Leather’s heart was pounding, but her eyes narrowed. “Miss Beguile, you could wipe me off the planet with a thought and I know it. So, please don’t take this as disrespect… but my name is Leather. If you forget that, there’ll be trouble.”
“I know.” Beguile paused, standing in front of Leather. “I was making sure you did. And seeing if you were the kind of pissant annoyance who’ll assert herself in the face of complete obliteration. I’m glad to see you are. —Leather and Beguile
The alternate universe coded ⎇001JW is home to parahuman heroes and villains, but their greatest heroes, the legendary Justice Wing, are facing a crisis of public confidence. This is Justice Wing In Nadir.
Against the backdrop of these rising tensions, the first tier archvillain Anchor and his hench-shark Malie the Destroyer are beaten and arrested by Justice Wing one February night. As they’re being booked, Anchor’s interest is piqued by Leather, a very young, very amateur villain being booked in her first ever arrest and loving every moment of it. Anchor makes contact with the young hero, and arranges to speak to her later.
Becoming Leather: Greenhorn #2
The buzzer was harsh.
“Jesus fuck,” Leather snapped.
“I’m guessing you were never that good at Operation?” Multiplette asked, more than a little snidely.
“Operation made fucking sense. None of this fucking feeding wires into slots and dip switches bullshit. Why can’t we go back to lockpicking? I like lockpicking! I’m good at lockpicking!”
“That’s why we can’t go back to lockpicking,” Multiplette said. “Besides, most places have digital security systems. If you’re gonna be a thief, you need to get past them without setting them off.” She reset the trainer. “You don’t have to do this. You’re a limber little monkey, strong and fast and I saw you shrug off one of Bandolier’s concussive charges. You could go combat instead and just go work out with Malie. She’d like that. You can debate fucking Sense and Sensibility while she eats you.” Multiplette leaned back, stretching enough to make her shoulderblades pop — which was a total lie, because this was one of her multiple bodies, which meant it wouldn’t get real stiff shoulders. Leather thought. She didn’t know for sure.
Whatever. It was another subtle dig — Multiplette had the hourglass figure to match her liquid-blue PVC unitard with the keyholes. Which made sense — when your ‘bodies’ were really some kind of energy, you didn’t need to armor up the way Leather did. Still, Leather knew by now to not let those digs slide. “Insult me all you like, bitch. Don’t you fucking bag on Jane Austin.” Leather began working her way through the wiring again, her reader set to watch the data as it scrolled past. She carefully set the switches, feeding wires into place…
The buzzer went off.
“Bullshit! This thing cheats!”
“You touched the data lead to the power lead, which caused a power spike in the bus,” Multiplette said. “I hate to admit it, but we’ve all done that one.” She reset again. “Give it another shot. And try not to suck this time.” As little as Multiplette and Leather liked each other, Multiplette was responsible for training Leather. That was the deal that Anchor had offered Leather back when they met in lockup — Group-work as part of Anchor’s Marines. Get some cash and experience, make some contacts, and in the process get trained in how to be more than a smash and grab punk. Leather wanted to be an elite thief. That meant learning how.
Of course, the fact that Multiplette hated Leather just as much as Leather hated Multiplette added spice to the training. There was no doubt the duplicator would happily fuck with Leather’s training if it meant fucking Leather over in the field.
But, you played the hand you were dealt. Leather bit her lip and began again. “So you’re a thief specialist too?” she asked.
“I’m crosstrained. Armed for combat, rigged for support, trained for thief. Almost like there’s seven to fifteen of me running around the fight.”
“I noticed that,” Leather said, continuing her work. “The ’seven to fifteen’ thing, I mean. I get that you subdivide as powers of two, but why’s there always one left out of the equation? You’re never two or four or eight, right?”
“Oh good, you can count. And I always subdivide to the next multiple. Why do you think I’m always one down?”
“Escape hatch,” Leather said, feeding the next bypass leads into the unit. “Seven of you get arrested, then vanish into wherever your extra bodies go. The eight’s sitting in a bunker a mile away.”
“Give the girl a fucking cookie. Now let’s just see–”
There was a ping. Leather leaned back. “Give the girl two fucking cookies. Next?”
