Finding the Way
Part Twenty-Nine: Agreement Reached
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
"You're shitting me." The dreadlocked girl shook her head abruptly.
Taylor snorted. "You'll find Pathfinder never bullshits about anything," she said, stepping up to Lantrai. "We mean it."
"If you could have one thing right now, that you can't get in the Birdcage," Danny said, "what would it be?"
"Hot shower!" shouted Canary, at the same time as Lantrai blurted, "A Big Mac with all the trimmings!"
Taylor exchanged an amused glance with her father. "I think we can manage that," he said. "Now, I'm going to tell you now that trying to run off will not work. But I'm also going to ask you to promise not to even try. Okay?"
Canary nodded solemnly. "I promise," she said in her amazingly musical voice.
"Likewise," Lantrai agreed. "We'll be good."
"Excellent." Danny reached out and grasped their hands. Taylor grabbed his arm. Purple-brown smoke billowed up around them.
Lantrai's off-key singing, interspersed with happy splashing, echoed down the stairs. Paige, comfortably swathed in Taylor's fluffiest bathrobe, sat on the sofa, sipping at a cup of tea Taylor had made her. "I hope she doesn't blow out your water bill," she said with some amusement.
"If the PRT decides to put out an arrest warrant for us, it won't be our problem anymore," Danny pointed out from where he was sitting in the armchair.
"Uh, what's so bad about the showers in the Birdcage, anyway?" asked Taylor, seeking to change the subject. Upstairs, the singing stopped and the sound of the shower died away.
Paige sipped at her tea. "Well, for a start, you know locker room showers? A row of cubicles? Imagine that, but without the cubicles. Everyone can see everything you've got. In addition, prison showers everywhere are a hunting ground for predators. So you have to pick your time to shower. Having friends along to watch your back is ideal. Also, the shower water is metered, so it runs out after a while. And it never gets over lukewarm. And the shampoo's barely adequate." She shuddered delicately. "Plus, I'm convinced the water's all filtered and recycled. Over and over and over."
"Wow," said Taylor softly. She put her hand on Paige's arm. "I'm sorry we have to send you back into that."
"Oh, I'm pretty sure Lustrum will extend her personal protection over us once we tell her what's going on," Paige said, but Taylor could tell she was trying to sound more confident than she really was.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, and presently Susie appeared, wearing another bathrobe, and scrubbing at her dreadlocks with a towel. "Whoa!" she said cheerfully. "Paige, that was an amazing idea. I can't believe how shitty the showers are in the 'Cage next to that one. I just wish we had time for me to enjoy a proper tub bath."
"Maybe next time," Danny said. "I believe you were interested in fast food as your first option?"
Susie slowed to a halt. "Ooooh," she said. "Yes, please."
At ten o'clock on a Sunday morning, there weren't many people at Fugly Bob's. This meant that when the four newcomers entered and fronted up to the counter, they didn't have to wait long for service. Two of the women were wearing baseball caps, orange coveralls and nervous expressions, while the third woman and the guy were casually attired and much more at ease.
From the way they were ordering, it seemed that they were getting food for several other people; the dreadlocked woman in the coveralls seemed particularly intent on getting one of each kind of burger, save for the Challenger. All four looked at that and just shook their heads.
As the counter staff dashed around getting the order ready, the guy and the younger woman leaned on the counter and casually watched the road outside. Not much conversation passed between the four of them, until the final burger was packed in the final bag and the total was announced. The more slender woman in the coveralls seemed to balk at that, but the guy firmly pulled out a charge card and paid for everything. Taking their bags, the four left the restaurant and turned the corner out of sight.
Taylor grinned as Susie leaned back against the palm tree in the shade and let out a prodigious belch. A bag of burgers and two shakes had gone the way of all fast food, and the dreadlocked woman looked much happier with life.
"God damn, that was good," she said. "I can't believe how much I've been missing fast food."
"You and me both," sighed Paige, dabbing at her lips with a napkin. "So where do we go from here?"
"Where we go from here," Danny decided, "is that we need to take care of business. Specifically, we need to go back into the Birdcage and set up a meeting with the head honchos."
Taylor raised her head slightly. "Actually, we could fix our other problem at the same time, if you wanted."
Danny seemed to think it over. "Yeah, sure. We can do that, too."
"Other problem?" Paige looked at them curiously. "What other problem?"
"Kaiser." Danny let out a sigh. "He had it in for us, so we removed the problem. That put the PRT on our backs, which is why we're looking to move into the Birdcage. But Kaiser's still alive, and despite the fact that he would most definitely murder us in an overly bloody fashion if he got the chance, Taylor and I are still not one hundred percent happy with the idea of leaving him to starve to death in a tank at the bottom of the ocean. So, Taylor just hinted in a sideways fashion that we could dump him in the Birdcage instead."
