Interlude 10.x

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A space heater hummed by her feet while her eyes stared at a glowing screen.  The room had gone dark as half of the streetlights turned off outside to conserve power, and though the one lamp and computer screen were now insufficient to light the space she didn’t rise from her chair or look away from the screen.

Her hand crushed a plastic chemical packet, activating it.  She rolled it between her hands as it warmed up.  Fingerless gloves so she could type and a chemical hand warmer helped her hands, the space heater warmed her feet, a blanket warming her legs, and she liked to imagine her power warmed her head.  The rest of her was cold.

The person who had the camera would be colder, she knew.  She still wished whoever had built this place had been more mindful of insulation.

Most of the mega-city was asleep, but if she imagined the screen was a window that she could open and walk through, then there was a small festival happening just twenty feet away.

People were standing in groups, parents with kids working their way past clusters of friends to get closer to the front.  The space was sterile, with black and white tile along the halls that had been sourced from the same places that cut-and-paste bathrooms all across the mega-city used and blue-bright fluorescent lights on the ceiling and walls.  The floors were white resin, but were caked with grime and salt.

Grime and salt, past knowledge that sixty-seven thousand people pass through in one day, scheduling, past knowledge of staff, knowledge of attention to detail in security; floor cleaners are mechanical, work-

“No,” Tattletale interrupted her power, not taking her eyes off of the scene.  “Don’t need that.”

Her head pounded softly, making her very aware of her heart rate and the flow of blood through her brain, as if the ‘no’ had been a hard physical strike to her forehead.

Things here were just a little harder.  There was no stock of snacks, her headache pills were in a leather carry-on bag, not that they helped much, and nothing was where it should be.  The heights of chair and desk were limited, the screens limited to that of her laptop and the monitor she had had packed, and her emergency server for her computer was all the way back at home.

March had been gunning for her.  The attack had been a virtual guarantee, and with her own power and March being who she was, the risk had been that March would blow up half of New Brockton.  She’d done similar things in past altercations.  The fucking nightmare.

Retreating meant being strong as a group, protecting New Brockton, and ensuring they couldn’t be picked off one by one.

Which meant that Tattletale and the rest of the Undersiders, Rachel excepted, were here in Faultline’s territory.  Blocks of an out-of-the-way coastal city that had been put up in anticipation of a rush to get property, with the company going bankrupt after people had been warned to stay away.  Plumbing so faulty that there were rooms the water ran down the wall from ceiling to floor, no insulation in many buildings, and, as was the case with many ghost towns, the lack of residents had meant that businesses opted out of setting up, and without amenities and businesses, the residents had become even more scarce.

Faultline was laundering mercenary money through the area, and was inadvertently revitalizing portions of it.  The boom of people needing to get out of tents and into warm places helped.

Tattletale moved the chemical hand warmer, sandwiching it between her hand and the mouse while she used the keyboard to check different sites and scenes.

Trading Dollar rose 2.1%, rose 1% yesterday, past knowledge that New Dollars are under attack; currency market stabilizing.
Level of stabilization, consistency of rises, actors in this field include Number Man, Dido, Semiramis, and Little Midas; one unknown actor is engaged in this playing field-

Her lips mouthed the word ‘no’.  Police scanner?

Series of riots and other incidents in Providence, police pulled from the Boston area, area is behind in shelter, resources-

“I can draw my own conclusions on that one.  People have nothing, it’s cold, they’re bitter and scared,” she whispered.  She switched back to the video feed.

Level of apparent excitement, staff movements, knowledge of usual schedules, weather-

Don’t need it to be exact, she thought, pushing that thought into the jumble of details and knowledge.

–; More than twelve minutes, less than twenty minutes.

There were other things.  News.  Status of Class-S threats…

Sleeper; active
Machine Army; 4.83% growth since last check, active
Endbringers; one dormant, one active, others dead or unknown locations.

Active Endbringer.  She zeroed in on that.  A few mouse clicks brought her to a site that tracked the Simurgh.

The activity was only a renewed cluster of sightings.  Not an attack.  The Simurgh was somewhere near Bet’s Indonesia.  Not flying as she’d once done, either.  Floating around.  Facilities and factories in the area had been repurposed into accommodations.  People in the area were hunkered down, enduring life on new Bet instead of moving on to new places, leaning on some risky non-tinker tech advances.  Going the sci-fi route in tackling what Bet was going through.  Those same people were responsible for the flurry of reports about the Simurgh, which had led to her being flagged ‘active’.

As if it had just happened, Tattletale pictured the mental image of the Simurgh just past a window, floating like she dangled from a noose, a moment so close to the end of the world…

Rex.

Rex; dead.

The lights in her room flicked on.

Foil.

“Lily.  How nice of you,” Tattletale said, before spinning her chair to face the door, hands clasped together.  The dramatic effect was lessened by the heating packet she held between them.

“Why are you sitting in the dark at this hour?”  Lily asked.  She leaned against the doorframe.  She was wearing an oversized T-shirt, black with a sabertooth tiger leaping out of a rectangular frame that helped to give the image three dimensions.  She had pyjama bottoms and slippers, to boot.