Multiplette blinked. “You—”
“Solved it. Shocking, huh?”
Multiplette frowned. “So you got lucky—”
“No, you got distracted so you couldn’t change the conditions of the test on the fly when I got close to beating it.” Leather smiled sweetly. “All to make me better at thinking on my feet, right?”
Multiplette’s scowl gladdened Leather’s heart.
Bandolier stuck his head in the door. “Pack it up and put on your ‘company’ duds, girls. We’ve got a client, and he’s big fish.”
“Understood,” Multiplette said, and burst like a bubble into light.
Leather slipped out of her chair and walked over. She was in a leather bodysuit — it clung nicely, browns and reds, but wasn’t armored. “Is this okay or should I put on the combat suit?” The combat suit was new, and looked great. Anchor had gotten it for Leather — on credit, of course. She’d work it off. It was sleek but had concealed armor plates, hidden pockets, special overlapping leather strips for flexibility and protection at the same time — all kinds of cool shit.
“Nah, you look fine,” Bandolier said, grinning. “And that that thing takes like an hour to put on, remember? C’mon. I’ll walk down with you.”
“Thanks. So I should be nervous?”
“Well, lemme put it this way. I’ve been doing this for a couple decades, and I’m scared shitless.”
“Oh, well. No pressure.”
“So you don’t like Multiplette?” Bandolier’s voice was light as they walked.
Leather shrugged. “She doesn’t like me. Seems like I should let that be my guide.”
“You get on fine with Boatswain, Serrate — even Malie. You don’t get on with Multiplette. Anything I should know?” Bandolier was one of two ‘leads’ in Anchor’s Marines — he was a long-time villain, with a ton of experience, and his pay scale in the group reflected that. He also tended to be the mission leader — especially since the other lead was Malie, and as more shark than human, she didn’t pay a lot of attention to her ’subordinates.’ That also meant he kept an eye out for personality conflicts — Leather had to imagine that was important given how many villains were stone killers.
“Not really,” Leather said. This wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have. “I was in lockup with Boatswain and Serrate, and Malie and me bond over Victorian era literature. Multiplette and I just don’t get along.”
“That’s all? It has nothing to do with both you loving to shake your ass and getting the boys to howl?”
Leather stopped, staring at Bandolier.
Bandolier paused, looking over his shoulder. “It’s nothin’ to me, understand.”
“It has nothing to do with sex,” Leather said.
“Really. And so what if it did?”
“If it did, I’d need to know before this meeting.”
Leather blinked. “Why?”
“You’ll see. C’mon.” Bandolier turned and kept walking.
“What do you mean it’s nothing to you, anyway?” Leather asked, catching up. “You that committed to a wife? Or girlfriend?” Since she’d taken up leather over leotards, Leather had been enjoying the male attention she’d been receiving and admitted it. She’d certainly known Bandolier wasn’t interested.
“Boyfriend,” Bandolier said, with a tight smile. “Well, ex.”
“Ouch. Sorry. Breakups suck. Didn’t mean to hit a nerve.”
Bandolier glanced at Leather. “You actually are sorry, aren’t you? Damn. Wonder how long that’ll last. Empathy isn’t a survival trait in our lifestyle.” He faced forward, hitting the stairs and going deeper into the base. Leather’d noticed Bandolier always took the stairs.
“Yeah, well — for now I gotta be me.”
“I hear that.” Bandolier snorted. “And it’s a nerve but don’t sweat it. It was my fault. Let someone come before him one time too many.”
“A girl.” Bandolier snorted. “Not like that. I… tend to put the Beacon first in everything I do.”
“Wh— the Beacon? The hero?”
“If you call her that.”
“I do. Hey, I’m a villain. I don’t mean it as a compliment.”
Bandolier stopped again, making Leather stop short to keep from running into him. “Yeah you do,” he said, quietly. “Don’t bullshit me, Leather. You’re a villain but you still think ‘hero’s’ a compliment.”
Leather felt a twinge in her stomach. “…it didn’t stop me from fighting the Silver Horseman.”
“The Silver Horseman spanked you in like twelve seconds.”
“But I gave him a Hell of a fight for those twelve seconds.”
