Interlude 6

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Paige’s jaw hurt.  Being muzzled like an animal did that.

The other restraints weren’t so bad, but that was only in a relative sense.  Her hands were buried in a pair of reinforced metal buckets, each filled with that damn pastel yellow foam.  The buckets themselves were linked together behind her back, with comically oversized chain links.  It would have been intolerably heavy if it weren’t for the hook on the back of her chair, which she could hang the chain on.

Strips of metal had been tightened just under her armpits, near the bottom of her ribcage, her upper arms and waist, with two more bands around each of her ankles.  Chains seemed to connect everything to everything else, preventing her from moving her arms or legs more than a few inches in any direction before she felt the frustrating resistance and jangling of the chains.  The heavy metal collar around her neck, thick enough around it could have been a tire for a small vehicle, blinked with a green light just frequently enough that she forgot to anticipate it.  She got distracted and annoyed by its appearance in her peripheral vision each time it flashed.

The irony was, a pair of handcuffs would have sufficed.  She didn’t have enhanced strength, no tricks to slip her restraints, and she wasn’t about to run anyways.  If any of that was a real possibility, she wouldn’t have been allowed in the courtroom.  The prosecution had argued that she could have enhanced strength, that she could be a flight risk, and her lawyer hadn’t done a good enough job of arguing against it, so the restraints had gone on.  Which meant she got trussed up like Hannibal Lecter, as though she were already guilty.  Unable to use her hands, her hair, the vibrant and startling yellow of a lemon, had slipped from where it was tucked behind her ears and strands now hung in front of her face.  She knew it only made her look more deranged, more dangerous, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

If she had been able to, she would have had a comment or two to make about that, or at least she could have asked the lawyer to tidy her hair.  She would have argued with the man that had been hired as her defense, instead of waiting hours or days for a response to each of her emails.  She would have demanded that her basic rights be met.

But she couldn’t say anything.  A leather mask reinforced with the same metal strips that were on her body and a cage-style grille of small metal bars was strapped over her lower face.  The interior of the mask was the worst thing, because the arrangement extended into her mouth, a framework of wires keeping her mouth fixed in a slightly open position, her tongue pressed down hard against the floor of her mouth.  The barbaric setup left her jaw, her tongue and the muscles of her neck radiating tension and pain.

“Silence.  All rise, please.  This court is now in session, the honorable Peter Regan presiding.”

It was so hard to move with the restraints.  Her lawyer gripped the chain running between her armpit and her upper arm, to help her get to a standing position, but she stumbled anyways, bumped into the table.  There was no way to be graceful when you were wearing restraints that weighed half as much as you did.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?”

“We have, your honor.”

Paige watched as the clerk delivered the envelope to the judge.

“In the matter of the state of Massachusetts versus Paige Mcabee, as to the count of attempted murder, how do you find?”

“Not guilty, your honor.”

Paige sagged a little with relief.

“In the matter of the state of Massachusetts versus Paige Mcabee, as to the count of aggravated assault with a parahuman ability, how do you find?”

“Guilty, your honor.”

Paige shook her head as well as she was able.  No!  This wasn’t fair!

She almost missed the next line.  “…sexual assault with a parahuman ability, how do you find?”

“Guilty, your honor.”

Sexual assault.  The words chilled her.  It wasn’t like that.

“Is this your verdict?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Paige Mcabee, please direct your attention  to me,” the judge spoke.

She did, eyes wide, shellshocked.

“Determining sentencing for this case is not easy.  As your lawyer has no doubt made you aware, you do fall under the umbrella of the TSPA, or the three strikes act.  At the age of twenty three, you have been convicted of no prior crimes.

“According to the witnesses heard in this court, you first demonstrated your abilities in early 2009.  You were vocal about not wanting to become a member of the Protectorate, but you also expressed a disinterest in a life of crime.  This state, in which an individual does not identify as hero or villain, is what the PRT classifies as a ‘rogue’.

“It is in our interests to promote the existence of rogues, as the proportion of parahumans in our society slowly increases.  Many rogues do not cause confrontations, nor do they seek to intervene in them.  Instead, the majority of these individuals turn their abilities to practical use.  This means less conflict, and this serves the betterment of society.  These sentiments mirror those that you expressed to your family and friends, as we heard in this courtroom over the last few weeks.

“Those facts are in your favor.  Unfortunately, the rest of the facts are not.  Understand, Miss Mcabee, our nation uses incarceration for several reasons.  We aim to remove dangerous individuals from the population and we do it punitively, both for justice against transgressors and to give other criminals pause.

“Each of these applies in your case.  It is not only the heinous nature of the crime that must be addressed by the sentencing, but the fact that it was performed with a power.  Laws are still new in the face of parahuman criminality.  We become aware of new powers on a weekly basis, most if not all warranting careful and individual attention in respect to the law.  In many of these cases, there is little to no precedent to fall back on.  As such, the courts are forced to continually adapt, to be proactive and inventive in the face of new circumstances that parahuman abilities introduce.

“It is with all of this in mind that I consider your sentencing.  I must protect the public, not only from you, but from other parahumans that might consider doing as you did.  Placing you in standard detention proves problematic and exorbitantly expensive.  It would be inhumane and harmful to your body to keep you under restraint for the duration of your incarceration.  Special facilities, staff and countermeasures would have to be arranged to keep you in isolation from other inmates.  You pose a significant flight risk.  Finally, the possibility of you re-entering society, by escape or parole, is particularly concerning, given the possibility of a repeat offense.

“It is with this in mind that I have decided that there is sufficient cause to sentence you outside the scope of the TSPA.  Guilty on two counts, the defendant, Paige Mcabee, is sentenced to indefinite incarceration within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.”

The Birdcage.

The noise in the courtroom was deafening.  A roar of cheering and booing, movement, people standing, reporters pushing to be the first ones out the door.  Only Paige seemed to be still.  Cold, frozen in stark horror.

Had she been able, that might have been the moment she lost it.  She would have screamed her innocence, thrown a fit, even swung a few punches.  What did she have to lose?  This sentence was little better than an execution.  Some would say it was worse.  There would be no escape, no appeals, no parole.  She would spend the rest of her life in the company of monsters.  With some of the people that were kept in there, the ‘monster’ description was all too literal.

But she wasn’t able.  She was bound and gagged.  Two men that were bigger and stronger than her placed their arms under her armpits, practically carrying her out of the courtroom.  A third person in uniform, a burly woman, walked briskly beside them, preparing a syringe.  Panic gripped her, and with her having no way to express it, do anything with it, the hysteria only compounded itself, making her panic more.  Her thoughts dissolved into a chaotic haze.

Even before the syringe of tranquilizers was jammed into her neck, Paige Mcabee fainted.

Paige woke up and enjoyed five seconds of peace before she remembered everything that had happened.  Reality hit her like a splash of cold water in the face, somewhat literally.  She opened her eyes, but found them dry, the world too bright to focus on.  The rest of her was damp, wet.  Beads of water trickled down her face.

She tried to move, and couldn’t.  It was as though something heavy had been piled on top of her.  The paralysis terrified her.  Paige had never been able to stand being unable to move.  When she had gone camping as a kid, she had preferred to leave her sleeping bag unzipped and be cold rather than be confined inside it.

It was that foam, she realized.  The restraints weren’t enough, they’d sprayed her with the stuff to ensure that everything below her shoulders was covered.  It gave a little to allow her to exhale, she could even shift her arms and legs a fraction, lean in any given direction. The harder she pushed, however, the more resistance there was.  The second she relaxed her efforts, everything sprung back to the same position with the foam’s rubbery pull.  She felt nausea well in her gut, her heartbeat quickening.  Her breathing increased, but the mask made even her breath feel confined.  The water made her mask damp, so it clung to her mouth and nose.  There were slits for her nostrils and mouth, but it was so little.  She could not take a deep breath without drawing water into her mouth, and with her tongue depressed, she could not swallow easily.

The room lurched, and she had to stop herself before she lost her breakfast.  Puking with the mask on, she might choke.  Dimly, she realized where she was.  A vehicle.  A truck.  It had passed over a pothole.

She knew where it was taking her.  But if she couldn’t get free, she was going to lose her mind before she got there.

“The little bird’s awake,” a girl spoke, with a hint of a nasal Boston accent.

“Mmm.”  A man grunted.

Paige knew the ‘bird’ reference was due to the stray feathers that stuck out of her scalp.  Her powers had come with some extremely minor cosmetic changes, turning her hair the bright yellow of a banana or baby duck.  It affected all the hair on her body, even her eyelashes, eyebrows, the fine hairs on her arms.  The feathers had started growing in a year ago, the exact same shade as her hair, only a handful at a time.  At first, alarmed and embarassed, she’d clipped them off.  Once she’d realized that no further changes were occurring, she’d relaxed and let them grow in, even showed them off.

Paige turned her attention to the two people in the vehicle with her, glad for the distraction from her burgeoning panic.  She had to force her eyes to stay open, painful as the light was, wait for her eyes to focus.  Sitting on the bench beside her was a girl about her own age.  The girl had an Asian cast to her features.  Her eyes, though, were a very pale blue, betraying some Western heritage.  The girl wore the same orange jumpsuit as Paige, and every part of her except her shoulders and head were covered in the yellow-white foam.  Her straight black hair was plastered to her scalp by the wet.

The man sat on the other bench.  There was more foam around him than there was around Paige and the other girl combined.  Topping it off, a cage of metal bars surrounded the foam, reinforcing the setup.  The man was Asian as well, no less than six feet tall.  Tattoos swept up the sides of his neck and behind his ears, into the midst of his wet black hair; Red and green flames, and the head of what could have been a lizard or dragon, drawn in an Eastern style.  He was glowering, his eyes hidden in shadows, oblivious to the endless spray of mist that sprinklers in the truck’s roof were generating.

“Hey, little birdy,” the girl sitting across from Paige spoke.  She was staring at Paige as if those cold eyes of hers could look right through her.  “Here’s what we’re going to do.  You lean to your right as hard as you can, then shove yourself left on my signal.  But you keep facing the back door there, alright?”

Paige glanced to her right.  The back door of the truck looked like a vault door.  She quickly glanced back at the Asian girl.  Did she really want to turn her back to this person?

The girl seemed to note Paige’s hesitation.  She lowered her voice to a hiss that made Paige’s skin crawl.  “Do it.  Unless you really want to gamble on the chance that I’d be able to find you in the prison, if you don’t do as I say?”

Paige’s eyes widened.  This was the sort of person she was going to be locked up with.  She shook her head.

“Good, little birdy.  Now lean to your right, look at the door.”

Paige did, straining her body to move as close to the door as she could.

“And back!”

She heaved herself the other way, eyes still on the door.  Something heavy cracked against the back of her head.  She tried to pull away, sit upright again, but was stopped as the mask caught on something.

When she felt hot breath on the back of her neck, she knew what she’d caught on.  The other girl had gripped the strap of the mask in her teeth.  There was a tug, then the girl lost her grip, and the two of them were pulled back to their individual positions by the rubbery foam.

“Shit,” the girl growled, “Again.”

It took two more attempts.  On the first, the strap came free of the buckle.  On the second, the girl gripped the mask itself and pulled.  Paige turned her head in the girl’s direction so the pacifier-cage on the inside of her mouth could be pulled free.

Tendrils of drool extended down from her mouth as she worked her jaw and tongue, trying to swallow properly.  She let out a little whimper as sensation returned to the parts of her face that had gone numb.

“Two qweshionsh,” the Asian girl mumbled, her teeth still gripping the mask’s leather between them, “Youh poweh?”

Paige had to work her jaw and mouth a second before she could speak, “My power?  I sing.  Really well.”

The Asian girl frowned, “Whaf elth?”

“I… it makes people feel good.  When I get going, I can affect them, alter their emotions, make them susceptible to following instructions.”

The girl nodded, “Teh collah?”

Paige looked down at the heavy metal collar around her neck, “It’s set up to inject tranquilizers into my neck if I sing or raise my voice.”

“Okah,” the girl mumbled, “Take teh mahc.”


“Take ih!”

Paige nodded.  They leaned away from each other, then swung together, the girl passing the mask to her.  She clenched it in her teeth, feeling her jaw ache.

“Drop that and I’ll turn you inside out,” the girl spoke, “Lung.  Hey, Lung?  Wake up.”

The man sitting opposite them raised his head a fraction, opened his eyes.  Maybe.  Paige couldn’t quite tell.

“I know it’s hard with the stuff they pumped into you, but I need your power.  Birdy, lean forward, show him the mask.”

Paige did her best to push herself forward against the foam that was layered against her chest and stomach, gripping the strap in her teeth, the mask dangling below her chin.

“I need you to heat the metal, Lung,” the girl spoke.  “Get it fucking hot.”

Lung shook his head.  When he spoke, there was no Boston accent in his voice.  The accent that was there made his words clipped, clearly not the voice of a native English speaker.  “The water.  Is too wet, too cold.  And I cannot see it well.  My eyes have not healed entirely, and it is hard to see through this spray.  Do not bother me with this.”

Try, you miserable fucker.  Failure of a leader.  It’s the least you can do, after getting your ass kicked by a little girl, twice.”

“Enough, Bakuda.” he growled.  He slammed his head back against the metal of the truck’s wall behind him, as if to punctuate his statement.

“What?  I couldn’t hear that,” the girl, Bakuda, grinned with a hint of mania to her expression, “Your voice is too fucking high pitched for my range of hearing!  You pathetic… halfbreed… eunuch!”

“Enough!” he roared, again slamming his head against the wall of the truck.  “I will kill you, Bakuda, for these insults!  I will tear your arm from your socket and I will shove it-“

“Pissed off?!” she interrupted him, practically screeching, “Good!  Use it!  Heat the motherfucking metal.  The metal strip around the edges!”

Still panting with the exertion of shouting, Lung turned his attention to the mask.  Paige winced at the blast of heat against her face, started to pull away, but stopped as Bakuda spoke.

“Focus it!” Bakuda shouted, “Focus on the edges!”

The radiation of heat ceased, but Paige became aware of a stringent, smoky smell.

“Hotter!  As hot as you can get it!”

The smell was too strong, too acrid.  Paige coughed a few times, hard, but she didn’t lose her grip on the mask.

“Now, birdy!  Same maneuver as before, but don’t let go!”

Paige nodded.  She leaned away, then swung in Bakuda’s direction.  What followed surprised her more than when Bakuda had bitten into the strap of the mask.

The Asian girl set about savaging the red hot metal with her teeth, digging into it even as they had to pull away.  Softer with the heat, the thin metal strip pulled free of the mask itself.  The metal that ran along the strap cut Paige’s lip as it came off.  She almost -almost- dropped the mask, but managed to snap her teeth to catch the buckle in her teeth before it could fall to the floor.

As the strip came free, Bakuda pulled back and jerked her head to one side, hard, impaling herself in the shoulder with one end of it.  She screamed, and blood ran from one of the burns on her mouth.

Paige looked at Lung.  The huge man did nothing, remaining silent.  He only watched dispassionately as Bakuda’s chest heaved with the exertion and pain, her head hanging down.

“What the hell are you doing?” Paige breathed.

“No hands, have to make do,” Bakuda panted, “Again.  Before my body realizes how badly I’m hurting it.”

Paige nodded.  She wasn’t about to argue with the supervillain that was threatening to turn her inside out.

The ensuing attempts weren’t any prettier or easier.  The second long metal strip was freed and Bakuda impaled that one in her shoulder as well.  The metal grilles from the exterior and interior parts of the mask were next to be pulled free.  Paige was left holding only the leather portion of the mask, the straps and the covering that had gone over her mouth and nose.  Seeing Bakuda gingerly balance the metal grilles on her free shoulder, against the tacky foam so they wouldn’t slip down, Paige did the same with the leather of the mask.

“What did you do to get sent here?” Paige asked.

“Last I heard, before we lost power to our neighborhood, the body count was almost at fifty.”

“You killed fifty people?”

Bakuda grinned, and it wasn’t pretty, with her lips as ravaged as they were.  “Injured more, too.  And there were those who got brain damage, one or two might’ve gone homicidally insane, and I know a bunch got frozen in time for a hundred years or so… it gets blurry.  Crowning moment was the bomb.”

“Bomb?” Paige asked, eyes widening.

“Bomb.  They said it was as powerful as an atom bomb.  Idiots.  They didn’t even understand the technology behind it.  Philistines.  Sure, it was about that powerful, but that wasn’t even the real damage.  Amazing thing would’ve been the electromagnetic wave it generated.  Wipe every hard drive, fry every circuit board for every piece of machinery over a full fifth of America.  The effects of that?  Would’ve been worse than any atom bomb.”

Unable to even wrap her mind around that, Paige glanced at Lung.  “And him?”

“Lung?  He’s the one who told me to do it.  Man in charge, he is.”

Lung’s head moved fractionally, but with the shadows under his brow, Paige couldn’t tell if he was watching.

“You?”  Bakuda asked Paige. “What’d you do to get sent here?”

“I told my ex to go fuck himself.”

There was a pause, then Bakuda started cackling.  “What?”

“It’s complicated,” Paige looked away and down.

“You gotta explain, birdy.”

“My name’s Paige.  My stage name was Canary.”

“Ooooh,” Bakuda spoke, still cackling a little as she gripped one of the metal strips that was spearing her shoulder and pulled it free.  Holding it in her teeth, she spoke, “That’sh no good.  You calling yourshelf Canary in prishon?”

“I didn’t intend on going to prison.”

“Who doesh?”

“I mean, I’m not even a supervillain.  My power, it makes me a fantastic singer.  I was making a lot of money doing it, there was talk of record deals, we were moving to larger venues and my shows were still selling out… everything was perfect.”

Bakuda let the strip swing from her teeth until it dangled, then carefully maneuvered it until she was gripping the far left side of it.  She leaned back, her head facing the ceiling, as she slid the other metal strip, the one impaled in her shoulder, into her mouth as well, so she was holding one end of each strip in her mouth.  Pausing, she asked, “Whaf haffen?”

Paige shook her head.  It was the testimony she’d never been able to speak out loud, at her trial.  “I’d just finished my biggest show yet.  Two hours on stage, a huge hit, crowd loved it all.  I wrapped up and went backstage to rest, get a drink, and ran into my ex.  He told me that since he was the one who pushed me to get out on stage in the first place, he deserved credit.  Wanted half the money.”  She laughed a little, “Ridiculous.  Like I’m supposed to ignore the fact that he cheated on me and told me I was never going to make it for real when he left.”

Bakuda nodded.  She pulled away from the strips, where she’d managed to tie them in the semblance of a knot.  She used her teeth to bend the now-joined strips into an L-shape.  With the end that wasn’t impaled in her shoulder now in a position in front of her, she closed her mouth on it.

“We argued.  Then I told him to go fuck himself.  He left, and I didn’t give it a second thought… until the police showed up at my door.”

Bakuda pulled her mouth away from the end of the strip.  She’d bent it into a loose ‘v’ shape.  She frowned at it, then glanced at Paige, “And?”

“And he’d done it.  I- I guess I was still amped up from my performance, and my power’s effects were still empowering my voice, or he was in the audience and was pretty heavily affected.  So when I told him to go fuck himself, he, um, he did.  Or he tried, and when he found it wasn’t physically possible, he hurt himself until…”  Paige closed her eyes for a moment.  “Um.  I won’t go into the details.”

“Mmmm, shucks to be im.  Oo ‘oo” Bakuda raised her eyebrows, still working the metal strip inside her mouth.  She pulled away, verified the end as being in a rough ‘o’ shape, and then gripped the strips in her teeth to pull the entire thing out of her shoulder with a grunt.  She placed the end she’d just reworked against the bench and slid her mouth down the length of the metal, so she could get a grip on the other end.

Taking hold of it in her teeth, she turned her attention to the wall of the truck between herself and Paige.  There were locks placed at regular intervals against the wall, meant to secure the chain of standard handcuffs in place, for those not doused in foam.  She began feeding the metal strap through the loop of the lock.  Beads of sweat mingled with the water running down her face as she worked.

The knot joining the two straps jammed in the hole.  Bakuda pushed a little harder, and wedged it firmly in place.  The L-bend in the metal placed the closed ‘o’-shaped loop of metal close to Paige’s shoulder.

“Any bets on Oni showing up?” Bakuda asked Lung.

“I would be surprised,” he rumbled his response.

She gripped one of the metal grilles in her mouth and began working at it with her teeth.  It was all one thin piece of metal, bent and woven like chain link fencing, albeit a tighter mesh.  Now that it was no longer held securely in place by the metal strips, Bakuda was free to start unwinding and straightening it.

When it was almost completely unwound, she adjusted her bite on it and clenched the second mass of wire, the one that had been in Paige’s mouth, in her jaws, bunching it together into a cylindrical mess about four inches long and one inch across.  Still biting it, she turned her head so the mostly straight four-foot length of wire was pointing at Lung, not two feet away from his face.  Her mouth still around the tangle of wire, she mumbled, “Need end hot.”

Lung growled, but he did as he was asked.  When the end was white hot, Bakuda quickly adjusted her grip, letting go and biting again until the tip was near her mouth.  Lips pulled back, she bit down on it.

“How can you do that?” Paige asked, “Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No uffing hit ih urhs,” Bakuda growled.  She pulled away, set it so the handle was against the bench, the length of wire against her shoulder, and examined her handiwork.  “But tooth enamel is tougher than you’d think.”  She spat a measure of blood out onto the floor of the truck, then bit down twice more, pausing between bites to turn the length of metal with her teeth, lips and tongue.

When she extended the length of wire in Paige’s direction, sliding it through the ‘o’ shaped end of the metal strip, Paige realized what Bakuda had spent this much time setting up.  She didn’t even need to be asked to bend down against the foam restraints and crane her neck to one side, to put her collar in reach of the overlong makeshift screwdriver.   The metal strip with the loop in the end served to hold the portion closest to Paige up, so Bakuda could direct it more easily.

It wasn’t fast work.  Bakuda had to use her teeth, jaw and a turning of her head to rotate the screwdriver, and it was a chore to get it back in position if she lost her grip on it.  Ten long minutes of silence and grunting were broken only by the sound of two screws dropping to the metal bench, before Bakuda stopped to take a rest and ease her jaw.

“You won’t be able to do anything to my collar without setting it off,” Paige spoke.

“Dumb bitch,” Bakuda muttered, sticking out her lower lip and peering down as if she could investigate the degree of damage to her own lips.  “I’m a bomb expert.  I understand triggers and catalysts on the same fundamental level you understand walking and breathing.  I can visualize mechanical things in a way you couldn’t with five college degrees and a hundred years.  Insult me like that again and I’ll end you.”

As if pushed to prove herself, she gripped the screwdriver in her teeth again, and set to work again.  A panel was pried off, and the unscrewing was resumed, deeper in the collar.

Paige hesitated to talk again, knowing how easy the girl was to provoke, but the silence was crushing.  “I guess it’s a good thing this is a long drive, from Boston to British Columbia.”

“You were asleep a while,” Bakuda pulled away from the screwdriver, talking softly, as if to herself.  “Not as long as you think.”

Paige felt something come free from the heavy collar around her neck, saw Bakuda tilt the screwdriver upward, sliding a glass tube with something glowing inside down the length of the metal bar  After another few minutes, another piece of machinery joined the glass tube, as though it were a high-tech shish-kabob.

“Tragic,” Bakuda spoke, on her next rest.  “This is beautiful work.  Not the actual assembly, that’s crap.  It’s obvious the tinker that designed this intended it to be put together by regular schmoes.  Wouldn’t have screws and shit, otherwise.  But the way it’s designed, the way everything fits together… makes a scientist proud.  Hate to butcher it.”

Paige nodded.  She didn’t know enough about that sort of thing to risk commenting.  As scary as this situation was, as curious as she was, she felt the lingering effect of tranquilizer in her system, an impending boredom.

She closed her eyes.

It didn’t feel like her eyes were closed for more than a minute before she was woken by a shout of “Birdy!”  Paige jolted awake, turned to Bakuda, and saw the work was done.  Bakuda hadn’t just disabled the collar, but had assembled components into a roughly sphere-shaped setup of metal and wires.  It dangled from the remains of the mask and strap, which Bakuda held in her teeth.

Lung spoke, his voice low, slightly accented, “We have stopped.  Her device will buy us time, and you will use it to sing.  The bomb will not do much damage, but it will slow them and dose anyone hit with a small amount of sedatives.  This will make it easier for you to control them, Bakuda says.  You will then get them to free us.”

Paige’s eyes went wide.  She nodded.

There was a loud sound outside the truck, and Bakuda started swinging the device left and right like a pendulum.  The metal doors at the back of the truck slammed open, and Bakuda let go.  The device rolled out the door.

Paige sang, not stopping as the device detonated, rocking the truck.  Her song was wordless.  She was her own accompaniment, using the acoustics of the truck’s interior to generate echoes.  She charged her voice with her power, willing those who heard it to obey, to submit in a way she’d never done before.

It might have worked, if there was anyone around to hear it.

A giant metal claw entered the back of the truck, closed around Lung, and dragged him out.  When the claw returned to claim her, she stopped singing, started shrieking instead.

“No!” Bakuda’s screams joined her own, behind her, “Fuck you!  No!  No!  I had a fucking plan!”

The arms moved along slats in the ceiling, carrying them through what looked like a massive underground bunker.  Everything was concrete, and the room was so vast that Paige could not even see any of the walls.  There was only the ceiling twenty or thirty feet above them and the floor, extending endlessly around them, lit by florescent lights at regular intervals.  The only thing breaking up the empty expanse was the armored truck bearing the PRT identification on the side and a black square attached to the ceiling, further down.

