The hospital was packed with people. It was late and families, single individuals, people who looked like they worked at the same places and hospital staff were everywhere. Some were trying to sleep or keep to themselves, with blankets draped over them or jackets used as improvised pillows, and others were trying to make as much noise as they could.
It was a little bit spooky. Spooky in a way that couldn’t be fixed by the knife he had at the small of his back, beneath his shirt.
There was at least one member of his squad who might be willing to try it, though. They moved as a unit through the rows and columns of people, had to skip heading down one alley of the waiting room because a family was practically camped out on the floor that they would have had to walk down, and split up for a short bit when a bunch of people were called and rose out of their seats, cutting them off.
As the split-up group reunited, he felt his skin prickle, and then his brain prickled, awareness of his own body fizzled into place like the bubbles in cola, pressing against his skin and all of his senses. Where he could normally have paid attention to one part of his body, now he could pay attention to every inch of it.
The fizzling didn’t stop there. It was like something off to the side that he could see, then something he could feel. Plumes that expanded out, until there was more skin, more heartbeats, more air pressing against the inside of chests with inhalations, cool as it passed out of noses. He could feel hairy legs inside jeans and agitation like a constant thing, the heart powerful, the motions of arms and legs strong, deliberate, and imprecise.
A few feet away, he felt clothes that didn’t feel very comfortable at all, cold air wafting up bare legs, the fabric stiff and coarse, a thumb pressed between lips thick with something, teeth biting down on nail, hair tickling neck and face. Her body was wound and bound tight, tense and ready to spring, though he’d never seen it happen. He winced at the pain of the nail being bit too forcefully, shivered at the tickle of hair at the back of the neck. The shiver drew an alarmed kind of attention. Even though she couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see her, her head turned to face him.
Not sight, not really- but the sensation of touch that bubbled gave him a good idea of where those people were looking, and why this was happening. He peered past crowd to see the security officer at the end of the hallway.
There were two more members of the group, straggling. There was no need to say ‘wait!’ or ‘we have to take care of this security officer!’, which was good because it was noisy inside.
Skin that felt smoother than skin should be brushed against silk, and the cloth that wasn’t silk was very soft. He saw her as much as he felt her. He could feel where the hair at one side of her head had been braided tight, the braid running along her scalp at the one side of her head, at the smaller side of a part in her hair, and the rest of her hair was big and combed over in a tumble the other way. He could feel and see the silk of her scarf at her neck and chin, which helped to keep the long hair from tickling.
She bent down to whisper in the ear of the last member of their squad, and he could feel the air go out and feel the air against ear as the sound was received. Try as he might, he couldn’t make out the words.
Nobody else was stepping in, and he didn’t like the direction this was going, so he hurried forward, straight for the security officer.
“Hold on,” the security officer said, putting a hand out. “Were you called?”
Aiden shook his head. “We’re here to visit a classmate of mine.”
The officer put one hand up to reaffirm the ‘hold on’ instruction, and used the other to pick up a clipboard with a notepad clipped to it.
“Oh, if you meant their name, it’s, um, Janesha Townes. I’m bringing her homework.”
The man checked the clipboard.
He was aware of the knife he had holstered at his back. What if he was searched? Did that happen?
“She’s not taking visitors.”
“I’d just be dropping this off, saying hi, then I’ll leave her alone,” he said.
He was aware of fizzing. Amias was with Candy, who was wearing the silk, and Amias was bubbling, concentrating some kind of sensation at his hands.
Please don’t hurt anyone, Aiden thought.
The security man looked down at the notepad, looked up, as if bothered by something, then looked down again. “No.”
Amias pushed harder.
“We came a long way. My mom said she really needs some friends right now.”
The security guard’s fingers tapped at the back of the clipboard. Restless. Again, he looked around, as if making sure there wasn’t any issue elsewhere.
“No,” the man said, again. Aiden felt his heart sink. The man added, “I’d need to check your background, verify details.”
“Okay,” Aiden said, resigned.
“Who is your teacher, and what school do you attend with Janesha?”
Aiden was caught off guard. What was a good last name? “Um. Miss Sparrow.”
Through the awareness of the rest of the group, he could sense the small laugh from the sidelines.
He felt even more panicked, now that he’d already messed up once. “New Brockton Bay Primary School?”
Again, the laugh, and a hand touched face, muffling the laugh. Aiden felt defensive.
