“Ahahahaha,” she fake-laughed. “My sides! Oh wait.”
“You need new material, ‘Piece.”
“If I didn’t repeat myself once in a while, I wouldn’t get to hear your dulcet tones telling me how unfunny I am.”
They hiked through the snow and underbrush so thick that it was oftentimes easier to walk on, instead of walking through.
Sidepiece reached out for D.J.’s arm, gripping the forearm, ducked under a branch, and then stepped down to lower ground.
Thirty feet away, he was using a stick to prop himself up. He only had the one hand, but he could lean heavily on the stick for added balance. He spared her a glance, withdrew his arm, rotated the forearm, and then flung it out instead of teleporting it.
The hand gripped a branch, and the forearm stuck out at a convenient height and angle for her to grip.
“Masks or no?” D.J. asked.
“Sure. Can’t hurt.”
“We’re going to be near people.”
“We’ll be lurking in the trees like creeps. We might as well wear masks.”
She put on her mask, a new one that had been provided by Love Lost. It was in the shape of a skull, but limited to a cut that only covered the middle third of her face. The mask attached with glue and stayed stuck where it was. A mouth portion covered the portion of her face between lips and chin. The teeth of the mask were modified, as were the shapes of the eye sockets, but it worked.
Damsel had fucked up and bailed when it mattered, but she’d had other things on point. Sidepiece had a compact filled with black grease paint. With her thumbs, she applied it to upper and lower lids, with a little curl up at the edges, like exaggerated eyelashes. Nothing so delicate as Damsel had been, but Sidepiece didn’t consider herself delicate.
D.J. had a similar mask, but it was limited to the lower half of his face, broken into two parts, which he exaggerated by breaking his head into two parts, the upper half suspended over the lower. He had his own greasepaint, white to contrast with his black skin. He used his one hand to draw horizontal lines and highlight other gaps he created with his power.
She gave him a thumbs up, smiling.
The lights of civilization glowed beyond the trees, but the footing didn’t get any easier to manage. The divide between pain-in-the-taint nature and snow-covered concrete was a harsh one, with bushes and piled-up branches standing high enough that she could stand three feet above solid ground with parking lot two paces in front of her.
D.J.’s hand once again provided a hand-hold as she navigated the wood underfoot. She settled in, leaning against a tree, and tapped on his wrist with one finger. “Let go for me.”
He let go. She retained her grip on his arm, cradling his arm in hers.
“I want you to know you’re a proper fucking gentleman, ‘Joint. It warms a lady’s heart.”
She punctuated the statement by taking his hand and laying it down flat against her chest, where her coat didn’t cover her.
“That’s not your heart, ‘Piece.”
“I’m not complaining,” he said. “Not about that. Keeps my hand warm.”
She laid her hand down over top of his, sandwiching it there, and then pulled her coat around, to cover both of their hands.
“I don’t want to tell you to stop, but can you keep it where I can see it?” he asked. “I might need it.”
“I’ve got us covered,” she said. She used her free hand to move her jacket, which was open, showing off her midsection. There was enough missing that she’d been able to position two holsters so they were strapped around her spine and each other, the guns angled so she could reach down and draw one. Even when her coat was pulled tight around her body, the matched pistols wouldn’t show.
“Come on,” he said.
“If there’s trouble, I’ll give you back your arm. Yeah?”
Considering, she shifted the coat, buckling it at the top, still allowing for both of their arms and hands to be inside the coat, and left the lower half unbuckled, her midsection and the two pistols exposed and in reach.
“This shit is risky,” Disjoint said.
“Aw, buddy. Are you scared?”
“Aren’t you?” he retorted.
“Nah. I’m mostly worried we hiked this way for nothing. What are the odds that they see us in a car while driving here? If they even show up? It’s so fuggin’ stupid. If I’m scared of fucking anything I’m scared of being set up to do fucking stupid things for no fucking good reason.”
“Love hasn’t wronged us once. She’s smart.”
“Isn’t smarts,” Sidepiece said. “Smarts is what you learn from a book or teacher. Street smarts from a street teacher.”
