Playdate's Prologue Prose in Tales of Justice | World Anvil

Playdate's Prologue

approximately 10:45 a.m. EDT
Atlantic City, New Jersey
"I need to file an interim report." Feral's gaze swept briefly over the shoulders of her four teammates. "They'll be organized in fifteen minutes. I need less than that. I'll be back in time."
Most people would have examined their co-workers' faces; Agent El made a mental note for his own future paperwork, Feral checks body language rather than facial expression. This might support one analyst's theory that Feral had a mild form of prosopagnosia rather than another analyst's proposed social-emotional agnosia -- with the latter, she would not be able to interpret any nonverbal emotional context.
Privately, Agent El held with the majority of analysts to edit the Wyldfire files: Feral was short when she stood perfectly straight. She seldom stood upright, preferring to curve her spine. Her line of sight on most faces was severely angled unless they were focused on her. Her eyes were designed for best focus on extremely close objects or on moving targets.
So El made a point of keeping his own body language casual as he offered, "You can get a private room on the Bus once we're in motion?"
Feral shot him a clearly exasperated tail-twitch. She crossed the street to vanish in an alley between two businesses.
"I have five minutes," she said into an off-market cellphone a few minutes later. "Job has gone to heck. Oscorp and some kind of Kryptonian Masculinity Supremacist club working together to transfer backup data from previous site to elsewhere. It sounded like they finished before we managed to break enough things." The catwoman set her phone atop a nearby fire escape stairstep in order to free up her hands, which she used to massage the muscles near her cheekbones. "Cards picked today for a brute force heist. I left Dr. B unguarded in the middle of that heist for too long. More than sixty seconds. Local site security turned out to be--" Her ears, which had been angled back to track sound on the roof of the building behind her, twitched downward violently as if bitten. "-- SAFEGUARD, of all multipliers. 'Clandestine' requirement is busted. They request to pool intel. Aboard their loud VTOL, too, so they can transport us to a third site. I agreed. They're going to return our rental car. Possibly also clear out our hotel rooms. ShadowStar will need to follow up on that. Dr. A retrieved a meta victim, male. I think he also will be loaded on transport."
Feral consciously pulled her paws away from the whisker muscles in her face. "End report," she said. "Instruction?"
An older male voice spoke as crisply as most of Feral's report had been: "Casualties?"
"Injuries, no death," Feral said. "Enemies, two allies, medical supervision. MedKit may be checking Dr. A's leg while Dr. B triages enemies."
"And you?"
Though her employer would not see it, Feral moved both palms as if to conceal the blast mark on her abdomen. "Moderate," she admitted. "My career is in more danger."
"I do not want the enemy to cite Wyldfire in the aftermath," the man at the other end of the phone call said firmly. "Did any of the enemies or the bystanders show signs of successful identification?"
Feral hesitated. "The windbag said Dr. A's name while mansplaining her ethics at her. I was in transit to provide her with support at the time."
A pause lasted long enough for someone to write a short note. "Does Dr. A know this man's name in return?"
Feral made a vague noise that probably meant, I have no idea.
"Find out. If not, that suggests she is on a watch list for some reason. We need to deduce the reason. She may be in danger. These allies of Oscorp may lead to something bigger than our immediate concern. Update me on your determinations within the hour."
Feral's tail kept its tip curled tightly in the concentration indicator, but it began to sway rhythmically in time to her accelerating thoughts. All she said aloud was the shortened "'Kay."
"As for your career," the man said, returning to the body of the status report, "I am not going to fire you over SAFEGUARD being good at their own specialty, Feral. You should have little trouble signing them onto the misdirection plan to implicate M.A.T.R.I.X. or similar. So long as you and Amythyst get the three doctors out of danger, it is not your fault when any of the three insist on charging into danger. You're doing acceptable work."
The tension of Feral's shoulders and legs did not reduce, but it shifted into more flexible lines. She glanced at the timestamp on the screen. Her tail's tip began to loosen its curve as it slowly swayed back and forth -- headed toward the full-length horizontal C of personal space definition for either cordial welcome or territorial combat.
"Keep me apprised," the man instructed. "Be careful."
"Yes," Feral acknowledged.
The connection terminated. Feral shut off the phone. In practiced moves, she opened its battery compartment to slide an insulating cloth between the battery and the connections so that it could not function. With the case closed again, she buried the deactivated device at the bottom of her satchel.
She turned around to face the tall, shadow-wrapped figure who stood perfectly straight.
Perfectly ominous.
The unblinking white lenses of his rigid black cowl glared at her.
Coils of smoke billowed out from the edges of his cape, from the mantle at his shoulders, from the defensive fins molded onto his gauntlets.