“Stay there,” the man from security said. He went to the nurse’s station, a short distance away, said something, and then headed down the hallway. The nurse he’d talked to moved to the edge of the counter, watching the hallway entrance. Her stare was penetrating as she looked at Aiden.
Darlene was biting her thumbnail again. Aiden could feel the pain as she got to the quick, flinched, and felt her flinch in response.
He looked off to the side, to where Roman was leaning against a wall. Twelve year old roman with hair on his legs already, who’d been laughing at him. Aiden stuck out his tongue. Roman, with his arms folded, moved one finger, giving Aiden the bird.
Was there any point to staying? He’d almost failed to connect because he’d been more focused on Roman laughing and on the nurse at the counter, but if the guy was going back there and asked, wouldn’t he find out the school was wrong?
Flustered, Aiden turned around, looking for the others. He started to retreat, heading back toward them. Darlene and Candy converged on him, Candy towing Amias behind her.
“Where are you going?” Candy asked. “Chickening out?”
Aiden gave her an annoyed look. “He quizzed me. He’s going to check the info I gave and find out I lied.”
“We came this far,” Candy said. “We’ll find another way. We could go through a window.”
“None of us can do anything like that,” Aiden said.
“Your eagle is on the roof, isn’t it?”
“Nobody’s willing to let me try flying with it,” Aiden said. “Besides, breaking a window would cause problems. I’m sorry I bungled this.”
“I like spending time together, even if we don’t do anything big,” Darlene said, thumb just outside her mouth, thumbnail ragged. She averted her eyes and moved her hand when Aiden looked at her.
Romeo- Roman was approaching now. He’d changed his name recently and it still felt weird.
“You could try messaging her,” Roman said. He either hadn’t heard the discussion and had figured things out, or he was much, much better at understanding speech when his half-sister was using her power.
“I tried twice this afternoon and she didn’t respond. But she’s invited me before, for a face to face hang-out. It should be okay.”
“Heads up,” Candy said.
It was the security man. Aiden turned around, nervous. He was aware of Roman cracking his knuckles. Darlene brought her thumb to her mouth, and Aiden reached out to catch it before it got there. He held her hand, felt the surprise and the pounding of her heart. He’d spooked her, apparently. Or she was bothered that he’d moved in a way that showed he was using the power.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
She shook her head, hard.
“Aiden?” the security man asked. “You can go on in. Room two-two-one.”
Aiden blinked. It took Roman giving him a nudge to get him moving. He turned around. “Thank you very much, sir.”
“I’m not a proper ‘sir’, but you’re welcome,” the man said. “If the room is crowded or if the nurses need the space, you should end the conversation and leave, got it?”
He had the Heartbroken children with him as he headed down the hall. He still held Darlene’s hand, and he felt self-conscious about it, especially when he noticed the others noticing. Candy and Roman exchanged a look.
“Don’t bite your nails, okay? It hurts.”
“Oh,” Darlene said. Her voice became a whisper, “Oh. Um. I’m really sorry. I get weird when I’m using my power.”
“We don’t have to use it,” Aiden said.
“It feels fucked up,” Roman said. “Mainlining little sisters and little bro, and Aiden here.”
“I thought it would be good for keeping an eye out for trouble,” Darlene said. “Watch each other’s backs.”
“It’s good,” Aiden reassured. Darlene was the quietest in a lot of ways. She was the odd one out, when the others were what Aisha called high octane drama mixed two to one with nightmare fuel. Whatever that meant. He’d even defended Darlene when Aisha had said it, which had made Aisha laugh way too hard.
He’d had some tastes of it, but this was the first time he’d really been subject to Darlene’s power for any length of time. He wondered if this was what his birds felt like when he assumed control. The interconnection of things, him and them.
That would be more one-way, maybe.
“I can cut you out of the network,” Darlene told Roman.
“Nah,” he said. “We’re being targeted along with the Undersiders. The people we’re after are being targeted. I’ll fucking put up with it.”
“I appreciate you being our chaperone,” Aiden said. “Thank you, Roman.”
“Nah. You’re a good fucking kid, Aids. Keep looking after my sisters. The ones that are worth looking after.”
You’re a kid too, Aiden thought. Roman was only a year and a half older than him, but the kids in the Vasil family seemed to make a distinction. They afforded a certain distinction to the ones who were old enough to remember their dad, to get tested by him, whatever that meant, and disciplined by him… he knew what that meant. Samuel who was the oldest that hadn’t bailed yet, Chastity, Roman, Juliette, and then Aroa barely making the cut.