“You don’t need to lecture me about street smarts.”
“I’m more street than you, anyway, I don’t think that’s what she’s about. She used to be law, before she was lawless. She’s got a good eye for things, and that’s where she shines, ‘Joint.”
“A good eye even when she’s not looking, which makes me worry.”
“She’s looking. She’s not telling us about all of it, but she’s looking. What we’re doing right now? It’s so she can look. We’re trustworthy eyes.”
“Uh huh. Trustworthy.”
“Mostly trustworthy. But a week ago I saw her talk to this skank, woman was making booze in her bathtub and definitely not using the bathtub for its usual purposes. She was hanging around Love’s turf, trying to pawn off her bathtub booze, scaring off anyone who had a sense of smell. Right?”
“Most people would tell the skank queen of stank to take a hike. Love turned her into an asset. She still hangs around, she still pawns, but the product’s a bit better, the skank showers once a week now, and she reports in. Things she’s heard. Things she’s seen.”
“That’s usually the way it works.”
“Nuh uh. I’ve known people who ran a neighborhood, expected people to tell them if there was any news, but didn’t care otherwise. My family was like that. I’ve known people who ran their blocks like a business, with rules like how you take fifty percent of what you get and reinvest it back into the business. I’ve even known ones who paid people for information. But the goal was profit. Maximizing money in their pockets at the end of the day.”
“Her goal is information, ‘Joint. If you look for it, you’ll see it. But she’s willing to break even on the business side of things to buy unreliable information. She’d be willing to send us on a wild goose chase that could go nowhere, and that bothers me.”
Disjoint shook his head. “You’re off.”
“I think she would, and if she will, that means we’re lower in her eyes. There’s a class system here, like castes in India or whatever, and stank skank with the bathtub booze is bottom tier. I don’t want to be at the mothersucking stank skank level. If this is a shit job then it means she’s not all that and it means I’m not all that to her.”
“Not what I’m saying. I don’t agree about the information part.”
“Really? You’ve got to pay attention and look, D.J.. See what she’s fucking organizing.”
“I’m looking. Not always at the same things you are, but I’m looking. I see the people she’s putting in place, but I don’t think the point is information. The point is emotional. She knows that information gets her what she wants.”
Sidepiece considered, then shrugged. She wasn’t sure he could see her in the gloom, but his hand was in place to feel the shrug. She smiled at the thought, and spoke through the smile. “Revenge.”
“Hate and rage. Revenge means there’s something that can be done and once it’s done then that’s the end of it. I guarantee you, ‘Piece, she’s going to get what she wants and those emotions she’s feeling won’t change a bit.”
Sidepiece felt uncomfortable, hearing that and kind of agreeing with it. The playful smile dropped away, and she found herself staring out across the dark parking lot. There were only six cars in a lot that could have held a hundred, and it wasn’t because the mall was closed- the lights were on, signs lit, and store interiors illuminated.
“She’s still classy as shit,” she decided.
“And pure sex. If she gave me a clear signal, I’d go to town and I’m only a bit into women.”
He drew in a deep breath, then like a robot, recited the practiced line, “I decline to comment on the grounds that it would self-incriminate.”
“Baby,” she cooed. She stumbled along the heaped branches and rocks to get close enough, and he caught her, the hand at her front going rigid and providing some of the leverage to keep her from falling. She leaned hard into the hand and reached up to touch his face. “There’s no criminating here. No discrimination, no incrimination, no cremation. You’re safe from me.”
She felt his hand at her chest move reflexively at the line.
She’d never known a guy like Disjoint, and she had known a lot of guys. When she had been fourteen she’d dated sixteen year olds. They’d wanted one thing. That hadn’t changed when she’d been sixteen and dating eighteen year olds.
It might have continued as a pattern, except shit had gone down when she was eighteen, and she hadn’t come away in one piece. It had taken her a while to try again. When she had, she’d been twenty, offering herself to thirty year olds to see if they’d bite. Some bit.