Bandolier smirked. “Maybe.” He started back down the stairs.
“So… you put her before your boyfriend?”
“Sort of. I put killing her before him. He should have known that. I never pretended my first goal was anything else.”
“She’s a fake. A sidekick wearing the wrong suit. The real Beacon died in the Apocalypse Agenda, and here’s her replacement making everyone forget.”
“But you tried to kill the first one too, right?”
“The real one? Yes. Lost my fucking chance. I’m not about to let some Junior Justice Winger pretend to be her.” Bandolier’s voice sounded tight.
Leather felt uneasy again. She realized it was a bad idea to try to figure out the source of Bandolier’s hate, the same way poking at Anchor’s hatred of the Ancient Mariner wasn’t very healthy. “So why are you worried about me and Multiplette before this meeting?”
“Because some chicks can’t deal if they’re not the hottest chick in the room.”
“Not a fan of ‘chick.’”
“And I’m a sociopath so, y’know. I care about how you feel. Deeply.”
“I won’t let my thing with Multiplette ruin—”
“I don’t actually care about that either, unless you guys fuck up in the field.” He hit the landing for the ninth-sub level, and pushed through the door.
“Then what’s the big—”
Leather slowed to a stop, having a sudden wave of… not vertigo. More like… fuzz, all across her brain. “What…”
She blinked, and realized she was looking at the most incredible thing she’d ever seen. It was a woman, but that was almost secondary. She wore a leotard with even more keyholes than Multiplette’s, but it looked entirely natural on her. Her reddish, blondish hair was short, her eyes were… glittery? It was hard to know. It was hard to think. What the Hell…”
“Beguile? Stop freaking the greenhorn.”
Leather blinked. The new speaker was familiar but…
Beguile? Leather knew that name. Where did she…
“You’re no fun,” Beguile said, her voice echoing slightly. She shifted, turning towards… towards Anchor. Leather realized Anchor was the one who’d been talking — she hadn’t realized he was in the room. She also realized the fuzz on her brain was clearing back up.
And that’s when it sunk in. Beguile was in the room. She was a legend — a first tier villain as much as Anchor was. The daughter of the infamous Doctor Guile, Beguile had long since eclipsed her father, merging his unholy science with magic and who knew what else. She was timeless — the kind of beauty they wrote about in books because it couldn’t possibly exist in real life. And to top all that off? She went toe to toe with Paragon. Leather couldn’t begin to estimate how powerful she was — in part because no one was entirely sure what she could even do.
Leather blinked a couple of times and looked around. Most of Anchor’s Marines were gathering on the far side of the room. A woman in a red and white business suit was standing close to Beguile and Anchor, with an elderly man in a white suit and fedora sitting in a very advanced looking wheelchair next to her. With a sudden start, Leather realized the man was Chattergun Calhoun — the only organized crime boss to really cross over into supervillainy. Like Anchor and Beguile, Calhoun was in the first tier. He was also the oldest villain on the planet, as far as anyone knew — he’d been running half the organized crime syndicates in North America for decades before Paragon first appeared on the scene. He had to be well over a hundred, and he looked it. Even his white suit looked too big on him, now, his round sunglasses sitting on his face like they were propped on a wax figure.
It was strange, really. Beguile — one of the most mysterious and powerful parahumans. Anchor — Beguile’s equal in influence and reputation, but entirely understandable as far as his power went. Chattergun Calhoun — as far as anyone knew, a completely normal elderly man whose only unusual characteristics were his refusal to die on schedule and a razor sharp mind that kept him on top of a crime world where weakness normally got you killed. All three first tier. None even remotely alike. And yet, they apparently had something in common now.
Leather realized this was not going to be a simple little job.
Leather glanced at Bandolier, who was grinning just a little bit. She realized then why Bandolier had been worried. If Leather couldn’t handle competing with Multiplette’s sex appeal, then Beguile would drive her insane.
Leather wasn’t being driven insane. Not over Beguile. The very idea of trying to compete with Beguile was crazy — her charisma, her beauty, even her sex appeal were as parahuman as Leather’s own sense of balance. Leather wasn’t about to resent a tornado for blowing out her birthday candles.