The arms arranged them in front of the black square – an oversized monitor.  A face, clearly a CGI rendering intended to mask the real identity of the speaker, appeared on the screen.  When the voice came from the speakers, the filter intended to disguise the woman’s voice didn’t quite hide her strong accent.  Paige tried to place it.  Not Southerner, not Cockney, but maybe similar?  She’d heard someone with that accent before.

“Prisoner 599, codename Lung.  PRT powers designation Brute 4-9 asterisk, Blaster 2-6 asterisk, fire and heat only.  Individuals reading or viewing this log are directed to see page three and four of prisoner’s file for particulars on powers.  Recommended protocols were properly carried out with sprinkler system and added restraints.  Chance of escape following interment in the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center rests at a fairly steady .000041% with no gross deviations in any likely scenarios.  Within acceptable limits.  Will be processed to cell block W.”

“You’re Dragon,” Bakuda spoke, eyes widening, “No shit.  Best tinker in the fucking world.  I’d say I’m a fan, but I’d be lying.”

Paige couldn’t help but react to that as well.  Dragon had designed the Birdcage and much of the gear the PRT used, including the containment foam.  She was head and shoulders above any of the other tinkers that went out in power armor.  Dragon sported a wildly different suit each time she deployed.  Her stuff was so advanced that a group of criminals who had gotten away with stealing a damaged suit of her armor were now using that same technology to operate as top of the line mercenaries – the Dragonslayers.

Dragon was also Canadian, which was the detail Paige needed to peg her accent as that of a Newfoundlander.  Not an accent one heard very often, these days.

“Prisoner 600, codename Bakuda.  PRT powers designation Tinker 6 with bomb speciality.  Recommended protocols were not properly carried out.”  The formal tone of the voice dropped away as she muttered, “I hate to get someone fired, but I’m going to have to report this.  Supposed to be in an S-class containment truck and placed no less than six feet from other prisoners… well, at least nothing came of it.”

“Fuck you, Dragon,” Bakuda snarled.

“…Chance of escape from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center is .000126% with potential gross deviation in the event of introduction of contraband material or a matter producer.  With monitoring this chance drops to .000061%.  Will be processed to cell block C.”

“Prisoner 601, codename Canary.  PRT powers designation Master 8.  Recommended protocols were properly carried out, with provided restraints and no human personnel being brought within three hundred yards of said individual’s position.  Hi Canary.”

Paige blinked a few times in surprise, “Hi?”

“I followed your trial.  I thought it was a damn shame things went like they did.  I get that it was a reckless accident, but you don’t deserve to be here.  I even wrote a letter to your judge, the DA and your governor saying as much.  I’m sorry it wasn’t enough.”

The sympathy hit Paige hard.  It was all she could do to stop herself from bursting into tears.

“I’m afraid I’ve got to do my job, and that means carrying out my role in enforcing the law.  You understand?  Whatever my feelings, I can’t let you go.”

“I- Yes.”

“Listen, I’m sticking you in cell block E.  The woman that put herself in charge of that cell block goes by the codename Lustrum.  She’s a pretty extreme feminist and misandrist, but she protects the girls in her block, and it’s also the block furthest from the hole the men opened into the women’s half of the Birdcage.  If you’re willing to play along, buy in or pretend to buy into her way of thinking, I think she’ll keep you safest.”

Paige didn’t have words to reply.  She just nodded.

“Ok.  Prisoner 601’s Chance of escape from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center is .000025% with no gross deviations.  Do you three understand why I’m telling you this?”

“Our chances of escaping are pretty slim,” Bakuda spoke.

“Yes.  The Baumann Detention Center is a structure so complex I had to design an artificial intelligence to put it together.  It’s situated inside of a hollowed out mountain, the walls of which are lined with layers of a ceramic of my own design, each such layer separated by volumes of dormant containment foam.  If you punched a hole in the outside of the mountain, you’d only wind up with more foam than you knew how to handle.

“That’s the mountain.  The prison itself is nicknamed the Birdcage because it is suspended in the center of the empty mountain, hanging only by the same network of tubes that supplies prisoners and food to the cell blocks.  Both the interior of the tubes and the interior of the mountain itself are vacuums.  Even if an individual were to have powers allowing them to navigate the vacuum, I have three thousand antigrav drones in position at any given time, laying dormant in that lightless void, waiting for any signal, motion, energy or air leakage to awaken them.  Once awakened, a drone will move to the location of said anomaly and detonate.  Many of my drones contain a loadout of containment foam, but others contain payloads designed to counteract various methods one could theoretically use to traverse the vacuum.  Some are quite lethal.”

“These are not the only measures I have taken, but it wouldn’t do to inform you of everything I have done to secure this facility.  Know only that your chance of successful escape is negligible, and the chance of you dying or being maimed for attempting it is much higher.”

“Know that while I do retain control over the structure and the ability to observe those within, enabling me to respond to emergencies such as natural disasters, you will not be able to manipulate this to your advantage.  I will not, cannot intervene should a hostage be taken, or if an individual should threaten or perform damage to vital or luxury resources.  There was no other way to run the prison effectively than to have you police and protect yourselves.  I stress: nothing you do can convince me to free you.  The elevators to the Baumann Detention Center go one way.  Down.”

“I will be depositing you in the elevators now.  You will be provided with a limited measure of oxygen, sufficient only to carry you safely to the bottom.  Should you slow or stop the lift, or attempt to scale the interior of the tube, I expect you will likely fall unconscious, suffer brain damage or die for your trouble.  A counteragent for the containment foam will be applied as you descend, so that you are free before you reach the bottom.”

Lung and Bakuda were carried off in different directionis.  Paige was the last to be carried away by the robotic arms.

“I am sorry, Paige Mcabee,” Dragon’s tinny voice sounded, as the arm set her down.  “Good luck.”

The ground beneath her shifted, and then she descended.

Lung walked with confidence to the ‘hole’, a word with double meaning, as it referred to the actual hole in the wall, as well as the more vulgar term for why many in the men’s half of the Birdcage went there – it was the sole route into the women’s prison.

A group of women were on guard on the other side of the hole, standing or sitting at various vantage points there.

“Who’re you?” one of the women asked him.  She was a striking woman with coffee colored skin and a mouthful of teeth that looked like knife blades.

“I am Lung.”

“You’re new?”


“Which cell block are you in?” this question came from a heavyset woman that looked more like a middle aged soccer mom than a prisoner.  Lung noted, however, how each of the other girls that were on guard turned to listen when she spoke.

“W, ma’am,” he spoke, taking extra care to not offend.

“You want a girl?”

“I am here only to visit one of my subordinates.  Cell block C.”

“Even if you aren’t buying, can’t let you through for free.  Gotta pay something.  Marquis runs your cell block, still?  Divvies up the cancer sticks from his food crates fairly enough?”

“Yes.”  Lung reached into his pocket and retrieved a half-carton of cigarettes.  He handed them over.

“Good boy.  Listen, Glaistig Uaine runs the cell block you’re going to.  You keep some of these sticks, you give them to her, so as not to insult her.”

“I will.  Thank you for this advice.”

“I do like a polite boy.  You run along, now.”

He bowed his head in respect, then walked briskly to the next cell block.  A smaller contingent of guards awaited him there, and he handed over the remaining cigarettes, specifying them as a gift for Glaistig Uaine.  The guards parted to let him through.

He found Bakuda in a cell all to herself.  The walls of the prison were all metal of some sort, painted a dark blue, but Bakuda had scratched formulas and sentences into the walls of her cell, where they glittered silver-gray in the right light.  Her cot was pulled into the center of the room to give her more surface to write on.

“Bakuda,” he spoke.

“Lung!  This place is amazing!” she grinned maniacally, her scarred lips spread wide, “I thought it would suck, but it’s… it’s like being inside the fucking Mona Lisa of architecture.  Genius shit.  She wasn’t lying about this place being inside a vacuum, but what’s amazing is what happens when you breach the outside.  See, she didn’t make this place tough.  It’s fragile.  Like she built the most complex house of cards ever.  You knock a hole in the wall, and you’re not only pretty much guaranteed to off yourself, but the change in air pressure changes the room configuration, seals off the space so the breach doesn’t affect anyone in other rooms.  And even if you stop the main bits from sliding down, the drop in air pressure carries into the next room, and that room seals off.  I could spend a decade figuring out how she did this.  And that’s the simplest part of it.  In busier areas-“

“I do not care about this,” Lung interrupted her breathless rambling.

Bakuda stopped and wheeled around, still grinning.  “Ok.  How you doing?”

“Satisfactory.  My eyes are healing, but I am still having trouble seeing color.  I do not like the leader of my cell block, but he is a fair man.  He has given me his favor in exchange for telling him about Brockton Bay, a place he once operated.  This has helped ensure I am not bothered.  That, and the prisoners seem to wait to see what each new inmate can do before they pick him as a target.”

“Yep.  It looked pretty grim for me for a few days, but when the freaky girl in charge of this block found out I could fix the televisions here, things suddenly got a lot easier.”

“I see.”

She raised an eyebrow, smiling.  “So.  Why the visit?  Feeling lonely?”


She dropped the smile in the blink of an eye.  “Then explain.”

“This is your first time in a prison, yes?”


“I was in prison before I came to America.  There are four ways one can survive in such a place.  You can join one of the gangs or groups in charge.  This was not possible for me then, for I was known to be half Japanese, half Chinese, and there was no gang willing to include such a person.  It is not a possibility for me now, either, for I am too used to being in charge to bow and scrape for any length of time without losing my patience.  It is the route I see you have taken here.”

“Sure,” Bakuda eyed him warily.

“The second option is to be somebody’s bitch.  They give you their protection in exchange for the most base of services.  You understand why I would not take this route.”

“I get it, yeah.”

“The remaining options are to either kill someone or to be seen as a madman.  In such cases, one demonstrates he is too dangerous or unpredictable to be fucked with.”

“So what are you doing?”

“I thought I would choose the third and fourth.”

Bakuda’s eyes went wide.  She backed away, then realized the futility of the move.  Lung stood in the middle of the one doorway that led out of the cell.  “Why?”

“You insulted me.  You failed me.  Because I must kill someone, and killing a subordinate of mine who others have cause to protect should also mark me as sufficiently unpredictable.  Others will fear me after this.”

“I… I insulted you to get your power going, you know?” she squeaked, “I did it to help our escape.”

“I might have overlooked it for this reason, but we did not escape. You failed me, both here and in the city.”

She flicked her arm, and an arrangement of bedsprings and twisted scrap metal dropped from her sleeve into her open hand.  “I’ll punch a hole in the outside of the cell if you come any closer.  Air flows out of the room, door seals shut, we both suffocate.”

“You are not fast enough.”

“Wanna bet?”

He did.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Tangle 6.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Dear Miss Militia…

Was it wrong to start with Dear?  Was that implying more friendship or intimacy than there was?  Would it seem taunting?

Miss Militia, we met earlier tonight…

No.  If I went that route, she might throw it aside alongside all the other fan mail she got.

Miss Militia, you know me as Skitter, but you don’t truly know me…

Better, but I didn’t like the tone.  I’d leave it as is, move on, and come back to it later.

You see, I’m not a villain, despite…

Despite what?  Despite the fact that I’d terrorized and hurt a lot of innocent people?  Despite the fact that I’d nearly killed Lung and later cut his eyes out?  That I had nearly two hundred and eighty thousand dollars in illegitimate money to my name?

I shivered, pulled my hands from my pockets and did up my sweatshirt to cover my exposed stomach.  After we’d arrived at the Loft, Brian had suggested that we were all too tired to discuss Coil’s proposal, so we tabled all discussion until the morning.  I was glad for the excuse to avoid hearing or seeing anything that might make this any harder.  Besides, I’d promised my dad I would be home tonight.

It was past nine, so the bus from the ferry was only arriving every ninety minutes.  I’d figured it was better to walk home than wait.  I could use the stretching, too, given the abuse my body had sustained while I was riding Judas.

Sticking my hands back in my pockets, I returned my thoughts to how I’d word my letter to Miss Militia.  Scratch ‘despite’.  Another approach, maybe?

…Believe it or not, my intentions all along have been good.  I joined the Undersiders in the first place to assist you.  To assist this city…

Was that entirely true?  No.  If I was being entirely honest with myself, part of the reason I’d joined and stayed with the Undersiders was because I had been lonely.  What if I offered some honesty?

…It caught me off guard just how easy it was to like them.  I was in a bad place, and they accepted me.  So writing this email to you is difficult.  But it is necessary.  In the end, I decided to go this route because it serves the greater good…

That was what I had told myself, earlier today, before we left for the job.  That sticking with those guys would pose the greatest risk to innocents, that it would eventually lead to someone getting caught in crossfire, or me getting arrested for something serious.

But now I had Coil’s agenda to consider.  Was he really being honest about how he planned to help this city?  I had no reason to believe he was lying, and Tattletale was vouching for him.  But at the same time, Coil’s motif was a snake, and Tattletale had hedged the truth and misled me before.

Question was, was I taking this route because it served the greater good?  No.  Or at least, I wasn’t sure enough either way for it to be the reason I was doing this.

Why was I doing it, then?

It had been a hard question to answer hours ago, and it was doubly hard now.  Enough that it spooked me.  How had I gotten to this point?

I was put in mind of a time I’d sat in on one of my mom’s university classes.  I couldn’t have been older than ten, my dad had been busy and my mom hadn’t been able to find a babysitter.  So I’d been precocious, proud as hell to be sitting in that English lecture with the teenagers and twenty-somethings and understanding what my mom was saying.  We’d even read the book together, over the prior few weeks, so I knew the material.  Oranges are not the Only Fruit.

While I’d been sitting and listening, an older man had come in and sat next to me, in the back row.  In a kind voice, he’d murmured a comment about how my mother was an excellent professor.  Then, a few minutes later, when I got up the courage to raise my hand and answer one of her questions, he’d complimented me, got up and left.  All my pride in myself and my mother aside, what had struck me about the encounter was the man’s hair.  A ridiculous comb-over.

After the class was over and my mom had been taking me home, I mentioned the man, and she’d identified him as the head of her department, her boss.  Then I brought up the comb-over and how bad it looked.

“Look at it from his perspective,” she’d explained.  “Maybe, a long time ago, he started to lose a little hair, but he could brush it to one side in a way that made it not show so much.  Every year that passed he brushed his hair over a bit more.  It was gradual, something he slowly got used to, seeing it in the mirror every morning and every night.  Lots of small steps.”

“Why doesn’t someone point it out?”  I’d asked her.

“He doesn’t have anyone to point it out for him,” she had replied, “And anyone who knows him well enough doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, even if it might be better in the long run.”

“You could,” I’d told her.

So she had, later that week.  Ripped off the band-aid for the old head of the English department.  According to her, he’d gotten a haircut, then thanked her at a later date.  That event and what my mom had done afterward always stuck in my memory.

I swallowed past a lump in my throat.  It always caught me off guard, just how frigging much I missed her, when I thought about her.  I’d give anything for a thirty minute conversation with her, right this moment.  I didn’t have the slightest doubt in my mind that she could have made sense of everything, put things into terms so simple that working it out looked easy.

I had to stop, look up, blink back the tears in my eyes, and take a deep breath before I moved on.

Was my situation the same as the old man’s?  Had I let myself gradually slip into a bad spot, because of my lack of perspective beyond what was going on inside my own head?

I hadn’t been thinking about this clearly.  I was still confident enough I could send that email, make the call… but before I did that, I had to get my thoughts in order.  Composing the letter in my head wouldn’t work, I needed the words on my computer screen in front of me, concrete words in black and white.

I walked around the back of my house and reached into my pocket for my keys.  Before I could get them, my dad opened the door.

“Taylor.  It’s good to see you safe and sound.”  My dad looked tired, years older than the last time I saw him.

I gave him a brief hug, “Hi, Dad.  You got my message, saying I’d be late?”

“I did.”  He shut and locked the door behind me.  “What happened?”

I shrugged as I pulled off my sweatshirt, made sure my pepper spray, phone and keys were all in the pockets, then hung it up by the door.  “Nothing big.  I was at Brian’s, helping him put furniture together, then his sister and his sister’s social services caseworker came without any warning.  I couldn’t find a way to leave without it being kind of awkward.”  Which did happen, pretty much, just at an earlier time.

“I see,” he murmured. “Were you two alone?”

“No,” I lied, to stop him from getting the wrong impression.  “At least, not for long.  Lisa left a few minutes before the caseworker dropped by.”

“And you have a new shirt, I see.  It’s nice.”

“Lisa’s,” I fibbed, squirming a little under the scrutiny.

“Ah,” he nodded.

“I’m going to go to my room, if that’s alright?  I’m kind of wiped.”

My dad shook his head, “I’d rather you stayed to talk.”

Not what I wanted to do.  My mind was jammed with enough crap and internal debates that I didn’t want to worry about concocting more lies for my dad.

“Can we do it tomorrow morning?” I offered him, retreating toward the door to the front hall, pressing my hands together in a pleading gesture. “I really need to sit at my computer for a minute and organize my thoughts.”

I pushed on the door and it didn’t open.  Strange.  I tried the doorknob, and it didn’t help.

“Door’s jammed,” I said.

“Door’s locked, Taylor.  So is the door to the living room.”  My dad answered me.  When I looked at him, he showed me the old fashioned key in his hand.

As I watched, he pulled out two chairs from beside the kitchen table, placed one in the middle of the room, then placed the second chair against the back door and sat down in it.


“Dad, tonight’s not really-”


My heart dropped out of my chest.  Or at least, it felt like it.  I felt an ugly sour feeling in my stomach.

“I talked to your school today,” he informed me, confirming that ugly feeling.

“I’m sorry.”

“You’ve missed nearly a month of classes, Taylor.  Three weeks.  You’ve missed major tests, project due dates, homework… they’re saying you might fail, if you haven’t already.”

“I- I’m sorry,” I repeated myself.

“I could maybe understand, I know what you’ve been dealing with, except you didn’t just leave me in the dark.  You lied to me.”

I couldn’t form the words for another apology.

“I called the school to get an update on how you were doing, and they said you hadn’t been to class in some time, and I didn’t know what to do.  I just- I felt completely lost.  I called your Gram.”

I winced.  Gram was my mom’s mother, an austere woman who’d never fully approved of my dad as a match for her daughter.  It wouldn’t have been easy for him to make that call.

“She convinced me that maybe I’ve been too focused on being your ally, and not focused enough on being your parent.  If she’d told me that a week ago, I would have hung up on her.  But after talking to your school, realizing how badly I failed you-”

“You didn’t fail me,” I told him.  I was caught off guard by how my voice broke a bit with emotion.

“I did.  It’s clear that whatever we’ve been doing hasn’t been working, if you’re in this situation, if you can’t talk to me.  No more secrets, no more half truths.  So we’re going to stay here all night if need be.  I’ll even call off work tomorrow if I have to, but we’re going to talk.”

I nodded and swallowed, hard.  I still hadn’t sat down in the chair he’d left in the middle of the kitchen.

“I, um, need to use the washroom.”

“Okay,” he stood.  “I’ll walk you there, and I’ll walk you back here to the kitchen afterward.”

“You’re treating me like I’m a prisoner?

“You’re my daughter, Taylor.  I love you, but I know there’s something going on, and it’s not just the bullying, or it’s something to do with the bullying that you haven’t mentioned yet.  I’m scared for you, Taylor, because you’re avoiding me and staying silent even if it means failing.”

“So you force my hand by making me your prisoner,” I replied, letting anger and hurt creep into my voice, “Do you think this is even remotely cool, after all the times I’ve been cornered by those bitches from school?  I’ve got to come home to this bullying power-abuse shit, too?”

My dad answered me with the utmost patience, “I hope you know that I’m doing this because I love you.”

I did.  Thing was, that didn’t make it even slightly easier to handle.

Do you need to go to the bathroom, Taylor?”

I shook my head.  What I needed was to get out of this room.  I saw him purse his lips, knew he was aware I’d just been looking for an escape.

Talk to me, Taylor.”

“Don’t feel like talking.”  I walked across the room to try the other doors, to the living room and basement.  Locked.

“Why are you so insistent on escaping?” he asked.  I could hear the pain in his voice, which didn’t make me feel any better.  “Please, just relax, sit down.”

I felt the crackle of my power at the edges of my awareness, realized I was clenching my fists.  Why was it that the people I was supposed to be able to rely on were the people who turned on me, cornered me, made me feel the worst?  Emma, the school, Armsmaster, now my dad?

I kicked the chair, hard enough that it made a mark as it hit the fridge.  My dad’s eyes went just a bit wider, but he didn’t move or speak.  I could feel the tug of my power as bugs throughout my neighborhood began to move to my location.  I had to willfully cancel out the order to make them back off and return to their normal behavior.

Not feeling even remotely better after my abuse of the chair, I shoved the cookbooks and printouts off the shelf beside the fridge, letting them spill to the ground.  A picture frame that had been hidden in the middle of the pile broke as it hit the ground.

“Damn it,” I muttered.  I still didn’t feel better, and I was having a harder time keeping the swarm at bay.

“Possessions can be replaced, Taylor.  Vent however you need to.”

“Dad?  D-” I had to stop for a few seconds until I felt like I could catch my breath and talk without my voice breaking up, “Do me a favor?  Stay quiet for a bit and let me think?”

He gave me a careful look before he answered me.  “Okay.  I can do that.”

With nowhere else to sit, I put my back to the wall under the bookshelf I’d just cleared and let myself sink to the ground, my legs making their protests felt as I brought my legs up against my chest.  I folded my arms, resting them atop my knees, and buried my face against them.

I knew it had been 9:24 when I got in.  By the time I’d suppressed the bugs, got my power under control and felt safe to raise my head, it was 9:40.  My dad still sat in the chair.

I let out a long sigh, quiet, then buried my face in my arms again.

What now?

Come on, Taylor.  You’ve faced down Supervillains in life or death situations.  You faced down Armsmaster earlier tonight.  Is it that hard to face your own dad?

No.  Ten times harder.

But I had to face the problem the same way.  Catalogue my options, my tools at hand.  Physical violence was out.  So was using my power.  What did that leave me?

The situation was ultimately the same, I decided.  I still had to write that letter to Miss Militia, organize my thoughts.  Problem was, now I had an additional thing to deal with.  I had to fess up to my dad about what I’d done.

I wasn’t sure I could say it.  My throat was thick with emotion, and I doubted I could organize my thoughts enough to convince my dad that I’d done everything for the right reasons.  I’d open my mouth to tell him, stammer out the basics of it, maybe he’d even look concerned at first.  Then as I kept talking, failing to adequately describe what I’d done and why, I could see his face turning to confusion.  After that?  Disgust, disappointment?

A little part of me died inside at the thought.

I’d write it.  I raised my head abruptly, looked to the papers scattered around me.  I found a manilla envelope, the kind you put documents inside.  Then I found a marker.

Along the top of the envelope, I wrote the words: “I AM A SUPERVILLAIN.”

I stared at those words on the brown envelope that rested against my legs.  Then I looked up at my dad.  He was reading a book, his right ankle resting on his left knee.

I imagined handing him the envelope as-is.  Just that one line.

Fuck.”  I muttered.

“Did you say something?” my dad looked up from his book and reached over to put it down.

“It’s okay.  Keep reading,” I said, absently, annoyed at the distraction, still pissed at him for cornering me like this.

“Okay,” he agreed, but he didn’t look at the book for longer than three seconds before glancing up at me again, as if to check on me.  I tried to ignore him and focus on the envelope

What to write?  After a second, I began writing below the title I’d put on the envelope.

I like Brian and Lisa.  I even like Alec and Rachel.  But they’re supervillains too.  I joined them with the idea that I would get details the Protectorate needed and then betray them.

I raised the marker and frowned.

Why was this so damn hard?

I put the cap on and nervously tapped the marker against my knee.  Thinking about stuff, trying to gauge my feelings, exploring my thoughts to see what it was that made that knot deep in my gut get tighter.

My dad?  Was I too conscious of what he would read, how he would perceive it?  Yes.  But it had also been hard to write when I’d been mentally writing it for just Miss Militia.  That wasn’t the whole picture.

Was I scared of arrest?  No.  Well, I’d seen bureaucracy at work with school, I didn’t trust the system, I fully expected to get screwed over somewhere down the line.  But that wasn’t what was driving my choices.  It was something more personal.

The team.  Was I worried over how they would take it?  Over possibly having them as enemies?  Like Coil had said, there was no guarantee any action against them would be wholly successful.  Tattletale would probably be able to tell a PRT team was there before they could get in position, and the team was good at making an escape in a pinch.  Then I’d have one or more enemies after me, who knew everything they needed and had all the tools to make my life a living hell.


It did have to do with those guys, and it slowly dawned on me what it was.

I stood, then walked over to the oven.

“Taylor?” my dad spoke, quiet.

I folded the envelope lengthwise to hide the words, turned on the oven burner, then held the tip of the envelope to the flame until it ignited.

I held the burning envelope over the sink until I was sure my message was obliterated.  I dropped the remains of the envelope into the basin and watched it burn up.

I didn’t want to send that email to Miss Militia because I liked those guys.  That wasn’t the big realization.  What made me stand up and burn the envelope was the realization that I liked those guys, I was fond of them, I trusted them to have my back…

Yet I’d always held myself at arm’s length.

It was stupid, it was selfish, but I really, desperately wanted to see what it would be like to get to know Lisa, without worrying that she would find out my scheme.  I’d like to see what it was like to interact with her without having to censor myself out of fear that I’d provide that damning clue.  I wanted to get to know Bitch and Alec better.  And Brian.  I wanted to be closer to Brian.  I couldn’t phrase it any better than that, because I didn’t know if there would be any future with him beyond a simple friendship.  I didn’t expect there to be.  It still mattered.