She hadn’t realized what she’d been looking for until she stumbled into it. A guy her age, who’d been hurt when she’d been hurt. She could offer him the sort of thing that other guys wanted, and he liked it, but it wasn’t why he stuck by her.
No. It was fucked up, but he stuck by her because he liked it when she was nice to him. It revved his engines and it made him happy in a day to day way.
She wasn’t good at being nice.
She saw. Across the parking lot, vehicles were convening.
“I brought binoculars if you want ’em,” D.J. said.
“I trust you.”
D.J. brought his hand to his face, two fingers at each eye. He pulled his hand away, and his eyes were each between two fingers. His own eye sockets were black pits, rimmed with red flesh and the horizontal ‘blindfold’ of white grease paint that he’d applied.
He stuck that hand out in the direction of the headlights. The eyes fritzed like a bad video tape, then disappeared.
“Breakthrough,” he said. “Some of them. No Damsel. Nobody else. I’m going to have to put my ears over there to catch what they’re saying.”
“I’ve got you.”
She drew closer to him, supporting him with her body. He reached up to remove his ears, which was a little more involved than simply removing the exterior portion, then he cast them out as he had the eyeballs.
When he did this, he was blind and deaf, but he also lacked balance. Sending eyes or ears one at a time while keeping one close by only served to further disorient him, and the eyeballs didn’t come with eyelids, so he couldn’t close his eyes to filter what he was seeing.
This was the dangerous part. If the ‘heroes’ realized they were being watched, they could retaliate. If it came to that, D.J. would have to bring back his eyes and ears, and they would have to scram. A fighting retreat, against people who could fly, do the retractable doll-limb thing, and that shit with the silver blades that had killed Snag from Love’s cluster.
She’d told herself a long time ago she would face danger with a smile. As her heart beat faster, she told herself it was excitement. This shit was neat.
She rose up on her tiptoes and kissed his mouth.
He broke the kiss, muttering, “Keep an eye out.”
“I will,” she said, before tracing the letters on his stomach, spelling out what she was saying.
There were more headlights.
Another car, beat from bumper to bumper. It parked in an empty spot at the edge of the trees, as far away from the mall’s door as was possible. It put the driver fifty or so feet away from Sidepiece and Disjoint.
An employee of the mall.
Sidepiece drew D.J. in for another kiss.
“You’re distract-” he started. Her finger on his lips silenced him.
She maintained the kiss while the person walked by, apparently choosing a course where the snow and ice wasn’t as pronounced, which meant walking beneath the overhanging branches of trees, and walking within ten feet of the pair.
Sidepiece watched with one eye, hoping that if the person did see, they’d think it was two people having a ‘snog’, as she’d heard characters in a tv show say. The masks were a drawback when it came to camouflage, but she could hide some of that with her hand up by D.J.’s face.
“Hello!?” the person called out.
She sighed into D.J.’s face as she broke the kiss.
She looked at the employee, someone wearing an orange shirt with a big blue button featuring a cartoon computer chip with eyes, mouth, arms and legs. She’d seen it on television.
D.J., too, was looking in the employee’s direction. An androgyne figure, short-haired and cute despite having lines around the eyes suggesting they were closer to thirty than twenty.
And very wide-eyed, seeing a man without eyes and with cavities instead of ears standing at the wood’s edge.
Sidepiece turned, giving the employee a view of her midsection. She started to draw her gun, and the person bolted.
She reached past the gun and up into her ribs, digging for the liver and digging into the liver. Pointed fingernails helped her to sever the connective tissue, and to get her fingernails in and around just enough that she could get a grip on it. When she tore it out, she felt the damage to nearby parts that were still connected by tatters and webbings of tissue.
A second later, the wounds were puckering up, the liver drawing into itself to close up the damage, hardening around where the damage was worst.
With a practiced throwing motion, she cast the gallbladder out and over the employee’s head.
It exploded outward without much noise, but with a visible puff of smoke and a spray of fluid, with a volume far exceeding what the tiny organ should have held within it spreading out over pavement and ice.
That D.J. didn’t seem to notice suggested it was quiet enough that Breakthrough hadn’t heard.