Bandolier was watching Leather carefully. She nodded and he relaxed, and she followed him to the other side of the room.
Incendijoe — the other greenhorn — was already there. He couldn’t stop staring at Beguile. Leather was working hard not to follow suit, either with Beguile or with Calhoun. They were fucking legends. Hell, Leather’d barely started to get used to Anchor. These guys? No way.
Beyond that… it looked like Refraction, wearing his silver bodysuit, was setting up a holographic projector built into a circular table. Serrate was in her battered armor, cleaning her knife. She clearly didn’t care about their guests. Then again, Serrate didn’t care about anything. Boatswain — pronounced ‘bo’sun’ — was next to Serrate and wearing an honest to God Navy dress uniform — U.S. Navy style, but its service and national insignia were replaced with Anchor’s logo. Malie the Destroyer was glowering — the huge shark-woman moving her head from side to side, showing the rows of teeth in her mouth. On her far side the red robed Eldernight was standing, looking impassive, with Bandolier sliding next to the mage, making Incendijoe move over. And naturally, Multiplette — wearing a more conservative bodysuit uniform than Leather’d ever seen her wear before — was there twice over — she had two visible bodies, with one on either side of the group. Covering the room.
Leather slid between Boatswain and Malie. Malie had been in the local lockup with Anchor the day of Leather’s first arrest, and as terrifying as the shark-woman was, she and Leather had gotten along right from the start thanks to a shared love of the Brontë sisters. Boatswain and Serrate had been inmates of the jail Leather found herself in. Since they were all part of Anchor’s crew, they looked out for each other. Since their escape, Leather still found herself more comfortable with those three than the rest of Anchor’s Marines.
Malie shifted. The predator clearly wasn’t happy about Beguile’s presence.
“Y’okay, Bosslady?” Leather murmured to her.
“Hate that bitch,” Malie grumbled, her voice almost subsonic, but Leather’s enhanced hearing could pick it up. “She and Sir go back, watch out for each other. Still pisses me off when she shows up.”
Leather saw Beguile smile a bit out of the corner of her eye–
Malie surged five feet forward, snapping her powerful jaws at the air as she roared—
“Malie!” Anchor shouted.
Malie pulled herself up, body quivering with rage, then forced herself to step back.
Anchor stared at her for a long moment, then turned to Beguile. “I can’t take you anywhere,” he snapped.
“Don’t mess with the greenhorns. Don’t mess with the shark. You make life terribly boring, Anchor — have I ever told you that?”
“More often than I can count. You ready, Refraction?” Anchor was clearly on a short fuse himself.
“Just a… yup. Yes. All set,” Refraction said, before standing a bit straighter. Like Bandolier he was one of the Beacon’s rogues, but he was almost as young as Leather herself — though he wasn’t a greenhorn. He had a rep. His thing was light and holography based tech — and he clearly wasn’t used to doing A/V in front of three of the biggest villains who ever threatened the world.
Anchor nodded, then glanced at the woman in the business suit.
The woman glanced at Calhoun. Calhoun nodded, and she stepped forward. “If I may have your attention,” she said in a cool, measured voice. “My name is Miss Appropriation, and I am Mister Calhoun’s executive assistant. Mister Calhoun and his professional associate Ms. Beguile have asked me to brief you on the assignment Mister Anchor has been good enough to accept.” Leather felt ‘Miss Appropriation’ was a bit twee as professional names went, but then she named herself after cowhide so whatever.
Miss Appropriation gestured to the table projector, which hummed into life. Its holographic field resolved into a modern looking building, which almost looked like a hooked C from above. “This is the Caledonian Trust and Reserve in Las Bendiciones, California,” she said. “It is a major financial hub, a repository of hidden things, and an interesting fusion of public and private interests. It is a gold reserve, a storehouse for documents and certificates, and a contracted satellite of the Federal Reserve bank, among many other things.”
“Sounds like a pretty rich plum,” Bandolier murmured.
“Too rich,” Serrate spat. “Too well guarded.”
“It does have significant security,” Miss Appropriation said. “I rather doubt any of you could take a significant run at it on your own, but as a combined force, it would likely be briefly vulnerable to a frontal assault.”