Sleep clothes, length of pyjama pants strings, choice of t-shirt color and size; gained weight, 5-10 pounds
Gained weight, 5-10 pounds, athletic disposition; unusual, other causes are in play.
Gained weight, comfort, relative ease, wearing girlfriend’s design; leading a more relaxed, domestic life.
Gained weight, isn’t out on patrol, is at ease; out of the habit of cape stuff, carries out general duties, bodyguarding, engages for regular incidents.
Leading more relaxed, domestic life; is happy.

She doesn’t look happy.  March?

At relative ease but not happy, history of past relationship with Tattletale-self; strongly dislikes Tattletale-self.

Still.  Still dislikes Tattletale-self.  Me.

A series of fleeting thoughts and connections, flying through and into her mind in eyeblinks.

Scarcely missing a beat, she answered, “Conserving power.  Shutting out the rest of the world to limit information intake.  Monitor as good as mine, doesn’t strain anything to look at it in the dark.”

Tattletale smiled.  Lily didn’t smile back.

“Do you want me to turn the lights off, then?” Lily asked.

“Leave it.  Someone else might notice and flick them on again.  Not that I don’t appreciate the little gesture.”

Not a gesture.

“Okay,” Lily said.  She didn’t leave.

She wants something.

No shit, Sherlock.

“How are your legs?”

Tattletale raised her feet, closing one eye slightly in a wince.  “Ninety percent better.  Turns out taking untested, black market drugs have their merits.”

“Bitter Pill?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s mercenary.  Doesn’t give anything for free, calls in favors and calls hard.”

“You know her, huh?”

“Reached out to her after Sabah and I ran into a kid in a bad place.  Kid’s powers didn’t do anything to fix their body issues, and really complicated conventional methods to fix it.  We thought Bitter Pill could do something.”

“Too expensive?”

“Is your power telling you that?”

Common sense.  Bitter Pill did temporary work, but that work could be a lot of things.  The only ways it would work were to pay for regular doses over the long term, or pay for her to drop everything and research something long-term.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.

“She’s dangerous.  We’re pretty sure she was looking to get the kid in a position where they were taking regular doses.”

“Yeah, probably.”

“And get a kind of control over him.  Fucked up, and it says a lot that she was willing.  There was so little to be gained.  With you?”

“I get it.  I know how she is, and there’s no need for warnings.  Yeah, sure, she’s demanding and she’s really hungry to gain some ground right now, but I like having legs.”

“Your funeral.”

Dismissive, word associations: death, endings, ceremony; strongly dislikes Tattletale-self.

“No need to apologize or anything,” Tattletale said, leaning back, checking her computer screen.  Nothing had happened yet.  “Not like I took two bullets because of your whole psychotic rabbit girl thing.  Imp lost an arm.”

“We’re hoping we can get it back,” Lily said, before sighing.  “We’re all nervous, but you seem fine.  I was hoping you knew something we didn’t, and you could reassure us.”

“Huh,” Tattletale said.  She turned herself around.  There was a quick protocol for it.  One keystroke pinged all of her teams.  She saw the messages come in.  Each of them got a text, if they were on phones or undercover, and buzzed in a certain way on walkie-talkies if they weren’t.  One by one, a long column of circles in a table switched over from yellow to green.

Response times; fine.
#1 responding slower than before, has anger issues, sleep issues; post-

Tattletale shook her head.

“Problem?” Lily asked.

“Mild headache.  Let me see…”

She sent a message to Fish.  He was handling the active surveillance of March’s group.  The faint icon appeared, indicating that he was typing.  She turned back to the screen, pretending to look at it while she considered what her power gave her.

March behavior history, current team response times, current movements of capes, March’s connections to others; March is recruiting and preparing right now.  Will sleep in after a late night of work.

She turned the idea around in her head.  Not as instantaneous as the flicker-fire of information flowing through her head as fast as she could think it, because it meant paying attention to what pieces of information were provoking each output.  Something smaller, using only some segments of information, see how that changed the result…

March behavior history, current team response times; March is stalking, closing in.

Okay…

March behavior history, is stalking and closing in, our current precautions and help from Faultline; March is stalking, trying to close in.  Lacks resources to succeed within six hours.

Another tack, playing with different segments of information…

March behavior history, her connections to other groups; March is out recruiting right now.

Fish had his response.  March’s group wasn’t nearby.  They were out on the road.

“We’re fine,” Tattletale said.  “Tell Sabah she can sleep easy.  If she is out there and closing in, she won’t manage it anytime soon.”

“Thank you,” Lily said.

“It’s what I do.”

“Good night, Lisa.”

“Good night.”

Lily was slow in stepping away from the door.  Meandering.  Tattletale raised an eyebrow, so the expression was already on her face by the time Lily turned to face her again.

“I am sorry,” Lily said.  “That you got pulled into this.”