Roman was only two years older than Darlene, but he acted like he was four years older. Unless Juliette was involved. He looked older too. Like Juliette, he had straighter hair, which he’d cut and styled, slicking to one side. The family resemblance was strong, besides that. Pale face, bigger lower lip, sharp, ‘pretty’ features that didn’t change much between the boys and the girls.
Candy approached from Aiden’s right, seizing his arm and wrapping it in hers.
He rankled. “I want my right hand free.”
Candy reached out and tapped the knife that had been holstered at the small of his back. “Because of this?”
She could sense everything about him just like he could sense everything about her, so of course she’d felt the knife there. The straps went over his shoulders like suspenders with one leather strap running down his spine.
Candy continued, pressing while hugging his arm tighter. “Why didn’t you put it at your belt like a normal person?”
“Aiden’s the most normal person here,” Darlene said. He could feel her pulse quickening, feel how genuine that anger she was now feeling was.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
“It’s strategically important,” Candy said.
“It shows more if it’s at the belt,” he said.
“We’re wearing warm and heavy clothes for winter. Well, most of us are,” Candy said. “Darlene’s wearing a chiffon dress she got in the summer, which is why she’s cold.”
“If you don’t stop interrupting and being a pain I’m going to get mad,” Darlene said.
She was already mad, Aiden was sure. He could feel it. The blood in her veins, the heartbeat, the restrained breathing.
“No fighting,” Roman said. He gave Darlene a light push on one shoulder. “I don’t want to clean up the mess.”
“It really is because I didn’t want it to show,” Aiden told Candy. Maybe explaining would cool things down. She looked like she was going to say something, so he added, in a quiet voice, “And because it was heavy enough it made my pants fall down.”
He could feel the shift in the tension with that. Roman chuckled, Amias outright giggling. Darlene’s face got hot, and Candy barely reacted. Why did she barely react?
“Aww,” Candy said. “That’s a cute mental picture, isn’t it, Darlene?”
“Shut it, Candy. I have one nerve left and if you get on it, I’m going to take it and choke you with it.”
“Sure,” Candy said, in a musical, pleased-with-herself way. She smiled in a way that would have made Aiden want to choke her if he’d been as mad as Darlene felt. “Aiden?”
“Be good,” Roman warned.
“Don’t push it,” Darlene added.
“Aiden,” Candy said, persisting. “As an expert in Darlene-”
Aiden shifted position, ready to put himself between the two half-sisters, because Darlene was on the brink now. He didn’t want to get kicked out of the hospital.
“-she can’t help biting her nails or pulling hair. It might help if you held her hand more.”
Darlene seethed, but she didn’t start a fight.
Candy was Chastity’s full-sister, and both of the two really liked to tease. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to take her seriously, so he looked over at Darlene. “Do you want me to? I don’t know if she’s playing a game.”
Darlene didn’t respond, but instead put one hand out, looking away. He took her hand, holding firm.
She seemed to calm down, which was good, and Candy seemed happy. He felt like everyone else they walked by was noticing, but he could put up with that.
They had to climb a staircase, as it turned out, and get up to the second floor. They walked down the hallway, and he was acutely aware of how generally happy Darlene was now. Girls were so all over the place and rarely made any sense.
As they approached the right room number, he saw a teenager standing by the door. Black hair, chin scruff, and a leather jacket. He looked cool as hell, in Aiden’s opinion, and Aiden had spent a lot of time in the company of very cool people like Lisa, Aisha, and Rachel.
“Problem?” the guy asked.
Aiden shook his head.
“I’m going to need more than that.”
There was a sensation that settled over the group. If Aiden hadn’t been networked to the others, he might have thought it was a sudden shift in his thinking. A creeping feeling of doubt, so small it was barely a thought crossing through his mind.
“You’re going to have to do better than that,” Roman said. “Wrong family for that little trick.”
Roman was only barely shorter than the guy in the leather jacket, and there had to be five years of difference between them.
The teenage guy looked around, glancing at the empty nurse’s station, raising himself on his toes to look over the counter and make sure nobody was down low and out of sight behind files and computers. He lowered himself down. “Heartbroken?”
“Yeah,” Roman said.
The guy’s eyes moved around, tracking every member of the group, as if he was getting his head around dealing with five people with powers. “Is Tattletale pulling something?”