She chose that fire escape for her report because she could put the phone on the step to free her forepaws, yes, and she chose this alley in part because no windows or doors opened onto it for at least four levels. Mostly she stopped here because she knew Smoke Panther stood on the roof to which she turned her back for the call. Maybe he took the combative flinch of her ears during her report as a dare to approach within pouncing range? He stood just two yards down the windowless alley. His smoky aura filled in what space remained to either side of his broad shoulders.
He could be daring her in turn: You cannot get past me. Don't even try.
A prior teammate of Feral's more than once insisted that she was skilled at identifying whether a threat exists at all; the flaw, this former ally complained, was that her inner "threat assessment meter" would then sort an existing threat too far to one extreme or another. "Either show-stoppingly risky or it's no big deal," he criticized whenever the topic came up.
She had put some work into tuning her inner "threat assessment meter" over the past three years.
The motionless vigilante ratcheting his way well past mere resentment at her presence on his turf?
Easily twice her body weight, and skilled in so many methods for applying it in hostile ways.
When she watched this "Smoke Panther" fight the Clubs Deck agents, Feral had a visceral memory of exactly how it felt to dodge exactly those strikes at exactly that interval -- and not always successfully. She remembered the high-pitched screeching skid of her claws as she tried to find purchase on wet, cold, poorly lit asphalt. (In a city? Late fall or early winter, maybe?) Her inner ears ached from the volume of the infuriated snarl when she landed a retaliatory blow, the muscles at her ears' base more pain-filled than that as she forced them to point forward for faint warning hints rather than lay flat. She got out of that dimly-remembered fight with her life -- plus a vivid comprehension that she had to get her death wish under control or it would win.
Stepping between this man, this particular man, and the kindly earnest blond medic to make a territorial claim on the latter's well-being ... well. That had been sincere. Feral silently told the vigilante: Violence was an option if he continued to frighten her friend.
It had also been her death wish perking up. Just a little.
Tracking his progress around the edges of the two-block range ... choosing the blind alley closest to his lurking post for her business call ... that, she knew, was her death wish indulging in a happy post-nap stretch.
Feral had learned to handle herself better in a fight over the last decade.
Only a careless fool would expect his skills to have remained static.
Feral mentally nudged the "threat assessment meter" up another two notches.
She studied the motionless figure.
She listened to the delighted internal growl of the urge to start a fight she might not escape.
That was the real enemy -- not this silent catman vigilante, black smoke aura and stern body language and all. He was not inviting death. He was not poking at a possible hazard. He was only waiting to see whether she would be trouble.
Feral walked up to him. She did not stop until her muzzle was five inches away from his armored chest. When she made herself stand almost human-straight, her face was level with his biceps; she looked up at him, steady. As if the black cowl was not there. As if the opaque white eye lenses were invisible.
The vigilante raised a menacing, black-gloved finger.
"Not one word!" he rasped his demand.
Feral considered him. Her tail, while continuing to curl invitingly to her left as if offering a hug (or a pounce), flinched microscopically away from the black wisps as the edges of Smoke Panther's cape created a half-cylinder around her. She deepened her next breath to claim his scent: Post-combat body, sweat and adrenaline and a dissipating hint of post-exertion euphoria. The barely perceptible odor of warmed muscles at his core as they contracted in case he had to swat at the leopard. The disturbance of surrounding alley air when his shoulders flexed to seem broader. Something related to pine and mint buried in the fur at his pulse points, where cowl overlapped reinforced headwrap.
Feral could almost feel the catman's scowl expose a fang under that mask.
"Does that seem realistic to you?" she asked curiously.
Smoke Panther's shoulders flexed again. The new position inched his cloak still further forward around the perimeter of the cylinder, obscuring more of Feral from distant view.
Feral knew precisely where the implied barrier was -- the tension in her legs showed a readiness to spring. The motion of her tail sped, grew snappish, in its constricting arc of free space. Yet she refused to show anxiety. Her whiskers spread in a wide ray pointing past either side of Smoke Panther's cowl. Her ears remained upright and cupped forward in curiosity. Her breathing rate stayed calm.
The indignant impasse lasted ten seconds longer than Feral preferred.
"Is this one of the favors I owe you?" she asked at last.
"Yes!" he snarled.
Feral blinked in surprise. She blinked again to smother the barest hint of dismay. "Which one?"
Smoke Panther's claws flicked in an aborted throwing-away motion. "Either one! You pick. Whichever makes you keep silent. Permanently!"
Again Feral paused to consider.
"Not one word to anyone," Smoke Panther insisted. "No schoolkids from Metropolis seeking autographs or tours. No superspeedsters dropping by to offer a team-up. No catgirl snark!" He realized that his tone was approaching a roar. He forced himself to suck in a breath of air, lower his volume back to a growl. "Get your crew out of this city. Take the spy club with you. Keep out of my business."