Says she is sorry, halting words, phrasing ‘I am’; lying.
Lying, says she is sorry, halting words, phrasing; connotations of ‘you owe us this’.  Believes that Parian’s criminal activities are Undersider’s fault.
Is factor in mild but persistent resentment of Tattletale-self.

“It’s fine,” Tattletale said, shrugging it off.

“I appreciate this.”

The information started to come in, taking apart the words.  Tattletale shook her head, denying and dismissing the information as she did it.

“It’s what friends do,” Tattletale said, though Lily had already left.

She turned back to the screen.

The train had arrived.  Soldiers returning from deployment.  Capes wore civilian uniforms and casual clothes, and blended into the crowd.  Her power identified the ones familiar to her, that she might not have otherwise recognized with their masks off or the obscuring details between the camera and the returning people.

Cinereal
Weld
Golem
Tallboy
Laserdream
Rocketround
Typhlosis
Vista
Stank Bank

That last one was someone she had tracked before Gold Morning.  She would have changed her name now that she was a hero.  She wouldn’t be one of the players in the financial scene, that was propping up the Trading Dollar, but still worth keeping an eye out.

She warmed her hands with the packet and got her feet warm where they’d been pointed away from the space heater for the duration of her conversation with Lily.

She would watch this to see what information she could glean, check some more things, communicate with her teams, and then go to sleep.  Under the covers, she would be warm.  Whoever had made this apartment had skimped on insulation, but Faultline hadn’t ignored the luxuries like good beds and blankets.  Even the one on Tattletale’s lap now was comfortably warm for how thin it was.

Tempting, to imagine going to bed.  To disconnect.

She watched Victoria Dallon weave through the crowd.  People had parted as Weld reached the crowd.  Avoiding the monstrous case-53.  Victoria and a Garotte with flesh instead of armor moved into the gap the part had made.

The video had no sound, but Tattletale could parse it.

Garotte, body language, clearly nervous; says, ‘it’s just a hologram’
Weld, smiling; says ‘you look good.  wow’

The awkward pause lingered after.

Ten feet of distance between them, awkwardness, timing; a divide.  Emotional distance.

What did it say that she wanted them to fail?  What did it mean, and where did that feeling come from?  Was it strategic, that it would get them off her back for a little while, make them a little weaker?

Her power supplied nothing, and she wouldn’t have trusted it if it had.

The distance between Garotte and Weld closed.  Garotte said something.

Garotte, cognizant of nearby people and watching eyes; ‘I’m so glad you’re okay.’
Weld, smiling; ‘I’m indestructible.’
Garotte responding, closing distance to keep the conversation private; ‘I know that isn’t true’ followed by another sentence segment; ‘Your body is tough but your heart can break.’
Weld’s silence, head moving; looking at the hologram
Garotte, Hand at one elbow, standing askew; ‘It’s not a problem, covering up my differences?’
Weld, taken aback, shaking his head; ‘no’.

Tattletale watched as the pair drew close enough to touch one another.  She watched Weld kiss Garotte.

Victoria, a short distance away, was smiling.  Her cousin was close to her, exaggerating how dead she was on her feet.

Capes tired, soldiers tired, moderate casualties, no major figures lost…

She started tallying up the observations, her attention on other things in the scene.

Victoria Dallon hugged her cousin.  They talked, and Tattletale kept her focus on the details of the scene.  The reason she’d wanted to tune in, had a man on the ground, camera ready.  These fleeting moments where people were together provided the clearest image of what was happening offworld.  Places utterly disconnected from the world and dimension she inhabited.

If she’d anticipated this, set up more infrastructure, if she’d hammered it all out-

Victoria and Garotte passed by the camera, distracting her.  Sveta was talking to Weld, all excitement, animated.  The ice had been broken.

So easily formed after a short time away, Tattletale thought.

The scene gave her a glimpse of Weld’s face.

Fondness.

Back to business.  All information pulling together…

Mood, tempo, body language individual and collective, differences between cape and civilian; war.  Fighting humans; foreign humans, divide marked between them and intervening Warden and paramilitary arms; Warlords.

War involving African warlords, mood, tempo, body language, and everything else; war won, with casualties.  Situation unresolved.

Crowd thinning out; Train empty.
Train empty, capes seen; Valkyrie gone

Valkyrie gone, past knowledge that Valkyrie is ignoring Gimel for reasons, past knowledge that Valkyrie’s reasons include high-level threat, stronger, more numerous, past knowledge that Valkyrie feels small against this threat;
Valkyrie alive.  Scouting, procrastinating.

The screen showed a message.  Her cameraman, wanting to know what he should do.  She sent him instructions to follow the crowd outside, getting as much footage of the group as possible.  This was intel on capes she didn’t get a chance to interact with much, it was intel on the situation, on the public mood, on the struggling authority that managed the Wardens and subsidiary teams…

She yawned.

The man with the camera had followed the crowd to the area outside the station.  He watched the crowd and in the doing he watched Weld and Garotte, Victoria and Laserdream.  Vista had approached the group.

The camera went black.  It was a good thing the lights had been flicked on, because the room would have been plunged into darkness with the screen off.