I’d let myself think that I’d tried a friendship with these guys, that I had grown as a person, so it was okay to go ahead with my plan.  But I hadn’t.  I’d never let myself truly open up and connect with them, and I was realizing just how much I wanted to.

My reasons for going ahead with my plan were thinning out, getting harder to justify.  My reputation was probably in shambles, I’d made enemies of everyone that mattered, and I had a number of felonies under my belt.  As much as I might try to ignore all that and tell myself I was doing it for the greater good, my conversation with Coil had left me less sure.  That wasn’t to say I believed him wholeheartedly, or that I thought he’d be as successful as he thought, but I was less sure.

Damn it, I wanted to hang out more with the Undersiders. Knowing I was out of reasons to justify sticking with the plan, all the crap that would come raining down on my head if I did go ahead with it, how much I’d loathe myself for betraying friends?  This little desire for a real, genuine friendship was enough of a nudge in that direction.  I could change my mind.  I wouldn’t be sending any letters to Miss Militia.

I ran the tapwater over the smoking remains of the envelope, watched the remains get washed away.  I watched the water running down the drain for a long time after the last scrap of burned paper was gone.

I turned off the tap, stuck my hands in my pockets, and crossed the kitchen to lean back against the door leading to the front hall, glancing briefly at the handle and lock before I leaned against the door with my back to it.  I called some bugs from the living room, hallway and heating vents down the front hall and up to the door, into the mechanism of the lock.  Could they move the necessary parts?

No such luck.  They weren’t strong enough to manipulate the door’s internal workings, and any bugs that might be strong enough wouldn’t fit inside.  Go away, I told them, and they did.

Which left me no good way to avoid dealing with my dad.  I felt more guilty than ever as I looked across the room at him.  He looked so bewildered, so concerned, as he watched me.  I didn’t have it in me to lie to his face again.

But whatever I did was going to hurt him.

I crossed the room and he stood up, as if unsure as to what I was going to do.  I hugged him tight.  He hugged me back tighter.

“I love you, dad.”

“I love you too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for.  Just- just talk to me, okay?”

I pulled away, and grabbed my sweatshirt from the hook by the door.  As I crossed back to the other side of the room, I fished in the pockets and retrieved the phone.

I started typing out a text.

“You have a cell phone,” he was very quiet.  My mom had died using a cell phone while driving.  We’d never talked about it, but I knew he’d thrown his out not long after the accident.  Negative connotations.  An ugly reminder.

“Yeah,” I replied.


“To stay in touch with my friends.”

“It-it’s just unexpected.  I wouldn’t have thought.”

“It worked out that way.”  I finished the text, closed the phone and stuck it in the pocket of my jeans.

“New clothes, you’re angrier, lying to me, missing school, this cell phone… I feel like I don’t know you anymore, little owl,” he used my mom’s old pet name for me.  I flinched a little.

Carefully, I replied, “Maybe that’s a good thing.  Because I sure didn’t like who I was before.”

“I did,” he murmured.

I looked away.

“Can you at least tell me you’re not doing drugs?”

“Not even smoking or drinking.”

“Nobody’s making you do anything you don’t want to do?”


“Okay,” he said.

There was a long pause.  The minutes stretched on as if we were both waiting for the other to say something.

“I don’t know if you know this,” he spoke, “But when your mom was alive, and you were in middle school, the subject of you skipping a grade came up.”


“You’re a smart girl, and we were afraid you were bored in school.  We had arguments on the subject.  I-I convinced your mom you would be happier in the long run attending high school with your best friend.”

I coughed out a laugh.  Then I saw the wounded look on his face.

“It’s not your fault, dad.  You couldn’t have known.”

“I know, or at least, I have that worked out in my head.  Emotionally, I’m not so sure.  I can’t help but wonder how things would have played out differently if we’d gone ahead with what your mother wanted.  You were doing so well, and now you’re failing?”

“So I fail, maybe,” I said, and I felt a weight lift, admitting it out loud.  There would be options.  I’d picked up enough that maybe I could still pressure the faculty to let me skip a grade.  I would be old enough to take online classes like Brian was.

“No, Taylor.  You shouldn’t have to.  The staff at the school knows your circumstances, we can definitely get some exemptions made, extend deadlines…”

I shrugged.  “I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to beg and plead for help from those assholes in the school faculty, just so I can return to the same position I was in a month ago.  Way I see it, the bullying is unavoidable, impossible to control or prevent.  It’s like a force of nature… a force of human nature.  It’s easier to handle, if I think about it like that.  I can’t fight it, can’t win, so I’ll just focus on dealing with the aftereffects.”

“You don’t have to give up.”

“I’m not giving up!”  I raised my voice, angry, surprised at myself for being angry.  I took a breath, forced myself to return to a normal volume, “I’m saying there’s probably no fucking way I’ll understand why she did what she did.  So why waste my time and energy dwelling on it?  Fuck her, she doesn’t deserve the amount of attention I’ve been paying her. I’m… reprioritizing.”

He folded his arms, but his forehead was creased in concern.  “And these new priorities of yours are?”

I had to search for a response.  “Living my life, making up for lost time.”

As if to answer my statement, the back door opened behind my dad.  My dad turned, startled.

“Lisa?” He asked, confused.

Lisa revealed the key she’d taken from the fake stone in the back garden, then placed it on the railing of our back steps.  Unsmiling, she looked from my dad to me.  She met my eyes.

I shoved my way past my dad, and he grabbed my upper arm before I was clear of the doorway.

“Stay,” he ordered me, implored me, squeezing my arm.

I wrenched my arm free, twisting it until he couldn’t maintain his grip, and hopped down the back steps, felt my knees ache at the landing.  Three or four strides away, I turned back in his direction, but was unable to look him in the eyes.

“I love you, dad.  But I need-”  What did I need?  I couldn’t form the thought.  “I, uh, I’ll be in touch.  So you know I’m okay.  This isn’t permanent, I just… I need a breather.  I need to figure all this out.”

“Taylor, you can’t leave. I’m your parent, and this is your home.”

“Is it?  It really doesn’t feel like that’s the case, right now,” I answered.  “Home’s supposed to be a place I feel safe and secure.”

“You have to understand, I didn’t have any other options.  You were avoiding me, not talking, and I can’t help you until I get answers.”

“I can’t give you any answers,” I replied, “And you can’t help anyways.”

He took a step forward, and I quickly stepped back, maintaining the distance between us.

Trying again, he told me, “Come inside.  Please.  I won’t press you any further.  I should have realized you weren’t in a place where I could.”

He took another step toward me, and Lisa took a little step to one side to get in his way, as I backed up again.

“Lisa?” My dad turned his attention to her, looking at her like he’d never seen her before.  “You’re okay with this?”

Lisa glanced between us again, then carefully said, “Taylor’s smart.  If she’s decided she needs to get away and work stuff out for herself, I trust it’s for good reason.  There’s plenty of room for her at my place.  It’s not a problem in the slightest.”

“She’s just a kid.”

“She’s more capable than you give her credit for, Danny.”

I turned to leave, and Lisa hurried to catch up with me, putting an arm around my shoulders as she reached my side.

“Taylor,” my dad called out.  I hesitated, but didn’t turn around.  I kept my eyes fixed on the gate of the backyard.

“Please do keep in touch,” he said, “You can come home anytime.”

“Okay,” I replied.  I wasn’t sure if my voice was loud enough for him to hear.

As Lisa led me to her car, I had to steel myself to keep from looking back.

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Tangle 6.8

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We didn’t dally, stopping only to let Bitch direct her dogs into three separate vans Coil had waiting at the back of the garage.  Once that was done, we all rushed to the vehicle Coil had waiting, an armored limousine.  It wasn’t too different from a regular limousine, but the sides and top were flat, and the front end was squatter.  All in all, it gave the general impression of something exceedingly solid.

I wondered if it was too conspicuous.  It was distinctive enough that it Could make us too easy to track.  Coil didn’t seem like a stupid guy, though, and time was short enough that we couldn’t afford to take the time to debate it.  I climbed inside after Grue, keeping my mouth shut for the time being, and my eyes open for details.

The interior was all black leather, the windows tinted dark.  Coil’s black costume against the black background made him rather hard to make out as he settled into a chair at the far end, his back to  the driver’s seat.  If I squinted a little, it looked like only the snake stenciled on his costume was there, hovering in empty space.  We seated ourselves on the leather cushioned bench that lined one side of the limousine.  Trickster, the only Traveler to come with us, sat at the far end, facing Coil.

“My dogs-” Bitch started.

“Will be taken care of, I assure you,” Coil replied.  “You will find your dogs and the vans you used to arrive awaiting you when you depart.”

Bitch pursed her lips, looking angry, but didn’t say anything.

“I wish,” Coil told us, “To perform a small demonstration.  Because I would prefer to establish a few things before I move on to discussing the larger picture.”

He reached into a cup holder to his left and retrieved a roll of quarters.  He undid one end of the roll, then doled out a number of quarters into his palm.  “If you would catch these and place them on the backs of your hands.”

He flipped a coin in Tattletale’s direction.  She caught it and slapped it against the back of her hand, “Heads.”

“Heads,” Grue said, as he caught the next.

Coil double checked I was ready to catch it, then threw it my way.

“Heads,” I spoke, as I slapped it down.

And heads again for Bitch and Regent.

I leaned forward, reached behind me, and retrieved my coinpurse.  I found a silver dollar, showed Coil, and then flipped it.  I caught it and slapped it down.  Heads.  I nodded.

“Probability manipulation?” I asked him, “Enhanced luck?”

He shook his head, “No.  Just the opposite, Skitter.  I control destinies.  I decide outcomes.”

“That still sounds like probability manipulation to me,” I said.

Tattletale leaned forward, to look past Grue and face me, “No.  Well, it is, but only in the biggest, bluntest sense.  But I can vouch that he’s telling the truth, vague as it is.”

“When I asked what his powers were, at the meeting, you said you didn’t know,” I accused her.

“No,” she shook her head, “I said I couldn’t say.  Which is true.  One of the contingencies for my getting to be part of the Undersiders and get the funding he offered was that I would keep the details a secret, and I’ve got to do that until he says otherwise, sorry.”

Coil placed his elbows on the armrests and steepled his fingers in front of his mouth, or where his mouth would be if his mask showed any part of his face.  “I feel that keeping potential enemies in the dark is a necessity.  To those ends, rather than risk having her as an enemy, I sought out your Tattletale and hired her, with enough incentive to keep her loyal and silent on the matter.”

“And us?” Grue asked.

“I won’t mince words, Grue,” Coil answered, “My choice to form the Undersiders was a gambit.  If you failed, got yourselves killed, injured or arrested, then that simply meant there would be less parahumans in this city for me to be concerned about.  That isn’t to say I didn’t assist you or that I attempted to steer you towards failure.  I did just the opposite.  All I mean to say is that I was prepared for the eventuality.”

Grue tilted his head slightly, “And if we succeeded?”

“Then you naturally find yourselves sitting here, proven to be capable,” Coil leaned back.  “Worthy to hear my proposal, as the Travelers already have.”

“I can’t help but notice you didn’t test them the same way you tested us,” Grue spoke, “We’ve worked for you for nearly a year.”

“The Travelers have an established track record.  With this in mind, I contacted them and requested they come to Brockton Bay.  They heard my offer, and I was hoping Trickster might give his reply tonight.”

All eyes turned to Trickster.  He didn’t hurry to reply.  He reached into the fold of his jacket, found a pack of cigarettes, tapped one out, placed it inside the mouth-slit of his mask and lit up.  He placed one hand on his hat to keep it in place as he rolled down the window to blow the smoke outside.

“If you’re not bullshitting, if you’re making a good faith attempt at providing a fix, we’re in,” Trickster spoke, not looking at Coil.

“Excellent,” Coil replied, not twitching a muscle.  There wasn’t an iota of surprise there.

“Fix?” I asked Trickster.

“That guy,” Trickster tilted his head in Coil’s direction, “Is offering my team a temporary solution to an ongoing problem, with promises that he’s going to look into a possible permanent fix.”

“Vague,” Regent spoke.  Trickster shrugged.

I couldn’t quite get a sense of these guys.  I spoke up, “This wouldn’t have anything to do with what your teammate said about you guys pulling a ridiculous number of jobs, like you’re trying to fill a bottomless pit with cash?”

He turned to one side to let out a long exhalation of smoke, then answered, “My teammate needs to keep her mouth shut about private business.”

Which, in no uncertain words, meant I should drop the subject, and that I was probably right.  Probably not my best call, raising a subject pretty much guaranteed to touch a nerve.

“So,” Grue spoke to Coil, “You’ve provoked our curiosity, which I’m sure was your intent.”

“Yes.  First off, let me show you what I desire,” Coil spoke.  He touched a button beside the cup holders to his left, and the windows rolled down.  I looked outside, and saw the darkness of a tunnel.  As we left the tunnel, we found ourselves overlooking the rest of the city.  The bay and the city both were spread out beyond us, a cityscape lit up by constellations of orange-yellow and white dots and the faint light of the moon above.

I looked back to Coil, and saw him gesturing to the open window.

“The city?” I asked him.

“The city, yes.  Desiring to take over the world is not only cliche, but unrealistic,” he replied, his voice sibilant, smooth.  “I will, for the time being, content myself with seizing this city for myself.  Cliche still, I might admit, but rare few do even this with any measure of success.

“Isn’t it kind of obvious you’re trying to do that already?” Regent asked him.

“Perhaps, but contrary to popular expectations, I do not aim to limit my control to the organized crime of Brockton Bay.  I would control everything.  Government, courts, law enforcement, business, and much more.”

“Ambitious,” Grue spoke.  I thought I might have heard a change in his tone of voice.  Doubt?

“Quite.  But rest assured, Undersiders, I am already moving into my endgame.”

“Endgame?” I asked.

Think, Skitter.  Who are the major players in this city?  What has changed?  The ABB is wiped out, with the very plan I proposed at the meeting.  Empire Eighty-Eight is reeling from the plays I made today, and I fully expect to finish them off in the coming weeks, hopefully with the assistance of you, the Travelers, and my other recruits.  The Wards and the Protectorate are in a tenuous position, now.  I took steps to ensure the public knows their heroes played only a partial role in stopping the ABB, and your actions tonight served to shake confidence in them further.  If the matter is pushed further, I expect there will be a restructuring of the group structure.  Perhaps members will be exchanged with other nearby Protectorate groups, someone else might be put in charge, new rules, regulations and quotas put in place.  Whatever the case, it will be some time before they regain their footing and re-establish their reputation.  By the time this occurs, I will be settled in my new role.”

He let that sink in.  “Who else is left?  New Wave isn’t in a position to take control.  They are powerful but too controversial, with even less trust from the public than the Protectorate.  The Merchants under Skidmark’s leadership are too weak and self centered to make a serious play.  Faultline’s group is mercenary, and conservative use of my power has made me an exceedingly wealthy man, leaving me the option of purchasing her cooperation if and when it is necessary.”

“There are scarce few who are in a position to impede me, as I make my play, and I’m not only speaking of capes.  I’ve quietly been purchasing properties throughout the Docks and will aggressively purchase more in the final stages of my plan.  Two of the three mayoral candidates for this June’s election were bought and brought to this city by me, much as I purchased my elite soldiers to aid me in controlling the streets and hampering the Empire’s business.  The city council has its elections in September, I will have similar agents placed throughout by then, as well.  When I say I am nearly finished, I am not speaking in ambiguities.  I am saying that the dominoes have been set up and the first of them are already falling.”

Well, I thought, there goes any doubt I had about the Protectorate not caring what was up with the Undersider’s sponsor.  Shit.  Was he really that close?

“Leaving only you and your role in this,” Coil finished.

“Which is?” Grue inquired, a challenging note in his voice.

“Taking over this city is pointless if I do not keep it, Grue.  I hand picked you Undersiders because I needed allies who were comfortable being situated in the North end, the Docks, the Boardwalk, the Trainyard, the outskirts to the North.  I picked you because I saw you had potential, yet you were not so high profile as to demand the immediate attention of authorities.  This freed you to be overlooked until you were more established.  It allowed you to grow both practiced and comfortable as a team, and to establish a reputation for yourselves.  In my efforts against Kaiser, I have not only been whittling away at his Empire, but I have worked to keep him occupied so you would not be sandwiched between two major factions in the early stages of your group.  You had only the ABB to deal with, and you held your own for nearly a year.  Skitter joining your group was sufficient to tip the balance.”

“So.  If you accept this deal, I would have you control the Docks and the surrounding area.  You’re not overly disliked, you’ve proven yourselves resourceful and capable.  I would have you guard against any parahuman trespassers and squash any gangs or groups in your territory, should they not submit themselves to my command and control.  If this project proved to be a success, I would have you be my agents in expanding to nearby cities.  But I digress, that is long term, only a possibility.”

“And what do we get in all this?” Regent asked.

Coil replied, “I expect that wealth and power go without saying.  Beyond that, I leave it to you to name your terms.  As I explained what I desire, I leave it up to you to decide what you would ask for, in exchange for your cooperation.”

Nobody hurried to reply.  We exchanged glances with one another, trying to gauge each other’s reactions.  Trickster finished his cigarette, tossed it out the window and rolled the window up.

Coil broke the silence, “Bitch.  I am aware of your collection of dogs.  More than one isolated building containing strays and dogs due to be euthanized.  Animals that you rescued, retrieved and gave shelter.”

All attention turned to Bitch.  She looked angry, opened her mouth to speak, but Coil interrupted her before she could.

“No.  I would not interfere with your business.  I respect your passion.  But at the same time, I know it likely pains you, that you have only so much time to spare, to visit these locations, to feed these animals you have rescued and give them the individual attention and care they need.”

Bitch glared at him.  If looks could kill.

“I could provide the resources you need, to fully equip the buildings and make them comfortable for the dogs.  Assistants to care for the animals and work under you as you see fit.  I would have the city give the same sort of funding to anyone who adopts a sheltered animal that is provided to foster parents, with oversight, of course, to ensure that the animals are being properly cared for, that the system is not gamed.  There would be no more dogs cooped up in shelters, awaiting euthanasia.  What would you say to that?”

“I’d say you’re fucking with me.”

He didn’t press the issue, instead, he turned to the next member of our group.  “Regent.  A hard young man to please, because you grew up wanting for nothing, and you expect largesse, luxury and idle entertainment as a matter of course.”

“What do you know about how I grew up?” Regent challenged him.

“I know what the Protectorate knows.  Not long after Lung was brought into custody, Armsmaster began pushing for details on your group.  Staff at the PRT offices were tasked with looking through old criminal records and reports of lesser known parahumans, trying to find parallels.  Find if perhaps a supervillain in another area perhaps moved to Brockton Bay, changing their names, costumes and methods.  They found you.”

“Ah,” Regent leaned back in his seat.  “Shit.”

“So I know who you are.  I know that you went out of your way to get out from your father’s thumb, and that it’s quite likely that a part of you is driven to prove yourself to him, to pursue success, power and status in our circles.”

“His father?” I asked.

“Not my story to tell,” Coil waved a hand, “I leave it for Regent to share at a later date, if he chooses.  All I mean to say is that I can give you that, Regent.  Status and notoriety, perhaps enough to rise above your old man.”

Regent nodded once, but didn’t say anything.  I would have liked to see his expression behind his mask.

“You must understand, Undersiders, I do not use fear as Lung did, or manipulation as Kaiser does.  I would have you work alongside me because you know I am the person that is best equipped to provide what you desire, and that nobody else can or will give you a better offer.”

“Which sounds nice, sure,” I countered.  Could I poke holes in this plan, maybe derail it? “But I haven’t quite forgotten that you just told us you were fully prepared for us to screw up somewhere along the way, and that you would have been perfectly okay with it happening.  You would’ve shrugged, said ‘less capes to deal with’ and you would have dropped us and walked away.”

Coil nodded, “This is true.”

“So if we screw up later, it’s going to be the same thing?”

“No,” Coil spoke. Then he paused for a moment.  “I understand your concern, but I have already informed you of a great deal, here.  If you were arrested, or if half your team perished in action, it would be dangerous to abandon you, because you could divulge key information.  This will continue to be the case.”

I nodded, slowly, “Except you could provide false information to us, or stop providing key info.”

“Look to Tattletale for the answer to that.  I may have purchased her assistance, but I expect you consider her a friend, and vice versa.  You could, I hope, trust her to verify that what I tell you is truth, and to know more about my plan that I divulge, in any case.”

So if I wanted to argue the point further, it’d look like I didn’t trust Tattletale.  I wasn’t sure I liked that, but I nodded.  “Alright.”

“Skitter,” Coil spoke.  “I came prepared, tonight, with offers in mind for the rest of your team.  I can help care for Bitch’s collections of rescued dogs, and help ensure less animals need rescue in the future.  Grue is relying on me for a personal matter, and he knows that my taking power can only ensure that things go his way without difficulty. You, and you alone, Skitter, have me wondering what you desire, at the end of things.”

Tattletale, to my left, leaned forward again, interest clear on her face.

I had to be convincing.  No way was I going to let something slip past the radar and alert Tattletale now.  So I gave it a serious think.

I kind of hoped someone would break the silence while I took the time to consider, maybe even distract from me, but nobody did.  Everyone patiently waited, putting me at the focus of all attention, a spot I hated being in, in or out of costume.

“The city,” I replied, being careful to be as genuine as possible, to avoid alerting Tattletale, “You want to control it.  Fine.  I want you to make it work.  Fix up the Docks so they aren’t a shithole.  Give people work.  Clean up the drug trade, or the hard drugs at least.  Straighten out the asinine bureaucracy of the government and schools and all that.  That sort of thing.”

Coil shook his head, “Not something I can offer you in good conscience, dear Skitter.”

He raised his hand to stop me before I could open my mouth.  Not that I was going to, but he did.  “What you’re talking about, I already intended to do, in large part. To give it to you as a gift would be little different than offering you an amount in cash, when I already intend to give you as much money as you require.”

“So you’re going to improve Brockton Bay,” I said, carefully.

“Don’t get me wrong.  I will not claim to be a good person – I assure you I am not.  That said, you are likely to discover I am a proud man.  I would consider it a catastrophic failure on my part if this city did not thrive under my rule, a tremendous blow to my ego.”

I nodded.

He continued, “Our desires on individual subjects may differ, however.  I would argue there will always be crime, always be drugs.”

“I’m not saying there won’t.  I’m just saying that there’s room for improvement.  When I was in grade six, more of my classmates could explain what a K-hole was than name a dozen countries.”

“I am not promising quick fixes, Skitter.  What I will tell you is that individuals like yourselves would control territories and be responsible for maintaining your own kind of order in those areas, with whatever means you saw fit.  Over time, people would adjust to this, crime rates would decrease.  I would simultaneously be controlling the flow of product into the city, reducing the distribution of the most problematic drugs, those that would lead to the most societal decay and crime, while making other, more benign product available in their place.  Crime and drugs cannot be conquered, but they are animals I believe I can tame.”

“And the city itself?” I asked.  I thought of my dad, “Fixing the ferry?”

“Yes.  Rest assured, if you were to accept my offer, I would fully expect you to contact me and speak up at any time you felt I was not following through in any department.  I might be a proud man, but I would rather you injure that pride, even provoke it intentionally, rather than let me be complacent.”

I nodded once, slowly.

“I have said my piece, then.  I leave you to consider it, Undersiders.  I recognize that this is not what you signed on for, in the beginning.  I know it might not have the same appeal in the scope of costumed hijinks, and I’m prepared for the fact that that this might lead you to refuse this offer.  All I hope is that if you do refuse me, if you decide you are more comfortable as simple uncommon criminals, that our prior arrangement will stand.”

“You’ve invested this much in us, and if we say no, we can just walk away?”  Regent asked him.

Coil spread his hands a bit, “What would you see me do?  Murder you?  Threaten you?  Orchestrate an arrest?  There is no guarantee any attempt on my part would be wholly successful, whatever I chose, and you may count it as a compliment that I would not want any of you escaping the attempt and coming after me as a dedicated adversary.”

He knocked on the window behind him.  Immediately, the limousine slowed down and pulled over.  As I glanced outside, I saw we were in the Docks.

“Think on the subject.  Discuss it and get back to me with your reply, the sooner the better, no later than a week from now.  Tattletale, it should be obvious, but I formally free you from all stipulations in your contract requiring you to keep my identity as your sponsor private.  You may give my contact information to your teammates.”

“Sure thing,” Tattletale replied.

“And before I forget, I arranged individual accounts for each of you with a supervillain banker by the name of The Number Man, as paying for tonight’s job in bills, naturally, was unfeasible.  My men will provide you with your account information and the instructions for accessing these accounts as you retrieve your dogs.”

Grue extended a hand, “I’m not sure what we’ll do, whether we’ll take this deal, but it’s been good working with you thus far, and I hope to continue.”

Coil took Grue’s hand and shook it, firm, “Likewise, Grue, Undersiders.”

We departed the vehicle.  We were on the West end of the Docks, judging by how far the water was, and how close we were to the mountains that surrounded the city.  Parked behind the limousine were three vans, each with two of Coil’s soldiers standing by, alert.

As we walked by the end of the armored limousine, a soldier passed out envelopes to each of us.

We continued walking, and Bitch opened each door we passed, letting the dogs out.  They were smaller, now.  Judas, the tallest, only came up to my shoulder.  Their external muscle, wet and wrinkled, hung off them like excess skin on a person who had lost a great deal of weight.  The interiors of the vans were spattered with more excess flesh, blood and bone that had been shed.  The final stage would be the dogs shucking off the last of the excess mass, revealing their normal shapes nested deep within, dry within a membrane, virtually untouched by the injuries they had sustained over the night.