“A frontal assault?” Refraction sounded appalled. “Are you ki— I…” He turned bright red. “Sorry.”
“Not at all,” Miss Appropriation said. “That is probably the healthiest reaction. But yes — the building’s defenses have become very specialized for even oblique threats, which has paradoxically made it somewhat vulnerable to a direct attack, if sufficient force is applied. Obviously, the immediate concern would be Justice Wing, but we’ve become aware that Centurion — their most powerful current member, who admittedly is also local to the Las Bendiciones area — will be off-planet in two days. With Paragon currently still on leave and several other Justice Wing members unavailable, any response they could likely field will be much more easily contained than normal.”
“The Ancient Mariner—” Anchor couldn’t keep his revulsion out of his voice as he said the name “—is the strongest member likely to be available, followed by the Beacon. I will be launching an attack against Monument City at the same time you Marines assault the Caledonian Trust. At that same moment, Beguile will be coordinating an attack on the main laboratory of the Paramount University School of Parascientific Studies. She’ll bring along Paramount locals Rebar, Jackanape, and Cashflow. My attack should draw the Mariner out, and Beguile’s attack, alongside Bandolier’s old friends, should make sure the Beacon’s hands are full. If we’re lucky, they’ll even call in some of their second stringers to help them — we’re hoping Upsilon, Vortex, and Whipporwill will be distracted, for example.”
Beguile picked up the briefing. “If Justice Wing does manage to field a response, it is likely to be more locally based than not. Former Protectors, like Thunder Lass, Micronaught, or Doctor Muon, for example. If the national team does get involved, the next most senior members are the Lieutenant, Broadhead, and Rodent. Rodent’s almost certainly going to be busy in Empire City, and there’s every possibility that the Lieutenant will be drawn into the Monument City feint.”
“You mentioned Paragon,” Bandolier said. “I know he’s on leave, but he’s still around. Are you sure he wouldn’t show up?”
“Who can ever be certain?” Beguile asked, smiling a bit. “But that’s one reason I’m going to publicly appear in Paramount City. The Diamond Hard Man and I have more history than most — if he is drawn into the conflict, with luck he will come find me. The most likely national team response your team will get will come be Broadhead’s team — Broadhead himself, Greyfalcon, Ricochet, and Selkie. Honestly, that team is more Justice Wing in name than power level. I for one would be more worried about Thunder Lass than any of them.”
“Which isn’t to say they can’t beat you,” Calhoun rasped. “So for Christ’s sake move fast.”
Leather paused a moment when Greyfalcon’s name was mentioned. She didn’t think a lot about her past — certainly not her long lost gymnastics career — but sometimes a memory hit you like a gunshot. She could clearly see Greyfalcon in her mind’s eye, holding up a gold cup. Leather’s first junior elite gymnastics win — the Nancy Michelle Harrier Invitational, named for a fallen hero. Greyfalcon smiling, her metal-feather mask glinting under the lights, her feather-scale-mail bodice distracting Leather for a moment so she almost missed the hero handing her the award—
“Assuming that means you’re ready to continue?”
Leather blinked — Miss Appropriation’s curt voice bringing her back into the here and now. The executive assistant was gesturing at the hologram, which divided into a three dimensional wireframe — a combination floorplan, wiring schematic, HVAC layout and design. “On the eighth level up there is a vault containing safety deposit boxes. That is the primary target — specifically, box 11871. However, we do not want any suspicion to fall on that target, so we are looking to penetrate both the cash reserve and gold reserve. That will be the primary role of the combat specialists. Tear into those areas, attract the guards, and work hard to liberate as much gold and cash as possible. Support will assist as much as is practical while keeping the main objective in mind.”
“That’s my kind of distraction,” Bandolier murmured.
“While this is going on, your thieves will penetrate the eighth level vault. They will crack and clear out as many safety deposit boxes as possible. We want it to appear like you’re emptying everything with hopes of sifting through it later. It should look systemic but also untargeted, but you must make certain you crack box 11871 and you must clean out all its contents, or else the assignment will be deemed a failure.”
“What are we looking for?” Multiplette asked.