“No,” Aiden said. “Tattletale’s not. This is me. Chicken Little.”
“We’re not pulling anything,” Candy jumped in.
“Precipice,” the guy said. “Why are you here?”
“Because she’s a friend, and I wanted to see how she was.”
There was a voice from inside the hospital room. Muffled by the door.
“How did you know we were here?”
“She told me,” Aiden said.
Precipice didn’t look too happy about that.
“Can I say hi?” Aiden asked. “I brought her presents.”
Aiden pulled his bag off and opened it up. He pulled out books, handing them over, then a necklace, and some general junk that he was really second guessing now that people were looking.
Precipice turned the books page-side-down and shook them out, riffing through pages, checked the necklace and cord, and searched the other junk.
The voice on the other side of the door piped up again.
“You’re for real?” Precipice asked.
“I guess,” Aiden responded. Roman nudged him. “Yeah.”
“You’re a good kid,” Precipice told him.
“No,” Aiden replied, his eyebrows knitting together. “I’m a bad guy. I’m an Undersider, which makes me a villain.”
“The people you hang out with don’t define you,” Precipice said. “It’s the choices you make. This kind of gesture seems like the right kind of choice to be making.”
“I choose to be an Undersider,” Aiden said. “I choose to call myself one.”
“You’re a kid. You haven’t been handed a lot of options.”
“I still choose,” Aiden said, setting his jaw. “I’m loyal.”
Precipice stacked the things, so the books were on the bottom, and the successive other things were on top, with the necklace resting at the very top. Aiden let go of Darlene’s hand to take it with a ginger care that kept the stack from toppling, then dumped it into his bag. It would feel weird to hand over the necklace first and with it being on top it would’ve been necessary.
The voice came through, insistent and muffled by the intervening wall and door.
“You’d better go through, before she pops her stitches,” Precipice said.
Aiden opened the door, heading inside.
“-swear I’ll get my revenge somehow!” Lookout was saying. She spotted Aiden. “Oh, hi. And hi Chicken Little’s friends.”
She was black. That surprised Aiden, but he wasn’t sure why. He’d grown up the last few years with Aisha and Aisha was black too. He’d just… had a slightly different mental image of Lookout. It made him feel bad and a bit less sure of himself.
She was sitting up in her hospital bed, covers up to her lap, a small smile on her face. She had her hair tied back into a single messy ponytail that had dislodged a bit because she’d laid her head down at some point. She looked tired enough that he wondered if he was imposing. She was wearing a hospital gown, white with green clovers on it, and a tube ran out from the side of the gown near her stomach. Fluids were running out of the tube, rather than in, which made him feel uneasy.
“Hi,” he said, feeling awkward.
“Hi!” Lookout said, “I’m Lookout.”
Oh, introductions. “Chicken Little, or Aiden, I guess-”
“Kenzie,” Lookout interurpted. “If we’re using real names I’m Kenzie.”
“Hi. It’s not Janesha?”
“Cover name, false identity with a name I made up. Because we’re in danger.”
He nodded. He put a hand to the side, indicating- “This is Darlene, Candy, and…”
He could sense the two boys talking to Precipice outside the door. He hoped they would get along. Romeo- Roman was very easily riled up.
“…the others are outside.”
“You’re all so pretty and handsome and dressed nice,” Lookout said. “And here I am all gross and crusty-eyed after surgery. I haven’t put my face on or brushed my teeth and my hair is awful.”
“You look fine,” Candy said.
Lookout smiled a little. “Thank you for saying so.”
Aiden wasn’t sure he looked that nice. He’d gelled his hair up into a small fauxhawk because it looked dumb however he parted it and it never looked right if he spiked it. He had a nice ankle-length jacket that Lisa had given him, jeans, boots, and a sweatshirt, which he wore with the hood nestled into the jacket’s.
“What did you say to the man from security?” Aiden asked.
“I said that we had Ms. Sparrow as a teacher and that we attended the New Brockton primary school.”
“How did you know?”
“Cameras. I had a friend plant some, because it looks like I’m going to be here for at least one day, and some people might have tried to kill us so it’s good to be careful.”
“Like March went after Imp and Tattletale,” he said.
“And us,” Candy said. “March shot at us at the same time, then.”
“It’s getting scary out there,” Lookout said.
“It was always scary,” Darlene said.
Candy nodded, her face solemna and serious for once. “Yeah. Since I can remember. I think we’re all worse at hiding it now.”