As the last of the dogs, Angelica, was released and the vans and limousine pulled away, we headed back to the loft.  Each of us too busy sorting through our own thoughts and dilemmas to be distracted with conversation, so it was remarkably quiet.

I have it.  I’ve got what I need.

I just didn’t know how I felt about it.

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Tangle 6.7

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Leaping from rooftop to rooftop was not as awesome or efficient as it was on TV and in the movies.  Even if it was the dogs doing the brunt of the work, they weren’t the most graceful of creatures, they weren’t built to be ridden, and we didn’t have any saddles.  There was also the distinct issue of there being buildings of wildly varying heights, similar to how Brian’s neighborhood sported old Victorian style buildings amid apartments and condos.  As Judas hopped down from the side of a six story building, dug his claws into the side of a neighboring building to slow his descent, then jumped the rest of the way down to the asphalt of an alleyway, I was genuinely concerned the landings would dislocate my hip.

In short, I was grateful to be back on terra firma.

“Need a hand!” Bitch called out, a moment after Brutus set down.  She had a prone Tattletale lying across her lap and Brutus’ shoulders, and it looked like Tattletale was falling off, despite Bitch’s best efforts to hold on to her.

I reluctantly let go of Grue as he slipped down from Judas and rushed over to help.  I silently lamented having included the panels of armor on my chest and stomach, which had been a solid barrier between my body and his back as I clung to him on our retreat from the Forsberg Gallery.

Whatever my regrets, I wasn’t oblivious to the matter at hand.  I hopped down off Judas’ back and hurried over to help with Tattletale, just a step behind Grue.  It proved easier to slide her down to the sidewalk than to get her back up onto Brutus’ back.  Grue did the heavy lifting, while I focused on keeping her head and arms from hitting the ground or getting caught under her.  As I bent down to help ease her to the ground, I could already feel the stiffness in the muscles of my thighs, back and stomach.  I was glad I’d done my morning exercise earlier, because there was no way I was going to be able to go anywhere tomorrow.

I glanced around us.  Cars were zipping past on the streets at either end, but there weren’t many pedestrians, and none appeared to have spotted us, thus far.  My suspicions were that most people in the downtown area who were out and about would be near Lord Street, celebrating the end of the curfew.  People would be acting out their relief over the end of the ABB situation, making up for time they’d spent cooped up in their homes during the six nights of curfew.

“Anyone see capes following?” Grue asked.

“I didn’t see anyone, but I wasn’t really looking.  That’s usually Tattletale’s job,” Regent replied.

“She can’t give us any info like this,” Grue pointed out.

“Wait,” I told him.  I reached back into my utility compartment and fished out the changepurse.  I removed the tissues I’d wadded up inside to keep the change from rattling and found one of the three tiny white packets at the bottom of the bag.  I tore the packet open and held it under Tattletale’s nose.

“Smelling salts?” Grue asked.

I nodded.  “You asked if anyone had any after we put down Über and Leet.  I made a mental note to have ’em for next time.”

“I bet half of us did,” Regent replied, “The weird thing is that you actually followed through, dork.”

“What’s weird about that?” I asked, a bit defensively.

He was distracted from replying.  Tattletale stirred, turning her head to get her nose away from the smelling salts.  I moved them back under her nose.

She woke, mumbling, “Okay, stop.”

“Welcome back,” Grue told her.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“My stomach feels like someone ran it through a blender, and my arm hurts like hell, but I’m tougher than I look,” she said.  Not one second later, she groaned and huffed out a breath, “But I’m going to need help to stand.”

Grue and I helped her.  She was hurting, and moved at a glacial pace.  It was made more difficult by the fact that she apparently didn’t want either of us to touch her right arm.

“What’d I miss?” she asked, as if to distract from the fact that she was moving like an old woman.

“Tee el dee arr, you got bitchslapped and knocked out, it was down to Bitch and Skitter, and we still got away,” Regent shrugged.

Tattletale froze in her tracks.  Since Grue and I were still easing her to a standing position, I was forced to shift my grip to ensure she didn’t fall.

Shit,” she managed to fit more invective into that one word than some of the people from my dad’s work could manage in ten, and some of those guys were seamen. Tattletale turned her head, “That’s not-”

“Not true,” Armsmaster spoke, echoing her words as he rounded the end of the alley.

He looked worse for wear.  The lower half of his face had welts on it, not many, but some.  I’d instructed the hornets to sting so they weren’t coiling their abdomens, which meant they weren’t squeezing the venom sacs and injecting venom with every sting.  I’d only injected enough venom to make it hurt a little, to distract.  After I’d beaten my retreat, though, I knew some would have stayed on him, and a few would have stung him after I was out of range and no longer able to control the hornets.  The welts weren’t the bad part, though.  What caught my eye, though, were the six thin trickles of blood running down the lower half of his face.  Hornet bites weren’t necessarily capable of penetrating skin, as much as they might hurt, but there had been a lot of them, and if a few happened to bite in the same location, or if they caught the edge of an eyelid or nostril?  Maybe.  I noticed his Halberd in his right hand.

When I looked at our remaining escape route, Dauntless was at the other end of the alley.  Brockton Bay’s rising star.  It would have been easy to peg him as a tinker, but he apparently wasn’t.  His power let him, according to details he’d leaked when he’d appeared on TV and in magazines, imbue his gear with a little bit of power every day.  Thing was, every bit of power he parceled out had permanent effects.  Every day, he was just a little bit stronger than he’d been the day before.  A little bit more versatile.  It was expected that he would eventually surpass even the likes of Alexandria, Legend and Eidolon, the ‘triumvirate’ of the Protectorate, the top dogs.  That kind of made him a big deal in Brockton Bay, a hometown hero.

I didn’t follow that stuff, didn’t buy into the hero worship.  I’d always found the capes interesting, I’d followed the non-gossipy news about them, but with the exception of a phase around the time I was nine where I’d had an Alexandria t-shirt and had my mom help me find pictures of her online, I had never really got giddy over any particular hero.

Dauntless packed a few trademark pieces of gear.  He had his Arclance, a spear he held in one hand that looked like it was made of white lightning.  His shield, fixed to his left forearm, was a metal disc about the size of a dinner plate, surrounded by rings of the same kind of energy that made up the spear.  Finishing his current set of empowered items were his boots.  His feet looked like they were encased in the white crackling energy.  If rumor was to be believed, he was working on empowering his armor as well, but I couldn’t see any hints of that energy on the costume.  It was white and gold, and his golden helmet was in the Greek or Spartan style, with slits for the eyes, a band of metal covering his nose, and a slit running down lower half of his face.  A band of metal crested the top, like a mohawk.

You could see the frown crease Armsmaster’s damaged face as he turned his focus to me.

“I threw your Halberd off the side of the Gallery,” I spoke before he could.  “Did Dauntless fetch it for you?”

He didn’t voice a reply right away.  As if to demonstrate, he threw his Halberd straight up in the air.  It disappeared into a storm of glowing blue lines as it reached the peak of its ascent, simultaneously rematerializing in his hand.  Hadn’t I seen Kid Win bring his cannon to the site of the bank robbery in the same way?  A piece of borrowed technology?

“I’m not about to put so many eggs in one basket without sufficient safeguards,” Armsmaster told me.  His voice was tight with repressed anger.

No bugs.  Damn it, I had no bugs, again.  I’d emptied my armor of bugs when I attacked Armsmaster, and I’d left them and the rest of the swarm back at the Gallery when I made my retreat.

Surrender,” he intoned.

“Thinking about it,” Tattletale spoke.

“Decide fast,” Armsmaster growled.

“Why did you guys stop here?” Tattletale murmured to us, “We’re, like, half a block from the parking garage where we stashed our ride.”

“I wanted to make sure there were no pursuers before we peeled out,” Grue replied, “Good thing, too.”

“Right,” Regent’s voice was thick with sarcasm, “Because this is so much better than them finding us as we put the key in the ignition.”

“Guys,” I cut in, whispering without taking my eyes from Armsmaster, “Answers.  Solutions.”

“Get to the parking garage,” Tattletale told us.

“Our situation there won’t be any better,” Grue countered.

Get to the parking garage,” She hissed through her teeth, as Armsmaster took a step forward.

The alley was wide enough for two dogs to stand shoulder to shoulder, and I saw Bitch directing two of the animals to stand between us and Armsmaster before Grue blanketed everything but Armsmaster and the dogs in darkness.

The darkness didn’t last more than three seconds.  There was enough time for Grue to place his arm against my collarbone and shove me back against the wall, and then he removed the darkness around us.  There was a smell like burning ozone.  Had Dauntless used his spear?

It was immediately clear that Dauntless didn’t have much darkness around him.  He was holding his shield arm up, and it had formed into a bubble-shaped forcefield, extending in a ten foot radius around himself, touching both walls on either side of us.  The forcefield was serving to block off the darkness, and while I wasn’t sure, I suspected that the field was actually eating through any darkness that touched it.  It was making a continual sizzling, crackling sound that drowned out the traffic on the roads around us.

Dauntless advanced a pace, and the forcefield moved a corresponding distance closer to us.

After a second short advance from Dauntless, Grue had to back up a step to avoid touching the field of crackling white energy.  A step that closed the distance between us and Armsmaster.

“Armsmaster hates you,” Tattletale told Dauntless, raising her voice to be heard over the crackling sound the forcefield was generating, “He hates that you’re the next big thing, the guy that’s going to be better than him.  That you get the easy road to being a big name in the Protectorate, and he’s the one that has to stay up nights, reworking his stuff, compiling simulations, coming up with new ideas, training in the gym for hours and hours on end.  Every second of work he puts in, he gets more and more resentful of you.  Why do you think you were the one member of the team he sent off to patrol the city and watch over the Wards, instead of having you come to the party?”

Dauntless shook his head.  Then he raised his spear hand and tapped one finger against the side of his helmet.

“Ear buds,” Tattletale sighed, “Armsmaster told him to wear ear buds, so Dauntless can’t hear anyone but him.  That’s both brilliant and incredibly depressing.”

Dauntless advanced two steps, quickly, and all of us, excepting Bitch and Angelica, were in a position where we had to hurry to step back.  Regent was too slow, and his hand touched the bubble.  A brief arc of energy traced from the field to Regent’s hand as he pulled it back.

“Fuck!  Ow!”  Regent gasped.  “Enough of this shit!”

He raised his other hand, and Dauntless stumbled.  Regent then brushed his hand to one side, and Dauntless fell.  As Dauntless used both hands to ease his fall, the forcefield dropped away.

“Go!” Grue bellowed, dismissing his darkness.  Bitch whistled twice, hard, and the two dogs that were fighting Armsmaster hurried to follow.

Dauntless raised his spear to impede us.  Grue, leading our retreat, leaped over the crackling beam of lightning and brought both feet down on Dauntless’ helmet as he landed.  The hero didn’t recover before we were over and past him.

We were free of the alley.  Two of the dogs surged past us, getting in the way of incoming traffic so we were clear to cross the street.  Cars squealed to a stop as we moved.

We’d just crossed the threshold of the parking garage when Dauntless opened fire, striking Brutus no less than three times with jabs of his Arclance, then turning his attention to Angelica.  The weapon could extend as far as he needed, elongating faster than the eye could follow.  White sparks flew as it slammed into the animals, but the effect was minor at best.  The Arclance was something between a solid and an energy, combining traits of both.  It could hit hard enough, with an electrical charge to it to boot, but I suspected that using it on the dogs wasn’t so different from using a hand taser on a bull elephant.  They were too big, too tough.

Finding he wasn’t having much effect on the animals, Dauntless aimed for us.

Regent disrupted Dauntless’ aim, and the Arclance ripped over the windows of the building above the parking garage, bringing a rain of glass shards down on us as we made our way past the gate and into the garage.

Armsmaster exited the alley and spotted us.  Intent on closing the distance, he sent his grappling hook out to catch the metal ‘do not pass if you are above this height’ bar above the door of the parking garage.  The second the points of the hook closed around the bar, Armsmaster started reeling himself in, his metal boots skidding across the roadtop.

Bitch whistled, hard, and pointed to the bar.  Judas lunged for it, catching both bar and grappling hook in his jaws.  The chain holding the bar up snapped as Judas pulled, and Armsmaster’s skid was interrupted as Judas pulled back on the chain that extended between them.

Armsmaster shifted to a run, managing to keep his feet under him as his trajectory changed.  He extended his stick arm, and I saw a spray of blood fly from Judas’ mouth, the dog rearing back in reaction.  Judas let go of both the bar and the hook and backed away several paces, growling.  As the hook retreated, I saw it wasn’t in its grappling hook form, but the usual halberd-top, complete with blade, spearpoint, and no small amount of blood.

Armsmaster maintained his momentum, finished reeling in, then send the ball out again, his weapon back in flail-style.  He brought Judas down, then brought the flail in a wide sweep to keep the other two dogs at bay.  Dauntless continued his approach, stopping just behind and to the side of Armsmaster.

“My mapping program says there’s three ways out of this garage,” Armsmaster informed us, “The doors on the other two exits are locked, and I guarantee you won’t have time to crack the lock or break down the door before I catch up with you.  No more tricks, no more-”

He stopped mid-sentence, whipped his head to one side, then the other.  “Wha-”

And then he disappeared.

A yellow painted concrete pillar, the sort that was used to keep cars from parking in front of the stairwell doors, or to protect the ticket vending machine from any collisions, appeared in his place.  It hit the ground hard, then toppled onto its side.  At the same time, we heard a series of heavy collisions from behind us.

A steel giant with massive hands and a spout on its back that was spewing volumes of gray-black smoke had one hand closed around Armsmaster.  Repeatedly, methodically, it slammed Armsmaster against the hood of a car.

Ballistic, with his football player build and angular body armor, stepped out of the shadows between the cars to Dauntless’ left, just by the entrance.  A girl I recognized but hadn’t yet seen in person emerged from the right.  She wore clown makeup and a jester’s cap, with a teal and orange skintight costume complete with coattails.  Bells jangled from the tips of her cap, her coattails, her gloves and boots.  Circus.  Her costume, makeup and color scheme were different every time she went out, but the theme was always more or less the same.

Dauntless moved to retreat, but Sundancer intercepted him, stepping around the front of the building and placing her miniature sun in the center of the entryway to bar exit.

I didn’t have enough bugs to contribute, and had too little of an idea of what was happening, besides, so I stayed put and watched as the rest of the scene unfolded with surprising speed.

Armsmaster fought his way out from the giant metal hand, but found himself dealing with not just the machine, but a creature from the black lagoon, replete with crustacean armor and octopus tentacles in the place of arms and a face.  He managed to fend them off for a few brief moments, until he swung his weapon at the octopus creature and wound up with a car bumper in the place of the Halberd.  He didn’t have a grip on the bumper as it materialized, so he fumbled and dropped it.  Before he could recover from his surprise or his lack of a weapon, he found himself caught in the mechanical hand.  The steam powered giant resumed his methodical thrashing of Armsmaster against the now-battered car, with the octopus-crab man standing patiently by.

Circus threw a handful of knives at Dauntless, only to have them deflected when he encapsulated himself in his forcefield-bubble.  The second the bubble went up, though, I saw Ballistic reach down to touch the car parked beside him.  When he used his power on the car, you didn’t see it move.  Rather, in the blink of an eye, it was gone from where it had been, abruptly in a position where it was virtually wrapped around the upper half of the forcefield.  It started rolling off the other side before the forcefield gave way, then dropped to the ground a scant foot from Dauntless.

Circus hadn’t stopped moving.  As the car hit the ground, her feet found positions on the undercarriage, and she was up and over, leaping toward Dauntless.  She brought her hands back, and at some point I couldn’t see her hands, she got a two-handed grip on a large, colorfully painted sledgehammer, colored streamers trailing from it as she swung it in Dauntless’ direction.

Circus was one of those capes that had a whole pile of very minor powers.  The ones I knew about were some minor pyrokinesis, the ability to deposit items into thin air, to retrieve those items just as easily, and greatly enhanced coordination and balance to round off the package.  She was one of the more successful solo villains around Brockton Bay, a burglar and thief both quick and versatile enough to win or slip away if she crossed paths with a hero.  If I remembered right, she’d been offered a position on the Undersiders and had vehemently refused.

Which raised the question of what she was doing here, with the Travelers.

Dauntless parried Circus’ sledgehammer with his Arclance, and the Sledgehammer was gone in the next second, as though it had never existed.  At some point in the meantime, though, she’d managed to slip a lit torch into one hand.  She raised it to her mouth, and blew a large cone of flame in Dauntless’ direction.

He staggered back from the torrent of flame, raised his shield, and widened it into a forcefield bubble again.  Less than a second after the shield went up, Ballistic sent another car flying into it with enough force that the car rebounded into the ceiling, back to the ground and into the other side of the parking garage.  The shield failed, flickering out of existence, and Dauntless reeled.

Circus took the chance to close in, torch gone, sledgehammer out.  What followed was a brutal takedown, as Circus swung the sledgehammer twice, making it disappear rather than heftting it back for the next swing, which made the assault that much more relentless.  She ducked low to avoid his Arclance, then spun in a tight circle as she sidestepped around him.  As she rotated her body, the sledgehammer made an appearance once more.  She carried through with the spin with the weapon in hand, driving it hard against the center of Dauntless’ armored chest.

Dauntless fell, and the conflict was abruptly over, silent but for the crackle of Sundancer’s miniature sun, and a single honking horn outside.

The two giants, the machine and bizarre sea creature, approached us, with Trickster lagging behind them.  I could see the machine-guy’s face, a heavy cheeked caucasian with acne-scarred cheeks and long hair pulled back into a greasy ponytail, the upper half of his face covered in a metal mask and goggles, and now I could place him.  He was Trainwreck, a fairly thuggish villain that hadn’t made much of a name for himself.  I couldn’t say whether that was a suit or actually his body.  For all I knew, he was some sort of coal-driven cyborg, or an unfortunate individual that’d been transformed by his powers much in the same way Newter and Gregor had.

And of course, that left the odd one out, the sea-creature, who could only be Genesis, from the Travelers.

Trainwreck dumped a beaten and bloodied Armsmaster to the ground, beside Dauntless.  He took a second to examine the Halberd, which he held in his other hand, and then snapped it in his hands and squeezed the remains in his metal fist.  He dumped the resulting debris over the unconscious heroes.

I looked across the assembled group.  The Travelers and two villains that had never, as far as I knew, been on a team.  Nobody was saying anything.

A smooth, self assured voice broke the silence.  “I assumed, Tattletale, that when you asked to meet with me at the conclusion of your task, that you wouldn’t be bringing the heroes with you.”

A soldier in kevlar and a black balaclava was holding the stairwell door open for Coil.  Dressed in the same black bodysuit with the image of a white snake arranged across it, Coil joined us, walking slowly, his hands clasped behind his back, taking in the scene with an appraising eye.  Two soldiers followed behind him, guns in hand.

Coil.  I felt my pulse quicken.

Tattletale made a pained expression.  “Sorry.”

Coil glanced around some more, then seemed to come to a decision, “No.  I don’t think there’s anything to apologize for.”

He paused, and all I could think was this is it.  I’ve got what I need.

Coil spoke, more as though he were musing to himself than any of us, “I was feeling theatric.  The plan was for the Travelers, Circus and Trainwreck to step out from the shadows as I made an impressive entrance.  A shame it didn’t play out, but I suppose it had a tactical benefit.”

“Guess so,” Tattletale grinned.

“Well, it seems you were successful tonight.  Good.  There are no more pursuers?”


“Emergency response?  Other heroes?”

“All at least two and a half minutes away, I think.”

“Then we’ll take our leave.  Undersiders, Trickster, I have a ride prepared, and I would like you to join me.  I believe we have much to discuss.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Tangle 6.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Surrender,” Armsmaster ordered us.

“No,” Grue retorted.

“You’re only going to embarrass yourself if you prolong this.”

“We have you outnumbered five to three, eight to three if you count the dogs,” Grue answered.  “I can see your buddy Velocity lurking over there.”

“What do you hope to accomplish?  I admit, it was clever to control the battlefield, to dictate each engagement so it occurred on your terms, and to use our own weapons against us… but those weapons no longer work.  None of your weapons work,” Armsmaster turned his head to look at where Miss Militia had Regent at gunpoint.  “Which means you can stop trying to use your power on me, Regent.  I’ve got a little blinking light in the corner of my H.U.D. telling me you’re trying something.  I’ve set up psychic and empathic shielding, to protect myself from you and Tattletale.”

I glanced at Tattletale.  He was psychically shielded against her?  How did that work?

Then I remembered.  When we’d gone up against Glory Girl and Panacea, hadn’t Tattletale said she read minds?  And now Armsmaster had bad info and was figuring he was immune.

“I don’t need to read you,” she told him, “You’re the only one with shields, so your teammates and the PRT staff don’t have any psychic shields up, and I can read them to get anything I need.  You’re not the best inventor, but like most tinkers, you’ve got a knack.  Yours just happens to be condensing and integrating technology.  Only works in your immediate presence, but still, you can stick way more technology in a space than has a right to be there… like your Halberd.”

Armsmaster frowned.  “You’re lying.”

Damn it.  I wish I could’ve told her he had a lie detector built into his helm.  But I couldn’t without explaining that I knew him.

Tattletale took it in stride, grinning, “Sure, fibbed about the reading minds bit.  Not about your weapon and power.  Let’s see… to deal with my buddy Grue, you’ve made that thing a fancy tuning stick.  Sensing vibrations in the air, translating them into images with that fancy helm of yours?”

Grue cracked his knuckles.  He’d gotten the message.  Darkness wasn’t going to do much.  Armsmaster, for his part, gripped his weapon tighter.  An unspoken threat to Tattletale.

“And the ass-end of that stick of yours is using the brass in between the floor tiles to help transmit an electrical charge to the area around you for fancy bug zapping.  Did you set that up before coming here tonight, knowing the way the floor would be put together?”

He didn’t reply.

“Guess not.  Happy coincidence that the setup you put together works as well as it does in here, then.”

Again, no reply.  She grinned a fraction wider.  She went on, “You can tell I’m lying, huh?  That’s awesome.”

Armsmaster’s weapon turned to point in her general direction.  She didn’t back down.

“So you’ll know I’m telling the truth when I say your team hate your guts.  They know you care more about rising from your position as the seventh most prominent member of the Protectorate than you do about them or the city.”

In the span of a second, the blade of the halberd broke into three pieces, reconfigured, and fired in grappling-hook style at Tattletale.  The tines closed together, forming a loose ball shape as it flew, striking her solidly in the stomach.  She crumpled to the ground, arms around her middle.

The head of the weapon reeled in and snapped back into place atop the pole.

“Bastard,” Grue spoke.

“Apparently, according to your teammate,” Armsmaster replied, seemingly unbothered.

I gathered my bugs, poising them near and above Armsmaster in case I needed them to act quickly.

Armsmaster turned his head in my direction, “Skitter?  You, especially, do not want to irritate me any more, tonight.”

The bottom of his Halberd tapped the ground, and the bugs perished.  I glanced at the floor as he did it.  Sure enough, the broad tiles had little lines of metal -bronze?- dividing them.

There was a flurry of action where Regent and Miss Militia were.  She appeared to drop the machine gun, and Regent took that chance to pull away.  He didn’t get one step before she regained her balance and dropped into a low kick that swept his legs out from under him.  Her machine gun dissolved when it was halfway to the ground, turning into a shimmer of dark green energy that arced back up to her hand.  It rematerialized into a gleaming steel machete.  Regent stopped his struggles the second she rested the point of the bladed weapon against the side of his throat.

Armsmaster watched it all unfold without twitching a muscle.  Even if he didn’t care much about his teammates, he apparently trusted Miss Militia to handle herself.

“Grue.  You’ve shown you can dismiss the effects of your power,” Armsmaster spoke, “Do so now.”

“Somehow,” Grue retorted, “I’m not seeing a major reason why I should listen.”

“Um, got a sword pressing against my neck here, guy,” Regent pointed out.

“…Not seeing a major reason,” Grue repeated himself.

Regent let out a little laugh, “Fuck you.”

Armsmaster dispassionately watched the exchange, then spoke, dead serious, “Look at it this way.  If there are witnesses, Miss Militia will have a far harder time selling the idea that she stabbed your friend in the throat in self defense.”

He glanced in the direction of his second in command, and Miss Militia gave a small nod in response.

Would she?  Probably not, I suspected.  Could we risk it?  That choice was up to Grue.

Grue glanced over at where Regent lay.  After a second, he made the darkness fade.  The people in the crowd were mostly huddled on the ground, trying to fend off the stinging and biting swarm.  The dogs lurked at the edges of the room, and Bitch was astride Angelica.  Velocity, in his red costume with the racing stripes down either side and two stripes meeting in a ‘v’ at his chest, wasn’t that far from her.  I suspected they had been squaring off.

I found Emma in the crowd.  Her dad was huddled over both of his daughters, as though he could shield them from any danger, and Emma’s mom was hugging her around the shoulders.

Somehow, that really pissed me off.

Armsmaster glanced my way, “And the bugs.”

Reluctantly, I pulled them away from the crowd.  I settled the flying bugs on the intact portions of the ceiling.  I glanced up at the bugs and sighed.  Then I glanced at Emma again.

This was really not how I wanted this to end.  Me arrested, my scheme a failure, Emma getting off scott free with a family, friends and no major consequences for all the shit she’d pulled?

“Sir,” I spoke, trying to sound confident.  Would Emma recognize my voice?  “Let me check on Tattletale.”