“Refraction?” Miss Appropriation asked the tech. He nodded, and rotated the vault, drawing a wireframe of safety deposit box 11871 out and expanding it, showing a tall, thin box filled with books, envelopes, and personal effects. “This box, we have learned, has been leased by a former associate of Mister Calhoun’s. It has bonds, stock certificates, notes, a number of personal effects — a gold pen, a platinum and diamond ring, three military medals and the like. Most importantly, one of the personal journals has a payload.” One holographic journal — perfect bound, like a large Moleskine journal — lifted out of the box. A blue chip appeared in the middle of the journal. “There is a small secure data card that has been taped to the interior of that journal. That SD card is the target of the operation.”
Leather looked at the card, then at the rest of the contents of the box — the medals in their wireframe boxes, the ring, the pen, the books and envelopes. She looked over at Calhoun. He was staring intently at the contents. “What’s the big deal?” she asked. “Why that thing?”
“We don’t need to know why,” Multiplette said, derisively.
“That’s a stupid thing to say,” Calhoun snapped. “Jesus Fuck.”
“Quite,“ Miss Appropriation said. “We understand the principles of ‘loose lips’ and ’need to know,’ but we expect professionals like you to be able to maintain operational security, and understanding the nature of the theft is crucial.” She turned to the display. “The former associate of Mister Calhoun has a large amount of information on both his organization and — though they likely do not realize it — Ms. Beguile’s activities and how they correspond to one another on that SD card. They are using it as a form of leverage, to guarantee their freedom and Mister Calhoun’s protection despite their lack of loyalty.”
“That’s why it is important to make this look like a theft of opportunity,” Beguile said. “You must bring the entire contents of that box, not just the SD card, and conceal it in the midst of a general theft. We wish the people involved to believe you were there for other reasons. That is why neither my resources nor dear Chattergun Calhoun’s are being deployed directly in this mission. We want them to maintain the bluff that they still have their leverage, at least for the moment.”
“So… we have to empty out as many safety deposit boxes as possible,” Leather said, still watching Calhoun. “And we have to get everything out of the target box.”
“And we need to steal as much gold and cash as possible at the same time,” Bandolier said. “Works for me.”
Leather glanced at Bandolier, arching an eyebrow. She looked around — everyone else seemed okay with the plan as it was laid out.
“All right — we’ll need to be surgical,” Bandolier said. “Anchor — can we use that fabrication specialist of yours?”
“I don’t see why not,” Anchor said.
“Then we’ll need at least a couple of guard disguises, including badges, working keycards and the like. Incendijoe, you better be ready for the big time, because that’s you and me. We go in while Refraction and Multiplette compromise the internal security system. We set charges and detonate, letting Malie, Boatswain, Serrate, and some combat rigged Multiplettes hit the front. We divide and hit the cash and gold. Leather and some thief-rigged Multiplettes get gated onto the eighth floor by Eldernight, who’ll also be ready back in the Transport — he’ll be pulling out the loot as we grab it. Thief-Multiplette and Leather rendezvous with Refraction and lead-Multiplette to hit the Safety Deposit vault, hopefully after it’s been deserted. Refraction’ll slag the vault door controls while Multiplette and Leather hit the boxes, dumping into more of Eldernight’s totes. Eldernight will have a transition spell on tap to yank the totes away as soon as we get the high sign that the objective’s complete. Then, the job’s to get the Fuck out of Dodge. Best case? Three minutes. Worst case, eight. Questions?”
Leather frowned a bit more, but looked around. There were a couple of questions about details, but that was it…
“Leather? Incendijoe?” Eldernight said. He was an odd looking man — gaunt, his skin grey with red edges, and he looked almost like he was carved out of slate instead of flesh and blood, a red glowing sigil on his forehead marking his presence. “Do you feel ready for this? I recognize you are new, but much of this will rely on you.”
“Oh, I’m so damn ready,” Incendijoe said, bouncing. “Those bangs’ll be sweet!”
“Leather’s ready,” Multiplette said. “Since she’ll be covering the other wall of the safety deposit boxes anyway. I’ll make sure the objective’s met. She’ll be the chaff.”
Eldernight arched an eyebrow. “I’ll prefer to hear that from her, Multiplette.”