“I wanted to see if you were okay,” Aiden said. “Um, because I know your team got shot a few times and I’ve seen how Tattletale and Imp are right now. Tattletale’s being weird and Imp is doing what she can to protect us, which means she’s not always around, even when she is around.”
“So you kind of know what it’s like.”
“Kind of. Except I didn’t get shot. Are you okay?”
“Painkillers make the pain very fuzzy more than they kill it, and they make time seem to pass very inconsistently. Mostly I’m bored.”
“I brought stuff. Presents,” Aiden said. He got his bag, “Can I?”
“Yes,” Lookout said. She looked stricken more than happy, though.
He put the bag at the end of the bed, and he began digging through. He’d folded one of the covers when dumping the stuff back in the bag, and did what he could to smooth it before pulling it out. Two books. He handed them to her.
“Oh wow. That’s so nice of you. I haven’t read these.”
“There’s more. One second.”
He almost didn’t pull the junky stuff out. Two disposable cameras, and a small pocket kit of tools.
Her eyes lit up.
“I thought maybe if you were bored, you could build something. I know this isn’t anything major or expensive, but-”
“I would hug you if I wasn’t tied down with tubes,” she said, touching her IV and the tube at her stomach.
“Better not, then,” Darlene said.
“This is great,” Kenzie said.
“It’s not too lame? It’s basic.”
“You can build a pretty awesome looking house out of kid bricks instead of real bricks and wood and nails and stuff. It might be a toy or very simple but it’s still fun. My dad worked in real estate and I know they used model buildings before building the full scale. This is really nice and thoughtful,” Kenzie said.
Aiden smiled. “And I remember you liked these when I showed you, and I was doing something for myself. I had to file at the edges…”
He got out the necklace. It wasn’t anything fancy- a rawhide string threaded with some feathers, beads, and at the center was a trio of little metal decorations. Two were the bullets that Shamrock had fired at a target, each one splitting apart into bird shapes. At the center was a button he’d got from the tailor who handled the team’s costume- a metal disc with an eye in the center.
He held it out and Lookout took it, immediately holding it to her chest, expression very neutral.
“It’s a ‘sorry you got shot’ present, or a ‘get well soon’ present,” he said, feeling like the biggest dork. “I made one for myself but the feathers fell off, so if yours do the same, don’t worry about it.”
He felt the emotions running through Darlene’s body, and looked back, “Are you okay?”
She didn’t feel fine, but-
The connection cut. He blinked a few times, adjusting as the fizzling stopped. His body felt numb and yet far more comfortable like this. It also felt a bit lonely.
“Why?” Kenzie interrupted his thought.
“Why come here? Why talk to me?”
“Because you got shot and that sucks,” he said. “And I see how some of our team members treat each other. Tattletale and Victoria are nemeses, which is really sad because I bet they could help each other. It’s always because of stuff that happened in the past.”
“Yeah,” Kenzie said. “Most of us have hard stuff, don’t we?”
“Some. But I’m not thinking of that stuff. I’m thinking about stuff that doesn’t get looked after, or small grudges that become big ones. In a couple of years we’re going to be the same age Imp was when she joined the Undersiders and they took over Brockton Bay. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do it right this time?”
“You’ve been thinking about this a lot, huh?”
“I was at the meeting where all the other villains were talking about what to do, how to protect themselves, where they needed to draw lines, all that stuff. Tattletale didn’t really want to talk about it, Imp doesn’t- how does she put it?”
“She wants to get out ahead, she doesn’t like being reactive. Reactive gets you killed,” Candy said.
“Yeah. So she’s out trying to get ahead of the problem, when the problem is a bunch of people who could be anywhere who want to kidnap Undersiders or hurt other Undersiders to make the one Undersider do what she wants.”
“I think I followed that. I’m fuzzy with drugs.”
“Sorry, talking about heavy stuff.”
“No. No. It’s… kind of the same here. What were you saying?”
“I couldn’t really talk to anyone. I don’t know Flechette and Parian well enough to ask them stuff.”
“You could have talked to us,” Darlene said.
“You guys were busy helping Nathan after Nicholas got mad and terror-waved him.”
“Oh. You still could have asked.”
“I didn’t think I should,” he told her. He turned back to Kenzie. “I spent a lot of time thinking. Everyone I know that’s not a teenager anymore is stuck on the past.”
“Aunt Rachel?” Candy asked.
“She’s special. But I think she misses the dogs she had before.”