“You can do that once you’ve surrendered,” he spoke.  He changed his posture so his Halberd was pointed in my general direction.  I winced.  I did not want to get the same treatment Tattletale had received.  Or would he not do it with people watching?

My eyes darted in the direction of the crowd, to Tattletale, who didn’t look up to talking.  All eyes were on the scene.  Why had he gone out of his way to get an audience?  Could I use it?  What had he been so upset about, when I’d met him at the ferry?  What had Tattletale gone out of her way to stress to us about Armsmaster?


“I need to make sure you didn’t do any serious damage,” I spoke, just a hint of accusation in my voice.

“She’s fine.”

“I want to verify that for myself,” I said, standing.  How far can I push this?  “Please, she was surrendering and you hit her so hard.”

“You’re lying.”

“The fuck she is!” Regent joined in, “Tattletale walks up to you, ready to be cuffed, and you smacked her across the room, you fucking lunatic!”

I didn’t dare to glance at the crowd.  Armsmaster was the person we needed to get a reaction out of, here.

“Enough.  This is a fabrication,” Miss Militia spoke, her voice raised maybe a bit to carry to the rest of the room.

“Why do you think we’re so reluctant to surrender, if that’s the treatment we’ll get!?” Regent shouted, “It’s not like we’re not totally fucked!”  Miss Militia moved the machete to remind him it was there.

Armsmaster’s head turned toward me.  This was my huge gamble.  How would he respond?  If he called me out as a traitor within the Undersiders, would people buy it, would my team buy it, or would it only hurt his credibility?  He didn’t know that Tattletale would be able to tell it was truth.

“Miss Militia has a blade at my teammate’s throat,” Grue broke the silence, “I think it’s pretty clear you don’t pull your punches.”

Armsmaster turned to his teammate, “Perhaps a less lethal weapon would be more appropriate.”

Miss Militia’s eyebrows knit together in concern, “Sir?”

“Now.”  He left no room for argument.  Then, to ensure they still had control of the situation, he turned to his nearest available hostage.


I was flat on my back and couldn’t back away fast enough to escape, especially with my having to slip my arms from the straps that held the tank of containment foam to my back.  He pointed the head of his weapon at me as he strode over to me, the threat of his firing it serving to keep me subdued.  I glanced at Grue, but he was frozen, two of his teammates at the mercy of the city’s leading heroes.  Tattletale was struggling to her feet, but she couldn’t accomplish much.

Above Regent, the sword shimmered and turned into that black and green energy.  In that moment, Regent struck, drawing his knees to his chest, then kicking up and to the side to drive both of his heels into Miss Militia’s upper stomach.  A second later, he shoved both of his hands in the direction of her collarbone.

The black-green energy of her power continued to arc around her without solidifying as the contents of her stomach began violently heaving their way out of her mouth, spattering into the flag-scarf that covered the lower half of her face and overflowing onto the floor.  Regent had to roll to one side to avoid being bathed in vomit.

I took advantage of the distraction and brought every bug in the room down from the ceiling, sending a fair majority of them toward Armsmaster.  He swiped at his face to remove them, then lifted his weapon.  I grabbed for the pole with both hands before it could strike the ground, and pulled myself across the floor to situate my body between the pole and the ground.

It didn’t feel like I thought it might, the electrical charge.  As the end of the Halberd made contact with my body, it was as though someone had dropped a handful of live snakes onto my chest and they were writhing in place there, a single tendril rushing up the skin of my right arm and over my fingertips.  It didn’t hurt much at all.

And the bugs around Armsmaster didn’t die.  Very few of the ones on me, even, perished.

I’d known spider silk was insulated to some degree.  I was really glad that it was insulated enough.  Really, really glad my interference was enough to stop the energy from conducting through the area and zapping the bugs out of the air.

“Hm,” looming over me, Armsmaster made a noise of disapproval, “Not smart.”

“Bitch!  Dogs!” I hollered, “Grue!  Shadow me!”

Of all the times to lapse into caveman grammar.  Still, he smothered me and Armsmaster in darkness.

When Armsmaster managed to wrest the Halberd from my hands, I had enough bugs on him to tell he was bringing the bottom end of his Halberd down hard against the floor, away from me.  My bugs didn’t die, and continued to settle on the exposed skin of his lower face, crawl up under his visor.  The charge or whatever other stuff he had going on to direct it wasn’t conducting through the darkness.

Before he could strike at me, I headed in the other direction.  Staying in close proximity to Armsmaster wasn’t a good idea, with my power being one that worked at range, and him being the close-quarters combatant.  I felt him move away from me, clawing the bugs away from his mouth and nose, heading out the opposite side of the cloud of darkness to strike the ground, kill off the swarm I’d set on him and then turn his attention to the charging dogs.

I wasn’t two steps outside of the darkness when I had Velocity in my face.

Battery and Velocity were both speedsters of a sort, giving them the ability to move at a ridiculous pace.  They were very different kinds of speedster, though.  As I interpreted it, from all the stuff I’d read online and in the magazines and interviews, Battery could charge up and move at enhanced speeds for very short periods of time, sort of like how Bitch’s power pumped up her dogs, but concentrated into a few brief moments.  It was a physiological change, altering her biology and then altering it back before it became too much on her body.  The actual act of moving at the speeds these guys could manage was an incredible strain on the body.  There were only one or two parahumans on the planet who could manage that kind of movement without any workarounds or limitations, and Battery and Velocity weren’t among them.

Velocity, in contrast to Battery, was more like Shadow Stalker.  He changed states, and while I had no idea what this meant exactly, whether it was him shifting partially into another dimension or altering the way time or physics worked in relation to himself, I did know that it made him able to move very fast, without needing to rest like Battery did.  Fast enough that my wasps couldn’t really land on him, and those that did were dispatched before they could start stinging.

The drawback, though, was that while he was moving like that, he wasn’t hitting as hard, probably for the same reasons he wasn’t shattering his bones by hammering his feet against the ground ten times a second, getting torn to shreds by friction or running out of oxygen due to an inability to breathe.  His speed came with a reduced ability to affect the world around him and be affected by it.  He couldn’t hit as hard, couldn’t hold or move things as easily.  An effective loss of strength proportionate to how fast he was capable of moving.

So as fast as he was moving, having him hit me wasn’t much worse than getting punched by an eight year old.

Problem was, he was hitting me a lot.  His perceptions were ramped up, too, which meant he had the luxury of what must have been seconds in his own senses to see my reactions, calculate the best place to stick that next punch or kick to knock me off balance or inflict pain.  It was less like being in a fistfight and more like being caught in a gale-force wind that had every intent of screwing me over.

Velocity was forcing me to back up, stumble and overall just working to herd me in one direction – towards an open window.  Either he’d force me through and leave me hanging from the ledge, helpless to avoid arrest, or I’d have to give up or let myself be knocked to the ground instead, at which point it would be pretty much over.  Once I was down, he’d either keep up the onslaught until another cape could finish me off, or he’d turn off his power long enough to knock me over the head a few times with a chair or something.

Across the room, Grue was working with two of the dogs and Bitch to keep Armsmaster hemmed in, while one of the dogs and Regent were keeping Miss Militia out of action.

I couldn’t win this one on my own.

“Grue!” I hollered.  I got struck in the mouth three times before I could bring an arm up to fend Velocity off and speak again, “Need cover!”

He spared me a glance and a blast of his darkness.  In an instant, I was blind and deaf, with only my bugs to go by.

But Velocity was slowed down, and I had my suspicions that it wasn’t just the fact that he had to use his hands to find me before striking.  Grue had said that Shadow Stalker’s powers were somehow less effective in his darkness.  Could that apply to Velocity too?  Or was it just the extra resistance of Grue’s power versus normal air, combined with Velocity’s low strength?

My bugs were now successfully settling on him, oddly giving me a better sense of his movements than my eyes had, and I was directing them not to sting or bite, so he wouldn’t have an easy time finding them.  They began to cluster on him, and somehow I felt like that was slowing him down even more.

The onslaught had been softened, and he wasn’t half as effective at keeping me off balance, now.  He couldn’t effectively see my posture to know the optimal places to strike, so I was able to get my feet firmly on the ground.  I lashed out twice with my fists, but my hits lacked impact.  Something to do with his power, I suspected, as well as his ability to move fast enough to roll with any hits he felt connecting.

So I grabbed a weapon he couldn’t react to, my pepper spray, and directed a stream of it into his face.  Then I instructed the bugs I’d gathered on him to bite and sting.

The effect was immediate, and dramatic.  You’ve never really seen someone flip out until you’ve seen a speedster flip out.  He fell to the ground, stood, tumbled over a chair, then was up the next second, lunging for a table, blindly patting it down in the hopes of finding something to wash his eyes out with.  I felt him slow down dramatically, increasing his own strength enough to allow himself to check the cups and pitchers.

I had bugs on the table he was searching, and the only liquid there was wine.  Anticipating he would continue looking for some relief, I moved closer to the table nearest me.

Sure enough, he darted over to the same table and began searching.  I took one long step to my left, reached behind my back, and gripped the foam handle of my extendable baton with both hands.  Like a golf club, I swung it up and between his legs.

My rationale was that I needed to hamper his mobility, but I didn’t want to deliver any permanent injury, which was a possibility if I hit him in the knee or spine.  Besides, the Protectorate had top notch costume designers, and what male superhero with an expensive costume would go out without a cup?  Right?

Unless, the thought crossed my mind as Velocity keeled over, he’d foregone the cup for extra mobility and to reduce friction.

I’d find some way to make it up to him, after all of this was over with.

He pulled weakly against my grip as I brought his left arm and his right leg together, and cinched them together with a double-set of plastic handcuffs.  I then cuffed his right arm to the table in front of him.  Velocity was out of action, for all intents and purposes.

Though every impulse told me to get out of the darkness and get a look at what was going on, I stayed put, crouching and feeling out with my bugs.  With their legs and bodies serving as thousands upon thousands of tiny fingers I could use to feel out my surroundings, I got a sense of the situation.

Since doing whatever he’d done to Miss Militia, Regent had taken to standing guard over her.  He had one hand outstretched in her direction while she struggled on the floor, dry heaving now, with her limbs twitching.  Tattletale was with him, one hand still pressed to her stomach, but she was standing, watching the crowd for anyone who might step to Miss Militia’s rescue.

Which left only Armsmaster.  Except ‘only’ wasn’t the right word.  Bitch, her three dogs and Grue had Armsmaster surrounded, and even with that, I got the impression that he was in control of the situation.

He’d formed the head of his halberd into a loose ball again, and had the chain he used for the grappling hook extended partially so it could serve as a flail.  There was something of a stalemate as my teammates remained where they were, staying spaced out, just out of reach of the weapon.  Armsmaster, for his part, was standing in a loose fighting posture, holding the long pole of his Halberd as he swung the flail head in a loose figure eight.

Brutus growled at his quarry, moving a half step too close, and Armsmaster seized the opportunity.  The chain extended with a faint whirr and the flail moved with surprising quickness to collide with Brutus’ shoulder.  From Brutus’ reaction, I would have thought he’d just been hit by a wrecking ball.  Either Armsmaster was far stronger than he looked, or there was something about his weapon that was giving it a little extra oomph.  Given that he was a tinker, it could have been anything.

Armsmaster didn’t stop at felling Brutus.  As he finished giving the ball the necessary momentum, Armsmaster reversed his grip and lunged at Grue, swinging the bottom end of his weapon like a baseball bat.  Grue avoided the swing by stepping back and ducking, but wasn’t able to recover quick enough to avoid the follow-up.  Armsmaster kept moving forward, not pausing as he slapped the end of the pole back into one of his hands and rammed the midsection of the pole against Grue’s chest, hard.  Grue hit the ground with enough force that he almost bounced, and was driven hard into the ground a second time as Armsmaster brought the end of the pole down into his stomach.

Without thinking, I stepped forward out of the darkness, then stopped myself.  What help could I offer by jumping in there?

Bitch whistled for a dog to attack, but Armsmaster was already reacting, drawing his elbow against the chain to control the movement of the flail’s head.  He dropped the pole and grabbed the chain to pull the ball towards himself, caught it out of the air with his free hand and turning in a tight circle to preserve the momentum from flail-head’s flight, slammed it full force into Angelica’s ear.  Bitch had to skip back out of the way as Angelica collapsed to the ground where she’d been standing.

Without glancing down, Armsmaster put one armored boot underneath the pole as it rebounded against the ground, then kicked it straight up to chest level.  He caught his weapon in one hand and reeled in the chain.  The flail-head snapped back into a blade shape as it reconnected with the top of the pole.

Two dogs and Grue down, and he’d made it look effortless.

It struck me just what made Armsmaster a step above other tinkers, above other people with the ability to invent and perform mad science, and it wasn’t the insane amounts of training he had probably put himself through.  Tinkers tended to have a knack, a special quality specific to their work.  According to Tattletale, Armsmaster’s ability let him cram technology together and still have it work.  Other tinkers were limited in what they could carry and have access to at any given point in time, but Armsmaster?  He had a solution for every problem he’d been able to think of, without having to worry about economy of space, the weight of his hardware and the room on his utility belt, or whatever.  And with all of that, his main gear, his armor and Halberd, were still devastating and completely reliable in their own right.

While Armsmaster had his back turned to her, I saw Tattletale step to one side, surreptitiously.

Judas lunged, and in the same moment Armsmaster reacted, Tattletale made a move for the crowd, drawing her gun.

I glanced towards Armsmaster, and my view of him was blocked as Judas collapsed to the ground between us.  Through my bugs, I sensed him extend his weapon towards Tattletale, felt the recoil as the head of it rocketed off.  The grappling hook caught her gun hand with enough force to screw up her aim, and the tines of the hook closed around her arm.

He reeled in the chain at the same time he pulled it back toward him, and in doing so, flung Tattletale across the floor.  The tines let her go just in time to send her careening into one of the flimsy cocktail tables.  Armsmaster jerked the pole of his weapon to control the flight of the hook as it reeled back in, striking Tattletale’s gun out of the air and shattering it into pieces.

“No hostages,” he said, “No guns.”

Grue started to stand, fell, then managed to stand successfully on his second try.  The three dogs Armsmaster had dropped were taking longer to get upright.  Angelica shook her head violently, twice, paused, then did it again.

Armsmaster looked at Bitch, then slapped the pole of his weapon against the palm of his armored glove.

“Rachel Lindt, AKA: Hellhound.”

“Armsmaster, AKA: dickhole,” Bitch retorted.

“If this goes any further, I can’t promise those animals of yours won’t suffer permanent damage.”

I could see her eyes move behind the eyeholes of her mask as she cast a sidelong glance to her left to look at Brutus, then to her right, at Angelica.  Then she met his gaze, “You do lasting damage to any of them, we’ll find you and do ten times worse to you.  Trust me, old man, they know your smell, we can track you down.”

Again, the pole slapping against his glove with a sound of metal against metal.

His tone was measured as he asked her, “Why risk it?  You’ve already lost.  We had enough footage of your dogs that I was able to put together a simulation of their fighting patterns.  I know how they attack, how they react.  I know how you think in a fight, the commands you give, and when.  All of that is wired into my suit, into my heads up display.  I know what you and your beasts are going to do before you’ve decided on it.  None of you are walking away.”

“It’s not just me and the dogs,” Bitch spoke.

“Your friends?  I may not have a simulation set up for him, but I’m better than your leader, Grue.  Stronger, better armored, better equipped, better trained.  If your friend Regent turns his attention from Miss Militia for more than twenty seconds, she will shoot one or all of you, not that he could do anything to me if he bothered.  Tattletale?  Unconscious.  Skitter?  Not a threat.”

What was he doing?  Why was he so focused on getting Bitch to admit it was over?

Reputation, yet again.  He needed to salvage this situation, and the surest way to do that, to recoup his losses and come out of this looking okay, would be to get the meanest, toughest, most notorious of us to bend at the knee and concede defeat.

He really didn’t know Bitch, though.

She pulled her cheap plastic dog mask off and threw it to one side.  It was only a formality, really, since her face and identity were public knowledge.  Her smile, as it spread across her face, wasn’t the most attractive.  Too many teeth showing.

“Lung underestimated her, too,” she told him, looking at me.

Armsmaster turned to look, as well.

Seriously?  I mean, really, Bitch?  Passing the ball to me?  I didn’t have a plan.  There wasn’t much I could do, here.

“Velocity?”  Armsmaster queried me, casual.

I shrugged, miming his casual tone, while feeling anything but, “Dealt with.”

“Hm.  I think-”

As he spoke, I faced Grue and jerked my head in Armsmaster’s direction.  Armsmaster wasn’t oblivious, and took my cue as reason to drop into a fighting posture.  There was nothing he could really defend against, though, as Grue shrouded the two of us in darkness a second time.

The worst possiblity, that Armsmaster would tell the Undersiders what I was planning, was dealt with for the moment.  I doubted Armsmaster would continue to talk while under the effects of Grue’s power.

Which left me the problem of dealing with the guy.  I could sense the bugs I had on him moving, as he came through the darkness, towards me.  At the very least, if I could draw him away from the others, I could buy them time.

I ran for the glass door that led to one of the outside patios.  I glanced over my shoulder, and sure enough, I saw Armsmaster emerging from the cloud of oily shadow.  He spun on his heels to swing his flail into Judas, bringing the dog down as it emerged right after him, then whirled to face me again.  As I got outside, the chain reeled in, bringing the flail head back to the top of the weapon.  He paused.

Why?  There was only one reason he’d be staying back and reeling in like that, instead of closing the distance to get me in his reach.

I took a guess.  Knowing that the attack would come faster than I expected, from what had happened to Tattletale on the two occasions, I threw myself to the floor of the patio.

The ball came flying out of the end of his weapon, but my attempt to dodge did little good.  He whipped the chain to shift the sphere’s trajectory, and simultaneously opened it into its oversized grappling hook form.  The thing hit me in my side, with the tines passing over each of my shoulders and under my armpits.  I grunted with the impact, and as I tried to stand, I nearly slipped on the excess chain that spooled around me in the grappling hook’s wake.  I felt the claw of the hook tighten around my chest.

On the far side of the patio, Armsmaster planted his feet and raised his weapon to start reeling me in.

No, no, no, no, no.

I was not going down like this.

Not with Emma fucking Barnes and her asshole lawyer dad in the crowd.

I started to gather my bugs from inside, but stopped.  No use bringing them here, when Armsmaster could murder half the swarm with that souped up bug zapper he’d worked into his Halberd.  I moved my bugs into position indoors.

Still shaky from the hit, thankful for the armor I’d built into my costume, I managed to grab the excess chain below me and wind it around the patio’s railing behind me.  If Armsmaster wanted me, he’d have to come to me, dammit.  I wasn’t going to make this easy.

The chain grew taut, and Armsmaster tugged twice before deciding it would be less trouble to approach than to add to the property damage.  He closed the distance to me on foot, pausing only to free his chain from the patio railing.  He reeled in his chain to pull me the remaining two or three feet to him.

“Skitter.  I would have thought you would be quicker to surrender.”

Nobody else was in earshot.  “Whatever side I’m on, I don’t exactly want to go to jail.  Look, my offer stands.  I’ve almost got the last bit of detail I need from these guys.”

“Something you said you’d have weeks ago,” he replied.

“There’s no other way you’re going to salvage this, Armsmaster,” I stood as straight as I could with the grappling hook around me.  The damned thing was heavy.  Tattletale had gone out of her way, even got herself knocked out of action, to let us know how important Armsmaster’s status was to him.  I needed to use that.  “Only way you won’t look incompetent is if you can say I only got away because you let me.  That all of this tonight happened because you let it.  Because letting me get away with this meant I could get the info on who’s employing the Undersiders, on where the funding, equipment and information is coming from.  Then you clean up, and it’s two supervillain groups dealt with in the span of a week.  Tell me that doesn’t sound good.”

Armsmaster considered for a moment.

“No,” he answered me.


“Don’t expect anything other than a prompt arrest for you and your companions for your antics tonight,” he shook his head, “A bird in the hand, after all…”

He gave me a little shake, as if to make it clear just who the bird was.

I took a deep breath, “You were right, Armsmaster.”

“Of course,” he spoke, absently, pushing me against the railing with one hand.  His grappling hook released me, reconfiguring into what I suspected was the same setup that had fixed Lung to the ground with bars of stainless steel, back in my first day in costume.  It was shaped like a rectangle, and there were two ‘u’ shaped bands of metal with electricity arcing around them, the tips of each ‘u’ glowing hot enough to melt against any surface.

“This was over from the moment we stepped into the room,” I finished.

Nearly seven hundred hornets exploded from underneath my panels of armor, all latching onto him, biting and stinging relentlessly, flowing underneath his visor, into his helmet, his nose, mouth and ears.  Some even crawled down beneath his collar, to his shoulders and chest.

I threw myself at the tail end of his Halberd, hugging my body around it.  With one hand he lifted me and the Halberd both, and slammed us against the ground.  Again, I felt those tendrils of electricity running over me, on top of the pain of having my stomach caught between the pole and the ground.  I was very thankful, the second time tonight, for the panels of armor I’d implemented into my costume design.

He repeated the process, lifting me two or three feet off the ground, then slamming the pole and me down again.  After the second time, I had to fight to place myself beneath the pole again in anticipation of a third hit, knowing he would weather the onslaught of hornets longer than I did this abuse.

Rescue couldn’t have come a second later.

Bitch, an unconscious Tattletale and Brutus were the first ones over the edge of the patio.  Brutus bumped against Armsmaster as he passed, knocking the man off balance and giving me the chance I needed to heave myself upright and pull the Halberd from his grasp.  I held it in my hands, and he was too distracted by the swarming hornets to even realize it.

I threw the Halberd over the edge of the patio and ran toward the door leading back inside.  I caught Grue’s reaching hand as he and Judas bounded through, so he could swing me up behind him.

As we leaped from the patio’s edge, I looked behind us and saw Angelica and Regent following.  Grue was banishing his darkness, to make the mess we’d created all the more clear for those of our audience that hadn’t yet managed to flee.  Our objective was to humiliate, after all.

For much the same reason, maybe as a bit of a spiteful ‘fuck you’ to Armsmaster, who’d made this all so much harder than it had to be, I left my bugs where they were, arranged on the wall to the right of the patio and the floor in front of it.  Half were gathered into the shape of two large arrows pointing to the patio door, one on the floor and one on the wall, while the other half were arranged into bold letters spelling out ‘LETS GO’.

I wrapped my arms around Grue, holding him tight as much in anticipation of our landing on a nearby rooftop as a farewell hug.

Chances were good that this was my last job as part of the Undersiders.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Tangle 6.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

My legs hugged the sides of Judas’ body.  I could feel his breathing beneath me, the expansion of his body as his lungs filled, then emptied.  He huffed out a breath, and it steamed in the cool night air.

He stepped forward, just a little, and I got a glimpse of the world below us.  Thirty two stories down, the cars on the street were visible only by the yellow and red points of their headlights and taillights.  I felt Tattletale clutch me tighter, from where she sat behind me.  Judas’ front paw rested on the stone railing of the rooftop, clutched it hard enough that the points of his nails bit into the concrete.

Getting up here had been easy enough – Tattletale had cracked the employee access door and we’d taken the supply elevator to the roof.  Had someone been alerted to our presence?  Spotted us on camera?  Hard to say.  But time was short, and we’d already wasted enough time waiting for the dogs to finish growing.  The moment Bitch deemed them set, we would move out.

This plan had been terrifying when we’d just been talking about it.  Actually being on the verge of doing it?  Ten times worse.

Still time to think of a reason to back out.

Bitch’s whistle, one of those ones that make you wince when you hear them a hundred feet away, cut through the faint, ambient hum of the city below us.

Last chance, Taylor.

A second later, Brutus, with Bitch and Grue astride his back, stepped over the edge of the roof.  Judas shifted forward under me, then followed.

Falling from a height like that, you don’t get to scream.  The wind takes your voice from you.  If you happen to have something to hold onto, you cling to that for dear life and you pray, even if you aren’t a praying type.  My hands clutched hooks of bone on either side of Judas’ neck hard enough that I thought I might break either the bone or my hands.

Three stories down from the roof, there was a patio.  As Bitch whistled and pointed from her position below us, Judas kicked against the wall just behind us, pushing out and away from the building.  My heart rose into my throat and stuck there as I saw the edge of the patio below us, surely out of reach.  Had he pushed too early?  The next chance we’d have to touch a surface would be when we spattered violently against the road.

His instincts seemed to be better than mine.  His front claws reached down and gripped the patio’s edge.  Every muscle in my body tensed in my effort to not be thrown off him as we stopped, even with his powerful body absorbing the worst of the fall.  He gripped the ledge, then pushed against it while leveraging his back legs into place.  With every muscle in his body, it seemed, he leaped.  Not down, this time, but out.

Time seemed to stand still as we left the building behind.  The only thing below us was the street, twenty-nine stories below. The wind blew through my hair with a painful bite of cold. We’d crossed the event horizon, it was do or die from here on out.  That made it eerily easy to cast aside all doubts and hesitation and steel myself for what came next.

The Forsberg Gallery was twenty six stories tall and was one of the more recognizable buildings you could find downtown.  If I remembered right, it had been designed by Architecture students at the university, a few years ago.  I wasn’t really a fan of the design, which resembled the late stages of a game of Jenga, with each section formed in tempered glass with steel bars and girders providing the base skeleton.  The entire thing was illuminated by lights that changed according to the time of the evening.

In the blue-gray of the evening, the tower was pink and orange, echoing the sunset that had finished just an hour ago.  As the leap carried us over it, a pink tinted spotlight consumed my vision.