“Yeah,” Leather said. “I can do that. I’ll be great chaff. I’ll be chafftastic. No worries, E-D-N.”
“So what’s the take?” Serrate asked.
“Twenty million,” Miss Appropriation said. “Plus whatever gold and money you liberate during the raid.”
“Twenty… that’s… for the whole job?” Bandolier asked, eyes wide.
“Twenty million is the crew share,” Anchor said. “Clean the box out, get it all here, and make it look like you weren’t after the SD card—”
“Jesus Christ,” Multiplette said, softly. As annoying as Leather found Multiplette, she had to agree. As leads, Bandolier and Malie got double shares. As greenhorns, Incendijoe and Leather herself would get a half-share. Everyone else would get a share — so ten shares total at two million a share. Which meant Leather herself would get a cool million out of this, plus a half-share of whatever they otherwise stole.
Sounded great, right?
“Don’t spend your damn money before you get it,” Calhoun snapped. “Jesus. Dumbass kids.”
“Good advice,” Bandolier said, but he was grinning. “Right. Joe — let’s go talk to fabrication. If we can get specifics on the security system so Refraction, Multiplette, and Leather can go over it, great. Strike teams, form up on Malie and start working out attack plans. Let’s do this!”
Multiplette’s nearest body turned and smiled the fakest smile Leather had ever seen, aiming it right for Leather. “Come on, Leather, dear,” she said. “You don’t want miss a minute of this prep, since one fuckup in the field and we’re all going to jail and it’ll all be your fault, right?”
“No one wants that,” Leather said, following Multiplette. She glanced back at the other side of the room. Calhoun was still looking at the hologram of the safety deposit box. Anchor and Beguile—
Anchor and Beguile were both looking at her.
Leather didn’t acknowledge them. Instead, she followed Multiplette. One way or another, Leather needed to learn everything she could about this assignment. Preferably firsthand, instead of from Multiplette. She didn’t know the duplicator would intentionally fuck the mission up and implicate Leather, but she didn’t know she wouldn’t, either.
An hour later, Leather stepped out of the elevator on the barracks level. They all had their own rooms, and that’s where Leather wanted to be. She opened her door, then closed and locked it behind her, before she took a deep breath and began undoing her bodysuit—
Leather jumped — the voice was crisp. Female, mid-Atlantic accent. Accustomed to authority — mature, but not old. Sultry, but not pandering.
Leather slowly turned. “No,” she said. “Leather. I think Boatswain’s—”
“Boatswain,” Beguile repeated, and began moving forward, hips shifting with each step. Walking in heels as though that were the only possible rational alternative. Her short hair seemed to ripple in a wind that didn’t exist. Her eyes glittered, her irises shifting colors like crystals reflecting and refracting light only they could see. There was a sheen to her skin, like its undertone were metallic silver and gold. Utterly radiant. Completely inhuman.
And… unlike before… Leather realized her thoughts were clear. “…uh…”
“Multiplette,” Beguile said, walking deliberately. Circling. “Serrate. Incendijoe. Eldernight. Refraction. Malie the Destroyer. Even good old, pathetic Bandolier.” She kept circling. “Every one of them was perfectly happy with the plan as it was laid before them. Every one of them was mostly interested in keeping me happy, Anchor happy, and most importantly Chattergun Calhoun happy. Not counting Miss Appropriation, who tends to lack opinion, that leaves only Calhoun, Anchor, me…. and you. Of those four, how many do you think didn’t like the plan?”
Leather took deep breaths. She tried very, very hard to keep up her facade. To front. To not show fear in front of this apex villain. “Do you want the politic answer?”
Leather looked at her, then shrugged. “Well. There’s me, you, Calhoun, and Anchor. I assume that’s four.”
Beguile arched an eyebrow. “It’s our plan. Why wouldn’t we like it?”
Leather looked away. “Lots of reasons. You don’t always get to make plans you like.” She worked her mouth — it was bone dry. “If I had to guess? I’d guess it was a test.”
Beguile chuckled. “A test? I assure you… we want that data.”
“I know. But tests happen.”
“Yes. They do. So why don’t you like it?”