The person stopped running before she ran into the caustic acid. They looked back to see what was happening, and Sidepiece aimed a pistol at them.
“Listen carefully,” Sidepiece said. “That acid’s nothing compared to what I can do to you if I hurl something bigger at you. And I will. I’ll throw something at you that will make you a greasy smear. The only way you live is if you listen. Nod if you understand.”
The person nodded.
“Take your phone out, drop it.”
The electronics employee did as instructed, pulling the phone from an inner coat pocket. The phone bounced instead of breaking. A protective case.
“Kick it into the acid there.”
The person kicked, but the traction of the case was enough that it barely traveled.
“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Sidepiece warned.
“I tried- I’ll…”
It took two more kicks to get it into the puddle.
“You’re going to reach into your car and move very slowly. You’re going to drop the keys. You can kick them under the car. I’m being real fucking nice, because the alternative is to destroy your keys and leave you without your car.”
The person obeyed.
“You’re going to sit. All lights and engine off. You put your hands on the dash, and you don’t move until we give the say-so.”
Sidepiece made sure the employee obeyed.
“If you have to piss, piss yourself. You don’t move a muscle.”
It was another few minutes and another six cars -the new ones parking much closer to the mall- before any cars joined the cluster that were parked in the corner of the lot.
“It’s the Undersiders,” D.J. reported. “Bunch of kids ran off. Going shopping I guess. Adults stayed to talk.”
“Figured,” Sidepiece murmured.
“It’s a meeting about fire… the Undersiders set a fire to burn intel. Hm.”
“Tattletale wants to protect sources. Antares is threatening to leak intel.”
“Sounds like Love’s thing,” Sidepiece murmured.
“They’re sharing info. Love Lost is going to love this.”
Love Lost screamed. The scream hit Nailbiter and several members of the Patrol. That it hit Nailbiter didn’t really matter. Nails was filled with piss, vinegar, and rabies, and having the dial set to ten on ‘rage’ didn’t change a lot. It made her more intense, aggressive, and focused, and far less likely to choose any option that wasn’t ‘fight more’. It did the same to her enemies, but they weren’t going to win that fucking fight.
When they’d reported the meeting over, Sidepiece had messaged Love Lost. The response had been an address. This intersection.
No elaboration. If she’d known it would be a fight like this, she would have hurried.
Sidepiece adjusted her coat, pulling it open so the buckles came undone. She ran toward the thickest part of the fighting, raising her voice to a harsh pitch, “Give me the word!”
“Get ’em!” Nailbiter shouted.
“That’s two words!”
Nailbiter’s fingers elongated, narrowing into rigid, sharp lengths, which scuffed the road near Sidepiece’s feet. Sidepiece cackled.
A patrol soldier whipped around, gun raised, and kept spinning, as Disjoint’s hand gripped him and shoved him. A judo move at long range. The guy stumbled into another soldier’s way, nearly getting shot.
Sidepiece reached into her coat and reached for another organ, her fingers sliding on slick tissue and the fluids that periodically dripped down from the upper half of her torso to the bottom. Her kidney- not her right kidney. That one was still growing back. Her left kidney was ripe, and the faint, sharp pains told her it was loaded.
The sharp pains became something pronounced as she gripped the kidney and set to tearing it away. There was a sound like wet cardboard ripping, audible snapping as the congealed and hardened parts around old injuries broke away. Her right knee trembled with the effort and the pain, to the point she almost fell to the street, but then the last attachments broke, and she had her kidney in hand.
She even gave it a brief shake for good measure, feeling the reactions stirring within, like the fluids within the kidney were coming to a boil, the bubbles pushing out through the solid matter.
“Run!” someone gave the order. A captain, who twisted around and aimed to open fire with their assault rifle. Disjoint fucked with their aim.
They were already running, but they were running on a battlefield obstructed by their rage-filled allies, with parked vehicles here and there, and all of the other normal obstacles of a sidewalk, like mailboxes, trash cans, and trees. Those things funneled them.