My lenses absorbed the worst of the glare, and a second later, I was able to make out what was happening again.  Brutus, a matter of feet in front of us, slammed into the glass of the roof, sending cracks spiderwebbing across it.  Grue virtually bounced from where he sat on Brutus’ back, losing his seat, hit the glass of the roof with his shoulder, and began to slide.  There was barely any traction to be had, not even on the steel girder that separated the massive panes of glass, and the only thing at the end of that slide would be a very long fall.

He reached out and grabbed ahold of the end of Brutus’ tail, pulling himself to a standing position at the same moment that Judas, Tattletale and I crashed into the pane of glass to their right.

The damage Brutus had done on impact was enough to ensure that we could break through rather than simply breaking the window.  There was a moment where you could hear the sound of straining metal, followed by the sound of a lot of shattering glass.

Together we all dropped into the center of the Forsberg Gallery’s top floor, joined by a downpour of glass shards.  Grue landed on his feet and stumbled back as Brutus landed just in front of him.  All around us, there were people in fancy dress and uniforms.  Suits, dresses… costumes.  People ran screaming and running for cover.  Heroes stepped forward, some trying to grasp the situation in the midst of the chaos, others putting themselves between us and the civilians.

A matter of heartbeats after we touched ground, Regent and Angelica plunged into the room, landing just behind us.  Regent lost his seat as Angelica landed, but managed to roll as he hit the ground, bringing himself to a crouch as he stopped.  He almost managed to make it look intentional.  Angelica stepped up to Bitch’s side, wearing the same harness we’d fitted her with at the bank robbery, but with two large cardboard boxes strapped to her sides, rather than bags.

I felt weirdly calm as my eyes swept over the room.  The Protectorate was gathered around the stage at the back of the room.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia, Assault, Battery, Velocity and Triumph.  Dauntless was MIA.

Not far away was the ‘kids’ table with some of the heroes of the hour.  Clockblocker, Vista, Gallant and Shadow Stalker, interrupted from their mingling with the rich kids, teen actors and the sons and daughters of the local who’s who.  The platinum blonde in the white evening gown that was giving me the evil eye?  That would be Glory Girl, out of costume.

Standing guard by the front of the room, raising their weapons in our direction, was an on-duty PRT squad.  Their very recognizable uniforms were chain mesh augmented with kevlar, topped with faceless helmets.  The only means you had to identify them with were the badge numbers printed across their vests in bold white numbers.   Four of the five had what looked like flamethrowers.  They weren’t firing yet – they couldn’t.  They were packing the best in nonlethal weaponry, but there were elderly people and children in the crowd, and according to Tattletale, that meant they were prohibited from opening fire on us for the moment.

The civilians… men and women in their finest clothes and jewelry.  A combination of the richest and most powerful people in the city, their guests and those willing to pay the exorbitant prices for the tickets.  The tickets started at two hundred and thirty dollars and had climbed steeply as they’d been bought up.  We’d initially considered attending as guests, for one plan of attack, before we decided that it was too dangerous to risk having our secret identities caught on camera, or to have something go wrong as we attempted to smuggle our equipment, costumes and dogs inside.  Once we’d decided that much, we’d stopped checking the cost of tickets, which had gotten as high as four hundred dollars a person.  The guests could use thirty dollars of the ticket price to bid on an auction, but it was still pretty exorbitant.

I recognized the mayor – the first time I’d seen him in person.  There was a guy who might have been a lesser known actor – I thought I recognized him, too.  The rest were just people, maybe a bit better looking than the norm, a bit better dressed.

And Emma.

I could have laughed.  She was standing there in the crowd with her parents and older sister, looking scared shitless in a little sky blue dress and blue sandals. Her dad was a high profile divorce lawyer.  I supposed it was possible he’d worked for someone famous or powerful enough that his family hadn’t needed an invitation or expensive tickets to get in.

It kind of sucked, knowing I was about to give her an awesome story to share with the rest of the school when her suspension was over with.  I was really, really hoping it wouldn’t be a story along the lines of ‘these idiotic villains just pulled a stunt so dumb it would put Über and Leet to shame, and got themselves arrested in a matter of seconds’.

Tattletale laughed, with a nervous edge, “Holy shit!  Not doing that again!  Fucking intense…” Her voice trailed off as Grue blacked out the crowd, leaving only the spot where we stood and the very edges of the room clear of the darkness.  She gave him a dirty look.

“Bitch, Regent, go!” He shouted, as he stepped my way, grabbed my hand and practically pulled me from where I sat on Judas’ back.  Tattletale hopped down, following a pace or two behind us.

The three of us ran for the front of the room, while Bitch whistled for her dogs and ran for the back.  I sensed it when Regent unhitched the two boxes that were strapped to Angelica.  The boxes were heavy and  hit the ground hard, splitting at the seams.  Better than I’d hoped.  I had my bugs flow out from the top of the box and the split sides, and ordered them into the crowd.

If a few more of the biting and stinging sort headed in Emma’s general direction, it wasn’t due to a conscious choice on my part.

If everything went according to plan, Bitch, Regent and the dogs could delay or stop anyone who ventured beyond the cloud of darkness.  Everything else, our success or our humiliating arrest, hinged on Grue, Tattletale and I.

My bugs reached the front of the room just seconds before we did.  I could sense their locations, and this in turn gave me the ability to identify where the people, the walls, doorway and furniture were.

I was moving with my knife drawn before Grue even banished some of his darkness to reveal a portion of the PRT squad that was stationed at the entrance.  As the cloud of black dissipated into tendrils of smoke, I was stepping behind one of the team members, drawing my knife against the hose that extended between the flamethrower-like device he held in his hands and the tank on his back.  It didn’t cut immediately, forcing me to try a second time.  As the knife severed the material of the hose, the PRT team member noticed me and drove his elbow into my face.  My mask took the worst of the hit, but getting hit in the face by a full grown man isn’t any fun with any amount of protective headwear.

I fell back through the doorway even as the tank began emptying its contents onto the floor.  It was a yellow-white, and as it poured onto the ground, it expanded like shaving cream.  The tank was probably close to three gallons, making for a hell of a lot of foam.

Grue leveraged all of his weight to bodily kick one of the squad members into the foam, then slammed the base of his palm into the next guy’s chin.  As the man reeled, Grue grabbed at the tank on his back and pulled it up over his head.  This not only pulled the man off balance, but the weight of the tank kept him that way.  Grue, his hands still on the tank, pulled the squad member’s helmeted face down at the same time he brought his knee up.  The pane of the helmet cracked, and the man didn’t even have the wherewithal to bring his hands up to soften the fall before hitting the ground.

A fourth squad member stepped out of the darkness, and Tattletale took hold of the nozzle of the man’s weapon, forcing it to one side before he could open fire.  I scrambled to my feet to help her.  As Tattletale began to lose the wrestling match over the weapon, I leaped over the still-expanding pile of foam, then went low as I landed to knock his legs out from under him.  He fell, hard, and Tattletale wrenched the weapon from his hands.  As he climbed to his feet, she pulled the trigger and blasted him in the face.  Grue banished enough darkness to reveal the final member of the team, and Tattletale buried him under a blasting of the foam.

I’d watched a discovery channel feature on this stuff.  The PRT, the Parahuman Response Team, was equipped with tinker-designed nonlethal weaponry to subdue supervillains.  This containment foam was standard issue.  It ejected as a liquid, then expanded into a sticky foam with a few handy properties.  It was flexible and it was porous when fully expanded, for one thing, so you could breathe while contained within it, at least long enough for rescue teams with a dissolving agent to get to you.  It was also impact resistant, so PRT squads could coat the ground with it to save falling individuals or keep heavy hitters from doing much damage.

The way it expanded, you could coat all but the strongest villains in it, and it would disable them.  Because of the way it denied you leverage and was resistant to impacts and tearing, even the likes of Lung would have trouble pulling themselves free.  Topping it all off, it was resistant to high temperatures and a strong insulator, so it served to handle the pyrokinetics and those with electromagnetic powers.

While the PRT member struggled ineffectually to remove his foam-covered helmet, I pulled the tank off him and helped Tattletale put it on.  Grue already had his on, and was getting a third one off one of the foam-captured PRT team members for me.

It was heavy, and I almost couldn’t handle the weight.  Rather than stagger around, I crouched and let the base of the tank rest against the ground.

Grue pointed to our left, and we aimed.  A second later, he made the darkness dissipate, showing the buffet table surrounded by the various Wards and Glory Girl flying a few feet above the ground.  They were swatting at the bugs crawling on them, but they weren’t so distracted that they didn’t notice the sudden emergence of light, or us.

“Glory Hole!” Tattletale heckled the heroine, before opening fire on her.  Grue directed a stream at Clockblocker, to the left, so I turned my attention to the person on the far right of the group.  Shadow Stalker.

I admit, I had a reason to be ticked at her, since she wrote a note for Emma’s dad, giving him fuel for that damned assault charge.  It was with a measure of satisfaction that I unloaded a stream of foam on her.

The stream was dead on, but she didn’t seem to give much of a damn as she evaded to one side.  I caught her square in the chest with another spurt, making her stagger a bit, but she didn’t fall or get caught in the stuff like the others.  Instead, she sort of ducked low, her cape billowing, and then rolled to one side, readying her crossbow as her feet touched the ground and she shifted to an all-out run.

Whether that was a tranquilizer shot or a real arrow, I was fucked if she hit me.

I went wide with my stream, aiming to catch her a little and either slow her down or mess up her aim.  She stepped on a bit of foam and was tripped up a little.  Tattletale added her firepower to mine, and with our combined streams, Shadow Stalker fell.  We took a second to bury her under the foam, and Grue added a measure of darkness to it.

“Next!” Grue hollered, pointing.  I hauled the heavy tank off the ground and moved closer to our next target before putting it down again and aiming.

This time, I deliberately moved a force of bugs into the area for some extra distraction.  The darkness dissipated, and it was the Protectorate this time, half of them.  Battery, Assault, and Triumph.

Battery was already charged up when Grue dismissed the impenetrable shadow that had covered them, and moved like a blur as soon as she could see where she was going.  She didn’t bolt straight for us, though.  Instead, she leaped to one side, kicked Assault square in the middle of the chest with both feet, and then careened off in the opposite direction.

Assault was a kinetic energy manipulator, and could control the energies of movement, acceleration and motion much like other heroes could manipulate flame or electricity.  He used the energy from Battery’s kick to rocket towards us, as Battery moved around to flank.

Grue directed a stream straight at Assault, but the first second of fire seemed to skim right off the man.  It did start taking hold after that, but the delayed effects gave Assault just enough time to slam into Grue and send him flying into the wall beside the Wards.  After that, the expansion of the foam kept him from moving much further.

Tattletale and I focused our fire on Battery.  The woman ducked and dodged out of the way of our streams, moving too fast to follow reliably with our eyes.  She seemed to stumble into a cocktail table, one of those round ones large enough for four people to stand around, but any clumsiness on her part was an illusion of the eye.  A heartbeat later, she had the table in her grip and was spinning in a full circle.

She threw the table like an oversize frisbee, and I pushed Tattletale in one direction as I flung myself in the other.  The table edge caught the weapon in Tattletale’s hands and knocked it from her grip with enough force to make Tattletale roll as she hit the ground.

Which left only me standing, against Triumph and Battery.  Armsmaster, Miss Militia and Velocity were nowhere to be seen.  I could have used my bugs to feel out for them in the darkness, but I had more pressing matters to focus on.

Battery was charging again, taking advantage of us being off balance to build up a store of power again.  Heck, she’d probably built her whole fighting style around it.  I could see the normally cobalt blue lines of her costume glowing a brilliant electric blue-white.  I focused my attention on her, drawing every bug in the immediate area to her while I tried to get myself oriented to open fire again.  Wasps, mosquitos and beetles set on her, biting and stinging.

For just a fraction of a second, I saw the glow of the lines of her costume dim, before igniting again.  She needed to concentrate, it seemed, and my bugs had served to distract.  As I pulled myself upright and opened fire, she was a step too slow in getting out of the way of the stream.  I caught her under the spray and started piling it on top of her.

A shockwave blasted me.  I was knocked off my feet for the second time in a matter of seconds and my ears were left ringing.

Triumph had a gladiator/lion theme to his costume, with a gold lion helm, shoulderpads and belt, and skintight suit elsewhere.  He had managed to claw enough bugs away from his face to use his sonic shout.  He was one of those guys that was big, muscular and tough enough that you’d avoid him even if he didn’t have that other power, and his other power was one that let him punch holes through concrete.

Grue aimed and fired a stream at him, but Triumph was surprisingly quick in slipping out of the way.  As Grue reoriented his aim, Triumph kicked over a cocktail table and grabbed it with one hand to use as a shield against the foam.  I tried to scramble to one side, to attack him from another direction, but he opened his mouth and unleashed another shockwave that sent me skidding across the floor, dangerously close to the piles of foam that had the Wards trapped.  As I tried to raise my nozzle in his direction to spray more containment foam at him, my vision swam and I saw double, and a high pitched whine threatened to drown out everything else.  I lowered the weapon, sent more bugs his way and focused on regaining my senses.

“Here!” Grue hollered.  He raised his hand.  Triumph inhaled, gearing up for another blast-

And Brutus barreled through the corridor Grue had parted through in the darkness to slam into Triumph like a charging bull.

Maybe a little harder than I would have hit the guy, had I been the humvee sized monster making the call.  Still, you couldn’t fault a dog for not knowing.

Just to my left, Shadow Stalker pulled her upper body free of the goop and began the slow process of working her crossbow free.  Not normally possible, but her ability to go into a shadow state apparently made her more slippery than most.

“No,” I growled at her. “Stay down.”  I buried her under more foam.

I pulled myself to my feet, wobbled, straightened up, wobbled some more, and then worked on keeping my balance.

“Skitter!” Grue roared, “Move!”

I didn’t waste any time in throwing myself to the ground.  Out of the corner of my eye, I only saw a blur of blue and silver where I’d been standing.

I had to flop over onto my back to see Armsmaster standing six feet away from me, leveling the blade of his Halberd in my direction.  The silver of his visor made precious little of his expression visible.  All I could see was the thin, hard line of his mouth.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, quiet enough that I was pretty sure Tattletale and Grue wouldn’t catch it.  I aimed his way with the foam sprayer.

In a flash, he whipped his weapon around so the butt end was facing me.  There was a muffled ‘whump’ sound, and I felt something like a wave of intensely hot air that made every hair on my arms, legs and the back of my neck stand on end.  I realized the trigger of the containment foam sprayer was depressed and nothing was coming out of the end of the weapon.  I tried again.  Nothing.

That would be an electromagnetic pulse screwing up the machinery.  Fuck.

Before I could organize my thoughts and warn Grue and Tattletale, Armsmaster flipped the weapon around in his hands like you saw military cadets doing with their guns during a march.  As it whirled around him, I heard that ‘whump’ sound twice in quick succession.

Somehow, I doubted he’d missed them.

“Call off your mutant,” he spoke, in that kind of voice that people obeyed.  “I promise you, it would only get hurt if it attacked me, and I’d rather not subject an animal to that, when it’s the master that’s to blame.”

“Bitch!” Grue called, “Call him off.  He’s right.”

From a point I couldn’t see, Bitch whistled.  Brutus moved back through the corridor Grue had made to rejoin her.

“You were moving like you could see in my darkness,” Grue spoke, a note of wariness in his echoing voice.

“I’ve studied your powers,” Armsmaster told us, tapping the butt of his weapon on the ground.  Every bug within fifteen feet of him dropped out of the sky, dead.  “This was over from the moment you stepped into the room.”

Miss Militia stepped out of the darkness beside the stage, with what looked like a machine gun in her hands, Regent as her hostage.  He didn’t have his scepter.


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Tangle 6.4

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“Thanks to a concerted effort by members of Brockton Bay’s Wards and Protectorate teams, the local gang, the ‘ABB’, or Azn Bad Boys, has fallen.”

Brian and I had arrived at the loft just in time to catch the bulletin on the news.  Lisa, Alec, Bitch and the three dogs were gathered on the couches.

“The heroes of the hour are the young members of the Wards, Clockblocker and Vista, who played a pivotal role in managing a crisis with a superbomb, allegedly used by the supervillain Bakuda in an attempt to hold the city ransom and guarantee her safety.  While experts on the scene refused to offer hard numbers, a local cape was quoted as stating the superbomb could have had a yield of nine thousand kilotons of energy.  This device, containing power on par with conventional nuclear bombs, was fashioned with household materials scavenged from the area, after fighting in the Docks and pressure from local authorities forced the bomb’s alleged creator to relocate to a derelict boathouse just days ago.  Were it not for the efforts of the Wards, this might have been a tragic day for our nation.

“As much as we might wish for a period of somber reflection, other local villains have shown little interest in putting recent matters to rest.  Less than an hour after suspected ABB leader Lung and alleged accomplice Bakuda were brought into custody, the head offices of Medhall Corporation were assaulted by armed forces, in an altercation that drew the attention of members of local Aryan villain group Empire Eighty-Eight.  This appears to have prompted a rash of more than six major incidents in the past hour-”

Lisa muted the TV, turning around on the couch to look at Brian and me.  “I’ll give you the cliff notes.  The Travelers just hit an art gallery and an airport in the span of an hour.  Coil and Empire Eighty Eight are apparently trying to make up for lost time and are just a hair away from open warfare on the streets.  The Merchants – Skidmark’s group – are taking advantage of the chaos and trying to do what the ABB did, but with local drugheads and hobos and zero control over their situation… they won’t get far, but I’m sure they’re having a grand old looting spree.”

“So the ceasefire is over,” I spoke.  Weren’t things supposed to get better with the ABB gone?  Why did I feel partially responsible for this?

“It’s like everyone was poised at the starting line, ready to move the instant the gun fired,” Alec said.

“Except us,” Brian pointed out.

“Not necessarily,” Lisa shook her head, “Five minutes after Medhall got hit, we got a message from the boss.  He’s got a job he wants us to do, maybe our biggest yet, but the timeline’s short.  It’s why I called you here.”

Brian folded his arms.

“Here’s the thing,” she said, “Morale is down.  The city is spooked, and things aren’t calming down the way people were hoping they would.  The fact that we all dodged a bullet with this superbomb thing?  It didn’t help.”

She typed on her laptop while she talked, “Topping it off, it doesn’t look good when the local news gets wind of the fact that a large part of the fighting against the ABB was being done by villains.  Get my drift?  So with the idea that they were planning a fundraiser around now anyways, the mayor’s promoting a function to help sell the idea that it was the good guys that were the major players here.  End result?  A fundraiser-slash-celebration involving the Protectorate, Wards, the PRT forces, cops and all those guys.  Tonight.  Most of the Wards and New Wave are gonna pick up the slack in the meantime, to keep the city protected, because the mayor’s prioritizing PR here.”

“I’m not liking the direction this is going, here,” I told her.

She picked up her laptop and set it on the back of the couch, facing me and Brian.  The page showed details on the celebration, had links to ticket vendors and sported an image of a bunch of people in tuxedos and gowns.   “The Protectorate and some of the Wards are going to be there with the upper crust of Brockton Bay, their friends and family, and anyone else willing to shell out the cash for a ticket.  The boss wants us to, quote, ’embarrass them’, unquote.”

There was something of a stunned silence.  I glanced at Bitch and Alec, and gathered from their expressions that they had already heard this.  In contrast to the situation we’d had with the bank robbery, though, they didn’t look all that keen.

Brian started chuckling.  After a bit, his chuckle became an all-out laugh.

I didn’t wait for him to finish before I said my piece, “Are you insane?  You want us to, what, crash a party, fuck with the people there and then scram before we get ourselves arrested by the-” I struggled to find the words, “By half the fucking heroes in Brockton Bay?!”

“Basically.”  Lisa said, raising her hands as if to get me to calm down, “Though it’s probably more like a third of the city’s heroes.”

“Right,” I said, “No offense, Lisa, I’m fond of you and everything, but you kind of underestimated the number of heroes that would show up to the bank robbery, too.  Don’t forget that a bunch of heroes came from out of town to help with the ABB situation, and they might stick around for the after-party.”

“True,” she admitted, “But still-”

“And the plan is to piss them off?” I asked, incredulous, “Not just them, either, but that party’s probably going to be attended by the mayor, the DA, the police chief… You’re aware that if we tried this and any of us got caught, it would pretty much be a first class trip to the Birdcage?”

“Sorry, Lise, this is a no,” Brian told her, still looking amused, “I’m perfectly cool with letting all the other groups go at it for a bit.  We did our part, and we’ve got nothing to lose in kicking back for a little while.”

“Yeah.  I don’t get the point,” Bitch said, scratching the top of Brutus’ head.

“You won’t find anyone more willing to get a little crazy than me,” Alec told Lisa, “But I’m with Bitch.  It’s a whole lot of risk, a whole lot of trouble.  For what?  Tweaking the good guys’ noses?”

“The boss is willing to pay,” Lisa said.  “With other considerations.”

“Considerations?” I asked.

“You have to understand,” Lisa sighed, “I don’t disagree with what you guys are saying, but what I can tell you is that this is a test.  The boss wants to see if we can pull this off, and if we can, we’re that much more valuable to him.  A lot more valuable.”

“Or maybe the test is whether we’re smart enough to turn down a doomed mission,” Brian pointed out.

“Maybe,” Lisa conceded, “I don’t think so, but I won’t deny that it’s possible.”

Brian asked her, “Can we turn this down?  I mean, he’s never forced us to take a job.”

“We could,” she didn’t look happy.

He frowned, “I think it’s four votes against, at the very least.  I’m assuming you’re going to vote for this plan, Lise?”

“Yeah,” she replied.

“Well, unless we’ve switched from a majority vote system, I guess you can tell the boss ‘thank you, but no’,” he said.  When she didn’t reply, he turned to me, “Want to see about putting that kitchen table and bedside table together?  I can treat you to a late lunch, if-”

“Two hundred and fifty!” Lisa interrupted him.

He gave her a look, “Two hundred and fifty…”

“Thousand,” she finished for him, dropping her arms to her side, almost defeated.  “Each.  Damn it.  I wanted to get you guys on board before I wowed you with the amount.  Sounds desperate when I say it like this, but I can’t let you walk away without letting you know what we’d be turning down.”

The sum gave us pause.

“Just to be clear… One million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, divided five ways,” Alec said, “For this?”

“Like I said,” Lisa smiled a little, “Biggest job yet.”

“If the boss offered us a quarter million dollars each to walk up to those guys and turn ourselves in, it wouldn’t be that different a scenario,” I pointed out.

“Sure it would,” Lisa retorted, “We actually have a chance at getting through this, free and clear.”

“A very, very small chance,” I pointed out.

“A chance,” she said.  “But if we do this?  If we prove to the boss that we’re worth his while?  We move up.  We get more money, we get more equipment, information, we get a voice as far as shaping his long term plans, all of which may translate to more respect in the cape community.”

“A voice?” I asked, “What do you mean?”

“Meeting with him, discussing what we do next, and why.”

My mind started racing with the implications of this.

“I’m changing my vote,” Alec said, “This much money, it sort of solves the problem I had with the job, which was that it was sort of pointless.  A quarter million dollars is pretty pointy.”

“Two for, three against,” Lisa said.  “Bitch?”

Bitch scowled, “Let me think.”

This was a chance to meet our employer, in the not too distant future.  Question was – did I want to take it?  I’d been procrastinating, avoiding the issue, trying not to think too much about my game plan, about turning these guys in when I had the last bit of information I needed about how they ran things, about where the money came from.  Now I had to make a call.

All along, I’d been telling myself that I’d turn them in.  Give the information to the Protectorate.  But my heart wasn’t really in it.  It would mean turning on friends.  While I didn’t dislike Alec or even Bitch, my thoughts were on Lisa and Brian.  I mean, well, Lisa was my first real friend since Emma.  As for Brian, I liked him, respected him.   I hated the idea of doing to them what Emma had done to me.  Betraying friends.

I’d given up the idea of gaining respect or prestige for turning them in.  I mean, I’d committed a felony, taken hostages, attacked other heroes, nearly killed a man, then carved that same person’s eyes out a couple of weeks afterward.

And I could live with that part, with not getting credit or accolades or whatever.  I could see myself flying under the radar for a while.  Perhaps playing the role of a vigilante avoiding the attention of both hero and villain, if I was really itching to get out in costume.  Or see if maybe, just maybe, I could try for the same deal that Shadow Stalker got, become a probationary member of the Wards.  I’d initially veered away from the Wards out of concern that it would be too similar to high school… but I’d changed in the past few weeks.  Stood up to Emma twice.  Three times, if you counted the meeting.  I had a little more backbone than I’d had a month ago.  I could picture myself laboring alongside a group of junior superheroes that resented me as a kind of penance for my villainous actions, and that was a pretty big change from before I’d even gone out in costume, when the very idea of joining them was hard to process.

The problem was, going down that road was a mess of maybes and possiblies, each step a mess of potential disasters.  What if I got arrested rather than offered probationary membership in the Wards?  What if the Undersiders escaped arrest and came after me?  Or my dad?

It came down to the people that were in the room with me.  It wasn’t just that I would be betraying them like Emma did to me.  Was I brave enough to go through what I had with Emma, with having people I liked and looked up to becoming my worst enemies?

And if I didn’t choose, didn’t decide… Well, if I put it off any longer, the only difference from staying for good by choice would be a fair sized measure of self delusion on my part.  The time I’d spent with Brian made that clear enough.

“I think… I might change my vote,” I voiced the thought aloud as I formed it.

There were looks of surprise from everyone present, excepting the dogs.  Lisa, especially, rocked back a little in reaction to my statement.