Her heart pounded.  She was left to wonder if it was one of the breakers, the computer plugged into a different switch than the lights of her temporary accommodations.

Lights on the computer blinked.  It wasn’t a power outage.

She was halfway to the mouse when the screen lit up.  Pink against a black background.  An emoticon, with hearts for eyes and a dash for the mouth.

The face disappeared, turning into a single ‘hi!’.  Tattletale’s power kicked in, but it was one of the rare instances where she was faster than the blink-of-an-eye power.  She hit the big red button.

This time, the power did go.  Everything from monitors to computers went black, the entire system thudding audibly as everything came simultaneously to a halt.

Is there danger?  Kid’s behavior, past knowledge of her misdeeds, past knowledge of her conversation style; the first thing she did was say hi.

Fucking tinkers.

Fucking kid.

Tattletale rose from her seat, wincing at the pain in her legs.  When she moved, it was with one hand on a nearby table or piece of furniture, to steady herself.

Her phone had died with the press of the big red button.

In the darkness, the stream of everything now cut off, no means of communicating with her squads or contacts, and no means of seeing what was going on out there, she had only her thoughts.

Her first thought was that she should take every single piece of tech she had in her room here, drop it into the dumpster, and set the contents alight.  She might have, if her legs had been fully healed, and if it wasn’t so late that it would draw attention from Faultline.

She’d been on the opposite side of too many hackers and tinkers to not have taken precautions.  Some of those precautions were at home, like the emergency server.

Epeios had been the reason for the emergency server.  He’d been a friend once, or he had pretended to be, and she had let him pretend.  He’d found a way onto her computer, forcing her to find a means of stopping a computer tinker with resources from looking at her stuff.

The emergency server was four feet tall and four feet deep, only two feet wide.  Too large to pack, too niche in use.  It was where she stored her notes too comprehensive for the regular systems and too complex for her own brain to wrestle with on a long-term basis.  It worked by creating millions of deceptive copies, forgeries, and variations on documents, and then randomly shuffling her files into it.

Epeios had been baffled, had hired thinkers to try and decode, predict, or surveil her means of picking the true files from the false ones.  There wasn’t one.  The only means was to use her power.  To intuit her way through a thousand haystacks.

She had other resources.  Other jury-rigged traps and tools.  Some were still packed.

She would have to get her stuff and set up her security, verify there was no virus in a closed system… ugh.  The kid could probably set up a virus to take a snapshot and communicate by cell lines or ambient electricity.

Her power bar doubled as a signal detector.  If there was activity on any of the connected systems, it would sound an alarm.

No, nothing to do but go to sleep.  The other issues could be tackled later.

She climbed into the bed that Faultline had offered her.  A luxurious bed with fine blankets in a shitty apartment.  The bed was wide enough for three people to sleep in comfortably.

Her head pounded as she lay her head down.

Her hands and feet weren’t even that warm, but in the core of her chest, she felt numb.

She was so tired, so tired.  But as the hours ticked on, all she could do was digest the information she’d collected, plan, and remain aware of how dark and cold the room was.

This?  This was alright.

She leaned on her cane, walking with her bodyguards flanking her.  More mercenaries were inside nearby buildings, looking out for trouble.  Bryce was on a rooftop with Jaw and Bitters.  If March decided to come at them by plane or helicopter, then Bryce would get an education in the use of surface to air missiles.

Snuff was in her orbit, following up the rear of the group, maintaining a conversation with one of Faultline’s non-case-53 dorks.  Faultline followed the larger group from even further back.  Keeping an eye on everything.

Probably staring holes in the back of my head, Tattletale mused.

Faultline position, history, current situation; wary concern, especially of the kids.

The kids.  Samuel and Chastity were herding the monsters.  Samuel had a muscular arm draped around his shoulders, which he didn’t seem to mind at all, focusing more on the intellectual, emotional challenge of keeping the twelve to fifteen crowd from being at each other’s throats.  Juliette, the recently renamed Roman, and Aroa.  Coldblooded, hot blooded, and sadistic, respectively.

If she was ever asked to pick a ‘best guess of X kills Y’ pair, choosing from members of the expanded Undersiders and staff, then she really had to narrow it down to something like Rachel and Siemens, Foil and Kirby, Juliette and Roman, or Roman and Juliette.

While Samuel had his hands full with that, The unfortunately named Chastity flirting with the youngest soldiers while tasked with keeping the younger Heartbroken in line.  Flor, Nicholas, Amias, Candy, and Darlene.

For every last one of them, she could picture Alec in at least one moment or scene, doing or saying something that fit that one Heartbroken so well.  A look on his face, a thing he had said.

The feral under-twelves were fanning out, and Chicken Little was in their sights.  He looked back at Tattletale, nervous.

“Don’t look at me,” Tattletale told him.  There was a part of the sidewalk that dipped, causing her foot to have to travel a short distance further, which meant her legs had to adjust her weight.  She winced at the adjustment, the pain driving through each of her legs like a phantom movement of the bullet through the tissues.  “You wanted to go out in the field, Chicken Little?  Show us what you’re made of.”