It was a question of waiting until they were caught, then aiming for the concentrated mass, favoring the side with captain that had just tried to shoot her. Aiming wasn’t a guarantee, but her throwing arm was well practiced.
She lobbed it, and her timing was perfect, because it went off while over the heads of the crowd. On any ordinary day, the kidneys produced a chemical blast, concussive, congealed, and activated- like napalm with something more noxious instead of fire.
That was on an ordinary day. Her kidneys were packed with kidney stones, which would have better been described as sea urchins that chose to dwell in the kidneys.
Her power translated that quality into a kind of aggressive shrapnel. Ten people were cut down. Three of them hadn’t even been in the radius of the initial detonation.
Even on an ordinary day, most of her organs had another effect. The blood they shed and the bits of flesh they carved out were activated, much like her kidney had been.
A smattering of smaller explosions followed the first detonation. Where blood had sprayed, it ignited, burning like oil that had been touched with a lighter, brief but hot enough to hurt.
“You assholes are a mess!” she cried out.
“No,” Disjoint said. “You’re hurting us more than them if you say it.”
“You need to get organ-ized!”
Muscle came away in strips. Pulling at the stomach muscle near the spine made her thigh tremble. She flicked the strip out in the direction of a pair of people who were finding their feet. The explosion was smaller, localized, and put them down. Muscle was clean- too concussive to tear away chunks and cause a chain reaction.
Nailbiter swatted at the stragglers, sending them sprawling. Sidepiece quickly pulled away another segment of muscle, nearly losing her footing as nerves got to her, and then flung it out, as best as she could. Straight into the mass.
“Can’t stomach what I’m dishing out?” she asked.
“Stop, please, mercy,” Disjoint cried out, from the distant rear of the fracas.
Three more patrol soldiers remained. They looked like leadership, and two of them had riot shields. Nailbiter was playing with her food now that the rage had subsided. A prod here, a poke, trying to get over, under, and force a continual retreat that put the patrol leaders further from their fallen friends.
Nail-fingers and feet that had been sharpened down into singular points stabbed the ground near the fallen, but by careful positioning or sheer luck, Nailbiter didn’t stab anyone who was lying on icy pavement.
She tugged out a knob of fat, from between organ structures. Fat burned like blood did.
With index finger and thumb, and a bit of the enhanced strength that her hands and forearms had, to help with the tearing, and throwing, Sidepiece flicked the glob of fat.
The fat made a sharp sound and splatted out into a thin slime, which promptly ignited. One plexiglass riot shield was on fire now.
She kept one eye out for D.J.’s hands. She counted both wrestling with the commander’s own hand and foot, a targeted attack that was aimed at the one person without the riot shield. It served to separate him from the others, which exposed him to Nailbiter.
But Disjoint was occupied, which meant he couldn’t do much as one of the men with the riot shields raised his rifle, aiming it around the shield. Sidepiece had to run for it, hurling herself to the ground. There wasn’t much cover there, she was a sitting duck, and she knew she made a better target than some, given her proportions.
But she was near some of the wounded patrol officers, and the man with the rifle wasn’t willing to risk hitting them.
She hadn’t even seen Love Lost start moving, but she saw the middle and end of the movement- a shape along the wall, hair and dress flapping, claws sparking as they hit stone and brick, and then the plunging descent, feet planted squarely on the captain’s shoulders, driving him to the ground.
She leaped forward from there, and her claws scraped the plexiglass riot shields as she slipped between them.
Without turning around, she reached back to scratch both men. Ragged cuts- one at the side of the leg, the other from thigh to armpit.
Love Lost panted as she turned around, surveying the fallen, her mask dangling with one side attached at the right side of her jaw, the other unclasped. The pants weren’t normal ones, either- there was a note of something in them.
Almost a whimper, or the pained intake of breath between screams, except the screams had been a minute or two ago, not a second ago.
With the attachment of the mask, she composed herself in posture, straightening to her full height. Her claws ran through hair, a stroke of the back of the hand smoothed out the dress.
The look in her eyes took longer. Wild, almost crazed.
Then calmer. A perpetual glare.