"Wow, yeah, I can see how that would be a difficult decision," Susie remarked. "But sure, I'm willing to bet that some of the guys would be open to kicking the shit out of him until he figures out that he's at the bottom of the pecking order." She glanced at Paige. "Especially if it means they get out occasionally."
Paige nodded vigorously. "Definitely." She stretched. "So, we going to do this? I've had a hot shower and a good meal. I am definitely on my game right now."
Danny nodded. "Damn right."
"Where are they?" Lustrum raised her voice. "They've got to be somewhere!"
Spinning Jenny shook her head. Despite Lustrum's glare, she didn't cower away from her cellblock leader. "They're not in the cellblock. I sincerely doubt they've defected to another block, because whoever they went to would be over here to crow at us about it. And everyone at the hole in the wall swears blind they didn't go through there."
Lustrum sighed. There was only one other option. "They're in one of the empty cellblocks, then. Do you think some asshole lured them in to murder them? Maybe someone did something to them with powers?"
"Maybe." Spinning Jenny shrugged helplessly. "They rarely went out. Nobody should've had a grudge with them."
"Order another sweep," Lustrum said. "If they snuck off, I want to know where. If someone got in, I want to know how."
"Absolutely." Spinning Jenny turned to leave, took two steps out of the cell, then stopped. She paused for a long moment, then looked back into the cell. "Uh … boss?"
"Yes, what is it?" asked Lustrum testily.
"Found 'em." She paused again. "In fact … you really want to see this."
Damn right she wanted to see this. She'd taken on Canary as a favour to Dragon, but vanishing without a trace was pushing the boundaries—
Her internal monologue lasted as long as it took her to stand up and leave the cell, where she came face to face not only with the missing Canary and Lantrai, but two other people. One of whom was a woman that she knew for damn certain did not belong in her cellblock, and the other was a man. Who also did not belong in her damn cellblock, for a whole other reason.
"What in God's name is …" she began, then trailed off as she registered other aspects of the situation. Most prominent was the fact that the strangers were wearing costumes. Also up there was the fact that they had to know that they were in the deepest of deep shit, having invaded her turf, and yet they were just standing there, waiting for her to finish.
"Hi," said the young costumed woman. "I'm Compass Rose, and this is Pathfinder. We'd like to present you with a business proposition."
Lustrum blinked. "You what again, now?"
"A business proposition," repeated the man—Pathfinder. "We have something you want. You have something we would like to make use of. We feel certain we can work out an agreement beneficial to both sides."
"An agreement? What do I get out of it?" Lustrum frowned. "And how did you get in here, anyway?"
"They can teleport," Canary said happily. "They took us outside. We got fast food." She reached into the pocket of her coveralls and pulled out a sock. From it, she emptied a small pile of white sand on to her hand. "We went to a tropical island. It was amazing."
Reaching out, Lustrum took a pinch of the sand and rubbed it between her fingers. It was definitely beach sand, of which there was a distinct shortage in the Birdcage. "You can teleport," she said blankly, before her brain kicked into gear. "You can teleport? You can get me out of this place? What do you want? Name your price."
"Hold up," said the man calmly, holding out his hands placatingly. "We're not here to just let people out willy-nilly. That would draw too much attention. Also, they might just upgrade your Birdcage sentences to kill orders. But we are willing to let people out for a day or so at a time. Just so they can walk around, breathe free air, sit on the beach, whatever. Sort of a day-release scheme."
Lustrum thought fast. She could accept that limitation. Merely getting out for a single day would still be beyond her wildest dreams. And even if she herself could only get out for a single day, she could then control who within her block got out, and in what order. Being the cell block leader was to have power, and these two had just handed her a heaping helping of more power. A wide smile spread across her face. "You have my attention. What would you like in return?"
The next words out of his mouth floored her.
"We were thinking of using the Birdcage as our home base."
"As sure as I'm sitting here, that's what he said."
Marquis raised his eyebrows at Lustrum's earnest tone. "You're sure he's on the level? Not playing you?"
"Oh, for God's sake," Galvanate broke in harshly. "What possible reason would he have for trying a scam on us? Guy wants to move in, and he's willing to give us time-out? What's the worst that could happen? He doesn't let us out like he said? Then he's locked in here with us. He has to sleep sometime." He shook his head. "No, it doesn't smell like a scam."
"I can make sure of it," interjected Fidelis from her place beside Black Kaze. "You know nobody can lie to me and get away with it."
Marquis nodded, chastising himself for not having thought the matter through carefully enough. "My apologies, Lustrum," he said smoothly. "I never meant to doubt your word or your judgement. It merely seems too good to be true. We'll be able to see people we never thought we'd see again." Amelia Claire …
"Actually, he said something about that too." Lustrum looked uncomfortable. "Whoever he lets out can't go near anyone who might know them. And that includes settling old scores." She nodded toward Fidelis. "He knows about you, and intends to have each of us make a statement in front of you to ensure we aren't about to break the agreement."