Leather licked her lips, trying to work up saliva. “There’s just one point of failure. There’s no flexibility. If we’re blown, then either we grab the SD card before we got caught or we completely fail. And if we grab the card without making it look random, we’re still failing the mission. That’s crazy.”
Beguile kept circling, a slight smile on her lips. “And you don’t figure you’re just inexperienced? That maybe they know better?”
“I’m green as fuck,” Leather said, turning to keep Beguile in sight. “But I know you have to be ready for other alternatives. Have backups. Contingencies.”
“And wherever did you learn that, mm? Not as a star spangled superhero, surely. I’ve studied your adventures. If you ever had any plan at all, it defied easy comprehension.” Beguile was smiling more now, but continued to circle.
“I’ve done more in my life than jump around buildings, no matter what side of the aisle,” Leather answered, still shifting to keep Beguile in view. Studied her adventures? How in God’s name did she manage that? No one ever even noticed her adventures.
“Oh, of course you have. So, what then? Ballerina? You have the look. Though ballet isn’t known for improvisation.”
“Oh, I dunno. You try standing in fourth position for an hour and see if you don’t improvise.” Leather had learned the basics of ballet from some of the Riverside collegiate gymnasts Emma had coached back in the day, though they’d spent more time on hip-hop. And, like Anchor always said — you never gave away information and you always—
“I have held fourth position for considerably longer than an hour, before. And you haven’t. So tell me exactly how an artistic gymnast learns to improvise, Miss Shapiro.”
Leather felt a clutch in her chest.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Should I call you Dara Gail Oswald? Deej? Dynamo Girl? Evvie? Surely not Eve.”
Leather’s heart was pounding, but her eyes narrowed. “Miss Beguile, you could wipe me off the planet with a thought and I know it. So, please don’t take this as disrespect… but my name is Leather. If you forget that, there’ll be trouble.”
“I know.” Beguile paused, standing in front of Leather. “I was making sure you did. And seeing if you were the kind of pissant annoyance who’ll assert herself in the face of complete obliteration. I’m glad to see you are. So. Improvisational gymnastics?”
“You choreograph and plan and train and set a routine for every apparatus,” Leather answered, coolly. “But it’s not dance. It’s sport. Sometimes on your best day you fall off the beam, or you hit the springboard wrong, or you miss a single hand-off on the bars. Sometimes you come up short on your diagonals on Floor, or just can’t manage two twists. And sometimes you’re absolutely on-point and want to up your difficulty on the fly. So you’re always ready. Ready to switch up vaults, remount and slide through a combination to get you back into your routine, or throw yourself high to give yourself a second to figure out how the Hell to make your fuckup look planned in front of a pack of judges who have no reason to like you. The last time I ever competed I had a fall off the uneven bars in the finals and still scored fifth for the apparatus and was on track for first or second in the all-around, because I could improvise. I silvered in Floor, and no one even realized I changed up two different combinations in my routine in the process. This heist — if we hit it? If we nail the execution? It’ll be seamless. But if we don’t, we have no way to recover and think on our feet. Not as individuals, and not as a team. So yeah. I pretty much hate this plan, thank you very much.”
Beguile’s smile grew, just a touch. “Well then. Congratulations. If this is a test, you’re the only one who passed. Now. What good does that do you?”
Leather snorted. “No good at all.”
“Really? You could punch out of this whole plan — walk away, call them out as idiots and demand—”
“No, I can’t. And you know I can’t. They call me fourth tier or greenhorn, but I’m only barely even that. I’m a nobody. If I walk away, I never get another gig like this, and I spend the rest of my life breaking windows and swiping shit in penny ante holdups.”
“And that’s not enough for you, any more? Even if it means following a stupid plan?“
“Even if.” Leather managed to lift her chin a bit.
Beguile nodded slightly, still smiling. “I can respect that. Mm. Though… do you know what I would respect more?”
Leather’s felt another jolt of adrenalin, but fought to keep it out of her bearing. “What?”
Beguile turned, and began to flow out of the room. She looked back at Leather as she went. “Refusing to accept either so-called choice. Though I suppose you’d need to improvise in that case. Thank you for an interesting conversation, Leather.”