It took all I had to keep my facade intact.  At the end of the day, what scared me more than losing friends and having them hate me, more than having them come after me or my dad, was the idea that I would hate myself.  That I would hate myself one, five, ten or twenty years down the line, for betraying my principles and for making a bad call with wide reaching implications.  Hate myself for taking a road that might lead me going to jail with no chance of getting bailed out by Armsmaster, or going down a path that led to me hurting someone innocent as badly as I’d hurt Lung and Bakuda.

Sticking with the Undersiders was a short term gain, sure, but long term?  I had to stick with my original plan, and try to convince myself I was doing it for the greater good.

Alec raised his eyebrows.  “Really.”

“What?” I asked.

“You’re the last person I would have expected to change your vote, dork,” he said, “You’re careful, and this is the least careful job we’ve had yet.”

“Changing my vote is provisional on whether we can come up with a plan that has a decent chance of us escaping with our skin intact,” I clarified.

“Still, you’re usually Brian’s shadow, echoing him,” Alec said.

“Thanks, Alec,” Brian frowned.  Brian turned to me, his eyebrows knitting together in concern, “You sure?”

“Not totally,” I admitted, “And I’m sorry, for not backing you up.”

“You’re a member of the team, you’re allowed your own voice.”

“What changed your mind?” The question came from Lisa.

I had to avoid tripping any alarms with her.  The safest way to go about it would be to stick with the truth, or something very close to it.

“It bugs me that I don’t know who our employer is.  There’s some real ugly possibilities, and I’d rather know sooner than later, if they were the case.”  There, truth enough.

“I admit,” Brian conceded, “I am curious.  It’s… I don’t think I’m curious enough to want to take this job.”

“If the scrawny kid is gonna do this, I’m not backing down,” Bitch said.  “I’ll change my vote too.”

“Kid?” I asked her, “Scrawny, sure, but I’m probably a year younger than you, at most.”

Lisa stopped us, leaning to one side to put herself between Bitch and I.  “We have to stay on topic, since there’s only a few hours to plan and get ready.  We have four votes for, one against.  Looks like this is gonna happen.”

Brian sighed.

“Sorry,” I murmured my second apology.

He put his hand on my shoulder, “It’s okay.”

I noticed he didn’t move his hand off my shoulder right away.

Distracting myself, I asked Lisa, “So how do we pull this off?”

She began outlining a plan.

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Tangle 6.3

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I opened the glass doors for Brian so he could carry the boxes of furniture in.  The thing that struck me about his apartment building was how uncluttered everything was.  No litter, no people, no noise.  There was a bulletin board just past the second set of doors, which was something I normally might have expected to be a little messy, as a rule, but even there, the individual postings were carefully spaced out, and the entire thing was sealed behind a glass pane with a single small lock.  It felt kind of sterile.  Or maybe that was just me being used to an area with more character.

I didn’t know what to say.  Not just in terms of Brian’s apartment building – I had no idea what words should be coming out of my mouth.  I didn’t have the know-how to naturally make small talk.  I usually got by with constant planning ahead on what I might say.  Problem was, I’d been distracted, not so much by Brian’s features, but by the realization that I had been looking at them.  Now that I was trying to recover, get my mental footing and plan out some conversation, all I could think was ‘Dammit, Taylor, why can’t you think of something to say?!’.

We entered the elevator, and Brian rested the boxes on the metal railing on the interior. I managed, “What floor?”

“Fourth, thanks.”

I hit the button.

We ascended, and as the door opened, I offered Brian a hand in steadying the boxes as he backed out of the elevator.  He led the way down the hall and stopped by a door while I fumbled with the keys he had given me, to find the one to his apartment.

I wasn’t sure what I expected to see in Brian’s place, but he still managed to surprise me.

The first thing I noticed was that the ceilings were high.  The apartment was virtually two stories, a fairly open concept with few walls.  The kitchen was to our left as we walked in, smallish, separated from the living room by a bar/kitchen counter.  To our right was the hall closet and the walls encompassing the bathroom and one of the bedrooms.  Directly in front of us was the spacious living room, backed by a floor to ceiling window and a glass door leading out onto a stone balcony.  A set of stairs led up to a bedroom set above and on top of the bathroom and first bedroom – I figured that was where Brian slept, going by the not-disheveled-but-not-quite-made bed that was in view from where I stood.

What threw me, I think, was how mellow the place was.  There were two bookshelves, light gray in color, in the living room.  On the shelves, I saw, there was a mix of novels, plants and older books with cracked and frayed leather spines.  The fronds of some of the plants draped down over the shelves below.  The couch and accompanying chair were a pale tan corduroy, oversized with cushions thick and deep enough they looked like you could get lost in them.  I could totally imagine curling up in that armchair with my legs tucked in beside me, a book in my hands.

Somehow I had been expecting aesthetics along the lines of chrome and black leather  Not that I associated Brian’s personality or tastes with that sort of design, but it was what I might’ve thought a young bachelor might go for.  Whether it was the softness of the colors, the little jar with stones, water and bamboo on the kitchen counter or the sepia tone pictures of trees in the front hall, the place gave me a sense of ease.

I felt a pang of envy, and it wasn’t just because Brian’s apartment was nice.  I was getting a better sense of who he was, and how we were very different people, in a respect.

Brian grunted as he set the boxes down by the front closet.  He pulled off his boots and I took that as my cue to remove my shoes.

“So, I’ve already got one bit started,” he told me, leading me into the living room, and I saw that there was a pile of light gray boards and an empty cardboard box leaning against the wall there.  “Turns out it really needs a second set of hands.  You want anything before we get started?  You prefer tea to coffee, right?  Or do you want a soda?  Bite to eat?”

“I’m fine,” I smiled, taking off my sweatshirt and putting it down on the kitchen counter.  I’d promised Tattletale I would.  Feeling very self conscious with my belly showing, I tried to distract him with the task at hand, “Let’s get started?”

The first job, the one he’d left incomplete, was a set of shelves, and we started with that.  It was, as he’d said, a job for two people.  The shelves had three columns with six shelves each, and every part interlocked with the help of wooden pegs.  It was impossible to press two pieces near the top together without ones near the bottom pulling apart, and vice versa, so we got into a rhythm where one of us would put pieces together while the other prevented everything else from coming apart.

All in all, it took us twenty minutes or so.  After we verified that everything was fitting together and lined up, Brian hauled the shelf off the floor and set it against the wall.

“That’s one,” he smiled, “You sure you don’t want a drink?”

“What do you have?”

“Here, I’ve got stuff in the fridge.  Come and take your pick.”

I grabbed a cherry coke.  Brian grabbed a coke, but mostly ignored it while he opened the next box, the square one that was nearly four feet across, and started laying out the individual pieces on the kitchen floor.  A kitchen table with stools.

As it turned out, the kitchen table was a tougher job than the shelving unit.  The legs had to be held at precisely the right angle, or the bolts jammed in the holes, or forced the table leg out of position.  Each time that happened, we wound up having to take the bolt out and start over.  I wound up holding the first table leg steady while he screwed in the bolts at the base.

Without glancing my way, he placed his hand over top of mine to adjust the angle a fraction.  The contact made me feel like someone had plucked a guitar string that ran from the top of my head down through the middle of my body.  A deep thrum deep inside me that couldn’t be heard, only felt.  I was very glad for the long sleeves of my top as goosebumps prickled my arms.

I found myself defaulting to my most basic defense, staying quiet, staying still, so I couldn’t say or do anything stupid.  Problem was, this made me very, very aware of the silence and lack of conversation.

Brian probably hadn’t given the quiet the briefest thought, but I found myself wondering what to say, wondering how to make small talk, or how to get a conversation going.  It was agonizing.

He moved in closer to get a better look as he put a nut on the bolt, and his arm pressed against my shoulder.  Again, it prompted an almost elemental reaction from my body.  Was this intentional?  Was he signalling interest through casual physical contact?  Or was I assigning meaning to something coincidental?

“Nearly done,” he murmured, adjusting his position to start screwing in the other bolt for the table leg.  His arm wasn’t pressing against my shoulder, now, but the way he was crouching, his face was only a few inches from my own.  Okay, that was worse.

“Taylor, you think you can grab that smaller wrench without moving the leg?”

I didn’t trust myself to respond without making a funny noise, so I just reached for the little wrench and handed it to him.

“That’s faster, thanks,” he replied, after a second, “Want to grab me the nut?”

I did, dropping it into his cupped hand rather than placing it there, worried about what I might do or how I’d react if my hand touched his.  I wasn’t going to survive the next three table legs like this, let alone the stools or the third piece of furniture we hadn’t even started.

“Taylor?” he asked.

He let the question hang, so I swallowed and replied, “What?”

“Relax.  You’re allowed to breathe.”

I laughed lightly at the realization I was holding my breath, which resulted in a nervous, chuckling exhalation that only added to the awkwardness I was feeling.

He was smiling, “You okay?”

What was I supposed to say?  Admit I didn’t know how to deal with being around a good looking guy?

I stared down at the ground, at the table leg I was holding.  “I get nervous when I’m close to people.  I think, you know, maybe I have bad breath, or maybe I have B.O., and I wouldn’t be able to tell, because it’s mine, so I hold my breath like that to be safe.  I dunno.”

Bravo, Taylor.  Bravo.  I imagined the slowest, most sarcastic of slow claps.  Talking about bad breath and B.O. was totally the way to go.  One of those brilliant moments that would have me cringing every time I remembered it in the next few years or decades, I was sure.

Then Brian leaned close, closing the scant inches of distance that separated us, until our noses were practically touching.

“Nope.  You smell nice,” he told me.

If I’d been a cartoon character, I was pretty sure that was the point where I’d have steam shooting out of my ears, or I’d be melting into a puddle.  Instead, I went with my first instinct, once more, and went very still.  I became aware of a heat on my face that must have been a furious blushing.

It would be hard to say whether it was a mercy or not, but Brian was distracted by the sound of a key in a lock, and the opening of the front door.

My first thought was that the girl who walked in was Brian’s girlfriend.  Then I saw her glance our way, smirk, and noted the similarity between her eyes and Brian’s.  His sister.

My second thought, or my second response, really, was hard to put into words.  It’s like, you could look at a Mercedes, and say that it was a beautiful work of art, even if you weren’t someone who paid much attention to cars.  Along similar lines, when you saw a Mercedes with a cheap flame decal pasted around the wheels, and a tacky homemade spoiler stuck on the back, it was painful and disappointing on a fundamental level.  That was what I felt, looking at Aisha.

She was beautiful, as feminine as Brian was masculine, with high cheekbones, a long neck and even though she was two or three years younger than me, she already had breasts larger than mine.  I could be convinced to chop off a finger for legs, a waist and hips like hers.

Damn, this family had good genes.

You just needed one look at Aisha to know that she was going to be drop dead gorgeous when she had finished growing up.  All that said, though, she had a streak of hair bleached and some of that bleached hair had been dyed into a stripe of purple.  It was as though she had gone out of her way to look trashy, with ripped denim shorts over neon green fishnet leggings, and a strapless top I would hesitate to even call underwear.  Any envy I felt towards her was accented by an almost offended feeling, as far as how she was spoiling what she’d been naturally given.

“Am I interrupting?” she said, her tone vaguely mocking, as she gave me a look I couldn’t quite figure out.

“Aisha,” Brian stood up, “What are you doing here?  You-” he stopped as a solid, heavyset black woman entered through the front door.  Where Aisha’s glance my way had been ambiguous, the look this woman gave me was anything but.  Disapproval, dislike.  I realized what I must look like, slightly sweaty, on the floor amid pieces of furniture, stomach showing, practically glowing with a pink blush.  I hurried to grab my sweatshirt and pull it on.

“Mr. Laborn?” the heavy woman said, “I’m afraid I expected you to be more prepared, but it seems like you’re in the middle of something.”

Brian shook his head, “Ma’am.  Mrs. Henderson.  I’m almost positive your office told me to expect you at two this afternoon.”

“That was the original time.  Aisha told me you wanted to reschedule-” Mrs. Henderson trailed off and gave Aisha a hard look.

Aisha smiled, shrugged, and hopped up so she was sitting on the end of the kitchen counter.  “What?  There’s a movie I want to see this afternoon with my friends.”

“If you’d asked, I might have said yes,” Brian told her, “Now I’m probably going to say no.”

“Not your call, bro, I’m not living with you yet,” she raised a double-set of middle fingers his way.

Brian looked like he was going to say something else, but then he stopped himself.  He sighed, then turned his attention to Aisha’s caseworker, “I’m sorry about this.”

She frowned, “Me too.  I should have called to check, given Aisha’s history of bending the truth.”  She looked at her notebook and turned a page, “If you’d like to reschedule, hmmm, I’m afraid I’ve already filled the afternoon slot, but perhaps this weekend…?”

Brian gave Aisha an annoyed look, “Since you’re already here, if you’re willing to look past the furniture we haven’t finished putting together, we could do it now.”

“If you’re sure?  What about your… companion?” she glanced at me.

My blush probably hadn’t gone away, and I suspect I blushed a little harder at suddenly being put in the middle of an awkward situation.  Probably didn’t help banish any wrong impressions she’d picked up.

“She’s a friend, she was helping me out.  Taylor, I’m not sure how long this will be.  I don’t want to waste your time, but I’d feel bad if you left so soon after coming all the way here.  If you want to stick around and take it easy, I could give you a ride back after.”

Every socially awkward part of my brain itched to take the offered escape route, make my exit, cool off.  It was hard to say why I didn’t.

“I’ll stay, if I won’t be in the way.  No plans for the afternoon.”

When Brian smiled, I realized why I hadn’t jumped on the chance to leave.

The woman gave me another close examination.  She asked me, “Are you in his online class?”

I shook my head.

“No.  You looked a little young for it.”  Then she challenged me, “Why aren’t you in school?”

“Um,” I hesitated.  Stick as close to the truth as possible.  “I was caught at the edge of one of the bomb blasts, got a concussion.  I’m missing classes until I’m totally better.”

“I see.  I’m sure that assembling furniture is what the doctor intended when he told you to rest and recuperate?”

I smiled awkwardly and shrugged.  Man, I was really hoping I wasn’t tanking this thing for Brian.

“So,” Brian spoke to Mrs. Henderson,  “You wanted to look my place over, and see the space I set aside for Aisha?  I guess this is a chance for you to check out a place before the family has scrambled to sweep everything under the rug.”

“Mmm.”  A noncommital response.  “Let’s step onto the balcony, and you can tell me about the area and the nearby schools.”

Brian led the way and held the door for the caseworker.  It swung shut behind him, leaving me with Aisha, who was still sitting on the kitchen counter.  I gave her a small smile, and received a cool, penetrating stare in return.  Uncomfortable, I turned my attention to the table and tried to see what I could do on my own, with the second leg.

“So.  You’re on my brother’s team?”

What?  I was proud of myself when I barely missed a beat.  “Team?  I know he boxes, or boxed, at least, but-”

She gave me a funny look, “You’re going to play dumb, hunh?”

“I’m not following.  Sorry.”

“Right.”  She leaned back and kicked her legs a bit.

I turned my focus back to the table leg.  I didn’t get very far before she interrupted me again.

“Look, I know you’re on his team.  Process of elimination, you have to be the bug girl.”

I shook my head, as much to deny it as in exasperation.  What the hell, Brian?

“He told me that he had powers, didn’t say what they were.  Since he has powers, he thinks there’s a chance I could get ’em too.  Didn’t want me to be surprised.  I figured out who he was after that, saw something about some villains robbing a casino on a night he wasn’t at home, started keeping track of times he wasn’t available and it kept matching up.  Called him on it, and he didn’t do a very good job at denying it.”

Hoping to throw her off balance, I put the most convincing wide eyed expression of shock on my face that I could manage, “You’re saying your brother’s a supervillain?

She blinked twice, then said, slowly, like she was talking to someone with a mental handicap, “Yeaaaaah.  And I’m saying you are, too.  Why else would my brother be hanging out with you?”

Ouch.  That stung.

I was spared having to come up with a response and keep the charade going when Brian and the caseworker came back from the balcony.

The caseworker was saying, “…hesitant, with the waiting list.”

“She’s in the territory and she’d be entering the school at the same time as the rest of the grade nine students.” Brian replied, giving Aisha the evil eye, “And it would mean separating her from the bad influences around where she’s living now.”

Aisha gave him the finger, again.

“Mmm,” the caseworker replied, glancing from Aisha to him. “I’d like to see your bedroom next?”

“Mine?  Not Aisha’s?”


Brian led the caseworker up the stairs to his bedroom, which overlooked the rest of the apartment.

“Maybe I should see how you react if I shout it aloud,” Aisha suggested.  She played up an accent, “What do you call yourself, again?”

I rolled my eyes.

“Not saying?  Whatever.”  Hands cupped around her mouth as though she were shouting, she mock-shouted at a volume barely above regular speech, “Ladybug and Grue, in da house!”

I glanced upstairs, hoping that Brian and the caseworker weren’t in earshot.  The murmur of conversation up there didn’t seem to have been interrupted by what Aisha had said.

“Seems like you’d be in a lose-lose situation, broadcasting it like that,” I replied, “Either you’re right, and you tick off two people you really might want to avoid angering, or you’re wrong and you look crazy.”

“What if they already think I’m a little crazy, though?  What do I have to lose?”

“Can’t say.”  I tightened the bolt, checked the chair leg, and found it solid as a rock.  I moved on to the next one.  “What do you have to gain?”

“Come onnnn,” she wheedled, “Just admit it.”

My heart was pounding when Brian and the caseworker came down the stairs.  Aisha, for her part, pasted a wide, fake grin on her face to greet them.  Brian ushered the woman into the second bedroom, but didn’t go inside with her.  He stopped to look at me.

“Taylor, you don’t need to do that on your own.”

“It’s alright,” I said.  Glancing up at where Aisha was sitting on the countertop, I added, “It’s a nice distraction.

“Sorry.  I think we’ll be just another minute.”

It was, it turned out.  The caseworker exited Aisha’s bedroom-to-be and glanced through the bathroom, then investigated the cupboards and fridge.

Mrs. Henderson spoke to Aisha, “I’d like you to step onto the balcony for a minute.”

“Whatever.”  Aisha hopped down from the counter and headed outside.

“And,” she said, turning to Brian, “You might want your friend to step outside too.”

“I don’t really have anything to hide,” he answered, glancing my way.

“Alright.  Let me start off by saying this is better than most.”

“Thank you.”

“But I have concerns.”

You could see Brian’s expression change a fraction, at that.

“I read the documents and plans you emailed me.  You have a solid plan in mind for accounting, paying the bills, assisting with her education, possible extra expenses, clothes budget, even setting money aside for college.  In many respects, this is the sort of situation I wish for, with most of my cases.”


“But when I look at this place, I see that you’ve made it very much yours.  The furniture, the decorations, the artwork, they seem to point to your personality, leaving very little room for Aisha’s, even in the space you’ve set aside for her.”

Brian looked a little stunned at that.  “I see.”

“Look, Mr. Laborn, we have to consider Aisha’s perspective.  She’s a serial runaway.  She clearly doesn’t see your father’s place as a home.  Extra care should be given to ensure she sees this as one.  Assuming she winds up here and not at her mother’s.”

“My mother’s,” Brian’s expression took on a more serious cast.

“I’m aware of your concerns on the subject of Aisha’s mother, Mr. Laborn.”

My cell phone buzzed once in my sweatshirt pocket.  I ignored it.

Brian sighed, sagging a little, “Is this fixable?”

“Yes.  Involve Aisha in the decoration, be willing to compromise your tastes and aesthetics to allow her to feel like this is her space too,” she said, “I know it won’t be easy.  Aisha is difficult sometimes, I’m sure we can both agree.”

I was beginning to gravitate towards that conclusion, myself.

“Yeah,” Brian nodded, “So what’s next?”

“I’ll be making a visit to her mother’s home in a week and a half, if I’m remembering right.  If you want to send me another email when you feel you’ve amended this minor problem, and the small handful of things I pointed out during the inspection, I could arrange to stop by again.”

“That would be terrific.”

“Keep in mind that I have an overflowing caseload, and I probably won’t be able to stop by until at least a week after you’ve let me know.”

“Thank you,” Brian said.

“Any questions?”

He shook his head.

“Then I wish you luck.  To apologize for the unexpected appointment time, I’ll make you a one time offer to take Aisha off your hands.  If she insists on getting herself suspended, I can maybe introduce her to some other that went down that road, while I go to this afternoon’s appointments.”

Brian smiled.  Not quite that amazing smile I’d seen so often, but a nice smile nonetheless, “I guess she’ll be missing that movie she wanted to go to.”

“Looks like,” the caseworker smiled conspiratorially.  “Keep it up, Mr. Laborn.  Aisha’s lucky to have you.”

Brian perked up a little at that.

The meeting didn’t last long after that, and a complaining Aisha was dragged off by the caseworker.  I couldn’t quite breathe a sigh of relief until they were gone.  Even then, I was uneasy, knowing how strong Aisha’s suspicions had been.

Remembering that my phone had buzzed, I reached for my cell phone to see what the message had been.  While holding down the button to unlock it, I told Brian, “Aisha knows about the Undersiders, looks like.”

“Shit.  Sorry,” he made a pained face, “If I thought you’d be running into her, I would’ve given you a heads up.  You didn’t say anything?”

“Pretended not to know what the hell she was talking about, for all the good it did.  Is this going to be a problem?”

“She promised she wouldn’t say anything to anyone… and it really bothers me that she was indiscreet enough to raise the subject with someone I hadn’t okayed.  But Aisha wouldn’t tell for the sake of telling.  I think she was probably messing with you.”

“If you’re sure,” I had my reservations, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to press him on the subject, when he was already stressed.

“Pretty sure,” he sighed.

I looked at my cell phone.  It was from Lisa.

srry to interrupt smoochfest. you two need to hurry back.  shit is going down.

I felt a bit of heat on my cheeks as I took extra care to delete the text.  When I was done, I turned to Brian.  “Lisa says something’s up.  She says to hurry back.”

“Pain in the ass,” Brian said.  “I was hoping… ah hell.  Guess we’re not going to get this stuff put together, huh?” he smiled at me.

I smiled back, “Another time.”

He gave me a hand to help me to my feet.  Was I being hopeful or observant when I noted his hand maybe lingered a half second longer than necessary on my own?

Was a part of me dreading those possibilities, hoping that it was neither hope nor accurate observation on my part?  Because I couldn’t quite tell if there was, or if I just wanted there to be a sane part of me having a say.

Fuck.  I mentally moved up my timeline.  No longer than a week, and I’d have to take what I knew about the Undersiders to the Protectorate.  I wasn’t sure I trusted myself for any longer than that.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Tangle 6.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

There was something exhilarating about living without adult supervision.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love my dad to death, but waking up, going for a run, making breakfast and then sitting down in front of the TV with one of Lisa’s old laptops, without feeling like anyone was looking over my shoulder to make sure I was doing everything right?  It was the life.

Since the week I had spent bedridden with the concussion, I had been twitching to get back into my running schedule again.  Even though I was staying at the loft, taking a vacation from my everyday life, I was making a point of keeping to my old routine and waking up at six thirty in the morning to run.

As it happened, that meant I was waking up two or three hours before any of the others.  Two or three hours totally on my own.  If I forced myself to ignore the thousand different things I could be stressing over, it was a period where I could enjoy a peace I hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

I’d curled up on the couch with a blanket around me, a kid’s show on the TV for some low level background noise – since it was the only thing on besides infomercials, religious programming and talk shows – and I had one of Lisa’s old laptops propped up in front of me.  My habit now was to start the day by checking the local news sites, the parahumans wiki and the parahumans message boards.

The big front page scoop of the morning was a picture someone had taken with his cell phone from one of the buildings on the same street as the building we’d burned down.  Our silhouettes were visible as we stood on the street with dozens of ABB members strewn around us.  The headline? ‘VILLAINS STEP IN’.

Funny, I never really noticed the bugs when they were around me in general, but seeing the picture, there was a good number.  My silhouette wasn’t as hard to make out as Grue was in his darkness, but it wasn’t easy to make out in the cloud of bugs, either.  I had to keep that in mind – maybe I could use it.

The article beneath the picture was about the actions of the villains in dealing with the ABB.  It was mostly on target, but the tone and slant of the writing made me uncomfortable enough that I didn’t read it in depth.  From my skimming of the article, I got the impression the heroes were gearing up to make a final assault today or tonight.  Let us do the dirty work and then clean up?  Whatever.  If they wanted to deal with a cornered Bakuda, they were welcome to it.

I browsed the other news:  A tally of injuries and deaths that had occurred since the fighting started, estimates on property damage sustained from the various bombings, a brief update on a twelve year old girl that had gone missing two weeks before the ABB situation started, that was now presumed dead, and descriptions of some of the new heroes to show up in Brockton Bay to help with the ABB.  What caught my eye was a censored image in the gallery sidebar of the last news article.  I clicked it.

It was an image of Lung in his human shape, his eye sockets dark, raw and empty behind his steel dragon mask, his hand on one of his gang members’ shoulder.  It seemed like he was being led.

It was, I discovered, the image that ended the ‘Villains Step In’ article featured on the front page of the site.  I’d missed it when glancing over the article, because the flash image viewer had taken so long to load.  There was a caption beneath it.  ‘Decisive blow?  Brockton Bay authorities have turned a blind eye to local villains enforcing their own brand of justice.’

Oh man.  Was I digging myself in deeper and deeper?

That same image gallery had a long range shot of the same scene, taken without the telephoto lens, showing Lung and his flunky in the midst of the Docks and an armed squad of their men, guns drawn but not raised at anything.  That was… massively disappointing.  He’d gotten away.