"Damnation." Marquis felt a surge of disappointment. "Suppose we undertook to ensure that we didn't make any waves while making contact with our old friends?"
Lustrum shrugged. "For that, you'd have to talk to him. I am personally willing to put him up in my cellblock, with whoever he wants for companionship, for the chance to feel grass between my toes and watch a sunrise again. He was insistent on passing the word around, so that nobody felt left out. Oh, and there was one other thing. We're getting a new inmate."
"You did not mention this before," Black Kaze said carefully. "He's bringing someone in? Who?"
"A neo-Nazi from Brockton Bay by the name of Kaiser." Lustrum wrinkled her nose. "If he's the one I think he is, he's a real piece of work. Creates steel blades from solid surfaces. Pathfinder wants us to keep the guy in the Birdcage and out of his face. If we do that, we get day trips wherever we want out of here."
Marquis looked around at the other cell-block leaders and their assorted lieutenants. "It seems a remarkably low price to pay. Did he require that Kaiser had to remain in good health, or may we punish him for transgressions?"
Lustrum smiled slightly. "The quote I got was, 'I just want to wash my hands of him'. So long as we don't outright murder him in his sleep, I don't think Pathfinder will care."
Acidbath scrunched up his face. "And this Pathfinder cocksucker's dead set against anyone going out to get revenge on the motherfuckers who put us in here?"
"That's what the lady said," Marquis interjected, saving Lustrum the trouble. He knew she disliked the coarsely spoken man at the best of times. Acidbath had minimal respect for women, and had scarred several girlfriends with his eponymous acid before being sentenced to the Birdcage. Truth be told, Marquis didn't like him very much either. He possessed neither self-discipline nor the understanding of why it was needed. "As I understand the matter, if we go out there, it's on the specific understanding that it's for a twelve or twenty-four hour stretch, whichever we choose, and we don't do anything to draw attention to ourselves while we're out in the world." He glanced at Lustrum. "Did I miss anything out?"
"No, you covered it quite succinctly," she replied; the glint in her eye told him she knew exactly why he'd spoken up. "So there you have it. We're being offered the option to have day trips out of the Birdcage, in return for putting up Pathfinder and Compass Rose, and for keeping Kaiser within our walls. I'm for it. I'll even allow them to bunk down in my cellblock, under my protection. What do the rest of you say?"
"Are we going to have to pay you for access to him?" asked String Theory cynically.
Lustrum had clearly already thought of this. "There may be a nominal fee, if I so choose," she replied urbanely. "If people are rude about it, the fee will of course increase. Oh, and nobody gets to see Pathfinder without an interview with Fidelis first." Marquis could hear the subtext quite clearly. Nobody is going to mess with my golden goose.
So, apparently, could everyone else. "I'm good with it," Galvanate said. "My people will abide by whatever arrangement we come up with." By which he meant that he'd make sure of it.
"I agree with Galvanate," Marquis said. "This is a unique opportunity. Pathfinder is demanding relatively little for something of such great value to us. Let us not give him reason to change the conditions."
One by one, around the group, they reached an agreement. Only Acidbath abstained, refusing to say why. Glaistig Uaine, who had not spoken for the entire meeting, merely said that she would not be taking Pathfinder up on his offer, but that anyone within her cellblock was welcome to do so.
"You're each going to need to poll your cellblocks," Lustrum said as she got up. "Some of your people might want to schedule their outings on certain days, such as their birthdays. We'll work together to create a schedule for the day trips, but for now I'll go and inform Pathfinder that we accept his terms."
"Definitely," agreed Marquis. Standing up as well, he headed off toward his cellblock with Cinderhands in attendance. It was a lot to think about, and he noticed that Cinderhands was quiet as well.
"What do you think?" he asked quietly.
Cinderhands shook his head. "Normally I'd say it was too good to be real, but it all rings true. Lustrum believes it, anyway. I'm for it. I'll be booking my trip out as soon as possible."
Marquis nodded. "I, also," he agreed. "I've honestly forgotten what it feels like to have sunlight on my face."
Silence fell between them again as they walked on.
"Wow," said Compass Rose. "They all agreed? I'm impressed."
"If any of them had been lying, Fidelis would have detected it." Lustrum nodded. "We're good. We'll make up a schedule, then you can start your day trips."
"That sounds good to me." Pathfinder nodded to her. "When do you think the schedule will be ready?"
She snorted. "Pretty damn quickly, if we've all got something to say about it."
Who do I tell about this, and what are we supposed to do about it?
End of Part Twenty-Nine