“We could take him apart,” Juliette said.  “Drumstick, thigh, gizzard, the gross leftover bits that get processed and put in chicken nugs.”

“I’d rather keep my gross leftover bits where they belong,” Chicken Little said.

“You’re showing weakness, Chicken Little,” Samuel called out.  “I told you not to do that if you want to hang around these guys.”

“I want to hang,” Chicken Little said.  “They’re cool when they’re cool, but-”

“But if you act scared then you’re in for it.”

Flor cackled, edging closer as the assembled group walked to where the vehicles were parked.  She glanced back at Chastity, checking that her babysitter was still focused on one of the soldiers.

Tattletale watched that with some wary interest as well.  If the soldier couldn’t stay focused…

“If I stay put then they’re going to get me.”

“Figure it out,” Samuel said.  “Do it fast, because you actually are in danger now.”

“Um,” Chicken Little said.  “Chastity.  Help.”

Chastity didn’t take her eyes off the soldier she was talking to.  He at least had the grace to notice something was up and draw his gun, holding it low.

“What the hell are you doing, Chicken?” Roman asked.

“I’m asking for help.  I know what I’m made of and some of that is someone who asks for help when he needs it.”

“Soft,” one of the little ones taunted, as they moved closer, encircling him.

Birds were congregating nearby.  Tattletale felt wistful, seeing it.

A group of crows cawed, with others taking up the cry.  It slowed some of the young ones, but Nicholas and Amias weren’t that into this particular game.

“You, soldier,” Samuel said.  “For the kid’s sake, you’re going to need to draw your gun.  If I give the signal, shoot the kid I point at.  Only if I give the signal.  If you fuck this up, all the rest of us will come after you.”

There, in the midst of the game.  That was when Samuel most looked like Alec had.  He was the most like Alec anyway, years younger than Alec had been, with longer blond hair in the classic ‘naturally wild’ Vasil look, but he had a similar face, a similar way of standing.  Alec twisting the knife and enjoying it, despite his usual cold nature.  That was what Samuel was doing here.

The soldier closest to Chicken Little looked back at Tattletale.

She nodded.

Flor, who was in the top two for most likely to get shot, if anyone had to, didn’t even seem to care.  She looked at Samuel, then grinned, eyes wide, all teeth showing, except for the gap where one was missing.  She gave the soldier the same look.

The collection of birds drew nearer, moving in a blob.  No control, no ability to move them and sense through them at the same time, and the senses are limited.

Too slow, too careful.

All at once, Flor, Candy and Darlene broke into runs.  Coordinating with Darlene’s power, no doubt.  The soldier Samuel had told to be ready to shoot had his weapon drawn but not pointed, and with no signal given, Chicken Little ran for it, and the scene was eerie to see, with people who were just now spotting the kids at play reacting with amusement.

Reminding Tattletale that she really wanted all of her team members to spend some time around the Heartbroken, so they would know it was rarely a laughing matter.

The birds were on their way, swooping in low.  They didn’t reach Chicken Little before Candy and Darlene did.

They bowled him over and began kissing his mask.  The birds that had been flying in now scattered.

‘Kissing tag’ with Heartbroken.  Which was not without its danger, because Flor, among many other things.

Flor looked ready to just jump on top of the heap of three kids.  Chastity, barely looking, flicked out her bullwhip, catching Flor by the neck.

Nothing to do with Chastity’s powers.  She really liked whips, was all.  She set to reeling Flor in, pulling the whip’s length in by handfuls.  Flor tried to free her neck, helped by the fact that it had encircled part of her jacket collar, and shed herself of the length of leather, stumbling as she came free.

The whip cracked out again, striking her in the rear end.  Even through layers of petticoat, winter dress, and a wool jacket that hung down low enough to be a barrier, Flor yelped.

Surprise, not pain.

The commotion had slowed the procession down.  People stepped in and freed Chicken Little from the two girls that pinned him.

“Jerks,” Chicken Little said, huffing and brushing himself off.  “Making me look bad.”

“I think you look nice,” Candy said, sounding sweet as anything.

It was Darlene who looked crestfallen by how upset Chicken Little was.  The girl wore bold lipstick despite being Aiden’s age, and it was that lipstick that marked his mask over and over places, even as he tried to look noble and normal.

Seventeen kisses to Candy’s nine.

I really don’t care.

“Can I make it up to you?” Darlene asked.

Chicken Little shrugged.  Sullen.  Darlene’s shoulders fell a fraction.

She likes him.  Childhood crush.

Tattletale sighed.

Chicken Little continued trying to make himself look presentable, not aware of the lipstick am.  He shook himself off and threw his hands out to the side as part of the end of the motion.  The birds that circled in the air above squawked, cried out, and scattered.

Presentation and flourish were one of the safest things Tattletale could train him in.  But he did need other lessons.

“You could have backed out, called it off,” Samuel said.  “You knew it was kissing tag?”

“Yeh,” Chicken Little answered.