“Would it make your evening better to know we got some really fucking good intel?” Sidepiece asked.
Love Lost pointed a claw at one of the guns that lay on the ground. She held up a finger.
“That first. Got it.”
Sidepiece bent down to grab some of the guns off of the men. Seeing Nailbiter extend an index finger, threading through multiple rifles by the trigger guards, Sidepiece picked up an assault rifle and flung it into the air.
Nailbiter stabbed out with two fingers. She caught the gun between them, like she was holding it with chopsticks.
“Don’t be a pain,” Nailbiter said.
Nailbiter’s index shortened until it could pass through the trigger guard, and then the two elongated ‘chopstick’ fingers withdrew.
“We should call for an ambulance,” D.J. said. “I’m not sure if you all killed any.”
Love Lost made a motion with one hand, claws glinting where they were mounted on her fingers.
“Calling,” D.J. reported, hesitating as he turned to the others, “what do you think? Three ambulances?”
“More than that,” Sidepiece replied. “What happened?”
“They came after us. We came back at them harder,” Nailbiter said.
“Good thing D.J. and I showed up when we did,” Sidepiece said.
Nailbiter gave her a look.
It wasn’t that Nailbiter disliked her or she disliked Nailbiter, but Nailbiter was a veteran. Almost a decade under her belt, being a villain. That shit hardened a woman. Nailbiter wasn’t one to relax, play around or laugh at jokes until she’d had drinks.
By contrast, D.J. wasn’t hardened enough. He was here because she was here and if pushed he sometimes collapsed. He was figuring her out and she was figuring him out. They made a good team, because she could deal with numbers and he could trip up any one enemy. But even this shit with gunfire, or shit like the Fallen, it wasn’t as big as some of the shit they could end up getting stuck in. She wasn’t absolutely sure he was fucked enough in the head to have her back when it counted.
She missed Damsel. Damsel had been willing to let the facade crack to fucking smile now and then. Sidepiece had started to think it was all an act, part of the undercover op, but during the interrogation in the shed, she’d still seen those small smiles.
Shit like that fueled Sidepiece. It was rare she could meet someone and feel like she could take on the world with them at her side.
She kept picking up guns.
She wasn’t done with Damsel, she decided. If the princess wanted to act proper and heroic, then Sidepiece would find a way to drag her into the muck. There was a kind of romance in the mental picture of the two of them too beat up to move, bloody and dirty, and the facades cracking. Emotion pouring out.
There was a romance to the scene, but a purely platonic intent, she decided. Damsel’s ass was far too skinny for Sidepiece’s tastes.
Speaking of. They had a report to make.
“How did you know that Tattletale wouldn’t pick up on us?” Sidepiece asked.
Love Lost looked over one shoulder, peering through red hair at Sidepiece. The hair had been dyed at one point, when Love Lost had been doing covert missions and had sought something more subtle, and it still lacked its brighter tones as some of the dye was still there. Blood red, if anything.
Love Lost’s claw moved, tapping out something in the air. She slashed it to one side, as if it was a kind of punctuation.
Sidepiece’s phone blared with the refrain from an angst pop song as the message came in, “Follow you, follow you, into the rage…”
Other phones went off simultaneously, throughout the group.
Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
SURVEILLANCE. HER HEAD IS BOWED AND POSTURE STOOPED IF HER POWER IS EXHAUSTED
“Thinker headaches,” Nailbiter said.
Love Lost nodded, slightly shrugging one shoulder, still walking at the head of the pack, still without looking back.
“What’s that?” Sidepiece asked.
“If a person with brainy powers uses her powers too much…” Nailbiter hissed the words, lisping the ‘s’s. “Suffers for it. Saw it in the Birdcage. Thinkers can’t get the privacy to hide when they’re hurting, and can’t not use their powers, when they need to hold their own.”
“A weak point,” D.J. said.
Love Lost’s claw moved.
“Follow you, follow you, into the rage…” The phones rang.
Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
SHE WILL FAKE IT TO FEINT WHEN SHE REALIZES WE KNOW
FOR NOW WE TIME OUR MOVES
“We weren’t in that much danger, then, surveilling?”
Love Lost made a so-so gesture. Her claws tapped at the air, poking at an invisible keyboard.
“Follow you, follow you, into the rage…” the phone’s ring tone sounded.
“Put that on vibrate,” Disjoint said.
Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
CAMERA TINKER A DANGER
WHAT IS NEW INTEL?
“Camera tinker wasn’t moving around much, or using much tech,” Sidepiece said.
Disjoint elaborated, “Half of what they were talking about was smoothing things over between some of the kids. Either fighting or getting along too well. Chicken Little and Lookout.”
“Look out, the sky is falling,” Sidepiece said.
Love Lost’s expression had changed. It always did when kids were involved. She even changed her attitude when it came to Colt.
“They talked about where the major players are, and who’s involved. They have a good guess about the attacks that took the Navigators and some of the Advance Globs out, thanks to Tattletale.”
Love Lost nodded, very cavalier about that fact.
“Matter of time, huh?” Sidepiece asked.
Love Lost nodded again.
Love Lost didn’t like using the phones to communicate, which meant that half the time she was leaving things up for others to infer or guess. If someone could fill in the blanks, then Love Lost allowed it. Screw up too many times or put the wrong words in her mouth, and that someone would get sent to do a shit errand and kept out of the way.
The inner circle mostly had it figured out, now. Disjoint stayed quiet rather than guess. Nailbiter only guessed in the middle of a fight. She worked well with Love Lost in an all-out fight.
“They’ve been working out who’s who. Shin’s quiet, Teacher overreached and some of his mercs from Chiet are rebelling, doing their own thing. Apparently, Bitter Pill isn’t leading the thinkers from the Point,” Disjoint said.
Love Lost typed in the air.
“Follow you, follow you, into the rage…”
Nailbiter’s fingers extended into points, perilously close to Sidepiece’s throat.
The scene remained utterly still for a few seconds.
The phone started up its ringtone again. “Follow you, Foll-“
The points of Nailbiter’s fingers touched skin. Sidepiece set her phone to vibrate.
“Yeah,” Disjoint said, looking at his phone. “That’s their best guess. Pill is the face, or a partner in leadership.”
Sidepiece looked at the phone to see what the guess was.
Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
Love Lost nodded. She drew to a stop, then looked around.
“Trouble?” Disjoint asked.
“No, not trouble,” Nailbiter said.
Love Lost pressed a claw to the fanged mouth that was molded to her lower face, covering nose, mouth, and cheeks. A single finger to mime ‘silence’. Her other claw went up in a ‘stop’ position.
The group was quiet and still as Love Lost extended a claw point skyward. Love Lost tilted her head.
The hand came down, pointing, then motioned again, quick.
Hurry, was the intent.
The group hurried. Sidepiece’s legs hurt from all the walking, especially the uneven walking through the forest, their shortcut to avoid being seen as they made their way to their vantage point at the edge of the mall parking lot.
“New security measures. Extending her sensory ranges, and feeling out for tech. It takes a minute,” Nailbiter hissed.
They entered the hideout. Love Lost activated the door’s locks, both mechanical and mundane.
“Breakthrough knows you won’t deal with them, so they asked the Undersiders to. Undersiders know March is prepared for them, so they’re asking Breakthrough to alleviate the pressure.”
Love Lost typed at the air. Sidepiece couldn’t look at her phone, as she was busy taking off her winter clothes.
Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
WHAT ARE THE UNDERSIDERS GOING TO SAY TO ME?
“Nothing useful, since we know what they’re doing and who they’re working with,” Sidepiece quipped.
Love Lost shrugged slightly, her head moving in acknowledgement of that simple truth. Even distant friends of the Fallen kid were off limits for alliances.
“They’re supposed to tell you that Cradle is dangerous, he wants to kill you and take your power, and-”
Love Lost moved her hand.
“I know. They said it before. They’ll be more insistent, try deals. They said the worst case scenario is that Cradle allies with March and then takes you out of commission. Second worst case scenario is you ally with March, Tattletale seemed pretty sure you wouldn’t go after Cradle.”