“The others are focused on what comes next,” Kenzie said. “The fighting, the violence, the rule breaking, the plots.”
“Let them,” he said. “We should focus on the now. Making sure that things okay when we’re, I dunno, ten years older than we are. Once I started telling myself that, I started feeling a lot better about the feelings that the meeting stirred up.”
“I’ve had messy feelings too,” Kenzie said. “But I think some of that is because I got shot twice.”
“Yeah,” Aiden said. “Would it help the feelings if you helped me with my plan?”
“I think my team needs me,” she said. “I hate to say no, because I like what you say and you’re officially on my top ten neatest people list.”
“I’m not that neat.”
“You are,” Darlene said.
“But they’re focused on the dangers and stuff and I need to help them. When things are calm-”
“They’re never calm,” Aiden said, interrupting.
Kenzie went quiet.
“That’s not- it’s not me saying that, I didn’t decide that or anything. It’s what Tattletale and Imp say. There’s always something, if you’re living this life. You keep going until you crash into the rocks or you bail out.”
“Then I’ve got to help them until they crash.”
“Okay,” he said. “Can we agree to not be enemies? Can we be friends?”
His heart sank, seeing her try to formulate a reply.
“I’m not very good at making friends. I try. Every time I try to be nice or build up a relationship, I mess it up. My current team is the closest thing to good friends I have, and the boy closest to me in age that I was in love with did the bailing out thing. Or the rock thing. I’m not sure.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“But I do! Already I’m thinking about what I could do for you guys that’s nice enough to match up to you doing this.”
“You don’t have to.”
“But then what’s the point? What’s- I want to do something nice. Isn’t it kind of hollow if I can’t?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like friendship to me if anyone’s keeping score and trying to keep it balanced.”
“But I want to do something.”
“Then tell me you’ll consider the alliance. Let’s just make a deal to be good to each other and to all capes around our age. That’s all it takes. Tell me you’ll think about it. I can’t think of anything more I want.”
“Me trying to be good to people leads to disaster. I get overly invested, especially when I’m not at my best. Right now I have two bullet holes in me, and I’m fuzzy with drugs, and I’m feeling like my parents are about to yell at me because I’m entertaining guests while I’m a mess-”
“It’s okay,” he said, a little bewildered at the sudden outpouring. “Um. I spent the last few years with these guys. They’re Heartbroken.”
“We’re fucked up,” Candy said. “We’ve got you beat any day.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Kenzie said.
“I’m really, really good at dealing with these guys now,” Aiden said.
“Super good,” Darlene said, sounding more like Juliette in a monotone than like she usually did.
“I can deal,” he said. “And I have to. I want this. I don’t want to end-”
He stopped himself.
“You don’t want to end what?” Kenzie asked, quiet.
“I don’t want to end up like some of them, I guess,” he said. “They can be so cool, but…”
“You might have better role models if you joined the heroes,” Kenzie said. “Wink wink.”
She made exaggerated winks as she said the words.
“I’m loyal,” he said. “The Undersiders are badass, and the Heartbroken, like these two are-”
He looked at Candy, then at Darlene. Seeing Darlene chewing on her thumbnail, he took her hand away from her mouth and gripped it tight.
“-some of my favorite people.”
Darlene squeezed his hand.
“Darn,” Kenzie said.
“Is it weird if I say I love Tattletale and Imp and I don’t want to end up like them?”
“No,” Kenzie said.
“You were complaining about your hair,” Candy said. “Do you want me to fix yours up?”
“I can’t promise I’ll be very good with hair like yours. I won’t cut anything.”
While the two girls fussed, Aiden looked over at Darlene. He nudged her.
“What?” Now she sounded irritated.
“All you girls are good at different stuff. You’re really good with makeup and all that. Candy takes really good care of her hair and skin-”
“Skin,” Candy said. She turned to Kenzie, stabbing a finger in her direction. “Moisturizer?”
He could see her agonizing over it.
“Fine,” Darlene said. “Okay.”
She got her bag out and began digging stuff out.
It felt a little weird, being in on this scene. It was girly. Still, Kenzie seemed happy, and she’d been upset before.
He backed up. Off to the side, he saw Amais sitting in the hall at Rome-Roman’s feet. Roman and Precipice seemed to be half-listening in and half-chatting.
“It’s a cool necklace,” Darlene said, as she moved his handmade necklace from Kenzie’s lap to the side table.
