a bag over her head, for lack of a better description. The bag was cloth, with a pink animal pattern on it. The rest of her form-fitting outfit matched, including the shawl she wore.
Prancer leaned in the direction of the door, putting his mouth near Velvet’s ear. “I see Nursery. I wonder if Blindside is around.”
“I hope the kid’s okay,” Velvet said. She looked at Moose. “Were you there when we talked to ’em?”
“They were up to something.”
A man in armor was one of the last to arrive. The armor was white, and looked like it was fashioned of strips, woven and wound around him, the ends left frayed and sticking out to the sides and behind him. There was no face to it. Only a Y-shaped set of ridges. He stood between Nursery, a man in a black outfit and heavy hood, and a heavyset man with long hair, a dense beard, and a mechanical arm that extended to the ground.
At his arrival, people across the room started applauding, from Ripcord to the people at the counter, to the white haired girl and the woman with the mask. Even the kitchen staff. The man in armor laughed, the sound mingling with the general applause.
Moose joined in, and Velvet and Prancer offered their own light, confused applause.
“Thank you. Thank you. Is Marquis here?” the man in armor asked.
The old man at the kitchen pointed skyward. “Roof.”
The man in armor saluted, then ducked back through the door.
Velvet raised her hand to get Nursery’s attention. The woman’s group was already splitting up. The man in black joined the people in white armor. The bearded man with the mechanical arm walked over to the woman with the claws, sitting in her booth.
Nursery approached the table.
“Good to see you,” Prancer said.
“I didn’t think I would see you three all the way out here,” Nursery said.
“We’re trying to see who’s out there. The other places have been a little seedy.”
“They are. Seedy can be fun, though,” Nursery said. “Reminds me of the old days.”
“You keep updating your costume,” Velvet said.
“Silly thing, isn’t it? It’s easier to make a new one than to wash the blood and slime out. I feel ridiculous.”
“What was happening with the applause?” Prancer asked.
“Mission success,” Nursery said. “In a roundabout, unexpected way, but that’s often how these things go.”
“Congratulations,” Moose said.
“Thank you, Moose. It was a thing. We took a week to figure out what we were doing, we had to check with a few people, a number of thinkers, make sure we weren’t stepping on toes. The peace being what it is, we didn’t want to cause too much trouble.”
“Was it a big mission?” Prancer asked.
“Big,” Nursery said. “Plenty of room for things to go very wrong, with some bad repercussions that could be felt by everyone.”
Prancer’s eyebrows went up.
“But we were careful, we had the right people-”
“You included among those people,” Velvet said.
“Yes,” Nursery said, clasping her hands together.
“What was the job?” Prancer asked.
“To kidnap someone, and have her disappear for long enough that people would get upset about it.”
“Huh,” Prancer said.
“They’re anxious out there. They feel powerless. The idea was to pick someone controversial, and take them out of the picture. Make them the topic of debate. Is vigilante justice right or wrong? In this case, where the wrong isn’t so terribly wrong? Well, that was their idea. I do think she did something horrible. It’s why I agreed to the job.”
“What was that?”
“Hurt a woman and made her miscarry. They say it was a mistake.”
“I can see where that hits close to home.”
“Sorry to hear,” Moose said.
“Thank you. You’re kind. The plan was to provoke the debate and raise the issue before things reached a more critical point. Venting off the steam before things exploded. The debate seems to be trending that way.”
“Sounds like it needed a fine hand,” Velvet said. “That’s some good work.”
“I didn’t do it alone,” Nursery said.
“Your first time working with the others?”
“It was. Lord of Loss is sweet, good at what he does.”
“He went straight to the roof, I’m guessing that means he isn’t the type to work with B-listers like us.”
“No, I suppose not. He doesn’t like being indoors. You’re recruiting? That’s what you’re asking after?”
“Or looking for a spot of work,” Prancer said.
“Snag, sitting over there, is looking to hire people for a project down the road. He wants to do test runs first, make sure he succeeds on the first try. Those two hired the same information broker we worked with for that job.”
“You had an information broker?”
“She was ops too. Talked to us on the earpieces. A little shaky on some things, surprisingly quick on others. But I think you run into that with any thinker.”
“Snag is a few months new, a rookie, with a rookie’s mindset, but he has good instincts. If I can say this in confidence…”
“Of course,” Velvet said.
“…I wouldn’t want to be on a team with him long-term,” Nursery said. “He’s mean. Unkind, impatient. Emotional. You get that with a lot of the new ones. Too close to whatever set them off.”
Prancer nodded slowly. “Old ones have their own problems. Ruts and routines.”
“They do. Um, I should hurry. Blindside has a mouth but I do like them. They do a decent job, if you can work around the limitations. They’re outside now, sitting on the patio by the side door. Can’t come inside without turning a few heads.”
Prancer smiled at the bad joke.
“Kingdom Come likes his bible verses, I earned some considerable brownie points by knowing the names and numbers to go with most of them. Benefit of bible school until I was eighteen. He’s a consummate professional. Very gentle, very efficient.”
“Expensive?” Velvet asked.