“You know Tattletale set rules.  No powers-”

“Only the mask, only if I’m game, I can call it off any time-”

“And you didn’t?  And here I thought I scared you.  Are you tougher than you pretend to be, Chicken L?”

“No,” Aroa said, snorting.  “Not that brave.”

“Or were you smart enough to know it was a game?”

“That was a game?” the soldier that had been tasked with killing a child asked.  He looked between Samuel and Tattletale.

“Test,” Samuel said, sounding dismissive.

“No, I didn’t figure it out,” Chicken Little admitted.  “You did scare me.”

“Not badly enough that you backed off.”

“I thought I wasn’t supposed to show weakness,” Chicken Little said, defensive.

Defensive, as if it was all his fault.  But Tattletale met Samuel’s eyes, and she saw Chastity’s smirk.

Yeah, it wasn’t on him.  They were sending mixed messages.

Mixed messages weren’t the worst thing in the world.  If push came to shove and that kid found himself in a serious fight, there’d be more mixed messages than this.  The trick was making sure that they were teaching him to deal with them, not putting those mixed messages in his head.

It left a sour taste in her mouth, all the same.

She could see moments, expressions, and recall feelings that reminded her of Alec.  Here and there, there were ones that annoyed her, made her cringe as she thought of them.  Times Alec had embarrassed her, preyed on her pride, or mocked her and made her lose her cool.

This bad feeling was similar to that.  But it wasn’t Alec she thought of, as she looked at Chicken Little and regretted how she’d done this.

Her legs were at ninety-five percent, but that five percent was adding up.  The vehicles that were delivering them and their stuff were just pulling down the road now, navigating an urban area that had been built into a rolling landscape, instead of waiting for the landscape to be flattened or managed in any real way.

Every move she was making right now cost something, and these trucks had not been cheap.  She wasn’t making any real money for as long as she wasn’t in New Brockton, but she couldn’t go to New Brockton because March was circling that area.

And all the while, the local power structure was shifting.  That was their next stop, but they would have to be careful.

“Wait,” Chicken Little said.  “Something’s- what the what is in that truck down there?”

Tattletale smiled.

“Tattletale?” he asked.

“Come on.  Walk with me.  Snuff comes, but let us have our talk.”

“Yes ma’am,” Snuff said.

She left behind a scene where Faultline was hanging back, bewildered at a scene that Tattletale continued to call a ‘good day’.  Samuel was physically putting himself between Juliet and Roman, Chastity had cowed Flor into an approximation of obedience and in the process had managed to scare away the soldier she had been flirting with earlier.

They walked past the line of trucks that were pulling over at the side of the one-way road.  Drivers were getting out at the left side of the street, but the right side was just for Chicken Little, Tattletale, and her cane.

“Are you okay?” Chicken Little asked her.

“Uh huh.  Gettin’ by.  But March is going to realize I bounced back fairly quickly.  She’ll realize the resources I have and she’ll hurt me worse next time.  Be ready for that.”

“I’ll protect you.”

Tattletale smiled.  “No you fucking won’t.  You get somewhere safe.  Just don’t panic.  Be ready for it to happen.”

“Uh huh.”

“I’m going to bring you along,” she said.

She saw his eyes widen.

“But-”

“Tell me now if you’re not ready.”

“I failed my test.  I got scared and I was too slow.”

“You lost to the Heartbroken.  Samuel wanted to see what you were made of, I didn’t say no.  Maybe that’s not fair, maybe his idea of a good test is screwed up because the asshole that spawned him was flinging him into situations against capes and cops before he could even read.  Most of the rest of them are like that.  They were cannon fodder, they were punching bags, they were slaves to make and bring food… nothing about that was healthy or good for anything except making them very, very dangerous.”

“I like some of them,” Chicken Little said, pronouncing ‘some of them’ with a mumble that turned it into ‘sumblum’.

“And some of them like you.  Which makes them more dangerous, if anything.”

“Why are you doing this?” he asked.

“Why?”

“Why look after me?  You don’t seem to like anyone, you’re busy, but you make the time for me.  You- in this truck?”  He pointed down at the truck parked near the end.  A slightly different make than the longer trucks with storage containers in the backs.  Most of the storage containers were set up as armories and quarters.  A moving base, so they could relocate whenever March drew near.  After, it would be a way to set up her mercenaries in any location.

“You have lipstick on your mask,” she pointed out.

He checked the coast was clear, turning his back to the trucks, pulled off the mask, and turned it around so he could look at the front.  Hard, round, circular, with two back dots for eyes, a red crest at the upper center, and a small beak.  Covered in red kiss prints of various degrees of fadedness.

The redness in his face crept to his ears.

“We’re showing up with numbers,” she said.  “You’ll be one member of a crowd, and so long as we have the Heartbroken bolstering our numbers, we’ll be looking pretty strong.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” he said.  “Also, I don’t know how to clean this.  I don’t want to smudge my sleeve with lipstick.”

She drew a tissue from her inner jacket pocket and handed it over.

“Thank you.  Please answer my question.”

“Why you?”

“Yeah.”

“I could say you remind me of Taylor.”