“You like it?” Aiden asked, surprised.
“It’s a thing I made out of nowhere. I didn’t think you’d like it, since you’re always paying so much attention to the clothes you wear.”
Darlene shrugged and nodded. She seemed relieved, at least?
“She’s paying attention for reasons,” Candy said.
Darlene answered the statement with a death glare.
Between them, Kenzie looked left, then right, then left again, not moving her head or body much.
“Don’t worry, Kenzie,” Aiden said. “I’m as confused as you are.”
“I’m not confused. I really do like it, and I’m glad other people do too. I get being jealous.”
Darlene dropped one of the makeup things.
“Oh, whoops, foot in mouth,” Kenzie said. “Can I blame the pain drugs?”
“No,” Darlene said.
“You can blame the drugs,” Candy said, giving Kenzie’s lap a pat.
“Dar? Do you want one?” he asked.
She seemed startled. When she didn’t immediately formulate a reply, Candy threw something at her.
“Yes,” Darlene said, glaring again at Candy.
“I’ll put it together tomorrow. You can tell me what you want, even.”
Candy threw more things at Darlene. Darlene, at least, wasn’t blowing up or getting aggressive. She even seemed happy, now.
And, just as important, Kenzie looked okay. Not smiling, but he couldn’t blame her.
From the hallway, Roman gave him a thumbs up. He wasn’t entirely sure why.
But this was the kind of thing they needed. Alliances, solidifying ties. When people were hurt, they needed to be taken care of. He’d learned that sort of thing from Charlotte and Forrest, from Sierra, and from people who had passed more quickly through his life. Taylor had only been around for a short while, but she had made an impact too.
“Thank you,” Precipice said, as Aiden left the room and entered the hallway. “The others who know her best are preoccupied right now.”
“It’s been a day since the villain meeting. Roman was saying Tattletale hasn’t come around at all?”
Aiden shook his head. “No.”
“We could really use help.”
“I know,” Aiden said. He held his tongue instead of talking any more on the subject. He did want to talk about it, and things had sidetracked a little. There would be time later. Maybe with Kenzie. Maybe with Heartbroken.
“I only caught some of it,” Precipice said. “Couldn’t help but eavesdrop while we were making sure nobody else heard.”
Aiden shrugged. Maybe something to be more careful of. He’d spent the last four years around with villains who all knew each other. He hadn’t had to be very careful about his own business or secret identity.
“The plan is to do nice things and minimize the regrets you have?” Precipice asked. “I have a teammate that’s talked about that. I wish I’d had the mentality.”
“Kind of? Sort of. That’s not the main goal.”
“What’s the main goal?” Roman asked.
“Getting everyone working together,” Aiden said.
He liked to think of using his power like a general might have a soldier set a standard down on the battlefield. The standard could be adjusted and moved around for different sorts of orders.
Attack, go, circle, search. He was slowly figuring out what kinds of feelings could be pushed out and set to an area or target.
Push out, choose an area, connect… search. Adjust the size of the area to be searched…
The flag was planted. All birds within a large, large radius around him started flying toward the destination, a diffuse cloud. Another flag closer to him kept Chicken Large roosted on a nearby tree.
He wasn’t supposed to call it Chicken Large, on threat of being kicked from the team by Imp, so he only used the name in his own head.
He was dimly aware of them, like he’d be aware of leaves blowing around him.
When ‘search’ was the order, he was more aware of the responses. He could hear the distant caws as the assorted birds found something living. He could sense them too. Just a little brighter, more vibrant, alive.
He was linked in with the others while they were traveling, and now as he stood in the snowy field, no light above and no buildings near enough to cast any discernable light, he could feel where Darlene was lying in the back seat, her head resting on Candy’s shoulder, the younger Amais lying down across passenger and driver’s seat, head on Roman’s lap.
It was spooky out here, but at least he could sense that Roman was looking out for him, power at the ready. There would be the mercenary too.
He had a bead on the intruder. The general shape of it – too large to be moose or bear or anything of that sort.
He pushed out with another ‘flag’. If it were a physical thing, it would be planted right between the eyes of his target. He unpinned the flag from near Chicken Large and let the great eagle take flight.
It took more effort than it was worth to separate his birds by type or function. A creature that wasn’t normal or usual, that acted with too much intelligence. Scaled and drippy, capable of moving fast and hitting like a fast moving car with flailing claw arms.