Love Lost stepped into the living room, claws clicking against the floor- three at the toes, one stabbing down from the heel, her feet encased in thermal stockings that extended up her legs. The moisture didn’t seem to stick to any of it, wicking off immediately.
Colt was lying on the couch, and sprung to her feet as Love Lost entered. Love Lost gently pushed her back into her seat.
A knife-finger pointed at Colt, a warning.
“Sorry,” Colt said. “I tried.”
Disjoint continued, “There was other stuff, Cheit’s mercenaries and some follow-up to the portal or something that they’re planning, but they didn’t talk much about that. Mostly their focus was on teaming up and trading enemies. Making sure March doesn’t get in contact with any member of your cluster, and making sure Cradle-”
“-Doesn’t steal the powers of another member of the cluster,” was the response.
Cradle stepped out of the kitchen.
Sidepiece met Disjoint’s eyes. Her hand moved closer to her midsection. Shit. Shitty shit shit shit.
“They don’t understand the most basic and fundamental truth when it comes to the Mall Stampede Cluster,” Cradle said.
Love Lost visibly winced at the mention of the mall.
“Sorry, L.L. But the fact is, if we were going to kill any member of the cluster, it’s going to be the kid,” Cradle said. “You don’t need to worry.”
Love Lost nodded.
Cradle, tousle-haired, wearing tinted goggles and a mask, looked as much like a kid as anyone, Sidepiece observed.
But as irreverent as she tried to be in the face of an unjust, grisly world, she could read the tension in the air. She could shut up when absolutely necessary.
Her stomach was doing flip-flops. Her pancreas was at that stage in its growth where each tiny growth made it twitch and flip up, then flop down, slapping lightly against the raw meat around it.
“I’m ninety percent done our second version,” Cradle told Love Lost. “I got peckish, I decided to use the kitchen. I told your henchman there to sit on the couch and let me tinker together some snacks. So take that claw away from her throat.”
Love Lost withdrew the claw. Her eyes narrowed. She started to type.
“Ninety percent because I want another scan,” Cradle said. “You gave me one of… his, I think it was.”
He was pointing at Disjoint.
Love Lost nodded.
“I’ll get one of my own. The data you collect is slightly different from what I get. Differences in focus.”
Love Lost looked at Disjoint.
“So long as it doesn’t hurt me any,” Disjoint said.
“It won’t,” Cradle said. His smile was thin, hollow.
Are we pretending that we weren’t just talking about Cradle hurting Love Lost? He says he won’t and we believe him? Sidepiece wondered.
“They suspect you, I don’t know if you heard that part,” Disjoint said. “Hurting the Navigators.”
“Okay,” Cradle said. “All the more reason to get version two up and running. And a bit more manpower.”
Love Lost walked over to the coffee table. Rather than pick up the files there, she speared them with claws, so each file was on a different claw-point.
She planted them on the counter-island that sat in the middle of the kitchen, where Cradle could easily see.
“Kitchen Sink and Hookline. It’s a start. Are they forgiven?”
“They can prove themselves worthy of rejoining us,” Nailbiter said.
“Love Lost and I talked about it before,” Nailbiter clarified.
“It’s a start,” Cradle said. “The mercenaries we hired before-”
“Money’s tied up,” Nailbiter said.
“I’ll put some forward,” Cradle said. “It always bugged me in the cartoons, when the villains had a plan that almost worked, and when the next Saturday morning rolled around, they tried something completely new, instead of refining the old idea.”
“Are you a villain, then?” Colt asked, from the couch.
“I’m a planner. We’ll hire the same people who did the job last time, and we’ll use version two of the weapon.”
Love Lost started typing in the air, claws stabbing at an invisible keyboard.
Cradle seemed to know what was being typed before any phones rang, because he added Love Lost’s line, “And if they don’t want us getting in contact with March… I think that’s exactly what we need to do.”
Love Lost nodded, claws touching her hair to brush it aside as she stood straighter.