“Imp says I’m nothing like Taylor was.  Foil and Parian said something similar.”

“I wouldn’t say nothing like.  You’re careful.”

Aiden looked up at her, one gloved hand still rubbing the tissue in circles on the mask.  “Didn’t she… never ever act careful?  Whenever they tell me stories it’s always Taylor got hurt or Taylor threw herself into a crazy situation.”

“You caught me,” she said.  She smiled.  “No.  Not that kind of careful.”

“I don’t get it.”

She smiled.

“Are you bullshitting me?”

“I could tell you now, or I could offer you a trade, my little chicken.”

“What trade?” he asked.  At least he sounded suspicious.

“If you agree to think on it and then give me your best answer, I’ll open the back of this truck now and show you my birthday present to you.”

“You forgot my birthday.”

“Four month belated birthday.”

“Isn’t it six months?”  He started counting on his fingers.  “September, August…”

She pulled her hand back away from the handle at the back of, the truck, moving it in fits and starts as he went from August to July, July to June…

He stopped, looking up at her with the mask in one hand.  She smiled down at him.

“Four months, yeah,” he said.

At least he was learning wit and a good poker face.

She opened the back of the truck.  He had to climb up onto the back bumper and up to see over the ledge and into the truck proper.  As he climbed, she stuck her cane out, giving him a bit of a push where he needed it.  Sure enough, he almost fell backward once he saw.  Only the cane at the center of his back kept him from tipping back.

He stared in quiet amazement.

It was good, having people around.  Even the people she was used to were more alive as the group was more complete.  It was tempting in a dangerous way, to know that a crisis brought everyone together, and she could so very easily, consciously or not, play her role in creating them.

Not that there was any need now.  Even beyond March, they had other concerns.

“We’ll be taking the lead truck.  You’ll want to get yourself tidy, look over your costume.  Make sure you look good,” she told him.

He nodded, not taking his eyes away.  The question he’d asked was long forgotten.

“The sky is definitely going to fall,” he said.

This wasn’t a moot.  It wasn’t a Somer’s Rock, and it wasn’t a gathering of world powers in the dark room.

Chaos.  Concern.

No.  She had to give the white hats more credit than that.  There was a note of fear here.  Fear of heroes and fear of the expanded Undersiders.  She’d wanted to show strength and in doing so, she’d made a mistake.  Too much strength.

Villains had assembled in Sherwood Span.  The area was sparse, spread out.  Some buildings were in construction, but it looked like that had stopped.  Mostly it was scattered houses.

The major players were notably absent, though Tattletale was keeping an eye on the spies.

A disorganized mob consisting of two- and three-person gangs, solo operators, mercenaries, the blacklisters that fought over internet rankings, the burglars, kidnappers, the enforcers and killers.  A handful were notable in their own way, like Little Midas.

They’d all gathered out in the middle of an open space that could have been a plaza, a parking lot, or a market space in the summer months.  Now it was covered in snow.  It was cold and there had to be a dozen places across Sherwood Span where people could gather, but nobody wanted to be the one to wuss out, so they stood in the cold, ankle or calf deep in snow.

The wounds in her legs made her think of Bitter Pill.  She looked for the woman and found her off to the side, talking to Bluestocking.  Blue had been hurt in the Fallen raid.  It looked like she was back in action.

Seeing Tattletale looking, Bluestocking gave her the finger, along with the dirtiest of dirty looks.

Few were quite as bold as that.

She leaned over to Snuff, and she bid for him to bend down.  In his ear, she whispered, “Tell the others to scatter.”

“Scatter?”

“Our individual cells, sub-groups.  Heartbroken in one group, our guys in another.  Our mercs can hang out as their own group.  Send Foil and Parian off on their own.  Faultline should be close but not with us.  We’re too big a mob and everyone’s staring.”

Snuff communicated the message.  Where they’d been an army, her forces dissolved.

Everyone disconnects.

They’re more comfortable like this.

The interjection of her power was the kind of thing she was trying to be alert about.  The times it chose to jump in, the things it said, and the idea, as old as Gold Morning, that the alien behind it was looking to shape and encourage certain behaviors.

It’s all so much easier when I’m out using my powers instead of working from my terminal.  Less headaches, less interjections.

A steady, low level thing, that had ground her down for years now.

She was aware that sending her mercenaries away left her with very, very little.  Men she was paying, who weren’t technically hers.  Even the most loyal of them would leave when the pay stopped.

Snuff made his way to her side.  She was paying him, but he had other motivations.  He was after her, and not in the romantic sense.  No, he knew her too well for that.  She’d come to terms with the fact that her lack of interest in the romance or the physical stuff wasn’t because of one excuse or the other.  She was pretty sure it wasn’t because her power preferred her this way.  It was just her.

No, Snuff wanted her for the status.  She had a place in the city and in the cape dynamic, and he was cementing a role as her enforcer and bodyguard.

She had him, but there would be no long chats, no exchange of birthday presents, ironic or otherwise.  He was with her only in a sense.