“Morning,” Lisa greeted me.

I turned to see her coming from the kitchen.  Her hair was tied back in a messy ponytail, and there was still sleep in the corners of her eyes.

“Morning.  Brian said he had something to do this morning, so I grabbed you guys your breakfast today.  Sorry if I didn’t get the coffee exactly right.”

“You’re an angel,” she messed up my hair, then left to get the coffee.

I was still browsing when she returned.  She bent down, folding her arms over the back of the couch behind me and watched over my shoulder for a bit.

“Pink haired singing pirates and blind yakuza wannabe supervillains.”

I glanced at the TV, and sure enough, there was a little girl in a pink wig with a pirate costume.  I smiled and held up the remote, “You can change the channel.”

As she took the remote, my cell phone buzzed on the couch cushion beside me.

Brian had sent me a text:

finished early.  two didn’t show.  want to come @ 11am?  or I can pick you up @ loft

I glanced at the clock.  9:45.  I used the laptop to figure out the fastest bus route to his place.  It was downtown, and I could get there for eleven if I left in twenty minutes.  A bit tight, timewise, but I could pull it off.  I’d done it a few times before school, when I’d overexerted myself on a morning run and had to walk home.

I sent my reply:

Sounds good.  I’ll take the bus.

Once I’d verified the message was sent, I bolted for the washroom and cranked the shower on.  I spent an age getting the temperature tolerable, stripped out of my running clothes and jumped in, only to have the shower change abruptly from a lukewarm temperature to icewater.

Loved the loft, did not love the water heater.

I had to dance around the stream of hypothermia-inducing spray to get to the controls and attempt to coax a decent temperature out of them.  I finally settled for a bearably cold temperature, shampooed and stuck my head under.  I was shivering when I turned the water off.

I dried off best I could and bundled myself up in a second clean towel for warmth.  Having no body fat sucked sometimes.  I finished my grooming and stopped by the living room for a second to peek at the clock below the TV.  I had six minutes left to get ready.

“It’s so very you, how you use perfect punctuation and capitalization for your texts,” Lisa grinned as I headed for my room.

She was walking out of the kitchen, holding my cell phone.  I grabbed the phone from her, rolling my eyes, and headed to my room.  She followed me and let herself in.

“You two going to be an item?” she asked.

“Not the plan.  Just going over to help out a friend.”

“Come on, we both know you think he’s good looking.  Admit it,” she turned her back to me, examining the amber with the dragonfly in it, that Brian had given me.  I used that brief window of privacy to dig some underwear and socks out of a drawer and start getting dressed.

“This is you using your power?”  I asked her.

Brutus is probably aware you’re attracted to Brian.  I think the only two people who haven’t figured it out are you and Brian.”

I sighed.  “Yeah, I think he’s a very good looking guy,” I pulled some of the shirts and skirts I’d bought with Lisa out of my closet and arranged them on the bed, “Don’t you?”

“Sure.  Maybe not totally my type, but I definitely wouldn’t turn someone like him away, if I was doing the relationship thing.”

“You’re not?  How come?”

“My power kind of takes the mystery out of things.  Relationships are hard to get off the ground unless you can get the ball rolling with a healthy dose of self delusion and lies.”

“So you’re not going to date ever?”

“Give me a few years, maybe I’ll lower my standards enough to be able to overlook what my power’s telling me about the guys’ more disgusting and degrading character quirks and habits.”

“Sorry to hear.”  I replied, as I put some clothes back in the closet.  I felt bad for not being able to come up with a better response and for not being able to take the time to sympathize, but I barely had any time left to get ready.  Maybe I could jog to the bus stop.

“But the key distinction between you and I, here, is that Brian and I would kill each other before a relationship got anywhere.  You two, though?  I can see you working.”

“That your power talking?  You’re saying he actually likes me?”

“Sorry, hon.  Reading people with my power is hard, reading into their motivations or emotions is harder, and to top it off, I don’t think even Brian knows what he’s feeling, romantically.  You might have to jar him from his comfort zone before either of you get to find out.”

“You’re assuming I want to.”  I felt a bead of cold water run down the back of my neck, shivered and stopped to wring my hair again.

“Don’t you?”  She asked.  She turned her attention to my selection of clothes piled on the bed.  “You’re paying a lot of attention to what you’re going to be wearing.”

“I always do, even when I’m just going to be hanging out with you and Bitch.  I second guess and stress over the clothes I’m wearing if I’m walking to the corner store by my house to buy milk and bread.”

“Fair.  Here… Let me pick the clothes, and if anything goes wrong, you blame me, deal?” She dug through the clothes in my closet, “Jeans and… let’s see… a crop top to show off that belly of yours.”

I looked at the top, it had a thick fabric that bordered on sweaterlike, blue and gray with a sketchy sort of design of a butterfly on it, and long sleeves.  The actual body of the shirt, though, didn’t look like it would reach much past my ribcage.  “It’s still a little cold out.”

“Wear a sweatshirt or a jacket, then.  But only if you promise to take it off when you get there.”

“Fine.”  I didn’t have time to argue, and started getting dressed.

She started putting away the stuff I’d left on the bed, “Brian’s a guy who appreciates being practical.  That’s something he likes about you, and he’s said as much.  And even though I think it’s fucking fantastic that you’re going a step further to look nice, you can do that in clothes that make sense for doing light labor.  Jeans, yes.  Skirt?  Not so much.”

“Guess I wasn’t being practical just now.”  I pulled on the top and looked myself over in the mirror on the closet door.  Agreeing to this top had been a spur of the moment thing when I’d been shopping with Lisa.  Actually wearing it was something else entirely; the bottom of the top stopped an inch shy of my belly button.

“You’ve got stuff on your mind with school and your dad and romance and shit.”  She answered me.  Before I could argue there was no romance happening, she gave me a push, “Now go!  Enjoy yourself!”

I took that as my cue to hurry to the front of the loft, where I slipped on my running shoes.  I grabbed my keys and wallet from my backpack, grabbed my sweatshirt from a hook by the stairs, then headed downstairs and out the door with everything still in my hands.  As I got outside, I put my keys and wallet in my pockets and pulled on the sweatshirt.  It took a little willpower, but I left the sweatshirt open.

A relationship with Brian was, obviously, a terrible idea.  I was only expecting to be with the Undersiders for another two weeks to a month.  Any longer than that, and I’d probably assume I wasn’t going to get the dirt on their boss, at which point I’d take what I had to the Protectorate.  Assuming there was enough interest on Brian’s part for there to be a relationship in the first place, the idea of dating with no future was just depressing.  It would just wind up being salt in the wound for everyone involved.

But I was trying not to think about that.  I really didn’t need Lisa reading into my doubts and hesitations and realizing that they were at least partially based on the fact that I was planning on betraying her and the others.  If I didn’t dwell on it, it would be that much harder for me to give her any clues.

Yep.  Totally the reason I was avoiding thinking about it.  Nothing to do with the fact that I was feeling increasingly lousy and ambivalent over the idea of turning friends in to the authorities.

I ran part of the way to the bus stop, stopped when I realized I didn’t want to get sweaty, then had to run again when I got near the ferry and saw the bus at the far end of the street.  I waved for the bus to stop as it approached and got on.

The bus route I had to take to get to Brian’s was kind of a case in point for why my dad wanted to get the ferry going again.  I had to go West, transfer to a different bus, go South a ways, then hop off and walk East for five minutes to get where I wanted to be, the southeast end of downtown, where the office buildings and stores gave way to apartments and condos.

It was a stark contrast to the area where I lived.  It wasn’t perfect, honestly, and you could see things like Empire Eighty-Eight’s gang tags or broken windows here and there.  Even so, that sort of thing was as rare as finding a house without crap in the yard or a house with stuff obviously broken or run down in my neighborhood. Even the lowest step leading up to the front door of my house was rotten out, so I couldn’t boast to having one of those nice, not-embarrassing places.  If you fixed it, something else would inevitably break down, so you got used to stuff like the broken step, learned to skip up to the second one, or you entered and left through the back door at the kitchen like I did.

Brockton Bay had originally been a big trading post and port, back when America was being colonized, and some of the buildings were pretty old as a result.  What I saw when I entered the area Brian was staying was a war between the past and the present.  Older buildings had been fixed up and maintained to the point that they were attractive, mostly set up as Victorian style condos.  But where other cities might work to integrate this with the other buildings of downtown, it seemed like the city planner or developers had intended for the inclusion of tall stone or glass buildings to be jarring.  Everything looked nice, but it didn’t all look nice together.

Brian’s apartment building was one of the modern ones.  Maybe eight to ten stories tall – I didn’t count – it was mostly stone, and there was a floor-to-ceiling window behind each of the balconies.  Two little evergreen trees in pots framed the doorway.  Brian sat beside one of the trees, wearing very similar clothes to the first time I had seen him – a steel blue T-shirt, dark jeans and scuffed boots.  He was leaning back against the wall, his eyes shut, just enjoying the sun.  He’d combed out his cornrows, and his hair was tied back in a long, loose ponytail that sort of poofed out below the elastic.  A bit of hair had slipped out from the elastic and was blowing in the breeze, brushing back and forth against his cheekbone.  He seemed so unbothered by the tickling of the hair that I suspected he might be asleep.

I was surprised he was able to relax like that.  It seemed to me that kicking back like that in any urban area, even a nicer neighborhood downtown, was begging for trouble.  Okay, so maybe there weren’t muggings or homeless people hassling bystanders down here, but Empire Eighty-Eight did base their main operations somewhere in this general area, and Brian was black.

Maybe he could get away with it because he was six feet tall and fit.  Even if you gave me my knife, baton and a good enough reason, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to mess with his nap.

“Sorry to wake you,” I said, seeing if I could provoke a response.

Even before he opened his eyes, he offered me that wide, genial smile that seemed so out of place on his six foot tall frame.  It was a smile that hid nothing, as honest and unguarded as you’d expect from a ten year old finding out he’d just unwrapped the exact gift he’d wanted for his birthday.

“I wasn’t sleeping,” he got to his feet, “Figured I’d wait for you here rather than risk you coming and not knowing how to reach me while I was hauling stuff upstairs.”

“Ah.  Thank you.”

“I’ve still got two pieces of furniture in the car.  Let me grab them and we’ll head on up.”  He headed in the direction of a station wagon that was parked in front of the building.

“You have a car?”

“Rental.  Doesn’t make sense for me to own a car, especially since half the driving I’d do would be to the hideout.  It’d get stolen, in the first place, and I don’t like leaving a license plate number for people to use to track me down, if things go sour.”

I smiled at the word ‘hideout’.  “I get it.  Car bad.”

I kicked myself.  Why did I keep lapsing into caveman-speak around him?

He took it in stride, though.  “Car bad.  Expensive.”

“Says the guy who doesn’t sweat paying fifteen dollars for coffee on the Boardwalk.”

“Touche.” He popped the trunk.  There were two cardboard boxes inside, both just three or four inches thick.  One of them, though, was a square maybe three to four feet across on each side.

“Need a hand?”

“I’ll get the boxes,” he said, bending down to start hauling the largest of the cardboard boxes out of the back.  He stopped to hand me his keys.  “You close the car door behind me, and get the front door of the building?”

I watched the muscles of his shoulders moving under the fabric of his t-shirt as he lifted the two boxes out of the trunk.  His shoulders were broad, I noticed, but not in the same way you saw with people who exercised just to look buff. That kind of bulk usually looked a little grotesque to me, in a way I couldn’t define.  Brian’s body was more the product of years of regular exercise with purpose and application.  I looked at the lines of his shoulders and back and, further down, his waist and hips, as if I could make sense of it, define that point where his body was different, where it was more appealing than most.

“Um,” I said, reminding myself he’d asked me a question, “Sure.  I’ll get the doors.”

Damn it, Lisa, what did you get me thinking about?

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Tangle 6.1

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I squared off against a very thin Japanese man of Grue’s height.  He held a knife in one hand and a katana in the other.

A narrow smile crossed his face as he made his katana blade whip around himself at lightning speed.

At my command, a swarm of wasps flowed from beneath the armor of my costume and set themselves on him.  There was a moment of bewildered swatting before he started howling in pain.  Both katana and knife fell to the ground as he started using his hands to flail at the swarm.

I drew my baton and struck him across the bridge of his nose.  I wound up hitting him much harder than I intended to, as he just happened to bend forward at the same moment I swung.  As he reeled, blood streaming from his face, I lunged forward with a low swing to hit him in the side of the knee.

He crumpled to the ground and writhed, in too much pain to retaliate.  I bent down to pick up the knife, which looked cheap, and the katana, which looked antique.  I used the knife to cut the katana’s sheath from his side, then dropped the knife and kicked it into a storm drain.

With the sheathed katana in one hand and my baton in the other, I looked over the evening’s battlefield.

The building that loomed over us was a tenement, like countless others in the Docks.  Five or more apartments in an area so small it should only hold three at most.  Ten or twelve families sharing a single bathroom and shower.  That reality was ugly on its own, but word had been that the ABB was turning tenement buildings like this one into barracks for their soldiers.  That the less than enthusiastic recruits, the ones with bombs implanted in their heads, were being gathered up here so they could be watched, trained, equipped, and deployed by the ABB’s captains.

I’d balked at first.  I’d been worried that it was a ploy on Kaiser’s part to get the organized villains of Brockton Bay to attack a building full of helpless people.  Even after Tattletale had confirmed this was an ABB base of operations, I’d had my doubts.

Had my doubts, that was, until we’d attacked and ABB soldiers had flooded out of the building like ants from an anthill.  Clowns from a clown car.  A ridiculous number of people, anyways, for a building that wasn’t all that big.

We were outnumbered twenty to one, but I doubted any of us were really breaking a sweat.  There was nobody with powers fighting in the ABB’s defense, since only Bakuda was uninjured and we had an idea of where she was holed up.  That meant that all we had to worry about were their rank and file gang members, and we’d already taken out the guys with guns.

Blazing fires as tall as I was dotted the road around the tenement.  In other spots, patches of darkness lingered.  There was no power to the area and there hadn’t been any for days, probably the military’s work, and the battlefield was lit by the flame alone, giving the ongoing fight had an almost hellish appearance to it.  The faces of the ABB members contorted in pain and fear.  The villains advancing, implacable, with faces like Grue’s skeletal helmet, Spitfire’s modified gas mask with the lenses reflecting the flames and Gregor’s doughy face with barnacle-like bits of shell crusting it.

And me, I supposed.  The yellow lenses of my freshly repaired mask, mandible design framing my jaw.

I headed towards where the fight was mainly happening, and came face to face with a twenty-something man.  I immediately pegged him as one of the recruited.  Someone who wouldn’t be fighting if it weren’t for the bomb planted in his brain.  He held a baseball bat pointed at me like it was a blade.

“Surrender,” I told him, “Put the weapon down, lie on the ground and put your hands on your head.”

“N-no.  I can’t!”

“I’ve got powers.  You don’t.  In the past ten minutes, I’ve taken down people bigger than you, with better weapons, people with killer instinct, and I did it without a sweat.  I’ll tell you right now, you lost.  You’ll lose this fight.  Lie down and put your hands on your head.”

“No!”  He stepped forward, raising the bat.

I didn’t like fighting these guys.  Didn’t like hurting them.  But if they wouldn’t surrender, the next closest thing I could offer to mercy was hurting them obviously enough that their willingness to join the fight wouldn’t come into question if he wound up having to explain to Bakuda.

I set my bugs on him, hoping to distract him enough to buy me time to deliver a decisive blow.  This guy, though, he didn’t buckle.  Rather than struggle, he charged headlong through the swarm of biting and stinging insects, blindly flailing his bat in my direction.  I had to scramble backward to avoid being clubbed.  I drew my baton back, tried to decide when and how to strike.  If his bat hit my baton, he could disarm me.  If I could hit his hand, though, or catch him with his guard down…

There was no need.  Grue stepped in, almost casually, and put his fist through the poor guy’s jaw.   He crashed to the ground, the bat sliding out of his hands.

“Thanks,” I said, even as I winced in empathy for the guy that had just been knocked out.

“No prob,” the haunting vibes of his voice were at odds with his casual choice of words.  “We’re nearly done here.”

I glanced around the battlefield.  Injured and unconscious ABB members littered the ground around the building.  Though we’d been outnumbered at the outset, only a few stragglers remained.

“Tattletale!” Grue bellowed, “How many?”

“This is it!  Building’s clear!” she called back.  Following her voice, I saw her crouching on top of one of the few cars parked along the street, gun dangling from her fingers, out of the way of the fight and with deterrence in hand.

“Spitfire!” Grue called out.  “Snail!”

The two members of Faultline’s team worked in tandem.  Spitfire set about spewing a geyser of fluid out of the nozzle at the base of her mask, directing it to the base of the building, where it ignited on contact.  Gregor the Snail, in turn, reached out with one hand and blasted out a steady stream of foam at the adjacent buildings.  He’d informed us before the fight started – he could concoct a variety of chemicals in his prodigious stomach and project them in a stream from his skin.  Adhesives, lubricants and strong acids, among other things.  The one he would be using now would be something fire retardant, as we’d planned.  It wouldn’t do to burn down the neighborhood.

While Spitfire worked on burning the building to the ground, and Gregor kept the blaze contained to the one building, the rest of us spent several minutes working on disarming and moving the injured and unconscious enemies from the building’s vicinity.  Grue had supplied me with a package of dozens of plastic wrist-cuffs, and I started making use of them on the ABB members.

Grue approached me, “I ran out.  Got extras?”

I handed him a fistful of the wrist ties.

“So this thing with the ABB is almost over,” he said, “And I was talking to Fog, one of Kaiser’s people.  Sounds like he’s not going to press the issue over Bitch and the dogfighting thing, like you suspected.”

I nodded, “Good.  I don’t like them, but that’s a fight we don’t need just yet.”

Grue wrestled with a gang member with an injured leg, twisting the guy’s arms behind his back and then punching him in the kidney when his struggling made it too difficult to get the plastic handcuffs on.  The guy gave up the fight.

“You got any plans for tomorrow?”

I turned my attention away from the unconscious girl I was cuffing and looked at Grue.

“Well?” he asked.

“I’m planless.  No plan,” I fumbled my words.  Technically, I could or should be going back to school, but I still had the tentative excuse of the concussion, so I could get away with missing another few days.  After the way the meeting with the school had gone, I was glad for the excuse.

“Want to come over to my place?  I’m supposed to have a group meeting to discuss progress and whatever for this online class I’m taking, but I’ve also got my sister’s caseworker stopping by to check out my apartment in the afternoon.  I was hoping to buy some furniture and get it put together by then, but I’m tight on time and it’ll be a hell of a lot easier with two people,” he told me, “…and that was a rambling explanation.”

“I got the gist.  Yeah, I could do that.”

I had seen him smile that boyish grin of his often enough that I could picture it behind his mask.

“I’ll text you with the time and address?”


He gave me a very ‘guy’ clap on the shoulder, then headed over to catch up to a guy that was trying to crawl away, a little ways down the street.

As he left, Tattletale joined me, taking a few wrist-ties from me, and helping me with others.  She was grinning.



“You’re reading too much into it,” I told her.

“He didn’t invite me,” she gave me a sly look.

“Maybe he knows you wouldn’t have accepted.”

“Maybe he suspects I would’ve, and he wanted to spend time with just you.”

I had my doubts.  Definite doubts, about what she was implying.  I didn’t get a chance to clarify.

“Coming down!” Gregor roared.  There was a rumble as the building began to sag, followed by a crash as it started folding in on itself.  Spitfire directed her napalm breath to one corner of the building, obliterating the wood and stone there.  She swiftly backed up as the building finished its controlled collapse.

As the rubble settled, Gregor sprayed his extinguishing foam with one hand, directing the stream against the fingers of his other hand so the stream separated into a broad spray.  Where each of the droplets hit a part of the building, they swelled into a blob of foam a few feet across.  In short order, the building was covered enough that only a few traces of flame were still visible.

“We’re done, let’s move!” Grue called out, returning to where Tattletale and I were.

We scrammed, leaving the thugs tied up, while Spitfire and Gregor the Snail disappeared down a different street.

We’d broken into a dilapidated old mechanic’s shop to stash our ride, and we returned there in short order as Tattletale made a call to the authorities about dealing with the ABB members.  As the car pulled out and headed towards the water, I let myself breathe again.

Our third night like this since Bitch and I had gone up against Lung.  Each night had been easier than the last, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was me getting more comfortable with things, and how much was the fact that the ABB was falling apart under the sustained onslaught.

“I think the ABB is just about done,” Grue spoke from the driver’s seat, echoing my thoughts and his earlier statement.

“Three days and nights of pressure from the police, military, all the good guys and most of the villains in the city will do that,” I said.

Lisa commented, “It’s like I was telling you, Taylor, someone breaks those unspoken rules, the community protects the status quo.  Us villains make truce with the local authorities, we actually work together, in a way, with the cops, capes and military holding the line during the day, and taking down any ABB members who stick their heads up, while us villains do the nitty gritty stuff… In this case, it’s probably more blatant an invoking of that than any example I can think of.  Guess we can thank Coil for that.”

“It’s been a learning experience,” I added, “If nothing else, I’ve gotten a better sense of the other groups.  I didn’t think Coil’s soldiers would be quite as good as the ones I saw in action.  Meeting the members of Faultline’s crew, and the Travelers, too.  They’re not bad people.”

“I learned a lot too, in a different way,” Tattletale leaned forward from the backseat, putting her head and shoulders between the two front seats.  “I said part of the reason I wanted to go with Trickster and his shapeshifter teammate was to figure out their powers, right?  I  never shared.”

“And?” Grue asked.  One hand still on the wheel, he peeled off his helmet with the other.  It took only a second for the darkness around his face to clear up.

“And Trickster, their leader, is a teleporter.  Not just himself.  He can make anything he can see teleport.  Except there’s a special rule to his power, a restriction.  He has to swap the places of two things with roughly equivalent mass.  The bigger the difference in mass, the slower the swap and shorter his range.”

“That sounds like a pretty large drawback,” Brian said.

“He makes it work.  He had ABB members hitting their own guys, he was disarming them like it was a piece of cake.  As for the ‘shapeshifter’.”  Tattletale made finger quotes.  “Her name is Genesis.  Her power?  Remotely controlled projections.”

“She’s not actually there?”

Tattletale shook her head.  “Showed up with a triceratops-bull-cyborg thing, charged through the front door, set off a trap, got blown to smithereens.  And Trickster just laughed.  Two minutes later, she’d pulled together a lady knight in shining armor and was dealing with the guys with guns.”

“Geez,” I said, “Sundancer’s got a miniature sun.  Ballistic, as Brian and I saw just last night, just needs to touch something to have it go rocketing off at a few hundred feet a second.  Doesn’t matter if it’s ball bearings or a car.  Add this new info, and well…”

“Heavy hitters,” Brian finished for me.

“We can be glad they’re on our side,” I said.

“For now,” Brian pointed out, “We still don’t know why they’re here and why they’re helping.”

He glanced at Tattletale, eyebrow raised.  She shrugged, “My power’s not telling me anything concrete.  I’m as curious as you are.”

I joined Brian in pulling off my mask.  The car, supplied by our boss, had tinted windows, so there was no stress there.  I’d have to put it on again when we made our way past the military blockade, but that wasn’t such a problem.

I lowered the sun visor above the windshield and used the mirror to examine my neck.  The bruise was still noticeable, there.  Much as Bitch had said, it looked like I’d survived a hanging.

“Mind if I stay over again, tonight?” I asked.

I saw Tattletale shrug in the backseat, through the mirror.  “It’s your place too.  You don’t even need to ask.  I think you should call your dad, though, so he doesn’t worry.”

“Yeah, call your dad,” Brian confirmed.

“Alright.”  I was going to do that anyways.

When the military barricades with flashing lights atop them came into view in the distance, we pulled into the loading area for what had once been a small grocery store, out of sight.

“Any rush?” I asked.

“We’re good,” Tattletale said, “I’m going to call Regent and Bitch, see how their group is doing.”

“Then I’ll call my dad.”

I stepped out of the car to make my call.

He picked up on the first ring.

“Hi dad.”

“Taylor.  I’m relieved to hear from you.”

So he’d been concerned.

“I’m going to stay at Lisa’s again, tonight.”

“I’d like you to come home, Taylor.  It worries me that I haven’t seen you since you left the meeting at the school.”

“I’m okay.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, but I’ll feel a lot better when I see that for myself.  I want to talk, have dinner and breakfast together, touch base.  I don’t want to lose touch like we did after…”

“After mom died,” I finished for him.  “It’s okay, Dad.  I just… I guess I needed a change of pace, to get away from it all for a little bit.  I already made plans for tonight.  It’d be awkward to cancel.  I’ll come home for dinner tomorrow?”

He hesitated.  “Okay, just tell me you’re going to school.”

“Yeah,” the lie passed through my lips easily, but it sat heavy on my conscience.  Disappointing him would have felt worse, though.  I tried to take the edge off the guilt by making it a half-untruth, “I didn’t go Monday.  I started going yesterday afternoon.”

“I suppose that’s better than nothing.  I’ll see you tomorrow night, then.”

“Love you, dad.”

“Love you too.”

I hung up.  It was a white lie, right?  I wasn’t really hurting anyone, and my dad would only worry more if I told him I wasn’t going to school.

Tattletale and Grue climbed out of the car as I pulled on my mask.

“All set?” she asked.

“Ready,” I answered.

She opened the hatch at the base of the grocery store, that would lead us into the tunnels that stretched beneath the barricade.

We descended into the darkness.

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