“Not too bad, I don’t think. I don’t know what he was paid, but if it’s close to my own wage, it shouldn’t be horrendous. He’s very selective about the jobs he’ll accept.”
“What about you?” Prancer asked.
“Me? I’m boring. I’m not even a parahuman, not really.”
“Wait, what?” Moose asked.
“I’m not,” Nursery said. She had a light tone of voice, like she was smiling from the other side of the cloth mask. “It’s why I feel so out of place in costume.”
Prancer watched as others came through the door. He recognized Biter but failed to get Biter’s attention with a wave.
“How does that work?” Moose asked.
“Show him the bump,” Velvet said, smiling.
“The bump?” Moose asked. “Oh.”
Prancer glanced over at Nursery, who was holding her cloth costume tighter against her stomach, showing her slightly protruding belly.
“They’re the parahuman,” Nursery said. “I’m the ride.”
“Oh,” Moose said. “Oh wow. Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry. It’s a bond unlike any other,” Nursery said. She gave Moose a pat on the cheek. “It’s hard sometimes, but I owe it to them. Making up for mistakes I’ve made.”
“Yeah,” Prancer said, staring at his beer. He looked from his glass to Nursery. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, hm?”
“I’ll try,” she said. “I should go. Take care and wish me luck.”
“Good luck,” Moose said. He still looked shell-shocked.
“What’s next?” Velvet asked, smiling.
“What we did yesterday is only one instance. They’ll have to do it again when the pressure builds. Sooner or later, however many thinkers they work with, however good the people they hire, there will be a mistake. Something will happen, it could be too much, too little, and then everything goes to hell in a handbasket.”
“Heavy,” Prancer said.
“But I’ve stayed too long. My baby and I earned ourselves an invite upstairs, because they might hire me again, and because we showed our stuff, I don’t want the offer to expire,” Nursery said, excited. “We can’t drink at the bar, but it’s still a chance to meet some of the people running the corner worlds, the major players. A huge opportunity.”
“That’s amazing,” Moose said, looking down at the bump. “Congratulations. Both of you.”
“You’re so sweet. I should go, excuse me,” Nursery said, leaving.
“We’ll talk again,” Prancer said.
Velvet raised a hand, her smile frozen on her face. Prancer reached over to squeeze her thigh.
“I think I hate her now,” Velvet said.
He gave her leg another squeeze.
His thoughts turned over as he watched the people enter. Some headed upstairs. Ones with nice costumes, scary ones. He recognized quite a few.
There were also the others. The B-listers, the dregs, the people who weren’t yet established, filling up the ground floor, ordering their food and drinks.
“Hey Moose,” he said.
Moose stared off into space, in the direction of the stairs.
“Moose,” Velvet said. “I’m pretty sure she’s a loon. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”
“Moose,” Prancer tried again.
Moose frowned, glancing back at the stairs. “Yeah?”
“Look at the room. Tell me, who do you know here?”
“Some of the big guys. Biter, you and I had drinks with him. Etna, Crested, Beast of Burden, Bitter Pill, Nailbiter, Hookline, Kitchen Sink.”
“Do me a favor?”
“Round ’em up. Anyone you get along with, who you think wouldn’t cause a fuss.”
“What are you doing?”
“Still figuring it out,” Prancer said. “You recognize anyone?”
“Few people. You want me to gather ’em?”
“Please. We might have to take it outside. Actually, let’s definitely take it outside. By the side door. So the owner doesn’t complain.”
“You’ve piqued my interest,” Velvet said.
Prancer nodded, still lost in thought. He watched as she walked away, pausing to feel a moment of fondness for her, and then resumed his thinking. He made his way to the side door.
“Hey,” Blindside said.
“Hey. Gathering some people. Thought we’d come to you, invite you to hear me out.”
“Thanks, Prancer. What’s this about?”
“Give me a second to think. I’m a salesman, and I’ve got to figure out exactly what I’m pitching.”
Prancer stuck his fist out, stopped where Blindside’s power made it stop. He felt Blindside tap a fist against the side of his hand.
The others assembled. The people who had been invited, then the people who hadn’t, who were curious.
“I want to organize,” he started. “I’m not the person to lead it, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a power play. I’m not a power player. But I think, right now, while we’re still at peace, while there aren’t so many people who have beefs with one another, or the beefs have had two years to go quiet, this would be the chance to do it.”
“You wouldn’t be the first person to think about doing this,” Biter said.
“No, some other groups, some small, some large. They’re banding together, a mutual peace. Forming a set of rules and expectations that aren’t unwritten, that we actually discuss and work out.”
“With the little guys?” Prancer asked. “B-listers? Those of us who aren’t being focused on while the big guys are laying out tracts of territory and settlements?”
“Some of them. Those groups are smaller than you’d be talking, if you’re talking about everyone here.”
He glanced at Velvet, and he saw the way she was looking at him, and he felt like a proper man for the first time. She reached for his hand and squeezed it, hard.
Then, more alive and excited than he’d seen her in a long, long time, Velvet spoke, “You think they’d be open to talking?”
“I think they might,” Biter said.