He could count back from ten. For those ten seconds, the harassment of smaller birds, crows, owls, and other flying things that were braving the winter would be like an early warning sign.
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.
It weighed half of what Aiden did, it descended at two hundred miles an hour, and it could survive the impact that followed, orienting itself and letting its claws do the work.
One second the target was alive, surrounded by a flurry of small birds. The next it was dead.
He headed back to the car, moving Amais’ feet so he could take the passenger seat. Roman climbed into the back, and the mercenary that had been standing watch with night vision goggles took the driver’s seat. Their ride.
It wasn’t that much of a trip to get to the settlement, a logging village focused on gathering wood, with barely anything to do.
Tattletale was up. She sat in dim lighting, her face in shadow, hiding the expression that came with a migraine.
“Hi,” he said, quiet.
“You asked to go out with the others. When I said yes, so long as you were careful-”
“We were careful.”
“-I didn’t think you meant a three hour round trip, with barely any firepower.”
“We had five capes and a mercenary. And my eagle.”
“Not enough,” she said.
“You had a migraine and wanted to be left alone in the dark, Imp is trying to catch the people who are after us.”
“We aren’t supervising you enough, is what you’re saying.”
“I don’t need supervision,” Aiden said, setting his jaw. “I’m an Undersider.”
“You said you would be pretending to be in a coma for the next ten hours. Imp was gone for the day. We took precautiouns. I’m doing my best and we ended up fine. Lookout doesn’t get flack.”
“Lookout got shot twice. Bad example, kiddo.”
“I’m working with the Heartbroken-”
“Playing with fire.”
“I had protection!”
“A twelve year old was your best protection.”
“And a mercenary. I’m making alliances!”
She winced at the volume.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
“Alliances like that are not helping. If we receive a job to go after Breakthrough, and you’ve made a deal with them, what happens?”
“We shouldn’t go after them.”
He was heated enough that Darlene and Candy roused a bit, paying attention. He waved a hand in their general direction, and the half-asleep Darlene cut the connection.
“Did she cut it?” Tattletale asked. “Yes. Okay. Listen, we can’t rule out any options. We may have to go after Breakthrough or these other allies you’re purporting to make.”
“That, buddy, is a topic for when my head isn’t pounding.”
“I think you’re avoiding the question.”
“Because my head is pounding. Please. We’ll talk about this tomorrow. For now, can you put your bird in its cage?”
“Then get changed and go to sleep.”
“Tattletale?” he asked.
“On our way in, I scouted. Birds were acting funny in the distance.”
“One of the lizards that have been homing in on us.”
“It takes them less time to find us each time,” she said. “I’m not going to get to sleep tonight, am I?”
He felt a small measure of satisfaction as he saw her lurch to her feet, heading to the door where mercenaries were standing guard.
“You’re grounded, by the way,” she said.
He spun around, “You can’t ground me. I’m not your kid.”
“You’re grounded,” she said, again, rubbing at her temples. “I’ll tell Charlotte and Forrest. They’ll agree with me.”
Was it because he’d been smug? Had she sensed it and decided to get back at him? It was hard to tell sometimes.
He rankled. He’d done nothing wrong.
“She wouldn’t have wanted you to do this,” he said.
“Cute, but no cigar,” Tattletale said, half-turning.
“She would have agreed with me. She would have been disappointed you fought me on this.”
She didn’t respond, opening the door and then closing it behind her. He could see through the bulletproof glass where she was talking to the mercenary.
He felt frustrated in a way he couldn’t articulate, which was probably by her design.
He’d need to pack up, he knew. They’d keep moving until the problem was resolved.
The living room of the house they were staying in had been co-opted. Two computers, one tablet screen, and a lot of papers were scattered around.
There were boards, too. Bulletin boards that could be picked up and moved from location to location.
Curious about how many more times they’d have to move or how long he’d have to wait until he had real freedom and responsibility again, he looked at the boards.
Dragon: hid for a while. Scared
Legend, Chev: staying away on long missions. Clandestine meetings.
It made no sense. It didn’t help that her writing got worse as her headaches did.
Bogeyman of Cauldron: captured, weapon kept up sleeve
Dinah Alcott: compromised? Shift of motives?
Why capture/corner/co-opt precogs?
He knew the name Dinah Alcott. Eerie to see it now.
What is the threat? Why scared?
It wasn’t what he was interested in, but now he was paying attention.
Hiding in alternate worlds won’t save us, so why avoid the city?
Who or what is here?