Feral brushed her whiskers forward for an instant in the feline version of a nod. "We're heading elsewhere after I walk back up. We should be gone by lunch, I think. We might return long enough to finish our hotel-and-train cover, rather than let SAFEGUARD drop us on campus. Story's going to be, Cards busted the Oscorp heist. Titan Securities whupped everyone. You were never here, we were never here. The Cards will tell their bosses otherwise, but they'll be doing it through lawyers."
Smoke Panther grunted.
Feral tilted her head slightly as if that would change the angle of illumination on Smoke Panther's true face. "I have to tell Blackjack," she said.
Smoke Panther growled. His fists clenched. "You owe me," he repeated.
"I'm not saying 'refuse'," Feral said in absolutely the tone of exasperation he would have deserved if he had forgotten some obvious detail. "He won't tell. But he will get in touch with you himself, to confirm that what I tell him really happened."
That made the vigilante's growl stutter and fade. "Wait. What?"
She reached up to pat his chest just below his collarbone. "Anti-psychotic medical assistance is not an exact science on even the most textbook of human bodies, Tomcat. I'm not human, much less 'textbook', or did you forget? We've had a rule about this since I made it back home. I tell my husband when I have a private talk with people outside the routine, especially if the topic was unusual. He makes sure it really happened that way. I don't ever second-guess my dosage. I am paying back the favor as required, but you have to know that I have to tell him. And he has to ask you if it was real. If you say it wasn't, I spend the rest of the year getting adjusted." She shuddered. "And tested. And not able to work."
Smoke Panther grabbed Feral's wrist to hold her bare palm in place on his armor for a moment. "I'm real," he said.
She looked at his black-gloved fingers, sunk into the fur coat of her arm. She looked up at his face. "I believe you," she said. "Time's running, Tomcat, I need to head back. I will have to tell Blackjack. No one else. Tell me that you're satisfied."
Smoke Panther kept a grip as firm as covatrinium. His other hand pinched the side of Feral's belt to drag her another half step into the ring of obscuring fog. His mouth worked as he tried out a few phrases.
"Wait," he commanded.
Feral looked at his fingers again where they immobilized her forearm. She thought about the amount of pressure she would need to break his grip. She decided that he meant to request a delay; he was merely bad at doing so. No need to escalate.
Returning to direct eye contact, she made herself be still.
"You know damned well that 'satisfied' is not a word that suits right now," he said. "I trust you on this." His jaw tensed briefly. "I'll trust your thief husband for this too. I need to do this job flawlessly. And that means quiet. Nobody jostling my elbow while I find my groove." Through gritted teeth, he finished, "Look. I'm sorry. This is new and ... hard."
Feral rubbed the side of her muzzle on his chest armor. Carbon fiber ballistic cloth felt wrong, smelled wrong, snagged on the fine strands of facial fur in a way that his prior armor did not. Still: she gave mild acceptance, tolerance, without awkward words.
"You're getting cat fur on my stuff," Smoke Panther said mildly. "I'm trying to be the unfathomable darkness here and you're shedding on me."
"The unfathomable darkness is standing in an alley that smells like wet cardboard and a seagull's leftovers, when noon is in sight, in late October. You have to be near the end of your shift."
Smoke Panther sighed. "Five hours past it. Been a long night of tracking the Cards."
Feral made a point of tugging gently at his grasp. "Go get a shower and some sleep, Tomcat. If the suspense is going to kill you, you could contact Blackjack yourself. Brief him. We crossed paths, I gave my word to honor your privacy. Where, when, and finish with why I have no cross-corroboration. You can even say you are reaching out because you honor our safety rule in trade, but you won't be available later."
Smoke Panther held on for a moment longer. "I'm real," he repeated forcefully.
"I believe you," Feral repeated in turn. "I am probably fine. Two combats, minimal injury, no head blows, no blood loss, no trigger phrases. Reliable witnesses interacted with you. I don't feel panic-prone or overwhelmed. Safety rules exist so I know when I do not have to be cautious."
Smoke Panther released Feral's wrist. He stepped back.
"Make the spy club make sure the Cards have no copies of that blueprint," he said. "Not even a fragment of it. Not even the abstract. It's a neural thing. I need to close doors so the Cards can only find one path."
Feral's whiskers fluttered. "I'll phrase it so it might have come from my boss." She turned her back to the vigilante, her steps already quick.
Smoke Panther let go of a ragged sigh while he watched the leopard's retreating form.
"Watch your tail," he muttered somberly. As she vanished from sight, he added, "See you later."