Aiden?  Chicken Little was behind her, and his mask turned her way as she looked back to check.

The Eagle of Haast was with him.  Delivered from another world, it was thirty-nine pounds of prehistoric bird with eight and a half feet of wingspan.  Her belated birthday present to him.  Other birds collected nearby, including a raven on Chicken Little’s shoulder.

He was with her, but he hadn’t even struck puberty yet.

And Kirby.  On the surface, he was indistinguishable from the mercenaries.  He wore and carried the same gear.  Coil’s man- she’d kept more than a few of those.  Among them was an excellent sniper team, qualified leaders, experts in various fields, and two cape hunters that had earned their name stalking and killing capes for kill order money.

Kirby wasn’t like those others.  He was always apart, always keeping his head down, because everyone hated his guts enough that they would take the slightest of excuses.  He’d gone from military court to release on a technicality, straight to Coil’s employ, where he’d worked as a manservant.  Driving, running errands, and keeping all of Coil’s secrets.

Now he kept Tattletale’s.  The arrangement was more or less the same.  As all of the mercenaries shuffled off, he remained where he was.

This wasn’t Prancer’s deal.  This wasn’t an alliance.  An alliance would never work.  Capes in large groups tended to tear each other apart.

This wasn’t that, and if it had looked like it was going to be, she wouldn’t have attended.

March hadn’t arrived, she noted.  Her power fooled her there- she’d been eighty percent certain.  Was March up to something?

She would have asked her power for input, but she was conserving it- had been since the group had gathered and moved out, ready to board the trucks and head to this… gathering.  She’d wanted to have everything available for when she saw this.

Gathering was the wrong word.  A riot without the riotous action?

“I don’t give two cents about what you’re all doing,” Little Midas intoned, his voice loud.  He was obese enough that he had a team to carry him, his mask and armor gold, shaped to cover his prodigious belly and face.  “This is irritating I’m going to stop holding back.”

‘This is irritating’; couched emotion.  Recently had a big loss.  Asset forfeiture.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll end them,” Little Midas said.  “Then it won’t.”

“It’s going to calm down on its own.  If you guys have any sense-” Tattletale tried.

But her words were drowned out.  Angrier, louder voices.

A little more riotous now.

The current situation wasn’t all that different from the way it had been with the PRT.  There were heroes, there were villains.  One would fight the other.  Most would go through the revolving door, unless they committed an egregious act or fell down a slippery slope and found themselves at the bottom with an enemy clear in their memory.

Breakthrough was one such concern.  She had struck a deal with them, and how that deal was treated would tell her a lot.  Hopefully that would be in time  Hopefully

The words and noises were escalating in volume.  The tranquil scene of a snowy, flat field was disturbed, the furthest thing from tranquil.

The frustrations being spoken of now were bottled up ones.  They were being afraid one’s home wouldn’t stand for more than a few years, that the winter was already proving to be an utter bitch, and they’d had barely a day of proper snow.

She caught the word ‘kill’, and she didn’t pursue it with her power.

With two years of relative low consequences now over, the petty villains were facing a return to something like that old status quo under the PRT.  A firmer response, real consequences for the worst offenders.  It had been inevitable, guaranteed to happen if society rebuilt on any level.  Tattletale had expected it a year from now, and she’d been wrong.

But of course, to this population of small villains who hadn’t thrown their lot in with the Red Queen, Teacher, or other warlords, this return to order was now intolerable, the response anger.  This wasn’t a tidy group, not an organization like Prancer’s.  Only a hundred or so capes who seemed to agree on nothing at all except that it was looking like a time to start getting mean, to draw blood and scare off the heroes.

It wouldn’t be that simple, of course, but blood would be shed.

She’d hoped to steer it if it came to this, but she had to wait for the loudest voices to grow hoarse.  She was losing optimism by the second.  She’d come at this from the wrong idea of what it was going to be.

She looked back at Chicken Little.

When she had brought him under her wing, she’d told herself she would do it right.  She would help him, save him and save him from himself, if she had to.

She was zero for two.  If she couldn’t get it right and save him, at least, then what?

A hard thing to say to his face.  In some ways, he was doing so well.  In others, she worried.

In this situation, she worried.  A careful retreat might be needed, to avoid being at the fringes of a firefight or any violence.

She was so tired.

Tired of fighting her shard.  Tired of managing.

She kept an eye out for Chicken Little, and an eye out for some of the Heartbroken.  She met Foil’s eyes, and Foil folded her arms.

Scared.

Parian-

Out of her element.  Against this.  No halfway, no negotiation.

March, monsters in her own ranks, monsters over the next horizon.  There was the balance of things, trying to do her part to keep the city upright.  The pain in her legs, the years of not wanting anyone romantically but feeling like so much of her day was empty, no matter how much she did.  She was worn out in the face of everything that she needed to do.

Quietly, she came to a resolution.

This anger that threatened to stoke the worst fears of the anti-parahumans, and empower and vindicate the do-gooders?  She would let it happen.  It was an inevitability in response to an inevitability.

She had moves to make elsewhere.

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